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The 11 Best Museums in Charleston, South Carolina [2024]

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Charleston, South Carolina, is quickly earning a reputation for being one of the best vacation spots on the East Coast. The area’s museums have a lot to do with this budding popularity. Whether you’re a history lover or an art buff, there’s an exhibit or gallery in this Southern city that suits your interests.

The Best Museums in Charleston

1. The Charleston Museum

The Charleston Museum
Image Credit: The Charleston Museum

First established in 1773, the Charleston Museum is the oldest museum in the U.S., predating the birth of the country. Originally meant as an archive for the preservation of decorative art pieces and important documents, the museum officially opened to the public in the 1800s.

Today, the museum reportedly houses over 2 million pieces, though only a fraction of these items are on display. These artifacts are divided into 17 collections, ranging from textiles and weapons to skeletal and paleontological specimens. It even houses the largest collection of Oligocene-era whales in the world.

There is also an impressive wing dedicated to quilting, one of the most traditional forms of folk art in the Americas. Over 180 quilts make up the collection, many of which are displayed to show differences in style from one time period or region to another. In addition to the permanent exhibits, the museum frequently hosts temporary galleries and special events.

The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free for children under 3, $6 for kids 3 to 12, $12 for youths 13 to 17, and $15 for adults. Combination tickets are available for access to the Charleston Museum, the Heyward-Washington House, and the Joseph Manigault House. The nearest bus stop is Charleston Museum and Visitors Center.

  • Address: 360 Meeting St., Charleston, SC 29403

“The Charleston Museum is a 251-year-old testament to the Lowcountry’s rich narrative. Our museum boasts the most extensive collection of South Carolina-related treasures, captivating exhibits that tell the story of the Lowcountry, and 2 National Historic Landmark Houses. Our commitment to education, preservation, and immersive experiences make it a must-visit.”

— Carl Borick, director, The Charleston Museum

2. Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry

Childrens Museum of the Lowcountry
Image Credit: Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry

Charleston’s Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry (CML) is a beloved site for families with young, creative children.

Currently, there are 8 hands-on exhibits, each with enriching sets and props to foster imagination and exploration among children. Some of the most beloved areas are DooDash’s Art Studio, which promotes artistic expression, and the Publix Market, which is designed to help build social and practical skills.

In addition to the permanent spaces, the children’s museum hosts a series of camps, trips, and temporary exhibitions for local and out-of-town visitors. Many of these events are hosted at CML, but some are held elsewhere, so be sure to check before your arrival. It’s even possible to rent the museum for private events, like birthday parties.

While people of all ages are welcome, most of the exhibits are designed for visitors under 10, so keep that in mind if you’re visiting with older children.

Charleston’s children’s museum is open Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free for children under 1, $13 for in-state residents, and $15 for out-of-state visitors. The nearest bus stop is Transit Mall.

  • Address: 25 Ann St., Charleston, SC 29403

3. The Gibbes Museum of Art

The Gibbes Museum of Art
Image Credit: The Gibbes Museum of Art

With a collection of over 10,000 works of art, The Gibbes Museum of Art is one of the most prominent fine art spaces in the South.

Though not a requirement, most of the pieces housed in the museum and its archives are in some way connected to South Carolina or other Southern states. When it first opened to the public, the museum only had the space to display 300 works of art, but this number has increased over the years.

Today, the Gibbes collection is divided broadly into 2 parts. The first is the permanent collection, which consists of 400 years’ worth of art, from sculptures to paintings. The other section is the Miniature Collection, which consists exclusively of 600 miniature portraits from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Though what’s on view changes periodically, some highlighted pieces include “Veiled Lady,” “A Windy Day at Dunquerque,” and “Crow and Heron.”

The museum is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free for children under 4, $6 for children 4 to 17, $10 for college students, military personnel (with ID), and seniors 62 and over, and $12 for adults. The ground floor is free for all visitors. The nearest bus stop is Meeting Street and Queen Street.

  • Address: 135 Meeting St., Charleston, SC 29401

“The Gibbes Museum of Art tells the story of Charleston’s ever-changing landscape through our collection of historical, modern and contemporary works. Our newest addition, Edward Hopper’s ‘The Battery, Charleston, S.C.,’ is not to be missed, as well as the Charleston-made furniture and silver displayed in the Rivers Collection. During your visit, be sure to watch out for work by the latest recipient of the esteemed 1858 Prize, awarded for their profound influence on the future of the contemporary Southern art scene.”

— Angela Mack, president and CEO. The Gibbes Museum of Art

4. Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston

Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
Image Credit: Lizzie Koschnick via Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art (HICA) is one of Charleston’s premier exhibit spaces for emerging and established artists. Unlike most museums, this facility doesn’t retain a collection of pieces. Instead, it rotates its galleries periodically throughout the year.

There’s virtually no limit as to what media can be seen at the Halsey exhibitions, with everything from photography to sculpture having been represented over the years. Some artists who have recently been featured in the space are Elizabeth Bick, Carla Gannis, and Kukuli Velarde. HICA also hosts competitions to encourage young creators to show their talent and jump into the art world.

Many of the exhibitions featured at the museum have accompanying events as well, such as discussions with the artists, panels, and film screenings. The Halsey Talks series of open discussions is particularly popular.  Halsey also sponsors traveling exhibitions, which are usually held at affiliated East Coast facilities.

Halsey Institute is open Monday to Wednesday and Friday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free for all visitors. The nearest bus stop is Calhoun Street and St Philip Street.

  • Address: 161 Calhoun St., Charleston, SC 29401

5. International African American Museum

International African American Museum
Image Credit: International African American Museum

Charleston’s International African American Museum, or IAAM, is one of the city’s newest museums, opening to the public officially in 2023. IAAM’s mission is to help visitors learn and engage with the history of African Americans in the U.S. Using over 150 artifacts, 30 works of art, and dozens of films, the museum creates a multimedia experience that brings history and culture to life.

Currently, there are 9 galleries in the exhibit. They cover topics from the West and West-Central African roots of many of America’s enslaved people to the journeys of individuals of the African diaspora who have shaped U.S. history.

In addition to these core departments, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions that take a closer look at individual stories and historical moments. Since IAAM is still such a new museum, its collection is still in its infancy and is likely to grow in the coming years. It’s even open to accepting donated artifacts.

IAAM is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free for children under 6, $10 for youths 6 to 16, $14 for seniors 62 and over and military personnel, and $22 for adults. The nearest bus stop is Concord Street and Inspection Street.

  • Address: 14 Wharfside St., Charleston, SC 29401

6. Joseph Manigault House

Joseph Manigault House
Image Credit: Joseph Manigault House

Built at the beginning of the 19th century, the Joseph Manigault House is considered one of Charleston’s most historic buildings.

At the time, the Manigaults were one of the most important families in South Carolina. As a result, when the home was passed to the city and later acquired by the Charleston Museum, it was immediately kept in its historic state to preserve the family’s legacy. Today, virtually the entire home is open to the public, complete with most of the original furnishings and effects that belonged to the Maingualt family.

The purpose of the home museum is to showcase what life for a wealthy Southern family would have been like. In recent years, special attention has also been paid to ensure the stories and experiences of the enslaved men and women who lived on the property were also told to give a more authentic and well-rounded look at this period of Charleston’s history.

Joseph Manigault House is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free for children under 2, $6 for children 3 to 12, $12 for children 13 to 17, and $15 for adults. Combination tickets are available for the Joseph Manigault House, the Charleston Museum, and the Heyward-Washington House. The nearest bus stop is Charleston Museum and Visitors Center.

  • Address: 350 Meeting St., Charleston, SC 29403

7. Mace Brown Museum of Natural History

Mace Brown Museum of Natural History
Image Credit: Mace Brown Museum of Natural History

Mace Brown Museum of Natural History has been a leading research and education center since it was established in 2010. Thanks to its collection of over 30,000 fossils, the museum is able to give visitors a peek at the paleontological history of South Carolina.

From cave bear specimens to the evolution of whales, the museum focuses on the wildlife that calls this portion of North America home. Detailed but easy-to-understand information panels accompany the displays so visitors of all ages can learn and get the most out of their experience. Thirty-minute tours are also available.

Originally, the museum consisted of the private collection of Mace Brown, the facility’s namesake. However, over the years, it’s grown, thanks in part to the work of local and regional fossil collectors and hunters. This museum also functions as a working research center, so students and scientists can contact the museum to make study arrangements if needed.

This museum is open Thursday through Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free for everyone, but donations are welcome. The nearest bus stop is Calhoun Street and St Philip Street.

  • Address: 202 Calhoun St., Charleston, SC 29401

“Among my favorite displays is our mosasaur exhibit. Mosasaurs were enormous marine lizards that swam through the prehistoric seas at the same time that dinosaurs walked the earth. Visitors can gaze into the mouths of our mosasaur skulls and spot the palatal teeth — an extra set of chompers that grew in the roof of the mouth.”

— Scott Persons, paleontologist and curator, Mace Brown Museum of Natural History
Mary Martin Fine Art Gallery
Image Credit: Mary Martin Fine Art Gallery

Over the years, the Mary Martin Fine Art Gallery has become one of the most beloved facilities in Charleston’s art community. This space functions primarily as an exhibition facility, and, as such, there’s no permanent collection held on the property. Instead, the facility is able to regularly rotate pieces to feature different artists.

As it’s a multidisciplinary space, visitors can find art ranging from paintings to sculptures and everything in between. One of the only trends that guests will notice is that most of the artists represented in the gallery are relatively unknown, at least on a national or international level. To further highlight the talents of these emerging artists, the gallery sponsors a residence program, which features a specific artist’s work for a period.

While the main gallery is on Broad Street, a second location is on East Bay Street. Nearly all the pieces at both galleries are available for purchase. The gallery is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The nearest bus stop is King Street and Broad Street.

  • Address: 103 Broad St., Charleston, SC 29401

9. Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
Image Credit: Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

Sometimes referred to as Custom House and The Exchange, the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon Museum was once one of the most important buildings in Charleston. Its most famous use was as a prison for captured soldiers during the Revolutionary War, though it was also the site of the U.S. Constitution’s ratification and a post office for many years. This lengthy history is showcased in the museum’s exhibits today.

Visiting the Exchange consists of a self-guided tour of the building’s top floors, which showcase artifacts from its use. Also included is a 25-minute guided tour of the cellar, also referred to as the “Dungeon,” where prisoners were kept.

Educational programs are also hosted at the Custom House. Most of these events are geared toward children, but a few are designed for adults as well. Despite the building’s age, the museum is completely accessible via elevator for visitors with mobility concerns.

The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free for children under 6, $8 for kids 6 to 12, and $15 for adults. Discounts are available for students, military personnel, educators, seniors, and groups. The nearest bus stop is East Bay Street and North Atlantic Wharf.

  • Address: 122 E Bay St., Charleston, SC 29401

10. Postal Museum

Postal Museum
Image Credit: Discover South Carolina

Located inside the Broad Street Post Office, the Postal Museum shows how the U.S. mail system changed from before its inception through the 19th century. Though the museum specifically looks at South Carolina’s mail service, it’s able to give some insight into how mail was handled throughout the country as well.

The exhibit features old stamps, post office equipment, and even news stories related to the post office and the postal service, giving a visual and comprehensive timeline of the development of the USPS. Even the building is historic. This post office was built at the end of the 1800s on the site of the old police station, which had been destroyed in a fire a few years earlier.

This is a small museum, so it doesn’t require much time to visit. If you have any questions, feel free to ask someone on staff, especially if the post office isn’t busy. This museum is open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Admission is free for everyone. The nearest bus stop is Broad Street and Meeting Street.

  • Address: 77 Meeting St., Charleston, SC 29401

11. The Powder Magazine

The Powder Magazine
Image Credit: The Powder Magazine

First built in 1713, the Powder Magazine is one of South Carolina’s oldest buildings. During the American Revolution, the building was used to store gunpowder, giving it its name. 

Today, the museum showcases not just the building’s history but also the history of South Carolina’s colonial period in general. It houses a number of authentic artifacts, as well as a few recreations and designs, to help bring this part of American history to life for people of all ages.

Throughout the year, Powder Magazine also hosts a series of events, most of which are primarily educational in nature. Most of these events are held on the site, but a few are virtual and can be joined from anywhere in the world. Powder Magazine also acts as an event venue for private events and parties of up to 75 guests. Just make sure to contact the facility with advanced notice to make arrangements.

Powder Magazine is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free for children under 7, $5 for kids 7 to 17, and $7 for adults. Discounts are available for military personnel. The nearest bus stop is Meeting Street and Cumberland Street.

  • Address: 79 Cumberland St., Charleston, SC 29401

How To Get Free or Reduced Admission to Charleston Museums

We’ve indicated with each museum whether or not children, students, or seniors receive free or reduced admission. There are also several other programs that offer similar concessions.

The Museums for All program offers free or reduced admission to museums through the U.S. for those receiving food assistance (SNAP benefits). Participating attractions in the greater Charleston area include the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, and the Powder Magazine Museum.

Bank of America’s Museums on Us program offers cardholders free general admission on the first full weekend of every month to the Gibbes Museum of Art and the International African American Museum.

Final Thoughts

From U.S. history to fine arts, Charleston has a museum that interests virtually everyone. We hope this list has helped you figure out which of the city’s exhibits and galleries will make your trip to this corner of South Carolina the best one possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many museums are in Charleston?

There are over 20 museums and galleries open to the public in the greater Charleston area. However, that number doesn’t include every single exhibit or art installation space. This number may also change as current facilities close down or new spaces open.

Is Charleston a good place to visit?

Charleston is often considered one of the best places to visit for those traveling to the East Coast. The city is famous for its relaxed and leisurely pace as well as its mix of art and culture that make it great for all visitors.

What is Charleston’s most famous museum?

The Gibbes Museum of Art is one of Charleston’s most famous museums and has one of the best art collections in the state. However, the city is also known for its historical museum buildings, like the Joseph Manigault House and its vicinity to Fort Sumter.

Does Charleston have museums?

Charleston has dozens of museums for people of all ages and interests. Many regard the city as having some of the best exhibits in the entire state of South Carolina. From children’s museums to history centers, there’s something for nearly any type of visitor.

Amar Hussain's image

About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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