French Quarter Walking Tour (Self Guided), Charleston

Follow this self-guided tour to explore the most important attractions in Charleston's historic French Quarter, named for the high concentration of French merchants who left their influence on the area, and home to the French Huguenot Church – the sole-surviving French Calvinist Congregation in the U.S. Sitting adjacent to the city's Waterfront Park, the Quarter is also famous for its many fine historic buildings (among them, the Pink House Tavern, built around 1712), art galleries, theaters, restaurants and places of commerce – not to mention that it's gorgeous at night!
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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)

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
The Powder Magazine

5) The Powder Magazine

This small, windowless structure identified as the "historic powder magazine" is the oldest surviving public building in the former Province of Carolina and the only one remaining from the days of the Lords Proprietors. Dating from the early 1700s, the brick structure had served as a place to safely store and centralize gunpowder during the Revolutionary War, and was designed to implode rather than explode in the event of a direct hit. In 1902, it was purchased by the local chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, which restored it and turned it into a small museum: an important moment in the city, for this was the first conscious effort to preserve an old building for purely historic reasons. Next door is the privately owned, circa-1709 Trott's Cottage, the first brick dwelling in Charleston.

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
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

The Rooftop Bar is a perfect setting for an al fresco lunch or after-work meeting spot to enjoy a refreshing cocktail. Enjoy live music every Sunday April-October and happy hour Monday-Thursday. The Rooftop is open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner, offering sweeping views of the Charleston Harbor, Waterfront Park, The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, and more. The energy rises on weekends when locals and visitors alike converge on The Rooftop for a fun lively evening of socializing.

You have to walk into the hotel and go up by elevator, but note that there are two levels to the bar: one mostly covered and one totally open. If you prefer the upper level, turn left immediately after getting off the elevator, then go up the stairs.

Daily Opening Hours: 11:30am–10:30pm
Happy Hour: Mon-Thu: 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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