Charleston Introduction Walking Tour, Charleston

Charleston Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), Charleston

A popular tourist destination and a major port city in South Carolina, Charleston is fit to impress anyone with its Southern charm, friendliness, and rich history. Founded in 1670 as Charles Town, honoring King Charles II of England, this was the first comprehensively planned town in America.

The city's significance in American history is tied to its role as a key slave trading port. The locals pioneered large-scale slave trade of the 18th century, seeing almost half of all slaves imported to the United States arrive through Charleston. Slavery was again an important factor in the city's role during the Revolutionary War.

Charleston also played a major part in the Civil War, as a pivotal city where both the Union and Confederate Armies vied for power. The war had shattered the city's prosperity, but the freed African-American population had surged afterwards. In 2018, the city formally apologized for its role in the American Slave trade, condemning it as inhumane.

One of the places to learn about the city’s torrid past is the Old Slave Mart. Built in 1859, this was the last slave auction facility in South Carolina, which is now turned into a museum. Also, to learn about Charleston's Civil War history, you can visit the Confederate Museum at Market Hall.

Nowadays Charleston is known for its strong tourism industry; in 2016 Travel + Leisure Magazine ranked it as the best city in the world. Indeed, one of America's oldest cities is also exceptionally beautiful, defined by its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages and pastel Antebellum houses, particularly in the elegant French Quarter and Battery districts.

Among other local attractions there are:

Rainbow Row – a colorful street filled with brightly painted 18th-century homes;

City Market – the beating heart of the Charleston Historic District, this 200-year-old market is a wonderful place to find handmade goods, including the famed sweetgrass baskets braided as you watch;

Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon – built in 1771, this building once housed a number of establishments, including the historic Provost Dungeon on its bottom floor, formerly used to accommodate British prisoners during the American Revolution.

Nicknamed "The Holy City", Charleston’s skyline is rich with steeples of numerous old churches. Among them is the French Huguenot Church in the French Quarter, the oldest Gothic Revival-style temple in South Carolina, built in 1844.

To explore these and other popular sights of Charleston, take this self-guided introductory walk!
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Charleston Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Charleston Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Charleston (See other walking tours in Charleston)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 14
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.8 Km or 1.7 Miles
Author: Caroline
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Washington Square Park
  • St. Michael's Church
  • Nathaniel Russell House
  • Calhoun Mansion
  • The Battery
  • Edmondston-Alston House
  • Rainbow Row
  • Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
  • Old Slave Mart
  • French Huguenot Church
  • Circular Congregational Church
  • Confederate Museum
  • Historic City Market
  • King Street
Washington Square Park

1) Washington Square Park

Located in the heart of the city's beautifully preserved historic district, behind the City Hall, Washington Square is the oldest public park in Charleston, with some beautiful landscaping.

If you take any walking tour of the city, there's a strong chance you will pass through this place, as it is very close to some of the best bars and restaurants in town. There is plenty of shade and seating in this cozy fenced enclosure where you can relax, snap some photos and watch people, or otherwise enjoy Charleston's charm.

Most notably, the park houses an obelisk-shaped memorial to the Washington Light Infantry – a miniature version of the obelisk in Washington, D.C., made of Carolina gray granite. This memorial, unveiled in 1891, stands 42 feet high and is inscribed with the names of major military battles in the history of the United States. Nearby is a statue of the "Father of the Nation," George Washington, installed in 1999.

The best time of year to visit the park is spring when the trees are in bloom.
St. Michael's Church

2) St. Michael's Church (must see)

Found at the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets, St. Michael's Church is the oldest surviving religious building in Charleston. It was constructed, between 1751 and 1761, on the site of the original wooden basilica that had been there since 1681 and was damaged in a hurricane in 1710.

The church shows the influence of London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields temple, designed in the 1720s. Its walls, made of brick, are stuccoed over and painted white. The two-story portico with Tuscan columns was the first, of its kind, in colonial America. On the north wall is a 6x10-foot stained glass window donated to the church in 1898. It features a copy of "Easter Morning," made up of between 1,800 and 2,000 pieces, created by artist and designer Louis Lederlie for Tiffany Studios.

The church tower houses a clock that strikes the hours and quarters, plus eight fabulous change-ringing bells (one of the four sets of bells in the Charleston area). These bells were cast in 1764 and then recast in 1866, both times in London.

An integral part of the Charleston Historic District, St. Michael's Church was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

The adjacent churchyard is the final resting place of some famous historical figures, including two signers of the U.S. Constitution. Since you're free to wander here at leisure, visit it as part of your tour.

Opening Hours:
Monday-Thursday: 9am–4pm; Friday: 9am–12:30pm; Sunday: 8am, 10:30am, 6pm
Nathaniel Russell House

3) Nathaniel Russell House (must see)

This magnificent three-story, Federal-style, rectangular townhouse was built in 1808 for Nathaniel Russell, a shipping merchant from Rhode Island. The prestigious 9,600-square-foot property displays Russell's prominence as one of the community's wealthiest citizens. Constructed of Carolina gray brick, the three-bay entrance front of the building emphasizes its height rather than width.

Arguably the 'grande dame' of local house museums, it has many intricate details to see and learn. The most important architectural feature is the elliptical "floating staircase," which ascends three floors and is showcased by a golden walled stair hall. The Adamesque ornamentation of the fireplaces' mantles and cornices here is also among the most detailed in the city.

There are three main rooms on each floor of different geometric designs: a rectangular room in the front, an oval room in the center, and a square room in the rear. The second-floor oval drawing room is the most highly decorated one – this is where the women retired to after dinner. Papered in an apricot, it features elaborate plaster moldings covered with 24-karat gold leaf. Though most of the art and furniture displayed inside is not original, it is of the right historical period, with many items originally from Charleston.

To the south of the house is a formal English garden with gravel paths, boxwood hedges, and plants favored in the 19th century. In the rear is the two-story slave quarters that once housed the 18 slaves who used to live and work on the premises.

Nowadays recognized as one of America's most significant Neoclassical structures, this entire property was designated a National Landmark in 1960 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

Be sure to get here early, especially for weekend tours. Online tickets do not give a time, and the tours are filled onsite on a first-come-first-served basis. The nearby old graveyard is worth checking out before or after the house visit. For an extra fee, you can also gain admission to the sister Aiken-Rhett House, farther uptown.

Opening Hours:
Daily from 10am to 5pm (docent-led tours begin at 10 am, and the last tour is at 4 pm)
Calhoun Mansion

4) Calhoun Mansion (must see)

If you are looking for something a bit more unusual, Calhoun Mansion is a good option. Fully restored to its original architectural splendor, the house is also filled with an eclectic array of ancient items, making this property a setting for movies, such as “The Notebook”!

The 24,000 square feet striking Italianate-designed building boasts 30+ opulent main rooms with 23 fireplaces and a ballroom with a 45-foot high ceiling. It was built in 1876 for George W. Williams, a prominent businessman, and was inherited by his son-in-law, Patrick Calhoun, a grandson of John C. Calhoun; hence the common name of Calhoun Mansion.

In 2004, lawyer and preservationist Howard Stahl purchased the property, currently used to display his extensive, eclectic, and – quite frankly – eccentric collection of artifacts and antiques from the Gilded Age. Although unfortunately, none of the original furnishings remain, the recreated woodwork and paneling are magnificent. No photos inside are allowed, but the 35-minute tour of the place is very informative, and the grounds feature some rather charming garden spaces with statuary and fountains.

Opening Hours:
Daily: from 11am to 4:30pm (December through February); from 11am to 5pm (March to November)
The Battery

5) The Battery (must see)

Also known as the White Point Gardens (named for the mounds of bleached oyster shells, once piled on the point at the tip of the peninsula), the Battery is a famous Charleston landmark. Drenched in history and boasting dramatic views, this place is named for a Civil War coastal defense artillery battery stationed at the site. It has been a public park since 1837.

The park stretches along the lower shores of the Charleston peninsula, bordered by the Ashley and Cooper rivers, which meet here to form the Charleston Harbor. Together with surrounding gardens, trees, grassy areas, and walkways along the waterfront, it offers a romantic backdrop for couples and a place for picnicking, ball games, and relaxing.

As a tourist destination, the Battery is famous for its stately, mainly antebellum, homes. The grand houses found here are numerous and include, among others, the Louis DeSaussure House (located at 1 E Battery address), the Roper House (at 9 E Battery), the William Ravenel House (at 13 E Battery), the Edmondston-Alston House (at 21 E Battery), the Charles Drayton House (at 25 E Battery), the George Chisholm House (at 39 E Battery), the Villa Margherita (at 4 S Battery), the William Washington House (at 8 S Battery), the Col. John A.S. Ashe House (at 26 S Battery), the James Spear House (at 30 S Battery), and the Col. John Ashe House (at 32 S Battery). From Cooper Riverside, at a distance, Fort Sumter is also visible.

Inside the park, there is no shortage of shade to sit in and relax or stroll past the cannons, mortars, piles of shots, and statues of military heroes. Furthermore, walking from the Battery to downtown, you'll see plenty of other sights worth checking out.
Edmondston-Alston House

6) Edmondston-Alston House (must see)

The three-story Edmondston-Alston House is one of Charleston's grandest and oldest historic buildings. Originally of English Regency style, this property was built between 1820 and 1828 by the shipping merchant Charles Edmondston.

A Scottish immigrant Edmondston purchased the low sandy lot in 1817, which was made fit for residential construction as soon as the Battery seawall was constructed, in 1820. He wasted no time building his showplace, boasting a panoramic view of Charleston Harbor and Battery promenade.

This house, made of brick and stucco-faced, is surrounded by a wrought-iron railing fence on top of a three-foot brick wall.

The front staircase leads to the two drawing rooms on the second floor, with the smaller rooms behind them once serving as withdrawing spaces – one for ladies and one for the gents. Also notable are the 14-foot-high ceilings with large window and door openings (for good airflow during the summer) and a library room. Additionally, the property contained a kitchen and servants' quarters, horse stables, and carriage facilities.

Edmondston had to sell the property, because of bankruptcy, in 1837. A year later, Charles Alston, a successful rice planter and producer, bought it.

He remodeled the house in Greek Revival style and added a third story. The Alstons used to receive their visitors on the first floor, while their social functions were held on the second floor. Alston placed his family coat-of-arms on the parapet on top of the east front of the house, the only known example in Charleston.

Throughout decades, the house had been maintained so well that little restoration was needed. As a result, some 90-95% of its original décor and fixtures are authentic.

The guided tour – a unique chance to peer into this and other homes lining the Battery – is worth it, especially given that the price is reasonable for the perspective it offers on what life was once in Charleston.

Opening Hours (for Guided Tours):
Tuesday-Saturday: 10 am to 4:30 pm; Sunday, Monday: 1 pm to 4:30 pm
Rainbow Row

7) Rainbow Row (must see)

Rainbow Row is the name for a series of 13 colorful historic homes in Charleston, the longest cluster of Georgian row houses in the United States. As such, this is a popular tourist attraction and one of the most photographed sights of the American South.

The houses, dating from 1730 to 1750, were originally set on the Cooper River, with their lower stories serving as storefronts on the wharf. The street was created later on top of a landfill, or "made land" as it is called locally.

The name "Rainbow Row" was coined after the pastel colors of the houses, painted during restoration in the 1930s-40s. Common myths surrounding the choice of colors vary and include some rather weird suggestions. One such is that the intoxicated sailors, coming in from the port, could better remember which houses they were bunked in by their color. Others suggest that the colors date from the times the buildings were used as stores, and the owners could thus tell the illiterate slaves which building to go to for shopping.

One way or another, each of these houses has a captivating story to tell about its origin and inhabitants. From fires to floods to hurricanes to the Civil War, these homes have, somehow, remained intact and withstood the test of time fairly well. If you look closely, you will notice where renovations have been done, including earthquake rods running through the structure, to keep them standing.
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

8) Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon (must see)

From the Revolutionary to the Civil War, the city of Charleston has no shortage of history. A great deal of it is written in the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon at 122 East Bay Street. Also known as the Customs House and The Exchange, this building was constructed between 1767-1771.

Over the years, it has served a variety of functions, including a prisoner-of-war facility operated by British forces during the American Revolutionary War and the site of the South Carolina convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1788. During World War I, the building served as the army headquarters of General Leonard Wood and the U.S. Lighthouse Service. In World War II, it accommodated a United Service Organization facility and canteen for troops, as well as acting as the Coastal Picket Station for the Sixth Naval District of the U.S. Coast Guard.

In 1965, the Half-Moon Battery, an ancient fortification constructed as early as 1698, was discovered underneath the building. How's that for a story?!

Designated a National Historic Landmark, the building is now a museum operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution organization. The provided costumed guided tours on each floor include that of the Provost Dungeon, with the stories of pirates and colonial days. The experience is as entertaining as it is educational, explaining the history of the building and Charleston, in particular (much as the ghost of Isaac Haynes). If seeing a real dungeon is high on your bucket list, this place is a must!

Other than learning about this property's fascinating history, there are some fun activities to engage with, such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence and getting the feel for what it was like to be here in the 1700s.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9 am to 5 pm
Old Slave Mart

9) Old Slave Mart (must see)

If you're a history buff, Charleston can be your favorite destination. The reasons for that are plenty: the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the World War II – all manifested in the abundance of historic locations around the city. One of the most unique and significant sites is the Old Slave Mart, at 6 Chalmers Street, a former slave auction gallery during the antebellum period in the mid-1800s.

Constructed in 1859, this Gothic Revival, Romanesque building, with a stuccoed façade, was originally part of a slave market known as Ryan's Slave Mart, and it covered a large enclosed lot between Chalmers and Queen Streets, comprising a four-story slave jail, a kitchen and a morgue (or "dead house" as they called it). The 67x19-foot brick structure contained one large room with a 20-foot ceiling. The arched entryway originally held an iron gate, was replaced by simple doors in the late 1870s, and later has been restored. Slave auctions were held here from 1856 to 1863.

With the slave quarters long since demolished at nearly all antebellum plantations, the Old Slave Mart is believed to be the last extant slave auction facility in South Carolina. As of 1938, it has housed the Old Slave Mart Museum, highly informative, interpreting the city's slave trade past.

The knowledgeable staff of the museum is more than capable of responding to questions that the various exhibits may undoubtedly raise in your mind. The exhibits are related to the transcontinental and domestic slave trade, with numerous large storyboards, personal stories, and artifacts. Among them, you will see the shackles that the slaves used to wear, the whips they were beaten with, and even a deed of sale for auctioned slaves. There's also an interview of a former slave on display, relating his experience from slavery to emancipation, offering a sobering, realistic and educational look into the nation's past and Charleston's African-American history, in particular.

Consider buying a ticket here in conjunction with the Old Exchange, as you will get a discount.

Opening Hours:
Monday through Saturday: from 9 am to 5 pm
French Huguenot Church

10) French Huguenot Church

One of the oldest congregations in Charleston, founded in the 1680s, the French Huguenot Church also has the distinction of being the only remaining independent Huguenot church in the United States. The original sanctuary was built in 1687 but was deliberately destroyed as a firebreak during the great conflagration of 1796. The replacement church, erected in 1800, was also eventually demolished, in favor of the picturesque stucco-coated Gothic Revival temple that you see today, completed in the mid-1800s.

Back in the 16th-17th centuries, in the predominantly-Catholic France, Huguenots faced persecution for their Protestant belief. Following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, many Huguenots fled the country to various parts of the world, including North America. Charleston's early congregation included many of these refugees, and their descendants continued to play a significant role in the church's affairs for many decades later.

The Huguenot Church was originally affiliated with the Calvinist Reformed Church of France, and its doctrine still retains elements of Calvinist doctrine. Services, although conducted mostly in English, still follow the 18th-century French liturgy. As of 1950, however, there has been an annual service conducted in French, celebrating the arrival of spring.

Upon request, the on-duty docents within the church can provide a short tour. You can learn about Huguenot influences in early America, much as about the church itself. The old organ, the Gothic ceiling, and the external buttresses are all worthy of a look. While there's no admission fee or tour charge, donations are welcome and used for the preservation of the building.

Church tours (throughout Spring/Fall) run Mondays through Thursdays from 10am to 4pm; and Fridays from 10am to 1pm.
Circular Congregational Church

11) Circular Congregational Church

The Circular Congregational Church in Charleston is a historic sanctuary used by a congregation co-founded in 1681 by the English Congregationalists, Scots Presbyterians, and French Huguenots.

The congregation's first Meeting House, located at the site, gave name to the street that leads to it, originally known as "Meeting House Street," but later shortened to Meeting Street. In 1780, during the siege of Charleston, the church was struck by a British cannonball, and in 1804, it was time to have it fully replaced with a more commodious building.

The replacement church, of a circular form, was designed by Robert Mills, Charleston's leading architect who also created the Washington Monument in the District of Columbia. The Pantheon-type building was completed in 1806, standing 88 feet (or 27 meters) in diameter, and had seven doors and 26 windows. Within its main floor and the gallery, the church was fit to accommodate up to 2,000 worshipers at a time.

Being the first major domed building in North America, it was described by an observer in 1818 as "the most extraordinary building in the U.S." The walls of that Circular Church, however, did not stand long. On December 11, 1861, a fire started near the Cooper River and swept across the city overnight, destroying the building.

The current sanctuary, featuring Richardsonian Romanesque style, is the third on its site and was built in 1890, to a plan by Stephenson & Greene of New York. Although not circular, but of a modified cloverleaf design, and continues to be known as the Circular Church and was constructed using the bricks from its predecessor, created by Robert Mills. Presently, aside from being a one-of-a-kind architectural object and a magnificent piece of history, the church also serves as an excellent venue for musical events held here throughout the year.

The parish house of the Circular Congregational Church, with its twin stairways and wrought iron railings, is yet another highly significant Greek Revival architectural work by Robert Mills. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

The historic graveyard surrounding the church is also worthy of a note, housing plenty of tombstones that have withstood the test of time in great condition.
Confederate Museum

12) Confederate Museum

The Confederate Museum of Charleston has been housed in the Market Hall building since 1899. This dignified Greek Revival-style edifice, currently restored to its full splendor, at the time has been described as being of the "highest architectural design quality."

It was built in 1841 as a copy of the Temple of the Wingless Victory in Athens, Greece, and as such, consists of one raised story resting atop a rusticated open ground-level arcade. Its portico contains four Roman-style Doric columns that support the pediment and is accessed through a double flight of stairs with elaborate ironwork.

In a way, this building still serves its original purpose, acting as a frontal entrance to the adjacent six blocks of roofed market space where fruits, meats, vegetables, and fish were sold once.

In 1899, the United Daughters of the Confederacy began using Hall's second floor to house the Confederate Museum, which displays Confederate artifacts and other memorabilia from Charleston's Civil War period. While it cannot compare to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA, it showcases a surprising amount of interesting relics. Among the exhibits are cannons, uniforms, battle flags, swords, and even South Carolina's secession flag.

When visiting the museum, make sure to read the newspapers on display, as they provide a rather different perspective of the Civil War. You might want to bring a flashlight, too, as there is barely any electricity inside!

Opening Hours:
Tuesday-Saturday: 10 am to 4 pm
Historic City Market

13) Historic City Market (must see)

Undoubtedly, no tour of Charleston is complete without a visit to the Historic City Market at 188 Meeting Street. The market, established in the 1790s, stretches for four city blocks, starting from the temple-like Market Hall landmark (now home to the Confederate Museum), and encompassing 33 acres of land, comprising numerous series of one-story market sheds, the last of which terminates at East Bay Street. Back in its heyday, in the early 20th century, the market provided a living for thousands of African-American entrepreneurs and vendors.

Today, the market is still operational, with dozens of vendors selling souvenirs and other items, ranging from clothing to jewelry to chocolates to artwork to Gullah sweetgrass baskets, as well as pictures and paintings of local attractions. Other highlights within the market include Callie's Hot Little Biscuit restaurants, Carolina Rice, Carolina tea, and more eateries of this kind. The area around the market has lots of decent stores, ice cream parlors, and restaurants, too, so you may as well plan for a few hours more to explore the area. It could be great fun for the whole family!

The place is good to visit on a rainy day since it is covered, and you can sift, securely dry, and, hopefully, discover some real bargains. While they accept credit cards, make sure to bring along some cash, as you can ask for a discount if you pay in cash. Also, the Night Market, on weekends, is worth being checked out.

The entire market complex was declared a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9:30 am to 5 pm; Night Market: Friday, Saturday: 6:30 pm to 10:30 pm
King Street

14) King Street

King Street and its surroundings are, perhaps, the most happening area in Charleston. It is also the second most historically and architecturally significant downtown lane, after Meeting Street, where the city's past and present converge. More than three centuries old, this thoroughfare was named for King Charles II of England and soon thrived as a retail corridor, commercial center, and a major shopping district, hosting a variety of high-end specialty stores.

Do you like it upscale? If not to shop, then at least to look? A stroll down this street's pedestrian-friendly sidewalks takes you by the shops offering unique and handmade jewelry, antiques, gifts, shoes, and fine clothing; as well as galleries of local artists and artisans. Peculiar enough, many local stores still "dress" their windows as they did back in the old days. There's also no shortage of trendy restaurants and cool little coffee & dessert shops here either, worth stopping by and taking a break. A definite must-visit among them is Gullah Gourmet!

Of course, with so many options on the table, one can't help wondering where to start. While planning your time here, consider that the street is divided into three sections: the lower section for antiques, the middle for boutiques, and the upper one for trendy design, gift shops, and dining. Explore at your pleasure!

Walking Tours in Charleston, South Carolina

Create Your Own Walk in Charleston

Create Your Own Walk in Charleston

Creating your own self-guided walk in Charleston is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Historical Houses Tour

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Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.3 Km or 2.7 Miles
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Downtown Religious Sites Tour

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Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.3 Km or 0.8 Miles
French Quarter Walking Tour

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A historic district in downtown Charleston, The French Quarter is named so for the high concentration of French merchants that once lived in the area and left their mark on it. The name was coined in 1973, when preservation efforts began for warehouse buildings on the Lodge Alley block. That same year the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

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Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.6 Km or 1 Miles