As a licensed Charleston tour guide for three years, I have spent a lot of time taking tours and learning from other tour guides. There is so much to choose from and so many wonderful tours. Some things you may want to think about are the time of year you plan on visiting, the weather, whether you like to walk or be chauffeured in a vehicle, and what type of information you are looking to receive. I have listed some of my favorite tour guides and companies at the end of this article for your convenience.
WALKING TOURS – Charleston is a walkable town. Its cobblestone streets, European architecture, and incredible variety of museums, restaurants and shopping make for a please day downtown when the weather is nice. During spring, early summer, late summer, and fall, a walking tour is a dream even it if it is raining. The tour must go on even if you have an umbrella. In July and August, it is pretty much boiling outside with ample humidity and can feel stifling without a breeze. If that doesn’t bother you, then go for it. Keep in mind that most walking tours are two hours. There is lots of walking and lots of standing. If you have trouble walking or you have a bad back, this may not be the right tour for you. If you have trouble hearing, you will need to let the tour guide know so you can stand closest to him when he tells a story.
TYPES OF WALKING TOURS – Most people think of walking tours as history tours. Charleston has plenty of them available, but there are others as well. The low country is notorious for its evening ghost tours which last 1.5 to 2 hours. After you have purchased tickets, you will receive specific directions on where to meet to start the tour. You will be taken through the dark streets of Charleston and be told all the wild tales of ghosts who are known to still occupy space in some of Charleston’s historic homes, graveyards, and special points of interest like the old city jail.
One of my favorite types of walking tours are culinary tours. A rather famous Charleston guide, Hoon Calhoun, does a spectacular culinary tour along upper King Street visiting a variety of chefs including Glazed Donuts, Prohibition, and Hom Burgers. Hoon Calhoun can tell a story like no other, bringing you to your knees in both laughter and sorrow. These tours are mean to educate you on the history of these restaurants and how they came to be, the unique preparation of the chef’s delights, and of course the best part, a tasting. Other walking tours include visiting a number of restaurants for a partial meal. While this sounds yummy, and it is, you will need to prepare yourself as you can become full in an instant with the rich dishes that grace your palate. Pace yourself!
Lastly, there are pub crawls and cocktail tours all meant for you to try a specialty drink, something you wouldn’t normally order. Beware. The last time I took this type of tour, one bartender made a concoction that had a familiar scent, lavender soap. And guess what, it tasted like lavender soap. I won’t be doing that again.
MUSEUM HOMES – If you want to stay out of the elements, museum home tours are a great way to learn something about history and the way people lived. One of my favorite places to visit is the Aiken Rhett House near the visitor center. This home was just out of cannon range and has been kept in its original state for the most part. Children will love the scavenger hunt and the original outdoor privies in the back yard where archeologists learned all about the effects the age of antebellum food had on its diners. You will experience the slaves quarters and carriage house as it once was.
These types of tours are all over Charleston. South of Broad you will find the Nathanial Russell House known for its detached spiral staircase, a mystery many architects have tried to solve to no avail.
See how one of South Carolina’s signers of the Declaration of Independence lived at the Heyward-Washington House on Church Street.
The Calhoun House, a hoarder’s paradise. It is so loaded with valuable trinkets, it is mind blowing.
If you like views of the harbor you can stop and visit the Edmonston-Alston House on east Battery where P.T Beauregard and many others watched the beginning of the Civil War. Just across the street you will see where Robert Smalls, a famous slave who waited in silence at night to steel a confederate ship and sail it right into the arms of the union, winning freedom for him, his family, and friends. This area is inundated with meaningful stories about survival, integrity, and freedom.
And then there is the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon with haunting tales of captive pirates and Politian’s, Charleston’s own tea party, and the elite balls to which the likes of George Washington attended.
Historic Home and Art Walks are also available throughout the year. If you enjoy architecture or just want to enjoy visiting some of Charleston’s most historic homes and gardens you can check with the Preservation Society. Spring and Fall tour walks will introduce you to history, architecture, gardens, and the art of preservation. Art walks are also available yearlong complete with a nice glass of wine for your stroll between galleries.
WANT TO BE CHAUFFERED? – There are several ways to be chauffeured around town. The most comfortable way to ride is in an air conditioned tour bus easily found at the Visitors Center on Meeting and John Street. The duration can be anywhere from 1.5 hours through the city to an entire day of touring, particularly if the tour goes to the outskirts of Charleston to the plantations such as Magnolia, Middleton, Drayton Hall or Boone Hall. The shorter tours through the city are an excellent choice for winter or summer months. The buses are extremely comfortable and tour guides can be well heard from any seat on the bus.
On a nice day, people often choose a horse carriage ride through historic Charleston. Carriage tickets can be found at little stands up and down Market Street. Palmetto Carriages are just off on Anson and Market in a Red Barn. What you need to know about horse carriage rides is that they all have to stop at the corner of Church and Market for permission to move forward on one of three paths. There is a limit to how many carriages can travel one path at a time. The director lets the tour guides know which path to take. You will have no control over what streets the carriage will travel unless you decide to go with a more luxurious private carriage. Private carriages can take you wherever you want to go still abiding by Charleston’s tourism laws.
You can also take a less luxurious ride on a rickshaw. These bicycle’s trail a small carriage behind them big enough for two to three people and are meant to act as a bicycle taxi, although many use them for a nice breezy slow ride around town. For many years they were not allowed to give a tour but the tour laws are changing. Tour guides no longer need to be licensed in Charleston as they once were.
BOAT TOURS FOR WATER LOVERS – Another wonderful way to relax and enjoy the city is a boat tour. Most boat tours begin at 10 Wharfside near the Aquarium. You will find Sandlapper Tours, Schooner Pride, Charleston Harbor Tours as well as Prevailing Winds which is geared toward private tours on a small catamaran. The larger vessels conduct history tours including trips to Fort Sumter, ghost, nature tours for lovers of dolphins and wildlife in the Charleston area, and sunset tours where you can build your repertoire of magnificent sunsets and regal pictures of the Ravenel Bridge at close range. These tours are a wonderful alternative to walking in the summer as most days your will feel a beautiful harbor breeze.
If you want to get up close and personal in the water, try a kayak tour. It is not unusual to float right alongside a dolphin. You may even see a manatee. The water is warm and inviting in summer months, a great time to experience the harbor, Shem Creek and the Ashley River.
It is entirely up to you what type of tour you would like to experience. Try one or try them all. If you don’t want to pay for a tour, you can easily walk on any of the streets south of Broad and find tidbits of information on the small plaques of historic homes. View different types of European architecture, lush gardens, and parks, the general feel of the old south.
Feel free to find more information below.
Hoon Calhoon – Culinary Tours
History and Ghost
Ed Macy – 843-345-6229 firstname.lastname@example.org. Ed conducts private walking tours on most Sundays and also works as a tour guide on the Sandlapper. A funny, off the charts intelligent guide, who uses humor to convey the most spectacular historical details.
Michael Trouche with Charleston Footprints tells the story like no other as he has lived in Charleston all his life.
Bulldog Tours – Lots of tours throughout the day.
Charleston Art Walk
Historic Homes and Gardens Walks and Tours – Historic Preservation Society