It would be so simple to say that Charleston is a perfect destination for foodies, a hotspot for shoppers, or even an ideal vacation for history buffs. The truth is Charleston checks so many boxes it is hard to define with a few simple words. Yes, it is all of the above – but it so much more. With its perfect blend of history and style and its comfortable laid back yet oh-so-elegant air, it’s no wonder Charleston collects accolades the way other cities gather participation ribbons – including being named the Top U.S. City by the Conde Nast Traveler for eight years in a row.
There is a relaxing ease to Charleston – like taking a meandering stroll down a path shaded by Spanish moss-draped live oak trees. Its chill character is only enhanced by its cobbled stone streets, tiny nooks and alleyways. There is no reason to rush, yet every reason to slow down and take in as much of its breathtaking beauty as possible. Steeped in history, yet effortlessly hip and vibrant, the city is a perfect destination for a long weekend … or more.
Lucky for us, it’s just a comfortable five hour car ride away.
Awaiting travelers is a character and charm that is unparalleled; a glass of cold iced tea, perhaps a cocktail, and a city that calls for exploration. Whether one is looking for a relaxing weekend on the beach or a tour of the city’s impeccably maintained historic buildings, there is little chance of going home disappointed.
Charleston’s striking architecture, especially in the coveted “South of Broad” district, would be reason enough to take the trek to the lower Carolina. Buildings survive from every era of the city’s history and just about every type of architecture is represented, from Georgian and Greek Revival to Italianate and Art Deco. Grand gothic churches cast shade on the bold, flat-fronted Georgian manses and decoratively painted balustrades of Queen Annes. Charleston was the first city in the country to locally protect its historic status and there is little question why. It was later named a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
Take note of the Charleston Single House, which will look odd to many first-time visitors. With a narrow side facing the street and an open air door that enters on to a long porch that flanks the side of the long house.
While some tour guides surmise that the design helped homeowners avoid property taxes assessed by how much roadside frontage a home had, however, historians note that there is no evidence to support this claim. Instead, they purport that the muggy climate is responsible for the design and that the porch was situated to take advantage of prevailing winds to keep its residents cool.
While the homes were designed in a variety of architectural styles – Greek Revival, Federal and others – the floorplan remains the same, with two rooms on each floor. The true entrance to the house is located about halfway down the side porch, or piazza in these parts, and opens into a small hallway with a staircase. The two rooms are located off this main hall, with one room at the front of the building and one room at the back. The floorplan repeats on each floor. The door along the road serves only to provide a little added privacy and security for home owners so they can enjoy their grand piazza in peace.
Visitors will surely notice the earthquake bolts on many of the city’s older buildings. After a devastating earthquake in 1886, buildings were retrofit with rods that were inserted through the walls and anchored on the exterior walls.
One of the best ways to take it all in is on foot. The city is filled with hidden alleyways and courtyards to discover and a walk around the city provides the perfect opportunity to explore at your own pace. Self-guided walking tour maps can be found on the City of Charleston’s website (cityofcharleston.com) and can be picked up in area visitor’s centers. Of course there are plenty of guided tours as well – by foot, bus, bike, trolley, horse-drawn carriage, boat or Segway.
While some tours provide a brief overall history of the area, others are more specific. Ghost tours, winery and tea tours, culinary and architectural tours are popular. There are also guided trips that whisk you away from the city to the grand plantation houses in the countryside nearby. Whatever your interest – Charleston is ready to help you along the way.
The Holy City – so dubbed for its early tolerance of all religions and its large number of historic churches – saw its first settlers in 1670. About 150 colonists, servants and slaves found their way to Bull’s Island, which they initially named Albemarle Point. The group soon, as homage to Charles II, renamed the settlement as Charles Town. Settlers arrived from Barbados and the growing village realized that moving across the river would place them in a prime location between the Cooper and Ashley rivers.
By 1680, there were about 1,000 people in Charles Town and it quickly became a busy seaport. Indigo, rice, deer skins and cotton were sent to England, returning with staples and luxuries from Europe, adding to the town’s reputation for being “Little London”. Within 10 years it was the fifth largest city in North America.
The easy-to-reach seaport brought a dark side with it as well. On Chalmers Street, the Old Slave Market stands as a stark reminder. Historians estimate that some 40 to 60 percent of Africans brought to the country came through Charleston Harbor. Renovated by the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission, the market holds a museum today chronicling the city’s role in the slave trade. It is a history that Charleston doesn’t shy away from – but instead apologetically embraces as a dark stain on the past and shares as part of the city’s story with grace and sadness lest nobody forget.
If there are two words that describe the city is would surely be resilience and strength. Charleston has withstood two wars – Revolutionary and Civil – as well as two major fires – 1838 and the Great Fire of 1861 – a major earthquake and a host of hurricanes, including Hurricane Hugo in 1989. In spite of these natural and unnatural disasters, the city continued to rebound. Its historical significance, its arts, its architecture and its role in Southern history and culture continued to rebound, always with a welcome mat on the porch for anyone who wandered by.
There are many who simply enjoy walking the streets South of Broad and enjoying the awe-inspiring architecture, while others are looking for something a little more stimulating. There is much to take in in Charleston – but here are a few of the not-to-miss attractions.
The Battery: At the confluence of the Cooper and Ashley rivers, the Battery played a huge role in the city’s defenses. The wall built to help protect the still stands and military statues and canons tell the tales of the city’s storied past. Surrounded by some of the area’s most beautiful antebellum homes, White Point Garden is the perfect place to stop for a moment and take in the history of the area.
Old Exchange Building & Provost Dungeon: Take a brief guided tour of the Exchange building and learn about its rich history by period-dressed docents. Constructed in 1771, the Old Exchange hosted the signing of the U.S. Constitution making South Carolina the eighth state to join the union.
Pineapple Fountain: The centerpiece in Waterfront Park, shaped in the universal sign of friendship and welcome has been a favorite icon of the city since it was opened in 1990. Wading is encouraged – as long as it’s one between 6am and midnight. A sign with health and safety rules is mounted nearby.
Calhoun Mansion: With 35 rooms to explore and a 75-foot Italianate dome, the Calhoun Mansion may be one of the grandiose houses in Charleston. Built in 1876, the 24,000-square-foot house is excessively grand and ornate. If the architecture alone doesn’t draw you in, the owner’s collection of artifacts from the Gilded Age should.
Aiken-Rhett House Museum: Well preserved and affordable to tour, the Aiken-Rhett House provides a perfect snapshot of 19th-century Charleston. Built in 1820, the house was home to William Aiken, Jr., a former governor of South Carolina and owner of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company.
Gibbes Museum of Art: For art lovers, this must-see museum features vast collections. From 18th and 19th century work to modern and contemporary pieces, over 10,000 works of art are on display.
Old Slave Mart Museum: Interactive exhibits and testimony from slaves and their descendants tell the story of slavery in America and Charleston. It is difficult to hear – but a must for anyone who is truly interested in learning about the city.
The Charleston Museum: Trace the city’s roots and history at this exceptionally well presented museum. Founded in 1773, the museum itself has an extended history.
Fort Sumter: Retrace the first shots of the Civil War and learn about the 34-hour bombardment that changed the shape of Charleston’s history.
First Friday on Broad: Broad Street’s Gallery Row stays open late and welcomes visitors from 5 to 8pm during shoulder season months for an art walk and refreshments. Live entertainment is often on tap and an array of special exhibits.
Away from Town – If time allows, be sure to take a jaunt over to Johns Island and take in the splendor of the Angel Oak, believed to be over 400 years old. While driving outside the city, stop to visit Magnolia Plantation, which boasts one of America’s most beautiful public gardens. Boone Hall Plantation in nearby Mount Pleasant, established in 1681, offers tours of the striking manor house as well as historical tours of black history and details on the slaves who lived at the site.
Keep the weather in mind when planning a trip to Charleston. It’s hot. Yes – it’s hot in Eastern Carolina too. But the daily level of humidity in Charleston during the summer months is definitely more intense and more frequent than what is traditionally found here at home. The shoulder season, however, is delightful. Warm days, cooler evenings and limited humidity make it perfect for exploring the cobblestone streets.
Staying in the heart of Charleston – which we’ll admit, provides the optimum Charleston experience – can be pricey. But booking early and browsing all available options can help. There are delightful bed and breakfasts, modern new boutique hotels and a handful of chains to be found in the downtown area. There are also plenty of Airbnb options, which many find are more affordable.
The Charleston City Market, located in the heart of downtown, features hundreds of local artisans selling a variety of wares, from art and clothing to spices and housewares. It is yet another must-stop during any Charleston visit. During spring and summer, the market offers extended night time hours to allow shoppers to beat the heat and features live music.
King Street is an experience all its own. Coming from a rural area, where shopping is limited to strip malls and half empty traditional malls, the shopping in Charleston is like visiting New York City. It is abundant and varied – from budget chains to upscale boutiques. And King Street is the heartbeat of Charleston’s shopping district.
The street is more than 300 years old and served as a primary roadway during the early days of Charles Town. Today, it is divided into three sections: Lower King is known as the Antiques District, Middle King is the Fashion District and Upper King is known for its home décor, dining and nightlife.
It is a vibrant hub of activity, both day and night. Shoppers fill the streets as they stroll from shop to shop by day and at night diners and revelers converge on Upper King for a night on the town. Best time to go? Second Sunday on King closes the road to traffic from 1-5pm allowing shoppers to take over the roadway.
Whether it is the shopping, the history or the food that lures you to Charleston – everyone can find something to keep them entertained. Theater, arts, shopping and a culinary experience that is unmatched is met with history at every turn.