Presidential picks for visiting Charleston

the heyward-washington house

The Heyward-Washington House | Photo by @girlcampfire

Table of Contents

Party like it’s 1791.

Planning a day here can be overwhelming, to say the least. Google “things to do in Charleston,” and you’re pretty much doomed– because everyone’s got a different opinion about what + what not to do.

That’s why, today, we’re bringing it back to the basics and getting our recs from a man who predates Google: President George Washington. That’s right– our first Commander-in-Chief; the forefather of our country; the O.P. (original pres) spent about ten days in CHS as part of his Southern Tour.

Despite a couple of centuries of wear-and-tear, a Civil War, + a handful of natural disasters, a lot of the places Washington went are still around today. So we used them to come up with a sightseeing guide for both visitors + tourists alike.

Who better to tell you how to spend your dollar bills than the man whose face is on the dollar bill?

Wooden teeth not required.

When to visit:

Early to mid-May

Getting around:

Washington arrived in Charleston via the Cooper River, after traveling through what is now Mount Pleasant. Today, $12 will get you an all-day pass to the Charleston Water Taxi, which will take you back + forth between the two municipalities.

Once in Charleston, Washington either walked to each of his destinations or rode his horse, Prescott. Don’t have a horse? That’s okay– instead, get around Charleston (and learn a thing or two) by taking a carriage tour.


heyward-washington house

The Heyward-Washington House | Photo by @girlcampfire

While in Charleston, Washington slept at a home owned by Thomas Heyward., Jr., one of four South Carolina men to sign the Declaration of Independence. Now aptly known as the Heyward-Washington House, Washington described the accommodations as, quote, “very good.” The home at 87 Church Street is still standing, but unfortunately, it does not accept overnight guests.

You could instead book a room at a nearby B&B, and stop by to visit the Heyward-Washington house during the day– as it operates as a public museum. Bonus points if your lodging is pet friendly– as G.W. brought Cornwallis, his beloved greyhound, with him on the trip.

You could also stay at John Rutledge House Inn at 116 Broad Street. Washington didn’t stay there overnight, but he did stop by for breakfast one morning.


the washington oak tree at hampton plantation

The Washington Oak Tree at Hampton Plantation | Photo by @iamsofagirl

Washington may have had no qualms about cutting down that cherry tree, but when it came to oaks on Hampton Plantationhe was a little more conservative. While brunching at the home of Harriott Pinckney Horry, widow of Revolutionary War cavalryman Colonel Daniel Horry, Mrs. Horry told the President of her plans to chop down a live oak tree that obstructed the view from the house. Washington suggested that she keep the tree– and she took his advice. It’s still standing 227 years later, and is now commonly referred to as the Washington Oak Tree. Nice save, George.


mccrady's tavern sign

McCrady’s Tavern | Photo by @loudhandleproductions

On his third night in Charleston, Washington joined a few fellow members of the Society of the Cincinnati + other notable figures for a dinner at McCrady’s Long Room.

Throughout the years, the structure on Unity Alley has served many purposes; including a tavern, a warehouse, + even, at one point, a paper company. Fortunately for those looking to recreate Washington’s trip, it ultimately returned to its original form– all the way down to the name.

McCrady’s Tavern currently features a casual menu + cocktails. For more fine dining, one should instead head around the corner to its counterpart, McCrady’s Restaurant. Helmed by Chef Sean Brock, diners at McCrady’s Restaurant will be treated to a multi-course tasting menu that likely better resembles what Washington ate there centuries before.

Note: McCrady’s Tavern has since closed.


portrait of george washington in charleston

Washington at the City of Charleston | Image in the public domain

To commemorate the president’s visit to Charleston, artist John Trumbull was commissioned by the city to paint the scene of George Washington’s arrival. Leaders were unhappy with the first attempt, though, and asked Trumbull to give it another go.

Was Trumbull offended by the constructive criticism? Perhaps. Some speculate that’s why the view of the city is partially blocked by a certain part of Washington’s horse.

You can judge for yourself by paying a visit to City Hall, where the portrait still hangs.


st. michael's church

St. Michael’s Church | Photo by @station28.5

At the time of Washington’s visit, the St. Michael’s Church steeple was the highest point in Charleston. When Washington visited the church, he climbed to the top to admire the view.

Unfortunately, there is no longer public access to the steeple. The church does, however, welcome visitors to any of its services. Bonus points if you sit at pew #43, aka the “Governor’s Pew,” as that’s where Washington sat during the service he attended. We hear other notable figures who have sat at the Governor’s Pew include Oprah Winfrey + Prince Charles, so you’re basically getting a 3-for-1 deal just by sitting there.

And, as the saying goes, ‘when in the Holy City, go to as many holy places as you can.’ So that he did. After attending the morning service at St. Michael’s, Washington attended the afternoon service over at St. Philip’s.


the old exchange and provost dungeon

The Old Exchange + Provost Dungeon | Photo by @jjlevy99

The Exchange was one of the places Washington frequented most during his stay. The most notable event was a lavish shindig thrown in his honor.

More than 300 people attended the celebration, and needless to say, Charlestonians proved they knew how to party. It started in the afternoon + lasted well through the evening. When Washington showed up, the merchant ship America was waiting in the nearby Cooper River to blast off a fifteen-gun salute. A fancy dinner was served, and was followed by a series of toasts. And after each and every toast, the America fired off thirteen more rounds.

Imagine that annoying wedding guest who makes a totally unnecessary toast even though they don’t really know the bride or groom– then multiply them by like, a lot. That’s what it was like at the merchants’ banquet.

The night was, of course, capped off by a fireworks show.

Now considered a historic landmark, the Exchange welcomes visitors. It also accommodates private events, if you’re interested in truly partying like a president.


fort moultrie

Fort Moultrie | Photo by @walk_with_steve

While it’s easy to think of George Washington’s visit as happening as during the beginnings of our city’s history, you have to remember the area had been founded + settled more than a century prior– so there’s plenty to talk about BGW (before George Washington). And there was plenty of history for GW himself to take in while he was here making even more of it.

That being said, he honed in on what was very recent history at the time. The Revolutionary War had just ended, and he was curious to see the impact it had on Charleston– a city that had been occupied by the Redcoats for nearly three years.

First, he completed a battlefield tour of the Upper Peninsula. At that time, Charleston was actually pretty rural north of Calhoun Street. Historians speculate there was likely still plenty of evidence leftover from the British’s siege works– enough for the locals to recreate the siege for Washington to see. You too can watch a reenactment over on John’s Island.

Washington later hopped on a boat + took a tour of the Charleston Harbor before heading over to see Fort Moultrie. For a similar experience, consider checking out Charleston Harbor Tours.

George Washington could not tell a lie– so we believe he was being genuine when he, upon heading out of town via Savannah Highway, proclaimed his desire to visit again. Sadly, he died shortly after making the promise. Under different circumstances, we feel certain that he would have returned.

The first president’s visit to Charleston certainly made a lasting impact on the city, but the trip arguably made an even bigger impact on the United States as a whole.

While he was here, George Washington was so impressed by the local architecture that he later selected James Hoban, a young architect he met while in Charleston, to design his house.

Not just any old house: the house. The house where Washington + all his successors would live.

You get it; it was the White House.