From kayaking to parasailing: 10 ways to experience Charleston's charm
Founded in 1670, Charleston, South Carolina, has “quaint” and “charming” written all over it. Pink azaleas line its cobblestone streets and Spanish moss hangs from hundred-year-old live oaks. Horse-drawn carriages aren't uncommon downtown. Like the tea it's known for, the city is simply steeped in history—from Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, to the antebellum architecture and pastel colors of Rainbow Row.
But Charleston is more than its past. Whether you're looking to spot alligators in rice fields or get down at a Lowcountry barn jam, the place is packed with lively activities. Here are 10 favorites.
1. Paddle the creeks
There aren’t many places in the world where you can see stunning views of nature and cityscapes all at once—from your kayak. Shem Creek, one of Charleston’s most popular channels, weaves through the city right out to the ocean. Home to lime kilns in the 1700s, industrial-era mills and factories in the 1800s, and shrimping sites in the 1900s, the creek has played a pivotal role in the area’s growth. Grab a paddle and hop in a kayak with Nature Outfitters or Coastal Expeditions. More than 5,000 coastal birds, including eastern brown pelicans and laughing gulls, nest here every year, and you can spot manatees, dolphins, and sea turtles in the water.
2. Be a sailor for a day
Charleston’s never-ending coastlines, winding waterways, and beach access around every turn have earned it a place among the country’s top regatta destinations. If you’re around in late April, check out thousands of sailors racing in the annual Charleston Race Week, a three-day sailing extravaganza that’s been happening for 20 years. If you’re itching to set sail on your own, sign up for lessons with Charleston Sail or Charleston Sailing School and Yacht Charter.
3. Spot alligators in rice fields
Hike and learn about antebellum history at Caw Caw County Park on Highway 17, just 15 miles south of downtown Charleston. The swampy site dates back to the 18th century, when slaves carved rice fields from the cypress swamps. Thousands of naturalized tea plants leftover from former plantations still grow here. Hike through 6 miles of swampy, forested trails and keep an eye out for the wildlife that lives in the wetlands, including otters, deer, American alligators, and bald eagles. Pause to read up on plantation life along the way—the trails are lined with educational exhibits.
4. Soar over the sand
Folly Beach is a Charleston hot spot, and it’s loaded with locals and tourists swimming and soaking up rays. But why stay grounded when the warm air and steady wind make it the perfect place to soar above the crowds? For the best aerial views, book a parasailing experience with Tidal Wave Sports. You'll get a sweet boat ride and a 10-minute flight 500 to 800 feet above the beach.
5. Walk through the “boneyard” beach trails
Escape civilization for a day at Edisto Beach State Park, located an hour south of Charleston in Colleton County. When tourists fill up the Charleston beaches, this area is often free of crowds and it has some great car camping spots. Walk along the shore at sunrise or sunset to snap dramatic photos of the area's "boneyard trees." Created by coastal erosion, these once living trees have been whitewashed by the sun and sand. Get a dose of history with a 2-mile hike to Spanish Mount, a Native American shell mound that dates back to 2000 B.C. The marshland habitat here almost guarantees that you'll also see deer, osprey, or bobcats. On your way out, check out the Edisto Mystery Tree where Hwy 174 intersects with Botany Bay Road. Adorned with generations of clothing that change with the seasons, this tree looks like a giant coat rack. No one knows who decorates it or who immediately replaced it after some troublemakers uprooted the original years ago.
6. Explore magnolia trees and swamp life
A visit to the Magnolia Plantation is a no-brainer on most Charleston itineraries. Owned by the Drayton family since 1676, it’s renowned as one of America’s oldest and most beautiful gardens. After the tour through the plantation's camellias, daffodils, and azaleas, don’t pass up the Audubon Swamp Garden, a commonly overlooked wildlife oasis. Tupelo and cypress trees seem to float on water there, and it has some of the best bird-watching around. Hundreds of egrets, waterfowl, and herons nest near the walking paths, bridges, and boardwalks that crisscross the black water swamp.
7. Sightseeing By Bike
Charleston is low, flat, sunny, beautiful—basically a paradise for anyone who loves a leisurely bike ride. Paved biking paths, waterfront trails, and bike-friendly bridges cover the city. Head to the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge for a 2.7-mile ride over the Cooper River with stunning water views in every direction. If you’re itching to get into the woods, drive about an hour north to the Francis Marion National Forest, where you can explore nearly 260,000 acres of flat coastal trails. Cross over salt marsh and cruise through the towering pine and oak forest on a 7-mile ride from the Buck Hall Recreation Area to the Awendaw Creek part of the Palmetto Trail.
8. Fill Up On Fried Food
A recent influx of young chefs has reinvigorated Charleston's already notable restaurant scene. Pop in for lunch at Slightly North of Broad, or SNOB, for updated spins on traditional Southern favorites, like fried catfish and shrimp and grits, all from local farms and served with coleslaw or Geechie Boy grits. For brunch, visit the Hominy Grill, located in a historic Charleston house on Rutledge Avenue. It’s been a popular Southern soul food spot since it opened in 1996, but the neighborly, home-cooked-pecan-pie vibe will make you feel like it’s been around for generations. It’s practically illegal to leave without consuming the Charleston Nasty, their signature fried chicken biscuit smothered in gravy.
9. Sweet Southern Tea Sipping
Get to the roots of southern sweet tea—literally—with a trip to Wadmalaw Island and Bigelow Tea Blender’s Charleston Tea Plantation, located just off Maybank Highway. Historic Wadmalaw Island, a 10-by-6-mile undeveloped strip of sandy soil, has the perfect subtropical conditions for growing Camellia sinensis, the evergreen shrub we call "tea." Visitors can explore America’s largest working tea garden, learn firsthand how the tea is made on a factory tour, ride on a trolley to view the sweet tea fields—all while consuming as much iced American Classic Tea (straight from the source!) as your caffeinated heart desires.
10. Barn Jammin' at Awendaw Green
A trip to Charleston isn’t complete without an evening spent like a Lowcountry local—and why not get your southern groove on while you’re at it? Any Wednesday night of the year, head to Awendaw Green, a laid-back music venue on the grounds of the Sewee Outpost Country Store just 15 miles north of Charleston. From 6-10 p.m., such diverse international artists as Otonana Trio, Cane Creek String Band and Bogan Mask play on stage in an old barn. You’ll spend the evening jammin’ out in the woods under string lights and grand oaks. Bring a cooler of your favorite local brew, like Holy City Brewing’s Pluff Mud Porter (pluff mud is a mix of dirt and water indigenous to South Carolina Lowcountry) or Palmetto Brewing’s Homefront IPA, and come ready to feast. You won’t be able to resist their fresh local oysters, seasonal grills, and wood-fired pizzas. Best of all, entry is free (with a suggested $5 donation).