Best Museums in Charleston

10 Best Museums Unwrap the Lowcountry for Every Member of The Family

Along a single stretch of Meeting Street known as the Museum Mile, Charleston boasts six museums, five significant historic homes that are open to the public, four parks and a Revolutionary War powder magazine. And that’s not to mention a wealth of lovely 18th- 19th-century churches, historic homes and the elegant 1841 Market Hall.

All aspects of the city’s storied past divulge themselves in Charleston. Explore the site where the first British settlers set foot at Charlestowne Landing and learn how folks lived here before yellow fever, which was rampant in the mosquito-infested marshland, drove them to relocate to the peninsula across the Ashley River. Discover maritime history aboard a WWII aircraft carrier at Patriot’s Point, and see cadets on parade in full military dress while visiting the museum on The Citadel campus. Get a taste of colonial times at the Charleston Museum, and drop by the Old Slave Mart to hear how slaves who worked the rice and indigo plantations helped Charleston become the wealthiest city in colonial America. Adults can experience Charleston’s early 20th-century cultural renaissance at the Gibbes Museum of Art, while the kids fire up their own artistic imagination at the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. 


If you're into old manuscripts and documents, this free museum is for you. Housed in an 1856 Methodist church, the museum wedges display cases around the pews. The revolving series of documents therein represent the eccentric private holdings of David and Marsha Karpeles. David began collecting historical documents in 1978, and now the series of libraries that he and his wife established are located in eight other U.S. cities in addition to Charleston. In the quarterly changing exhibits here, you might see papers ranging from letters from Roget's original thesaurus to letters penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes).

Local Expert tip: The museum is just two blocks off King Street, so after your visit, spend some time browsing the new shops and galleries that have sprung up along upper King.

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Located on the College of Charleston campus, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art serves a dual purpose of being part of the undergraduate School of the Arts at the College and providing a cultural resource for residents and visitors to the Charleston area. The institute's name honors the late William Halsey, an accomplished local artist who taught at the College for 20 years. Since it was established in 1984, the Halsey has hosted hundreds of installations by regional, national and international artists. In addition to sponsoring between five and seven exhibitions each year, the Institute also presents public lectures and film series.

Local Expert tip: A block away, at 52 George Street, Caviar and Bananas makes a perfect place to stop for a cup of coffee or something more substantial from the enticing salads and entrees that fill the refrigerated cases at the back of the store.

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North Downtown

Arranged in chronological order, the permanent artifacts at the Citadel Museum cover the military academy's history from its founding in 1842 to its involvement in modern military operations around the globe. You'll learn about all aspects of cadet life here: where the students live, what classes they take, how they exercise and socialize. Historical photographs, uniforms, weapons and medals number among the items displayed. In the foyer, check out the exhibit of Citadel rings from 1895 to present, and leaf through the photograph albums honoring Citadel men who lost their lives in military conflicts beginning with World War II.

Local Expert tip: While you're at the museum, pick up a campus walking-tour brochure and check out some of the high points: the Gothic-style Summerall Chapel, the Thomas Dry Howie Carillon Tower, and the grave of General Mark W. Clark (former Citadel president and WWII commander).

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The perfect activity for a rainy day, Charleston's children's museum can keep little ones, from toddlers to age 10, occupied for hours. Infants and toddlers even have their own special play space with mini-slides and padded mats. Incite your creativity in the Art Room, with materials from recycled egg cartons to plastic yogurt lids. Be a buccaneer aboard the Pirate Ship, and dress up as a prince or princess at the Medieval Creativity Castle. The laws of physics make for busy hands at Raceways, as you send golf balls racing down ramps and spiraling through chutes. Who knew learning could be so much fun?

Local Expert tip: Before you take those tired kiddies home, treat them to ice cream across the street from the museum at Paolo's Gelato.

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The stately Greek Revival Market Hall marks the beginning of Charleston's famous shopping venue, the Old City Market. The temple-like structure marks the site of a 19th-century meat market. Local architect Edward Brickell White designed Market Hall in 1841 of stucco-covered brick scored to look like blocks of stone. On the second floor, the Daughters of the Confederacy now show off their collection of uniforms, weapons, photographs and flags--including the original Secession flag--relating to the War Between the States. The first shots of the Civil War rang out on April 12, 1861 from Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

Local Expert tip: From the Confederate Museum, you're just steps from Old City Market, whose sheds teems with sweetgrass baskets, locally made food items, T-shirts and other Charleston souvenirs.

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Old Slave Mart Museum
Photo courtesy of Angel Oak

Set on cobblestone Chalmers Street in the Historic District, the Old Slave Mart survives as a vestige of pre-Civil War Charleston. The museum is the only existing building in South Carolina where slaves were once auctioned. Built in 1859, the structure was originally open-ended; an imposing iron gate closed off its arched entrance. Inside the mart today, you'll hear the haunting and disturbing stories of some of the Africans who were brought to the coast of South Carolina and sold as slaves. Displays recount the African experience in South Carolina from Charles Towne's founding through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Local Expert tip: Just around the corner off East Bay Street, McCrady's bar (2 Unity Alley) makes a great place to break for a late-afternoon glass of wine after a day of touring.

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Gibbes Museum of Art

Opened in 1905, the Gibbes holds more than 15,000 art objects. The permanent exhibit, The Charleston Story, rotates pieces among 150 works from the colonial period to the present. It showcases artwork that was created in the Lowcountry, painted by Charleston artists, and that illustrates life in Charleston through the years. Of note are works from the Charleston Renaissance, a period of cultural revival from 1915 to 1940, by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Elizabeth O'Neill Verner and Anne Heyward Taylor. The miniature portrait collection charms with its tiny likenesses by English, French and American artists, while temporary exhibitions related to Charleston appear throughout the year.

Local Expert tip: The admission fee includes a cell-phone audio tour, but if you want a more in-depth visit, docent-led tours are held Fridays at 2:30pm.

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Charleston Museum

The nation's oldest museum was established in 1773 but did not open to the public until 1824. Today, it sits across the street from the Charleston Visitor Center. A good place to begin a visit to the city, the Charleston Museum tells the story of this area from its prehistory to the 20th century. Highlights of the permanent exhibits include a skeleton of a prehistoric crocodile, a fine group of early textiles and clothing, and the Loeblein Gallery of Charleston Silver. The silver collection showcases the work of talented local silversmiths who crafted pieces for the social elite in what was, in colonial times, the nation's wealthiest city. Children will love Kidstory, an interactive space where they can be pirates, play old-fashioned games and try on costumes.

Local Expert tip: Save $8 by buying a combination ticket ($22) to the Charleston Museum and the two historic house museums under its auspices: the Heyward-Washington House and the Joseph Manigault House.

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Set on the banks of Old Town Creek, Charles Towne Landing brings the past to life at the site of the first permanent European settlement in the Carolinas. In 1670, the first English colonists landed on this spot and named their new town for King Charles II. Exhibits here today re-create what life was like for those early settlers: the earthen fort they built, the wooden palisade wall they erected to keep their enemies at bay, crops they planted to sustain themselves, and a reproduction of the 17th-century cargo vessel like the one they would have used to ferry supplies and provisions. There's also an animal forest where you can see native animals that the settlers would have encountered in their new home at South Carolina's first colonial settlement.

Recommended for Museums because: This South Carolina State Park, also on the National Register of Historic Places, is more than a plantation or park - it's a historic outdoor museum of sorts, complete with animals, a replica tall ship, events and more.

Local Expert tip: Check the Charles Towne Landing website for special events such as musket-firing demonstrations and family movie nights in summer.

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Just across the sparkling span of the Arthur J. Ravenel Jr. Bridge, Patriot's Point preserves naval history in its centerpiece, the World War II aircraft carrier USS Yorktown. Kids and adults alike love to scramble up and down the 13 decks of this 888-foot-long ship, which was commissioned in Newport News, Virginia, in 1943. As you roam the decks, you'll find 26 naval aircraft on board as well as the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum (in Hangar Bay #3). Also on-site are a recreated Vietnam Support Base, the Cold War Memorial, and two other World War II ships: the submarine USS Clagamore and the destroyer USS Laffey.

Local Expert tip: You can catch a ferry to Fort Sumter from Patriot's Point.

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Meet M. Linda Lee

As Senior Editor for Michelin Travel Publications for 17 years, Linda worked on the Michelin Guide (the acclaimed red guide to restaurants and hotels), as well as on Michelin’s series of...  More About M. Linda