French Quarter Walking Tour, Charleston

French Quarter Walking Tour (Self Guided), Charleston

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 forms part of Charleston’s original walled city, and is bounded by the Cooper River on the east, Broad Street on the south, Meeting Street on the west, and Market Street on the north. It was settled as part of the original Grande Modell of Charles Towne in 1680.

Charleston's French Quarter is home to many fine historic buildings, such as the Pink House Tavern, built around 1712, the Dock Street Theatre, arguably the first site of theatrical productions in the United States, and St. Philip's Episcopal Church, the first congregation in Charleston, whose current structure dates to 1835. St. Philip's graveyard is the final resting place of Edward Rutledge, the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence, and U.S. Senator and Vice President John C. Calhoun.

Also in the French Quarter you will find the 19th-century City Market, selling clothing, crafts, and artwork, with the Confederate Museum in the old Market Hall. Another popular location frequented by locals and visitors alike is Waterfront Park on the Cooper River.

For a more detailed acquaintance with the most important attractions in Charleston's historic French Quarter, follow this self-guided walking tour.
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French Quarter Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: French Quarter Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Charleston (See other walking tours in Charleston)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.6 Km or 1 Miles
Author: alice
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Charleston County Courthouse
  • Hibernian Hall
  • Gibbes Museum of Art
  • Historic City Market
  • The Powder Magazine
  • St. Philip's Church
  • Dock Street Theater
  • Pink House Gallery
  • The Rooftop @ The Vendue
  • Waterfront Park
Charleston County Courthouse

1) Charleston County Courthouse

This Neoclassical building in Charleston was a likely model for Irish architect, James Hoban's most famous building, the U.S. White House, and both buildings are modeled after Leinster House, the current seat of the Irish Parliament in Dublin. George Washington liked the look of this place so much that he summoned the architect to Philadelphia, PA, in June 1792. The following month, Hoban was named the winner of the design competition for the presidential mansion in D.C.

An operational courthouse and museum wrapped into one, it makes for a nice short historical visit. The free self-guided tour is easy with tidbits of information given by the security guards. History echoes throughout, with original life-size paintings portraying patriots including President George Washington, Andrew Jackson and many other famous Americans.

The Declaration of Independence was read to Charlestonians from a second-floor porch facing Meeting Street, which unfortunately was lost to the ravages of time, but the law library is still in place and especially inviting, with wood panels, brass railings, and wall to ceiling leather-bound books in glass cases.

For history lovers this is a must-see.

Make sure to walk into the bathroom which is retro and immaculate.
Hibernian Hall

2) Hibernian Hall

Despite the ravages of the Civil War, the periodic destruction caused by city-wide fires, and the disastrous earthquake of 1886, a surprisingly large number of Charleston's public buildings survived, including the Hibernian Hall, a Greek Revival structure designed for the Irish Hibernian Society, which held the first St. Patrick's Day parades in the U.S.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1973, the hall is nationally significant for its use during the 1860 Charleston Convention, in which the Democratic Party, divided by opinions on slavery, failed to select a presidential nominee, ensuring victory for the anti-slavery Republican Party and its candidate, Abraham Lincoln, in the 1860 presidential election.

The building is often used for wedding receptions today, its glorious three-story rotunda with dual staircases leading to the ballroom allowing for a grand entrance of the bridal party, especially when led by a bagpiper, a Hibernian tradition.
Gibbes Museum of Art

3) Gibbes Museum of Art

After moving to its present address in the Beaux Arts building at 135 Meeting Street in 1905, the amazing Gibbes has earned a reputation as one of the finest museums of its kind. It houses a premier collection of over 10,000 fine art pieces, principally American works, from colonial through contemporary, many with a connection to Charleston and the South.

The renovation of the 1st floor features an engaging creative education center, a café and a museum store, while the rear reception area opens to the garden, part of Charleston's historic Gateway Walk founded by the Garden Club. Serving as a creative gathering place for the community, the entire ground floor of the museum is admission-free.

The newly expanded and renovated galleries on the 2nd and 3rd floors provide a showcase for more than 600 works of art from the permanent collections, including the work of numerous artists with ties to Charleston: Henrietta Johnston, Mary Roberts, Charles Fraser, William Melton Halsey, Ned I.R. Jennings and Jeremiah Theus.

Of particular interest is the renowned collection of more than 300 miniature portraits that are housed in innovative display cases and open storage cabinetry to allow an up-close view for visitors. Other collections feature paintings, prints, sketches, photographs, sculpture, ceramics and furnishings and works by African-American artists, many from Charleston/SC.

Why You Should Visit:
To enjoy a charming "stroll" through art while experiencing surprising/unfamiliar artworks and learning something new. Garden concerts in the spring and fall are particularly fun, and the "Gibbes on the Street" event in April/May is unmissable.

Catch one of the many rotating exhibitions here when you're in town – you'll be in for a treat.

Opening Hours:
Mon, Tue, Thu-Sat: 10am-5pm; Wed: 10am-8pm; Sun: 1-5pm

One-Hour Public Tours (free with paid admission):
Tue, Fri: 12:30pm, Wed: 6pm, Thu, Fri & Second Sundays: 2:30pm
Historic City Market

4) 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
The Powder Magazine

5) The Powder Magazine

The Charleston Powder Magazine is a former gunpowder store, used for centralized storage of munition during the American Revolutionary War. For this purpose, the single-story, square, windowless structure was designed to implode rather than explode in the event of a direct hit.

Its stuccoed brick walls, each boasting a large arch, get thinner as they reach the top of the arch, changing from three feet thick, near the ground, to just a few inches thick near the top. There are also few doors in the building, so that in the event of an explosion, most of the explosive force would exit through the roof, with the arches acting like funnels. Sand stored in the roof would then smother and put out the fire.

Construction of the building was authorized by the Province of Carolina in 1703, during Queen Anne's War, as part of a series of fortifications, and was completed in 1713, which makes it the oldest surviving public building in the former Province and the only one remaining from the days of the Lords Proprietors.

Throughout its history the building had served a variety of purposes, including as a wine cellar for Gabriel Manigault. As of 1902 it has been operated as a museum by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, showcasing historic artifacts and displays about the building during the Colonial and American Revolution periods.

It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972 and was officially declared as such in 1989.

If you're interested in military, medieval, or colonial history, this is well worth a 30- or 45-minute stop.

They have a cool gift shop that's specially themed for pirate lovers – check it out.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 10am–4pm; Sun: 1–4pm
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
St. Philip's Church

6) St. Philip's Church

Charleston's second most prominent church, St. Philip's was erected in the 1830s, but its Anglican congregation is a bit older than that of St. Michael's. With a pedigree dating back to the colony's fledgling years, the sublimely beautiful sanctuary – "a building of the highest quality and sophistication" – and two historic graveyards await you in the heart of the French Quarter. The church's imposing tower, designed in the Wren-Gibbs tradition, justifies the National Historic Landmark status.

In the 18th century, this was where Charles Pinckney, a principal writer and signer of the Constitution, a US senator, governor, and minister to Spain worshiped; his grave can be found in the cemetery. Also there is the grave of founding father Christopher Gadsden who designed the famous Gadsden flag bearing the picture of a coiled snake and the words, "Don't tread on me". Moving on to the 19th century, St. Philip's was the church home of US senator, vice-president, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun, who was instrumental in advancing the theory of states' rights. After his death in 1850, he was buried in the former "stranger's churchyard" behind the church; however, with the outbreak of the Civil War, his body was moved to the portion of the cemetery across the street. Eventually, the state of South Carolina erected a huge monument at his grave-site extolling his numerous accomplishments.

Why You Should Visit:
One of South Carolina's most photographed buildings! The iconic, well-maintained graveyard surrounding it is also a must when walking through the neighborhood – the dates on the grave markers are astounding.

Be sure to stop across the street at the historically-affiliated French Huguenot Church; both buildings have amazing histories and architecture!

Opening Hours (free admission):
Mon, Tue, Thu: 8:30am–4:30pm; Wed: 8:30am–4:30pm / 5:30–7pm; Fri: 8:30am–1pm; Sun: 8:15am–12pm
Dock Street Theater

7) Dock Street Theater

The first North American theatrical production happened in Charleston in January 1735, when a nomadic troupe performed Thomas Otway's "The Orphan" in the city's courtroom. The play's success led to the building of the Dock Street Theater, which reopened for the third time in 2010, after a three-year, $19 million restoration. It definitely has an artsy feel with its French influences, as it stares across the street at the Huguenot Church, and is almost in the shadow of St. Philip's.

In addition to a very active and well-regarded annual season from the resident stage company, the venue has hosted countless events of the Spoleto Festival over the decades and continues to do so. The wonderfully restored interior is worth checking out whether or not you come see a show; just go into the lobby and ask to have a look around.

Why You Should Visit:
Just walking around the area is worth the trip (pure Charleston!), but this actually is a charming, snug (seats about 500), warm (lots of woodwork) and overall remarkably comfortable theater, with acoustics that are easy on the ears. Also a great bathroom break spot if you're exploring the French Quarter on foot.

Box Office Hours:
Mon-Fri: 1–5pm; Sat 1:00pm–curtain, only on performance days
Box Office will open 1hr before each performance
Pink House Gallery

8) Pink House Gallery

Not to be confused with the Olde Pinke House restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, this historic house, professed to be the oldest masonry residence in Charleston, and the second oldest in the country, was built between 1694 and 1712 from 18-inch-thick Bermuda Stone – a coral stone hailing from West India, which gave it a natural pink tone. The tile gambrel roof dates to the 18th century, when the building was a tavern (quite possibly with a brothel upstairs) for sailors and pirates coming through Charleston's port in search of "whiskey, wenches, and wittles". Today, it features an art gallery that offer landscapes, florals, Charleston scenes, and wildlife in both originals and fine art reproductions.

The Pink House is also the exclusive venue for traditional plantation prints, the antique photographs of well known turn of the century photographer George W. Johnson, and the paintings and prints of Florida artist Anne Clanton Thomas.

Why You Should Visit:
There aren't that many remaining cobblestone roads in town, and none can be better than the one here. Lovely setting!

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 10am-5pm + Sunday afternoons during spring/fall
The Rooftop @ The Vendue

9) The Rooftop @ The Vendue

Apart from staying guests, The Vendue Hotel lures in a regular crowd of cocktail-drinkers with a two-tiered rooftop experience, known as The Rooftop Bar. Charleston’s original drinking establishment, this place is not some ordinary rooftop bar of two levels, but rather a tale of two bars altogether.

Both levels encompass different, covered and totally open levels, with the entire environs enlivened by playful Pop-Art installations that will keep the Instagram generation snap-happy. Here, wooden decking and sun-shaded wicker furniture mixes with chic lighting and gleaming bar tops for an ultimate high-end rooftop adventure.

The built-in variety of two levels is a big draw, as are the sweeping views of the Charleston Harbor, Waterfront Park, The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, and other sights, providing a perfect setting for intersection of good company where locals and visitors converge for an al fresco lunch or refreshing drink in the lively socializing atmosphere.

The cocktail list is just quirky enough without being intimidating, while beers and wines run a reassuring gamut of international and local. As with the drinks, the food offering is also impressively diverse with a little extra.

Lovers of live music are welcome every Sunday, April through October.

You have to walk into the hotel and go up by elevator. Don't miss the opportunity to take a photo posing as the couple from American Gothic in the interactive display by the elevator doors. If you head for the bar's upper level, turn left immediately after getting off the elevator, then walk up the stairs.

Daily Opening Hours:
7 days a week for lunch and dinner: 11:30am–10:30pm
Happy Hour: Monday-Thursday, 4–7pm
Waterfront Park

10) Waterfront Park (must see)

Historically a center of maritime traffic housing several wharves and shipping terminals, the current Waterfront Park area just off the Cooper River has been regenerated in 1990 and received many design awards soon after, including the Landmark Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The park is composed of distinct sections. At the northern entrance, at the foot of Vendue Range (a street in Charleston), is a large fountain which anchors its end. From the fountain, Venue Wharf is a wide, wooden pier extending into the Cooper River and offering sheltered swings. The largest portion is made of two distinct sections – a dense canopy of oak trees that run along Concord St and Prioleau St for about a quarter-mile, and a 1,200-foot palmetto lined esplanade that follows the natural water line to ensure public access to the water's edge. In the middle of the grassy lawn is the famous Pineapple Fountain (picture required!), located immediately in front of the City Gallery and surrounded by trees and benches.

Pack a picnic lunch, sit on the benches, watch the cruise ships come and go, marvel at the enormous transport ships entering one of the country's busiest ports, observe the sunset... and catch a breeze in the hot sun!

Why You Should Visit:
Beautiful, grassy spots to picnic, spectacular unobstructed views of Charleston Harbor, Ravenel Bridge, Patriots Point and Fort Sumter, a large fountain, a dense canopy of oak trees and many benches to engage in the art of people-watching. Sunrise and sunset are amazing almost every day, and you may even see dolphins here.

They have giant swing benches under a covered boardwalk along the dock area, where you may watch the harbor traffic.

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