Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is famous for its food, beaches and Southern hospitality, and it’s recently become one of the hottest vacation destinations in the U.S.

While a trip here can be pricey — even the more budget chain hotels can run you over $200 a night — the attractions don’t have to be. There are plenty of things you can see for free, liked the pretty, pastel Rainbow Row or the fortified seaside Battery. Even just a walk in downtown Charleston unearths treasures: hidden gardens and ancient mansions.

Private Charleston Gate

I found myself fascinated by the many wrought iron gates, public and private, that lend an old-world feel to this Southern city.

Charleston Gate and Public Building

Window shopping is also fun. The historic City Market is popular with tourists and worth a browse if you have extra time just because it’s so typically Charleston.

The plantations around Charleston aren’t free, but they’re not too expensive when you consider you can spend nearly a full day at each. If you can only do one, Middleton Place is your best bet. The former rice plantation is known as the oldest landscaped gardens in America, laid out in the fashion of André Le Nôtre, the famous 17th-century landscape architect.

Here it is less about showy flowers — though they abound — and more about stately elegance: time-weathered statues, swans gliding down the long canal, a terraced lawn. Each turn unfolds a classical vista as you promenade along.

As aristocratic as this sounds, don’t forget the practicalities. Bring sunscreen and plenty of water (the fountain water isn’t the best). A picnic lunch will help lengthen your stay. I wish we had brought one.

Middleton Place Garden

A close second place is Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. It’s such a close second that I really can’t say it wasn’t my favorite. Must I decide?

Magnolia Plantation the last remaining Romantic garden in the country, and its glorious asymmetric walks amid trees, blooms, bridges and ponds are entrancing. While there’s always plenty of color, try to visit when the azaleas are at their peak. It can vary from year to year. Though I visited in April, I wasn’t able to capture that quintessential photo of the flowers blushing over the water.

Still, you really can’t take a bad photo here.

Bridge at Magnolia Plantation

Along with the gardens, both plantations have historic structures you can tour and a few resident animals. Magnolia Plantation has a proper petting zoo while Middleton Place has a smaller stable yard where I found this handsome fellow unabashedly strutting his stuff.

Peacock at Middleton Place

Get the checklist for what to see if you’re short on time:
The Best of South Carolina: 4 Must-See Sights for Charleston Charm