Charleston is one of the best places to learn about America’s history, warts and all. Few places in the country showcase both the best and worst aspects of American history as well as Charleston, South Carolina.
Charleston will not disappoint you.
And that goes for whether you come to see breathtaking architecture or witness the depths of human cruelty to one another.
You have a lot to look forward to in Charleston. And if you are interested in American history, from the dreadful days of slavery to historic homes and naval history, that goes double.
So, what are the best museums in Charleston, SC?
Museums in Charleston, SC, on the Museum Mile
Many Charleston museums are along a mile-long stretch of Meeting Street in historic downtown Charleston.
The roster of public structures comprising the Charleston Museum Mile includes:
- Six museums
- Five historic homes
- Four picturesque parks
- A Revolutionary War powder magazine
- Several historic places of worship
Museums in Charleston, SC on the Museum Mile are listed below. Scroll down for stunning historic mansions along the way that we couldn’t leave out.
The Charleston Museum
The Charleston Museum, founded in 1773 and first opened in 1824, is one of the country’s oldest museums. Its highly regarded permanent collection includes:
- Historic artifacts
- Natural history displays
- Decorative arts
- Two traditional Charleston homes
- And an armory
The Charleston Museum tells the history of the Lowcountry and the city. It has a heavy focus on the city’s involvement in the American Revolution and the Civil War.
It is also a working research museum that hosts family-friendly activities. If you’re looking for the best history museums in Charleston for the whole family, the Charleston Museum is a good place to start.
Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry
The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is ideal for young children. It focuses on hands-on, interactive exhibits designed to teach children about their surroundings in a fun way.
Among the exhibits are:
- A water play area
- A pirate ship
- A sensory garden
- And an art studio
Throughout the year, the museum also offers classes and educational programs.
The museum, which opened in 2003, aims to help young children realize their full potential. Exposing them to new environments and activities that pique curiosity and inspire imagination seems to do the trick. This museum works to teach children a lot in a fun and interesting way!
Kids will discover a whole new world here, and you’ll enjoy your time here as well. Some popular attractions include:
- Riding on a pirate ship
- Driving a vintage fire truck
- And racing boats down rapids
There are plenty of other activities, too. Some more highlights include:
- Creating masterpieces in the museum’s dedicated art room
- And searching for gems beneath a waterfall
The Powder Magazine on Cumberland Street, built in 1713 to store gunpowder, is the state’s oldest public building. To reduce the impact of an explosion, the Magazine has a complicated pantile roof with a sand lining and three-foot thick walls. Fortunately, the design of the structure never needed a test run.
Charlestonians built the Magazine just outside the outskirts of Charleston’s colonial walled city. A detailed diorama inside shows what the city looked like over 250 years ago, before it expanded. The displays in this small yet well-curated museum center on Charleston’s colonial era and early South Carolina military history. The gift shop was designed to resemble an 18th century store.
And if you’re lucky, you might catch staff loading a small replica cannon with ammunition and firing it during a special event!
Gibbes Museum of Art
As far as art museums in Charleston, the Gibbes Museum of Art is your first stop. This art museum, which was built around 1858 and opened to the public in 1905, is one of the highlights of Charleston’s historic district.
The museum houses approximately 10,000 pieces of American art, the majority of which are from the South and date from the 18th century to the present. The collection includes works from local and international artists in various media:
- And photographs
Its diverse collection allows this museum to show works by both well-known and emerging artists.
The museum also organizes temporary exhibitions to ensure that there is always something new. These art collections come from well-known international museums and cover every style, genre, and era. Each visit can be an entirely new adventure.
Even better, you can view some of the most amazing artwork and paintings in the first-floor gallery for free. The galleries on the second and third floors, however, have an admission fee.
South Carolina Historical Society Museum
The South Carolina Historical Society Museum is housed in the grand Roman Revival Fireproof Building. Renowned national architect Robert Mills designed it in the 1820s.
The building was a repository for records before electricity. As such, Mills included facility updates to limit potential fire damage:
- A skylight to reduce the use of flammable lighting sources
- Solid masonry walls
- And metal shutters
Considering how many fires swept through nineteenth-century Charleston, it made plenty of sense!
The galleries here feature:
- Artifacts from plantations
- Historic maps
- And natural prints
You’ll also find exhibits on:
- “Celebrating diversity”
- “Africa to America”
- And a gallery devoted to Charleston’s natural disasters, conflicts, and post-disaster recovery.
Washington Square is next door and is a perfect spot to grab a park bench and get some fresh air between museums.
After all, some of those museum exhibitions are rather depressing.
The Museum at Market Hall
First-time visitors can miss this museum while strolling through the Charleston City Market. It’s at the top of the stairs above the entrance. This tiny museum was founded in 1899 and has been in the same location ever since.
Tens of thousands of (white) Southerners enlisted as Confederate soldiers here in the spring of 1861. The Charleston Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy was founded in 1894. They quickly began collecting artifacts. When former soldiers donated their wartime belongings to the museum in 1899, the Confederate Museum became a thing.
Fast forward to far too long into the future, and they’re finally downplaying the name. It’s now just the Museum at Market Hall.
Still lots of Confederate memorabilia though.
More museums in downtown Charleston, SC
So skip the Museum at Market Hall (plenty do) and head to other museums that are a short walk away from the Museum Mile on Meeting Street.
The next museum on the list provides a perfect counterweight to the Museum at Market Hall.
Old Slave Mart Museum
The Old Slave Mart Museum is a beautiful structure with a dark past. As the name implies, it was once a slave market. It was built in 1859 and is Charleston’s best museum for learning about slavery and the slave trade. It is South Carolina’s last surviving slave auction facility.
The Old Slave Mart Museum preserves and explains:
- The dark history of slavery in South Carolina
- The state’s significance in the slave trade
- And its steadfast refusal to treat black people as anything other than property for several hundred years
The museum’s permanent exhibits feature incredible accounts of slavery and its impact on our history. The museum houses many exhibitions centered on:
- Charleston in the nineteenth century
- Slave trade artifacts
- And special exhibitions highlighting various aspects of African American history
Old Exchange Building & Provost Dungeon
The Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon once housed American POWs during the Revolutionary War.
This historic building also hosted pirates in the Colonial era.
Between 1767 and 1771, this structure was built on East Bay Street next to St. Michael’s Church with English bricks. Its neoclassical architecture reflects its many original functions.
The structure has served as a:
- Customs House
- Community gathering place
- City hall
- Military headquarters
- Post office
- Commercial exchange
- George Washington’s celebratory ball venue
- And even a military outpost
The Daughters of the American Revolution now run a museum at The Exchange, also known as the Old Exchange Building & Provost Dungeon.
The Old Exchange Building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973. After all, its architectural features are significant. Thanks to various fires, Charleston doesn’t have many colonial-era buildings left. And despite many changes over the years, including use as an office and even war damage, it has managed to keep much of its original character.
Lucky cooler heads prevailed when developers tried to knock it down in favor of a gas station in the mid-20th century.
South Carolina Aquarium
The South Carolina Aquarium is known for its sea turtles, but it also has an amazing waterfront view. Complete with cool breezes and frequent dolphin sightings, the view may be worth the admission price on its own. This museum focuses on the natural history of this seaside city rather than slavery, architecture, or agriculture.
The Great Ocean Tank, where sharks cruise by and neon-colored fish dart and swirl around, is without a doubt the aquarium’s focal point. The museum houses fish, birds, and aquatic life from the upstate river ecosystems of South Carolina down to the ocean.
House Museums in Charleston, SC
Take a step back in time with a visit to the historic house museums in Charleston, South Carolina. They’re sure to inspire awe in history buffs and architecture enthusiasts alike.
Nathaniel Russell House
The Nathaniel Russell House is without a doubt one of the most opulent Charleston mansions. It is an excellent example of neoclassical architecture, built in 1808 by merchant Nathaniel Russell. A National Historical Landmark since 1973, it is one of the most significant neoclassical homes in the United States.
This structure is now a house museum open to the public, and it is one of the best-preserved late Georgian row houses in America. The three-story mansion enjoys an airy feel thanks to the:
- High ceilings
- Sweeping central staircase
- And light-filled rooms
The magnificent parlors also include some of the best-preserved examples of Federal-era architecture and decoration in the country.
After Nathaniel Russell died, the house changed hands several times before the Historic Charleston Foundation bought it in 1955. The foundation began a project in 1995 to recreate the home’s original architectural features. If you want to admire or appreciate magnificent 19th-century architecture, this is the place to go.
The gardens are also open to the general public. They are ideal for a stroll. They have a wide variety of expertly cared-for flowers, palms, and other foliage. You’ll find the requisite gift shop in the former slaves’ quarters. Be sure to note that eighteen people crammed into this noticeably smaller and more modest building.
Aiken-Rhett House Museum
This home, built in 1820 by renowned merchant John Robinson, is one of the best-preserved townhouse communities in the entire USA. The architecture and lives of slaves owned by the Aikens are a major draw to the Aiken-Rhett House Museum.
Between 1830 and 1850, Governor William Aiken and Mrs. William Aiken, Jr. expanded the home. And yet they preserved the majority of its original architectural details and furnishings.
A few of the highlights that draw history buffs to this museum structure include:
- The structure itself
- A historic kitchen
- A carriage block
- The unaltered slave quarters
- And the backyard of this suburban plantation home
Several original pieces of furniture paint a charming portrait of the life of the wealthy politician, industrialist, and slaveholder William Aiken. The slave quarters, meanwhile, depict a bleak and accurate picture of slave life.
The Aiken family owned this museum house until the Charleston Museum bought it in 1975 and opened it to the public.
The Williams Mansion
This magnificent structure, formerly known as the Calhoun Mansion, is a magnificent example of a Victorian home. The mansion has a construction date of between 1875 and 1876. John C. Calhoun, a former vice president and supporter of slavery who was also one of Charleston’s wealthiest men, once owned it. Its architecture, furnishings, and size attest to Calhoun’s wealth amassed through the sale of human lives.
You can likely guess the reason for the name change.
It is a 24,000-square-foot structure, with 30 main rooms and several smaller ones. It has a large main hall that measures a spacious 50 feet by 14 feet. The ballroom’s ceiling is approximately 45 feet high. The Williams Mansion is likely Charleston’s largest single-family home.
Of the many rooms in the mansion, be on the lookout for:
- A music room
- 23 fireplaces
- Three levels of piazzas
- A 75-foot high ceiling in the stair hall
- A Japanese water garden
- And koi ponds
Admission is free for children under the age of eleven, but a guided tour of the mansion costs a whopping $75 per person.
The Edmondston-Alston House, one of the first structures built on the renowned High Battery, commands a view of the harbor and Fort Sumter. Residents of the house saw the opening shots of the Civil War in April 1861 from the current drawing room. The house was built in 1825 and later updated in the Greek Revival style with the addition of:
- The lacy cast iron balcony
- Interior plasterwork
- And grand columns to the three-story piazza
Edmondston Alston’s furnishings incorporate antiques to evoke antebellum aesthetics.
Joseph Manigault House
Gabriel Manigault, the namesake’s brother and a renowned “gentleman architect,” constructed the Joseph Manigault House in 1801. It is located at 350 Meeting Street next to the Charleston Museum, which manages it. The imposing brick house in the Adams style has curved balconies that look out over a lovely suburban garden. The most recognizable feature is a garden house with a bell roof.
The Manigault House is most significant to Charleston’s preservation movement for starting it. The house was going to be demolished by Standard Oil for a gas station. The news galvanized preservationists who fought to save it and turn it into a house museum instead. A smaller gas station destroyed the garden, but it was later restored to its former splendor. High ceilings, antique furniture, grand mantels, and plasterwork adorn the home. There is also a small, hidden staircase used by slaves who worked for the Manigault family.
Heyward Washington House
The Heyward Washington House is the best large colonial-era home open to visitors in Charleston. The house is also part of the Charleston Museum’s collection and is located at 87 Church Street.
In 1772, Thomas Heyward Jr., a Patriot hero and signer of the Declaration of Independence, built this National Historic Landmark. The city rented the house to George Washington while he was touring the South. The Grimke family lived there, and part of the ground floor was later converted into a bakery.
The Museum purchased the house in 1929 and restored it to its eighteenth-century appearance. A guided tour of the house’s first two floors include a grand ballroom and the priceless Holmes bookcase. Afterwards, tour the back garden and outbuildings, which include the kitchen house, slave dwellings, and a stable building.
More museums near Charleston, SC
The museums on the peninsula alone would fill an aficionado’s dance card for a long time. But there’s even more to explore a short drive from downtown Charleston.
Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum
Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is easily accessible from Charleston. Which should make up for the fact that it is not technically a Charleston museum. It’s just across the harbor from Charleston, near the mouth of the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant.
This museum is a hugely popular tourist destination in South Carolina. Among the museum ships and exhibitions are:
- The USS Yorktown WWII aircraft carrier museum
- The USS Clamagore submarine museum
- The USS Laffey destroyer
- And a Medal of Honor museum
This incredible museum’s collection includes items from all over the world, including uniforms worn by Admiral Nimitz while he oversaw Pacific Fleet operations against Japan during WWII. A massive Vietnam Experience Exhibit, as well as a plethora of military aircraft, are also on display.
That said, the USS Yorktown, a Second World War Essex class “escort carrier,” is without a doubt the crown jewel of this monument to the republic. You can also take a USS Yorktown haunted tour if you want an even more unique experience here.
This is one of the most important history museums in the country for maritime history and ancient weapons.
History buffs, do this one over Fort Sumter.
At least you don’t need a ferry to get here.
The North Charleston and American LaFrance Fire Museum and Education Center
If you take the short drive to North Charleston, you can get a glimpse into the life of a firefighter at a unique museum. The North Charleston and American LaFrance Fire Museum and Education Center is an excellent children’s museum. It features interactive exhibits, vintage firefighting equipment, and a wealth of educational resources.
Free Museums in Charleston, SC
Charleston, SC is a city rich in history and culture, with so many museums. Some can be quite pricey (here’s looking at you, Williams Mansion). There are plenty of free options to choose from, each with its unique flair.
Mace Brown Museum of Natural History – College of Charleston
Do you enjoy learning about natural history? And prefer a free way to do it? Then the Mace Brown Museum is going to be your place.
This museum on the campus of the College of Charleston houses a variety of international natural history collections. The first thing you’ll notice when you walk in is a large collection of Cretaceous Period vertebrate fossils.
The museum also has a large invertebrate paleontology section with world-class specimens. This is in addition to a comprehensive display of South Carolina rocks and minerals. As if that weren’t enough, there are also herbarium specimens and mounted animals on display at this museum.
View a display of approximately 1,000 fossils, including:
- Dinosaur bones
- Cave bear bones
- North American Oligocene mammals
- Pleistocene mammals from Carolina
- And even plant fossils
Quite the list for a free Charleston museum.
The reconstructed enormous jaw, containing the teeth of the Megalodon, is sure to impress. It will also likely leave you checking your phone to confirm they’re extinct.
Charleston Postal Museum
Did you know that Charleston is home to the Carolinas’ oldest continuously operating post office? The Postal Museum inside the post office at Broad and Meeting Streets, contains a wealth of information about this amazing structure. This historic structure, built in 1896, lacks the atmosphere of a typical post office. Instead, it’s crammed with:
- Stunning architecture
- Intriguing post office artifacts
- And historical newspaper articles highlighting the CPO’s pivotal moments
Surprisingly, the museum is one of the most fascinating places to visit in Charleston. For starters, it has several exhibits about postal history and postal artifacts from across North and South Carolina.
It also has some entertaining interactive displays. You can sort mail at a table in the same way that post office employees do. See how society functioned in the eighteenth century, before the advent of email and text messages.
Karpeles Manuscript Museum
The Karpeles Manuscript Museum is housed in an 1856 Methodist Church, and the architecture is as beautiful as the contents. If you want to see original manuscripts and documents, you must make an appointment. Besides to two permanent exhibits, the museum hosts several changing exhibits throughout the year. You can see everything from the first Morse code message to Egyptian sandstone carvings.
A photo gallery depicting the construction of Charleston’s renowned Arthur Ravenel Bridge is also here.
City Gallery at Waterfront Park
If you enjoy fine art, pay a visit to the City Gallery at Waterfront Park. You’ll find a diverse range of incredible works by regional, national, international, and local artists.
Throw in a photo opportunity at the Pineapple Fountain, and you’ve got a lovely afternoon planned in the French Quarter.
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is a must-see. The Charleston City Paper has named it the “Best Art Gallery” for several years in a row. The institute is on the campus of the College of Charleston and features two galleries with provocative artwork, a media room, and a library.
The Institute also hosts a variety of special events, lectures, panels, screenings, and discussions.
Find even more things to do in Charleston, SC
Museums are great.
But after a while, historic stuff starts to look like all the other historic stuff you’ve seen.
Especially when it comes to ceramics.
So break-up your museum tours with some other activities that’ll introduce you to the real Charleston:
- Or take one of the best walking tours in Charleston
- Drive further away from town to visit other historic landmarks: Charleston plantations
And be sure to read the full guide to attractions, activities, and things to do in Charleston, SC!
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