Charleston Self-Guided History Tour
Charleston’s history dates back to 1670, when it was founded by English colonists. Luckily, it has retained much of its culture, monuments and original architecture over the years. Walking down the streets of Charleston, you feel as though you’re walking back in time. This free self-guided walking tour of Charleston details the city’s history from its conception to modern-day Charlestonian life.
Learn about some of Charleston’s most historically important sites, such as the Charleston Market, Fort Sumter and Patriots Point, Rainbow Row and the Old Slave Market in this Charleston self-guided history tour. Should you get hungry along the way, you can always stop at one of the restaurants on our free self-guided food tour of Charleston. While healthy restaurants in Charleston, SC, may be hard to find, we’ve got plenty of fare to feed everyone’s appetites.
If you would like to learn more about Charleston’s in-depth history, architecture, lesser-known facts and tidbits, along with our guides’ recommendations, we highly suggest going on our popular Guided Charleston History Tour. This is an affordable alternative to the free self-guided tour!
Even if you’ve only got three days in Charleston, this tour will get you to all the must-see spots!
Charleston Self-Guided History Tour
Tour Stop 1: Charleston Market
You can’t visit Charleston without stopping at its historic market. The market’s history dates back to 1788 when famous Charlestonian Charles Cotesworth Pickney gave up a plot of land to the City of Charleston for use of a public market. The market was finally built between 1804 and the 1830s. Today it’s one of the best spots in Charleston for shopping, and visitors can browse the stalls, get a quick bite to eat and check out the market’s most famous wares — handmade sweetgrass baskets.
Walk east on Market St., and take a right on Concord St; you’ll hit the Waterfront Park in a few blocks. Walk until you see the Pineapple Fountain.
This is also a major stop on our Charleston food tour.
Tour Stop 2: Waterfront Park/ Fort Sumter
The second stop on our Charleston self-guided history tour is the Waterfront Park. Charleston’s Waterfront Park offers one of the best viewpoints in the city — and some of the best photo opportunities. The park runs half of a mile down the Cooper River. The focal point of the park is the famous Pineapple Fountain, which was built in 1990 and symbolizes the Charlestonian love of hospitality. From here, you can see the Ravenel Bridge, Patriots Park and Fort Sumter — the location where the Civil War began.
Walk two blocks east of the park, and take a right on Church St. St. Philip’s Church is located between Cumberland and Queen sts.
Tour Stop 3: St. Philip’s Church
St. Philip’s Church is where you can find the oldest congregation in Charleston — and South Carolina. Established in 1680, St. this church is the mother church of the Diocese of South Carolina. The current structure was built in 1838, and the tower served as a lighthouse for Charleston’s harbor. Several notable Charlestonians are buried in its cemetery, including Charles Pickney and Edward Rutledge.
Head south on Church St., and stop outside the French Huguenot Church at Church and Queen sts.
Charleston Tour Stop 4: French Huguenot Church
The French Huguenot Church was built in 1845 — and is the third church to stand on this site. It’s just one of Charleston’s many churches that lend the city its moniker, ‘The Holy City.’ Its nickname is the “Church of Tides” thanks to its original service schedule that revolved around the tide schedule as most attendees arrived by boat. Today services are held in French.
Tour Stop 5: Dock Street Theatre
Across the street from the French Huguenot Church is the Dock Street Theatre, which is the fifth stop on our Charleston self-guided history tour. Opened in 1736, this theater was the first that was built solely for the purpose of theatrical performances. The first performance was The Recruiting Officer, and the first opera, Flora, was the first-ever performed in America. The Dock Street Theatre is a public building, and visitors can enter the lobby and public areas during the day.
Head south on Church St., and take left on Chalmers St. The Pink House is on the south side of the street.
Indoor stops such as this are a must if you’re visiting Charleston in January or February, as weather during South Carolina winters can be unpredictable!
Tour Stop 6: The Pink House
Though no longer a gallery open to the public, the Pink House is still delightful to see from the outside. Historians believe it is the second oldest structure in Charleston — built in 1712. It has lived many lives and seen many decades of Charleston’s history. In the 1700s, it was a tavern and a brothel. It has also housed a publishing house and law office before becoming a gallery. It is now a private residence.
Tour Stop 7: Old Slave Mart Museum
A few doors down from The Pink House sits the Old Slave Mart Museum. Once an antebellum slave auction gallery, the Old Slave Mart is now a museum dedicated to teaching the history of the slave triangle, slave boat conditions and the path of the enslaved once they reached the market and plantations.
Head east down Chalmers St., and take a right on State St. Take a left on Broad St. The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon are just across East Bay St.
Tour Stop 8: Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
By the late 1700s, enslaved African Americans made up half of Charlestons’ population, though the city wasn’t usually their final destination. Many were here only long enough to be sold to owners in other areas of the American colonies. The Old Exchange is where many of the slave auctions took place.
The Provost Dungeon was where American soldiers were held prisoner by the British in the American Revolutionary War.
Head south one block on E. Bay St., and take a left on E. Elliot St.
Tour Stop 9: Coates’ Row
The buildings at 114-120 East Bay St. are known as Coate’s Row and were built between 1788 and 1806. Originally owned by Thomas Coates, the structures were once commercial buildings, homes, a tavern and a coffee house. 120 East Bay St. was once a meeting place of the Jacobin Club.
Head south on E. Bay St. to N. Adgers Warf.
Tour Stop 10: Rainbow Row
Possibly one of the most famous and picturesque rows of homes in Charleston, Rainbow Row shows off the Caribbean influence on lowcountry homes. This is one of the prettiest streets in Charleston! Built in the 1740s, these brightly colored homes were once owned by elite Charleston merchants. Though the rainbow colors have made these homes famous, historians can’t seem to agree on why these exact colors were chosen. Rainbow Row is free to visit and one of the best “Charleston on the cheap” activities!
Head north on E. Bay St., and take a left on Broad St. City Hall is at Broad and Meeting sts.
Tour Stop 11: Charleston City Hall
The building that became Charleston’s City Hall was built from 1800 to 1804 and is a great example of the Adamesque style. Originally the Bank of the United States, the building was transformed into City Hall in 1818. Visitors can head into the building for a free tour.
Head west on Broad St., and take a left on Legare.
Tour Stop 12: Legare Street
Many of the buildings that sit on Legare St. are of historic significance, including the Robert Trail Chisolm house at 23 Legare. This house survived an earthquake and was once owned by George A. Trenholm, who is considered by some to be the “real” Rhett Butler.
You can discover the history of many Legare Street homes like this on our Secret History of Charleston tour, where you’ll see everything you would on our regular History of Charleston guided tour — just with a little “extra.”
Head south on Legare, and take a left at S. Battery. You’ll see White Point Gardens a block down the street.
Tour Stop 13: White Point Gardens (The Battery)
The last stop on our Charleston self-guided history tour is White Point Gardens. First built as a public garden in 1837, White Point Gardens was converted into a battery during the Civil War. From here, you can get spectacular views of the Ashely and Cooper Rivers, Fort Sumter and the Charleston Harbor.
If you’re in town for a romantic getaway in Charleston, SC, the Battery should be a must-do stop on your list!
After a long day of walking, it’s time to head back to your hotel. If you’re looking for the best budget hotels in Charleston, don’t miss our list of cheap Charleston, SC, hotels that don’t feel cheap.
Historic Charleston Walking Tours
Want to dive deeper into Charleston’s history? Take our guided history tour to discover all of the Holy City’s secrets through captivating stories, told by a lowcountry guide. Or, consider taking a day trip from Charleston, SC, to Savannah or Hilton Head!
As Charleston COVID social distancing policies continue to change, we recommend calling ahead to ensure the stops on this list are open and accepting visitors. Need even more info? Find out the best time to visit Charleston and our Charleston transportation guide.