Last Updated on December 6, 2022
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By Jim Ferri
There are many plantations about the U.S. South that provide a good understanding of the country’s history and the antebellum South. One place to see several plantations, almost simultaneously, is outside Charleston, SC.
On the Ashley River, northwest of downtown Charleston, you can visit Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place and Drayton Hall, all within minutes of one another and only a 30-minute drive from the center of the city. Another, Boone Hall Plantation, is located even closer, only about 20 minutes east of Charleston.
These four plantations are enjoyable and educational, and great places to visit regardless of your age. In addition, they make wonderful day trips. You can visit the Ashley River plantations on one long-day excursion, and Boone Hall in a half-day. They’re great places to visit any time of year.
Our first plantation near Charleston SC is Middleton Place. This National Historic Landmark was the home of Henry Middleton, the President of the First Continental Congress. Furthermore, his son Arthur, who was born in the house, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In addition to its historic significance, Middleton Place is also famous for having America’s oldest landscaped gardens.
The Middleton Place gardens were first planted in 1741. Consequently, with their ornamental lakes and terraces they reflect the symmetry of European gardens of that era. Furthermore, they’ve been described as “the most important and most interesting garden in America.” You’ll find that its plantings of camellias, magnolias, crepe myrtles, azaleas and other plants ensure that something is in bloom year-round.
The Middleton house, which has remained in the family for more than 300 years, was partially destroyed during the Civil War. A part of it now serves as a museum with beautiful family furniture, silver, portraits, porcelain and rare books on display.
Out in the plantation’s 18th and 19th century Stableyards there are cashmere goats, water buffalo, Swiss and Jersey cows, hogs and other animals, as well as craftspeople demonstrating blacksmithing, weaving and spinning, all skills vital to the plantation hundreds of years ago. You can cap off a visit to the plantation at the highly rated Middleton Place Restaurant, renown for its excellent Lowcountry specialties.
If You Go:
4300 Ashley River Road
Charleston, SC 29414
Tel: (800) 782-3608
Admission: Adult (age 14+) $26 online, $29 at the gate / student with ID $15 / child 6-13 years $10 / under 6 free
Open: daily 9:00 am – 5:00 pm / Christmas Eve 9:00 am – 1:00 pm / Christmas Day Closed
Boone Hall, a Renowned Charleston Plantation
Boone Hall Plantation, was once known for its crops of pecans and cotton. Today it is “America’s most photographed plantation,” not surprisingly, because of the huge oaks that line its entrance road. They really give you the impression that you’re in “Gone With the Wind” country.
This Charleston SC plantation is also one of the oldest working plantations in the U.S. and, in fact, is “still working” since it continues to provide a variety of fruits and vegetables to local Charlestonians.
Founded in 1681 by Englishman Major John Boone on the banks of Wampacheone Creek in Mt. Pleasant, it’s about a half-hour north of downtown Charleston, and an easy half-day trip out of the city. Since the mansion itself is still occupied you can’t tour the entire house, only the first floor.
What I found most interesting about the property, even more so than the main house, is “Slave Street,” where you can visit slave homes in their original condition, some of the very few that survive anywhere. The street is adjacent to the oak-lined entrance to the property, so placed so visitors could see the wealth in human chattel amassed by the plantation owner.
If you can, time your visit to when a docent at the top of the street gives a history talk. They’ll provide some fascinating insights into a world that none of us, black or white, have ever experienced.
There is also an interesting group tour on an open-air wagon/coach around the property.
If You Go:
Boone Hall Plantation
1235 Long Point Road
Mt. Pleasant, SC 29464
Tel: (843) 884-4371
Open: Monday – Saturday 9am-5pm / Sunday 12pm-5pm
Admission: Adult $26 / Seniors, Military, AAA members $23 / children (6-12 years) $12 / children 5 and under free.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens – the Most Popular Charleston Plantation
Founded by the Drayton Family in 1676 as a rice plantation, Magnolia Plantation is the oldest public tourist site in the Lowcountry.
The original mansion of this Charleston SC plantation was rebuilt after it was destroyed by fire right after the American Revolution, and was then set ablaze again during the Civil War. The house that stands on the property today is a pre- Revolutionary War structure that originally stood in Summerville, South Carolina.
After the Civil War it was barged down the Ashley River, which borders the plantation, reassembled and placed on the foundation of the earlier structures. You can enjoy guided tours through this house that’s filled with family heirlooms and other early-American antiques.
The property itself is fascinating and includes the oldest public gardens in America, created by Thomas Drayton who came to Charleston from Barbados in 1671. They include a biblical garden, herb garden and a topiary garden and every March and April the property is abloom with azaleas and camellias.
It’s well worth taking a walk or Nature Train ride about the property since there is so much to see. By all means see the plantation’s original rice fields, now a 125-acre waterfowl refuge. Furthermore, you can use a network of bridges and boardwalks to explore its 30-acre Audubon Swamp Garden. There’s also a restored antebellum cabin and a rice barge along the bank of the Ashley River.
If You Go:
3550 Ashley River Road
Charleston, SC 29414
Tel: (843) 571-1266
Open: daily 9am-5pm
Admission: Adults $29 / children 6-12 $15 / children 5 and under free
Note: You must purchase admission and tour tickets onsite upon arrival. You may also purchase tickets for individual tours at a lower rate than the general admission price (see admission information)
Historic Drayton Hall was built in 1738 by John Drayton on the property adjoining Magnolia Plantation. It is not only one of the oldest surviving plantations in the country, but also one of the finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the United States.
This Charleston SC plantation is now the property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and contains beautiful hand-carved woodwork and plasterwork.
Unbelievably, the house is still in near-original condition. That’s the result of the lack of all modern necessities – electricity, plumbing, and central heating. None were ever installed in the house.
The historical house also has no furniture so one can better appreciate the beauty of its construction and decoration.
As you might expect, regular tours of the house give insights into the people who built and resided in the house over the years. By all means, wander the grounds under its magnificent Spanish moss-draped live oaks. Additionally, take a walk down along the river and visit the African-American graveyard. The latter is the final resting place for many of the plantation’s slaves.
If You Go:
3380 Ashley River Road
Charleston, SC 29414
Tel: (843) 769-2600
Open: Wednesday – Monday from 9am – 3:30 pm (gate closes at 2:30 pm)
Admission: Adults $24 / children 7-15 years $10 / under 7 years free
Note: Although you may purchase tickets both online or at the gate, credit cards only are accepted at the gate.