Charleston, South Carolina, is honestly one of the most beautiful cities in America – hence why I write about it a ton. And today, we look at the best museums in Charleston, South Carolina. Let’s learn more about Charleston and its history.
The city of Charleston, South Carolina, is steeped in history. It was founded in 1670 as Charles Town in honor of King Charles II of England. The original settlers were Englishmen who had been granted a large tract of land by the king.
Over the years, Charleston grew and prospered, becoming one of the most important cities in America. One of the main reasons for Charleston’s success was its location. The city was situated on a major trade route, and it soon became a center for shipping and trade.
Charleston also played an important role in the American Revolution and, later, the US Civil War. The great Charleston area continued to grow and prosper after the Revolution. The city became a center of culture and learning, and it was home to some of the finest minds in America.
On the flip side, Charleston was one of the biggest trade hubs for slavery in the world and the largest slave trading port in America. For a good chunk of Charleston’s history, the city’s biggest traded “commodity” was human lives. Charleston was also home to sizable plantations, and it’s probably due to these reasons that South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union.
This makes it a must-see destination in South Carolina. And today, we explore more of Charleston, South Carolina, museums. That’s where history, culture, and education all reside.
Best Museums in Charleston, SC
From the dark days of slavery to historic houses and naval history, Charleston visitors have plenty of things to get excited about, particularly if you love American history.
If you’re visiting for an extended stay, you can hit up a few of these museums and save money with the Charleston: Tour Pass. So, what are the best museums in Charleston? Let’s get into it!
Address: 40 Patriots Point Rd, Mt Pleasant, SC 29464
While technically not in Charleston proper, Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum can easily be accessed from Charleston. It’s located in nearby Mount Pleasant on the Charleston Harbor, near the mouth of the Cooper River.
The museum is one of South Carolina’s most visited tourist attractions, for a good reason. For starters, it’s home to a series of museum ships, including the USS Yorktown WWII aircraft carrier museum, the (temporarily closed) USS Clamagore submarine museum, and the USS Laffey destroyer, as well as a Medal of Honor museum.
This awesome museum’s collection includes artifacts from around the world, such as uniforms worn by Admiral Nimitz himself during his command of Pacific Fleet operations against Japan during World War II. There are also a ton of military aircraft on display, as well as the sprawling Vietnam Experience Exhibit.
The jewel in the crown is clearly the USS Yorktown – an Essex class “escort carrier” from the Second World War. And if you want to explore this incredible attraction more uniquely, you can join a haunted tour of USS Yorktown!
All in all, this is one of the most significant history museums in the United States for maritime history and historic weaponry. War buffs, look no further.
2. Old Slave Mart Museum
Address: 6 Chalmers St, Charleston, SC 29401
The Old Slave Mart Museum is a beautiful building with a dark past. As the name suggests, it once housed a slave market. Constructed in 1859, it is believed to be South Carolina’s last surviving slave auction facility and the best slave museum in Charleston to learn about slavery.
The Old Slave Mart Museum is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the dark history of slavery in South Carolina, the state’s importance to the slave trade, and its dogged reluctance to treat black people as anything other than property.
The museum’s permanent exhibits include incredible accounts of slavery and its impact on our nation’s history. The museum has several exhibitions that focus on 19th Century Charleston, artifacts from the slave trade, and special exhibitions highlighting different aspects of African American history.
Want to learn more about the plight of black Americans and the horrors of slavery? Check out this guided tour that meets right outside the stunning St. Philip’s Church.
See Related: Best South Carolina Beaches | Top Getaway Options
3. The Charleston Museum
Address: 360 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29403
Founded in 1773 and first opened in 1824, The Charleston Museum is one of the oldest museums in the United States. Its highly regarded permanent collection includes historic artifacts, natural history exhibits, decorative arts, two classic Charleston houses, and an armory.
The Charleston Museum tells the story of the city and the surrounding area throughout history. It particularly pays close attention to the city’s role in the War of Independence and the Civil War.
Also, it’s an active research museum and hosts fun and educational events for kids too. So, if you are looking for the best history museums in charleston for you and your kids, The Charleston Museum wouldn’t be a bad pick. Book the City Tour and Museum Combo for the best up close and personal experience with the city’s history – see and learn more than you anticipated.
4. Old Exchange Building & Provost Dungeon
Address: 122 E Bay St, Charleston, SC 29401
The Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon is located in the heart of Charleston and is a historic building that once held American prisoners of war under the care of British provosts during the Revolutionary War.
The building has also served as a post office, commercial exchange, military headquarters, city hall, and even as a fancy dress ball site for George Washington. Today, the Old Exchange Building & Provost Dungeon (also known as The Exchange) is a museum operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Located adjacent to St. Michael’s Church on East Bay Street, this building was built between 1767 and 1771 using bricks imported from England. Its neoclassical architecture style reflects its original use as a customs house, jail, and public meeting place for local residents.
The Old Exchange Building was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1973 due largely to its significance in interpreting colonial history through its physical resources (primarily the architectural features) but also because it has been able to retain much of its original character, despite numerous changes throughout time including being used as an office and even war damage.
See Related: Best Unusual Museums in the US
5. Nathaniel Russell House
Address: 51 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29401
Nathaniel Russell House is certainly one of the grandest Charleston mansions. It was built in 1808 by slave trader Nathaniel Russell and is an excellent example of neoclassical architecture. In fact, it is listed among the most important neoclassical houses in the US and is even a National Historical Landmark since 1973.
This building is one of the most perfectly preserved late-Georgian row houses in America and is now open to the public as a house museum. The three-story mansion has an airy feel due to its tall ceilings, grand central staircase, and light-filled rooms. Plus, the beautiful parlors are some of the best-preserved examples of Federal period architecture and decoration in the country.
The house changed ownership several times after Charleston’s death, up until 1955 when it was bought by the Historic Charleston foundation. The foundation embarked on a project to restore the house’s original architectural details in 1995. So, if you want to admire or appreciate stunning 19th Century architecture, this is the place.
The gardens are also open to the public and are definitely worth a stroll. They feature several species of flowers, palms, and other foliage that are carefully manicured. There’s also a gift shop, housed in the former slaves’ residence. It’s worth noting that this considerably smaller and much humbler building was where eighteen humans had to live in each others’ pockets.
With stunning architecture and grounds, as well as a dark history, the Nathaniel Russell House is among the best house museums in Charleston, open any day of the week, from 10 am – 5 pm.
6. Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry
Address: 25 Ann St, Charleston, SC 29403
For a museum that’s worth your kids’ time (and yours, too), visit the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. This spot is great for young kids and focuses on hands-on, interactive exhibits that are designed to teach children about the world around them in a fun way.
Some of the exhibits include a water play area, a pirate ship, a sensory garden, and an art studio. The museum also offers educational programs and classes throughout the year.
Established in 2003, the museum aims to engage young kids’ potential by allowing them to explore new environments and experiences that stimulate curiosity and spark imagination through games. In other words, children can learn so much from this museum, but in a fun and engaging way!
What awaits you here is a world of discovery for your kids and even fun for you, the parent. For example, the children can enjoy racing boats down rapids, driving an antique fire truck, or onboarding a pirate ship. On the other hand, families play numerous games, including creating masterpieces in the museum’s dedicated art room, racing golf balls, or finding gems under the waterfall.
The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm and Sunday from 12 pm to 5 pm. And for the admission fees, it’s free for toddlers under one year, $10 for South Carolina residents, and $12 for non-South Carolina residents.
7. Aiken-Rhett House Museum
Address: 48 Elizabeth St, Charleston, SC 29403
This museum house, which was built in 1820 by the famous merchant John Robinson, is also among the country’s best-preserved townhouse complexes of the period. As such, it’s quite important in the town’s history and attracts flocks of tourists who want to see and learn more about the architecture and lives of the slaves owned by the Aikens.
While the house has seen massive expansions between 1830 and 1850s by Governor William Aiken and Mrs. William Aiken, Jr., it has maintained most of its original architectural details and furniture. And these are some of the main details that attract history lovers to this museum house.
Currently, the house features the building itself, an antique kitchen, a carriage block, the unchanged slave quarters, and the back lot. As for the furniture, there are a bunch of surviving original furnishings that offer an attractive image of the life of a rich politician, industrialist, and slaveholder, William Aiken. In contrast, the slave quarter is a true representation of slaves’ lives.
This museum house was in the hands of the Aiken family until Charleston Museum bought it in 1975 and opened it to the public in 1975. Visiting the museum is possible any day from 10 am to 5 pm.
See Related: Best State and National Parks in South Carolina
8. Gibbes Museum of Art
Address: 135 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29401
If you are looking for art museums in Charleston, Gibbes Museum of Art should be your first stop. Built around 1858, this art museum is among the best sites to visit in Charleston’s historic district, having opened its doors to the public in 1905.
The museum is home to around 10,000 works of American Art, especially from Southern US, from the 18th Century to today. The collection features paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and Photography that come from both local and international artists. In other words, you’ll find both famous and emerging artists’ works in this museum.
What’s more, the museum organizes temporary exhibitions quite frequently to ensure that there’s always something new for the visitors. These art collections come from famous global museums, spanning every style, genre, and era. As such, every new visit means a new and exciting experience.
Even better, you can access the first-floor gallery for free and admire some of the most amazing artwork and paintings. But as for the 2nd and 3rd-floor galleries, you have to part with some admission fee. The museum is open the entire week from 10 am to 5 pm, except for Sundays when it opens from 1 pm to 5 pm.
9. The Williams Mansion
Address: 16 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29401
This magnificent building, formerly known as Calhoun Mansion, is the perfect representation of a victorian house. Built from 1875 to 1876, the mansion was formerly home to one of the richest men in Charleston, the once vice-president and slavery enthusiast John C. Calhoun, and its design, furnishings, and massiveness are a true testimony of this wealth acquired from trading human lives.
For instance, it is a 24,000-square-foot building with 30 main rooms plus several other smaller ones. Its main hall boasts an area of 50 feet long by 14 feet wide. Plus, its ballroom ceiling is around 45 feet high. In fact, its regarded as Charleston’s largest single-family residence.
Besides the numerous rooms, the mansion also boasts a Japanese water garden, koi ponds, a music room, 23 fireplaces, three levels of piazzas, and a 75-feet high stair hall ceiling. Now, these sound like some features that many people would love to see. A guided tour of the mansion is available at $75 per person, but kids eleven years and below enjoy free admission.
See Related: Best Restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina
10. Mace Brown Museum of Natural History – College of Charleston
Address: 202 Calhoun St, Charleston, SC 29401
Are you fascinated by natural history? And you looking for somewhere to access it for free? The Mace Brown Museum is an excellent place for just that.
Located on the College of Charleston campus, this museum features a variety of natural history collections from different parts of the world. To start with, you’ll find an extensive vertebrate paleontology collection with numerous fossils from the Cretaceous Period.
The museum also has a large invertebrate paleontology section with excellent specimens from across the globe. This is in addition to a comprehensive display of minerals and rocks from around South Carolina. And if that’s not enough, there are also several herbarium specimens and mounted animals on display in this museum.
Enjoy a display of around 1,000 fossils ranging from dinosaur bones, cave bears, crinoids, mosasaurs, North America’s Oligocene mammals, Carolina’s Pleistocene mammals, and even plant fossils. The list is undeniably long.
Many tourists are mostly amazed by the reconstructed humongous jaw, housing the teeth of the (possibly) extinct Megalodon. If you’re a dentist or shark enthusiast, I’m sure you’ll also love the view. If you are looking for great free museums in Charleston, this is your best pick.
11. Charleston Postal Museum
Address: 77 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29401
I know what you are thinking; a postal museum cannot possibly be that interesting. But you are wrong.
If you’re going to visit a museum about the postal system, Charleston’s Postal Museum is the one. It may come as a surprise, but the museum is one of the most interesting places in Charleston to visit. Firstly, it features an array of postal artifacts from different parts of North and South Carolina and a wide range of postal-related exhibits.
Also, it has interactive displays that will keep you entertained. For instance, there’s a sorting table where you can sort mail just like the post office workers do. This helps you interact with how things were in the 18th Century before email and cellphone messages were born.
You can also take a look at the first-class mail delivery truck and learn about its history. The museum is located in a historic building, Meeting St, Charleston, and it is open from Monday to Saturday – plus admission is free.
There are few places in the country that show off the very best and the very worst parts of American history, but Charleston is one of the best places to learn all about America, warts and all, from its inception. Whether it’s admiring the stunning architecture or learning the depths of mankind’s cruelty to one another, Charleston won’t disappoint. There’s a reason we keep coming back here!
Note: If you are looking for somewhere to stay in Charleston during your visit, no need to worry. Check out our comprehensive guide on the best places to stay in and around the city.
Are there more great museums in Charleston?
Yes. For instance, Fort Sumter is a great day out. The Karpeles Manuscript Museum (aka Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum) is home to one of the world’s largest private collections of documents and manuscripts. The Joseph Manigault House is also a great option, as it is one of the most exquisite antebellum structures the city is known for. Lastly, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is a great place to soak in some amazing culture.
What are the best times to visit Charleston?
The best time to visit Charleston is between March and May, as well as September through November. These months offer moderate temperatures, which are perfect for touring the city. Also, during these months, you’ll find fewer crowds, making it easier to get around.
What is the best thing to do in Charleston, South Carolina?
There is a lot to do in Charleston. For instance, you can start by visiting the Charleston Museum, taking a carriage ride through the city, strolling through Waterfront Park, exploring Fort Sumter, and touring the Aiken-Rhett House. I’d also recommend looking into a culinary tour of the city – Charleston is a great town to learn about on the end of a fork. Whether you are traveling solo or with a family, you’ll have more than enough interesting things to do here.