People have long loved Charleston, South Carolina for the gentile Southern hospitality and the culture steeped in history. But what you may not know is that there’s more to this city than the locals (sweeter than their famous pralines) or Civil War history.
From the five-star restaurants and upscale shopping on King Street to the bustling beaches and a Museum Mile, there’s more to Charleston than a good Civil War reenactment (though you’ve got that, too). No matter what you choose to do on your trip, you’re sure to fall in love with Charleston. Here are 20 reasons why.
1) Five-Star Restaurants
It all began with Sean Brock, a roots-to-table chef, who’s been profiled in every culinary magazine and dining section of every newspaper since exploding onto the scene in 2006. His restaurant, Husk, has made history in Southern cooking and paved the way for Charleston’s prolific restaurant scene and establishments like FIG, Two Boroughs Larder, Friday night dinner at Butchers and Bee and The Macintosh (which is on Bon Appetite’s Top 50 Best New Restaurants List in 2012). Loosen your belt a notch and make a few reservations (you’ll need to get on the horn early), because the food alone is reason enough to love this city.
2) Top-Notch Beaches
A metropolitan city it is, but four (main) distinct beaches surround Charleston—each with their own vibe. Folly Beach, just 15 minutes from downtown Charleston, is bustling with surfers, beach bocce, quaint shops and a chilled-out beach community. Isle of Palms is the family beach with two championship golf courses, a marina and a few shops and bars. Sullivan’s Island, a friendly seaside village, that’s popular among locals with some great dining (though no public restrooms). Just park on the street and walk between houses—the locals won’t mind—to find your space on the beach. And finally, Kiawah Island, with 10 miles of pristine beaches with both residential and resort properties, it’s often considered the most romantic of Charleston’s beaches. Whatever you’re in the mood for, you can easily find a beach that (literally) floats your boat.
3) Shopping on King Street
People in Charleston know how to dress. It’s not uncommon to see the gents sporting dapper seersucker suits and ladies topped off in handsome hats. Sartorial experts are often found in Middle King Street’s fashion district—where upscale boutiques carry both notable and undiscovered designers and showcase some of Charleston’s best local talent. There are also plenty of chain stores (but skip this for a true local Charleston souvenir). Upper King is known for dining and design and Lower King is the antique District.
4) Spy H.L. Hunly Confederate Submarine
If you’re visiting Charleston during the weekend, a viewing of the H.L. Hunley is a must. Open on Saturdays and Sundays, the Confederate submarine was buried at sea for more than 130 years—the archeological masterpiece of the century and a history buff’s heaven that’s now unearthed. The submarine was raised in 1995 and brought to the Charleston navy base to be beautifully restored. You can honor crewmembers, whose bones were buried at the Magnolia Cemetery, after taking a 20-minute tour of the preserved vessel.
5) The Charleston Place Hotel
Charleston Place Hotel is the ultimate digs to shack up when visiting this historic city. The landmark luxury building in the Historic District has hosted celebs, prime ministers and a host of Presidents. And while the plush rooms and world-class spa are worth every penny (the indoor/outdoor pool is pretty incredible), non-guests can stop for shopping, a classic cocktail at the Thoroughbred Club or dinner at Peninsula Grill. You’re trip to Charleston will not be complete without a slice of the 12-layer coconut cake for dessert.
6) Southern Plantations
You could build an entire weekend around plantation tours of Charleston. Each steeped in history and tradition—often beautiful and eerie. Middleton Place is known for their gorgeous manicured gardens, and since Drayton Hall, which has been kept in near-original condition, is just down the road, so you can easily cross two off your list. Magnolia Plantation’s natural gardens are great for getting in touch with Charleston’s version of nature, (swamp gardens and scaly creatures) and Boone Hall in Mt. Pleasant is a working plantation with gorgeous oaks trees and an abundance of flowers where visitors can buy season produce from the plantation’s farm stand. Each of these plantations house slave cabins, an important part of reflecting upon the suffering of those who passed though over time.
7) The Old City Market:
Open 365 days a year, the Old City Market was once the main area where slaves would go to purchase food for the plantations. Now, it’s a bustling outdoor market with spices, regional goods and baskets—lots of baskets. It may feel like you’re walking in circles here, but women have been crafting these baskets from sweetgrass and palmetto leaves and it’s hard work and worth your pennies. If you’re going to buy one thing from the Old City Market—make it a basket and carry it proudly.
8) Lowcountry Oysters
Charleston’s Eastern Oysters are small in stature with a thinner shell, but big on taste. Pearlz and Hank’s are fine establishments for sucking down these tasty mollusks, but Bowens Island is about as Charleston as it gets. Established in 1946 and surviving two fires, this no-frills oyster house is about the best place for beer, bivalves and watching the sun set over the water where your dinner was just caught.
9) The Pralines
Oh, the praline. Southerners are as sweet as what they eat, and the famous Charleston pralines are no exception. Made, simply, from sugar, pecans, cream and salt, the Charleston pralines are best from Kilwin’s ad Candy Kitchen at the City Market. Be sure to ask for a sample and get ‘em while their piping hot. You haven’t had a praline until you’ve had one from Charleston.
10) Horse and Carriage Tours
Yes, they’re touristy, but it’s a must-do when visiting Charleston. These horse and carriage tours are led by knowledgeable (and funny!) guides who will take you to hidden nuggets in this gorgeous city, so keep your eyes and ears peeled. It’s good to know that there are a handful of routes that are dictated by the city, and whichever one you wind up with is bound to be ultra-fascinating and worth the $20-ish dollars that you’ll spend.
11) Irving House Vineyards
The Irvin House Vineyards on Wadmalaw Island is just 30 minutes south of Charleston and home to five different domestic wines from the Muscadine grape. Napa this is not—and that’s why locals love the place. It’s more about bluegrass, barbecue and farm animals (they roam the winery). If vino doesn’t float your boat, the vineyards are makers of Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka and Sea Island Rums to really get the party started. Pick a Saturday; bring your picnic blanket and your laid-back Southern attitude. No wine snobs allowed.
12) The “Front-Porch” Swings in Waterfront Park
Waterfront Park is a beautiful stretch long the Cooper River and worth a stroll both day and night—but it’s the oversized “front-porch” swings that really set it apart. Instead of your neighbor’s lawn, you’re getting a view of the sparkling bay, including Patriot’s Point—and if someone’s (patiently) waiting, you can always hop off and take a romantic stroll along the pier.
13) The Mansions and the Battery
The pimped-out mansions along the Battery are a must-see attraction when visiting this city. These palatial antebellum homes with their massive columns, lush gardens and huge balconies, lay at the southern-most tip of Charleston. After, you’ve had a chance to properly gawk at how former plantation owners once lived, a short stroll from the Battery will take you to Rainbow Row, where every house is painted a different pastel color.
14) The Historic Churches
Charleston was named “City of Churches” for good reason. French Huguenot Church, St. Phillips, Mt. Michael’s Episcopal Church and Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (America’s second-oldest synagogue) only to name a handful. You don’t have to be a Bible thumper to appreciate the utter beauty of these historic houses of worships. It doesn’t take long to visit—and appreciate—the beauty of each one, so knock them off your list and then do like the locals and celebrate with a proper brown beverage. Can we get an amen?
15) The South Carolina Aquarium
Ocean aficionados freak for the South Carolina Aquarium thanks to the Great Ocean Tank instillation that holds over 385,000 gallons of water and contains over 450 animals. The over 6,000 plants and animals include sea turtles, jellyfish, eels and tons more. Dedicate a decent chunk of your time to this attraction—it’s like shark week year-round.
16) Charleston’s Museum Mile
Who knew that Charleston had its own Museum Mile? Charleston is chock-full of interesting museums to keep you cultured during your visit to the South. The Gibbes Museum of Art is renowned for celebrating Lowcountry-centric art dating back to the 18th century and the Charleston Museum is known as “America’s First Museum” founded in 1773. The Old Slave Mart Museum is the only remaining site used as a gallery to South Carolina’s slave auctions and remains on the National Register of Historic Places today. The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry remains a family favorite and works to keep the kiddies entertained.
17) The “Tree”
Known as “the tree” to locals, Angel Oak Tree on John’s Island, a short 20-minute drive from downtown Charleston, is a breathtaking sight to be seen. Though not documented, the tree that stands 65 feet high and behemoth branches that sprawl 160 diameters, is said to be 1,500 years old. If you’re lucky enough to be in Charleston during the warm weather months—bring a picnic and enjoy the arts and music events that often take place underneath this mossy gift from nature.
18) A Southern Farmer’s Market
Not your average farmer’s market experience—or your average tourist experience; this is what the locals do on Saturdays in Charleston. Skip breakfast and lunch and head to the farmer’s market on Marion Square where you eat your way through a smattering of local goods. Think: made-on-site crepes, salted watermelon ice pops, banh mi sandwiches and fresh-fried doughnuts. Stock up on grits, local honey, goats milk soap and coffee for the perfect Southern souvenir. And don’t forget the blanket to lounge on the grass—there will be a live band.
19) Fort Sumter National Monument
Charleston is full of Civil War history, but Fort Sumter is famous as being the location of the first shots in 1861. For those not entrenched in war history, the ferry ride to the monument provides lovely views of Charleston and the harbor.
20) Ghost Tours
With such a rich history, Charleston has a few skeletons in the closet. Ghost tours may play to the tourists, but with the Unitarian Church graveyard, the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon (a historic pirate destination) and Old City Jail that housed the first female serial killer in America—it’s how (and where) locals grew up spooking each other. Even if you’re a skeptic, a walking tour is a great way to learn about the history of the city—even better, you can walk off all of the fatty food you’re bound to eat.
– Anne Roderique-Jones