Timeless Lowcountry Discovery

6 Must-See Historic Downtown Charleston Neighborhoods For Holy City Wandering
(Plus 3 Beyond the Boroughs)

Ready to get swept away by intoxicating charm? It doesn’t take much in the Holy City. Between the food, architecture, history, and hospitable folks drawling cheery “Hey yall’s,” you’ll feel like a local having a grand time with old friends. But deeper discovery awaits: the quaint neighborhoods spilling forth in glorious window box display (check out Insta #windowboxesofcharleston), impressive facades, discreet gardens, and majestic architecture.

Several neighborhoods boast renowned historic structures and attractions, others a bevvy of eateries, shops and bars, while tucked between homes in quieter areas you’ll spy the occasional corner grocer, coffee shop, or art gallery beckoning your keen eye inside. Otherwise known as boroughs, the personalities are as unique as the city itself — from stylish to traditional, casual to formal, established to burgeoning.  So slip on your walking shoes and visit these six must-see locales in our historic Charleston neighborhood guide, plus 3 more beyond the downtown boroughs.

Grab a copy of our Map Guide and follow along. Don’t forget your shades and sun hat!

Historic Downtown

See some of the most worthwhile sights along the South of Broad neighborhood streets.
The pineapple symbol of hospitality is a frequent embellishment along South of Broad’s charming streetscapes. ©Charleston Gateway

1. South of Broad

The subject of books and daydreams for fine Southern living, South of Broad is perhaps the most visited area on our list of must-see places in downtown Charleston. Home to The Battery, White Point Garden, and dozens upon dozens of exquisite architecturally detailed and historically significant houses, South of Broad is a shining example of why people love Charleston. Many of the city’s carriage tours focus on this neighborhood because of its rich history — entertaining and educational tours, well worth your time — but to truly see the neighborhood’s charming nuances, take an impromptu stroll.

Along the way you may notice an abundance of pineapple embellishments atop ivy laden gate posts. A symbolic adornment that began with seaman hundreds of years ago, the pineapple came to represent southern hospitality. Merchant sailors returning from the caribbean displayed a pineapple at their front door to announce they were home and receiving guests. The tradition continues throughout historic downtown, but is especially prevalent among the South of Broad homes.

Be sure to wander down brick and cobblestone paved alleys where secret gardens and palatial homes surprise at every turn. Take a walk on Lamboll’s wild side to glimpse the neighborhood’s most intriguing residents, a wandering guinea fowl flock. And don’t miss Legare Street for more elaborate — and pricey homes. The renowned c1803 Sword Gate house recently traded hands for a cool $10 million. Touting 9 bedrooms, 8 fireplaces, and 13 bathrooms in its 17,000 square feet, and once owned by Lincoln’s granddaughter, it is one of the highest selling private residences.

Grab one of Goat. Sheep. Cow’s fabulous daily sandwiches for your South of Broad sightseeing stroll.
Nothing says fresh like the French baguette from Goat.Sheep.Cow, perfect as a sandwich or with a charcuterie picnic. ©Charleston Gateway

Most eateries are within easy walking distance north of Broad Street, but if you’re looking for a quick and delicious solution to take on your stroll toward The Battery, grab the daily sandwich or charcuterie fixins at Goat.Sheep.Cow. If you’re lucky, they won’t have sold out of their fantastic French baguettes, baked and brought fresh daily to the tiny shop.

The best funky, casual and cheap brunch in downtown Charleston SC is at the Queen Street Grocery.
Follow the locals to Queen Street Grocery for some of the best crepes and breakfast wraps you’ll find downtown; linger at a sidewalk table or grab and go. ©Charleston Gateway

2. Harleston Village

Harleston Village is a quiet blend of stately mansions, small Charleston ‘singles’, a housing style that accommodates long, narrow lots. Why so narrow? When many of these homes were built, taxation was based upon street front footage; thus narrow frontage with long depth begat this commonly seen architectural style where the door facing the street is often a surprise entry to a long porch that is actually the front of the home, easily discerned by a second ‘front’ door. These porches served an essential second purpose — to capture cooling summer breezes when the heat and humidity are high.

Interspersed among the homes are corner markets, coffee shops and cafes. Second State Coffee pours some of the best cold press in town in a bright, minimalist setting. Queen Street Grocery is a funky Harleston Village favorite for breakfast and lunch; local art and murals adorn the walls, and the crepes are so incredible, on weekends locals typically wrap a line around the corner. Service is quick and waiting is as pleasant as the neighborhood is charming, especially when a carriage strolls past with an audible tour guide dishing scoop.

For a more substantial meal, check out 60 Bull Cafe where fantastic brunch offerings include mimosa carafes. En route you can’t miss the exquisite Wentworth Mansion, a grand 21-room boutique hotel in Charleston’s largest mansion.

Just down Queen Street is Colonial Lake. Built in 1869 for flood control, this man-made lake is abundant with Victorian charm. An ideal thing for couples to do in Charleston, it’s perfect for a leisurely walk or brisk jog; or rest on one of the many benches where you’ll see families strolling bonnet’d babies and teaching little ones to ride bikes or cast a rod.

One of Charleston’s must-see attractions is the old Charleston City Market in historic downtown.
©Brandon Bartoszek

3. French Quarter

Representing one of the most iconic districts in our must-see Charleston places to visit, the French Quarter is the perfect example of Charleston’s successful revival. Seamlessly blending the old with the new, the neighborhood features quaint cobblestoned streets — paved from ballast off early settler’s ships — coveted residences, stretches of art galleries, eclectic shops, restaurants, bars and the historic City Market — a timeless Charleston treasure.

A National Historic Landmark, the former 19th century meat and produce market still bustles as the city’s central city location for social gatherings and retail transactions. Spanning four blocks in Charleston’s old walled city, the architecturally significant Greek Revival arcade hall comprises one-story market sheds in continuous stretches, divided only by intersecting streets.

Open 365 days a year—as when it opened over 200 years ago—today’s City Market hosts dining and shopping diversity to please all ages and interests. Slurp local oysters off the shell at eateries lining North and South Market Street and up intersecting routes (ya gotta try Folly River, Beaufort and Bull’s Bay varieties), peruse galleries of fine local art, savor She-Crab soup (made famous by former Charleston Mayor Rhett’s butler, William Deas whose recipe includes the now banned roe from female crabs as an essential ingredient), snag a prized cultural handicraft (relying on a 300+ year old tradition, local Gullah artisans handcraft bulrush into durable Sweetgrass baskets), catch a horse-drawn carriage tour, take home some local flavor (Benne “Bantu” Wafers, Carolina Gold rice, and stone ground grits), pop up to a rooftop bar for creative cocktails and skyline steeple views, or simply stroll southern style—hoop skirt optional.

Living History

One of the must-see attractions in Charleston SC is St. Phillips church.
The highly recognizable steeple of St. Philips church once served as a tower in a lighthouse range that guided mariners into Charleston’s harbor. ©TPJphoto.net

The French Quarter is living history with some of the oldest buildings in the city; several are must-see Charleston attractions, including St. Philips Church and the Dock Street Theatre.

The architecturally significant St. Philips Church is one of the many visible spires lending to Charleston’s notorious skyline. But it holds other claims to fame too. One literally rests with its former congregants; the ancient graveyard attracts tombstone enthusiasts to view the resting place of Edward Rutledge and Charles Pinckney, signers of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Its church bells have a story too; though the steeple resonates across the peninsula with regularity today, it was silent during the Civil War when the former bells were melted for munitions.

If you’re up for discovering secret wanderings, head for the little known Gateway Walk. Designed in 1930 by the Garden Club of Charleston, this informal and well-maintained walk passes through many wrought-iron gates — thus its name. Accessible from St. Philp’s graveyard and across the street from the church, the walk stretches several blocks through lush and tranquil graveyard garden settings. You can hop on or off at several major intersecting streets.

One of the sights you don’t want to miss in downtown Charleston South Carolina is the historic Dock Street Theater.
The Dock Street Theater is one of Charleston’s more ornate places to see in the historic French Quarter. ©TPJphoto.net

Designed after London’s 18th century playhouses, and incorporating the south’s early use of decorative ironwork, the Dock Street Theatre’s beautiful aesthetic and performing arts make it one of the top places to see in Charleston. Insta hotspot: one of the most photographed places in the city, Its wrought-iron balcony makes for an interesting foreground to St. Philip’s Church beyond as seen in our cover photo. Considered by many as the oldest playhouses in the nation, the Dock hosted America’s first opera performance, Flora in 1736. It later served as a prominent hotel, followed by post-Civil War abandonment and threats of demolition, back to its original purpose — a cultural mecca of performing arts.

History Mystery

One of the most historical mysteries about Charleston SC, is its Old Walled City.
A 1780 map indicates where portions of the Old Wall once remained. Courtesy Norman B Leventhal Collection | digitalcommonwealth.org

The French Quarter is an integral part of a 1700s fortified area known as the Old Walled City. Today the Quarter is one of the most vibrant places to see in Charleston today. Though no visual landmarks remain, history fascinates with its tales of a 65-acre area fortified to withstand impending invasion; approximately bordered by what we now know as East Bay and Meeting Streets to the east and west, and by Tradd and Cumberland Streets to the north and south, respectively. 

Hand-dug moats surrounded dense earthen walls, connecting a chain of bastions that essentially fortified Charleston into a walled city. The wall stood for nearly 30 years. An ongoing Walled City Task Force, initiated by former Mayor Riley, relies on appointed volunteer experts to study, protect and interpret artifacts and evidence.

As Far As the Eye Can See

Harborside things to do in Charleston include evening strolls in the Waterfront Park.
Don’t miss the tranquil, meandering Waterfront Park as one of the must-see outdoor activities in downtown Charleston. ©Cvandyke

After contemplating where the Old Walled City foundations may lay beneath the pavement, take a break from the bustling side of town and head east to the Waterfront Park. The eight-acre public park parallels the Cooper River with an esplanade running approximately half a mile. Two large fountains accent the oasis, one designed for splashing fun, another — the infamous Pineapple Fountain — for its tranquility. The park carefully preserves natural habitats with seasonally flowering gardens and restored salt marshes.

Take a breezy bench seat overlooking the harbor or snag one in the shade among canopied oak trees. Catch views of Fort Sumter and the far off Atlantic, or watch the tugs guide merchant ships up river; feel like a kid again as you spy local children splashing in the fountain; stroll to the end of the pier and gander a view of the USS Yorktown, a permanent warship attraction across the Ravenel Bridge, at Mt. Pleasant’s Patriots Point. Or maybe just grab one of the family-sized swings sheltered under roofed shade and contemplate Charleston’s changing tides.  

Tip: Bring your binoculars and oogle intricacies of the massive Ravenel Bridge in the distance; 186 foot clearance above mean high tide allows some of the largest container ships to pass through. Also host to the Cooper River Bridge Run — named after the former twin bridges — both directions of the Ravenel close to traffic for 30,000+ runners in an annual 10K race.

Some of the best views of Charleston are found at The Rooftop bar above Vendue Inn.
While in the French Quarter, pop up to The Rooftop bar and see some of the best Charleston skyline views. Courtesy The Rooftop at Vendue Inn

Located close to the harbor and just off East Bay Street, The Rooftop bar at The Vendue offers fantastic cocktails and a bird’s-eye view of the French Quarter, a new perspective on an old city. Whether perched at the covered bar or at one of the open terrace tables, one can surmise from such a height how vulnerable old Charleston was on its tiny peninsula.

Happy Tasseling at this quaint boutique in historic downtown Charleston’s Cannonborough neighborhood.
Entrepreneur Mimi Striplin’s The Tiny Tassle went Insta viral with its coveted hand-made garments, curated jewelry, accessories and party goods inspired by Charleston’s vibrant colors. Courtesy @anerisphoto

4. Cannonborough | Elliotburough

These two borough neighborhoods have become the epicenter of an eclectic entrepreneurial scene. This is the area to explore if you’re looking to go beyond the “shrimp, grits, and carriage ride” version of Charleston. Foodies and shoppers find flavor and treasures at exciting new restaurants, bars and boutiques, often exclaiming they feel as though they’d left the Holy City altogether — until of course the same genuine hospitality emanates in the charming architectural reno’s. Established places mingle with those still in their infancy; here are a few to pique your interest:

The art scene in Charleston is vibrantly displayed at Redux Contemporary Art Center.
Art lovers appreciate the artistic diversity showcased at Redux’s rotating gallery. Courtesy Redux Contemporary Art Center

The city’s art scene is well represented in the boroughs too. Redux Contemporary Art Center is an art gallery that plays host to concerts and innovative art installations; its expansive industrial style interior features local artists across multiple mediums, and its exterior is an ever-changing mural whose painting reflects a featured artist.

Live music, performers, fresh food and history come together at Marion Square park in historic downtown Charleston.
Marion Square park hosts Charleston’s downtown farmer’s market, drawing local growers and vendors every weekend of the season. ©Jerry Coli

5. Wraggborough

Sandwiched between Cannonborough/Elliotborough and Harleston Village. Wraggborough highlights include Marion Square, an open park and host to downtown’s Farmers Market and various festivals. The Charleston Museum is a must-see for history and education. The glamorous Hotel Bennett is one of Charleston’s most luxurious and inviting —  one glance into Camellias Champagne Lounge makes even the most steadfast teetotalers swoon. Antebellum history is preserved at the Aiken Rhett House museum. Notable stops for food and drink include Bay Street Biergarten, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits, Coast Bar & Grill, Halls Chophouse, and Rue de Jean.

A teaching and visiting resource for fossils, the College of Charleston’s Mace Brown Museum is a hidden gem.
Housing over 15,000 fossils from around the world, including a special exhibit on fossil whales, the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History is a little known gem in downtown Charleston. Courtesy Mace Brown Museum of Natural History

6. Radcliffborough

Beginning directly across from Wraggborough at Marion Square and Calhoun Street, one can’t miss the nostalgic c1926 landmark Francis Marion hotel — named for the same American Revolution General as the park — and it’s under rated Swamp Fox Bar and Restaurant. Just two blocks further on Calhoun is the College of Charleston’s teaching Mace Brown Museum of Natural History, a little known delight for children with a fossil collection that renders many speechless. 

Bordering the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) mega-campus to the west, and College of Charleston’s to the north, this otherwise predominantly residential neighborhood includes Ashley Hall private girl’s school attended by former First Lady Barbara Bush. Access is restricted but you can peer through the open wrought iron gates on Ashley Avenue for a glimpse of the seashell-clad garden building, reserved as a gathering place for the enviable senior class.

Beyond the Boroughs

If you haven’t quite had your fill, venture north of the Septima Clark Parkway (I26 Connector) and meander through these outlying neighborhoods, each representing transformative urban spaces, eclectic eateries, historic park, and Charleston’s renowned brewery district.

NoMo boasts several dozen places to hang out with friends outdoors, like the outdoor terrace at The Royal American.
Occupying the Ole Charleston Forge, the unassuming Royal American is a chill hang out with finger licking good wings, full bar and frequent live music shows. Courtesy The Royal American.

1. NoMo

NoMo—Short for North Morrison—is a burgeoning area on the northern neck of Charleston’s Peninsula with innovative creativity on overdrive. From prolific craft breweries and eclectic outdoor dining, to distilleries and live music on rooftop bars — many of which are dog and kid friendly — you’ll need more than a quick jaunt to explore it all.

Equality redevelopment. Conscientious retail. Craft brews. Contemporary cuisine. Redefining Charleston’s underutilized Upper Peninsula, talented and eager adapters continue shaping Charleston’s underutilized ground. Like Manhattan’s SOHO, NoMo, aka “North of Morrison” aka “The Neck”, “East Central”, and “The Efficient District”, was born of the need and desire for urban affordability with unique spaces and freedom for unstructured expression. Formerly dotted with car dealerships, the auto-mile of yesteryear is revitalized as home to hip brew houses, restaurants, condos and supporting businesses. With convenient access to downtown Charleston, Mt. Pleasant and outlying areas, NoMo sees a steady stream of residents and tourists alike seeking the latest trend.

Home to local restaurant favorites including Taco Boy and the Tattooed Moose, NoMo has exploded in the past few years. The Royal American is a festive and eclectic nightlife venue that plays host to some of Charleston’s greatest local musicians. Edmund’s Oast is an elegant beer-lover’s paradise with an extensive number of house brewed  beers on tap — and an incredible menu to boot. Add the infamous Rodney Scott’s Barbecue along with Lewis Barbecue and Butcher & Bee, and you’ll see why NoMo continues to grow into one of Charleston’s most vibrant neighborhoods.

Hampton Park is a must-visit place in Charleston SC to pay homage to Black Lives Matter and African American leader Denmark Vesey.
The Denmark Vessey monument in Hampton Park commemorates the life and efforts of an inspirational freedman. ©Brenda J. Pearl

2. Wagener Terrace

Wagener Terrace is a young professional stronghold filled with modest craftsman homes and a few of Charleston’s best-kept secrets. A landmark favorite, nearby Hampton Park is one of the Holy City’s most beautiful public spaces and Wagener Terrace’s finest amenity. At 60 acres, it’s the largest park on the peninsula. Featuring a lake, bike and walking paths, sprawling gardens, playground and picnic tables, there’s something for every age and interest. Super dog-friendly, take the leash off and let your four-legged friend run at the dedicated (and fenced) dog park. 

The park is also home to the significant Denmark Vesey memorial, a former slave who bought his freedom after winning a city lottery. The City of Charleston dedicated the monument in 2014 in a reflective Hampton Park garden. A founding member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, he inspired other slaves to connect with their freedom, relaying the story of Exodus — of the Israelites’ delivery from Egyptian slavery — and congregated thousands to join the uprising.

Word of the planned revolt leaked from several slaves who were loyal to their owners, and Vesey was captured. Tried in secret hearings, he was found guilty and executed in 1822. Learn more from the book, “Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy,” by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts; available for purchase through the Charleston Historic Foundation.

As with most Charleston neighborhoods, eats and drinks are close at hand. Conveniently located Park Café welcomes patrons into its airy eatery with fresh food and décor. Looking for the elusive Bill Murray in Charleston? You may spot him at the joint he opened with local partners, Rutledge Cab Co., a trendy burger and sandwich of the day spot, their craft cocktails and local brew turn lunch into a party. For more local craft beers, check out the latest development in Charleston’s microbrewery scene at one of the popular breweries, Cooper River Brewing Co. It serves a selection of quality ales brewed right there in Wagener Terrace. If Vegan is more your speed, check out our Best Vegan Restaurants in Charleston article for a brief review of the amazing Huriyali.

One of the most fun bars and restaurants in Park Circle Charleston is Stems & Skins.
Upscale yet laid back, Stems & Skins’ extensive wine list and curated cocktails pair perfectly with their small plate offerings of salads, fresh seafood and charcuterie. Courtesy Stems & Skins

3. Park Circle

One of Charleston’s up and coming neighborhoods quickly filling with young families seeking affordable housing close to downtown, Park Circle has quickly become a vibrant desirable community. The living is easy in this North Charleston neighborhood with such outdoor activities and attractions as a small lake at Quarterman Park, community center, disc golf, live afternoon music and craft brews at Commonhouse Aleworks, eclectic vintage shopping and innovative dining. Don’t miss one of our favorites, Stems & Skins. With extensive tempting tinned seafood and charcuterie selections — including Spanish Iberico Ham — and an exquisite wine list, you can’t go wrong. The cocktails are equally surprising; if you’ve never had Absinthe, this is THE place to watch it drip and trip the light fantastic. We highly recommend traveling with a DD as Uber can be costly back to the peninsula.

That wraps up our guide to Charleston neighborhoods. Let us know your favorites, and why! Contact us here.

Please be sure to contact each establishment to verify opening hours, reservation policies, health requirements, and any other variations.