During our trip to Seabrook Island and Charleston in September of last year, we spent the better part of a morning on a walking tour of downtown Charleston taking in the main historic sites. This was a great way to quickly get acquainted with the city and learn our way around so we could then comfortably explore more on our own. We were able to stretch our legs and learn quite a bit of history along with some fun facts. Our tour was through Bulldog Tours and was a complete walking tour, meaning we set out on foot and never stepping onto a bus, trolley, or carriage. Keep that in mind if you tire easily or need a break from the heat. There were periods of standing in the sun, so dressing comfortably and cool with sunscreen is crucial. And while we opted to take our stroller for our then 9 month old based on the tour company saying strollers would be fine, we might not recommend it unless you have a really great all terrain stroller to navigate the uneven cobblestone paths and often narrow alleyways.
Our 2 hour Charleston Strolls tour met in the lobby of the historic Mills House Hotel at 9:45 for a 10:00 start time. This building is actually a replica of the original that declined from years of neglect and had to be demolished. There is a parking garage behind the hotel that fills up quickly. We found a relatively priced garage just a short walk away though.
Inside the hotel is just as scrumptious as the pink coating and white trim details on the exterior that remind me of beautiful piping on a cake. Glitzy chandeliers and bright colors abound in this charming location, so it’s definitely a great meeting place for a historic intro to the beauty queen of the south.
We headed down Meeting Street and immediately turned right onto Chalmers – one of the few (and likely oldest) remaining cobblestone streets. I believe our guide even said it is one of the longest remaining as it runs for two blocks.
Turning up Church Street, you can see examples of the Charleston single house, identified by the long verandas, or porches, that run the length of the structures. Made popular in this port town for many reasons, including maximizing the number of lots with street frontage in a limited, walled area. The single house also effectively combats heat and humidity by allowing air to flow both through the house and the porch, which were designed to allow the breezes to flow through unencumbered. In the Charleston grid system, houses could be laid out east-west or north-south with the porches always on the south or west sides to protect from late afternoon sun, when Charleston is at it hottest. These homes were practical in additional ways being designed down to the shutters with privacy in mind in such close quarters.
Further down Church Street is the historic Dock Street Theatre, last surviving hotel from the antebellum period. It was the first building in America built exclusively to be used for theatrical performances.
The theatre is open today and still in use for regular productions. It underwent a massive renovation and reopened in 2010. Now it’s the perfect spot to stop off for a break during a tourist visit to Charleston as it is open to the public to visit during the day. Step inside for free air conditioning, a cushy seat, a clean bathroom and drinking fountain or enjoy a quiet moment in their back courtyard.
Across from Dock Street Theatre is the French Huguenot Church, a pretty pastel pink vision of classical Gothic Revival architectural style.
This was my favorite church in downtown Charleston being by far the most attractive.
It is the oldest Gothic Revival church in South Carolina, and has been designated a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The congregation it serves traces its origins to the 1680s, and is the only independent Huguenot church in the United States.
Looking down Church Street is the most prominent steeple in Charleston belonging to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.
The wrought iron gates and fencing around the perimeter are beautiful. They are among the oldest and most detailed works of wrought iron in the city and provide ample creativity for local artists. We found one just artist selling pristine drawings of the gates of St. Phillips done by hand in ink. They were incredible. We bought one of her watercolors of Rainbow Row, but now I wish we had also purchased some of the ink drawings too.
Back down Chalmers, you’ll find the Pink House, the second oldest residence in town. And also quite possibly the smallest? At the time of our tour, it was listed for sale for a whopping $600,000.
Just check out that tile gambrel roof dating back to the eighteenth century.
Charleston is also famous for adding on or repurposing thus needing unique half addresses. This darling narrow two story home can be found at 8 1/2 State Street in what was a kitchen in another lifetime.
The tallest building in Charleston is a bank building located at the corner of Broad and State.
At the end of Broad is the Old Exchange Building & Provost Dungeon…the water from the harbor used to come all the way up to the base of the Provost where traders would exchange goods like rice and indigo. Can you imagine that the water used to meet the edge of steps to this building that is now a block away from the harbor?
One of the most recognizable sights in all of the Charleston second only to the Pineapple fountain is the infamous Rainbow Row, a colorful ROYGBIV collection of 14 historic homes sitting side by side on East Bay Street that once was the riverfront of the town.
If not for the bright hues coating the outside of these homes, they might not stand out as a tourist attraction. To the unsuspecting eye walking through downtown without a guide, you might just miss so much history if you weren’t paying attention. They tend to blend in with the surrounding culture in a town filled with such style as just part of the landscape.
So head to East Bay Street with your eyes open and take a gander at these Georgian beauties.
We took a few shortcuts down official streets truly too narrow for a car to pass, including Longitude and Latitude Lane.
Our guide stopped frequently throughout the walking tour to point out landmarks or tell anecdotes or provide historical reference. He carried a binder containing some historical images to show us for comparison to what we were seeing now and how the town has changed.
We then passed by the First Baptist Church, which is also used as a school now.
Some of what I enjoyed most on this walking tour was capturing the unique beauty of this town in every little detail not just the major historic sites. Around every corner there is a scene worthy of photographing.
We cut through this alleyway, which was still a little flooded from the hurricane, to finally head out to the Battery on the harbor. Taking these little side streets and alleys, we caught sight of signs of water damage hidden behind high privacy fences or work vans parked along the street and workers busy rebuilding. These were the only signs that anything had happened here the week before from Hurricane Irma.
After a short stroll along the battery and our tour guide talking about the First Siege of Charleston, which was pivotal in declaring independence from Britain just days later, we turned back into the residential area near the Battery. Charleston is filled with many historic homes, including several that you can tour. One of these homes is the Nathaniel Russell House, most well known for it’s giant circular staircase, a marvelous feat for it’s time. Even today it’s worth a picture.
While the walking tour takes you over to the Nathaniel Russell House, it does not take you inside the house. Our guide walked us around the exterior and pointed out native plants. However, we returned on our own to see the inside because I knew my husband being a home designer would truly enjoy it. Shockingly, a slightly gauche painted rug lines the front entryway of the Russell House, but apparently they were all the rage at the height of the era and Nathaniel Russell was known for being a bit gaudy showing off his wealth. I mean, just look at that staircase. It definitely was not necessary in that time to have a circular set of stairs in the center of your home.
Exiting the Nathan Russell House, you’ll often find resident artisans set up weaving sweetgrass baskets – the quintessential souvenir for a visitor looking for a local handycraft to take home. Steeped in Gullah heritage and woven together using locally-harvested bulrush, you’ll see these baskets used allover the city and taking one home for yourself is memorable.
After just over two hours, the official walking tour ended in front of St. Michael’s on Broad Street. We were a fairly sizeable group, so it is completely understandable that what was intended to last from 10am – 12pm ran over by about half an hour simply because it takes longer to corral that many people around. Keep that in mind if you intend to do a walking tour that you do need to be a bit flexible with the schedule and if you have a strict deadline be sure to let your guide know upfront.
The next day that we visited Charleston, we detoured to the areas of Charleston that the tour did not focus on, including more of the riverfront and Waterfront Park. Head down Queen Street, which turns into Vendue Range, and you’ll dead end into the park and fountain.
Waterfront Park is also where you can find the prominent pineapple fountain often memorialized in photographs. Take a stroll through a dense canopy of oak trees and many benches, a very park like setting, to the Pineapple Fountain centered in front of the City Gallery.
This is another excellent spot for taking a break if you are in need of a seat in the shade with a view. Not as cool as a respite inside the Dock Street Theatre with their ample air conditioning, but if you are in any luck there will be a breeze and you get to enjoy the harbor. If you are a kid at heart (or have kids), you can really cool off in the Waterfront Fountain.
One final stop is a must on your grand walking tour of downtown Charleston and that is the Charleston City Market. You will need to walk back towards town away from the waterfront past the U.S. Custom House and across the street you will see the rear entrance to the market.
Inside you will find a variety of vendors selling everything from kitschy souvenirs to regional food to local handmade artwork and jewelry. Walking through the outdoor stalls and the indoor purveyors is a classic Charleston experience. Inside are also two snack counters – Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit and Caviar & Bananas – if you need a bite sized biscuit sandwich or pick me up coffee beverage.
Welp, that’s it, that’s all she wrote…my quintessential walking tour of Charleston complete with part paid guided tour part self-guided on your own. We got to see so much of the big landmarks and little side streets this way. I highly recommend doing a guided tour, even just a quick Historical Tour. I prefer the walking tours that allow you to see areas of a city far less traveled by tourists and definitely where carriages or buses won’t take you, but if your feet or knees can’t handle walking for two hours over uneven cobblestone terrain, then opt for trolley tour.
Here is the information on the tour we took:
Bulldog Tours – Charleston History Tour
We took the 10am tour, but there is also a 2pm option. The cost of tickets is $25 for adults and $15 for children, 6 & under are free.
Tips: Parking can be a challenge in the Historic District, but there are two garages near the Mills House hotel. They can be pricey, but worth it. Leave the stroller in the car and wear your child if they are still small enough for a carrier like the Lillebaby (our favorite). Stop at Dock Street Theatre for air conditioning and a free, clean bathroom with water fountain. Also a good spot for a nursing break and a changing table if you have a baby in tow. Head to the Waterfront Park for another cool spot to sit down. Find amazing local gifts and souvenirs amidst the kitsch at Charleston City Market.