Charleston, South Carolina
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
Charleston, or Charles Town back then, was first settled by the British in 1670, just a few short years after the first European settlement in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. So to say that this city is rich with history would be an understatement. Every step you take in historical Charleston is a step back into history. The city is full of gorgeous colonial buildings like Rainbow Row, the Four Corners of Law, The Market, The Customs House, The Old Exchange Building & Provost Dungeon (where Stede Bonnet, the Gentleman Pirate and close associate of Blackbeard himself, was hanged). You can't walk very far in Charleston without being close to structures and sites steeped in history. Routinely named to yearly "best of" "and "best travel destinations" from Conde Nast and Travel & Leisure, the city has boomed from a sleepy southern port city to a major tourist destination. But don't worry, it's not packed and congested with throngs of tourists yet and you can still enjoy America's friendliest city and it's southern charm. Along with the beautiful old city and countless other historical sites, Charleston boasts impressive palm tree lined beaches and warm winters. Just be careful when you visit, most people who come to Charleston fall in love with the city and have a tendency to never leave!
When you're reading through travel magazines and blog posts of top travel destinations, Charleston is usually always at the top, and it's not a secret as to why. Walking around the city you'll undoubtedly run across some Charleston natives, and you'll have to ask yourself why everyone is so welcoming? Being polite is a huge part of the Charleston tradition, and locals are very willing to engage in conversation with visitors. It's not uncommon for locals to offer up unsolicited help when they notice tourists starring at their phones or maps trying to find a direction. In other parts of the world and even in the United States, strangers engaging you in friendly conversation is a very odd occurrence. Here, it happens every ten minutes. If you want to know where to get a good bite to eat, just ask. We strike up conversations with complete strangers just because we want to know how you are enjoying your day. To put it plainly, we just do things differently around here. Then there's the phenomenon of waving at people you don't know while driving. This practice absolutely blows the minds of people visiting Charleston from elsewhere. We always get asked, "Do you know that person", and we have to explain, "No, it's just what we do here". From the history, rich southern culture, incredible food scene, the friendliest people, beautiful beaches, weekend brunches, and beautiful plantations, it's hard to think of a more perfect place to visit or even live. Charleston has so much to offer whether you are coming for a romantic weekend, bachelor/bachelorette weekend, bringing the family along, exploring on your own, or making the the move here, there's something for everyone to enjoy. And for all these reasons, we are so happy to call Charleston home.
There is so much to do and see while you're here! Downtown Charleston is a great place just to start, and just walk around, take in the sights, and get some great pictures. One of our favorite places to go while touring the city is the City Market. You can pick up some great souvenirs and specialized Charlestonian gifts like hand made sweet grass baskets or spiced packets for your perfect shrimp and grits dish. Another unique part of traditional Charleston culture is to buy small items as gifts for people while you're traveling and we call these "sercy's". These should not be expensive and are usually some small trinket and they're meant to be little tokens of appreciation. While you're downtown take a horse drawn carriage ride through our historic streets and take in all the little local nuggets of information from the tour guide. Note, the horse drawn carriages are a point of some minor controversy, however these horses are treated very well and it's not uncommon for these tours to stop during the hottest parts of the day.
One of our favorite activities is biking and sometimes just walking through the old neighborhood south of Broad street. This area along with some parts of Church street and Queen Street have been called Charleston's "French Quarter". It's full of stunning colonial homes with tucked away secret gardens and hidden drives. While it does fairly similar to the old French Quarter of New Orleans, you won't find people walking around with alcoholic beverages. There's certainly drinking, but in Charleston it's found much more on rooftop terraces and in courtyards tucked behind restaurants and homes. A great spot for a cold drink on a hot day is the Blind Tiger Pub on Broad Street. While the front of this pub may seem small, the brick patio courtyard in the back is much bigger. Just be warned, this area of Charleston has a lot of lawyer offices and they tend to frequent this establishment. As you stroll through the streets and take in the manicured flower beds and gardens, you'll eventually emerge at White Point Garden and the Battery. This is an extremely popular spot for weddings and bridal photos. The Battery is a nice walk to take as you can see the many ships in the harbor and have a look at truly impressive family homes that line the streets. For a closer look inside one of the historic homes, check out the Edmondston Alston house, where you can take a tour of this generations old family home. While you're walking on the battery, get a glimpse of Castle Pinckney and Fort Sumter in the distance, both civil war area fortifications designed to protect Charleston's harbor. Fort Sumter was where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired, and you can take a ferry from the Aquarium wharf to visit this old brick and earth fort. You may even see dolphins catching a ride on the bow wave as you head out into the harbor.
Angel Oak, USS Yorktown and The Hunley
There are plenty of low country activities and sights that are just outside of the downtown peninsula. One of the most impressive is the gigantic Angel Oak Tree on Johns Island. It's not just any tree, it's estimated to be 400-500 years old and it is a MASSIVE beauty. Visiting this rare natural wonder is free, and it's a short 20 minute drive from downtown. While you're out in Johns Island, you can also visit the Charleston tea plantation, America's only working tea production farm. It's a little further out on rural Wadmalaw island, but the drive is very scenic. On the other side of downtown Charleston, you'll cross over the towering Ravenel bridge into Mt Pleasant. You'll see the WW2 era aircraft carrier Yorktown from the bridge and it's now a floating museum. The Yorktown allows visitors explore the hallways and decks of the legendary fighting ship, and features exhibits like the medal of honor museum and Apollo 8 capsule displays. There is also a replica Vietnam war fire base exhibit, a submarine and destroyer and countless aircraft on deck to explore.
Charleston has a long Naval history and was actually the site of the worlds first successful combat submarine, The "H.L. Hunley". The Hunley submarine attacked and sunk the USS Housatonic in the Charleston Harbor during the American Civil War. She was sunk almost immediately after the attack that night and remained on the ocean floor until 2000. The submarine was raided and is now part of an ongoing archeological project at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston. You can visit and view The Hunley and there are lots on interactive exhibits related to the submarine and the civil war at the conservation center.
Charleston Food and Brunch
Charleston has become a major culinary destination, and a foodie paradise! You can throw a rock in any direction and hit gold when it comes to authentic local flavors and innovative dishes. Sean Brock may have moved on, but his flagship restaurant Husk is still serving low country dishes from local gardens and it's right next door to Poogan's Porch and 82 Queen, two more Charleston favorites. The food scene has attracted new and adventurous chefs from all over the country, while managing to maintain a distinctly Charleston flavor. Seafood is a major part of the menu, and oysters are a huge event in the low country. They're only in season during fall and winter, and you can usually find oyster roasts (although they are more commonly steamed) at numerous events and restaurants. Try one freshly steamed and shucked or give an oyster shooter with beer a shot. Weekend brunch is a culture all of its own here, and we take it very seriously. It usually starts around 10am and the mimosas can stretch way into the afternoon. Everyone has their own favorite recipe for shrimp & grits, she crab soup and biscuits & gravy, so make sure you try them all while touring the holy city. Charleston has always been a tourist destination, but within the last decade the secret got out and people started pouring in to live here and begin a new life That includes some phenomenal chefs. So make sure to stop eat and snack on everything.
One of the first locations settled in during colonial times was Charles Town, and you can visit the sight of one of the original settlements of the colonial period when you visit Charles Town Landing. You can walk through the gardens and the small zoo that highlights some of South Carolina's native animals like puma, black bear and river otters. There's a replica of an early sailing ship that you can board and explore, and you can see the remains of fortifications and even ongoing archeological digs.
It's a walk through time as you visit historic plantations like Middleton Place, Magnolia Gardens, Drayton Hall, and Boone Hall. The first three are located on Hwy 61 in West Ashley along the banks of the Ashley River, while Boone Hall is located in Mt Pleasant. Drayton Hall and Middleton feature restored mansions and expansive manicured gardens and terraced lawns. These are particularly stunning in the spring when the vibrant and colorful azaleas bloom throughout the city. You can even go on guided horseback rides, make candles and enjoy occasional wine strolls at Middleton. Magnolia Gardens offers multiple interactive exhibits like a nature tram tour, zoo and rice field boat tour. You'll most likely encounter wild alligators, but don't worry, if you don't get too close, they probably won't bite you. Boone Hall is large historic plantation with several exhibits highlighting the properties past. They also host seasonal events like sunflower picking, pumpkin patches, outdoor concerts, and various other social activities. All four of these landmarks offer never ending beautiful photography options all year long.
All of the these properties owners most certainly participated in owning slaves, and this is a sad and disturbing part of the history of these locations. While they are incredibly beautiful, keep in mind the hardships and atrocities that once occurred here. Each of these locations has very informative exhibits and seminars on slavery in the American south, and you have the opportunity to learn about this dark and troubling time, and how Charleston and South Carolina emerged and grew from this period to become the city it is now.
A nice side trip from Charleston is the small coastal town of Beaufort, SC about half way between Savannah and Charleston. You can visit the ruins of the Old Sheldon Church and walk pristine beaches. Have a look at our Beaufort day trip guide here. What are your favorite Charleston sights and experiences? Please let us know and feel free to ask recommendations, we are happy to guide you in the right direction in the Holy City!