WHAT TO DO
Charleston is a timeless gem with its colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and old Southern charm. From its quaint neighborhoods and elegant mansions to its epic history and innovative southern fare, Charleston is a cultural hotspot and a traveler's dream.
Charleston is best explored on foot and the first place to start your adventure is downtown's famous Historic District. Flanked by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, this area of the peninsula contains a majority of the points of interest. From Upper King Street down to the Battery and everywhere in between, it's a wonderful place to wander through. Begin in the heart of the Historic District at the legendary City Market, which dates back to the early 1800's. Along these open air stalls you'll find local vendors selling handcrafted items ranging from creative art and jewelry to regional souvenirs, like the intricate sweetgrass baskets. Just outside, along North and South Market Streets are shops and restaurants offering more temptations such as pralines, homemade lemonade and ice cream - just a few of my favorite things.
From there, stroll down Church Street and Meeting Street to visit some of Charleston's most iconic landmarks. There are no tall buildings in the Historic District, only church steeples punctuate the low skyline. Two of my favorites are St. Philip's Church and St. Michael's Church (of course). The graceful St. Philip's was rebuilt in 1838 after a fire burned down the original a few years earlier. St. Michael's is the city's oldest surviving church, where George Washington worshipped in 1791. At 186 feet, the steeple is Charleston's most famous. A short walk away on Church Street is the impressive Dock Street Theatre. This venue, a replica of a Georgian Playhouse, is hung with green velvet curtains and has wonderful woodwork giving it a New Orleans French Quarter feel.
Continue walking to King Street, it is Charleston's main drag for shopping and dining. Most of the preserved storefronts look much like they have for the past few hundred years. This is where you'll find antique shops, fancy boutiques and chic chains. Start at Broad and King Streets and work your way north. If art is your thing head over to Gibbes Museum of Art on Meeting Street. Housed in a beautiful Beaux Arts building, it has a collection of 10,000 works, primarily American with a local connection. After some shopping and art appreciation, a great excuse to get off your feet is to experience a horse drawn carriage ride tour around town. There are a few companies to choose from and I went with Palmetto Carriage Works. They are the oldest carriage tour company in Charleston and along with having some great old fashioned carriages, they provide a knowledgeable narrated history lesson. There are three different routes which are determined by a city lottery type drawing prior to departure. Whichever route you draw, all slowly klip klop past the many spectacular antebellum mansions. Some of my favorites are The Calhoun Mansion, Joseph Manigault House, Edmondston Alston House, Nathaniel Russell House and Aiken Rhett House up on Elizabeth Street. After the carriage ride, I would recommend taking a guided tour of some of the mansions, especially Aiken Rhett and Nathaniel Russell House (be sure to purchase the combo ticket for both houses). The Aiken Rhett House, unaltered since 1858, has been preserved rather than restored meaning visitors can see its original wallpaper and furnishings. Out back, the kitchen and work yard are much as they were when the original occupants lived there, making it the most intact mansion to showcase life in antebellum Charleston. The Nathaniel Russell House was built in 1808 and its grand beauty and elegance was quite impressive. In addition to the famous free flying staircase that spirals up three stories, the ornate interior is distinguished by fine works of art and old world furniture.
Next, head towards Waterfront Park and be sure to check out one of the most famous architectural landmarks in Charleston just nearby. Rainbow Row is a line of 18th century commercial buildings built to service the bustling wharfs and docks of the port of Charleston. They are named for their Colonial Caribbean color scheme. At Waterfront Park, read the history markers, stroll along the waterside path or just relax in the gardens overlooking Charleston Harbor. The park has two large fountains, the Vendue and the much acclaimed Pineapple Fountain. From there, wander down East Bay Street to the Battery and White Point Gardens. The Battery is located at the southernmost tip of the Charleston Peninsula and together with White Point Gardens, they are the landmarks that help to define Charleston. Be sure to walk the park to indulge in the 18th century cannons, historical statues, picturesque gazebo and a perfect view of Fort Sumter in the harbor.
In my opinion, one cannot visit Charleston without a trip out to Fort Sumter. Set on a man made island in Charleston harbor, this is the hallowed spot where the Civil War began. On April 12, 1861 the first shot of the war was fired. After a 34 hour battle, Union forces surrendered and Confederate troops occupied Sumter for most of the war. After constant bombardment by Union forces until it became rubble, it was finally evacuated in February 1865. Today, the National Park Service oversees it and rangers give guided tours. To reach the fort you have to take a short ferry ride which departs from the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center, adjacent to the South Carolina Aquarium.
Another truly Southern experience would be to travel less than a half hour by car to visit some of the magnificent Lowcountry plantations just outside of downtown Charleston. There is Boone Hall, Middleton Place, Drayton Hall and my personal favorite, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Dating back to circa 1676 this plantation house boasts America's oldest gardens. Magnolia claims the ultimate plantation experience with a biblical garden, antebellum residence, along with a nature train and boat. I especially enjoyed the swamp garden with its networks of boardwalks and bridges. To cap your Charleston adventure, head out to Folly Beach for some fun or maybe have a scare at the Haunted Old City Jail Tour.
WHERE TO EAT
Charleston has a thriving food scene and there are plenty of great spots to eat and drink. Most of the places are located in and around the downtown area and are reachable by foot or a short pedicab ride. A great way to start your touring day is with a hearty breakfast and Hominy Grill on Rutledge Avenue delivers the goods. Be sure to get the high rise biscuit with sausage gravy or try the delicious shrimp and grits. The nasty biscuit tosses a fried chicken breast on top of its sausage gravy. UPDATE: Hominy Grill closed in April of 2019. Millers All Day on King Street is another top notch spot for a proper Southern breakfast. Start with the homemade banana bread then move on to the signature fried chicken biscuit with pimento cheese and pepper jam.
There are several great places for lunch, just depends on what you're in the mood for. If it's Lowcountry comfort food you crave, Cru Cafe on Pinckney Street is a solid choice. Housed in a classic 18th century house with a wraparound porch, it serves up the best fried green tomatoes I've ever had. Add some pork belly croutons and smoked tomato caramel, you'll be a happy camper. If it's Thai food you desire then Basil on King Street is a must. This corner restaurant in the heart of downtown usually has a line, but it is definitely worth the wait. Try the neua nam tok or the crispy red curry duck, you'll go quack quack. If you fancy barbecue, be sure to visit Lewis Barbecue on Nassau Street. Favorites include the Texas style fatty brisket, pulled turkey and hot guts (sausage links). Enjoy it all outside on the backyard patio. Maybe you like oysters as much as I do, if so there are three spots to indulge. The first is 167 Raw on King Street. This stylish eatery is usually packed with locals, try to score a seat at the seafood counter. Everything is always super fresh, from the chilled oysters and ahi poke to the lobster rolls and daily fish tacos. They also offer some great local draft beers, try the folly's pride. The second is Leon's Oyster Shop on King Street. This relaxed joint serves up tasty oysters, Southern style seafood and an amazing, well seasoned crispy fried chicken. The atmosphere has a fun, rustic and trendy vibe which makes it a cool time. The third is The Ordinary on King Street. This 1920s bank now houses an upscale seafood restaurant and raw bar with high ceilings, large windows and a bar.
When the dinner bell rings, Charleston has an abundance of great restaurants, but plan ahead because some of the popular destinations require advanced booking. Charleston Grill on King Street is one of them. It is a gastronomic experience with a focus on New Southern cuisine. The nightly tasting menu and extensive wine list along with a hip jazz ensemble for your listening pleasure makes for a memorable night out. Two of my favorites are Fig on Meeting Street and Husk on Queen Street. Both recommend reservations and both are must visits for the foodie in all of us. Fig is run by Mike Lata and he presents an elevated take on Southern classics, prepared with fresh off the farm ingredients in an upscale bistro setting. Try the suckling pig rice bowl with roasted figs and shishito peppers or the fish stew. Husk is run by Sean Brock, who has more awards than I have frequent flyer miles. His ever changing menu of locally sourced Southern dishes is displayed on a large chalkboard inside the restaurant, which is a restored 19th century home with a great balcony. For the adventurous eater, try the crispy bbq pig's ears or the Southern fried chicken skins. The Carolina pork and bacon cornbread are also tasty. Just next door to the restaurant is the freestanding Bar at Husk. It has a superb drink menu with several bourbons and whiskeys along with a separate pub fare menu. Sean Brock also has McCrady's on Unity Alley. It has an old pub style feel with its pine flooring, exposed brick walls and fireplaces. The short rib with sweet corn and green tomatoes is amazing, as is the Berkshire pork and aged duck roasted on the bone. Another great restaurant is The Macintosh on King Street. The chef is Jeremiah Bacon (great name) and he serves up some local favorites such as a seasonal house gnudi, seafood charcuterie and the very popular bone marrow bread pudding. UPDATE: The Macintosh closed in March of 2021. Two additional places that are not to be missed are Chubby Fish on Coming Street and Vern's on Bogard Street. Chubby Fish is a small neighborhood eatery that offers a superb seafood menu alongside a creative wine list. Vern's is a cozy American bistro that dishes out simple yet delicious meals. Dishes include perfectly roasted chicken in a brown butter jus and fresh campanelle with rabbit. For dynamite sushi, head to 167 Sushi on East Bay Street. This intimate space does daily nigiri, sashimi and futomaki rolls. Last but certainly not least is Xiao Bao Biscuit on Rutledge Avenue. Located in a converted gas station, this unpretentious eatery offers some creative Asian fusion grub and specialty cocktails. My favorites on the XBB menu include the jiao zi shrimp dumplings, okonomiyaki pork pancakes and sticky rice. To drink, try the Hanoi 75.
Regarding places to wet your whistle and have a good time, here are a few of the places I visited in Charleston. Starting in the downtown area, head over to The Belmont on King Street for its inventive cocktail menu and vintage vibe. The Bells of Jalisco is tequila, jalapeno honey and lime juice. Some nights they screen black and white films on the walls. Another cool spot is Doar Brothers on Meeting Street. This snug bar specializes in unique cocktails - I enjoyed the Vesper (monkey 47 gin, belvedere smogory forest vodka and lemon). Farther up Meeting Street is Last Saint. This dual concept cocktail bar has two rooms and does creative drinks. Next, make your way to Gin Joint on East Bay Street, where the bartenders wear bowties and suspenders, but more importantly mix some pretty good drinks. If you're in the mood for more local, make your way to The Griffon on Vendue Range or Moe's Tavern on Rutledge Avenue. At The Griffon, a traditional pub, enjoy a pint of Guinness as you attempt to count all the dollar bills pinned to the walls. Moe's has a similar vibe, very local with a large beer selection - not to mention a pretty darn good burger. Another favorite is The Tattooed Moose on Morrison Drive. There is a large moose head behind the counter and a menu with over 90 beers. The most famous item on the menu though has to be the duck club sandwich. Lastly, the perfect place to end your shenanigans would be at the Recovery Room on King Street. Located under a highway bridge, this dive bar has graffiti on its walls, pinball, darts and pool. The late night menu has some tasty chicken wings with over 12 different sauces to choose from, tater tots and cans of PBR.
WHERE TO STAY
Charleston offers a number of charming places to call home during your visit. Location and amenities are important to me when I travel - I like to be centrally located and not too far from the sights on my to do checklist. It's also the small touches that some hotels provide that make life on the road that more enjoyable. In my opinion, 2 properties that achieve this is French Quarter Inn on Church Street and Planter's Inn on North Market Street. Both are located just next to City Market.
French Quarter Inn is around the corner from the busy Market area yet it's a quiet and peaceful haven. This boutique hotel has 31 rooms and welcomes you with a glass of champagne at check in. The rooms are comfortable and spacious with a pillow menu to choose from. Other hotel amenities include complimentary breakfast, bike rentals and WiFi. I especially enjoyed the evening cookies and milk.
Planter's Inn is a 64 room boutique hotel that is just steps from the historic Market. Double pane windows render every room soundproof. All rooms contain large plantation style four poster beds, high ceilings and marble bathrooms. The property is decorated with antiques and furnished with period reproductions making you feel like you're back in the antebellum era. The hotel is also home to the Peninsula Grill, a Lowcountry institution. The hospitality is genuine in Charleston, one of the South's best preserved cities.