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Updated: January 15, 2023
Best Areas to Stay in Charleston
With its gorgeous palm-lined streets, antebellum architecture, historic churches, world-class restaurants, and sub-tropical climate, Charleston has morphed into one of America’s top destinations in the last few decades. The city is home to some major sights, including Fort Sumter, notorious as the place where the Civil War started in 1861, but it’s really the historic and romantic ambience that proves to be the biggest draw. It’s not cheap – the city boasts some of the country’s most luxurious hotels, boutiques, and B&Bs, with prices to match, though the good news is that the surrounding districts are packed with budget motels.
Indeed, Charleston has one of the highest number of hotels proportionate to population of any city. However, there’s a huge difference in price when it comes to location – anything in Downtown Charleston, where everyone ideally wants to stay, costs at least double the average motel in the districts beyond the Peninsula.
This is likely the biggest decision for every visitor: cough up to enjoy the atmosphere and convenience Downtown, or save money in West Ashley, Mount Pleasant, or North Charleston, and rely on a vehicle (or less likely, public transport) to get around. Staying at one of Charleston’s nearby beach districts can be fun, but is really a different sort of holiday – one focused on sand and relaxation – none of the beaches are especially convenient for city sightseeing.
While it’s relatively easy – and preferable – to explore the charming Downtown streets on foot, a car or public transport is required to explore (or stay in) the outer districts. CARTA buses cover most areas, including nearby beaches, the airport, Mount Pleasant, North Charleston, and West Ashley. In addition, 3 free Downtown Area Shuttles (DASH) zip around the Peninsula, from the Aquarium to the Citadel, Broad Street, and Waterfront Park.
• Charleston International Airport is only 12 miles north of Downtown, off I-526 and the I-26 corridor.
• Don’t rent a car if staying in Downtown – there’s no need. Public transportation is good in Charleston and beyond that, an Uber is always an easy option at night. Similarly, while driving into Downtown is relatively straightforward thanks to the I-26 (which goes right to King Street), there’s not much use for a car once here.
We’ve covered our favorite neighborhoods to visit and stay in more detail below, but with more time, these districts are also worth checking out:
• Ultra-posh Kiawah Island lies 26 miles southwest of Downtown Charleston, best known for its stellar golf courses and luxurious resorts. Beachwalker Park is the only public beach, though. Our favorite hotels here are the swanky Charleston Kiawah Island/Andell Inn and The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.
• Set at the mouth of the Charleston Harbor some 9 miles southeast of Downtown Charleston, residential Sullivan’s Island features wide beaches and an attractive town center with shops, restaurants, and bars (anchored by Middle Street). It’s the ideal place to take a break from the tourist hustle of the city center. In terms of sights, there’s Fort Moultrie National Historical Park, which dates back to the Revolutionary War, and the still-working Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse, but the primary draw is the beach and the many watersports available. There are no hotels here, which is part of the charm, though it is possible to snag a rental.
Best Places to Stay in Charleston
- Best Luxury Hotels in Charleston
Charleston Place • Bennett • Loutrel • Planters Inn • Wentworth Mansion
- Best Honeymoon Hotels for Couples
Post House Inn • Dewberry • French Quarter Inn • Spectator
- Best Cheap & Midrange Hotels in Charleston
Barksdale House Inn • Cambria Mount Pleasant • Indigo Inn
- Best B&Bs in Charleston
1837 Bed & Breakfast • Governor’s House Inn • John Rutledge House Inn • Plantation Oaks Inn • Regatta Inn • Two Meeting Street Inn • Water’s Edge Inn
- Best Hostel in Charleston
Not So Hostel
Best Neighborhoods in Charleston for…
- Best Neighborhood to Stay for First Timers/Sightseeing: Downtown Charleston
It makes sense to be based Downtown, if you can afford it – this is where most of the action is. It’s houses the best restaurants and bars, the most luxurious hotels and B&Bs, and the most historic streets and mansions – all the ingredients that make Charleston such a compelling destination. It’s also the one neighborhood where a car is really not needed, and where buses zip out to all the outer districts and sights.
- Most Romantic Neighborhood: Downtown Charleston
Though some might prefer posh beach resorts like Kiawah Island for a quiet getaway, few places in the country compete with Downtown Charleston in terms of urban charm and beauty. With Spanish moss-draped parks and wonderfully preserved antebellum streets and mansions, it makes an extremely romantic destination to stroll around on foot and is peppered with fabulous restaurants, bars, and cafés. It is also home to witheringly beautiful accommodation, from the 1837 Bed & Breakfast to the Wentworth Mansion. Popular spots and activities for couples include the posh spa at the Belmond Charleston Place, attending a performance at the Dock Street Theatre, taking a Palmetto Carriage ride, and taking a cruise on the harbor.
- Best Neighborhood for Nightlife: King Street (Downtown)
Charleston has a lively nightlife, with Downtown again the place to be, especially along and around King Street. Highlights include cocktail bars like Dalila’s and Proof; sports bars like Charleston Beer Works, Cutty’s, and Uptown Social; and microbreweries such as Palmetto Brewing Co and Baker and Brewer. Music Farm is the place for live bands.
There is also a cluster of bars and breweries in Uptown (the far northern section of Downtown, above the Crosstown Expressway), that are far less touristy: Brewlab Charleston, Edmund’s Oast Brewing, Munkle Brewing, and the Tradesman Brewing Company are all excellent choices.
- Best Neighborhoods for Food and Restaurants: Downtown Charleston and North Charleston
Charleston has emerged as one of the culinary capitals of the South, especially known for its innovative takes on Low Country cuisine. Seafood is always excellent here, especially the fresh oysters. Again, it’s hard to beat Downtown, though in this category there are some worthy challengers beyond the city center. The best of a very long list includes farm-to-table Lowcountry staple FIG, the Southern food at Husk (especially good fried chicken), amazing Vietnamese food at Pink Bellies, breakfast at Queen Street Grocery, and fine dining at Charleston Grill.
The scene in North Charleston is much more spread out, but the city is a burgeoning destination for foodies. Highlights include the soul food at Bertha’s Kitchen (famed for its okra soup), the garlic crabs at Nana’s Seafood & Soul, and craft beers at Coast Brewing. Park Circle, especially along East Montague Avenue, offers a cluster of great places to eat, notably EVO Pizzeria and Fratello’s Italian Tavern, with Chinese-American hotspot Jackrabbit Filly nearby. There’s also “proper fish & chips” at the CODfather.
Honorable mentions go to the classic diner H & R Sweet Shop in Old Village (Mount Pleasant), Home Team BBQ and Italian-influenced seafood at Obstinate Daughter in Sullivan’s Island, and the breakfasts at Early Bird Diner and fried chicken sandwiches at Boxcar Betty’s in West Ashley.
- Best Neighborhoods for Shopping: King Street (Downtown) and North Charleston
King Street is hard to beat when it comes to shopping in Charleston, with the big chains – Apple, Anthropologie, H&M, J Crew, Sephora, and more – competing with a spate of locally-owned boutiques. Highlights include the menswear at venerable Berlin’s, in business since 1883; Blue Bicycle Books; Croghan’s Jewel Box, selling fine jewelry since 1907; women’s clothing at Finicky Filly just opposite; posh antiques at George C. Birlant & Co, open since 1922; and men’s fashion at M. Dumas & Sons, another historic gem from 1917. Charleston City Market is another favorite spot for souvenirs, arts, and crafts.
North Charleston is primarily of note because of the bargains at Tanger Outlets Charleston and the array of shops at indoor Northwoods Mall. Mount Pleasant’s Old Village and Pitt Street, as well as Mount Pleasant Towne Centre mall, are also excellent shopping destinations.
- Best Neighborhood for the Beach: Folly Beach
Though we also love Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach is our favorite seaside neighborhood, some 20 miles south of Downtown Charleston on Folly Island. It’s a burgeoning surf destination, with the main drag Center Street home to surf shops like Palms and Mc Kevlin’s, as well as local cafes, seafood shacks, bars, and beach stores. The beach itself is long, wide, and sandy, anchored by the Folly Beach Pier (a brand new replacement pier is expected to open in the spring of 2023). Folly Beach County Park at the western end of the island is the best place to swim, while the eastern end of the island is encompassed by the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve, with views of the 19th-century Morris Island Lighthouse offshore. The hotels we like here are the Beachside Boutique Inn, Regatta Inn, Tides Folly Beach, and the Water’s Edge Inn.
- Best Neighborhoods for Cheap Hotels: West Ashley and North Charleston
The best bet for budget accommodation near Downtown Charleston are the neighboring districts of West Ashley (just across the Ashley River) and North Charleston, near the airport. The clusters of chain hotels and motels in these 2 locales are invariably the cheapest in the region. Though not especially convenient for exploring Downtown, both areas do have good bus links to the center and also boast their own eating and drinking scenes, meaning there won’t be any need to traipse back and forth at night.
- Unsafe Areas of Charleston
Downtown Charleston, Mount Pleasant, West Ashley, and the beach districts are generally quite safe, though the usual precautions should be taken at night (most crime in the city is related to property). Parts of North Charleston post high crime rates (especially the southern end), but the main sights, highways, and areas listed here are fine.
The 5 Best Neighborhoods in Charleston for Tourists
Downtown Charleston, which encompasses most of the Peninsula, should be the primary focus of any visit to the city: this is where most of the sights, the best hotels and restaurants, and the most beautiful, best preserved historic districts are. Though it’s still a commercial center, it can at times seem like a giant open-air museum, totally given over to tourism. In reality, it remains a popular place to live, with several flourishing residential neighborhoods on the fringes of the tourist areas. The oldest sections are the most heavily trafficked by visitors – exclusive South of Broad with its palatial antebellum mansions, and the French Quarter, crammed with historic churches, inns, and parks. Highlights include the colonial-era Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, St. Philip’s Church (one among many elegant places of worship here), and the Old Slave Mart Museum, a grim reminder of what paid for all this opulence. Several grand mansions are open as museums: the ornate 19th-century Williams Mansion and antebellum Edmondston-Alston House are beguiling examples. The Gibbes Museum of Art offers a solid introduction to the fine arts of the American South from the colonial era to the present. Just to the north is the vast Charleston Museum, chronicling city history just opposite the visitor center, and the excellent South Carolina Aquarium. Next door to the latter, the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center is where boats depart to tour Fort Sumter, the federal garrison where the first shots of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861. Most of the action in the northern half of Downtown (or “Uptown”, above the Crosstown Expressway) is focused on King Street, lined with high-end boutiques and top restaurants. Upper King (above Calhoun St) is also home to Charleston’s Design District.
- While staying in Downtown Charleston makes the most sense for tourists, it can be very expensive – there are more affordable options in the surrounding districts.
- Best Hotels: Charleston Place • Dewberry • French Quarter Inn • Bennett • Loutrel • Planters Inn • Spectator • Wentworth Mansion
- Best B&Bs: Governor’s House Inn • John Rutledge House Inn • 15 Church Street Bed & Breakfast • 1837 Bed & Breakfast • Two Meeting Street Inn
- Best Cheap/Midrange Hotels: Barksdale House Inn • Francis Marion Hotel • Homewood Suites Historic District • Indigo Inn
- Best Hostel: Not So Hostel
The suburban enclave immediately to the east across the Cooper River from Downtown Charleston is Mount Pleasant, a sprawling residential community connected to the rest of the city by the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge (US-17). A handful of waterside hotels offer fabulous views of Charleston, but most of the accommodation comprises cheaper motels along US-17 further inland. The most attractive section of Mount Pleasant is the Old Village, known for its beautiful historic homes and small-town atmosphere (the Post House Inn is the place to stay here), best explored on foot or by bike. In terms of sights, the most popular destination is the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum just across the bridge (home to USS Yorktown), while Shem Creek’s dockside restaurants are known for fresh seafood. Further inland are sites connected to the region’s colonial past like Charles Pinckney National Historic Site and the lavish Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens, as well as family favorite Splash Island Waterpark.
- Staying in Mount Pleasant is usually cheaper than Downtown and is more convenient for the beaches at Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms.
- On the other hand, though it’s not far from Downtown (and fairly well connected by bus), a car would help to get around here. Eating and drinking options, though good, are far fewer than Downtown and more spread out.
- Best Hotels: Beach Club at Charleston Harbor Resort • Harborside at Charleston Harbor Resort • Cottages on Charleston Harbor • Embassy Suites Charleston Harbor Mt. Pleasant • Hyatt House Mount Pleasant • Inn At I’On • Post House Inn
- Best Cheap/Midrange Hotels: Cambria Mount Pleasant • Hilton Garden Inn Mt. Pleasant • Holiday Inn Express Charleston NE Mt Pleasant US17 • SpringHill Suites Mount Pleasant • Tru Mt Pleasant
- Best B&B: Plantation Oaks Inn
3. West Ashley
West Ashley is the section of Charleston on the west bank of the Ashley River, just across from Downtown and sprawling for several miles inland. It’s a relatively modern residential district, and though there are some major attractions here, it’s primarily of interest to visitors for its budget accommodations near the intersection of US-17 and I-526 (though there’s also a smaller cluster of hotels just across the river). Staying here also means easier access to some of the city’s most important colonial sites: the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site, where English colonists established the first permanent settlement in 1670 along with a cluster of beautiful plantations and gardens further up Ashley River Road. Drayton Hall is a stately Georgian mansion, while Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is celebrated for its spectacular ornamental gardens, especially in spring when the azaleas bloom. Near the US-17 corridor, the small neighborhood of Avondale acts as West Ashley’s downtown, with the “Triangle” home to specialty stores and local restaurants.
- Accommodations in West Ashley are very cheap, but despite good bus connections to Downtown, it’s not especially convenient (unless the primary aim is to tour Charleston’s plantation homes) and will likely involve a lot of driving.
- There are plenty of good eating, shopping, and drinking options in West Ashley, especially at the intersection of US-17 and Magnolia Road.
- Best Hotels: Cambria Riverview • Holiday Inn Express US Hwy 17 & I-526 • Home2 Suites West Ashley • SpringHill Suites Riverview • Town & Country Inn and Suites
- Best Cheap/Midrange Hotels: Best Western Inn • Comfort Suites West Ashley • Sleep Inn West Ashley
The main draw of staying in North Charleston, administratively a separate city to Charleston proper, is its vast array of cheap accommodations and proximity to Charleston International Airport. Given its excellent highway connections, it’s a convenient base for exploring the region, though it’s not especially good for seeing Downtown Charleston – and a car is required if staying here.
The city is best known as a major industrial hub, home to a major Boeing facility and the redeveloped Charleston Naval Base which closed in 1996. The major tourist attraction is the Hunley at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, the restored Confederate submarine that sank in 1864 and was raised from the harbor in 2000. The city’s other major draws include malls like Tanger Outlets and Northwoods Mall, and the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center which hosts numerous shows, concerts, and sporting events. North Charleston’s most interesting neighborhood is Park Circle, where East Montague Avenue is known as the city’s traditional Main Street and is lined with stores and excellent restaurants.
- There are 2 main clusters of budget motel and hotel chain accommodations here; one just south of the airport, near the junction of I-26 and I-526, and the second further north on I-26, along and around Ashley Phosphate Road.
- Parts of North Charleston post high crime rates (especially the southern end), though the biggest risk is likely car theft. Avoid walking on the streets at night (take taxis) and check with the hotel about the latest situation.
- Best Hotels: Hampton Inn & Suites Charleston Airport • Holiday Inn Express & Suites North Charleston • Homewood Suites Charleston Airport/Convention Center • Hyatt Place Charleston Airport/Convention Center • North Charleston Marriott • Residence Inn Charleston Airport • Staybridge Suites Ashley Phosphate
- Best Cheap/Midrange Hotels: Candlewood Suites I-26 Northwoods Mall • Courtyard North Charleston Airport/Coliseum • Fairfield Inn & Suites Charleston Airport/Convention Center • Hampton Inn Charleston-North • Tru Charleston Airport • Tru Charleston Ashley Phosphate
Some 13 miles southeast of Downtown Charleston, the Isle of Palms (aka “IOP”) is a narrow barrier island facing the Atlantic, a laid-back beach community that makes a relaxing alternative to staying in the city. Much of the eastern half of the island is given over to the plush accommodation and golf courses of the Wild Dunes Resort, but there are a few alternative places to stay (and numerous rental properties), plus a burgeoning district of restaurants and bars just across the Isle of Palms Connector Bridge. The biggest attraction here is the beach, which runs for miles along the entire Atlantic shore.
- Staying here is more about a beach holiday than sightseeing in Charleston proper – it’s not especially convenient for Downtown, and a car is required to make the most of it.
- The neighboring beach community of Sullivan’s Island is a short drive away, and it’s not far to the historic plantation houses of Mount Pleasant, but there are otherwise no major sights in IOP itself.
- Best Hotels: Palms Oceanfront Hotel • Wild Dunes Resort
- Best Cheap/Midrange Hotel: Seaside Inn