Nightlife in Charleston is as varied as the city itself, from late-night ghost tours of the city's haunted history to live music downtown and on the beaches, and the latest thing, cocktails on rooftop bars. With two major local universities (the Citadel and College of Charleston), the city definitely has a vibrant young feel after dark, but there is plenty of fun for folks of all ages.
The City Market also opens at night on Friday and Saturday nights from March through December. The Dock Street Theatre is home to live performances as well as the Gaillard Auditorium and the North Charleston Coliseum. During Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston's 17-day arts festival in the spring, you will find more cultural offerings than any other city in the Southeast.
Pro tip: Navigating Charleston's crowded historic streets in a car can be difficult for visitors at any time of day but especially so at night as folks come out for a good time. If you do plan to partake of adult beverages as you enjoy the city's nightlife, please leave your car at your hotel and walk or make use of the city's fleet of pedicabs, bike taxis and rickshaws. They will get you home safely after a night of fun.
One of the city's most famous ghost tours is offered by Bulldog Tours. For 90 minutes on the Ghost and Dungeon walking tour, you will stroll the cemeteries, alleyways, churches and the old Provost Dungeon located in the Old Exchange building where Broad Street turns into East Bay Street. The dungeon held pirates and Revolutionary War prisoners guilty of treason. Bulldog offers early evening tours at 7 and a late-night tour starting at 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, March 1-Nov. 30.
There are more than 300 live-music venues in the greater Charleston area, from local churches to restaurants, bars and even a Music Farm, which hosts nationally known performers in an intimate downtown setting. The music styles range from gospel to bluegrass to classic rock and folk, and local groups looking for that big break, like SC bands Hootie and the Blowfish, Edwin McCain or the Blue Dogs, whose band members still play here regularly. The Folly Beach Pier invites you to learn the state dance (the Shag) and listen to classic Carolina beach music at Moonlight Mixers once a month from May to September. At the other end of what can reasonably still be called Charleston is Awendaw Green about a 15-mile ride north to the small town of Awendaw, where local and regional musicians perform open-air concerts, most notably at Wednesday Night Jams. There are food vendors, but you are welcome to bring your own picnic and beverages, blankets and chairs. A $5 donation at the door gets you into most shows.
Held from 5 to 8 p.m. on the first Fridays in March, May, October and December, this free event lets visitors stroll among dozens of art galleries in Charleston's "French Quarter" - which runs from Market to Tradd streets and from Meeting Street to the Cooper River. Participating galleries offer complimentary wine and snacks.
The famed Charleston City Market, home to sweetgrass vendors, purveyors of all things Southern and antiquities, opens at night (6:30-10:30 p.m.) on Fridays and Saturdays from March through December. There is live music or other performances as well as dozens of City Market vendors and food sellers. The area shops and restaurants surrounding the market also are open late with their own live music and food. It feels like one big street party every weekend.
The Dock Street Theatre's history is as storied as Charleston's - opening originally in 1736 as the first building in the New World dedicated to theatrical performances and home to the first opera performed in America. But the theater was destroyed by fire just a few years after opening and was replaced by the Planter's Hotel, famed for its Planter's Punch.
After the Civil War, the hotel was neglected and slated to be demolished until it was bought by the city and rehabbed as a theater again in the 1930s by the city and the Works Progress Administration. Among the notable folks in the audience at the 1937 grand re-opening was author DuBose Heyward, the Charleston native who wrote the novel "Porgy" that was the basis for the famed Gershwin opera "Porgy and Bess."
Another renovation in 2010 brought the theatre into the 21st century with modern lighting, heating and air conditioning, as well as other comforts audiences have become accustomed to. Dock Street is a key venue during Spoleto Festival USA and home to performances during the year by Charleston Stage, the theater's resident company.
Up on the Roof(s)
One of the latest trends in cocktailing in Charleston is the rooftop bar. Because of the lower height of most of Charleston's downtown buildings, you can glimpse many of these bars from the street and you can certainly hear them. Guests can enjoy excellent views of the city and Charleston Harbor from these locations, as well as wonderful outdoor dining, drinking and dancing well above the street crowds.
Some of the notable locations are:
Stars Restaurant on Upper King boasts the only 360-degree view of the city. The Market Pavilion Hotel's rooftop is also home to the hotel's pool as well as some of the best views of the harbor from its perch on East Bay Street. The Rooftop at The Vendue also offers wonderful views of the harbor. You can even see the World War II-era aircraft carrier USS Yorktown docked at Patriots Point from here.