The Holy City, Charleston, is so named for the skyline of steeples seen by ships’ passengers as they enter Charleston Harbor. The view was there before the American Revolution, and you’ll see the same today if you arrive by sea. Charleston has endured much over the centuries, but the city also has thrived and prospered. Pirates, wars, disease, hurricanes, earthquakes and, most frequently, fires have left their mark on the city and the region known as the Lowcountry, as have the unique individuals and personalities that have shaped the centuries there — and left us the Charleston we know today.
Today’s Charleston is a treasure trove, a unique blend of architecture and history, art and culture. Visit the Old Exchange Building to see the history of the city and that of the port. Look at Rainbow Row to see how individual buildings have become part of a city landmark. Turn down any corner, and discover quiet alleys and cobbled streets where the past is always present. The air can be thick with scent — tea olive, jessamine, magnolia; camellias and azaleas burst forth with color, each in their season. It’s hard to get lost — sooner or later, you’ll end up at either the Ashley or Cooper River. They meet here at Charleston Harbor. Walk the Battery, with planters’ mansions behind you, and gaze across the harbor at Fort Sumter, where the tragedy of the Civil War began. Stroll the neighborhoods and begin to understand why Charlestonians are proud of what has been preserved and maintained.
Bring your camera, your appetite and a shopping bag. The city is overwhelmingly picturesque, and you’ll find yourself stopping over and over for that perfect photo, that intriguing view. Take your time, and don’t try to do everything; you’ll be coming back.
The Historic District: This is truly the Charleston of yesteryear, covering the city in its colonial and antebellum eras. It can be toured in several ways. You can wander on your own with a guidebook and a map, strolling and stopping as you please. You can take one of the carriages that leave from Church and North Market Streets for a 45-minute ride with an entertaining guide. (Try to get on a carriage with a No. 1 medallion.)
You can also sign up for a guided walking tour with one of the many companies offering them, such as the Original Charleston Walks, which has a range of general, combination and specialty tours. All general tours will include landmarks like the Old Exchange Building, Rainbow Row, the Battery, St. Michael’s Church (the city’s oldest, dating back to 1761) and St. Philip’s Church. (Ask about Calhoun’s multiple burials.) Other tours by minivans cover more ground with multiple stops, and are easier on the feet.
Or try a specialty tour like one from Gullah Tours, which portrays the African-American experience (including slavery). Or, if time and temperament allow, come back after dark for one of the many ghost tours, which offer a different perspective on the city’s history.
Houses & Museums: Charleston features half a dozen magnificent house museums, an art museum and a historical museum, along with outlying plantations; all are open for tours. They can be visited independently or in conjunction with a tour — or you can buy a two-day Charleston Heritage Passport that covers them all. The sites include the Nathaniel Russell House (with a magnificent flying staircase and decor), the Edmonston-Alston House (planter’s waterfront town home with splendid furnishings), the Heyward-Washington House (Washington stayed here in 1791; see the priceless Holmes Bookcase and the incredible gardens), the Joseph Manigault House (a rice-planter’s residence, designed by his brother who also designed City Hall) and the Aiken-Rhett House (a huge mansion, preserved in its mid-19th century condition). Both the Gibbes Museum of Art (a wonderfully eclectic collection) and the Charleston Museum (300 years of the city’s life and history) are included in the Passport or can be visited individually. Not included in any package, but worth a visit, is the Calhoun Mansion, a post-Civil War exercise in Victorian opulence. (And no, it’s not John C. Calhoun, but a later relative who bought it from its builder.)
Fort Sumter: “Where the Civil War began,” Fort Sumter sits at the entrance of Charleston Harbor, a battered reminder of the furor and folly that so characterized the Civil War. The attack on the fort was a public spectacle for Charlestonians, who were unaware of the hardship and destruction that would follow. The fort itself, under constant siege and assault, ended the war as a ruin. A visit to the interpretive center at the pier is suggested before boarding the tour boat. The tour lasts a little longer than two hours and includes a narrated harbor cruise, as well as admission to the monument itself and the services of the knowledgeable National Park Service guides.
The South Carolina Aquarium, located just next door to the Fort Sumter National Monument building, is ideal if you’re traveling with children. While you’re there, check out one of the venue’s most unique attractions: an albino alligator. Admission is a bit pricey, but there are a variety of exhibits, including otters, fish, sharks, turtles, jellyfish and great blue herons. Be sure to use the map you’re given when you purchase your tickets. It can be difficult to navigate otherwise.
Visit one of the Ashley River plantations for a glimpse into a unique way of life. Drayton Hall, a National Trust property, is the finest Georgian structure in the country and was untouched by Union troops, who history suggests may have thought it was a hospital. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens has grown from seasonal camellias and azaleas to year-round blooms, events and specialty gardens. Middleton Place, with its incredible Butterfly Lakes, has exquisite formal gardens, as well as extensive vistas over the rice fields and the river. Each of these properties has expanded its offerings for a more balanced look at slavery and the part it played in the area’s history.
Special Events: At certain times of the year, some events can use up every hotel room, restaurant and parking space in town, so plan ahead. These include the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in mid-February and the famed Spoleto Festival from late May to mid-June — a bonus if you’re here, but be aware of the crowds. Additionally, a series of house tours and events take place twice a year, with private residences, gardens and venues being opened up for public viewing. In October, the Preservation Society sponsors Fall Tours of Homes and Gardens, and mid-March to mid-April, the Historic Charleston Foundation conducts the Festival of Houses & Gardens. If either coincides with your trip to Charleston, so much the better.
Golf at one of the many excellent courses in the area, including the renowned Ocean Course, which is one of five at Kiawah Island Resort. After your round, stop off at the resort’s ultra-luxury hotel, the Sanctuary, for a drink, a meal or just a look around.
See tea being grown at Charleston Tea Plantation, the only tea-producing farm in America. Set on rural Wadmalaw Island, the facility not only grows tea (a relative of camellias), but also processes it on site. Tours of the operations are offered daily with samples.
Charleston is home to the Charleston RiverDogs, a class-A South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Yankees. You can catch a night game for just a few dollars. The field, located in Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, is at 360 Fishburne Street and is within walking distance of hotels in the Medical District; from downtown, it’s a five- to 10-minute cab ride. The stadium is also where you’ll find the Homewrecker Hot Dog — a half-pound, all-beef dog (featured on an episode of “Man vs. Food”) to which you can add any of about 25 toppings.
Visitors can dine well and often in this city where, in years gone by, residents ate only at home. Now, the city is a foodie haven where dining out has become a never-ending adventure. The Saturday Farmers’ Market is always crowded, and an annual Wine + Food Festival has been introduced. Restaurants offer plenty of traditional Southern cuisine — buttermilk biscuits, shrimp and grits, blackened catfish — often with an upscale or innovative twist.
Peninsula Grill is in the Planters Inn and reflects the high standards and service of its host. It’s really a magnificent setting, with elegant service and fabulous food. Besides, the coconut cake is to die for. (They ship them too!)
Fleet Landing is a converted Navy pier and offers open, waterfront dining. It serves seafood and Southern food at moderate prices in a unique setting. Reservations are recommended for nights and weekends.
Gaulart & Maliclet is known as Fast & French by everyone. During the day, this place offers great pate, fruit and cheese plates, sandwiches, and salads (including many vegetarian options); at night, enjoy French country fare. Don’t miss the Thursday night fondue. It’s open all day.
Hominy Grill is best known for its breakfasts, and dinner is just as great. A short ride from downtown, it’s Southern comfort food with a twist.
Il Cortile del Re offers to-die-for Italian cuisine like gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce and stewed wild boar over pappardelle. Ask to be seated in the original back area or the courtyard itself. The food and service are excellent, but the setting and ambience are what make the place. If there was any more atmosphere, you’d pass out.
Magnolia’s has become a Charleston classic, with updated Southern specialties in a clean, elegant atmosphere. It’s not cheap, but dishes like buttermilk-fried chicken breast or bourbon-glazed porterhouse pork chop with roasted sweet potato hash are worth the price tag.
Martha Lou’s Kitchen is a “don’t judge a book by its cover” experience: Southern soul wrapped in pink cinderblock. The cabbie knows the place; he ate there and sat next to the mayor and a federal judge.
The Noisy Oyster is bright, colorful, and fun for families and everyone else. Seafood is available in abundance, including the delicious shrimp and grits and the Noisy Oyster Seafood Steam Pot, filled with snow crab legs, shrimp, oysters and mussels — but there are other options for the landlubbers in your party. The walls roll up for an open-air experience, and the prices are reasonable.
Southend Brewery & Smokehouse brews its own beer, including ales and stout. They go well with the smoked meats and ribs, fish, pasta, sandwiches and salads. There’s often live entertainment.
Sticky Fingers, started by three local friends, is now a regional group of unqualified success. Offering smoky-sweet everything, its food is just delicious — the ribs are a specialty — and there’s great service to boot.
TBonz Gill & Grill has a fun, lively atmosphere that’s reminiscent of a jazz eatery you’d find in New Orleans. As its name suggests, TBonz is a great place to snag some steak, but it also features seafood, chicken wings, quesadillas and other indulgent fare.
Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar is a posh bar and seafood restaurant with an urban feel. But despite its appearance, it’s quite affordable and offers amazing crab cakes. Other menu items include delicious hushpuppies, burgers and an assortment of items like salads, soups and, of course, seafood.
Cupcake is the perfect place to pull up a chair if you’re craving a sweet snack. Amazing cupcake varieties include red velvet, lemon, chocolate chip cheesecake, coconut, carrot cake and many other tasty options.
Shopping in Charleston
Once you arrive in Charleston, set yourself to shopping mode. National chains do exist, but it’s what’s local that really counts. The must-have items are handwoven sweetgrass baskets; they’re expensive, yes, but you’re buying centuries of tradition. Charleston is also known for benne wafers, stone-ground grits, antique silver and furniture, as well as paintings and watercolors by accomplished local artists. (No, it’s not legally required to have an art gallery on every block … it just seems that way.)
You may want to peruse the area before making any purchases, though, as several vendors offer similar products at varying prices. Some will even offer discounts, so it’s wise to shop around before committing. Note that credit cards may not be accepted by individual vendors in the Market or by the city’s famed basket makers.
The Charleston City Market, known simply as the Market, is a local institution where visitors can go to peruse clothing, jewelry, foodstuffs, arts and crafts, and the city’s famous sweetgrass baskets. (You can also pick up a carriage tour here.) Market Hall, built in 1841, marks the gateway to more than 100 vendors.
Shoppers won’t be disappointed by a wander along King Street, which ranges from antique dealers (Lower King) to the Upper King Street Design District with its modern furniture and decorative items. Midway between the two are big-name brands like Ann Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Broad Street is home to Gallery Row, with some of Charleston’s finest art galleries. Our favorite is Martin Gallery, an elegant space filled with contemporary paintings, sculpture, ceramics, photography and art glass. It’s worth a look even if you can’t afford to buy.
–written by Glenn Tucker; updated by Ashley Kosciolek and Sarah Schlichter