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, visits 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 some "must do" things you must experience in both cities.
Embark on a Walking Tour of Charleston
Your first trip to South Carolina will likely start in Charleston, the state’s transport hub. Luckily for you, it’s arguably the most picturesque city in the region.
Hit the ground running (literally) with Bulldog Tours, which offers a multitude of themed jaunts through the city. Stroll the historic district to learn about Charleston’s powerful past, its distinctive culinary traditions, its most notorious ghosts and more while getting 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 War 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!
Hit Up Charleston's Most Instagrammable 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), then head to the city's most popular selfie-spot: the front of the pineapple fountain at the Joe Riley Waterfront Park.
Columbia is the state capital and, by its own admission, is a mash-up of big city ideas and small town charm. This is best reflected in its cosmopolitan food scene. Not only are there an impressive number of places for chowing down, but a variety of cuisines and dining experiences to please every palate, too.
While Columbia's many international restaurants hold their own, it’s the Southern-fusion cuisine that really takes the cake (pun totally intended). An emphasis on sustainably farmed and locally sourced ingredients had made me a huge fan of Motor Supply Company Bistro. 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 a 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 line-up of deviled eggs alone is an absolute revelation.
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, this stunning park offers 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, 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.
Visit a Charleston Plantation
Plantations represent a painful, yet important part of Charleston’s history, so visiting at least one is a must. Boone Hall Plantation, one of America’s oldest, has been growing crops for over 320 years, while Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, is home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the country.
The history may be heart-wrenching, but that makes these sites all the more vital to the South Carolina experience. Not only does it force us to reflect on America’s past, but it allows us to connect it with the present.
Explore Charleston by Sea
Because Charleston is urrounded by water, there’s no better way to experience it than by 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.
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.
African-American history takes centerstage 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 - memorable must-have experiences for your inaugural jaunt to Charleston and Columbia. 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!