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
  • Powder Magazine
  • St. Philip's Church
  • Dock Street Theatre
  • Pink House
  • The Rooftop at The Vendue
  • Joe Riley Waterfront Park
1
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, with both buildings drawing inspiration from Leinster House, the current seat of the Irish Parliament in Dublin. George Washington was so impressed with its appearance that he summoned the architect to Philadelphia 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 experience. The free self-guided tour is made easy with tidbits of information given by the security guards. History echoes throughout, with original life-size paintings portraying prominent figures such as George Washington and Andrew Jackson.

While a second-floor porch, where the Declaration of Independence was read to Charlestonians, has been unfortunately lost to time, the law library remains intact and is a particularly inviting space, with wood panels, brass railings, and an impressive collection of leather-bound books in glass cases.

For history lovers, this is a must-see.

Tip:
Take a moment to explore the retro and impeccably maintained bathroom during your visit.
2
Hibernian Hall

2) Hibernian Hall

Despite the challenges posed by the Civil War, periodic city-wide fires, and the devastating earthquake of 1886, Charleston managed to preserve many of its historic public buildings. Among them is the magnificent Hibernian Hall, characterized by its grand Greek Revival architecture featuring imposing white columns. This hall was originally designed for the Irish Hibernian Society, known for organizing the first Saint Patrick's Day parades in the United States.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1973, the hall holds national significance due to its role 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.

Having served as a venue for countless debutante balls hosted by the Hibernian Society, the building is often used for wedding receptions today. Its glorious three-story rotunda, complete with dual staircases leading to the ballroom, provides an elegant setting for bridal parties to make a grand entrance, often accompanied by the stirring sounds of a bagpiper—a cherished Hibernian tradition.
3
Gibbes Museum of Art

3) Gibbes Museum of Art

After moving to its present address in the Beaux Arts building with an impressive stained glass cupola since 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.

Following a renovation of the first floor, the museum now houses a dynamic creative education center, a cafe, and a museum store, while the rear reception area opens up to a garden that is part of Charleston's historic Gateway Walk, an initiative founded by the Garden Club. The entire ground floor is open to the public without admission fees, serving as a creative community gathering place.

The recently expanded and renovated galleries on the second and third floors provide an exceptional platform for over 600 artworks from the permanent collections, including pieces from various artists associated with 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, displayed in innovative cases and open storage cabinets to allow an up-close view for visitors. Other collections feature paintings, prints, sketches, photographs, sculpture, ceramics, furnishings, and works by African-American artists, many of whom are from Charleston/South Carolina.

Why You Should Visit:
To enjoy a charming 'stroll' through art, exploring unexpected and unfamiliar artworks while gaining new insights. Garden concerts in the spring and fall are particularly fun, and the "Gibbes on the Street" event held in April/May is unmissable.

Tip:
Catch one of the many rotating exhibitions here when you're in town – you'll be in for a treat.
4
Historic City Market

4) Historic City Market (must see)

A visit to Charleston would be incomplete without exploring the Historic City Market. Established in the 1790s, it spans four city blocks, starting from the temple-like Market Hall, which now houses the Confederate Museum, and covers a vast 33-acre area.

In its prime during the early 20th century, the market provided a livelihood for thousands of African-American entrepreneurs and vendors. Today, it remains operational, with dozens of vendors offering a wide range of souvenirs and goods, including clothing, jewelry, chocolates, artwork, Gullah sweetgrass baskets, and regional keepsakes. Notable mentions go to Callie's Hot Little Biscuit, Carolina Rice, Carolina Tea, and other similar eateries. The surrounding area also has numerous shops, ice cream parlors, and restaurants, making it worthwhile to plan for several hours of exploration and enjoyment.

An excellent option for a rainy day visit since it offers shelter, the market allows you to browse comfortably, stay dry, and hopefully discover some great deals. While credit cards are accepted, it's advisable to carry some cash as you might receive discounts for cash payments. Additionally, from April through December, the Night Market hosts local artists and food vendors on weekends.

The entire market complex was declared a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
5
Powder Magazine

5) Powder Magazine

Just a few blocks away from the bustling market area lies, quite simply, the oldest public building in the Carolinas. Surprisingly, the Powder Magazine remains relatively unknown to tourists and even some locals, possibly because it doesn't share the same prominence as Charleston's opulent house museums and charming streetscapes. And in truth, this utilitarian stucture predates Charleston's legendary aesthetic charm, reflecting a time when the newly established English settlement prioritized self-defense and basic survival.

In the early 18th century, Charles Towne still faced threats from Spanish forces, hostile Indians, unruly groups of pirates, and occasional French attacks; it thus remained a walled city, fortified against unexpected assaults. In response to the governor's request for additional cannons and a secure supply of shot and gunpowder to "make Carolina impregnable", the Crown approved and funded the construction of the Powder Magazine in 1703. Its thick walls were designed to contain an explosion if its gunpowder stores were to detonate.

The Powder Magazine was overseen by the powder receiver, a newly appointed city official responsible for collecting a gunpowder tax levied on all merchant ships entering Charleston Harbor during this era. The building served its original purpose for many years but was eventually deemed unnecessary or too small, leading to its sale into private hands. A unique architectural structure, featuring multiple gables and a tile roof, it was almost forgotten by historians until the early 1900s when it was purchased by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of South Carolina.

Maintained and operated as a small museum until 1991, the structure suffered from water damage, roof deterioration, and the passage of time. The Historic Charleston Foundation, which leased the building from The Colonial Dames since 1993, undertook extensive restoration efforts. In the summer of 1997, the Powder Magazine was reopened to the public, featuring a new interactive exhibit that interprets Charleston's early years when it was still a relatively rudimentary colonial outpost of the British Empire. Next door, the privately owned Trott's Cottage, dating back to 1709 and considered Charleston's first brick dwelling, offers further historical context.

Tip:
They have a cool gift shop that's specially themed for pirate lovers – check it out.
6
St. Philip's Church

6) St. Philip's Church

Saint Philip's, Charleston's second most prominent church, was erected in the 1830s, but its Anglican congregation has an even older heritage than that of Saint Michael's. With roots tracing back to the colony's fledging years, the sublimely beautiful sanctuary – "a building of the highest quality and sophistication" – and two historic graveyards await your in the heart of the French Quarter. The church's imposing tower, designed in the Wren-Gibbs tradition, justifies the National Historic Landmark status.

Throughout the 18th century, this was the place of worship for notable figures such as Charles Pinckney, a key author and signer of the U.S. Constitution, as well as a U.S. senator, governor, and minister to Spain; his grave can be found in the cemetery. Also there is the grave of Christopher Gadsden, a founding father who designed the famous flag featuring a coiled snake and the words "Don't tread on me".

Moving into the 19th century, Saint Philip's became the spiritual home of senator, vice-president, and Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun, who was instrumental in advancing the theory of states' rights. After his death in 1850, he was initially interred in the former "stranger's churchyard" behind the church; however, with the onset of the Civil War, his remains were relocated to the portion of the cemetery across the street. Eventually, the state of South Carolina erected a huge monument at his gravesite extolling his numerous achievements.

Why You Should Visit:
One of South Carolina's most photographed buildings!
The surrounding well-preserved graveyard is a fascinating historical site filled with remarkable gravestones.

Tip:
Stop across the street at the historically-affiliated French Huguenot Church; both buildings have amazing histories and architecture!
7
Dock Street Theatre

7) Dock Street Theatre

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

Aside from hosting an active and highly regarded annual season by its resident stage company, the Dock Street Theatre has been the venue for numerous events during the Spoleto Festival over the decades and continues to do so. The wonderfully restored interior is worth checking out whether or not you plan to attend a show; simply step 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 and overall remarkably comfortable theater, with acoustics that are easy on the ears. Green velvet curtains and exquisite woodwork give it a New Orleans French Quarter feel. 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 1 hour before each performance
8
Pink House

8) Pink House

Distinct from the Olde Pinke House in Savannah, this picturesque abode, claimed to be the oldest masonry residence in Charleston and the second oldest in the nation, was constructed between 1694 and 1712 using 18-inch-thick Bermuda Stone, a coral stone originating from West India, which gave it an innate pink hue. Although it has been repainted since, the current color retains its distinctive character.

The building's architectural peculiarity is evident in its design, featuring low ceilings and just one room on each of its three floors. The roof, crafted from pantiles akin to those on the Powder Magazine, dates to the 18th century when the house functioned as a tavern (rumored to have had a brothel upstairs) catering to sailors, merchants, and pirates passing through Charleston's port in search of "whiskey, wenches, and wittles". You see, this area of Charleston, now fashionable, was once rather disreputable, known for rowdy nights.

The Pink House continued its role as a tavern throughout the 1700s until the neighborhood underwent revitalization, transforming into a predominantly residential area in the 1800s. Since then, the building has served various purposes, including as a publishing house, a law office, and the studio of the renowned Charleston artist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. For two decades, it also housed an art gallery.

Why You Should Visit:
There are few remaining cobblestone streets in town, and none are more delightful than the one found here. Lovely setting!
9
The Rooftop at The Vendue

9) The Rooftop at The Vendue

Apart from staying guests, The Vendue art hotel lures in a regular crowd of cocktail-drinkers with a two-tiered rooftop experience, known as The Rooftop Bar. Charleston's original watering hole, this place stands out from typical rooftop bars by offering not just two levels, but two distinct bars, with lovers of live music welcomed every Sunday from April through October.

Both levels feature different atmospheres, including covered and fully open areas enlivened by lively pop-art installations that are sure to keep the Instagram-savvy crowd snapping away. Wooden decking, sun-shaded wicker furniture, chic lighting, and gleaming bar tops create the perfect backdrop for an upscale rooftop adventure.

The dual-level setup is a big draw, as are the sweeping views of Charleston Harbor, Waterfront Park, The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, and other landmarks, providing an ideal setting for mingling with friends and fellow patrons over an al fresco lunch or refreshing drinks in a lively 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 to satisfy various tastes.

Why You Should Visit:
In addition to its breathtaking rooftop terrace and bar, the hotel provides a treat for art enthusiasts. Throughout the property, you'll find gallery spaces hosting rotating exhibitions curated by Robert Lange Studios, a respected local art gallery.

Tips:
To access the bar, you'll need to enter the hotel and take the elevator up. Don't miss the chance to take a photo in the interactive display near the elevator doors, where you can pose as the couple from the famous "American Gothic" painting. If you're headed to the upper-level bar, turn left immediately after exiting the elevator, and then walk up the stairs.
10
Joe Riley Waterfront Park

10) Joe Riley 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 thoughtfully divided into distinct sections. At the northern entrance, near the base of Vendue Range, you'll encounter a large fountain that serves as a prominent focal point. From the fountain, Venue Wharf is a wide wooden pier extending into the Cooper River, complete with sheltered swings. The largest portion consists of two prominent features: a lush canopy of oak trees lining Concord and Prioleau streets for about a quarter-mile, and a 1,200-foot palmetto-lined esplanade that gracefully follows the natural waterline, ensuring public access to the water's edge. Nestled within the expansive grassy lawn is the famous Pineapple Fountain (picture required!), located directly in front of the City Gallery and surrounded by trees and benches.

Pack a picnic lunch, relax on the benches, witness the cruise ships come and go, marvel at the colossal cargo ships entering one of the nation's busiest ports, and savor the breathtaking sunsets while catching a refreshing breeze on a sunny day.

Why You Should Visit:
Beautifully landscaped areas for picnics; spectacular unobstructed views of Charleston Harbor, the Ravenel Bridge, Patriots Point, and Fort Sumter; a magnificent fountain, a dense oak tree canopy, and numerous benches to engage in the art of people-watching. Sunrises and sunsets here are consistently stunning, and you might even spot dolphins here. There is no admission fee.

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