If you live in Charleston, you will inevitably get the phone call from a friend or relative and the question is always the same: "I'm coming for a weekend visit, and what should I do."
It's hard to answer that because we have so many options. Do you want history, walking tours, a boat ride or all of the above? How much time do you have to spend at each place?
So we've narrowed down the can't-miss attractions by order of a car trip. The first 10 are free, and the others are well worth the admission fees. Hint: you may to choose which direction you want to explore once you leave downtown.
The Battery & White Point Garden
The oak-shaded park on the edge of the upscale South of Broad neighborhood overlooks the meeting of the Ashley and Cooper rivers into Charleston Harbor. Just up East Bay Street is the historic Rainbow Row, a run of 13 adjacent town homes, the longest cluster of Georgian row houses in the nation, painted in pastel colors.
You’ll often have to get in line for the swinging benches at one of downtown Charleston’s most popular parks. Its 12 acres provide vistas of Charleston Harbor, the Ravenel Bridge and Fort Sumter, while children play in its two water fountains.
The City Market, a centuries-old open-air market, has become the top spot to browse for souvenirs, signature Lowcountry snacks and locally made goods. While it's no longer the place to pick up produce and freshly caught fish as it was generations ago, you'll still see sweetgrass basket weavers and jewelry makers at work on their crafts there.
College of Charleston campus
Nestled in the heart of downtown Charleston, this lively and picturesque campus injects youth and energy into the city's historic district. Walk into Cistern Yard and take in Randolph Hall and the Addlestone Library, but also be sure to explore the brick streets where dozens of historic buildings have been adapted for the college’s use.
The Citadel is best known nationally for its Corps of Cadets. Its undergraduate student body of about 3,500 cadets live and study under a military system that focuses on leadership, character and academics. On Friday afternoons, cadets often hold military dress parades on Summerall Field. Generally, they start at 3:45 p.m. Take a spin around Hampton Park while you're in the area to see the peninsula's largest park.
A short drive up the city’s neck is Magnolia Cemetery, which dates to 1850 and is considered an outstanding example of rural and Victorian cemetery design. It’s a mix of the older city names along with some of the Confederate dead who fought locally and far away, including those who fell at the Battle of Gettysburg. The crews of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley are buried here as well. Moss-draped live oaks adorn the grounds.
From here, you need to decide which direction you want to go out of the city. Toward Mount Pleasant:
Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge
Charleston's signature double-diamond bridge stretching over the Cooper River is the third largest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere. While the annual Cooper River Bridge Run is one of the Lowcountry's biggest events of the year, you can cross its foot and bike path anytime to catch unrivaled views of the harbor.
In Mount Pleasant, Shem Creek is the waterfront entertainment district for Charleston’s neighbor on the other side of the Ravenel bridge. It’s lined with restaurants, bars and the shrimp trawlers that remain, which give the creek its character. You also can buy fresh shrimp and fish dockside. Take in the views without spending a dime by walking the new town-owned boardwalk along the marsh, accessed behind Vickery's Bar & Grill.
Toward the West Islands
Morris Island Lighthouse
Visible from the northeastern tip of Folly Beach, the Morris Island Lighthouse once guided ships into Charleston via the southern channel approach. It is no longer in use and erosion has washed away the beach sand that had protected the site. You’ll need a boat if you want to get near; otherwise drive to the eastern end of Folly Beach, park and walk up the beach to get a look. The lighthouse is closed to the public but always is good for photographs.
Angel Oak Park
Take a drive to rural Johns Island about 12 miles away from Charleston's downtown to see a centuries-old live oak affectionately known as Angel Oak. The giant tree's limbs, thicker than most trees' trunks, twist and curve in every direction, giving it an almost mystical quality.
In driving order from downtown
South Carolina Aquarium
A treat for children and adults, this top-notch attraction overlooking the Cooper River takes visitors on a journey from mountain habitats to Lowcountry marshes and out into the deep blue sea. Visitors can gaze at everything from rainbow trout to giant red drum, cobia, sea turtles and sharks. Among visitor favorites are the Shark Shallows hands-on exhibit, the 322,000-gallon Great Ocean Tank, and the newly opened sea turtle hospital, the Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery Center.
Founded in 1773, the Charleston Museum on Meeting Street ranks as the oldest museum in the country. Its permanent exhibits include historic textiles and silver pieces, plantation artifacts, Revolutionary War and Civil War weaponry and relics, and even an array of prehistoric animal skeletons found in South Carolina.
Gibbes Museum of Art
The Gibbes Museum of Art has been in existence for more than 100 years and recently reopened after a major renovation and expansion. The Grand Gallery, with its original Beaux Arts skylight, showcases early American art. The newly expanded South Galleries display hundreds of portrait miniatures, while the North Galleries feature several works that demonstrate the national shift in American art from academic painting to Impressionism. And don’t miss the garden out back.
The Powder Magazine
The Powder Magazine was completed by 1713, making it the oldest public building in South Carolina. The structure was originally created to house about five tons of gunpowder needed to supply cannons that once surrounded Charleston. In the event of an explosion, the thick walls would force the blast upward through tons of sand. Today, The Powder Magazine is the only intact component of Charleston’s old walled city defensive system.
Dock Street Theatre
The theater tucked into the French Quarter neighborhood on Charleston's peninsula offers as much entertainment as it does history. The original theater was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1740, just four years after its first performance. The property was later a hotel and other uses, and the theater itself was re-created in 1937 and then extensively renovated just a few years ago. It is the home of Spoleto Festival USA's famed chamber music concerts every year.
Outside the city
Fort Sumter National Monument
You can catch a boat to Fort Sumter from downtown at Liberty Square or head over to Mount Pleasant to catch a boat to Fort Sumter. Confederates fired the first shots of the Civil War in 1861 on this federal fort at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, forcing Union forces to abandon it and then to spend four years fighting to get it back. The monument is accessible only by boats which depart daily from Patriots Point and Liberty Square.
Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum
Just over the Cooper River from Charleston is the area's most unique military museum with its centerpiece attraction, the World War II-era aircraft carrier Yorktown. The ship, moored in pluff mud along the edge of Mount Pleasant, has been updated recently to include several interactive attractions, including an Apollo 8 experience that tells the story of the Yorktown's recovery of the space capsule in 1968. The site also is home to several other National Historic Landmark ships, Medal of Honor Museum and Vietnam Experience Exhibit.
The historic site on James Island was opened to the public as a museum in 2015 by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission. An important stop along the Gullah/Geechee Heritage Corridor, the well-preserved grounds showcase the plantation house built in 1858, several original slave cabins, a cotton gin and a carriage house.
Charles Towne Landing
The 184-acre historic site in West Ashley preserves and commemorates the first permanent English settlement in South Carolina, and is often called the birthplace of the state. One of its signature attractions is a natural habitat zoo housing a black bear, bobcat, bison, an elk and river otters, all species that were once native to South Carolina. Other features on the grounds include replicas of 17th-century cannons and the tall ship Adventure.
The 18th-century rice plantation on the Ashley River is a National Historic Landmark, home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the country. Its horticulture is planned so flowers are in bloom year-round. The main house on the grounds, now a museum, revisits the life of the Middleton family and its role shaping the country's early history. In the stableyards, historic interpreters re-enact what daily life was like for the enslaved people who worked on the property.
Abigail Darlington contributed to this reporting.