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Headed to Charleston? Use these insider tips from a former tour guide

When I worked as a tour guide in Charleston, I saw lots of hot, miserable tourists in the summer. Winter and early spring are actually better times for many of the city’s activities. According to, average temperatures already begin to climb to the high 70s in May.

Although I no longer live in Charleston, we visit frequently. My husband’s corporate office is there, and many of my in-laws live there. In fact, two summers ago, we spent six weeks on Daniel Island while my husband was working on a project, and I used all of my former concierge and tour guide skills — plus a sense of adventure — to keep us busy.

The U.S.S. Yorktown Aircraft Carrier and Patriots Point

One attraction best visited in cooler months is the U.S.S. Yorktown aircraft carrier, located across Charleston Harbor at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant. During summer months, the aircraft carrier is sweltering with lots of people packed into tight corridors. Over the years, Patriots Point added tour options: a ghost tour, overnight stays on the aircraft carrier and “Flight Academy” virtual reality flight experiences, including outer space. Check the website for complete details and pricing information.

For basic admission to the Yorktown, children under 6 are admitted free; children ages 6 to 11 are $14; and adults are $22. A senior discount for those older than 62 is $17. Military in uniform are free, and active duty military receive a $5 discount. The same pricing applies to the Vietnam Experience (which includes holograms!) also at Patriot’s Point. Helicopter tours are available, with a minimum of two participants. Heli-tours cost between $65 to $120; the more expensive flights cover more of the area. Plan your trip carefully to avoid over-spending. The extras add up fast – even if you’re only adding an audio tour.

Walking tours are no sweat in winter

Walking tours are also better experienced in cooler months. From general history tours to ghosts and pirates, many companies compete to offer the best tours. Your hotel’s information kiosk will have brochures with discounts. Because the city is flat, you won’t work up a sweat in cool weather.

If walking tours are on your agenda, consider these average monthly temperatures to decide when you’ll feel most comfortable: in January and February, the average high temperatures are 57 and 60 degrees, respectively according to The March average climbs to the mid-60s and April averages the low 70s.

You won’t miss out on flowers

If you’re a fan of gardens, you’ll find flowers despite the cooler temperatures. Camellias are blooming in January, and daffodils start coming up in February with azaleas in March and April, according to the Magnolia Plantation’s website bloom calendar. I love a double-dose of azaleas in early spring in Charleston, then again in Greenville a few weeks later.

Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site: Big bang for the buck

Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site is far enough inland to receive absolutely no breeze in summer months, so that’s another spot to visit in late winter or spring. The property, run by the South Carolina State Parks, spans 80 acres, so a comfortable temperature is key to enjoying the experience.

Kids (and I) love the Adventure, a 17th-century replica sailing ship. Visitors can climb aboard the small, moored vessel and imagine facing the high seas. Kids will also enjoy the Animal Forest, a zoo of animals native to our state at the time of settlement. A .75-mile trail meanders through natural habitats of bison, elk, pumas, bob cats and white-tailed deer. An otter habitat allows visitors to watch the otters swim. Unlike a typical zoo, the experience focuses on the history of the area. Animal lovers will also appreciate that the site is a sanctuary for marsh birds.

The historic site features replicas of buildings used by the earliest settlers in the 1670s. Picture tiny thatched roof cottages with Tudor-style walls of rustic beams and stucco. An indentured servant’s home is a new structure recently added to the property. (The experience reminded me a lot of historic Jamestown, Virginia, if you’ve ever been there.) The history trail is sited on the original settlement area, and it includes a reproduction of palisade wall and crop garden, which originally grew indigo, sugar cane and cotton, as well as food crops.

Again, the garden lovers will be happy strolling through the live oak alley leading to the Legare-Waring House, and the gardens full of azaleas and camellias.

If you can make it the first Saturday of the month, you can watch canon firing demonstration and hear from people dressed in period clothing about the hardships of life during that time.

As a state-owned property, admission for adults is $10, $6 for ages six to 12 and children under five are free. (Seniors pay a discounted rate of $6.50). Given the number of attractions at the site and the price point, Charles Towne Landing offers a lot for the money, but some miss it in favor of more heavily advertised attractions.

Skip Sumter – Get your fort experience at Moultrie

Don’t get me wrong, the ferry ride to Fort Sumter is really cool. It’s definitely worth doing … in summer when you can enjoy the harbor breeze, rather than freeze. Also, if you’re going for just a weekend, this will eat up a huge chunk of your time – another reason to back-burner Fort Sumter for a visit longer than a weekend.

Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island dates back to the Revolutionary War and is accessible by land for a fraction of the price. While both forts are operated by the National Park Service, Fort Sumter uses a third- party vendor to ferry visitors to the island, so admission for Fort Sumter is about $20 for an adult, as opposed to $3 adult admission to Fort Moultrie.

Fort Moultrie also has plenty of exhibits indoors of how the fort was used during World War II before it was decommissioned, which is a nice option if the weather is bit chilly. Being on Sullivan’s Island makes it a convenient spot for a quick walk on the beach too, although the beach access in the immediate area is slim to nonexistent at high tide. To hit the beach, your best bet is to drive toward the lighthouse and pick an access either near downtown or past downtown.

Historic sites downtown

After living in Charleston for years, and then visiting frequently, I still haven’t visited all of the tourist attractions, but this list covers a few of the most popular.

First is a National Historic Site, the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon (yes, a real dungeon!) located at the intersection of East Bay and Broad Streets. Admission for adults is $10; children ages 6 to 12 are $5 and children five and under are free. Another National Historic Site is the oldest building in Charleston, the Powder Magazine, dating to 1713, where gun powder was stored in the settlement’s early days. Visitors can pay for admission to just the Powder Magazine, or choose a guided tour that includes admission to the site. Visit for details.

One of the most popular tourist destinations in Charleston is the Market downtown, a fun place to pick up a souvenir. A common misconception is that the Market was an old slave market. Actually, it was a farmer’s produce market constructed after the Civil War. Slaves were indeed sold in Charleston – just not there. If you want to learn more of this part of our country’s history, the place to go is the Old Slave Mart Museum, located downtown at 6 Chalmers St.

If you wish to visit a historic home in the city, choices are the Edmondston-Alston House (owned by the same organization that owns Middleton Plantation), or the two Historic Charleston Foundation homes: the Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House.

For an online listing of historic sites, check out an online listing by the National Park Service at

Before you go to the Hunley

The Hunley submarine is heavily advertised. It was lifted from the sea when I lived in Charleston in 2000. Yes, as an early submarine, this is a unique part of history. But educate yourself before you go.

The Hunley story is very sad, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for my two younger daughters yet. The Hunley sank three times, killing the crew every time. After sinking twice in 1863 killing a total of 13 crew, the sub was raised for an attack in 1864 killing another eight. The men who went aboard the sub faced a death sentence. If you look at visitor photos online, it’s clear this was a nightmarishly cramped space for adult men. This is an excursion for mature people with a thick skin. Unless you love this part of history, you might prefer to spend your time a different way.

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