Across from The Charleston Museum, a group of tourists gathers at the Joseph Manigault House, a stately brick structure built in 1803 for its namesake, a wealthy rice planter. Soon the tourists' world will be one of ornately designed fireplaces, period furniture and winding staircases.
Their walk through a finely preserved setting is one that is repeated thousands of times a year across the downtown peninsula and elsewhere in the surrounding Lowcountry as tourists travel back to some of the most iconic moments in America’s history—through homes that have survived the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Visit houses where time has stood still for more than 200 years and others that are restored to their original glory days. These historic homes not only amaze with their architecture, but also with stories of the families who have lived in these beautiful landmarks throughout time. (Tip: Wear light clothing if you are visiting during the summer, because these houses are authentic in their lack of air-conditioning. The Manigault house does offer a refreshing respite as its summertime tours commence: Visitors are first led to the air-conditioned dining room for the tour's introduction and briefing. Also be mindful that in addition to the Manigault House and others on the peninsula, tourists can enjoy countryside tours at such historic homes as Drayton Hall, Middleton Place and Boone Hall Plantation. )
Rainbow Row: One of the most-photographed sites on the city peninsula is Rainbow Row. Many myths surround these colorful Georgia Row houses, including one that says their pastel colors helped intoxicated sailors remember which houses were their own. The iconic homes actually owe their pastel hues to Dorothy Porcher Legge, who bought these run-down, former marketplaces in the 1930s and painted them pink. Others followed her lead, and today there is a collection of houses in a Colonial Caribbean color scheme. East Bay Street, Charleston
Aiken-Rhett House: The Aiken-Rhett House is one of the few historic houses in Charleston that has been preserved, rather than restored. Explore the layers of the house as they have evolved since the early 1800s, when this was home to South Carolina's governor. It is also one of the only houses where you can still access the slave quarters and carriage house. Official site: Aiken-Rhett House, 48 Elizabeth St., Charleston, 843.723.1159
(Tip: You can buy the “Best of Charleston Architecture” ticket package at the Charleston Museum for a good deal on tours of the Aiken-Rhett House, Joseph Manigault House, Heyward-Washington House and Nathaniel Russell House.)
Joseph Manigault House: The best street to stroll through Charleston’s rich architectural history is Meeting Street. A short walk from the Aiken-Rhett House to Meeting Street will bring you to the Manigault House. Stroll the period garden that frames this early-19th-century home. Joseph Manigault’s brother, Gabriel Manigault, designed both this house and Charleston’s City Hall in the Federal style, which stands out against traditional architecture in Charleston. The house has come close to being torn down in the past, but locals saved it to be enjoyed by future generations. “When you come to any one of the historic houses in Charleston, you get the opportunity to truly live history and see how people lived,” says Katrina Lawrimore, Charleston Museum historic house administrator. Official site: Joseph Manigault House, 350 Meeting St., Charleston, 843.723.2926.
Heyward-Washington House: The 18th-century Heyward-Washington House is named for two heroes of the American Revolution. The owner of the house, Thomas Heyward Jr., was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and its most famous visitor was President George Washington. In the impressive home is an original letter written by George Washington and a cabinet made in Charleston, which was called priceless by "Antique Roadshow." Official site: Heyward-Washington House, 87 Church St., Charleston, 843.722.0354
Nathaniel Russell House: Back on Meeting Street is one of Charleston’s most striking historical homes, the Nathaniel Russell House. The first thing you will notice is the neoclassical architecture and geometrically shaped rooms. The most memorable part of the home is the freestanding, spiral staircase. You can view the interlocking woodwork that makes this marvel possible through a window at the bottom of the stairs. Many visitors say these stairs are worth the trip alone. Official site: Nathaniel Russell House, 51 Meeting St., Charleston, 843.724.8481
The Edmondston-Alston House: A true testament to time, the Edmondston-Alston House is still preserved to depict life in the 19th century. It houses many original family furnishings and antiques, which lend an authentic feel to the rooms. Look out on the harbor or enjoy a more permanent view as a guest of the bed and breakfast that occupies part of this home. Official site: The Edmondston-Alston House, 21 E. Battery St., Charleston, 843.556.6020
Two Meeting Street Inn: The “Wedding Cake House,” as locals call it, has a romantic history to complement its castle-like architecture. According to the current owners, newlyweds Waring Carrington and Martha Williams received the money for their new home as a wedding present from Martha’s father. The gift was lavish even for today’s standards, and in those times it was extraordinary. Two Meeting Street Inn, once a home for a new bride and groom in the late 1800s, is now a honeymoon destination for today’s newlyweds and a beautiful sight for anyone visiting Charleston. 2 Meeting St., Charleston, 843.723.7322
The Charleston Battery: After a tour of some of Charleston’s grandest historical residences, you will find yourself at the end of Meeting Street near The Charleston Battery. Here, you can soak in breathtaking views of Fort Sumter and Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse. You can stroll beside antebellum homes that convey the true Southern spirit for which Charleston is famous. Pause between the sprawling trees to take in one of the South’s finest sunsets.
Tip: Though this guide looks at homes that are open to the public in the city's historic peninsula, there again are more to explore. Follow our guide to Charleston's historic plantations and estates for a different flavor. Most are located only a short distance from the city.