There is something about this city; it may be the fascinating architecture, the feel-good eats or maybe just the abundance of southern hospitality concentrated in this port town. But whatever it is, Charleston is one word: fabulous.
It is, after all, the darling of the travel magazines. It was voted the No. 1 city in the world by Travel + Leisure for 2016, and people are taking notice. Venture out of the central downtown area to places like Mount Pleasant to witness the boomtown it has become. Development is happening everywhere you look, and people are moving to the area to take advantage of it. A common thing I overheard while there: “Where are you originally from?” because so many of its residents are transplants.
So what makes it charming enough to attract so many newcomers? It’s a combination of things really. The city has history in such a way that you can feel it as you walk the streets. You wonder what happened here before you with every turn and around each corner. With plaques on nearly every older building, you can learn some of that history very easily. But you feel it too.
The closer you get to the water, especially on King Street, the more grandiose that history becomes. All you have to do is follow the paths of the horse-drawn carriages to hear a fact or two thrown out about the area you’re wandering and have your questions answered. Is there a ghost here? Is that one of the oldest homes in the US? Which famous historic figure resided in that home?
And as the history becomes more grandiose, so does the architecture, with soaring old homes and their brilliant builds. Each home has its own unique style and taste; some are older than the country itself, while others are recent remodels. They have their own color themes and detailing, varying from bright blues to yellows to vibrant whites. The porches and verandas are a constant, with one on every level of these 3-plus story homes.
Meander towards the other side of downtown to find the historic Charleston City Market, still housed in the same place as it has been for generations. Here, you feel the history as well. Or perhaps you find yourself lost in the nearby French District. Here, the homes are smaller but just as spectacularly rich in stories. Guide yourself by the steeple of St. Philips, a church that has served some of the most historic members of the city and the country. You can walk through the graveyard that holds such figures, including John C. Calhoun and Charles Pinckney. If you didn’t feel the history of the city before, you certainly will here. While they have a sign saying otherwise, you may even feel an otherworldly presence.
So, are you ready to book your ticket? If so, here’s where to eat, drink and shop, along with areas to explore, for a weekend getaway.
Day 1: Take a walk down King Street from the upper portion to the lower. It’s the main drag of the city, with a mix of bars, boutiques and antiques. Julep and Noddy are fun, bright shops filled with great finds that are worth a visit. As you get closer to the water, the street transitions into a residential area filled with architectural beauties. Then, continue to walk along The Battery for more views, both of the elegant homes and shimmering Charleston Harbor, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers collide.
Day 2: Do the other side of downtown! Start at the picturesque Pineapple Fountain in Charleston’s Waterfront Park and walk down Queen Street towards the French Quarter, where you’ll find St. Philips Church (on the aptly named Church Street), as well as the gorgeous French Huguenot Church and historic Dock Street Theater. Then, go explore the shops at the City Market, where you can find superb examples of Charleston’s signature hand-woven sweetgrass baskets. You can watch the artists build the baskets right in front of you, but be ready for a superb price tag as well, as these baskets take time and skill to complete.
Charleston is a city full of fun bars. Check them out to get a true feel for the city and its offerings.
Husk: Can’t get in to the restaurant? No worries-- head to the bar housed next door in an antique brick-and-wood building with plush red leather seats. Get the Dragoon’s Punch, along with their delicious cheese board. As someone who considers herself a bit of a cheese connoisseur, I was exceptionally pleased with this one. Be careful, though, while that punch goes down easy and quick, it also packs a punch.
Proof: Head back up King Street to Proof for some specialty cocktails and a bit of a hole-in-the-wall vibe at this small but stylish bar.
Closed for Business: Walk a few doors down, and you’ll encounter Closed for Business. A bar that feels like your basement living room with funky furniture, books and old beer brand decor, it’s a fun place to relax and kick back a few beers. Chat up the bartenders for their recommendations and to learn how to do Charleston like a local.
Cocktail Club: Recommended by our bartender at Closed for Business, the Cocktail Club is a block down but a world apart. You’ll feel like you've found a hidden gem as you walk up a set of stairs to get in after walking through a door that’s pretty much unmarked. You’ll know it’s it, though, if you’re next to The Macintosh, the restaurant that sits below. This bar has an uber-cool vibe, with exposed beams serving as its décor and a menu of expertly crafted cocktails. Sit here and stay awhile as you sip away.
82 Queen: After a day of shopping and exploring King Street, head to Queen Street for this eatery with beautiful garden patio seating that will make you feel like you’re dining at a grand old home.
Husk: Right next door, Husk is the hottest place in town. If you’re lucky enough to get a reservation, enjoy the delectable dining and delightful surroundings of the restaurant everyone wishes they were at.
5Church: Head here for lunch on your second day, but come late in the afternoon. Right next to the City Market, they serve lunch until 4pm, so time your meal around 3pm or so. You’ll get the entire restaurant to yourself with the slanted afternoon lighting casting a halo-like array through the windows of this old converted church that makes for a magnificent dining experience. Try the fried chicken—my dining partners could not stop raving about it.
Got a few extra days to fill? Here are a few daytrips to take from your base in the Holy City.
Savannah, Georgia: Drive on down to succulent Savannah filled with verdant squares on every other block. Here too, you will find that slower, southern lifestyle filled to the brim with hospitality and history. Start your day by heading down Bull Street to explore Forsyth Park and its gorgeous fountain. Then walk north along Abercorn Street (a few blocks over from Bull Street, which leads you into Forsyth) to find some true treasures, like the Brass Belle, an adorable shop with cute clothes and cuter home goods that have a sassy southern touch. Be sure to check out their candles from Lowcountry Candle Company for smells so good you won’t be able to pull your nose away. Then walk down the block to see the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and its spires. To finish out, keep walking north until you reach the riverfront and explore the tourist trap stores and outdoor market housed in buildings that look like they’re right out of the 1700s.
Sullivan’s Island: Head to Sullivan’s Island for sunny skies, clear vistas and pure beach beauty. Here, you can relax on the beach all day and head towards the main strip of the island, Middle Street, for delicious eats and fun shops. The island definitely has a laid-back summer vibe (even if it’s a Sunday in March) that will make you want to stay forever. Get lunch at Poe’s Tavern and sit outside. It’s a popular spot and you never know whom you may meet at the picnic table seating: we got to know several visiting German engineers. Stop in Sandpiper Gallery for a great array of local and sunny sea-inspired art. Grab a print or magnet created by a local artist for under $20 to commemorate your visit or look upward, both in height and price, for their magnificent and bright mobiles.
Overall, Charleston is a city full of wonders, along with the surrounding area, that has a laid-back lifestyle so many have found so appealing they’ve become residents. Find the allure yourself during your next visit as the Palmetto trees lining the streets sway in the breeze. You might just feel as if you’re on cloud nine.