Congrats! You’ve finally pulled the trigger on your first trip to the Palmetto State and I couldn’t be more excited for you! While South Carolina has much to offer in the way of sights and culture, a visit to Charleston (its oldest city) and Columbia (one of the state’s largest cities and state capital) are fundamental stops on your inaugural tour. Here are 8 things you must experience in both cities.
1. A walking tour of Charleston
Your first trip to South Carolina will likely start in Charleston, the state’s transport hub. Lucky for you, it’s arguably the most picturesque city in the region. Hit the ground running (literally) with a walking tour by Charleston Strolls. This two hour jaunt through the historic district sheds light on Charleston’s powerful past, and is a stunning visual introduction to the most charming and colorful city in the state. I double pinky swear that you’ll be as enraptured by stories of Charleston’s role in the Civil Wars and Slave Trade as by the horse-drawn carriages and ornate church steeples that dot the skyline (They don’t call it the “Holy City for nothing!). Comfy walking shoes, a pad for taking notes, and an empty camera memory card are required!
2. Hit up the most Instagrammable Charleston hotspots
Speaking of empty memory cards, if you didn’t post your trip to South Carolina on social media, did it even happen? Charleston is a goldmine for jaw dropping photos that will get alllllll the likes! I recommend stopping at Rainbow Row for the quintessential “I’m living my best life in Charleston” photo (late afternoon yields the best light for this), as well as in front of the Pineapple Fountain at Waterfront Park. The Watch Rooftop at The Restoration Hotel is a prime spot for skyline photos, while Folly Beach’s Sunset Cay Marina is the perfect place to document the epic sunsets Charleston is known for. Trust us, Charleston has more than enough material to make you the envy of all your friends and followers!
3. Eat your face off in Columbia
Columbia is the state capital and, by its own admission, has a mix of big city ideas with small town charm. This is best reflected in its cosmopolitan food scene: not only is there is an impressive number of places to chow down, there’s a variety of cuisines and dining experiences suitable for every palate. But while the restaurants in the city serving international fare certainly hold their own, it’s the Southern-fusion cuisine that really takes the cake (pun totally intended). With an emphasis on sustainably farmed and locally sourced ingredients, I’m a huge fan of Motor Supply Company Bistro, and think it’s a great spot to have your first taste of shrimp and grits (#fightus). I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention our personal favorite, Spotted Salamander. Their brand of Southern cuisine is daring, inventive, extremely photogenic, and so delicious it’ll make you dance in your seat. The deviled eggs are an absolute revelation.
4. Go to Congaree National Park
A visit to Columbia isn’t complete without heading to Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States (say THAT five times fast!). A mere 30 minute-drive from Columbia, it’s a respite from bustling city life, as well as a golden opportunity to become one with nature. Active types will enjoy the 25 miles of hiking trails, canoeing, and kayaking available, while those who like to take it easy can casually stroll the tree-lined, 2.4 mile boardwalk that loops around a section of the park.
5. Visit one of Charleston’s plantations
A painful, yet important part of Charleston’s history, visiting a plantation is a must during your first visit to the area. Boone Hall Plantation is one of America’s oldest, with crops having been grown on the property for over 320 years, while Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, is home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the country. While heart-wrenching, these sites are a necessary component of the South Carolina experience— not only do they force us to reflect on America’s past, they allow us to connect it with the present.
6. Explore Charleston by sea
Surrounded by water, there’s no better way to experience Charleston by— you guessed it— getting your feet wet! But wait, there’s no need to break out the 110-foot yacht just yet. For those operating with a more humble budget *raises hand*, I suggest doing a tour with Coastal Expeditions. Their knowledgeable and skilled staff offer the full-range of options for exploring Charleston’s waterways: kayak excursions, SUP rentals, and even boat charters if you’re so inclined.
7. Shop and sightsee in Columbia’s Main Street District
Folks in the know will tell you that Columbia’s Main Street is where artists, legislators, and locals go to meet, eat, and create. Located at the heart of the the capital’s downtown, this district is a fascinating mix of history and innovation. Get your fill of culture with a visit to the Columbia Museum of Art, shop ‘til you drop at the iconic Mast General Store, and let your hair down with drinks at The Whig, which credits itself as being “North America’s Greatest Dive Bar”. (P.S.: The Rooftop Lounge at the Sheraton is a solid option for more “bougie” types. Ahem.)
8. Learn more about Black History in Columbia
African-American history takes center stage in Columbia and is deeply embedded into the fabric of the city. Tour the Mann-Simons Site (managed by Historic Columbia), the historic house of former enslaved people Ben Delane and Celia Mann, and be inspired by their story of triumph, transition, and entrepreneurship. Explore the lives of enslaved workers and their owners at the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens, one of Columbia’s oldest remaining structures. And you absolutely must visit The African American History Monument, which traces their history from the arrival of enslaved Africans to South Carolina during the Middle Passage, all the way up to their present-day contributions to the state. The monument is the first of its kind on any of the nation’s statehouse grounds!
So there you have it, 8 must-have experiences for your inaugural jaunt to Charleston and Columbia. However, if you’re thinking that I’ve barely scratched the surface, you’d be right— there are so many wonderful things to do, see, and eat in the Palmetto State’s two largest cities. But never fear: I offered these suggestions for your first visit because I’m CERTAIN it won’t be your last!