A Charleston tour guide shares his favorite historic locations.
Charleston, South Carolina is a city known for its rich history. Founded by European settlers in 1670 as Charles Town – named for King Charles II of England – and renamed Charleston in 1783, it is the oldest city in the state.
We caught up with John LaVerne, tour guide for Bulldog Tours in Charleston, to find out what makes this old Southern city so special.
“Charleston is considered by many to be the most historical city in America,” John says. “We played a significant part during the Revolutionary War with the first decisive victory against the British taking place at Fort Moultrie. The first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumpter, right here in the Charleston Harbor. We have hundreds and hundreds of pre-revolutionary buildings and houses in this town, and virtually all of them have been preserved at this point.
“It’s just this magical and charming place. When you walk down the streets you can really kind of transport back in time and feel like you were here in the early stages of American history.”
With so many historical destinations packed into one place, we leaned on John to narrow things down for us. Here are John’s five favorite historic places in downtown Charleston that you’ve got to see on your next visit:
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church – 142 Church Street
Established in 1681, St. Philip’s is the oldest religious congregation in South Carolina. The first St. Philip’s Church was built at the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets, but later moved to its current location on Church Street after the original building suffered hurricane damage in 1710. “St. Philip’s was King Charles’ congregation,” said John. “It is also where George Washington worshiped when he was here, Robert E. Lee and Marquis de Lafayette as well.” St. Philip’s was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973, and is open to the public daily. There is no shortage of historic churches here in “The Holy City,” but this is one you definitely don’t want to miss.
The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon – 122 East Bay Street
The Old Exchange building was built by the British in 1771 to serve as a customs house and public space for the residents of Charles Town. Held by British forces in 1780 during the Revolutionary War, the dungeon was used as a jail to house both Colonial prisoners and British soldiers. In 1788, South Carolina delegates gathered at the building to ratify the United States Constitution. Through its history, the building also served as a post office and a Coast Guard station, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973. Today, The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a museum where guests can learn all about its diverse past. And the dungeon makes for a great spot for creepy ghost tours. “If you’re a fan of American history, The Old Exchange building is absolutely a must,” said John.
Charleston City Market – 188 Meeting Street
Construction began on the Charleston City Market in 1790 atop land donated by the family of Charles Pinckney for the sole purpose of being a market space. In the early 1800s, Sheds were built along what is now known as Market Street, housing everything from meat and fish vendors to vegetable stands. “It was basically our first grocery store in town,” said John. “It was also a big social gathering place as well.” In agreement with the Pinckney family’s wishes, the Charleston City Market continues to be an open-air market packed with vendors selling local goods and food. It is a popular tourist destination not only for its history, but for shopping as well.
Heyward-Washington House – 18 Meeting Street
This beautiful brick home was built in 1772 for Thomas Heyward Jr., who was one of South Carolina’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence. “It is also where George Washington stayed in 1791 when he came to visit Charleston for a week,” John notes, which gives the home its split name. The famous home became Charleston’s first historic house museum in 1930, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1978. Visitors can explore the home’s rooms filled with colonial furniture, walk through the outside garden, and check out the city’s only 1740s kitchen building open to the public.
Miles Brewton House – 27 King Street
The Miles Brewton House is known for being the greatest example of a double house (four main rooms per floor) in Charleston. Built from 1765-1769 for Miles Brewton, the home’s design was influenced by the architecture of Italian architect Andrea Palladio. According to John, British soldiers who occupied the home during the Revolutionary War made some minor design changes inside. “A really neat feature that you can’t see because it is a private home today, is some of the British troops carved their names in the wooden fireplace mantels and they are still there today.” The home is surround by high stone walls and iron gates topped with large iron spikes. John says the spikes were added following rumors of a possible slave revolt which never occurred. The house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Although you cannot go inside the home, it remains a beauty that must be seen to really be appreciated.
Did your favorite historical location in Charleston make John’s list? If not, drop a comment and tell us about it!
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