There is a reason Charleston, South Carolina holds the honor of being named in Travel & Leisure magazine’s ‘World’s Best Cities’ list for the past five years. The region’s history, architecture, emerging culinary scene, southern charm and strong sense of place are contributing to the city’s success.
My husband and I decided last minute to add Charleston to our East Coast itinerary and arrived from New York mid-afternoon for a quick 36-hour visit. We checked into the Renaissance Charleston Historic District Hotel, which is centrally located in the heart of the city. It is a perfect starting point to explore the city by foot, offering the opportunity to see, smell, taste and experience what the city has to offer.
Charleston Walking Tours
Walking tours are popular in the city, designed to provide visitors with interesting history and up-close views of the unique architecture found in homes and buildings. We selected a Charleston Strolls tour based on the suggestion from Explore Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Tour guides are sanctioned by the city and required to go through rigorous historical and architectural testing before being certified. Our tour guide, Kim, is a self-professed “semi-Charlestonian.” She shares that the true Charlestonian designation is reserved for those who are born and have family lineage within the confines of the actual city. Kim was born and raised in an area north of Charleston proper, so although she has lived in the heart of town for the past 18 years, she is still considered an outsider. Regardless, Kim is clearly in love with Charleston and her pride is palpable.
The tour began on Market Street where we received a short city history lesson, a warning about walking on cobblestone streets and tips on how to dodge the horse-drawn carriages that were to share the streets on the tour. Well-preserved homes dating back to the mid-18th century lined the street. Confederate jasmine (known as star jasmine in the west) shared its sweet scent and offered a fragrant gift as we passed by the shrubs and walls covered with the beautiful white star-shaped flowers.
The tour meandered through the historic streets past homes and churches standing for over 300 years, and moved on to Charleston’s French Quarter near Broad, Meeting and Market Streets. We walked down a street of art galleries, restaurants and the open-air City Market then stopped in front of the original Old Slave Mart building, constructed in 1859 for slave auctions. The building currently houses the African American History and Art Museum and reminded us of the city’s storied history.
We passed an array of antebellum styled homes, a mix of Italianate, featuring beautiful cupolas and balconies, and Queen Anne, with colorful exteriors and ornate details. Creeping fig covered the brick walls of Georgian buildings with their ornate iron balconies and gates. Colorful shuttered windows, gorgeous flower boxes and the occasional, welcoming red door made me wonder if a house could get any prettier and I considered mine was in for some changes when I returned home.
Strict preservation laws safeguard the authenticity of the neighborhoods in the historic area. A good example of this is the famed Rainbow Row housing in an area referred to as South of Broad. Here, 13 Georgian-style homes reflect the original pastel colors dating back to the 1700s.
Eventually, all roads lead to water in Charleston. At the seawall, we could see a large bay fed by the convergence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. From our vantage point, we looked across the water and viewed Fort Sumter in the distance. Built in 1860, the fort holds the dubious honor of being the point where the first shots rang out in the American Civil War. Today, it is a United States national park open to the public.
Throughout the tour, our guide’s go-to word to describe almost everything we saw was “charming,” which aptly fits this unique city.
The gorgeous ironwork adorning gates, balconies, fences and light posts throughout the Charleston Historic District was designed and produced by renowned ironwork artist, Philip Simmons. Simmons lived and worked in Charleston for nearly 90 years before his death in 2009.
Simmons was recognized with many prestigious awards for his work, including the South Carolina Hall of Fame and most prominently, the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor that the United States can bestow on a traditional artist. Simmons’ art is also displayed in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
Charming Streets and Alleyways
There are only eight remaining streets in the Charleston Historic District still lined with cobblestones, including Chalmer Street in the French Quarter, North and South Adger’s Wharf and Maiden Lane. It is interesting how stones can add charm to a city street – the uniqueness causes these thoroughfares to be heavily visited and photographed by tourists.
The cobblestones originally arrived on English ships in the late 18th century and were used as weights (ballasts) on the incoming empty boats. Once in Charleston, the stones were removed and tossed into the bay, replaced by cargo returning to England. As the city grew, city planners surfaced the beautiful cobblestones to line the local streets.
The cobblestone streets are still used today by horse-pulled carriages, cars and pedestrians, although they are a good challenge to maneuver by foot. In addition, a few equally charming historic brick-lined streets and pedestrian alleyways, including Philadelphia Alley, are still present in the city.
Charleston’s Emerging Culinary Scene
Charleston’s burgeoning food scene is heating up fast. Last year there were as many restaurant openings as there were closures. The popularity of this tourism destination has caused a spike in rent for both business and housing, which in turn, is affecting the cost of living and sustaining business in the city.
Regardless, Charleston’s food and beverage scene has attracted top chefs from around the country. Acclaimed restaurants require reservations months in advance to secure a table, so plan accordingly for your next trip. A visit to Charleston should include experiencing the unique flavors of the South. Here are two of our favorites to consider.
A mainstay in Charleston, McCrady’s Tavern once served President George Washington. Located off a brick-lined pedestrian alleyway, the building dates back to 1778 and is on the National Historic Register. Although recently remodeled, the tavern still maintains the original brick-lined arches, fireplaces and wooden beams.
Executive chef and James Beard Award winner Sean Brock offers an innovative menu that changes often based on the availability of local ingredients. The familiar low country she-crab soup and a uniquely named side dish, ‘A Pie called Macaroni’ (Thomas Jefferson, c. 1802) top the list of regional offerings. Served on vintage mismatched china, the meals are uncomplicated and flavorful. The restaurant is open for dinner and weekend brunch.
This hip industrial-looking restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating and a healthy menu of various mezze platters, sandwiches and salads, each creatively designed with a Middle Eastern influence. Daily menu specials depend on locally sourced fish, meat and vegetables. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A visit to Charleston would not be complete without experiencing the South’s famous sweet tea.
My first sip detects a distinct sweetness overpowering the tea itself. I ask the hospitable and friendly server the secret to making this classic southern beverage and she replies in her charming accent, “Bless your heart, it is actually simple freshly-brewed green tea and an extra helping of block sugar.” Unquestionably, this tea’s namesake is accurate!