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100 Things to Do in Charleston Before You Die

MORRIS ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE

the Old Charleston Light

Charleston is always colorful and forever charming. It’s easy to understand why residents (and visitors) never want to leave.” – Lynn + Cele Seldon, “100 Things to Do in Charleston Before You Die”

From kayaking alongside dolphins on Shem Creek to enjoying an evening out on the town at America’s first theatre, we’re sharing 25 of our favorite Charleston activities straight from the pages of the newly released book “100 Things to Do in Charleston Before You Die.” Scroll on to explore, then pick up your copy of the book (available online and locally at Blue Bicycle Books, The Shops of Historic Charleston Foundation, Preservation Society Book and Gift Shop, Charleston Library Society, Charles Towne Landing and Buxton Books) to discover 75 more bucket list worthy activities in the Lowcountry.

Discover our First-Timer’s Guide to Charleston and begin planning your getaway.

The Lowcountry features dozens of creeks and waterways best explored by kayak and other small boats. Mount Pleasant–based Coastal Expeditions makes it easy to go paddling—and more. Kayak tours feature naturalist guides, with frequent wildlife sightings including pelicans, dolphins, and ospreys, as well as the possibility of turtles and manatees.

Originally built back in 1767 as a 42-foot beacon at the southern end of Charleston Harbor, the Morris Island Lighthouse was replaced with a 102-foot version in 1838—which was destroyed during the Civil War. The current lighthouse was built in 1876, stands 161 feet tall, and was painted with black and white stripes over the original red brick (the black paint wore off more quickly, so it now appears red- and white-striped). Often referred to as the Old Charleston Light, it’s easy to have a look at the iconic lighthouse by heading to the eastern end of Folly Beach, where a quarter-mile trail leads to a beach that overlooks the lighthouse out in the water (now about two hundred yards offshore, depending on the tide). Several narrated boat tours also pass nearby.

The architecture and gardens of Charleston are a visual example of her ubiquitous Southern hospitality, and there is no better way to explore both than through a house and garden tour. The Historic Charleston Foundation Festival of Houses and Gardens makes it possible to tour more than 150 private residences and lush gardens during peak blooming season. Tours feature many homes each day—dating back to the eighteenth century through the antebellum and Victorian eras to the twentieth century—across a variety of neighborhoods to give a glimpse of what makes Charleston so special. Other events during the festival include history walking tours, plantation tours, luncheons and other culinary events, concerts and musical events, and the Charleston Antiques Show.

The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge is a cable-stayed bridge across the Cooper River that connects downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant. With a total length of 13,200 feet and a main span of 1,546 feet between two diamond-shaped towers, the eight-lane bridge sports a bicycle and pedestrian path along the south edge of the bridge. With stunning views of the historic Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, the path has become a playground for walkers, runners, and cyclists morning to night.

Rich in history and steeped in tradition, Charleston plantations are a window into what life was like in the pre–Civil War South. Boone Hall Plantation was a major cotton-producing estate covering more than 17,000 acres and, in addition to plantation and garden tours, it hosts compelling slave history and Gullah culture tours. A tour of Drayton Hall is more a study of its circa-1738 building design as one of the nation’s earliest examples of Palladian architecture. Home to the Drayton family and still owned by a twelfth-generation descendant, Magnolia Plantation is all about the informal English- style gardens and is the oldest public garden in America. Middleton Place combines many elements of plantation life and brings the house museum collections, geometric patterned-landscaped gardens, and artistry of craftspeople to life.

There may not be anything more “Charleston” than a classic carriage tour of historic downtown above and below Broad Street. Narrated tours with licensed guides on carriages led by horses (and occasionally mules) who seem to know the way provide a great introduction or reintroduction to Charleston’s history, culture, architecture, and more.

Charleston’s original Dock Street Theatre at the corner of Church Street and Dock Street (now known as Queen Street) opened in 1736 with a performance of The Recruiting Officer and was the first building in America built exclusively to be used for theatrical productions. After being destroyed in the Great Fire of 1740, it reopened in 1809 as the Planter’s Hotel and—after falling into disrepair after the Civil War—was converted back into a theater and reopened in 1937. Modeled after eighteenth-century London playhouses, the theater’s stage house and auditorium were built in the hotel’s courtyard. Another renovation in 2010 brought the historic theater into the twenty-first century, and it now houses many of the city’s finest cultural productions including Spoleto Festival USA and Charleston Stage, the resident professional theater group.

With an expansive coastline, South Carolina is home to an enormous population of sea turtles from spring to fall. And with that comes the issue of sick or injured turtles. Since 2000, the South Carolina Aquarium has been tending to the health and well-being of the state’s turtle population in its Sea Turtle Hospital. Visitors can be a part of the recovery efforts in the Sea Turtle Care Center and Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery. This experience brings the daily operations of the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of the turtles to the first floor, with five galleries showcasing each stage of recovery. Visitors can test their skills at triage, peer into the surgery room, come face to face with the patients, and be part of the care for these amazing endangered species.

A day on Folly Beach, just fifteen miles from downtown, is like a time warp and a throwback to simpler times. Snuggled on a narrow strip of land between the Folly River and the Atlantic Ocean, Folly Beach marches to its own tune with a laid-back vibe and friendly energy. With six miles of wide beaches, a one-thousand-foot fishing pier with a tackle shop and a full-service seafood restaurant, and an eclectic beach town community, it’s the perfect beach day trip. Whether you prefer sunning, surfing, and swimming or crabbing, fishing, or waterskiing, it can all be found beachside. And just a few steps from the beach, downtown Folly is full of funky shops, surf shops, casual cafés, seafood restaurants, and live music at every turn.

One of the nation’s oldest public markets and possibly the oldest “shopping mall” in the United States, the four-block-long Charleston City Market is a shopper’s delight and the true heartbeat of the city. With more than three hundred enterprising local vendors, the market starts in the Great Hall, an 18,300-square-foot corridor filled with micro-boutiques selling handmade wares, jewelry, art, stoneware and pottery, Charleston specialties, and tasty treats. The next three blocks are open-air sheds housing all kinds of evolving and eclectic finds, from sweetgrass baskets and palmetto roses (there are dozens of resident Gullah artists) to stoneground grits and everything in between for the perfect Charleston souvenir.

The nation’s bloodiest war began at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on the Union-held stronghold. This started the American Civil War. Fort Sumter is a unit of the National Park Service (NPS) and is located on a man-made island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter Tours is the official NPS concessioner operating the ferry service for the fort. Boat tours leave from downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant’s Patriots Point. All trips include a guided harbor tour, and trips typically last two hours and fifteen minutes, including an hour at Fort Sumter—where there is an extensive museum and store and national park rangers provide presentations.

With lots of Atlantic Ocean beachfront and waves just minutes from downtown, it’s not surprising that many companies offer surfing lessons throughout the area. From group lessons to private one-on- one tutoring for any level of surfer (including many first-timers), it’s easy to find the perfect lesson. The programs and offerings are quite varied, and it’s simply a matter of spending time online, on the phone, and possibly in person to find the best fit. Lessons may include video instruction, classroom time, beach work (learning how to paddle out, sitting and kneeling, standing up, and more), and time in the water (with in-water instruction and, often, gentle pushes to get you going). There’s nothing like that first time riding a wave—even if it’s just for a few seconds. Surf lessons are available at Folly Beach, the Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island, Kiawah Island, and Seabrook Island.

Located just a half hour or so west of downtown Charleston, the Caw Caw Interpretive Center is a wild world away from the hustle and bustle of the peninsula. Part of the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission system, the Caw Caw Interpretive Center’s grounds were once part of several rice plantations and a former tea farm. There are more than six miles of walking trails (pets and bikes not permitted), including elevated boardwalks through the wetlands and various exhibits and displays. Along with lots of waterfowl, otters, deer, alligators, and more, the Caw Caw property is known as a birding hot spot (including special bird-watching programs), with more than 250 species of birds calling it home—from warblers to kites to bald eagles.

Begun in 1977 as the USA’s version of Italy’s Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Spoleto Festival USA features seventeen days of widely varied performing arts programs each spring (beginning the Friday before Memorial Day). Offered in historic theaters, churches, outdoor spaces, and elsewhere, the performances encompass all types of music, theater, opera, dance, and more. Now one of the world’s top performing arts festivals, Spoleto has hosted more than two hundred world or American premieres featuring renowned performers and emerging artists. There are performances every day, with a concentration of events on weekends. Running over the same seventeen days, Piccolo Spoleto was created by the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs in 1979 as a complement to Spoleto Festival USA.

The Equestrian Center at Seabrook Island offers several unique ways to get horsey in the Charleston area. Seabrook Island is about forty-five minutes from downtown and is considered a classic Lowcountry island and beach. It has long been enjoyed as an ideal island getaway for locals and those from further afield. The Equestrian Center is best known for offering horseback rides on three miles of trails along the beach, for everyone from beginners to more advanced riders—making it a great way to get horsey on the beach. The Equestrian Center also offers pony rides and more to kids and families, leisurely guided trail rides, guided walking rides, advanced beach rights, and private lessons.

Situated on bucolic Lowcountry marshland near the Ashley River across from downtown, Charles Towne Landing marks the spot where a small group of English settlers landed in 1670 to begin the establishment of the Carolina colony. Now part of the impressive South Carolina State Parks system, the sprawling state historic site devoted to early South Carolina Colonial history features a visitor center with a twelve-room exhibit hall and hands-on exhibits, a self-guided history trail (nicely narrated audio tours available), the Adventure (a replica of the seventeenth-century trading ship used by the first settlers), the Animal Forest natural habitat zoo, burial sites and cemeteries, and sprawling gardens that include a stunning live oak allée and the Legare-Waring House, which is a classic representation of an antebellum plantation home and a popular wedding site.

Rodney Scott already had a loyal following at his original whole hog ’cue joint up in Hemingway, South Carolina, but the opening of his Charleston location brought thousands more into his devoted pigpen. Scott and his crew still smoke whole hogs overnight over chopped wood, and you can smell the restaurant blocks before you get to its Upper King address north of downtown. The meat is hand- chopped and served on a sandwich with one side or as a platter with two sides. Scott is serious about his scratch-made sides as well, including hush puppies, coleslaw, baked beans, mac and cheese, greens, and a veggie of the day.

Like shrimp and grits, many think of she-crab soup as a classic Charleston dish. Though versions of it can be traced to Scottish settlers in the South as early as the 1700s, legend has it that today’s Charleston she-crab soup was created by Mayor Goodwyn Rhett’s butler at the John Rutledge House during one of several visits by President William Howard Taft. Today, varied recipes can be enjoyed at many Charleston-area restaurants, but many longtime residents swear by the she-crab soup and historic setting served up at 82 Queen. There’s lots of butter and cream involved, but it’s the crab roe (eggs), crab meat, fish stock, sherry, and whipped sherry cream that give this dish nearly holy status in the Holy City.

With so many historic churches in the Holy City, attending Sunday services is a big thing. But Sunday brunch is almost bigger. Some would even say it’s a religion. And the Sunday gospel brunch at Hall’s Chophouse is the consummate place to worship. The local gospel choir, the Plantation Singers, performs every Sunday, and its soulful sounds and classic Southern hymns help to preserve the spiritual and sacred music of the Gullah community and the Lowcountry. And it’s the perfect accompaniment to Hall’s upscale and refined Southern brunch, featuring classics like she-crab soup, fried green tomatoes, oysters Rockefeller, creative omelets, varied Benedicts, shrimp and grits, and Southern sweet baked potato pancakes—all of it served up with some of the most gracious hospitality in all of Charleston.

On the menu since Valentine’s Day, 1997, the twelve-layer Peninsula Grill Ultimate Coconut Cake® is another Charleston classic. The five-inch-tall, twenty-five-pound cake is actually two cakes cut into three layers each, with fluffy filling, cream cheese icing, and toasted coconut pressed into its sides, delivering decadent bites without being too sweet or coconut-y. Along with starting the evening in the restaurant’s intimate Champagne Bar, a slice of coconut cake provides the perfect ending to a meal at Peninsula Grill. INSIDER'S TIP: Peninsula Grill ships whole coconut cakes to loyal fans near and far.

About twenty miles south of Charleston lies Wadmalaw Island and the Charleston Tea Plantation. With its sandy soils, subtropical climate, and average rainfall of fifty-two inches per year, Wadmalaw hosts the perfect conditions for the Camellia sinensis tea plant originally brought over from China. Used to produce both black and green teas, this tea plant covers 127 acres of the plantation and is used to create nine different Charleston Tea Plantation brand flavors, including its original American Classic Tea. As part of the Bigelow Tea Company, Charleston Tea Plantation sells its own tea bags, loose tea, bottled teas, and gift items, as well as offering plantation trolley tours, factory tours, and exclusive tours with the founder, tea maker, and tea taster, William Barclay Hall.

The tasting-menu-only experience at McCrady’s Restaurant is like a love letter to Charleston from James Beard Foundation Award winner Sean Brock. It’s a twenty-two-seat concept with two seatings a night, and it features more than a dozen ever-changing small dishes, wine pairings, occasional caviar add-ons, and more. It’s a relatively expensive evening by almost any standard, but dishes like the “beet leather bark” with cocoa and lime, various uses of aged beef and Southern sides, and multiple colorful desserts make it a bucket list evening for fans of Sean Brock and contemporary Southern cuisine with deep-reaching roots.

One of the tastiest and most efficient ways to take a big bite out of the Charleston food and drink scene is at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. Annual highlights of more than one hundred possibilities include opening night, highlighting the cuisine of more than thirty-five local chefs; the Culinary Village in Marion Square (great for sampling lots of varied foods and beverages); many signature dinners pairing local and visiting chefs with wineries and wines or other beverages; seminars on wine and other beverages; Shucked (an oyster roast); and much more.

Founded in 1988, the Charleston Farmers Market has grown into a Saturday city tradition that now includes more than one hundred varied vendors and other participants. It’s open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. from early April to late November. The Charleston Farmers Market features lots of local produce, plants, herbs, cut flowers, meats, breakfast and lunch vendors, coffee purveyors, live music, juried arts and crafts from local artisans, and more.

Park Circle is one of the most up-and-coming neighborhoods in Charleston, and the area has become a dining melting pot. Created as one of South Carolina’s first planned communities, this North Charleston community is now host to more than a dozen ethnic and specialty food restaurants. Whether dinner calls for modern Mexican at Mixson Grille, pub grub at sports bar DIG in the Park, pizza at EVO (Extra Virgin Oven), Italian at Fratellos Italian Tavern, or New Orleans fare at LoLA, there is something for everyone. And don’t even get us started on the Vietnamese at Lotus, Irish grub at Madra Rua Irish Pub, burgers at Sesame Burger, Mediterranean fare at Stems & Skins, or traditional ’cue at the Barbecue Joint. Park Circle will have you salivating for more.