If you’ve clicked on a “Best Places to Travel” list in the last couple years, Charleston, South Carolina was most likely on it – quite possibly at the top. Why, you ask? What’s so special about Charleston compared to all the other fabulous cities in the United States?
To use a cliché, it’s the whole package. It’s the Lowcountry cuisine, the history, the culture, and the charming accommodations. Top it off with a full itinerary of outdoor adventures and a dollop of southern hospitality, and you might never want to leave!
Charleston houses several culinary gems. Foodies flock here not because the chefs are trying the latest gimmicks, but because they are consistently good.
_Bon Appétit _magazine named Husk the best new restaurant in the country in 2011. Brock says, “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door.” McCrady’s is a 22-guest, two-seatings a night, 10-16 course tasting menu experience. You’ll need to set aside two hours to savor all of Brock’s dishes. There is also an à la carte location next door called McCrady’s Tavern if you hunger for something a little less rigorous.
The Peninsula Grill is known for its 12-layer Ultimate Coconut Cake. The restaurant’s website does not overstate its legendary status when it calls the cake “one of the South’s most celebrated desserts.” Enjoy a piece at The Peninsula’s Courtyard, one of the best outdoor dining spots in Charleston. Other upscale restaurants include: Charleston Grill, which is known for its live jazz 7-nights a week; FIG (Food Is Good); Magnolias; and Circa 1886.
It’s not just the numerous upscale options that make Charleston a culinary Mecca; many are just as in love with the casual options. Butcher & Bee‘s mission was simple: to make a great sandwich. Halls Chophouse is known for its Sunday Gospel Brunch. Obstinate Daughter and Poe’s Tavern are both worth the 20-minute drive from downtown to Sullivan’s Island. (For returning visitors, a trip to Charleston isn’t complete without visiting one of these two.)
For good old-fasioned southern cooking, try Bertha’s Kitchen in North Charleston. It won a James Beard Awards America’s Classics in 2017 by serving dishes that would make any Southern Mama proud: fried chicken, okra soup, greens. They don’t have a website.
Charleston is known for its She Crab Soup, so be sure to grab a cup when you see it on a menu. Also, while you’re exploring the Charleston City Market, wander across the street to Market Street Sweets or Savannah’s Candy Kitchen to enjoy free samples of pralines!
History is Charleston. The city’s cobblestone streets, iron gates, and antebellum homes transport you to another time.
Settled by the English in 1670, it was the first city in South Carolina. It’s also where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861. Confederate soldiers fired on the Union-held Fort Sumter, winning the battle in 34 hours; Union soldiers spent the next four years trying to take it back. You can take a boat tour to Fort Sumter and explore the grounds. It really is a must for anyone interested in American history.
One point of departure for the tour is Patriots Point. You can’t miss the centerpiece sitting in Charleston Harbor – the World War II aircraft carrier USS Yorktown. A World War II Destroyer, USS Laffey, floats alongside her; the only extant GUPPY III submarine in the country, the USS _Clamagore _rests nearby as well. You can tour all three.
Two of the most well-preserved historic homes in Charleston are the Aiken-Rhett House and Nathaniel Russell House, both built in the early 1800s. They’re testaments to the affluence of the age – but they’re also slaves’ tombs. The slave quarters of the Aiken-Rhett House appear almost exactly as they did in the 1850s, giving you a bitter taste of the lives they lived.
One of the best ways to experience downtown Charleston is with a Carriage Tour. It only takes an hour, and it’s a relaxing way to get a feel for the city. Charleston strictly regulates the carriage businesses, from the treatment of the horses to the routes carriages can take. Two areas you can see on a tour are Rainbow Row and The Battery.
Rainbow Row is a series of colorful homes. The first floors were originally shops, with the owners living on top. The Battery, just down the road, is an enclave with a defensive sea wall protecting stately antebellum homes. Old South Carriage Co. and Palmetto Carriage Works are both excellent tour options. If you prefer to walk instead, Charleston Strolls offers two-hour walking tours.
The Gullah Geechee people are the foundation of Lowcountry culture. Brought to the south from Central and West Africa as slaves, their influence is still decisive in local arts, music, cuisine, and language today. The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor runs along the coast, from Southern North Carolina to Northern Florida. In the Charleston area, they are known as Gullah. Visitors are usually first introduced to their culture at The Charleston City Market. There you will find Gullah art, food, and women crafting sweetgrass baskets. The baskets were originally made to separate rice from chaff; today they’re a popular keepsake for visitors.
The plantations near Charleston also share history with the Gullah Geechee. Like the historic homes in downtown Charleston, the plantations contrast how the slaves lived compared to their wealthy owners. The plantations don’t hide their history: instead they hope to teach others about it and have visitors learn from it.
Drayton Hall is the oldest preserved plantation home that’s open to the public. Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation & Gardens are known for their beautiful grounds. Magnolia Plantation has been owned by the same family for more than 300 years, and is the oldest public gardens in the country. Boone Hall is one of America’s oldest working farms. It’s also family-owned, growing produce that they sell at their market just up the street.
Visitors to Charleston will also notice two things: the abundance of pineapple shaped designs, and the color of porch ceilings. Both speak to the culture of the area. Painting porch ceilings actually originated with the Gullah Geechee. They painted them, as well as other parts of their homes, blue in order to keep spirits away. (The blue represents the sky, tricking the spirits into leaving via the ceiling.)
The pineapple symbolizes hospitality. Some say sea captains displayed pineapples outside of their homes after returning from a trip at sea to let neighbors know of their safe return and to welcome them. The pineapple water fountain in Waterfront Park is the most photographed pineapple structure in the city, but you will also find stone carvings of them outside homes.
Where you stay in Charleston is as much a part of the experience as the city that surrounds you. Again, hospitality is what they do. There are many excellent options, but a few stand out. In addition to their other amenities, each of these properties provides free bikes for you to explore the city!
The Spectator is located near the City Market and is a bit more modern than some Charleston hotels, evoking the 1920s. You will have your own butler, be served gourmet breakfast in bed, and receive a ‘welcome’ cocktail.
Zero George is a boutique hotel with a daily continental European breakfast, an evening wine and cheese pairing, and a lovely outdoor piazza. You can even take a cooking class here!
Wentworth Mansion starts your day with a complimentary breakfast, provides hors d’oeuvres and wine in the afternoon, port, sherry, and brandy in the evening, and sends you to bed with homemade chocolates. One of the best restaurants in the city is here – Circa 1886.
The Harbour View Inn is located on the water, just steps from the city’s pineapple fountain. The Inn has a private rooftop terrace where you can enjoy the views. They also have complimentary breakfast served in your room or on the terrace, a daily wine and cheese reception, and milk and cookies before bed.
If you still aren’t convinced that Charleston is a must visit, spend some time on the water. The area offers everything from calming beaches to overnight kayaking and camping trips. Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, and Folly Beach are all popular places to sit back in a chair and enjoy the gentle crash of the ocean.
If you want something a bit more active, rent a kayak or Stand-up Paddleboard from Coastal Expeditions and paddle along with the dolphins in Shem Creek. You can also climb aboard Schooner Pride, an 84′ tall ship, for a sunset or moonlight sail around Charleston Harbor.
A trip to Charleston would not be complete without witnessing the beautiful and massive Angel Oak Tree. It’s estimated to be between 300-400 years old. Angel Oak Park is free, and located on Johns Island.
If your favorite outdoor sport is shopping, Charleston is your Yellowstone. Stroll King Street to browse high-end stores and boutiques to find just the right piece.
The Skinny Dip‘s goal is to find and feature new designers. Hampden is not only known for selling unique clothing, but also for its waiting lounge with a fully stocked bar for your significant other! If you’re looking for a beach read or want a cookbook to try Charleston recipes at home, stop by Blue Bicycle Books. This locally-owned store hosts more than 200 authors every year.
It’s been mentioned, but the Charleston City Market is the perfect place to find a Lowcountry souvenir by which to remember your visit.
Beer, Wine & Spirits
Nearly everywhere you turn, there’s a place to enjoy a cocktail in Charleston. There are three very different but equally enjoyable options. All require a short drive.
High Wire Distilling Company isn’t a bar. It’s the place that makes the spirits. You can take a tour and try their offerings Tuesday through Saturday.
Edmund’s Oast Brewing Company opened in 2017. While they obviously brew their own beer, they also offer wine, whiskey, and a few cocktails.
Prohibition is more of a traditional cocktail bar with a great menu and live music six nights a week. They offer free salsa lessons on Tuesdays, and free Swing lessons on Sundays. It’s a fantastic way to end your perfect trip to Charleston – America’s favourite destination.