Outside the Downtown Historical District
Charleston has a lot to do and see even outside of the historical district. There are beautiful plantations, old military forts, historical sites of significant value, beautiful gardens, and it is one of the country’s largest culinary destinations! You’ll need a car if you are going to visit these places in Charleston so you can really see what there is to offer. You could easily keep busy in this city (and outlying area) for a week with everything there is to see and do! We visited the city in March of 2021 which was when we thought the Covid would be winding down but there were still a lot of restrictions in place (and some closures). This city is a great place to bring your kids as there is so much history here regarding the origins of our nation for them to learn about.
This is the place that brought about the start of the Civil War. The first shot was fired from Fort Johnson by Confederate captain, George James, on April 12th, 1861, and that was the signal for the bombardment to begin. Today Fort Sumter still stands and you can see holes from artillery shells and shells still imbedded in the walls of the fort. It was fought over for four years though as it was the South’s symbol of nationhood and had to be defended at all costs but it was also the symbol of secession for the North which also had to be taken at all costs.
The 7-mile ride out to the fort by ferries and boats run by the National Park Service takes about a half hour. There are two locations in which to catch a ferry: Liberty Square at Aquarium Wharf or from Patriots Point at Mount Pleasant. If you take the Liberty Square ferry, there is also a Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center so you can learn more about the fort while you are waiting. If you leave from the Patriots Point side, there is an old aircraft carrier, a destroyer, and submarine to tour when you return (for an additional charge). It will take about 2-3 hours for you to visit the fort.
This is a MUST SEE. In 1864, the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley mysteriously sank right after destroying the USS Housatonic. There are many theories as to why it sank but nobody still knows for sure to this day. Nobody could find the submarine though until 1995 (after a 15-year search), and it was found off of Sullivan’s Island. In 2000, a plan was devised to safely raise the vessel. It was then placed in a 75,000-gallon tank to protect it from the deterioration properties of oxygen. If it was left out in the open, it would immediately rust and fall apart. Over the next 5-7 years, it will be treated until the level of the salt in the iron is low enough to allow the Hunley to be removed from the tank. The museum has a lot of history regarding these old submarines and the Hunley so be sure to allow yourself time to view all of this. It really is fascinating and it even has facial reconstructions of some of the eight sailors who died on board (their remains still remained in the submarine when it was raised up).
Note that The Lasch Center where the Hunley is housed is only open to the public on weekends so that research and conservation can be performed during the week. Because of this, the only time you can tour this is on the weekend and you have to reserve tickets ahead of time on-line (I would suggest a month or two in advance). The large painted sign when you get there states that there it is closed on the weekends (which scared us a little as we were the supposed to be the first tour of the day) but don’t fret as they just haven’t updated that. They are indeed open on the weekends.
Shem Creek Park and Boardwalk
This is a very popular waterfront dining and drinking district which has a park and a boardwalk offering panoramic views of the marsh and Charleston Harbor. You are almost guaranteed to see dolphins in here. The boardwalk runs from Coleman Boulevard to near the mouth of the creek. The best place to do this is to start at the first section of boardwalk which connects from the parking lot just off Coleman Boulevard to a hummock island in the marsh and from there you can walk to the harbor and recreational docks. You’ll get a close-up look at working shrimp and crab boats and you are almost guaranteed to see dolphins going up and down the channel as well. The bridge (from where we were standing) is a very popular spot to catch a sunset. Water’s Edge is the most popular place to dine at here, however, if you don’t want to go that upscale, Red’s Ice House is a great place to eat at (be sure and try the shrimp queso).
Charles Pinckney National Historic Site
This historical site is about 10 miles outside of Charleston. Charles Pinckney was an early abolitionist and one of the main authors of the U.S. Constitution. The main house (as seen here) doubles as the visitor’s center and dates from 1828 (11 years after Pinckney sold Snee Farm to pay off debts). It replaces the original Pinckney home where President George Washington slept and had breakfast under a nearby oak tree in 1791 while touring the South. There is no entrance fee and the house was unfortunately closed when we were there due to Covid but regardless, it is a beautiful place to tour the grounds. There are informational plaques on the grounds which talked about his great-aunt Eliza Lucas Pinckney who was the first woman agriculturalist in the United States and was also responsible for opening up the indigo trade.
Boone Hall Plantation
Just a few minutes further down the road from the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site is Boone Hall Plantation. This is a MUST SEE if you go to Charleston. Boone Hall Plantation was a cotton plantation and a brickmaking plant and is one of the oldest living, working plantations in the country (320 years). Eventually they moved from cotton to pecan trees and by the early 1900’s, they were the largest producer of pecans in America.
The Avenue of Oaks is a line of 88 live oak trees along an almost one-mile drive to the house which were originally planted in 1743. It took more than a century for the mossy branches to meet overhead and form a natural corridor. The long drive was an inspiration for “Gone With the Wind” from 1939. They used a painting of Boone Hall’s live oaks to create an entrance to the plantation where Ashley Wilkes lived. These trees have been replanted over the years as storms and hurricanes have toppled them (including Hurricane Hugo in 1989).
Other movies or TV film series that were filmed here are Days of Our Lives, North and South, Queen, The Notebook, and There’s No Place Like Home. There is a rumor that Tom Hanks was apparently supposed to run down the Avenue of Oaks but before filming, there was some concern about how long of a run it would be and a shorter one was found at a plantation near Savannah, Georgia.
There are gardens to explore around the house and then you can take a 40-minute ride around the plantation’s 738 acres on cars pulled by a tractor. Boone Hall is an active agricultural farm and it also lets visitors go on “u-pick” walks through its fields where you can pick strawberries, peaches, tomatoes, blueberries, muscadine grapes, collard greens, mustard greens, sweet onions, broccoli, pumpkins, etc. It is on this tractor ride that you can still see evidence of Hurricane Hugo’s destruction in 1989. It wiped out a lot of trees on the plantation.
Before you leave, make sure you take the time to visit the nine brick slave cabins from between 1790 and 1810. Each one has interpretive displays in there which depict “Black History in America”. Each cabin goes through a different time period and ends with the present day.
Buried at Magnolia Cemetery are the crewmen who died aboard the CSS Hunley (their remains reinterred after their retrieval from Charleston Harbor) and over 2,000 Civil War veterans are buried here as well (including 5 Confederate generals and 84 rebels who fell at Gettysburg and were later moved here).
Angel Oak Tree
We almost didn’t do this one but then had time before our flight left that day so we headed about a half hour out of town to Angel Oak Park to make sure we did this one. This really is a MUST SEE when visiting Charleston. It is a free attraction. We went in the morning in the middle of the week and the cars were lined up all the way down the road but it was a quick walk to the gate regardless. The tree is thought to be around 400-500 years old and one of the oldest living things in the country! It really is mind-boggling and the pictures hardly do this behemoth justice so you have to see it in person to really appreciate it.
Magnolia Gardens, Drayton Hall, or Middleton Place?
When going northwest on Highway 61, you will have the opportunity to see three sites in a row: Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, and Middleton Place. You cannot do all three of these in one day. There simply is not enough time (even if you rush it) due to the operating hours and the sheer size of these attractions. If you have only the chance to do one of these though, you should do Middleton Place and this advice came from a long-standing resident and tour-guide in Charleston. The reason for this is that Drayton Hall (although I’m told is interesting) is an unfurnished home. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is heavily commercialized and advertised and if you like walking for hours on trails seeing flowers, plants, and trees, this is an acceptable place to go (we found it monotonous at best after a while). They even have a Groupon so you can get discounted tickets. Middleton Place though has the first landscaped garden in North American and one of the most magnificent in the world. It also has working stables, a historic restored home (completely furnished), and a quaint restaurant to eat at as well.
You are going to have allow at the very least 4 hours for this plantation to really enjoy it. There is a guided tour of the mansion and lots of walking to be done so make sure you wear comfortable foot wear! There were lots of farm animals to visit but the plantation is home to a lot of alligator activity too. We happened to spot one making a meal out of some unfortunate animal that had gotten too close to the small rice paddies. Keep your small children close when walking by any bodies of water just to be safe. As I mentioned before, the gardens were the first landscaped gardens in North America and are world renowned.
To give you a little background, the Middleton’s rice plantation was established in 1741 as their family seat and they had one of the most notable surnames in U.S. history. In 1865, as the Civil War wound down, the main house was burned and the gardens were destroyed. There then was an earthquake in 1886 which left it’s mark and in 1916 renovation began. In 1971 it was a National Historic Landmark. They still grow the Carolina Gold rice here (which is harvested in the old ways each September) and you can sample it at the restaurant. You can tour the gardens for free if you arrive for a dinner reservation at 5:30 p.m. or later.
I thought it was interesting how the slavery at Middleton was given a slightly positive spin but I think that was normal up through the late 1980’s and early 90’s to put it under that kind of light. Edward Middleton and his brother owned 25 plantations in South Carolina encompassing 63,000 acres and owned 3,500 slaves. At Middleton Place (and their other plantations) there was a “task system” where each slave was assigned a task and once they had accomplished that task, their time was their own and they could spend it planting their own private gardens, hunting, fishing, or having family/social time. Carolina law did not recognize slave marriages, but at the Middleton plantations, they were recognized and celebrated (marriage often kept the slaves from running away). Sometimes they would marry between plantations and any children born became the property of the wife’s plantation. The slaves often got three days off at Christmas, a free day after hoeing the rice field or plowing, and after harvest. When Middleton Place was burned by Union soldiers, many of the slaves were brought to Charleston. After the war, some returned to Middleton and worked on the plantation as free men, for payment of housing and a small token wage. There was no way to plant and harvest rice without slave labor though so it eventually fell to ruin until it could be renovated to what it is today.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
This was one of the earliest tourist attractions in the United States and the beginning of Charleston’s now-booming tourist industry. The original site dates back to 1676 when the Drayton’s built a house and small garden on the site. The plantation still is under Drayton ownership after 15 generations. Now 25 acres of the property are devoted to the gardens, 16 acres for the property surrounding the mansion, and 150 acres for a marsh and water fowl conservatory. There is also 199 acres dedicated to a wholesale ornamental plant nursery to raise money for operations.
If you are a fan of horticulture, this is the place for you. We are not so much so we weaved our way through the endless trails that went every single which way through a fairly “wild” garden. We also went on a Saturday later in the afternoon after we had toured Middleton Place and the parking was an intense sea of cars. It took us at least 15 minutes to walk to the gates and then from there we had a lot more walking to do.
When we first got through the gates, we made our way to the Wildlife Observation Tower (where we spotted no wildlife) and then made our way back on one of the many trails. The mansion here was a recreation of the original mansion being that the original was burned down after the Civil War. There was a gift shop in there but not much else to see, however, you can admire the architecture of the outside of the house as a backdrop for the large oak trees hanging with Spanish moss. If you do not see everything you want to see in one-day, they will let you return within 7 days for free (so hold onto your tickets). We moved rather fast through this, however, we had no desire to return just because gardens in general (although beautiful) weren’t our thing.
We found the petting zoo area to be a delight as some of the animals really loved the attention and we love animals in general. You can also do a 45-minute Nature Train tour, a 45-minute Nature Boat tour, and/or a visit to the Audubon Swamp Garden. We walked the Audubon Swamp Garden tour which was an extensive boardwalk system into the swamps where we actually did see quite a bit of wildlife. You have to drive over to that area once you are done with the gardens. If you decide to do this attraction, I would go early in the morning to get a good parking spot and do the gardens first. Then move your way to the Audubon Swamp Garden tour (which is an additional charge) if you choose to do that. You will need to drive to the swamp garden area and we found no issues with parking there. Get the Groupon and it is a reduced-fee package deal.
We ended up not having enough time to see Drayton Hall but you can learn more about this plantation attraction here: https://www.draytonhall.org/
Other places to potentially see around Charleston outside of the historic district
Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site
Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum – we left for Fort Sumter from this venue (you can also take a ferry on the other side of the river as well). Here they have the USS Yorktown (an aircraft carrier), USS Laffey (a destroyer) and the USS Clamagore (a submarine). We skipped it not because it wasn’t interesting but because of time. Check to see if there is a Groupon for this as there was one available when we were there.