Charleston: A Field Guide to the History of the Holy City

Follow our video guide to historical stops in Charleston, from the city's origins to the fort where the Civil War began.

Consistently voted a top travel destination, Charleston's appeal is undeniable. Visitors come for the Lowcountry cuisine and fresh seafood, the sun-soaked Atlantic beaches and, of course, the city’s historic charm.

Charleston’s location at the tip of a peninsula and its deep harbor made it a key port city for the nation, and a logistic stronghold during the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Fortunately, for today’s travelers, much of Charleston’s rich and varied history has been preserved for visitors. Follow us along our video tour of this charming South Carolina city.

If you're planning your own trip, follow this quick checklist to make sure you're seeing some of the top history destinations in the Charleston area:

#1: The Four Corners of the Law

You first destination to see Charleston’s place in history is in the center of the city, at the corner of Broad and Meeting streets. It's host to historic structures that locals call “the Four Corners of the Law.” For federal law, the U.S. Post Office and Federal Courthouse has stood since 1896. State law is represented by the Charleston County Courthouse, first built in 1753 as the state’s provincial capital. Municipal law comes in the form of the historic City Hall, and ecclesiastical law is on the fourth corner, where St. Michael's Episcopal Church sits.

#2: Churches: Lots of Them

Nicknamed "the Holy City" for its hundreds of places of worship, the original Charles Towne settlement was founded on principles of religious tolerance. Established in 1681, St. Philip's Episcopal Church (142 Church St., Charleston) is the oldest religious congregation in South Carolina and one of the most iconic steeples on the peninsula. Today, the church and the adjacent graveyard are open to the public for limited hours on weekdays. Travel tip: If you want a great view of the steeple, get the St. Philip's Suite at the Andrew Pinckney Inn and look out the window.

The iconic steeple of Charleston's St. Philip's church
The iconic steeple of Charleston's St. Philip's church wasn't added until a decade after the main structure was completed. (©Zack Daniel/Where)

#3: Where the Civil War Started

As you are ferrying out to our next stop, Fort Sumter, turn around to view the city's skyline (you'll see all those steeples that earned the "Holy City" nickname). Originally a federal fort, the destination is best known for being where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. It now is host to more than a quarter-million visitors a year.

#4: Historic Homes

Back on land, immerse yourself in the exquisite architecture of Charleston’s historic homes—like downtown’s Joseph Manigault House, the conservancy of which spurred the Preservation Society of Charleston, the oldest community-based preservation organization in the United States. Many such similar homes are open for visits and can be found in the historic district south of Broad Street.

Charleston's Joseph Manigault House
Many of the city's historic homes, like the Joseph Manigault House (pictured), are open for tours. (©Zack Daniel/Where)

#5: Southern Plantations

Not far from the city, you’ll find Southern plantations offering grand vistas and Lowcountry flora and fauna. At estates like Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place and Boone Hall Plantation, the programs and exhibits offer insights into what life was like for both the wealthy families and the enslaved Africans whose backs bore the brunt of Charleston’s economic bounty.

#6: The City Market

Sweetgrass baskets made in the Gullah tradition
Sweetgrass baskets made in the Gullah tradition, on sale at the Charleston City Market (©Zack Daniel/Where)

Wrap up your history tour with a stop at the Charleston City Market. The Greek revival-style structure was where farms and plantations sold produce and beef in the late-1700s. Today you’ll find vendors that include local artists and craft artisans like Gullah Sweetgrass basket makers. No visit to Charleston is complete without a stroll through the charming market.

Much of modern-day Charleston’s charisma is owed to its historic past, yet down every cobbled street are hundreds of years of history just begging for you to map out your own adventure. Plan more of your Charleston adventures using the Where travel guide to Charleston and the Lowcountry