Charleston, South Carolina – Historic District

Horse-drawn carriage ride in Charleston, South Carolina.

Do you love old, historic, mansions and delving into the history of America? Historic Charleston is the place for you then. There honestly is so much to see and do in all of Charleston and we will talk about that as well but for now, we are going to concentrate on the historic district of Charleston where the history dates back to the 1670’s and some of the buildings from the 1700’s still stand!

Harry and lisa

Here are some our tips and recommendations just for the historic district from our recent trip to Charleston. First of all, take a guided tour. There are a ton of options from walking tours, to driving tours, to horse-drawn carriage rides. We opted for a 3-hour private driving tour through Exclusively Charleston so we could interact personally with the tour guide, Linda, to learn more. She was a wealth of information and I highly recommend this particular guide. We also took two food tours as well: one for King Street through Bulldog Tours and the other in the historical district through Charleston Culinary Tours. Both were outstanding food tours and both will offer more lessons in history as well during these food tours.

Historic District of Charleston

Winter and spring is the busiest time of year for Charleston as that is when you will reap the benefits of cooler temperatures. The summers are HOT as in unbearably muggy and hot. So much so that I had one local tell me that she gets seasonal affective disorder from closing the shades and staying inside for much of the summer months as it is so miserable. If you are going to visit Charleston, I suggest you pick a time in the winter or spring as you will probably be spending much of your time outdoors and you want it to be reasonably comfortable for all the walking you are going to be doing.

I suggest that you find an Airbnb or VRBO in Charleston as there are plenty available in the historic district. Read your reviews thoroughly as you get what you pay for. We opted for (what appeared to be) a clean, two-bedroom Airbnb just a few blocks away from the northern end of King Street for just $156.00 a night which was a steal we thought. Well, the first night there was a massive party at the building two doors down so there was constant yelling, talking, doors slamming, and by 3:30 a.m. the first responders were there with firetrucks and an ambulance to haul away an overdose victim. We realized why there was a white-noise machine next to the beds in both rooms. My younger son also filmed a very large cockroach scuttling across the floor that first night as well. So, just be sure to read the reviews well and take heed of them. It isn’t cheap to stay in the heart of historic Charleston but paying a few extra dollars for a good location and room/condo will be worth it.

History

You have to understand Charleston’s history to really get to know the city. Charleston is an amazing city to visit just for the history alone. The #1 thing that they are known for is their well-preserved homes. In the early 1900’s the Daughters of the American Revolution decided they wanted to preserve the old historic homes of Charleston and Charleston was one of the original 13 colonies so the historic value of these homes and the buildings go back to the 1700’s (although Charleston was colonized in the 1670’s).

Charleston Mansion

After the Civil War, the loss of the aristocracy’s slave labor destroyed the south. This left all of the farm industries in the south in ruins and this meant Charleston as well as this is where most of the plantation owners had mansions. They would split their time between their plantation houses and their houses in the city. The one thing that saved these homes though was the poverty after the civil war so the old houses stayed intact. What was not destroyed by war, were living quarters for those that remained after the Civil War.

Charleston Mansion

Now if you want to buy a home in the old historic district of Charleston, you are bound by many rules and regulations as to what you can and cannot do with your property. Homes are not allowed to be demolished. Homes sell for millions of dollars these days so the average Joe is priced out of this area of Charleston. We drove past one home that had just recently been remodeled and when I asked our tour guide about it, she said that was Patty Hearst’s home which was recently purchased in 2019 for 2.4 million (a simple 3-bedroom 2.5 bath house). Another few homes I asked about were owned by McDonald’s franchise owners.

One of the many old mansions in Charleston
Old houses cannot be torn down

If you want to be a tour guide in Charleston, you must have a license from the city. They are very protective of their history and up until the 1980’s, you weren’t allowed to use the “s” word. Slavery is what made the city very wealthy and it showed in the plantations surrounding the whole city. As a matter of fact, South Carolina’s total population in 1860 was just over 700,000 and of that population, 57% were slaves owned by about 26,000 white Americans which was the highest percentage of slave ownership in the country.

My tour guide, Linda, mentioned that her roots to the city go way back. She even pointed out her grandmother’s home which was still held by her family and located by The Battery (the seawall). She stated that slavery is just now being talked about for what it was but for years, it was talked about in a positive manner and the cruelty and harsh living conditions that the slaves endured was swept under the rug. The life of luxury you see in these homes and plantations surrounding Charleston didn’t happen because the slave owners were hardworking people. They lived in the lap of luxury because of the enslavement of human beings and Charleston is now realizing that you can’t talk about one without talking about the other and there has been a shift toward telling stories of slavery more accurately and fully now just in the last 5 years.

Slavery was a commodity in Charleston and slave auctions were commonplace in the city. It wasn’t just the African slave trade either though here because between 1670 and 1715, between 24,000 and 51,000 Native Americans were captured, sold in South Carolina, and then shipped off to the West Indies.

The fact that the city is now starting to address this shows when you take a tour of the Aiken-Rhett mansion as this venue will go into great details about the slaves owned by Governor Aitken. He had enslaved 878 people at his various mansions and plantations. Stories of slaves at the house talked of some dying of exhaustion, a child having a baby at the age of 11, and another young child dying of malnutrition. Most slept on the wooden floors of this house below. The African slaves outnumbered the whites and there was constant fear of slave uprisings in Charleston. It was illegal for slaves to be educated and after one uprising, Governor Aitken built a wall around his mansion.

Aiken-Rhett Slave House

In 2015, the city of Charleston was forced to confront racism when white supremacist, Dylann Roof, opened fire at the Mother Emanuel church and killed 9 members of the church. This church is one of the South’s oldest African American congregations.  The building dates from 1891 and has hosted Booker T. Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King.  President Barak Obama spoke and led the congregation in singing Amazing Grave at the memorial service for the pastor who was killed by Dylann Roof. That was the moment when things started to change in the city.

Mother Emanuel Church

One of the things you will notice straight off in Charleston is the abundance of churches. Many of the colonists were seeking to escape the Catholic Church and were in search of religious freedom but although the locals talk about how Charleston felt freedom of religion was huge, it really wasn’t that simple in colonial times.

Historical church in Charleston.

See: The Myth of the Holy City for a complete explanation but to summarize this in a nutshell: “White Anglicans, conforming members of the Church of England, enjoyed full rights of worship and citizenship. Non-conforming Protestants, including Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Huguenots, enjoyed the freedom to worship, but their civil rights were regularly abridged. Likewise, Jews were tolerated, but they were not regarded as full citizens. Catholics, Unitarians, atheists, and members of any other religious group, were simply not tolerated in colonial-era South Carolina. Quakers, though technically Protestants, refused to swear oaths, and thus were often suspected of being closet Catholics. For this reason, Charleston’s early Quaker population never blossomed.”

This city has so much history though from the colonial era to the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. They survived a major earthquake in 1886 and the massive Hurricane Hugo in 1989 which damaged over three-quarters of the historic homes and mansions in the city and outlying areas. You could just walk along the streets of old historic Charleston for hours reading the plaques outside of each house describing the history of that house. It truly is a city steeped in history. Most tourists are drawn to Charleston for its southern charm but the industry is slowly changing and tourists are now hit smack in the face with the truths of slavery instead of the rosy-colored picture painted for so many years. This is a great place to bring your kids though for a lesson in American history.

Places to see in the historic Charleston district

Aiken-Rhett Museum

This is a must see – This is the home of South Carolina governor William Aiken Jr., which he inherited from his father, William Aiken, the owner of South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. All of the original furniture, wallpaper and woodwork is still there and survived pretty much untouched as the house is preserved but not restored. It did suffer quite a bit of damage from Hurricane Hugo though. This house concentrated a lot on the slaves and how the resident’s lived in a world of privilege (the slaves would dress them, bathe them, shave them, feed them, even nurse their babies, while the slaves lived a life of extreme hardship).

The house is preserved and not restored

Nathaniel Russell House

If you see both the Aiken-Rhett House and Nathaniel Russell House, you’ll get a discount. This house was built by a wealthy shipping merchant and today it is recognized as one of America’s most important Neoclassical houses. The most impressive feature is the “floating staircase” which ascends three floors.

Joseph Manigault House

We actually went here as part of one of our food tours of King Street.  This was a rice-plantation owner’s house and he kind of built the house to just one-up his neighbors. Lots of beautiful architecture in this one though.

King Street

This is one of the best places to shop in Charleston outside of Market Street. The lower part is the antique district, the middle part is the clothing/fashion, and the upper part is the dining district. This is where we did the King Street food tour. It’s worth it if you can fit in the food tours because they will not only let you sample some great southern cuisine at various restaurants but they will narrate the history of the city as you go along as well.

Looking up King Street

Market Street

We aren’t big shoppers so we avoided this area but there are rows and rows of shed-like buildings that run for four blocks which are set up kind of like a flea market and this is the other big shopping area people flock to.

The Battery

This is a very iconic Charleston spot with dramatic views and some huge mansions.

The Battery

Rainbow Row

This is one of the most photographed sights in the United States: Rainbow Row with its nine pastel-colored mansions.  The colors are remnants of Charleston’s Caribbean heritage whose earliest settles were from Barbados. These homes date back to 1730-1750 and they used to be on the Cooper River but the street was created later on top of landfill. These were one of the first Charleston homes to be renovated and inspired the city to preserve more.

Rainbow Row

The Citadel

The Citadel is a military college that was actually originally built in the historic district in 1822 and was born out of panic over the threat of a slave rebellion (organized by Denmark Versey). That original building is now an Embassy Suites (see picture below). The barracks are like castles and manned by the military students. The Freshman aren’t allowed to walk on the sidewalks and must walk double-time on the street (outlined by a yellow line for them). With Covid they aren’t doing this now but that huge Summerall Field (second picture) I hear is pretty interesting to see on Friday afternoons during the school year when they have full dress parades accompanied by a marching band and pipers. It is called the best free show in Charleston. On the wall outside the church are names of all those who attended school here and died in combat in various wars.

Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

This old building built in 1771 is brimming with history.  It happens to be the last building erected by the British before the American Revolution and was built over a portion of the original 1698 seawall. The cellar here served as a British prison. Three of Charleston’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence did time downstairs for sedition against the crown. The Ballroom upstairs is where the U.S. Constitution was ratified and where George Washington visited as well during 1791.

Old Charleston Jail

You can’t go to Charleston without doing at least one ghost tour so our choice was the Old Charleston Jail. The jail was built in 1802 and was the Charleston jail until 1939 so there is a lot of history of pain and suffering here and is purportedly the most haunted place in all of Charleston. It was originally a swampy place where bodies from the city were dumped that they didn’t know what to do with. The swampy area was eventually filled in and the jail was built on the land. It was used as a POW Camp during the Civil War and it actually ran out of space for all the Union soldiers there. Many people were hung out in the yard. People died of illness, disease, murders, and executions. Lavinia Fisher (America’s first actually known female serial killer) was housed here until she and her husband were hung. We were taken to all three floors of the jail (and apparently in the basement we were brought into a room where there was supposed to be a portal). We didn’t experience anything though and although the building was quite spooky looking, we left without any personal ghostly experiences.

5Church Restaurant

This is the #1 booked restaurant in Charleston and it is worth it to go. It was part of our historic district food tour and we were very impressed. The food is incredible but what really makes this worth it is that it is in an old church and the entire text of “The Art of War” is painted on the ceiling.

The Patriot

I had to add this place because it is interesting in that southerners take great pride in “The Swamp Fox” which was this gentleman who fought in the Revolutionary War and perfected the art of guerrilla warfare (instead of marching in straight lines like the British). There’s even a restaurant in Charleston called “The Swamp Fox” and they love this guy. So, there was a movie made starring Mel Gibson called “The Patriot” (which wasn’t really hardly accurate). In the movie he had 8 children and a dead wife but in real life, he ended up having none and instead after the war adopted a niece and nephew with his wife (but that doesn’t make great drama). So, anyhow, there is a scene in the movie where Mel Gibson escapes to the plantation of his dead wife’s sister and this is the place. We watched it on Netflix while we were in Charleston just because it seemed like a right of passage so if you are planning a trip to this area, make sure you watch the movie before you go. You’ll see this building about a block or so west from the Four Corners of Law.

The Four Corners of Law is the intersection of Broad and Meeting Street. They call it that because of the confluence of federal law (the post office building), state law (the state courthouse), municipal law (city hall), and God’s law (St. Michael’s Episcopal Church). 

Other places to potentially see in the historic district:

Other places you might want to consider in the historic district (but we didn’t get a chance to go to):

Edmondston-Alston House

Williams Mansion

Miles Brewton House

Heyward-Washington House

John Rutledge House

Edward Rutledge House

William Blacklock House

Joseph Manigault House

Confederate Museum

Powder Magazine Building

Old Slave Mart Museum

As you can see, there is so much to do and see in Charleston that you will be able to keep busy for many days.

Make sure you follow my blog to see what other things there are do in Charleston outside of the historic district such as plantations, Fort Sumter, The Hunley, etc. !

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