Charleston is one of a kind, but what if you only have 24 hours in Charleston? Whether it’s due to a layover or a work trip (or if you’re just passing through on a road trip) here’s how to make the best of one day in Charleston.
24 Hours in Charleston
While in town for a conference, my friend Lynda and I played hooky during the last afternoon so that we could experience some of that Charleston charm. Here are three tips that helped us maximize Charleston in a day.
1. Make use of the free shuttle available downtown – If you’re traveling by car, there are several parking garages available near trolley stops. If you’re coming from the airport, taking an Uber is an easy way to get yourself downtown and on your own for the rest of the day.
2. Be willing to do lots of walking – We got to experience Charleston in a way that’s impossible to do without hoofing it. The city is absolute eye candy so wear comfy shoes and bring your camera. Once we got ourselves to King St. via DART, we accessed everything you’ll read about here on foot!
3. Take a tour (or three!) – Particularly important if you’re a history buff like me. Even if you’re not, carriage tours are a great way to get a feel for the town and meet a knowledgeable local during your 24 hours in Charleston.
Charleston Carriage Tours – There are several carriage tour companies in downtown Charleston and taking one is a great way to experience the city on a limited amount of time. I appreciate Palmetto Carriage Works for their ethical treatment of the horses (they can go into great detail about this for you) as well as the knowledgeable guides. Tours leave frequently and you can book the same day online or at one of their stands around town. Booking later in the day means you run the risk of tours being sold out or not having very many tour time options so it’s best to book ASAP.
The daytime group carriage tour of the residential district is a real treat. Our guide shared lots of local history as well as little tidbits like real estate prices with a touch of neighborhood gossip.
The carriage tour industry is regulated by the city, and a lottery system is used to assign each carriage a specific random route upon departure. Between the lottery and diversity among the guides, you’ll never experience the same Charleston carriage tour twice. I’ll definitely go on another in the future!
Note: If you have issues with personal space, brace yourself for getting up close and personal with strangers. You’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder with them on a bench seat for an hour. You also aren’t guaranteed a seat on the outside of the carriage. I was sandwiched in the middle which still allowed me a decent view, but photos are better taken on foot for sure.
Charleston Ghost Tours – While I give AMC’s The Walking Dead a free pass for some reason, I’m generally not a fan of the macabre. However, all it took was one day in Charleston to have me exploring graveyards and listening to pirate legends. You can do both with Bulldog Tours (plus a whole lot more!) They are located just a block or so from the Big Red Barn where the Palmetto Carriage tours depart, so it’s convenient to stop in a book a tour while you’re there.
We decided on the Ghost and Dungeon Walking Tour because we didn’t have enough time to tour the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon Museum on our own that day. With this tour, you get to see the dungeon after hours in addition to a couple of other haunted spots around town.
It was clear from the start that our guide loves her job and is a true believer in the paranormal (she even does investigations in her leisure time.) Her expert storytelling combined with nightfall and…well…Charleston’s creepy self had me requesting a sage smudge from our AirBNB host. I won’t give away any spoilers, but even skeptics like me will have a bit of spooky fun if they let themselves.
Charleston Dinner Cruise – So we haven’t yet discussed where to eat in Charleston, but if you’d like to combine a tour of sorts with your meal, consider a dinner cruise with SpiritLine Cruises.
You’ll get amazing sunset views and see a different side of the city than what you’ve experienced in the historic districts. Not to mention live music and fabulous food!
If you’re willing to stay up late to make the most of your 24 hours in Charleston and don’t want to miss out on the unique nightlife, you can catch the SpiritLine dinner cruise from 7-9:30 then head on over to Bulldog Tours for a 10:00 PM Haunted Jail Tour. You can sleep once you’re dead (unless you choose to haunt Charleston like so many others have apparently.)
Exploring Charleston on Foot
In between tours you’ll want to maximize your experience on foot. Our carriage tour made me eager to explore and take lots of pictures of some of the historic buildings we learned about. Below are a few memorable sites you can easily access on foot.
King Street – I didn’t expect such an upscale shopping experience to be found juxtaposed with the historic district, but that’s King Street!
We didn’t spend a large amount of time here since I’m not big on visiting chain retailers or restaurants when traveling to a new places (no matter how much Williams Sonoma might call my name,) but I did have to step into a Lush Cosmetics for the first time.
And I also enjoyed this fun shop for dog lovers with homemade, Charleston-inspired treats.
Charleston City Market – One of the country’s oldest public markets, Charleston City Market is home to over 300 artisans. Seasonally, on Fridays and Saturdays, the Market transitions into an outdoor night market that’s open until 10:30 PM.
Don’t leave home without something made by a sweetgrass basket weaver! This unique West African tradition has been passed down from generation to generation and is still going strong.
I wound up purchasing a sweetgrass flower for Sweet T from Ophelia right before closing time.
She’s been weaving for over 50 years and has taught the craft to her sons and granddaughters to ensure this Gullah tradition continues with future generations.
Circular Congregational Church
Get lost among the stones and just try not to read them all.
Fun fact I learned on a Charleston Ghost tour: the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery is that a graveyard adjoins a church and a cemetery does not.
The Old Slave Mart Museum– There’s no delicate way around the issue of slavery in our nation’s history, and few places will confront you with it like Charleston. The Old Slave Mart is exactly that, and the way Charleston oozes antiquity it isn’t difficult to imagine the auctions that took place right on the street and inside the building. Prepare for a sobering experience and allow yourself a little time afterward to process.
The museum consists mostly of informative posters and you’ll be doing a lot of reading. There are a couple of audio features and a few artifacts as well. Photos are not allowed inside the museum due to copyright laws.
Downstairs you’ll learn the raw facts about the slave trade like how slaves were priced, the logistics of the market, and statistics. Upstairs contains the much more humanizing component with personal stories of what life was like for the enslaved.
The hushed reverence felt inside the Old Slave Mart Museum reminds you that others are feeling the same things you are. Skip bringing small children and once you’re ready to move on I recommend going out and eating your feelings.
Where to Eat in Downtown Charleston
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to eat my way around Charleston during this trip as our conference hosts kept us from getting hungry, but Lynda and I did have the chance to eat at local gem Cru Café during our 24 hours in Charleston. We walked in without a reservation and were seated right at the chef’s table.
The seating at Cru Café is limited and community-style. Reservations are accepted so if you don’t want to press your luck as we did, be sure to make one.
I don’t really have enough adjectives in my vocabulary to describe our delectable entrees, but I won’t be forgetting the fried green tomatoes with pork belly croutons in this lifetime.
Nor the perfection that was my steak.
Cru Café is located at the corner of Pinckney and Motley (<<<see what they did there?) and convenient to both Bulldog Tours, Palmetto Carriage Tours and Charleston City Market.
Lunch is available on certain days so if you want to eat here and enjoy the SpiritLine dinner cruise the same day, that just might work out!
Where to Stay in Charleston
We actually stayed at an AirBnB on John’s Island for this trip and I can’t recommend it enough. So much so that it will be getting its own separate post so stay tuned!
How will you spend your 24 hours in Charleston?