A carriage ride through Charleston is perhaps the most iconic experience a first-time visitor to the Holy City can have. There's no missing the old-fashioned open-air carriages as they slowly make their way through the historic districts of the peninsula from their starting point in City Market. Highly knowledgeable tour guides point out the famous, infamous and humble landmarks of Charleston, from soaring church steeples to tiny, perfect pocket gardens, gorgeous vistas over the harbor to streets only four feet wide. They also tell funny, fascinating, tragic stories of the people who made Charleston the astonishingly beautiful place it is today. Visitors get a perfect overview of this complex city in one charming hour. A carriage tour is the perfect first thing to do when you arrive in Charleston.
There are five companies that offer tours. All of them are excellent, regulated by the city, and offer highly trained (and entertaining) guides and draft animals whose health is monitored by the city. You can't pick a bad tour.
But there are some things to know that will make your first Charleston experience even better.
1. Your tour's route through the city doesn't depend on the company you pick. Instead, it's controlled by the City of Charleston. To minimize traffic disruption, the city has divided the historic district into four different sections. It's luck of the draw which section your tour will visit. Shortly after your carriage loads up and sets off, the driver will stop at a little kiosk across from the market where a randomly drawn bingo ball will determine your route. There's no way to guarantee that you will get the section you want, but each section is beautiful and fascinating.
2. Two tours on the same route would still be a completely different experience, because the guides are really the thing that make the experience. The guides are some of the smartest, most information-stuffed people you'll ever meet. They're also almost always very, very funny. There's no script-just the stories they choose to tell that day. (They also accept tips for a great tour, so consider bringing some cash.)
3. Your carriage might be drawn by the muscular draft horse you'd expect, but it might also be drawn by a team of mules. Mules were traditional draft animals in Charleston, too, and Palmetto Carriage Works still uses mule teams as well as draft horses. If you're interested in meeting some mules, head over to their big red barn on Guignard Street.
4. Consider taking your ride earlier in the day, especially in the spring, summer and fall, when the afternoon sun in the Holy City can be uncomfortably hot. If the ambient temperature hits 98 degrees, or the heat index hits 125 degrees (yes, it gets that hot in Charleston in the summer-our humidity is famous for a reason!) the tours are halted to protect the health of the animals.
5. You absolutely do NOT have to buy tickets ahead of time, but during popular weekends, you might want to, to cut down on your waiting time. You might also want to book ahead to take advantage of some of the different perks that the various companies offer. For example, Old South Carriage Company has complimentary Meet the Horses tours 10 minutes before your scheduled tour time, but you'll need to book ahead to take advantage of it. Classic Carriage Works offers specialized tours, such as the Slavery to Freedom Tour or the Civil War Tour. Carolina Polo, and Carriage Company offers romantic vis-a-vis carriages that must be booked in advance. And at Charleston Carriage Works, well-behaved dogs are welcome to take the tour too!