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 / White Point Gardens
  • 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 to boot. If you take any walking tour, chances are you'll pass through it and it's very close to some of the best bars and restaurants. There is plenty of shade and seating to relax and people watch for a bit; it's also nice to see the "Father of our Country" honored here, and you can learn some history.

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. Unveiled in 1891, the memorial is 42ft. high and is inscribed with the names of important military battles. A statue of George Washington himself was eventually installed nearby in 1999.

Why You Should Visit:
The trees are amazing and you're going to feel very cozy in the fenced enclosure.
You can enter from three different streets to walk, sit, snap photos, and enjoy Charleston charm.

Best time of year to visit is the spring to see the blooming.
St. Michael's Church

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

St. Michael's Church, located at Broad and Meeting Streets, is the oldest surviving religious structure in Charleston, SC. It was built between 1751 and 1761 on the site of the original wooden church built in 1681 by St. Philip's Church, which was damaged in a hurricane in 1710. St. Michael's, part of the Charleston Historic District, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

The church shows the influence of London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which was designed in the 1720s. The walls are of brick that was stuccoed over and painted white; while the two-story portico was the first of its size in colonial America and features Tuscan columns. In the north wall is a 6 by 10-foot stained glass window donated to the church in 1898 as a copy of "Easter Morning" and using between 1,800-2,000 pieces, which was created by Louis Lederlie for Tiffany Studios.

The church houses a clock that strikes the hours and quarters, and change ringing bells dating from colonial times. These eight fabulous bells – cast in 1764 and recast in 1866, both times in London – are one of four sets in the Charleston area.

Adjacent to the church is St. Michael's Churchyard, the resting place of some famous historical figures, including two signers of the U.S. Constitution. You can wander at your leisure, so be sure to include it as part of your tour.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Thu: 9am–4pm; Fri: 9am–12:30pm; Sunday Worship: 8am, 10:30am, 6pm
Nathaniel Russell House

3) Nathaniel Russell House (must see)

Nathaniel Russell, a wealthy shipping merchant from Rhode Island, built this magnificent three-story, Federal-style, 9,600-square-foot rectangular townhouse in 1808. Today, it is recognized as one of America's most important Neoclassical structures. It was designated a National Landmark in 1960 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

The prestigious house was built to display Russell's prominence as one of the community's wealthiest citizens. Constructed of Carolina gray brick, the three-bay entrance front emphasizes height rather than width with the main living areas on the second and third levels. The first-story entrance front is dominated by the residence's grand entrance door.

There are three main rooms per floor, each of different geometric designs: a front rectangular room, a center oval room and a square room in the rear. 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 are among the most detailed in the city.

The second-floor oval drawing room is the most highly decorated and is where the women of the house retired to after dinner. Papered in 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 correct period, with many items being of Charleston origin.

To the south is a formal English garden with gravel paths, boxwood hedges and plants favored in the 19th century, while in the rear is the two-story slave quarters that housed many of the 18 slaves that lived and worked here.

Why You Should Visit:
Arguably the 'grande dame' of house museums, with many intricate details to both see and learn about. You'll be able to stroll through the beautiful gardens and nearby old graveyard before or after your visit.

Be sure to get there 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. For an extra fee, you can also gain admission to the sister Aiken-Rhett House farther uptown.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–5pm (docent-led tours begin at 10am; last tour: 4pm)
Calhoun Mansion

4) Calhoun Mansion (must see)

This is a good house tour option if you're looking for something a little more unusual. Not only is the house fully restored and architecturally fascinating, but it is also filled with an eclectic collection on ancient items and has been used for movies such as “The Notebook”!

Taking up a whopping 24,000 sq ft, the striking Italianate-designed building boasts 30+ opulent main rooms with 23 fireplaces and a ballroom with a 45 ft high ceiling. It was built in 1876 for George W. Williams, a prominent businessman, and 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, which currently is 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 woodwork and paneling are magnificent. No pictures inside are allowed, but the 35-minute tour is very informative and the grounds feature some charming garden spaces with statuary and fountains.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 11am–4:30pm (Dec-Feb); 11am–5pm (Mar–Nov)
The Battery / White Point Gardens

5) The Battery / White Point Gardens (must see)

Also known as the White Point Gardens for the mounds of oyster shells once piled over the point, the Battery is a very famous Charleston landmark that became a public park starting from 1837. Drenched in history and boasting dramatic views, it is named for a Civil War coastal defense artillery battery at the site, and stretches along the lower shores of the Charleston peninsula, bordered by the Ashley and Cooper rivers, which meet here to form the Charleston Harbor.

The park and its surrounding gardens, huge trees, grassy areas and walkway along the waterfront offer a romantic backdrop for couples and a pristine place for picnicking, playing ball and just plain relaxing. As a tourist destination, the Battery also is famous for its stately, mainly antebellum homes. Included among the grand houses are the Louis DeSaussure House (1 E Battery), the Roper House (9 E Battery), the William Ravenel House (13 E Battery), the Edmondston-Alston House (21 E Battery), the Charles Drayton House (25 E Battery), the George Chisholm House (39 E Battery), the Villa Margherita (4 S Battery), the William Washington House (8 S Battery), the Col. John A.S. Ashe House (26 S Battery), the James Spear House (30 S Battery), and the Col. John Ashe House (32 S Battery). Fort Sumter is visible from the Cooper River side.

Why You Should Visit:
While walking from the center of town to the Battery, there is no shortage of sights to see. The park also offers plenty of seating in the shade to relax or stroll past cannons, mortars, piles of shot, and statues of military heroes.

There are hardly any public restrooms here, so be sure to take care of business before going on a stroll ;)

Opening Hours:
24/7, no entry fee
Edmondston-Alston House

6) Edmondston-Alston House (must see)

One of Charleston's grandest and oldest historic houses, the three-story Edmondston-Alston House was built between 1820-28 with a panoramic view of Charleston Harbor and the High Battery, the city's well-known waterfront promenade. Made of brick and stucco-faced, it is mostly surrounded by a wrought-iron railing fence built on top of a 3ft brick wall.

The front staircase leads to the two drawing rooms on the 2nd floor, with small rooms behind them that once served as withdrawing spaces – one for men and the other for women. Notable also on that level are the 14ft-high ceilings with large window and door openings (for good air flow circulation during summer), and a room of books for library use and reading.

The English Regency-style, Greek Revival house was constructed by shipping merchant Charles Edmondston, a Scottish immigrant who purchased the low sandy lot in 1817, which was made fit for residential construction as soon as a sea wall was built by city officials in 1820. Edmondston wasted no time in building his showplace; additionally, the property originally contained a kitchen and servants' quarters, horse stables and facilities for carriages.

Why You Should Visit:
This house is made special by the fact 90-95% of the décor and fixtures are authentic. It has been so well maintained that little restoration has been needed. The guided tour – a unique opportunity to peer into the homes lining the Battery – is definitely worth taking and the price is reasonable for the perspective it offers on what life was once like in Charleston.

Opening Hours (Guided Tours):
Tue-Sat: 10am–4:30pm; Sun, Mon: 1–4:30pm
Rainbow Row

7) Rainbow Row (must see)

Rainbow Row is the name for a series of 13 colorful historic houses in Charleston, SC. A popular tourist attraction and one of the most photographed sights of the South, it represents the longest cluster of Georgian row houses in the United States. These houses – most dating from 1730 to 1750 – were originally right on the Cooper River, their lower stories serving as storefronts on the wharf. The street was created later on top of landfill, or "made land" as it's called locally.

The name "Rainbow Row" was coined after the pastel colors that the houses were painted as they were restored in the 1930s/'40s. Common myths include variants on the reasons for the paint colors: some are suggesting that intoxicated sailors coming in from port could better remember which houses they were to bunk in, while in other versions, the buildings' colors date from their use as stores; others say that they were used so that owners could tell illiterate slaves which building to go to for shopping. Each house has an interesting story to tell about its origin, its inhabitants and its renovation.

Why You Should Visit:
From fires to flooding to hurricanes to the Civil War and so on, these homes have somehow remained intact and still stand. A must stop photo op!

If you look closely, you can see where renovations have been done to keep the standing, including earthquake rods that run through the structure.
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

8) Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon (must see)

There's a lot of history in Charleston, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, and lot of history was written in the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon at 122 East Bay Street. Also known as the Custom House and The Exchange, the building was constructed between 1767-71 and has served a variety of civic functions over the decades, including notably as a prisoner of war facility operated by British forces during the American Revolutionary War and as the site of the South Carolina convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788. In 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 served as a USO facility and canteen for troops and as the Coastal Picket Station for the Sixth Naval District of the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1965, the Half-Moon Battery, a 1698 fortification, was discovered underneath the building. How's that for history?

Designated a National Historic Landmark, the building is now a museum operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who operate guided costumed tours of all its floors. This includes the Provost Dungeon, which once told animatronic stories of pirates and colonial days, now supplanted by personal dungeon tours by docents. The experience is as entertaining as it is educational, explaining the history of the building and Charleston – and the ghost of Isaac Haynes.

Why You Should Visit:
If seeing a real dungeon is high on your to-do list, this is a must, as the guided dungeon tour is intriguing and the best part of the experience. The property's history is fascinating, too, and there are some fun activities to engage with, such as signing the Declaration of Independence and get the feel for what it was like to be in the building back in the 1700s.

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

9) Old Slave Mart (must see)

Charleston is a history buff's favorite destination for several reasons: from Civil War, Revolutionary War and World War II history to the many historic sites, plantations, houses and cemeteries. One of the most unique and significant historic sites is the Old Slave Mart at 6 Chalmers Street, which in the mid-1800s housed an antebellum slave auction gallery.

Constructed in 1859, the building is believed to be the last extant slave auction facility in SC and was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its role in Charleston's African-American history. The space originally consisted of a four-story slave jail, a kitchen and a morgue (or "dead house"). Since 1938, it houses the Old Slave Mart Museum, which interprets the city's slave trade past and includes an interview of a former slave who relates his experience from slavery to emancipation.

The Old Slave Mart, which originally was part of a slave market known as Ryan's Slave Mart and covered a large enclosed lot between Chalmers and Queen Streets, is a 67-foot by 19-foot brick structure with a stuccoed facade. The Gothic Revival, Romanesque building originally contained one large room with a 20-foot ceiling. The arched entryway originally held an iron gate, which was replaced by simple doors in the late 1870s but has been retained today. Slave auctions were held at the site from 1856 to 1863. For those who note that slave quarters have long since been demolished at nearly all antebellum plantations, the site of the Old Slave Mart is a sobering, realistic and educational look into the nation's past.

Why You Should Visit:
Highly informative museum, with extremely knowledgeable staff that's more than capable of responding to questions that the various exhibits will undoubtedly raise in your mind. Exhibits are related to both the transcontinental slave trade and the domestic slave trade, with numerous large storyboards, personal stories, and some artifacts. You'll see the shackles slaves wore, the whips they were beaten with, and even a deed of sale for auctioned slaves.

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

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 9am–5pm
French Huguenot Church

10) French Huguenot Church

One of the oldest congregations in Charleston, the French Huguenot Church also has the distinction of being the only remaining independent Huguenot church in the country. Founded in the 1680s, it had about 450 congregants by 1700. The original sanctuary was built in 1687, but was deliberately destroyed as a firebreak during the great conflagration of 1796. The church was replaced in 1800, but that building was in turn demolished in favor of the picturesque stucco-coated Gothic Revival sanctuary you see today, which was completed in the mid-1800s.

As Protestants in predominantly-Catholic France, Huguenots faced persecution throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, many Huguenots fled France for various parts of the world, including Charleston. The city's early congregation included many of these refugees, and their descendants continued to play a role in the church's affairs for many decades. The church was originally affiliated with the Calvinist Reformed Church of France, and its doctrine still retains elements of Calvinist doctrine. Services still follow 18th-century French liturgy but are conducted in English, although since 1950, an annual service has been conducted in French to celebrate the spring.

Why You Should Visit:
Docents are usually on duty to provide a short tour and oral history at your request. The tour is as much about the surprising Huguenot influences in early America as it is about the church itself. The old organ, the Gothic ceiling, the external buttresses are all worth a good look. There is no admission or tour charge but they are glad to take donations for the preservation of the building.

Church Tours (Spring/Fall):
Mon-Thu: 10am–4pm; Fri: 10am–1pm
Circular Congregational Church

11) Circular Congregational Church

A U.S. National Historic Landmark, the parish house of the Circular Congregational Church, designed by Robert Mills in 1806, combines two powerful forms: the circle (i.e. exterior plan), reminiscent of the original 17th-century church and universal symbol of eternity and wholeness, and the Greek Cross (i.e. interior plan), the Christian symbol of death and resurrection.

What Robert Mills – Charleston's leading architect, also responsible for the Washington Monument in D.C. – designed was a Pantheon-type building 88 feet (27 m) in diameter with seven great doors and 26 windows. On its main floor and in the gallery, the church was said to accommodate 2,000 worshipers. The first major domed building in N America, it was described by one observer in 1818 as "the most extraordinary building in the U.S." However, some made fun of the fact that it lacked a steeple and for years laughed at the rhyme: "Charleston is a pious place/ And full of pious people/ They built a church on Meeting Street/ But could not raise the steeple." The people of Circular Church, as it was now popularly called, stopped the laughter in 1838 by raising a New England-style steeple that towered 182 feet (55 m) above Meeting Street.

The current church building (3rd on its site), built in the Richardsonian Romanesque beginning in 1890, is not circular, but of a modified cloverleaf design, and continues to be known as the Circular Church. A magnificent piece of history!

Why You Should Visit:
Definitely a one-of-a-kind sanctuary, and an excellent venue for various musical events throughout the year.

Check out their website for events! Make sure to also stroll through the historic graveyard surrounding the church on three sides; even though time has done what time does, plenty of tombstones are still in great condition.
Confederate Museum

12) Confederate Museum

Market Hall, which has housed the Confederate Museum since 1899, is a dignified, restored Greek Revival-style building consisting of one raised story resting atop a rusticated open ground-level arcade. Its portico contains four Roman-style Doric columns that support the entablature/pediment and is accessed by a double flight of stairs with elaborate iron work.

Built in 1841 as a copy of the Temple of the Wingless Victory in Athens, Greece, the structure has been described as being of the "highest architectural design quality". Its original purpose, which is still upheld today, was to act as a front entrance to the six blocks of roofed market space attached where fruits, meats, vegetables and fish were sold.

In 1899, the United Daughters of the Confederacy began using the Hall's 2nd floor to house the Confederate Museum, which displays Confederate artifacts and other memorabilia from Charleston's Civil War period. See cannons, uniforms, battle flags, swords, even South Carolina's secession flag. It doesn't compare to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA, but it does showcase a surprising amount of very interesting relics. And the building is a masterpiece of architecture.

When visiting the museum, don't forget to read the newspapers showcased inside, as they will give you a different perspective of the Civil War. Might want to bring a flashlight, too, as there is barely any electricity inside!

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sat: 10am–4pm
Historic City Market

13) Historic City Market (must see)

Any tour of Charleston, SC, has to include the historic City Market at 188 Meeting Street. Established in the 1790s, it stretches for four city blocks from the architecturally-significant Market Hall (the temple-like structure that now houses the Confederate Museum) through a continuous series of one-story market sheds, the last of which terminates at East Bay Street. Home to a number of African American entrepreneurs and vendors during its heyday, the complete complex, which covers 33 acres, was declared a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Today, dozens of vendors sell souvenirs and other items ranging from clothing to jewelry to chocolates to artwork to Gullah sweetgrass baskets; other highlights include pictures and paintings of local sites, one of Callie's Hot Little Biscuit restaurants, Carolina Rice, Carolina tea, and so much more. You may as well plan for a few hours as the area around the market has lots of great stores, ice cream shops and restaurants. Fun for the whole family!

Why You Should Visit:
To sift from booth to booth and discover some real local crafting.
Good place to visit on a rainy day since it is covered and an overall reliable attraction.

Make sure to check out the Night Markets on weekends.
Bring your credit cards and plenty of cash – and ask for a deal if you pay cash.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9:30am–5pm; Night Market: Fri, Sat: 6:30pm–10:30pm
King Street

14) King Street

As well as being the second most historically and architecturally significant street in downtown Charleston, after Meeting Street, King Street and its surroundings is the city's most happening area, where past and present meet. More than three centuries old, the thoroughfare was named for King Charles II of England and soon thrived as a retail corridor, commercial center, and main shopping district, hosting a variety of high-end specialty shops.

Do you like upscale? If not to shop, then just to look? A stroll along this street's pedestrian-friendly sidewalks takes you by unique and handmade jewelry shops, galleries of fantastic local artists and artisans, antiques, gift shops, shoes, and fine clothiers. Many stores still "dress" their window displays like in the old days, but there's also no shortage of trendy restaurants and cool little coffee/dessert shops to stop and take a break (see if you can find Gullah Gourmet!).

Of course, with so many options, where does one start? While planning your time here, consider that it the street is divided into three districts: lower King for antiques, middle for cool boutiques, and upper for trendy design, gift shops, and dining.

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.
Downtown Religious Sites Tour

Downtown Religious Sites Tour

Charleston is also sometimes called the Holy City. That is because it is the home of a large number of churches. The city has many outstanding and fascinating religious structures. Take this self guided walk to see the most popular churches in Downtown Charleston.

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.3 Km or 0.8 Miles
Historical Houses Tour

Historical Houses Tour

Charleston is steeped in history. Walking the colorful, narrow cobblestone streets of one of America's oldest towns, with its stunningly preserved colonial homes, you can see its story play out before your eyes practically everywhere you turn. Indeed, Charleston is among the most celebrated places in the U.S. to explore fine examples of American architecture and its progression through time.
...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.3 Km or 2.7 Miles
French Quarter Walking Tour

French Quarter Walking Tour

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.

The busy neighbourhood...  view more

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

Harleston Village Walking Tour

First established in 18th century, Harleston Village is an old and popular neighborhood in Charleston. College of Charleston, one of the oldest universities in the country, was founded here in 1770. The area is dotted with Georgian and Italian architectural buildings. Among them, the former houses of John Rutledge and Edward Rutledge, two signers of Declaration of Independence, are beautifully...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.3 Km or 1.4 Miles