EXPLORING CHARLESTON AS A SOLO TRAVELER

Charleston Planning and Research

People kept telling me Charleston was a great city and I wanted to see what it would be like exploring Charleston as a solo traveler.

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Since I live in North Carolina, I coupled my visit to Charleston, South Carolina with my trip to Savannah, Georgia. 

They’re about an hour apart, and I thought Charleston would be easy to swing by on the way home.  Turns out they’re about the same distance for me.  I’m still trying to get my head around that.

The trip was planned quickly and I only had 3 days.  If you have a short amount of time and need a quick list, check my Top 10 Things to do in Charleston for an easy read.

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After doing some research, I had a basic itinerary and booked an Airbnb in North Charleston, just outside the city.  It was convenient for all my plans, about 15-30 minutes from everything.

Find out if Charleston SC should be on your solo travels list

Arriving in Charleston, Initial Thoughts

Thanks to knowing people who used to live in the Charleston area, I knew I needed to check on parking deck pricing and availability prior to arriving and found a helpful website. 

The Visitor Center parking deck seemed to be the best option and it was easy to map directly to the location. 

It took two tries circling the block to find the entrance, so I wound up parking around 2:30 pm.

After stopping at the Visitor Center to get a map and some suggestions, I headed south down Liberty Street to the main historic areas.

I explained I was exploring Charleston by myself and they assured me the tourist areas were safe.

Had I put more thought into actually looking at the map, I would have realized it was at least an 8 block walk. Most of the walk didn’t feel comfortable and I made a point to head back to the car well before dark.

Because Charleston is a larger southern city, and bustling, I did find it difficult to get good photos as an amateur. 

Between the light (the sun always seemed to be on the wrong side), the cars, the people, and other buildings blocking the view, I struggled.

It got better as I learned the ins and outs of the city, but if you’re not a professional and take time to line up photos, just know it could take a while to get a good photo. 

The map from the Visitor Center was well designed and easy to follow.  Everything of interest is in a tight area and clearly noted on the map. 

Almost everything I wanted to see was between Liberty and East Bay Streets beginning at the cross street of Market, then heading south.

After taking a quick walk around the area, I had some time so I returned to my car by walking up King Street which is basically a shopping mall but lined up on one very long street.

So far it was looking like exploring Charleston on my own wouldn’t be too difficult.

Downtown Charleston

My Tours

Since I was on limited time, I signed up for a Ghost Tour from Old Charleston Walking Tours and a daytime Alleyways and Hidden Passages tour from Lowcountry Walking Tours

Both guides knew the city well and I learned a lot about the history of Charleston. 

Since they took different routes, I also began to understand the layout of the city better.

On the Ghost Tour, our guide Mike Brown, shared the Edgar Allen Poe link to Charleston. 

Many locals know he was stationed at Fort Moultrie in the army, but few are aware he may have been a love interest for Anna Ravenel, the young daughter of a very famous and rich Charleston family.

It’s possible The Raven and Annabel Lee are both about her and not his wife, Virginia.  We’ll never know for sure. 

The Alleyways and Hidden Passages tour was a great way to find areas of the city often hidden. 

It was interesting to see families living in and renovating homes of famous citizens. 

There appears to be a lot of renovation ongoing in the city.  It felt like construction vehicles were parked on almost every street. 

This seemed like a good thing and indicated the city was in a constant state of preservation.   

Wandering Downtown

It didn’t take long to really tour downtown.  Honestly, it can easily be done in one day. 

I spent about 1.5 days because I was trying to go back to locations for good photos. 

The famous Rainbow Row was a definite stop with the brightly colored homes.  The French Quarter was also picturesque with cobblestone streets and homes that look like I stepped back in time.

I learned on my tours that Charleston has strong ties to Barbados.

When the colonists on Barbados needed more land for their sugar businesses, land was granted for a colony, “Carolina”, in the new world.

This is why there is a lot of Barbados influence in the design of the city and its architecture.

As I wandered along, there were little parks and green alleyways that popped up unexpectedly.   

While it may seem a little touristy, Market Street was a lot of fun with cute shops and local artists and craftsmen with their booths. 

I stopped in the tea shop and when I came out noticed the Jerky shop next door. 

One of the tour guides had mentioned I should walk all the way to the southern tip of Charleston for White Point Gardens and the Battery. 

After enjoying that area, I headed up East Bay Street and cut over to Waterfront Park for some great water views and the famous Pineapple Fountain. 

I love water views and river walks and all things ocean so this was one of my favorite places.

While not on the usual tourist route, I also enjoyed the quaint neighborhoods of Church and Chalmers Streets.

For some reason, I also felt pulled to take a lot of photos of Broad Street.  It seemed like someone had taken a small town main street and tossed it in the dryer with a big city street. The overall effect was beautiful.

Outside Charleston – Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island

Patriot’s Point and the Ravenel Bridge

I spent half a day in Mount Pleasant and wished I had more time. Had I known more about Charleston and Mount Pleasant, I think I would have adjusted the schedule. 

The beautiful Ravenel bridge connects Charleston and Mount Pleasant.  I drove across and then got off at the first exit. 

If I had driven all the way down the road, it would have led me to Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum.  While I didn’t stop here due to time, I’ve heard it’s well worth a visit. 

The museum is home to the USS Yorktown Aircraft Carrier, USS Laffey Destroyer, USS Clamagore Submarine, Vietnam Experience Exhibit, Medal of Honor Museum and a host of Significant Military Aircraft. 

What I was interested in was the Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park and Pier. 

It’s a cute pier that leads to the water’s edge under the Ravenel bridge for great views.  The pier is quite long and has a small shop and café.  Parking was free during my visit.

The pedestrian walkway across the Ravenel bridge is part of the park. From the parking lot, walk under the bridge and then follow the path to the left. 

It winds around and then continues the 2-mile length of the bridge.  The path is a walking and biking path, separated from the vehicles. 

Even better, the path is on the side of the bridge facing Charleston. it affords amazing views of the USS Yorktown and downtown Charleston. 

The bridge itself is absolutely stunning.  I really enjoyed my walk and took a ton of photos. 

Pitt Street Bridge

Arriving back at the car, I headed to the Pitt Street Bridge.

The naming is a little confusing because the bridge has had many changes throughout history. It’s now a park and pier called Pickett Bridge Recreation Area. 

The last name of the bridge was Pitt Street Bridge.    

At one time, the bridge was the only connection between Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island until it was replaced by the Ben Sawyer Bridge in 1945. 

Most of the Pitt Street bridge was burned in a fire, but the section remaining intact is now a promenade. 

At the end of the walk, I was able to see the pilings of the original bridge lined up across the water. 

It’s a beautiful place to sit and enjoy the marshes or ocean views and watch the sunset over Charleston and the Ravenel bridge in the distance. 

I really enjoyed the slower pace and getting away from the bustle of the city.

Outside Charleston – Johns and Wadmalaw Islands

Johns Island and Angel Oak Tree

You may have heard of Angel Oak Tree.  It’s a Southern live oak often seen as a symbol of the strength of the south. 

While some sites refer to it as the oldest tree east of the Mississippi, there are trees in North and South Carolina known to be significantly older. 

Angel Oak Tree lives Angel Oak Park on Johns Island just outside of Charleston.  I headed out there early to take a peak. 

The tree is easy to locate but be aware the park has limited parking. 

While the morning was a great time because there were few people around and I could freely explore, it was also a lot darker. 

The tree is amazingly large, providing shade over 17,200 square feet and you need a lot of sunlight to penetrate the canopy.

Angel Oak stands 66.5 feet tall and has a circumference of 28 feet.  It’s amazing to stand next to it and see the immense branches sprawl across the park.  The largest branch is 187 feet long. 

While I can list the statistics, it’s hard to convey just how large it was as I stood next to it.

Although it may seem corny, I do recommend checking it out. 

There’s something about this 400-500 year-old tree managing to survive against the odds that’s inspiring.

Wadmalaw Island – Charleston Tea Plantation

After visiting Angel Oak, I headed to the Charleston Tea Plantation on nearby Wadmalaw Island.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was fun and interesting. 

The main building is a retail shop where you can sample some tea. 

There’s a free, self-guided tour that starts every 30 minutes.  I walked through a hallway with glass windows overlooking the tea processing area. 

There are TVs at each station that activate on a timer and walked me through each step of the process at the appropriate location. 

It only takes about 12 to 15 minutes, and it’s fun.  They were actually processing some tea while I was there and I enjoyed understanding what they were doing at each station.

For a fee, you can take a trolley ride through the plantation fields.  I didn’t do this, but my parents have done it in the past and they thought it was well done. 

The plantation is designed for you to spend time meandering and enjoying the grounds. Some areas are roped off so it’s easy to see where you can explore.   

As I walked around I found a picnic area with some fun yard art.  Further along, there was a path leading to a gazebo with a little pond. 

I’m not sure if this was meant to be reassuring, but there was a sign letting visitors know a little alligator lives in the pond.  I didn’t see him and I didn’t stay long. 

Overall, I spent about an hour or so at the plantation. 

Wadmalaw Island – Firefly Distillery

After doing some internet surfing and asking, Firefly Distillery kept coming up as a must-do.  I was in the area, or so I thought, and headed that way. 

My GPS originally told me I was 2.3 miles away, but once I was out of the Tea Plantation driveway and at the road, GPS “rerouted” and I was now 9 miles away. 

Apparently it is “right there” if you can drive across water.  Since I can’t, I had to drive all the way up the island to the top of a little inlet and then back down the other side.  Must be fun for those living in the area.

All was good though.  Firefly Distillery did not disappoint. 

The location houses both a winery and a distillery.  Both offer tastings for $6 and you can keep the glass.

After a little hemming and hawing, I opted for the distillery. 

My $6 got me 6 samples and the shot glass to take home.  They gave small pours so by the end I had maybe a shot at the most. 

I appreciated this since I had to drive afterward. 

These folks know what they’re doing when it comes to making spirits.

They have managed to make their peach moonshine taste exactly like fresh peaches. 

The peach flavor is refreshing and doesn’t feel fake. The Ruby Red Vodka is also excellent. 

I had a little difficulty limiting my purchases but it’s possible I had a bit of a buzz going. 

Firefly Distillery is moving to North Charleston soon which will make them more accessible.  I would put them on your “must-see” list when visiting Charleston.

My Charleston Itinerary

Due to arriving later than anticipated and having booked the tours ahead of time, my itinerary was a little scattered. Here’s the rundown.

I spent my first afternoon exploring downtown and then taking a Ghost Tour. 

On day two I enjoyed my Alleyways and Secret Passages Tour, wandered downtown for additional pictures, drove and then walked across Ravenel Bridge, and finished the day at Pitt Street Bridge.

Day three I went to Angel Oak, Charleston Tea Plantation, Firefly Distillery, and then back to the city for some photographs at dusk.

On my fourth morning, I was able to head directly home. 

My recommendation for anyone touring Charleston would be a full day downtown, a day at Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island and a half-day at Johns and Wadmalaw Islands. 

My thoughts on Charleston

Honestly, Charleston wasn’t my favorite city.  While everyone I met was very nice from the guides to the distillery owners, to the really nice woman I got coffee from at the Market, there was an overall feeling that I wasn’t welcome. 

It seemed to stem from a higher level.  I understand it’s a city with businesses and people who live and work there, but it also makes a lot of money from tourism. 

There’s an underlying current of begrudgingly allowing the tourists.

It also just felt like the city was old south and exploring as a solo female traveler seemed frowned upon.

Parking

Parking is difficult.  There’s actually a website you can use to locate parking decks, their rates, and whether it’s full. 

Most rates are per half hour but there’s a maximum and each deck is different.  I found the Visitor Center and Charleston County Parking Garages were the best. 

Street parking isn’t really an option.  Even if you could find a spot, traffic won’t stand for you to take the time to parallel park. 

I saw more than one car pull forward to angle into a spot and the car behind them drove up and blocked them. 

Oh, and meters run until 10 pm.  That’s right.  You have to pay for street parking up until 10 pm. 

The Soap People

The soap people on King Street were aggressive and annoying.  

It’s a skincare shop where the employees stand on the sidewalk and offer free soap.  The idea is to entice you to stop and enter a conversation and then they try to sell you expensive products. 

The problem is that a polite “no thank you” doesn’t work.  As I continued to walk, they shouted after me, “Can I talk to you about your eyes”.  This happened twice. 

When I reached the third one, I didn’t say anything.  Their response was to run down the street after me saying they needed to tell me about my skin. 

By the time I reached the fourth store (yep, there were at least four of them within 4 blocks), I just looked at them and, not so nicely, said NO. 

After that, I got off King street and just finished walking up Liberty. 

Seems to me that if the city of Charleston can vote to extend street parking meters to 10 pm, they can stop the soap people from chasing folks down the street.

Restaurants

I have never felt so unwelcome in any restaurant before.  When I walked into one casual café, it was clear they thought I wasn’t worth their time. 

The disdain from the hostess was obvious and they weren’t even busy.  I don’t have time for this and it screams “bad service” so I left. 

This happened twice. 

Now the coffee shops and smaller diners were very nice and accommodating.  

Safety

I didn’t feel safe at night by myself so I was sure to be back at my car before dark when in the city. 

For the ghost tour, I parked as close as I could to the meeting location and the guide actually walked back to the parking garage with me. 

Final Thoughts

While I don’t regret exploring Charleston as a solo traveler, I don’t think I would feel the need to return.

Overall Charleston has a nice downtown with some great historic and charming areas you can be toured in one day. 

I do recommend a tour as it’s easier to navigate some of the back alleys and side streets. 

Is Charleston SC a good destination for solo travelers?

The more relaxing places are outside the city.  Definitely spend the time in Mount Pleasant and other surrounding areas.   

I know a lot of folks will disagree with me on my feeling about Charleston. 

A lot of my friends and neighbors love the city and find it full of things to do.  They also enjoy the restaurants and shopping. 

Maybe my trip was a bit of a fluke.  Maybe it’s the difference between exploring Charleston as a solo traveler or visiting as a couple.

All I can say is on this trip, at this time, I enjoyed the outside areas more than the actual city. 

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