Charleston's Top 5 Museums

Our picks for the top 5 museums in Charleston.
By: Janet Maragioglio
Charleston, SC, is one of America's most historic cities, with a rich cultural, natural and military heritage. There's no better spot to experience Charleston's past -- and marvel at its present -- than in its many museums. Here are Travel Channel's picks for the top 5 museums that make Charleston a top tourist destination.

Photo by: Ed Stojakovic 312 953 8606

Ed Stojakovic 312 953 8606

The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773, making it "America’s First Museum." The museum marks the official start to Charleston’s Museum Mile, which stretches along Meeting Street. Visitors enjoy hundreds of artifacts that give personal insight into Charleston’s Colonial, agricultural and wartime past. Examine cultivation tools and sweetgrass baskets that slaves used to harvest and cull rice in the fields, and view “slave badges,” haunting relics of a troubled past. Tribal pottery and quilts showcase the decorative arts and traditions, from early natives to English colonists, while uniforms, armaments and even a prosthetic arm belonging to a famous Confederate general bring to life Charleston’s role in the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

The museum also owns 2 historic houses, both open to the public. The Heyward-Washington House showcases a rich collection of Charleston-made furniture. And the Joseph Manigault House offers a look into the lifestyle of a wealthy, rice-planting family.

Photo by: Scott Henderson

Scott Henderson

A stroll down “Museum Mile” should include a visit to the Gibbes Museum of Art. The art museum houses an extensive collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts, from eras including the colorful Charleston Renaissance. Take a look at the faces that played major roles in Charleston’s history as you stroll through rooms of portraits and miniatures, many commissioned from classically-trained European artists who brought their skills across the Atlantic to serve Colonial Charleston’s elite. Travel forward to modern times with the Gibbes’ collection of contemporary works by artists native to the area whose works express the rich and culturally diverse story of Lowcountry heritage.

Stand on the only remaining site used as a gallery in South Carolina’s slave auctions. The Old Slave Mart was once part of Ryan’s Mart, a complex that spread from Chalmers to Queen streets, and included a brick-enclosed yard, a slave jail, a kitchen and a “dead house,” or morgue. Slave auctions took place on this site until November 1863. After the Civil War, the property underwent many ownership changes and served many functions, including periods as an auto repair shop and tenement housing. Then sisters Judith Wragg Chase and Louise Wragg Graves took over the Old Slave Mart in 1964, placed it on the National Register of Historic Places, and opened the museum that still exists here today. View artifacts, timelines, and African arts and crafts that illustrate Charleston’s role in the slave trade.


Photo by: Eric Frommer

Eric Frommer

Put down your e-reader -- and take a trip back in time to an era when reading material was made of paper, and some was even written (gasp!) by hand. The Karpeles Manuscript Museum houses the world’s largest private collection of historic manuscripts in a Greek Revival building fronted by dramatic Corinthian columns. Originally a Methodist church, the grand structure served as a hospital during the Civil War. These days, it’s supported by philanthropist David Karpeles, who funds 7 other document repositories nationwide. The museum rotates exhibits regularly, so check out its website to find out what’s on view the day you plan to visit. Be sure to check out must-see items in the Karpeles’s permanent displays as well, including the Constitution of the Confederate States of America.

Just a short drive up Interstate 26, to north Charleston, is the nation’s largest collection of American LaFrance firefighting trucks and apparatus, all lovingly restored. (The museum may be a bit off the beaten path, but its proximity to the Tanger Outlets makes it easy to combine a visit here with a trip to dozens of stores and restaurants right next door.) A walk among the museum’s shiny engines and horse-drawn fire wagons is a lesson in America’s firefighting history. The experience doesn’t stop there. Interactive exhibits challenge you to lift the 100 pounds of equipment a firefighter wears on the job, test your knowledge of firefighting tools, take a turn speeding to an emergency scene in a full-size fire truck driving simulator, and much more. Children can climb a real firefighter’s ladder and slide down the fire pole on a large, indoor play set. Wrap up your visit with a short film on firefighting history. Plus, check out the realistic stage demonstration on how to prevent the most common household fires.

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