36 Hours in Charleston, SC | 10 Things You MUST See and Do!

I only had 36 hours in Charleston, South Carolina. I’m upset that it took me 30 years to finally discover the beauty, history, and love of this city. I naively thought, well, I’ve seen Savannah, so Charleston can’t be much different…

Ha. Ha. Ignorance is not bliss in this case.

Charleston, South Carolina skyline

Charleston has a personality, a tone that I could hear the moment I drove into the city. Colors popped and danced before my eyes, the smell of the air changed.  I could almost feel a hum under my skin as I drove through down Broad Street and King. I have never seen such a combination of cultures and styles in one single location. For that alone, Charleston is now my favorite city in the United States.

I planned Charleston on a whim, literally a week before I left. Which, I don’t encourage for a planner like me. I knew I would only have 36 waking hours in this beautiful city and I wanted to squeeze in as much as I possibly could.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like museums and galleries and zoos. I’m still trying to make my way back to D.C. to walk through the African-American museum for the first time. But, when I visit  new place, a museum is usually not first on my list of things do. Or second. Or fifteenth. So I comprised a list of other equally fun and culturally rich activities to engage in when you only have 36 hours in Charleston, SC.

1. Take a Walk Down King Street

King Street, Charleston South CarolinaWait, did we just enter Rodeo Drive and no one told us? While not exactly the sharply vivid and affluently stacked street in Los Angeles, King has elements of the West while staying true to her Southern roots. King Street has some of the best shopping in the city–high-end stores like Michael Kors, budget friendly retail like Forever 21, even more boutique and locally owned stores. And did I mention the food? Okay, then I won’t because I’m covering King Street food in a completely separate post…

man playing the saxaphone in Charleston, South CarolinaKing also has elements of New Orleans and Savannah with its brightly colored buildings, one way branch streets, and music.  You may also catch some of the locals selling their beautifully woven sweet grass baskets. Oh, did I mention scenes from The Notebook were filmed on King–right in front of the American Theater.

My only critique? Parking. But I have a love/hate relationship with the parallel park.

2. Enjoy the Colors on Rainbow Row

Rainbow Row in Charleston South Carolina

Colorful buildings and Charleston go together like peanut butter and jelly. Like macaroni and cheese. Like Olivia Pope and handling political scandal (I couldn’t resist). Rainbow Row doesn’t disappoint. Located on East Bay Street near the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, Rainbow Row holds 13 homes, each vividly painted with a different color.

As to the colors of the row? Several tales exist for the “why,” including one involving illiterate slaves knowing which building to enter. Although not full of adventure, Rainbow Row is certainly a popular Instagram spot that you cannot miss.

3. And Then Head to the Battery

row of mansions along East Battery in Charleston South CarolinaHome to the Charleston Harbor, the Battery historically housed artillery used during the Civil War. In fact, Fort Sumter can be seen along the Battery on the Cooper River. But the sight to see? The line of beautifully constructed homes originally built before the war. Though I’m not normally a huge a fan of antebellum homes, the architecture along the Battery is nothing short of beautiful. The eclectic mix of styles, facades, and colors gives this popular tourist spot its own mark.

Ashley River along the Battery in Charleston, South CarolinaAnd then, the sight of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers are more than spectacular to behold. Tip? Get up early for the best pictures of the Battery. Any time after 9am and the number of other eagerly excited tourists will fill your shot more than the homes and the light on the water.

4. Drive Over to Isle of Palms

public peach on Isle of Palms in Charleston South CarolinaSeveral islands surround Charleston, including this rich little barrier island about 30 minutes from downtown Charleston. I originally went to the Isle for some fun water activities. I highly recommend TideWave Water Sports for parasailing, jet skis, wakeboarding and more. Or, if you don’t like water sports, enjoy the miles of beach along the Atlantic Ocean. Brightly colored homes border the beach with names as flavored as Casa Flamingo and Casa Margarita.

shoppes in Isle of Palms in Charleston South CarolinaWhen you finish riding the waves and enjoying a game of volleyball on the beach, be sure to check out some of the restaurants along the beach. And the expanse of private beach homes down the isle.

5. Or Check Out Folly Beach

If you prefer a more laid back atmosphere, Folly Beach may be your speed.  A genuine beach town, the island is packed with food, fun, and amazing views. A truly beautiful place during sunset, Folly Beach has views of Morris Island and the single lighthouse on the island. But, if you need a bit more excitement in your Folly Beach escapade, the island also has surfing, paddle boarding, and even chartered boats for tours.

6. Power Walk Along the Arthur Ravenel, Jr Bridge

cable suspension on the Arthur Ravenel bridge in Charleston South CarolinaI am not afraid of heights, but I never thought to walk a pedestrian path along the longest cable-suspension bridge in America. But if you visit Charleston, you cannot miss this walk. Not just for the exercise, though the city (along with Mt Pleasant across the Cooper River) hosts an annual 10K bridge run, but also for the views.

Accessible from both the Charleston and Mount Pleasant sides, the bridge has a two-lane path for both walkers/runners and bikers. About 2.5 miles, the views from the bridge include the Charleston skyline, the Charleston Harbor, Mount Pleasant skyline, and even Old Sunken Hull.

Charleston South Carolina from the Arthur Ravenel BridgeAdvice? If you plan to walk the bridge, get up early for the best light and the best breeze. Especially in the summer. By 9am, I was sweating from just the 2 miles I put in. Also, that early, the bridge is relatively empty of other people.

You can park either at Patriot Point on the Charleston side, or you can park directly underneath the bridge in Memorial Waterfront Park on the Mt. Pleasant side (I highly recommend).

7. Head to Charleston City Market

Charleston City Market
Photo Credit: Charleston City Mark website

And plan to spend the day! Or at least a solid afternoon. One of the oldest public markets in America, Charleston Market is home to vibrant vendors, great food, and the iconic Gullah women weaving authentic sweet grass baskets. Oh, and the pineapples? A little fun fact–the famous fruit is a sign of hospitality in the city.

8. Take a Tour!

Charleston offers several different tours to explore its unique beauty and rich history. If you enjoy tours on the water, Charleston offers boat tours. If a slower, more romantic tour is your speed, Charleston also has carriage tours. Charleston even offers food tours if you wish to explore the variety of foods in this historical city. But don’t miss the Gullah tours within Charleston, offering a rich, authentic view of the city from a local perspective.

9. EAT!

The city has more than enough food for all kinds of tastes, preferences, and diets. Bakeries, diners, chains, fine dining, and of course, local cuisine. But I recommend the smaller, “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants around Charleston for the best dining experiences. Don’t leave the city without trying Nana’s Seafood and Soul–just bring your appetite!

10. Be Cliché and Take a Picture of Angel Oak

Angel Oak tree in Charleston South CarolinaProbably one of the most popular trees in the country, Angel Oak is a must see in Charleston. Located on John’s Island (about 20 minutes from Charleston), the famous oak opens–yes opens–at 9am on weekdays and 1pm on the weekend. And people flock to this tree, in CROWDS. Don’t let the beautifully edited Instagram shots fool you…

crowds at Angel Oak in Charleston, South Carolina

I view Angel as an older woman, once regal and proud, her long limbs stretched high into the sky. Her leaves, bright green curls and coils on her head as she tipped her face up to the sun. But time has weathered her skin, aged her branches and her visitors wear her once majestic stature down. She is weary and tired, her limbs old and heavy, she now drops them to the warm Earth. But we won’t let her rest, using man-made tools to pull her back into the light, wires and rods to hold her up.

wires holding up Angel Oak in Charleston South Carolina

All she wants is peace, the freedom of endless time to ease her strength and quiet her bones. And so, John’s Island gives her hours for show, and hours for sleep.

Still, I wonder how much longer Angel can survive. I recommend a visit, but look, don’t touch. And photographers? Leave your tripod at home.


Related post: Cheat Meals in Charleston, SC


And that covers my recommendations for sights, sounds, smells, and tastes with only 36 hours in Charleston, South Carolina. I promise this can be done–I did it! And enjoyed every moment.

Did I leave anything out? What are some of your favorite places to visit in the “Holy City?” Drop me a line or two…

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  1. That horse in the photo at the city market appears to be of the big-horse breeds, so majestic & gorgeous!

    Angel Oak looks totally Instagrammy, but I like how you relate to it needing a break. I hope that tree can stay around for as long as possible!

    1. spioaertriac

      Kristine, I hope Angel Oak stays around as well–it’s a total Instagram pull. SOOOO many people came with phones and cameras. But I just wanted to get my perspective. She’s beautiful, but she just seemed tired to me.

  2. Aw I’ve been dying to explore Charleston for their swing dance scene! But looking at your post there’s a lot more to it huh 🙂 Walking along the Battery looks like totally my thing *vitamin sea addict right here*

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