With more than five million visitors a year, Charleston locals like to say in their sweetest Southern patois that “Yankees are the people who come to visit, while damn Yankees are the ones who come and stay.”
Indeed, from the very first sight of this historic town, settled in 1670, even the most seasoned travelers will find themselves instantly intoxicated by the spires and steeples that dot the skyline, the Georgian architecture of Rainbow Row’s antebellum homes, and the vistas of flowering crape myrtle along every street of this sophisticated city. With moderate temperatures year-round and a blue sky that seems straight from a storybook, be it Yankee or native Southerner, who would want to leave this piece of paradise?
Even with the influx of “damn Yankees” and other transplants who choose to call Charleston home, it is said that to be considered a native one’s family has to go back at least three generations. Many rice and cotton planter families still live and work in the homes that their ancestors built, and name-dropping—from Middleton (Henry was president of the Continental Congress, son Arthur was a signer of the Declaration of Independence) to Rutledge (John was a governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, brother Edward also signed)—is a regional pastime. Typical Charleston humor: “What do the Chinese and Charlestonians have in common? They eat rice and worship their ancestors.”
Charleston’s charm lies in the fact that this paradise has nearly been lost time and again, and, yet, with each incarnation, it only becomes lovelier.
Gone with the wind? Not exactly.
Despite a history riddled with natural disasters including fire (the Great Fire of 1861 reduced the city to ashes), earthquakes (the earthquake of 1886 damaged 90 percent of the city’s brick buildings), and catastrophic floods (Hurricane Hugo in 1989 vanquished half the city), not to mention Civil and Revolutionary War sieges, the oldest city in the state remains—miraculously—one of the best preserved destinations in the Old South. Without question, Charleston, comprised of 73 pre-Revolutionary War buildings, 136 from the late 18th century, and more than 600 built before the 1840s, remains one of the prettiest cities in America.
Southern hospitality oozes everywhere, from shopkeepers along King Street to carriage drivers in Old City Market to the airline attendants at Charleston International Airport. “Southern hospitality runs true and deep,” says Charlie Wellman, director of sales for Charleston Place Hotel. “There’s a saying here that the only time you hear a horn beep, it’s someone saying, ‘Hi.’”
A minimum of three days is necessary to get the lowdown on the Lowcountry. The main attraction is the historic district—south of Beaufain Street and east of King Street—where you can stroll along elegant thoroughfares and quaint alleyways, peering into picture-perfect private gardens. Says local tour guide Harlan Greene, “The best way to see Charleston is to walk it. Charleston is all about ambiance.”
So pack your most comfortable shoes and spend your first day in Charleston walking. The best place to begin is White Point Gardens or “The Battery” as it is known in local parlance. (Residents living south of the chichi Battery or below Broad Street are lovingly referred to as S.O.B.s while those who living slightly north of Broad are just S.N.O.B.s). Located at the tip of the peninsula, visit Edmonston-Alston House (21 E. Battery St., 843-722-7171), one of several noteworthy historic house museums and an excellent example of Greek Revival architecture. The house, built in 1825 by a Scottish shipping merchant, is filled with heirloom antiques and artwork. Sit on the porch (or piazza as it is called), where, in 1861, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and the Alston family watched as the first shots of the Civil War rang out over Fort Sumter. Continue your stroll, with a visit to another excellent house museum, the Heyward-Washington House (87 Church St., 843-722-2996). George Washington slept here in 1791 during a Presidential visit to the city. The area surrounding the 1722 house owned by rice planter Daniel Heyward is believed to have been the inspiration for the opera Porgy and Bess.
Tired after all that walk ing? Get a great city overview by carriage. There are many to be hailed in the town’s bustling, touristy City Market area, but one of the most entertaining tours of the historic district, led by Tennessee farm mules, is by Palmetto Carriage Company (40 N. Market St., 843-723-8145). Continue your walk through history with a half-day visit to Fort Sumter. From there, take the harbor ferry to Fort Sumter National Monument, where, on April 12, 1861, Confederates bombarded the fort for 34 hours, leading to an intense, bloody battle. Ferry times vary.
Back on land, spend the re mainder of the afternoon exploring the diverse places of worship in a town dubbed the “Holy City.” Immigrants from French Huguenots to Baptists to Jews all enjoyed religious freedom here, and the streets are punctuated with beautiful churches and the oldest continuously used synagogue in the country, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (90 Hasell St.). The French Huguenot Church (136 Church St.) is also noteworthy. This tiny Gothic-style church is the only one in the country still using the original Hueguenot liturgy. At St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (71 Broad St.), the oldest church in Charleston built in 1752, both George Washington and Robert E. Lee worshipped in pew number 43 while visiting the city.
The Aiken-Rhett House (48 Elizabeth St., 843-723-1159) offers an amazing time capsule of antebellum life. Time stands still in the space that is the only surviving urban plantation in America. While the house has been preserved, it was never restored and looks much the way it did in 1858, three years before the outbreak of the Civil War.
For another look at the South of yesteryear, visit the recently opened Old Slave Mart (6 Chalmers St., 843-958-6467), the only known extant building used as a slave auction gallery in South Carolina. Forty percent of enslaved Africans in North America came through the port of Charleston, and this museum offers a firsthand glimpse of their incredibly moving plight.
If the antebellum South is of interest, it’s worth a one-day excursion to view the refined bygone days of an old plantation. You will need to rent a car for this jaunt, but since all the plantations are on Ashley River Road along Highway 61, it is possible to see more than one, and this slice of the quintessential South is well worth the added time and expense. Make Drayton Hall (3380 Old Ashley River Rd., 843-769-2600) your first stop. Built in 1738, Drayton is one of Charleston’s oldest surviving plantations and the oldest example of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the United States. Unlike its spruced-up sister plantations, purists will delight in the fact that the home is the only plantation house on the Ashley River to have survived the Civil War, and little has been changed since then.
A little farther down the road, view the impressive gardens of Middleton Place (4300 Ashley River Rd., 843-556-6020), the home of Henry Middleton, second president of the Continental Congress (and possibly an ancestor of Prince William’s girlfriend, Kate Middleton). The grounds, which include a 900-to-1,000-year-old tree, comprise the oldest existing landscaped garden in America. The south wing of the house has been restored and offers fine furniture and rare first Audubon editions.
Shopping is another fun way to while away the hours. Strolling along King Street is your best bet, where one-of-a-kind antiques, jewelry, and clothing stores abound. For 18th- and 19th-century antiques, browse at George C. Birlant and Co. (191 King St., 843-722-3842). Fashionistas might want to head to Mary Norton (318 King St., 843-724-1081), a handbag store. Norton, a local designer, creates couture confections made of ostrich, peacock, and pheasant feathers. They are toted by Hollywood’s best-dressed, including Halle Berry and Paris Hilton. All proper Charlestonian males (and presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton) shop at Ben Silver (149 King St., 843-577-4556). The clothing emporium features a collection of more than 600 blazer button designs and unique enameled cuff links. For more touristy treasures, trawl the popular Old City Market spread between Meeting and East Bay Streets. The bustling market is one of the best places to buy sweetgrass baskets. These baskets, once woven by slaves to carry rice and crops and now woven by slave descendants or Gullahs, are the signature souvenir of the city.
Picking a place to eat is a serious subject in Charleston, but be forewarned: Forget about calories as you give in to some of the finest food in the South. Lowcountry cuisine has many influences, including foods from African slaves and the large number of Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain who settled there. Additionally, with more than a half million acres of wetlands and maritime forests, Charleston has its own regional riches, including rice and an abundance of oysters, shrimp, shad, and other creatures from the local waters (“Welcome to the all-you-can-eat 24-hour seafood buffet,” announces the captain of one river tour).
For more formal French-Lowcountry fusion, try the award-winning Charleston Grill (224 King St., 843-577-4522). Chef Bob Waggoner, who honed his culinary skills after more than a decade in France, changes the menu with the season, but expect to find the kind of creative cuisine that earned this restaurant the coveted Mobil four-star rating such as bay scallops and mussels encased in pastry.
For a stylish setting, big-city sophisticates flock to Cypress-A Lowcountry Grille (167 E. Bay St., 843-727-0111) for butter-poached lobster served on a grits cake and benne-seed shrimp. For lighter fare and a favorite local hangout, try the cooking of Cordon Bleu graduate John Zucker at Cru Café (18 Pinckney St., 843-534-2434). Buttermilk fried oyster salad with apple-smoked bacon or ginger-seared salmon add a high note to Lowcountry cooking.
For down-home cooking and a great lunch, try the award-winning barbecue chicken or pulled pork at Sticky Fingers Rib House (235 Meeting St., 843-853-RIBS), voted “Best Ribs in Charleston” by the Charleston City Paper and the joint where President Bush saw fit to take his “Q” to go when he visited the city in February 2004.
For a real down-home Dixie meal, Jestine’s Kitchen (251 Meeting St., 843-722-7224) is a must. Jestine’s is the place for okra gumbo, hush puppies, country-fried steak, and blueberry cobbler. And no visit to Charleston would be complete without a stop at Hyman’s Seafood restaurant (215 Meeting St., 843-723-6000). Oprah Winfrey, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond have all cracked crabs here. Established in 1890, the hosannas for Hyman’s keep coming, from a nod for number-one seafood restaurant in South Carolina by Southern Living magazine to Best of Seafood in the Nation by the Food Network. Prepare to wait, but you’ll have plenty of time to contemplate the options from a daily selection of fresh fish to oysters and gator tail. If all else fails, make your way to Charleston Cooks! (194 E. Bay St., 843-722-1212) and choose from a roster of classes, including classic coastal cooking lessons, taught by local Food Network chef Nathalie Dupree.
Need to sleep off that supper? Charleston is known to have some of the best historic inns in America, though they also tend to be among the priciest in the South. The closer you stay within the historic district, the more you can expect to pay, although rates drop dramatically in winter and late summer. Reduced rates are often available for a stay of three nights or more, and advance reservations throughout the year are mandatory.
For a splurge in a luxury hotel, starting at $269 a night, nothing quite compares to Charleston Place Hotel (205 Meeting St., 843-722-4900), Charleston’s “it” hotel and eight-story landmark, owned and operated by Orient Express with Southern hospitality to spare. It’s the place that Prince Charles, Mel Gibson, governors, and prime ministers choose to call home away from home (plus your pooch can sleep in a designer doggy bed!). With Colonial Carolina décor, Charleston Place has spacious, stately rooms, a to-die-for spa, and an infinity edge pool.
Bed and breakfasts range from historic homes to carriage homes to cottages in almost every section of the city. Contact Historic Charleston Bed and Breakfast (57 Broad St., 843-722-6606) for more information. Two of the cities most charming inns are Planters Inn (112 N. Market St., 800-845-7082), a newly renovated, well-appointed hostelry that’s known to be one of the best luxury hotels in the South (starting at $225 a night), and Philip Porcher House (19 Archdale St., 843-722-1801), a restored 1770 Georgian home touted by Travel & Leisure as one of the top B & Bs in the South. The exclusive B & B, renting to only one group at a time, is ideal for families. The ground-floor apartment can accommodate up to four people and costs $400 a night including breakfast.
After enjoying the historic de lights of Charleston, consider an additional overnight stay at the Wild Dunes Resort on the barrier island of Isle of Palms, 15 miles east of Charleston. Though pricey, this resort boasts top-rated golf courses and tennis courts. Guests can stay at the charming Boardwalk Inn (5757 Palm Blvd., 888-778-1876) with rooms starting at $215 per night. Wild Dunes offers an array of family-friendly activities. One not to be missed: kayaking with Coastal Expeditions (843-884-7684) along Shem Creek. The loveliness of the Lowcountry—brown pelicans skimming water for fish, dolphins chasing shrimp, raccoons foraging for oysters along the salt marshes—can only be experienced by boat, and Coastal’s guides will make sure you don’t miss the chance to be at one with nature. Another watery adventure: sunset cruising to the austere Caper’s Island, arguably one of the most scenic places on the planet. The area teems with a wide diversity of wildlife from white-tailed deer and egrets to loggerhead turtles and croakers. The sight of petrified palmettos, pine, and live oak upended along the shores of “Boneyard Beach” will forever beckon you back to the sublime shores of Charleston.