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Charleston Museums You Can’t Miss

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Charleston is so pleasant and warm, you probably won’t want to head inside after a day in the sun. But sometimes you just need a break from the heat or the rain. These 9 must-see Charleston museums will give you a much-needed break from the outdoors while educating you on Lowcountry history and culture.

Charleston Museum

Charleston’s namesake museum is one of the oldest museums in the U.S. and celebrates the melting pot that is the Lowcountry. Founded in 1773, the museum was modeled after the British Museum and was conceived during the American Revolution. Famous Americans, such as John Audubon, Charles Pickney and John Bachman had a hand in the museum’s development.

Permanent exhibits include a natural history gallery, a Lowcountry history hall, an armory and an exhibit on the American Revolution. The museum also has exhibits dedicated to the history of the Civil War and collections of world artifacts, including Egyptian mummy displays.

South Carolina Historical Society Museum

The first of its kind in the state, the new South Carolina Historical Society Museum showcases 300+ years of state history through the personal artifacts, priceless treasures and hand-written accounts of those who experienced it. Combining interactive technology and hands-on exhibits with one-of-a-kind historical items, visitors get a firsthand glimpse into the lives of the people who created South Carolina’s history.

Old Slave Mart Museum

The Old Slave Mart Museum is possibly one of the most popular museums in Charleston. Visitors head here from all points in the U.S. and international cities to learn about the slave triangle of the 1700s and 1800s.

The building is a rare example of an existing structure that once housed a slave mart in the South. The self-guided tour leads you through the museums quarters and explains the living conditions of enslaved people in Charleston and on slave ships. The old provost dungeon is just across the street and makes a great complementary stop to the Old Slave Mart.

The museum is also a great example of gothic revival architecture.

Gibbes Museum of Art

Gibbes Museum of Art is housed in one of the most visually stunning buildings in the Holy City. Old meets new at this art museum that is located in a beaux art building.

You can take a tour of American art history here — everything from 18th and 19th sculpture and paintings is on display as well as modern and contemporary art. Temporary exhibitions also travel to the museum and include topic such as ‘Charleston Collects: South Asian Art’ and Ogden Pleissner paintings.

The museum was established back in 1858 and is home to over 10,000 works of art. It was named after its main benefactor, James Shoolbred Gibbes.

Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum houses the largest private collection of original manuscripts in the world. Founded in 1983, the museum’s main goal was to inspire an interest in learning. The Charleston branch is just one of the library’s many U.S. locations.

The 68 Spring Street branch is housed in an impressive Greek revival structure. This building was once home to the St. James Chapel, a Methodist congregation. The architecture was modeled after the Temple of Juniper in Rome.

The building was used as a hospital during the Civil War. It was badly destroyed during Hurricane Hugo, but it was successfully restored in 1990.

North Charleston Fire Truck Museum

If you have kids in tow, you’ll definitely want to make a stop at the North Charleston Fire Museum — it’s one of the most family-friendly activities here.

It’s home to one of the largest collections of LeFrance fire equipment. Kids can become firefighters for the day and learn the ‘basic training’ that firefighters receive. Docents also explain what happens during a fire — helping kids understand the gravity of such a disaster in a gentle way.

Kids can also get their hands on a real fire hose and see firsthand the pressure that such hoses produce!

Nathaniel Russel House Museum

It would be a shame to spend a few days in Charleston without witnessing firsthand how the ‘other half’ lived. The Nathaniel Russel House Museums aims to do just that.

Built by Nathaniel Russell, a shipping merchant, this 1808 home is a National Historic Landmark. You can take a tour of the home — or explore on your own. The docents will explain the house’s historical significance while pointing out the architectural features.

Just to give you an idea of how wealthy Russell was: the home cost more than 305 times the amount of most houses in the 1800s.

Charleston Plantations

Some of Charleston’s best museums are its restored homes. These structures tell the stories of the people who built this city — and offer a comprehensive look at life in Charleston’s past.

You can’t visit Charleston without a trip to at least one of the area’s famous plantations.

Two of the most famous plantations include Magnolia and Boone Hall. Both plantations do a great job of showing the opulence of the South — as well as the realities of slavery.

Aiken-Rhett House Museum

Another great way to understand the disparity between classes in the 1800s is the Aiken-Rhett House Museum. This building was once home to one of Charleston’s most influential families. It was also once home to many enslaved African Americans.

You can take a tour and learn about the museum from the docents, or you can take the self-guided audio tour via the museum app. The museum also hosts special events each month that focus on specific historic topics, such as ‘Jewish Charleston’ and book readings.

South Carolina Aquarium

The South Carolina Aquarium is another great spot for little ones. Here, you can learn about Charleston’s marine habitat. Both kids and adults love learning about the area’s animals — including sea turtles, otters, fish, alligators, rattlesnakes, puffer fish and herons.

Kids love the touch tank that features hermit crabs, sea urchins and stingrays.

The Great Ocean Tank is another big draw; here, the museum hosts dive shows, featuring sharks, sea turtles and other animals.

Though many visitors head to Charleston for the warm weather, they end up staying for its many cultural institutions. Luckily, Charleston has so many museums that there’s at least one on this list for just about every visitor.