There’s a good reason (actually, several) why Charleston, South Carolina has been voted the #1 Small US City by Condé Nast Traveler for eight years in a row. Charleston is home to rich history, well-preserved architecture, a celebrated restaurant industry, and beautiful outdoor settings waiting to be explored. This beautiful port city was founded in 1670, and is defined by its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages and pastel antebellum houses, particularly in the elegant French Quarter and Battery districts. The Battery promenade and Waterfront Park both overlook Charleston Harbor, while Fort Sumter, a federal stronghold where the first shots of the Civil War rang out, lies across the water. Being such an old city (by US standards), you can expect a few obstacles to wheelchairs, usually in the form of some uneven sidewalks and steps in historic buildings. However, there is still so much charm and beauty that is completely accessible to people of all ability levels! Here are my suggestions for wheelchair accessible things to do in historic Charleston.
1. South Carolina Aquarium. The lovely South Carolina Aquarium is home to more than ten thousand plants and animals including North American river otters, loggerhead sea turtles, alligators, great blue herons, owls, lined seahorses, jellyfish, pufferfish, green moray eels, horseshoe crabs, sea stars, pythons, and sharks. The largest exhibit in the zoo is the Great Ocean Tank, which extends from the first to the third floor of the Aquarium and is the deepest tank in North America (42 feet); it holds more than 385,000 US gallons (1,460,000 l) of water and contains more than seven hundred animals. A very unique part of the Aquarium is the sea turtle hospital, which is home to various sea turtles in different stages of recovery from injury. The Aquarium also features a Touch Tank, where patrons may touch horseshoe crabs, Atlantic stingrays, and other marine animals. If you can’t reach into the touch tank, one of the staff will put the animal in a plastic container to bring it closer to you. The wheelchair accessibility is excellent, and while the Aquarium isn’t huge, it’s a great way to spend the afternoon in a very scenic spot on the water.
2. Charleston Harbor Cruise. Climb aboard the Carolina Belle to enjoy the beauty of the Charleston Harbor and learn the rich history of the Holy City. During the scenic and relaxing 90 minute tour, you will see over 75 landmarks and points of interest. A professional USCG licensed captain will narrate history, sights, and facts about the Charleston Harbor as you pass locations critical to United States history. Some of the things you’ll see include Fort Sumter, one of Charleston’s most popular landmarks, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired; Confederate and Union army Forts Moultrie and Johnson; the USS Yorktown: the famous World War II “Fighting Lady”; St. Michael’s Church, a survivor of both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, whose steeple was painted black so as not to be an easy target; stately homes on the Battery, symbols of Southern elegance and perseverance; Cooper River Bridges, including the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, a state of the art span that accommodates the largest ships in the world; dolphins skimming the surface of the water and pelicans diving for food. My mom and I saw two of them! The Carolina Belle departs from the Charleston Maritime Center, about two blocks south of the Aquarium and departure dock for Fort Sumter tours. Only the top deck is accessible, but there is a reserved space for wheelchairs and benches for their companions on the starboard side, which offers the best views (in my opinion). The toilet on the boat is not accessible, so make sure you use the restroom before your cruise.
3. Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum. Walk in the steps of heroes at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, home of the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, and South Carolina’s most unique attraction. With fresh exhibits, educational programming and other one-of-a-kind events, Patriots Point is the only Charleston-area historic attraction that offers exciting new experiences all year long. It appeals to visitors of all ages and gives everyone a hands-on glimpse of maritime and military life aboard a true piece of American history. Whether you are a visitor or a local, a military veteran or a family on vacation, at Patriots Point there is always a new way to walk in the steps of heroes. Museum exhibits and activities include three vessels (Aircraft Carrier USS YORKTOWN, Destroyer USS LAFFEY, Submarine USS CLAMAGORE), 28 historic aircraft, 3-acre Vietnam Experience Exhibit, Apollo 8 capsule, and over 40 interactive exhibits. The newest exhibits include the LAFFEY Combat Information Center and engine room and the Vietnam Experience Quonset Hut and Theater. You also don’t want to miss the new Medal of Honor Museum on the hangar deck. There is a gangway to take you to the main deck, where there are a few exhibits you can roll through if you have a fairly narrow wheelchair. An elevator will take you to the hangar deck and flight deck, both of which are accessible, as are bathrooms in the ticketing building and gift shop.
4. Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter is an island fortification located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Originally constructed in 1829 as a coastal garrison, Fort Sumter is most famous for being the site of the first shots of the Civil War (1861-65). A ramp system makes access a reality for all who visit Fort Sumter by tour boat from the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center in downtown Charleston. Even motorized wheelchairs are no longer a barrier. While this system offers accessibility like never before possible, there may be times when routine maintenance, unexpected repairs or adverse conditions render the system unavailable. To ensure that your visit will be fully accessible, the National Park Service recommends that you contact the concessioner, Fort Sumter Tours, on the day of your visit at (843) 722-2628. The historic parade ground level of Fort Sumter is accessible. Several interpretive wayside exhibits are located throughout this level and a park interpreter is available to provide a history talk and answer questions. Battery Huger houses the restrooms, water fountain, museum, museum store, and the observation level; all of these areas are only accessible by climbing stairs. A museum guide is available upon request, at Fort Sumter, featuring all of the museum text, images, quotes, and pictures of artifacts on display in the Fort Sumter museum and the upper level of Fort Sumter. An accessible restroom on the tour boat will remain open throughout the visit to Fort Sumter for visitors and a fully accessible museum store is available at Liberty Square. All Fort Sumter National Monument museum stores are operated by Eastern National. A majority of the visitor center and fort are accessible by wheelchair. A wheelchair is available at no cost and can be checked out at the visitor center.
5. Charleston City Market. Established in the 1790s, the Charleston City Market stretches for four city blocks from the architecturally-significant Market Hall, which faces Meeting Street, through a continuous series of one-story market sheds, the last of which terminates at East Bay Street. Throughout the 19th century, the market provided a convenient place for area farms and plantations to sell beef and produce, and also acted as a place for locals to gather and socialize. Today, the City Market’s vendors sell souvenirs and other items ranging from jewelry and soaps to locally-made sweets and Gullah sweetgrass baskets. Since 1899, the City Market has housed Charleston’s Confederate Museum. The entire length of the market is flat and wheelchair accessible, with exits to the street between buildings.
6. Waterfront Park. Life in the Lowcountry is all about slowing down and taking a moment or two to relax, and locals and visitors both agree that Charleston’s Waterfront Park is the perfect venue to stretch out and soak up the scene. With a prime location overlooking Charleston Harbor and the Cooper River, and more than 10 acres of room to roam, (most of which is waterfront), Waterfront Park is essentially a romantic, engaging, serene, and perfectly picturesque destination that will make any newcomer fall in love with this unique southern city. Waterfront Park, located along Concord Street, was historically a long parcel of land that was the center of local maritime traffic travelling in and out of Charleston Harbor. The park itself was designed by Stuart O. Dawson of Sasaki Associates, and was divided into distinct sections which were intertwined with both riverfront and off-the-water walking paths, and were tied together by a noteworthy fountain which is topped off with a statue of a Palmetto tree. Family-sized swings invite park patrons to relax and take advantage of the cool breezes, and a large rectangular shaped central lawn is a popular spot for picnics and sunbathing. The park essentially covers over 1,000′ feet of coastline, an as a result, is one of the best places for sightseeing, nature watching, and outdoor interests of all genres. Pelicans and egrets make frequent appearances along the riverbanks, and visitors can often spot fast-moving sailboats and giant cruise ships lurking just offshore.
7. The Charleston Museum. Founded in 1773, The Charleston Museum, America’s First Museum, has been discovering, preserving, interpreting, celebrating, and sharing ever since. Their collections, exhibitions, educational programs, and events are designed to inspire curiosity and conversation – about the South Carolina Lowcountry – and the stories that make residents who they are.The Natural History Gallery houses fossils from various specimens and also contains three lifesize fossil reconstructions. The Pelagornis sandersi (the largest flying bird in the world and the only of its kind), the primitive whale, and a giant crocodile, Gavialosuchus, were native to the Charleston area roughly 33 to 23 million years ago during the Oligocene epoch and represent the Lowcountry’s incredible prehistoric biodiversity. In the Loeblein Gallery of Charleston Silver discover the impressive work of the South’s finest craftsmen and women, from the colonial era through the Victorian Age. The main museum is fully accessible. There are five historic homes located throughout Charleston that are part of the Museum, and one of them (see below) is actually accessible as well.
8. Nathaniel Russell House. A National Historic Landmark, the Nathaniel Russell House Museum was built over a five-year period and completed in 1808 by Charleston merchant Nathaniel Russell. The house cost $80,000 to build, at a time when the average value of a home was $262. The home’s graceful, free-flying, three-story staircase is an architectural marvel with each cantilevered step supporting the one above and below it. The graceful interiors with elaborate plasterwork ornamentation, geometrically shaped rooms, formal gardens and collection of 18th-century decorative and fine art speak to the wealth of Charleston’s elite in the early days of the American Republic. Restored to its original splendor using forensic analysis and cutting-edge conservation technology by our curatorial staff, the museum ensures the highest standards of old-world expertise to replicate the finishes, fixtures and textiles appropriate for this 200-year old townhouse. Because restoration is an ongoing process, visitors have the opportunity to see and learn about the meticulous care, craft and consideration that goes into every detail. The accessible entrance is on the right side of house down the packed-gravel driveway. Please call the admission desk at (843) 722-3405 to have someone open the door for you. A small elevator in the gift shop will take you to the second floor.
9. Battery & White Point Gardens. Located in the heart of Charleston’s historic district, this prominent landmark provides a spectacular view of Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor, where the Ashley and Cooper rivers empty into the Atlantic Ocean. It was first used as a public garden in 1837. With the outbreak of the Civil War, it became a fortification for the city. Visitors today also find an impressive display of historic mortars and cannons from the Civil War used to shell as well as defend the city. At the corner of Murray and East Bay there is a Confederate monument. In the early 1720s, the infamous “gentleman” pirate Stede Bonnet was hanged here with about 50 others like him. Townspeople filled the gallows area and jeered as the outlaw was brought to his rightful end. Bonnet was buried in the nearby marsh. His epitaph has been memorialized and stands today in the park. The park grounds are packed gravel, which should be easy for wheelchairs to navigate. There are several crosswalks and entry onto the elevated Battery across the street from the south side of the Gardens. There are only steps to descend from the Battery as you roll along the path to the north, so make sure you don’t need restroom access.
10. The Gibbes Museum. The Gibbes Museum of Art is home to the foremost collection of American art that incorporates the story of Charleston. Established as the Carolina Art Association in 1858, the Gibbes Museum of Art opened
its doors to the public in 1905. Located in Charleston’s historic district, the Gibbes houses a premier collection of over 10,000 works of fine art, principally American works with a Charleston or Southern connection and presents 12-15 special exhibitions annually. In addition, the museum offers an extensive complement of public programming and educational outreach initiatives. As the aesthetic heart of the Lowcountry, the Gibbes serves the community by stimulating creative expression, increasing economic vitality through tourism, and improving the region’s superb quality of life. The Museum underwent an extensive multimillion dollar renovation a few years ago, and it’s excellent wheelchair accessibility is one result. The wheelchair entrance is up a gentle ramp on the right side of the building, and an elevator provides access to all floors.
11. Shopping on King Street. There is no shortage of places to spend money in the historic district of Charleston, but King Street might be the most beautiful. At more than 300 years old, King Street is the second most historically and architecturally significant street in downtown Charleston, after Meeting Street. It was named for King Charles II of England and was a main route in the early city of Charles Towne. King Street was used predominantly as a path for coming in and out of town until the mid-1700s, as it was not originally designed to serve as commercial property. That was reserved to locations closer to the water and wharf docks for port trading. In the late-18th to early-19th centuries, the newly constructed railroad terminus allowed King Street to thrive as a retail corridor and commercial center. Hosting a variety of high-end specialty shops, it surpassed every other location, including East Bay Street and the wharves. King Street boasts some of the city’s trendiest restaurants and sophisticated cocktail scenes along with hotels, art galleries, flourishing businesses, and a lively nightlife – not to mention some seriously exceptional shopping. In fact, U.S. News and World Report named King Street one of the country’s “Top 10 Shopping Streets.” Crossing through the middle of the Charleston peninsula, its wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, chic boutiques, antique shops, three-story brick and stucco buildings, and central location make it easy to see why King Street is an unforgettable dining and shopping experience. Keep an eye on the sidewalk surface, which is uneven in spots due to the growth of tree roots underneath. Some curb cuts are steeper than others, but all have flat transitions to the street.
12. Walking/Rolling Ghost Tour. Charleston is a very flat city and the historic area is pretty compressed, which makes it ideal for a walking/rolling tour. There are many options, which usually last between 1-2 hours, and most can accommodate wheelchair users since they usually don’t take you inside any buildings. However, the most accessible is the Ghost and Graveyard Tour by Bulldog Tours. This tout gives you an exclusive opportunity to walk inside the gates of one of Charleston’s oldest graveyards after dark. When all the other walking tours are looking in through the wrought iron fence, you’ll be on the inside. Explore the graveyard’s dark corners, closely inspect the headstones to see what you might learn, and take a moment to step across the graves…if you dare. Learn about the history of Charleston’s graveyards, and hear the stories of the famous individuals who found their final resting place in the Holy City. You’ve heard the spooky Charleston ghost stories, right? Well, now you can experience them on this up-close-and-personal tour that takes you where others won’t. Graveyards are endearing pockets of Charleston – so much so that they are often referred to here as simply “gardens.” During your tour, keep an eye on the sidewalk surface, which is uneven in spots due to the growth of tree roots underneath. Some curb cuts are steeper than others, but all have flat transitions to the street. Book early, as these tours tend to fill up quickly. Also, make sure you contact Bulldog Tours at 843-766-2080 at the time of booking to let them know you are a wheelchair user.
13. St. Michael’s Church. St. Michael’s Church is the oldest church edifice in the City of Charleston, standing on the site of the first Anglican Church built south of Virginia. It has a long and fascinating history, and is easily one of the most recognizable buildings in the historic area. In the 1680’s a small wooden church, the first in the new town of Charles Town, was built on this spot for the families of the Church of England, and named St. Philip’s. By 1727, the town had grown too large for the small church and a more spacious one was built of brick on Church Street, later destroyed by fire in 1835. Except for the addition of the sacristy in 1883 on the southeast corner, the structure of the building has been little changed.The large, long double-pew in the center of the church, No. 43, originally known as “The Governor’s Pew,” is the one in which President George Washington worshipped on Sunday afternoon, May 8, 1791. General Robert E. Lee also worshipped in the pew some seventy years later. St. Michael’s is located at the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets. The main entrance has one step to get in, but you can call the office at 843-723-0603 and ask someone to open the accessible entrance for you.
14. Charles Towne Landing. If you have the means to drive outside of the Charleston city center, consider a visit to this historic site. Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site sits on a marshy point, located off the Ashley River, where a group of English settlers landed in 1670 and established what would become the birthplace of the Carolina colony. Charles Towne Landing introduces visitors to the earliest colonial history of Charleston. (Able-bodied) guests can step aboard and tour the Adventure, Charleston’s only 17th-century replica sailing ship, see cannons fired, or take a peek at otters, bears, bison and more at the Animal Forest natural habitat zoo. The grounds also include 80 acres of gardens, with an elegant live oak alley and the Legare Waring House. The park provides seven miles of paved and unpaved trails. Walk along the marsh or through the 80 acres of park-style gardens, featuring thousands of azaleas, camellias and live oaks, some several hundred years old. Visitors may also stroll through the original settlement area of 1670-1680 complete with reconstructed fortifications, protective palisade and crop garden. Enjoy seeing animal species native to the area at the time of settlement, in a natural habitat zoo setting. All areas and facilities of the park are accessible by wheelchair with the exception of the Adventure exhibit (17th century replica ship). The Adventure is viewable from shore. All pathways are paved, concrete or boardwalk. The 17th century Common House exhibit and current archaeological research site is hard, packed dirt. Manual wheelchairs may need assistance at these locations.
15. Folly Beach. Being a native Floridian, I felt right at home when I arrived at Folly Beach, a short 30-minute drive from the Charleston historic area. Folly Beach is a city on Folly Island, and it’s home to Folly Beach Pier, stretching more than 1,000 feet into the ocean. Center Street is lined with surf and souvenir shops. Folly Beach County Park has picnic areas and a pelican rookery. As well as beaches and wildlife-rich habitats, Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve has views of Morris Island Lighthouse, completed in 1876. Fishing, walking/rolling, birding, and the opportunity to enjoy breathtaking views of the “Edge of America” are just some of the possibilities at the Edwin S. Taylor Folly Beach Fishing Pier, where you can find some of the best saltwater fishing in the area. The pier is a breathtaking landmark that stretches 1,045 feet into the sparkling waters of the Atlantic Ocean. At 25-feet wide and 23-feet above sea level, the pier is the second longest on the east coast and offers not only spectacular views, but a variety of fishing tournaments, special events, and dining. The pier is wheelchair accessible with wheelchair ramps from the ground level to the piers top deck, which means anyone can enjoy the expansive views and fishing. The restrooms at the pier are also handicap accessible. While Folly offers beach access in every block, the West Ninth Street access on West Ashley is wheelchair accessible ramp just off the parking lot. There is also a beach wheelchair mat at 111 E. Arctic that starts right next to the van accessible parking spaces. Two companies in the Charleston area offer their services to the Folly Beach area. Herbert’s Mobility, Inc. (843-571-1515) and The SCOOTER Store (877-206-8684) have rentals of wheelchairs and other necessary equipment to make any beach vacation easier.
Disclaimer: I visited Charleston, SC as a guest of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. As such, I was provided with a complimentary VIP pass that allowed me free entry to all of the places in this list (and many more I didn’t have time to visit personally). All the information provided here comes either from each location’s site and my personal experience as a visitor in a wheelchair.