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Touring Historic Charleston

Pre-Revolutionary War homes and sprawling antebellum plantations highlight this popular historical destination in South Carolina.

 

For all the history it’s seen in the centuries since it was founded in 1680 in its present location (the first settlement was across the Ashley River), Charleston is none the worse for wear. From pre-Civil War plantations and Colonial-era dungeons to antebellum rowhouses, visitors can partake in a wide variety of opportunities immerse in the history of the Holy City (so named for the church steeples that show up in the city’s skyline), from its beginnings to the present day. Though many attractions are open to the public, some aren’t and must be appreciated from a distance.

The Peninsula

Downtown Charleston presents so many attractions for history lovers that it’s almost impossible to cover them all in a short visit, despite the small size of the area.

The Battery is the southernmost section of the downtown area and includes a small park called White Point Gardens. The Battery served as a line of defense against military intruders, first during the Revolutionary War and again during the Civil War. Cannons that date back to the War Between the States are memorialized in White Point Gardens along with stacks of cannonballs, and are a popular backdrop for photographs.

Charleston’s historic houses are a must-see, and Rainbow Row on lower East Bay Street is a good place to start. These houses from 83 to 107 East Bay Street and date from the mid-18th century are multicolored rowhouses that run along the Battery and face the Cooper River. Gershwin used them as the location for Porgy and Bess and they make up one of the most photographed scenes in Charleston.

The Edmondston-Alston House is owned by Middleton Place Plantation and is one of the earliest houses built in the city that still survives, dating to 1825. Guided tours allow visitors to view almost two centuries of artifacts from a notable early Charleston family. Stand on the piazza—that’s Charlestonian for porch—and imagine the scene as Union forces bombed Fort Sumter just across the river.

4300 Ashley River Road. Tel 800-782-3608. Guided tours: Tue. to Sat., 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sun. and Mon., 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. www.middletonplace.org

The Aiken-Rhett House is two blocks from the Charleston Visitors Center, and provides an unblemished look at an unrestored antebellum house pretty much as it was in the mid-19th century. 48 Elizabeth St. Tel. 843-723-1159. Admission: $10. Hours: Mon. to Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sun. 2 to 5 p.m. www.historiccharleston.org

Shuttle buses provide visitors with transportation along the route known as Museum Mile, which comprises six museums, five historic houses, four parks and a Revolutionary War powder magazine along its length.

Military History

Fort Sumter serves as Ground Zero for many Civil War aficionados, since it is where the Civil War began, and is a National Monument in the National Park Service. Spirit Line Cruises offers a two-hour long cruise with guides narrating the history of the first battle of the War Between the States, which includes an hourlong visit at the Fort itself.

340 Concord St. Tel. 843-883-3123. Tour rates: $16 for adults, $10 for kids 6 to 11, free under 6. Open year-round except holidays, hours vary. www.nps.gov/fosu

The Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, just across the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant, is a decommissioned WWII aircraft carrier—the USS Yorktown—that has been turned into a museum and left largely untouched. You can almost hear the chatter of sailors roaming the halls.

40 Patriots Point Road. Tel. 866-831-1720. Admission: $16 for adults 12 and over, $8 for kids 6 to 11, free under 6. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.patriotspoint.org

The Plantations

Plantations in Charleston—indeed, across the entire southern United States—have a checkered past tainted by slavery and war. While many plantations have been lost to history, victims of the elements and neglect, others have been reclaimed for future generations to enjoy.

But many folks visit plantations to bear witness to that bygone era. Charleston has four different plantations worth a visit. Each one has a main house—original or beautifully restored—stables, painstakingly designed gardens covering many acres, demonstrations, and other attractions.

Boone Hall Plantation, is one of the oldest continuously operated plantations in the country. You can pick strawberries in season here and tour the nine brick slave cabins. “The Notebook” was filmed here.

1235 Long Point Road. Tel 843-884-4371. Admission: $17.50 for adults, $7.50 for children 6 to 12, free for children 5 and under. Hours: Mon. to Sat., 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Sun. 1 to 5 p.m. www.boonehallplantation.com

Drayton Hall is one of the few unrestored plantations in the South. The main building dates from pre-Revolutionary times, and nine generations of the Bowen family had lived in the house consecutively before the property was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1970s.

3380 Ashley River Road. Tel. 843-769-2600. Admission: $14 for adults, $8 for youth 12 to 18, $6 for children 6 to 11, free for children 5 and under. Hours: March 1 to Oct. 31 daily, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.draytonhall.org

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens boasts gardens that date back more than 300 years. Traditionally Southern flowers and plants such as camellia and azaleas are in great abundance here.

3550 Ashley River Road. Tel 800-367-3517. Admission: $15 for adults, $10 for kids 6 to 12, free under 6. Hours: Open year-round; March to October from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. www.magnoliaplantation.com

A National Historic Landmark, Middleton Place is a particularly striking example of an 18th-century plantation that has been essentially brought back from the dead, after the earthquake of 1886 served to undo decades of painstaking work on 65 acres of gardens.

4300 Ashley River Road. Tel 843-556-6020. Admission: $25 for adults, $5 for kids 7 to 15. Hours: Open daily at 9 a.m. www.middletonplace.org

 


Destinations: Charleston

Themes: Historical Vacations

Activities: Sightseeing


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