An Antebellum Odyssey: Touring South Carolina Plantations

Drayton Hall Plantation

Aside from watching “Gone with the Wind,” the best way to get a feel for the significance and legacy of the Antebellum South — especially its iconic plantations — is to head down for a visit. South Carolina plantations are some of the best for historic houses, gardens, and getting a sense of what a working plantation was really like. Here are four of our best picks in the Charleston, South Carolina area.

Drayton Hall Plantation

One of the best-preserved South Carolina plantations and an example of 18th century Georgian-Palladian architecture, Drayton Hall Plantation  was one of the only houses to survive Union General Sherman’s fire-ravaging Campaign of the Carolinas at the close of The Civil War. The house has been painstaking maintained, with no electricity, indoor plumbing, window screens, or sheetrock on the walls. While the house has no furniture, the exceptional tour guides tell a compelling story of the Drayton family and their era using just the house itself. Don’t miss the Drayton children’s growth chart on a door jamb, going back over 100 years, and the elaborate eight-seat brick outhouse.  The onsite Garden Café offers a broad selection of soups, sandwiches, and picnic baskets to enjoy during your visit.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (Source: iStock/Xavier_Ascanio).

About a mile from Drayton Place sits Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, one of the oldest South Carolina plantations and also a Drayton family property. Magnolia is largely known for its extraordinary romantic-style gardens that envelop the plantation with a dizzying mix of azalea, camellias, daffodils, cypress trees, and countless other blooms. The gardens have been open to the public since 1870 and provide a breathtaking outdoor experience regardless of the time of year. The house on the property is a combination of a pre-revolutionary war hunting lodge with additions from the 1890s; other historic buildings include a fully restored row of slave cabins. Guided tours with different themes (plantation house, slavery, and nature) are available, as are seasonal selections for breakfast and lunch at the plantation’s peacock café.

Middleton Place

Grazing sheep at Middleton Place
Grazing sheep at Middleton Place (Source: iStock/akaplummer).

Four miles farther north lies Middleton Place, renowned for its beautifully terraced lawns and pristine lakes, heritage breeds of livestock, and beautiful antiques. Built in phases throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the South Carolina plantation was the ancestral home to several generations of the Middleton family, including Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A portion of the house serves as a museum featuring an extraordinary collection of portraits, furniture, silver, china, and documents used by family members. Standouts include first-edition works by Mark Catesby and John James Audubon. Middleton Place is also known for its outstanding Inn, combining modern design and amenities with historic inspiration for a unique plantation experience. Finally, the Middleton Place Restaurant is also worth a try. It offers traditional Low Country favorites, such as locally-caught seafood, organic chicken, and seasonal vegetables from the onsite organic farm.

Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens

The Avenue of Oaks, Boone Hall
The Avenue of Oaks, Boone Hall (Source: Shutterstock/Sean Pavone).

Boone Plantation and Gardens lies about 12 miles northeast of Charleston and has one of the most breathtaking entrances on the planet. For nearly a mile, historic oak trees (many are over 250 years old) flank the road and form a canopy leading to the plantation home. The house itself is the “least authentic” of the bunch, as it was rebuilt in the 1930s. But what Boone Hall lacks in historic accuracy it makes up for in a showcase of working plantation life. Here, you can pick your own strawberries (there is a working farm onsite), witness a Civil War reenactment, or watch live presentations about slave and plantation culture by guides in historical dress. There is also a restored slave street with several cabins and extensive gardens to see. The Boone Hall Farms Market and Café down the road offers farm-fresh produce, seafood, meat, and specialty items for sale, and a variety of hearty farm meals and sandwich options for your plantation-sized appetite.