When to Travel
Seasonally, the best time to visit Charleston, South Carolina is in the short-lived spring or fall. In the spring you can enjoy a variety of brightly colored blooming flowers, and fall brings spectacular colors as well with the changing of the leaves. The summertime gets incredibly humid and hot. Even the locals spend most of their days inside with air-conditioning during that time of the year. Very few tourists venture outside in the month of August, and for a good reason.
Arrival and Getting Adjusted
I stayed at the historic Charleston Place Hotel the first week of April and was greeted with fresh blossoms everywhere including many hanging baskets and potted plants in the downtown area, all draped with spring color. With no transportation of my own, I was limited to how much exploring I could do outside of where I was staying.
The Charleston Area is made up of several land masses separated by rivers. The center of it all is Historic Charleston or the peninsula and above that is North Charleston. On one side of the peninsula is West Ashley and the other is Daniel Island. Almost directly the bay from Historic Charleston is James Island and between is Johns Island, Wadmalaw Island, Sullivan’s Island and Mt. Pleasant.
Touring Downtown Charleston
Downtown or Historic Charleston has been coined the “Disneyland of History.” In other words, it is was designed to entertain a lot of tourists. There are a few ways to explore Downtown Charleston; I recommend doing them all, starting with a tour. All over you will find stands promoting various tours. A guided “walking” tour is a stroll around town to view some of the major landmarks and historical buildings. You can also get a map from one of the many tourist information spots and seek attractions for yourself. Or, just wonder aimlessly because every street has something to see.
Horse-Drawn Carriage Tours
Horse-drawn carriage tours are the most popular, but only Charleston Historic Carriage Tours has a ramp to the loading platform. It is located at the Palmetto Carriage Barn, or the “big red barn,” behind the Rainbow Market. Inside the barn you can find horses and possibly goats and other livestock. On my visit there were two baby goats. Next to the goat pen was the ramp to the loading platform and on the way were two uni-sex bathrooms marked “handicapped accessible.” A carriage pulls up next to the platform, but the rest was up to me. However, I could not jump over the gap and up onto the seat, so a nice southern gentleman working there picked me up. Even though the seat was slightly padded, I grabbed my seat cushion to sit on, and I am glad I did cause the 1 hour long ride was a bit bumpy.
The route the carriage takes is determined by the color of a ping pong ball that the driver, Jenny, sarcastically laughs at as their “sophisticated method.” It’s all humor with Jenny from the get-go as I imagine is the case with many drivers are. She had me going hook, line and sinker, “you know I’ve never taken one of these tours…” she said. “Yea?” I replied not realizing her role, “I guess locals don’t do the touristy stuff.” When Jenny climbed into the drivers seat, I had a good laugh at myself. Jenny left little space in between breaths as she explained all the history she could in such a short window of time. She also highlighted architectural and natural features of Charleston. Tips are appreciated at the end. With so many horse tours running morning until night everyday it’s amazing to not find horse manure everywhere, for which we can thank the city for hiring people to constantly clean.
Now a boat tour of the harbor gives a completely different perspective on Downtown Charleston, with a few overlapping details. Charleston Harbor Tours are wheelchair accessible and run several times per day. Guests all board at pier/dock #17 at the Maritime Center; those who have a limited mobility or use a wheelchairs board first (unless arriving late). The initial ramp is long with non-slip treads spaced about every foot; if using a wheelchair they act as speed bumps. A much shorter ramp is just slightly after this initial one but does not have such treads.
The top deck of the boat is the only wheelchair accessible section. Plastic chairs are dispersed all over the deck can be easily be moved to create space for a wheelchair. Even though access is only on the top deck, there are shaded and slightly enclosed areas if you need a break from the sun or wind. Also on the top deck is a snack bar. The boat tour goes into more depth about the general history of Charleston compared to the land tours, which focus on specific buildings. The highlight is a close viewing of Fort Sumter, in the Charleston Bay. I also loved passing under the iconic Cooper River Bridge. Dolphins feed in these waters, and I got to see a few though it all happened in an instant.
On just about every street in Historic Charleston has one or more historic building. The most common in the downtown area are the mansions and other historic homes such as the ones on Rainbow Row. Some of these mansions offer tours but accessibility seemed impossible except for the occasional garden.
After returning home, a fellow wheelchair traveler informed me that the Nathan Russell Museum House is accessible on both floors, including the gift shop and restroom. However, she says that the accessible entrance is on the opposite side of where everyone else enters, is not well-marked, and cannot be opened independently–someone has to walk up the stairs to notify the museum staff inside. So if you are unable to climb stairs, having a phone number before hand would be helpful. The pathways around the lovely garden were challenging, and occasionally there was a small step. Yet the biggest setback to visiting the Nathan Russell House was the customer service: the staff acted bothered when asked to do the extra work to accommodate the wheelchair traveler and even started the tour without them. The Aiken-Rhett House Museum (near the Visitors Centre) is also partially wheelchair accessible, but again, the attitude of the staff to accommodate the wheelchair traveler was sub-par.
While I was in Charleston I enjoyed learning of special historical details of the architecture. Some of the older mansions and homes through Charleston still have a light blue ceiling on the outside porches. This, I learned, was to ward off evil spirits. The color was to make sky and earth appear indistinguishable to confuse the spirits. At the base of some of the mansions is a smaller door, which was historically designed to be the entrance of servants where they could enter the house undetected and get to right to work in the kitchen or wherever. Iron was popular to construct gates and some windows as it could withstand the impact of war. Some iron craftsmanship on the mansions and churches are exceptionally beautiful.
A few noteworthy alleys exist on the peninsula, some more historical than others. For instance, Longitude Lane off E Bay Street consists of colonial cobblestones built on a longitude line. However, this particular alley would be extremely difficult for almost anyone with a limited mobility or using a wheelchair to manage. Stoll’s Alley, named after a blacksmith who owned the property in the mid 1700′s, is much more accessible. The pathway made up brick and is relatively even. It doesn’t have a famous history, but its historic makeup and surroundings leads the imagination to wonder about the people who strolled down it or perhaps just lingered in the shadows. Along the alley you can see the blacksmith’s iron gate craftsmanship.
Over sixteen churches exist in the Downtown Charleston area and about half have cemeteries with some gravestones dating back to the 1600s. Wheelchair access varies at the churches. Some have had access for some time like the Unitarian Church while others like the French Protestant (Huguenot) Church completed their ramp installment in April 2013. And still, there are some with no access. The Unitarian Church is the second oldest church in Charleston and the oldest Unitarian church in the south. It has a lovely garden hosting a cemetery with a paved walkways and stained-glass windows. Still on the peninsula but a far from downtown is the Saint Luke’s Chapel, near the Medical University of South Carolina. I was informed by a local that this chapel is one of the finest examples of a stained-glass church in the area. Stella Maris Catholic Church is another this local recommended, located on Sullivan’s Island.
Fort Sumter resides in the Charleston Bay and is declared the location where the American Civil War began. The fort can be seen on the harbor tours but to actually explore, one must arrive by ferry. The only fully accessible dock is at the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center. The Center has made adaptions for both manual and power wheelchairs, including an elevator to every level. If needing the elevator, it is recommended calling a head of time to make sure it is working. Here is the website with more access details phone numbers for Fort Sumter.
- Waterfront Park and pier is eight acres along the Cooper River. Fountains and tree-lined walkways make it very picturesque. The pier is frequently used as a port for cruise lines.
- The Battery is an iconic promenade along the bay in Downtown Charleston. It also overlooks a number of historic mansions. Currently, wheelchair access to The Battery is possible in only one location; at some point the level walkway is met with stairs and therefore, one must turn around if unable to proceed. After this set of stairs, The Battery continues without barriers. On the East Battery at about nine o’clock in the morning many dolphins appear on the shoreline, and in the evening, the East Battery is an exceptional place to watch the sun set.
- Associated with The Battery is the White Point Garden, which is not a garden at all but rather a gathering of trees and statues. White Point Gardens is a small yet lovely area that most visitors make a point to stroll while in downtown. The pathways are level and are made up of finely packed granite rock.
- Charles Town Landing, along the Copper River on the peninsula, is a replica of the first permanent colonial settlement in South Carolina, and includes a zoo with species indigenous to Carolina in the 1670s. A total of ten handicapped parking spots exists (six at the visitor center and four more at the Founder Hall). All pathways are paved or are boardwalk with ADA compliant slopes. Most areas and facilities in the park are accessible by wheelchair with the exception of the Adventure Exhibit (a 17th century replica ship). Restrooms are located in three areas of the park and meet modern ADA specifications.
- On historic Broad Street downtown is a tranquil space known as Washington Park. Large oak trees encircle the inner walkway which leads to a monument dedicated to General George Washington.
- Outside of the Downtown Charleston are other wonderful walkways a wheelchair traveler can enjoy, including in Hampton Park and North Charleston Riverfront Park. In West Ashley is the Ashley River Road Bike Path and the West Ashley Greenway. James Island County Park has a number of good trails. Folly Beach Edwin S. Taylor Fishing Pier is one and is where one local explains “all the hippies hang out.” Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park and Pier and Shem Creek Park are both located on Mount Pleasant. The Isle of Palms Country Park has one beach wheelchair for rent, subject to availability of course, and a beach boardwalk that is accessible. Kiawah Beachwalker Park is on the west on of Kawah Island and also has a beach wheelchair for rent–first come, first served. You can call 843.768.2395 to check availability.
- On Johns Island, fifteen minutes from downtown, is the natural landmark known as the Angel Oak. Free of admission, this southern live oak is thought to be one of the “oldest living things” east of the Rocky Mountains and estimated to be around 500-years-old. A number of the oak’s branches are far bigger than the trunks of the other trees surrounding it. The Angel Oak is a gateway attraction to plantations in the area. People usually don’t stay very long, but many come, so for less populated photos come when the gates open. Nothing is paved, including the one handicapped parking spot, so watch out for the occasional soft spot, rock or twig. Parking is feet away from the oak where small gift shop is located and has a ramp. There are porta-potties, but unfortunately none are accessible.
- Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in West Ashley is one of the oldest and most popular plantations in the south. Many things can be seen on this 70-acre plantation that rests along the Ashley River, so an all-day visit is necessary. Old southern Live Oak trees with dripping Spanish moss surround the plantation like beautiful ornaments accenting the bright green lawns, buildings, and gardens. Near the entrance is small petting zoo with a few animals including white-tailed deer that love to be fed. This area also has several small exhibits. The only building that is wheelchair accessible is one of the slave cabins. The boat tour is only accessible for those who can leave their wheelchairs and manage one small step. The open-air train tour has a ramp to one of the cars, though it is not ADA compliant, and one can stay in the wheelchair. However, the width and steepness of the ramp as well as the low head clearance of the train car may prevent most power wheelchairs and scooters from access. The garden is overall wheelchair accessible. At one scenic point it brushes by the Ashley River. Some of the pathways are hard-packed dirt at first, but then turn into small rocks and some parts are thick with rocks. This terrain can be challenging, plus, the rocks could cause harm some wheels. The bridges are all wheelchair accessible, as is the boardwalk at the swamp. The swamp was the backdrop to the blockbuster movie the “Swamp Thing.”
- Drayton Hall is a southern plantation in the area of West Ashley–it is partially accessible. Drayton Hall has made adaptations to provide public access throughout the site, while maintaining the historic landmark, which includes a combination of grass, mulch, and sand shell-mix surfaces and pathways. The grounds, restrooms, Museum Shop, raised English basement of the Main House, and the “Connections: From Africa to America” program are all accessible to individuals with physical disabilities. In addition, a video tour is available for those who are unable or prefer not to join the tour; written tours are available for the hearing impaired.Guests may not bring their own wheelchairs up the stairs into the house; they may bring their own wheelchairs into the basement and must be accompanied by a Drayton Hall staff member.Those without a wheelchair can borrow one from the first floor of the main house and may not be taken upstairs.The raised basement was a working space, with storage spaces designed for special purposes. One room, with a brick floor laid in a herringbone pattern and a heavy, lockable door, may have been used to store wine, spices, and other valuable commodities. Another room, originally paved with brick but now with a dirt floor, may have been used to store root vegetables and cool storage. Additional rooms were likely used for a plantation office, supplementary storage, and other work spaces for enslaved people. A large fireplace in the main basement room heated the space, and kept food warm before serving.
- Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding, on Johns Island, is a therapeutic riding center for children and adults with a wide range of disabilities. To participate in the program, a physician’s evaluation and release is needed along with a few other forms. Once the forms are submitted then an on-site evaluation is required. The wait list can be up to 6 months, so plan accordingly.
Museums and Aquarium
- South Carolina Aquarium on Charleston Harbor is a wonderful stop, especially for families. The Saltmarsh Aviary is home to 25 stingrays and there is also an albino alligator exhibit and a 4-D adventure theater. An elevator or long ramp takes guests to the exhibit areas. Accessible restrooms are located at the aquarium.
- The Charleston Museum, on the Museum Mile, has two handicapped parking spaces and a ramp to the entrance. If you are without a vehicle, there is a ramp entrance on the Meeting Street side of the building (next to the museum sign). You can rent a wheelchair at the admission desk if needed. The museum itself has wide aisles in all exhibit areas and has an elevator to access the second floor. Accessible restrooms are found on both the ground and second floors.
- The Gibbes Museum of Art, also on the Museum Mile, has wheelchair access via ramp on the right side of the building—just look for the universal symbol. The side doors open with a push of a button. The admission desk has no lowered space for wheelchair access. Here you can also borrow a wheelchair free-of-charge. Access around the museum’s 2.5 floors is easy due to the open layout and elevator. In 2013, the restroom was labeled as accessible but was not ADA compliant.
- The Old Slave Mart Museum is on the ground floor and barrier free. The sidewalk to the museum is, however, uneven. The elevator inside is really small and can accommodate only one wheelchair at a time. A handicapped restroom is available.
- In addition to having ramps to the front and back doors and plenty of space to navigate inside, the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry (CML) has a special program: the CML Superstars takes place every second Sunday from 10:00 am – 12:00pm and provides free access to children with special needs and their families and friends. The great thing about this program is that the number of people in the building is limited to 100. This provides extra room, space and access for all children to be able to explore, play, learn & discover.
- The Old Exchange Building is accessible. If possible, call 843-727-2165 and speak to a staff member and let them know what time you are arriving. They will arrange to meet you at the back of the building (off Gillon Street) for the ground level entrance. An elevator allows you to tour all three floors. Should you be unable to call ahead, simply flag down one of the costumed docents on the front (Broad Street & East Bay intersection) and they will meet assist you. If you do not see anyone at the front, then wait, as the docents are assisting others but will return. At the Old Exchange Building there are no handicapped parking spots, but there are about 16 metered spots directly behind the museum and a parking garage one block away. Both men and women accessible restrooms are available inside the museum.
- If you don’t make it all the way over to the actual Fort Sumter, the Fort Sumter National Memorial is a free museum with many photos on and information about the fort. This is located in the Maritime Center, next to the South Carolina Aquarium. A wheelchair user can either access the museum floor by elevator or by a fairly long ramp. I took the elevator up and the ramp ride down.
A few areas exist in Charleston for shopping. Many storefronts will have at least a step if not a few into the store, yet you will still find enough accessible places to spend money. Power wheelchairs and scooters are more limited due to the tight arrangements of stores.
The most spacious and wheelchair-friendly shopping area is the Old City Market, also known as the Old Slave Market. In colonial times, wealthy women would come to the market to shop and have lunch while the people they enslaved did the bulk of the shopping. Today, the market that runs in the middle of the street is filled with local artists selling original items. A couple of to-go counter cafes are inside, including Caviar & Bananas. Public restrooms with a handicapped stall are in the market. Accessible ramps are at the front and (not the sides), and doors are glass and not automatic.
Parallel to the Old Slave Market is the Rainbow Market, a small indoor mall of a few shops. Wheelchair access on the backside of the building includes a steep non ADA compliant ramp. The shops here are not impressive. Across Meeting Street from the Old Slave Mart are The Shops at Charleston Place. Wheelchair access to these shops is possible through the hotel lobby. An accessible restroom is available in the lobby as well. A block from Meeting Street is King Street with about a dozen blocks of antique, boutique and named-brand shopping.
The French Quarter is an area of downtown Charleston with an array of art galleries and restaurants. Some of the major streets of Charleston create its border: Meeting, Market and Broad Street. The other side is the Copper River with Waterfront Park. The streets mentioned above are concentrated with galleries and eateries. East Bay Street, which includes Rainbow Row, is another popular street for visitors.
Outside of Historic Charleston is Tanger Outlets in North Charleston.
Festivals & Events
- Women’s Tennis Association Tour’s Family Circle Cup occurs each spring on Daniel Island. It is the largest women’s only tennis tournament in the world.
- The Charleston Marathon every January is an exciting all-weekend event.
- In Marion Square, Charleston’s Farmers Market is open every Saturday, April 3 to Dec. 19, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The market sells fresh produce and specialty items, including homemade candles, cloths and jewelry. Local vendors serve breakfast and lunch.
- Second Sunday on King happens every month from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. King Street is closed to vehicle traffic to welcome everyone to stroll, shop, dine and enjoy Charleston. Restaurants and shops spill out of their doors into booths in the streets.
- Both the Lowcountry Oyster Festival and Taste of Charleston take place at the Boone Hall Plantation on Mount Pleasant.
- Restaurant Week is another event in which participating Charleston restaurants offer pre-fixed, three course menus for one set price.
- The Spoleto Festival USA happens every spring for 17 days and nights. Well-known and rising opera, dance, theater, classical music, and jazz performers take the stage.
- The Piccolo Spoleto Festival is a smaller version of the Spoleto Festival, lasting two weeks and featuring local musicians.
- The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition is a three-day celebration of wildlife and nature art, as well as conservation research and environmental education. More than five hundred artists and exhibitors participate each February.
- During December’s Christmas in Charleston, buildings all over deck their halls and holiday inspired events occur.
- The North Charleston Arts Festival showcases national, regional and local artists and performers of dance, music, theater, visual arts, crafts, photography, media arts and literature.
Local cuisine in Charleston, SC is known as lowcountry cooking–shrimp and grits being the most famous dish. She Crab Soup is also a favorite in these parts. Be prepared for many fried foods, even tomatoes, okra and other veggies. Historic Charleston is filled with restaurants and other eateries, but only around half are wheelchair accessible due to stairs or some other kind of barrier. Furthermore, of the places that have an accessible entry, only a few also provide a handicapped accessible restroom.
Below is a list of restaurants in the Historic Charleston Area that are recognized by the city as being accessible. However, this does not mean that the entire restaurant is accessible. Generally, it is rare to find a lowered bar section but often there are tables nearby.
- 82 Queen offers a fine example of lowcountry cuisine. However, only the patio is wheelchair accessible and because of this and its extreme popularity, reservations are recommended.
- Bananas & Caviar is a gourmet and specialty food grocery store on George Street off King Street. Great to-go food and in-store dining menu items are available for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner.
- Blossoms on East Bay Street is a fine dining restaurant with a flair for ‘low-county’ dishes and a nice outdoor patio. There’s no lowered section at the bar but there is an accessible restroom.
- Boone’s Restaurant & Bar on King Street has wheelchair access only on the ground floor and though there is an accessible restroom, there is no lowered section at the bar.
- Circa 1886 restaurant’s patio, entrance, main dining room, bar (there is a lowered table), and bathrooms are all accessible. The private room is on the second floor and there is no elevator.
- Hotels are good places to find accessible restaurants. The most famous is Charleston Place with a few different dining options: The Charleston Grill (fine dining for dinner), the Palmetto (breakfast, brunch and lunch) with indoor and patio seating and the Thoroughbred Club (lounge/bar). At both the fine dining restaurant and bar, live music is performed every night. The only restroom in the lobby is usually pretty busy with one handicapped and regular stall. The Mills House’s Barbados Room serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner and has an accessible entrance is at the side door on the right. Inside, a lift takes you down to the dining room floor and on the way you pass perhaps the biggest handicapped restroom in Charleston. At the Market Pavilion Hotel, on the corner of East Bay and Meeting Street, you can find a fine dining restaurant as well as a rooftop bar and café. At first glance there are no accessible tables on the rooftop, but if you ask the hotel staff, one can be brought up from the restaurant to the patio. That’s some good service! An elevator gets wheelchairs guests to the rooftop patio, and an accessible restroom is available inside.
- Leaf Café and Bar is all located on ground level, including the outdoor patio, handicapped restroom and bar. The bar, however, does not have a lowered section.
- Nick’s Bar-B-Q is an affordable restaurant on King Street mostly known for their ribs, but folks like all the BBQ items. The entrance is at sidewalk level. You order inside at the counter, and your food is brought to the table you select. The restroom is not wheelchair accessible.
- STARS Rooftop and Grill Room on King Street is s steakhouse. The restaurant has an elevator that goes to each floor (including the 3rd floor rooftop) and both of the bathrooms on the 1st & 2nd Floor are wheelchair accessible. The bar does not have any lower sections but there are plenty of great tables.
- Virginia’s on King is partially wheelchair accessible. The front door and bathroom allows access with no steps. The bar does not feature any lowered areas. The upstairs private space is not wheelchair accessible because there is no elevator.
Public Toilets and Automatic Doors
Automatic doors are exceptionally rare, expect for the airport. The handicapped restrooms in Charleston are smaller than the ADA standards outlined on the US ADA government website. After reviewing the city for a week, only one bathroom was determined big enough for a power wheelchair, which was at The Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel. Also, in a number of the handicapped restrooms two grab bars were not seen. Most commonly, one would be located on the back wall of the toilet, and occasionally there would be an accessible restroom with no grab bars. Don’t assume a bathroom is accessible, always personally check access.