Timeless Lowcountry Discovery

An Essential Visitor’s Guide to the History of Charleston

Consistently voted a top travel destination, Charleston’s appeal is undeniable. Visitors come for the Lowcountry cuisine and fresh seafood, the sun-soaked Atlantic beaches, and, of course, the city’s historic charm. 

Discover an in-depth look into the history of Charleston with our exclusive self-guided tour.

Charleston’s location at the tip of a peninsula and its deep harbor made it a key port city for the nation and a logistic stronghold. Considering two wars — the 1775-1783 Revolutionary War, and the 1861-1865 Civil War — and numerous disasters —the 1800s trio of fires, a magnitude 7 earthquake in 1886, a 1938 tornado, and countless hurricanes including 1989’s Category 4 Hugo — it’s a wonder Charleston’s historical buildings remain in any context at all. As you will discover, what was decimated once, twice, or more was often rebuilt, and on its original site.

Fortunately, for today’s travelers, much of the rich and varied history of Charleston is well preserved for visitors. Enjoy an in-depth look with this quick checklist to some of the top historical sites on the peninsula.

The 4 corners of law in historic Charleston have different stories about their novel names.
(Courtesy the Tichnor Brothers Collection/commonwealthdigital.org

#1: The Four Corners of the Law

Hail, Mail, Jail, and Bail

Your first destination for insight into the history of Charleston is in the city’s center, at the corner of Broad and Meeting streets. It’s host to historic structures that locals call “the Four Corners of the Law.” As seen on this early 1900s postcard,

  1. Ecclesiastical law is on the southeast corner of the intersection where St. Michael’s Episcopal Church was originally built in the mid-1700s;
  2. Federal law is opposite on Meeting Street’s southwest corner, represented by the US Post Office and Federal Courthouse, built in 1896;
  3. State law is across Broad Street on the northwest corner, where Charleston County Courthouse was first built as the state’s provincial capital in 1753;
  4. Municipal law is across Meeting Street on the northeast corner, represented by the early 1800s Charleston City Hall building.
The history of Charleston, South Carolina starts with its many churches.
The iconic steeple of Charleston’s St. Philip’s church wasn’t added until a decade after the main structure was completed. ©Kathie Allen

#2: Churches: Lots of Them

Nicknamed “the Holy City” for its hundreds of places of worship, the original Charles Towne settlement was founded on principles of religious tolerance. Established in 1681, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church is the oldest religious congregation in South Carolina and one of the most iconic steeples on the peninsula. Today, the church and the adjacent graveyard are open to the public for limited hours on weekdays. 

Many of the Holy City’s churches suffered from both man and nature’s destructive forces, but faithful congregants rallied to rebuild their sacred houses; today the history and architectural wonders remain for all to appreciate.

If you’re looking for other self-guided outdoor activities that include some history of Charleston, click here for a self-guided walking tour of six historic neighborhoods. For added stops along the way, review these downtown 6 Must-See Historic Holy Places in the Holy City.

Fort Sumter maneuvers as published in the New York Herald, August 1863. Courtesy New York Herald Company/digitalcommonwealth.org
1863 map showing such details as ship wrecks, rebel iron clad rams, and Forts Greg, Johnson, Moultrie, Ripley and Sumter. Scale 4,244 feet-1 inch. Courtesy New York Herald Company/digitalcommonwealth.org

#3: Where the Civil War Started

Originally a federal fort named after Revolutionary War General Thomas Sumter, Fort Sumter is best known as the fort where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.Check hyper Construction began in 1829 on a rock formation in the middle of the harbor and took three decades to complete. Igniting a war that claimed over 700,000 casualties, the fort’s ruins are well-preserved for exploration. Canons, embrasures, and bastions fascinate kids eager to learn the war’s reality. An enlightening education for adults as well, this historic site is one of the many must-see places in Charleston. It now hosts more than a quarter-million visitors a year. 

As you ferry back, count the steeples on the city’s famous skyline. Many falsely believe the found city’s embracing of religious freedom — thus the number of churches — is what earned the “Holy City” nickname, but in fact, the reference originated in the early 1900s as a fond nickname, penned by native Charlestonian Yates Snowden for his beloved town. 

Added Tip: Before heading across the harbor to the actual fort, learn about where you’re headed with a visit to the free Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center. Located at Liberty Square in downtown Charleston, interpretive and visual exhibits educate visitors on the events leading up to the war, a major event in the history of Charleston. 

Don't miss the historic Joseph Manigault museum house in downtown Charleston SC.
The Joseph Manigault House is one of many historic museum homes open to the public in Charleston. Courtesy TPJphoto.net

#4: Historic Homes

Back on land, immerse yourself in the exquisite architecture of Charleston’s historic homes. While time has stood still for over 200 years within many of their walls, others proudly boast magnificent restoration to original glory days. Architectural feats impress and amaze alongside stories of the families — both the privileged who called the landmarks home and the enslaved who ran the households. Historical interpretations are awakening to encompass invaluable contributions made by African natives; in contrast with decades-old glorifications, new interpretative panels and tour guide presentations aim to present slavery’s grim reality. Juxtaposed alongside these homes of grandeur, such harsh facts shed true light on the Lowcountry’s true origins.

Preservation is serious business in Charleston, beginning with the downtown Joseph Manigault House. Its conservancy spurred the Preservation Society of Charleston, the oldest community-based preservation organization in the United States. Many similar museum homes are open for tours and can be found in the historic district near The Battery and along Meeting and East Bay Streets. Click here for more information on touring these historic homes:

Drayton Hall is one of many former plantation sites worth doing in Charleston SC.
Historical interpretations present both sides of history at former plantation sites like Drayton Hall. ©Regal Shave

#5: Former Plantation Sites

Not far from the city, you’ll find the former plantation sites offering introspective reflection alongside grand vistas, leaving one to contemplate both the celebration of, and blemish on, history. The 21st century has brought significant change to the Lowcountry’s interpretative presentation. 

Former heyday regalia now rests quietly along with those who endured its harsh realities. In their place, glorious flora and fauna provide respite and reflection while expanded tours educate and enlighten. At former plantation sites like Magnolia Gardens, Middleton Place, Drayton and Boone Hall, and McLeod Historic Site, the programs and exhibits offer insights into what life was like for both the wealthy families and the enslaved Africans whose backs bore the brunt of Charleston’s economic bounty. 

Gullah Geechee traditions made vital cultural contributions to modern day at the Charleston City Market.
No trip to Charleston is complete without a visit to the historic Charleston City Market where traditional Gullah sweetgrass baskets reign supreme. ©Jerry Coli

#6: The City Market

Wrap up your tour with a stop at the Charleston City Market. No visit to Charleston is complete without a stroll through the expansive open air Greek revival-style structure. Stretching 1,240 feet and four blocks, a continuous series of sheds were central congregating venues where produce and beef were sold in the late-1700s; the gathering tradition continues in the 21st century with wares of all varieties. 

Prior to the late 1900s tourism boom, the market served as a flea market style emporium on weekends, with only a few restaurants and shops along North and South Market Streets. Today the area bustles with an enormous variety of dining, shopping and tour vendors. From traditional She-Crab soup at Henry’s  restaurant — one of the oldest in the Market area —  to oyster shooters at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar, carriage tours to artisanal crafts, milliners to candle makers.  Of special note are the Gullah Sweetgrass basket makers, a tradition handed down from the former enslaved Gullah Geechee people. 

Much of modern-day Charleston’s charisma is owed to its historic past, yet down every cobbled street are hundreds of years of history just begging for you to map out your own adventure. Dive deep into Charleston’s history and plan more of your Holy City adventures with Charleston Gateway.

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

Looking for more Charleston history experiences? Check out the entertaining concert series showcasing Charleston’s rich musical heritage. 

Charleston music brings history alive from Gershwin to jazz and hymns.