There is no better way to learn about the rich history of the Holy City than by venturing into historic downtown Charleston and exploring the exquisite house museums. From the Calhoun mansion to the Heyward-Washington house, each historic home tells a unique and fascinating story that gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of each family that once lived there.
You don’t need to be a history aficionado or an architectural expert to admire these historic homes. Here are the must-see house museums in downtown Charleston that shouldn’t be missed.
Built in 1825, the Edmondston-Alston House is the oldest house on the Battery and the only historic house museum that commands such a stunning view of the Charleston Harbor. The house was originally owned by Charles Edmondston, a shipping merchant from Scotland.
Though it was lavishly decorated by Edmondston, the Panic of 1837 forced him to sell the house to Charles Alston, a wealthy South Carolina Lowcountry rice producer. Alston wasted no time updating the house in a Greek Revival style architecture, building beautiful Corinthian columns and adding a third story to the house.
If you can’t get enough of the scenic maritime views and rich history of the Edmondston-Alston House, you can book a reservation to stay at the privately-owned luxury bed and breakfast that is nestled within the compound of the House. Guests have the option to stay in the Carriage House or Private Quarters and will receive a fresh breakfast each morning, in addition to complimentary tickets to the Edmondston-Alston House Tour.
Aiken-Rhett House Museum
You won’t get a better picture of life in the Antebellum era than by touring the Aiken-Rhett House. Located South of Broad Street, one of Charleston’s most desirable neighborhoods, this historic home was first built in 1820 by Charleston merchant John Robinson.
When Robinson lost five ships at sea and fell on hard times, he was forced to sell the home to William Aiken Sr., a wealthy Irish immigrant. The house would later be passed on to William Aiken Sr.’s son, William Aiken Jr. The younger Aiken and his wife, Henrietta, made significant renovations to the house that are still preserved to this day, and the museum is full of lavish artifacts that they brought back from their visits in Europe.
One of the unique aspects of the Aiken-Rhett House is the backlot where slaves worked and lived prior to the Civil War. Tour the grounds, and you’ll see the stables, kitchens, and sleeping quarters that have been well preserved, providing a fascinating glimpse into the history of antebellum Charleston.
Nathaniel Russell House
Take a tour of the Nathaniel Russell House, and you will get to see one of America’s most important neoclassical homes. As you stroll through this house museum, you will also learn more about the lives of Charleston’s circle of wealthy merchants and the enslaved African Americans who lived there in the 18th century.
Built in 1808, the Nathaniel Russell House is also notable for its elaborate ornamentation and free-flying staircase, which has no visible support. The house itself is named after Nathaniel Russell, a successful merchant from Bristol, Rhode Island.
When the house was purchased from private owners by the National Historic Foundation in 1955, it was used as the Foundation’s meeting place for 37 years. Today, the Nathaniel Russell House has been largely restored to its original furnishes and architectural details.
Insider’s Note: You can get lower admission prices by purchasing tickets to both the Nathaniel Russell House and the Aiken-Rhett House together.
Referred to as “Charleston’s Revolutionary War House,” the Heyward-Washington House is a must-visit for any Revolutionary War aficionado. This beautiful Georgian-style double house was built in 1772 and was the home of Thomas Heyward, Jr., a patriot leader and one of four South Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The Heyward-Washington House was rented to George Washington in May 1791 when the president stayed in Charleston for a week. Since then, it has been referred to as the “Heyward-Washington House.”
In 1794, Heyward sold the house to John F. Grimke, another Revolutionary War leader, and the father of famous abolitionists and suffragettes Sarah and Angeline Grimke. As you tour the Heyward-Washington House Museum, you will see an amazing collection of historic artifacts left behind, including gorgeous American-made Colonial furniture such as the Holmes Bookcase.
Also featured on the property are the formal gardens, which contain plants that were often used in the Lowcountry during the late 18th century. Another bonus is the museum’s Kidstory exhibit, which provides kids with a hands-on experience to learn about the history of America and South Carolina Lowcountry.
Located on Meeting Street in the heart of Charleston, the Calhoun Mansion is an impressive Victorian house that is currently the largest privately owned residence and house museum in Charleston.
Built around the year 1876 for businessman George W. Williams, the Calhoun Mansion was inherited by William’s son-in-law, Patrick Calhoun, a grandson of statesman John C. Calhoun. Today, the Calhoun Mansion is privately owned and offers daily tours to the public.
As you tour the Calhoun Mansion, be sure to note the beautiful Italian design and three levels of piazzas. The extravagant mansion boasts 35 rooms, a grand ballroom with a stunning chandelier, private staircases, and an eclectic collection of artifacts from the 18th century and beyond.
Joseph Manigault House
The famous Joseph Manigault House is one of Charleston’s best examples of an antebellum home and a unique architectural masterpiece. Built in 1803, the home was designed in a Federal-style that was not often seen during this period in Charleston.
The Joseph Manigault House is also called Charleston’s Huguenot House because its early inhabitants were descendants of the French Huguenots, who fled from Europe in the 1600s to escape religious persecution. The Manigaults were successful rice planters and merchants during the 18th century and were an influential family in Charleston. With the help of over two hundred slaves, Joseph Manigault grew his business to become one of Charleston’s leading families in the late 1700s.
In the house, you will see various collections of American, English, and French furniture from the 19th century. Explore the grounds, and you will also find historical outbuildings that reflect the lifestyle of the slaves that once lived and worked there.
Visitors and residents alike will benefit from touring the spectacular homes in Charleston that now serve as some of the most important museums in the city. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the history, culture, and lifestyles of Lowcounty people dating back to the 1700s.