Charleston Cruise Port: Terminal, Overview and What to Do

Is your cruise departing from or visiting South Carolina? You'll want to familiarize yourself with Charleston Cruise Port. This guide has you covered!

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Charleston, South Carolina, has been a prominent departure point for many of the world’s top cruise lines for years. Aside from being conveniently located along the East Coast of the United States, the city’s peninsular layout, fascinating history, and uniquely Southern charm have made it the perfect place to begin a cruise adventure from or to Charleston cruise port. 

Despite the port’s popularity as a departure point, the South Carolina Ports Authority recently announced that cruise ships will no longer start their journeys from Charleston as of the end of 2024. With that said, plenty of the 2024 cruise season is left, and cruise ships are still expected to visit Charleston’s Union Pier Terminal as a port of call. 

Whether you are departing from Charleston, SC, this year or you plan on visiting as part of a cruise itinerary in the future, we want to provide you with all of the essential information you need to make the most out of your experience. Not only will we cover practical details, like the port’s location and proximity to the airport, but we’ll also explain some of the most exciting things to do in the city and the surrounding area. 

Charleston Cruise Port Location 

Charleston Cruise Port, a section of the Port of Charleston, is located in the city’s historic downtown area. Not only does the location make it convenient and easily accessible for passengers arriving by air or car, but it also allows passengers to explore one of the oldest and most historic cities in the United States. 

Despite its popularity, Charleston Cruise Port is a relatively small part of the main seaport, with only one cruise ship pier capable of handling full-sized cruise ships. Given its limited capabilities, it is only used as a homeport for a single cruise line – Carnival Cruise Line. 

The Port of Charleston consists of six terminals scattered throughout the city, but only a single terminal, Union Pier Terminal, handles cruise ship operations. 

Those departing from Charleston Cruise Port must arrive at Union Pier Terminal Main Gate. This gate’s address is Union Pier Terminal 32 Washington Street, Charleston, South Carolina, 29401. 

Distance from the Airport

For cruise passengers arriving by air, Charleston International Airport is located roughly 12 miles from Union Pier Terminal, making it easy for passengers to arrive on the same day as their cruise.

Taxis take about 20 minutes, but it is a good idea to set off early, as traffic can be an issue if you arrive on weekdays and get stuck in commuter traffic. Most taxis will charge a $35 flat rate from the airport to the cruise port, but it is a good idea to ask before departing, as the meter rate can be higher.

Charleston International Airport
Charleston International Airport (Photo Credit: University of College / Shutterstock)

If you are driving from the airport, take the I-26 E towards downtown Charleston. The cruise terminal is well-marked, so just make sure you are following the signs. You will eventually take the exit towards Morrison Drive, then turn right onto Washington Street, where you will find the main parking area and entrance to Union Pier Terminal. 

Overnight parking costs $17 per day, but we recommend pre-booking your spot, as you can save money and guarantee you will have a parking space. The parking lot is patrolled overnight by port police, so it is a safe location to leave your vehicle. 

If you are driving to the city and its port, rather than flying into Charleston, there are plenty of simple ways to get there by bus or car. 

Cruise Lines Operating or Calling at Charleston Cruise Port

As mentioned, Carnival Cruise Line is the only cruise line that uses Charleston as a homeport; however, others make temporary use of the port by featuring it as an occasional departure point and port of call. 

There are some cruise lines that do make calls at the port, including Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line.

Terminal Facilities and Accessibility 

Charleston Cruise Port offers relatively basic terminal facilities, as there has not been any concerted effort to renovate and update the main terminal. With that said, you will still find clean and serviceable bathroom facilities to the right of the main entrance and within the main terminal building.

Top View of Charleston Cruise Port
Top View of Charleston Cruise Port (Photo Credit: Grindstone Media Group / Shutterstock)

Free Wi-Fi is also available to the public and is not password protected. You will also find plenty of benches and vending machines that can be used to pass the time before boarding your ship. Unfortunately, there are no luggage storage lockers in the port due to security concerns. 

Despite its basic layout, the port is surprisingly accessible. They even offer porter agents to help direct and assist those with wheelchairs and other mobility needs. As a bonus, the port even offers complimentary parking and shuttles from the parking lots to those with vehicles displaying a valid handicap placard or identification card. 

Transportation Options Around Charleston

Charleston is a major city, so cruise passengers have plenty of transportation options. The most popular way to get around the city is to take taxis, which are available directly at the cruise terminal.

View of Charleston Port from the Cruise Ship
View of Charleston Port from the Cruise Ship (Photo Credit: marlin goodwin / Shutterstock)

Ridesharing services, particularly Uber and Lyft cars, are also becoming a popular and affordable alternative. Although there are limited shuttle services, the city has plenty of public buses operating in its downtown core, which can help you save a bit of money while you explore. 

For those looking to spend more time in the city, three car rental services are located just a few blocks from the cruise terminal. 

Use of the Port After 2024

Following the failure to renew Carnival Cruise Line’s deal with the South Carolina Ports Authority, cruise ships will no longer be allowed to start journeys from the city. With that said, cruise ships will still be allowed to dock at Charleston temporarily, but only for same-day port of call stops rather than overnight stays. 

Even those ships that are allowed to use the port will be limited to 104 cruise ship visits per year. Ships carrying over 3,500 passengers will also be prohibited from using the port.

Port of Charleston
Port of Charleston (Photo Credit: Enrico Della Pietra / Shutterstock)

Eventually, the land will be sold to a private developer, with the hope being that the redevelopment of Union Pier Terminal into commercial and residential properties will help push the continued growth of Charleston as a vibrant city rather than just a temporary visiting place. 

Although Charlotte’s tourism economy may suffer from the decision, officials believe it is the right decision for the city’s future. They speculate that there will be future opportunities for a more developed cruise port capable of welcoming visitors to the city. In the meantime, cruise ships will continue to use the port as usual. 

Seasonal Weather Conditions in Charleston 

Charleston, South Carolina, has a humid subtropical climate with mild winters, hot summers, and fairly pleasant falls and springs. To help you know what to expect and pack appropriately for your visit, here’s a basic breakdown of conditions by season:

Cruise Ship Docked Near the Joe Riley Waterfront Park, Charleston
Cruise Ship Docked Near the Joe Riley Waterfront Park, Charleston (Photo Credit: Joanne Dale / Shutterstock)

Summer (May to August)

Average daytime temperatures range between 75° to 80°F. The humidity can make it feel warmer, so pack light, breathable clothing to explore the city. Sun protection is also important. 

Fall (September to November)

Temperatures drop to an average of 60° to 80°F. Although it is relatively dry, you might want to pack light layers, as it can get cooler in the evenings. 

Winter (December to February)

Winter temperatures drop down to the 40° to 60°F range. Dress in layers, and pack a warmer jacket for the evening. 

Spring (March to April)

Spring temperatures usually sit between 60° and 80°F, but rainfall can be an issue. Pack light layers and a rain jacket. Even though Charleston gets plenty of springtime rain, showers are usually brief, so you can still enjoy exploring the city and everything it has to offer. 

Things to Do Near the Charleston Port 

Although there isn’t much to see within the immediate vicinity of the port, there are plenty of sightseeing opportunities and amenities within the city of Charleston itself. With a short taxi ride into the city or roughly a 20-minute walk, you can enjoy a full day of fun and exploration. 

Explore the Historic Downtown

Charleston’s lack of skyscrapers and other types of tall buildings gives the entire city an older look and feel. If you want to revel in the city’s unique history, we recommend exploring the historic downtown core. At just over half a mile from the port, you can easily walk to the city center.

Carnival Sunshine docked in Charleston Harbor
Carnival Sunshine docked in Charleston Harbor (Photo Credit: Grindstone Media Group / Shutterstock)

Here, you’ll find Charleston City Market, the city’s most visited attraction. Established in the 1790s, the market and the surrounding streets make you feel like you have been transported back in time. The colorful yet muted buildings are adorned with Roman-style columns and other early American architectural features. For shoppers, the market is packed with stalls selling locally-made goods and food items. 

While exploring the city’s historic streets, consider booking a horse-drawn carriage tour or a guided walking tour. 

Visit the South Carolina Aquarium

If you stick to the waterfront and walk 12 to 15 minutes north, you can find the South Carolina Aquarium. View marine species from all around the world, as well as local species. You can also explore the Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Center, which is attached to the aquarium. 

Discover the International African American Museum

Located just a five-minute walk from the aquarium is the International African American Museum. Built on the site where Gadsden’s Wharf once sat, this is where at least 40% of all enslaved Africans arrived in the United States. The newly constructed museum now stands as a testament to the history and contributions of black Americans. 

Charleston is a beautiful city filled with exciting things to do and see. While you may not have time to do everything if you are just stopping in Charleston as a port of call, you can always make time to explore everything the city has to offer before and after your cruise, especially if you are departing from the city’s port.

The Battery Seawall, Charleston
The Battery Seawall, Charleston (Photo Credit: Joanne Dale / Shutterstock)

Here are just a few exciting sights and activities you can explore. 

The Battery

A historical landmark that once served as a defensive seawall and promenade. It played an important role in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. It’s just one mile from the cruise port and worth visiting. 

Rainbow Row

This series of colorful, historic houses are lined along Tradd Street. It’s a popular destination for carriage tours and is located less than 2 miles from the cruise port. 

The Charleston Museum

The Charleston Museum showcases and celebrates the city’s history and the American South as a whole. History buffs will enjoy learning about the city’s role in some of the nation’s most iconic wars and battles. Located just under 1.5 miles from the port, it’s an easy place to visit. 

Fort Sumter National Monument

Fort Sumter is a well-preserved sea fort built on an artificial island off the mainland of Charleston. View gun emplacements and a Civil War Museum on the exact location where the war’s first shots were fired. 

You’ll need more time to visit the fort, but it can be accessed via dedicated ferries from the Fort Sumter Visitor Center. Located half a mile from the Cruise Port, this departure point is the closest to the Charleston Cruise Port. 

Beaches Near Charleston Cruise Port

While other parts of South Carolina are better known for their beaches than Charleston, the city is still close to some clean and enjoyable beaches offering swimming, walkable piers, and plenty of opportunities for peaceful, sandy strolls.

Folly Beach, Charleston
Folly Beach, Charleston (Photo Credit: Cvandyke / Shutterstock)

Folly Beach

Located about a 30-minute drive from downtown Charleston, this beach is popular with surfers and those looking to take in stunning sunsets. The beach is also surrounded by independently owned-restaurants and snack bars. 

Isle of Palms Beach

Located a 30-minute drive opposite Folly Beach, you can find the picture-perfect Isle of Palms Beach. Its white sand and sand bar make you feel like you’re in a tropical beach town rather than just being a short drive from the state’s most populous city. 

Dining in Charleston

Charleston is a foodie’s paradise. You will have plenty of options, with numerous restaurants showing off the city’s renowned culinary scene. Particular highlights are the many soul food and Southern cuisine restaurants in the historic downtown area. 

For a more upscale take on traditional Southern cooking, we recommend Magnolias. Make sure you try the shellfish over grits, a true Charleston classic.

Aerial View of Charleston
Aerial View of Charleston (Photo Credit: Red Lemon / Shutterstock)

FIG (Food is Good) is another favorite among locals and visitors. With locally sourced, seasonal ingredients and an ever-evolving menu, this trendy bistro is always worth checking out. 

No matter where you end up eating, if you want a true taste of Charleston, make an effort to try some of the city’s most iconic food items and dishes, like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, okra soup, Charleston-style fried chicken, and country fried steak. 

Shopping in Charleston

Charleston has all of the designer stores you would expect of a major American city, but if you want a truly unique souvenir or memento of your time there, we highly recommend exploring some of the many antique shops and artisanal stores. You’ll find one-of-a-kind items that will always remind you of your time in this historic town.

The Charleston City Market
The Charleston City Market (Photo Credit: Melissa Herzog / Shutterstock)

The Charleston City Market is the perfect place to find these items. Other unique items that are widely available are handwoven sweetgrass baskets. You can also bring back some locally grown and dried teas. Since Charleston once served as a major tea exporter thanks to the many tea plantations surrounding the city, it continues to be a tea drinker’s ideal city. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why is Charleston cruise port closing? 

Charleston is closing its port to overnight cruise ships in an attempt to revitalize the waterfront that is currently being occupied by cruise ship facilities. It will continue to function as a port of call, and a new terminal will probably be constructed in the future. 

How far is downtown Charleston from the port? 

The port is located just 0.7 miles from downtown. 

What is the Port of Charleston known for? 

The Port of Charleston is known for its historic significance and as a gateway to the city’s trade and tourism industries. For cruise passengers, it is known as a fairly basic but efficient homeport for Carnival Cruise Lines.

Haiyan Ma
Haiyan Ma
I absolutely love cruising with my favorite ports of call being in the Caribbean. As a former crew member for Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival Cruise Line I can continue my passion by sharing my experiences with readers. Find out more about us here.

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