Founded in 1670, Charleston is a multifaceted historical gem along the lines of Philadelphia and Boston—though in a smaller, quainter package. Only Savannah, Ga., comes close to equaling the Holy City’s old-school Southern warmth (literally and figuratively) and charm. The aforementioned nickname refers to the many steeples and spires visible throughout the downtown area, where ordinances prohibited building anything higher than 55 feet—though that has since been modified to 85 feet as a concession to tech startups. Even historic cities have to rely on more than tourism for growth.
Charleston’s highly walkable downtown features cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and the pastel antebellum homes of the cozily elegant French Quarter and Battery districts. The Battery promenade and Waterfront Park both overlook Charleston Harbor. There, you can view Fort Sumter, a federal stronghold where the first shots of the Civil War rang out.
Widely considered one of America’s best food cities, Charleston has a more vibrant and competitive dining scene than many twice its size, offering fresh seafood, Southern barbecue, authentic Lowcountry cuisine, and outstanding spins on pretty much everything else. Gastronomes will be doing themselves a tremendous disservice if they leave this incredible culinary hub hungry.
Drive Time: 11 hours
Charleston’s rainbow row
Where to Stay
Located in Charleston’s historic district, the Belmond Charleston Place offers the perfect mix of Old World charm and sleek sophistication. There’s a pool with a retractable glass roof, a cutting-edge spa, a private club level with many boutique-style amenities, the award-winning Charleston Grill, and a selection of high-end shops. Impressive is an understatement.
$299-$625, club level $469-$825. 205 Meeting St., (843) 722-4900.
The utmost in boutique-style luxury and intelligent design, The Restoration is comprised of five buildings, all modernized with a dual nod to Charleston’s rich history and the offbeat effervescence of the New South. Staying in one of its eight suites is like renting an apartment from a youngish Charleston native with impeccable taste. “Public space” includes a library, a coffee bar, a rooftop pool with stunning views of the city, a quirky retail store, a spa and nail bar, free bikes for guests, and an on-site restaurant and bar.
$299-$1,299. 75 Wentworth St., (877) 221-7202.
Where to Eat
We’d like to qualify this list by pointing out that there are numerous destinations for exceptional cuisine in Charleston, but here are a few we heartily recommend.
The name says it all—as do the fish hanging below its red neon marquee. Coast Bar & Grill wisely lets the fresh seafood and local produce do the heavy lifting, with a menu that makes the most of the restaurant’s custom hickory-and-oak wood-burning grill. Other highlights include the seared rare tuna, fish tacos, and a full raw bar. $10-$28.
39 John St., Suite D, (843) 722-8838.
A 127-year-old family-owned institution, Hyman’s Seafood could’ve easily gone the mediocre way of countless aging seafood spots. But while it is popular with tourists, it remains on its game, offering ample build-your-own platters, killer po’ boys, and an array of no-frills Lowcountry classics. For an appetizer that eats like a meal, try the Carolina Delight—a lightly fried grit cake topped with your choice of shrimp, salmon or a salmon croquette, smothered in Hyman’s signature Parmesan cream sauce with a hint of Cajun spice. $4-$40.
215 Meeting St., (843) 723-6000.
Though it’s been open since 1976, Poogan’s Porch has the feel of a culinary institution that’s been around for centuries, partly due to its circa-1888 Victorian digs. Nothing surprising here—just Southern comfort delivered with impeccable skill, whether it’s the pimento cheese fritters with green-tomato jam, a steaming bowl of rich she-crab soup for lunch, the signature buttermilk fried chicken, or the decadent shrimp and grits. $8-$33.
72 Queen St., (843) 577-2337.
The more casual little brother to Poogan’s Porch is a first-class barbecue joint called Poogan’s Smokehouse. Both are run by chef Daniel Doyle, who’s as adept in the kitchen with meat as he is with seafood. Braver carnivores will revel in the Meat Sweats, a combo of pulled pork, chicken wings, St. Louis ribs, pork belly and smoked sausage, served with two sides (the collard greens are a must) and cornbread.
$4-$56. 188 E. Bay St., (843) 577-5665.
Enjoy a breakfast splurge in the sunlit surroundings of the Palmetto Cafe at the Belmond Charleston Place. Indulge in the Palmetto Omelet, with fresh lump crabmeat, lobster knuckles, fresh mozzarella and spring onions. The hearty corned-beef hash is like none you’ve ever tasted. $5-$22.
205 Meeting St., (843) 722-4900.
What to Do
Palmetto Carriage Works is the oldest carriage company in the city, and that experience is embodied in its witty, knowledgeable guides. It’s the best way to get acclimated to Charleston. $15-$68.
40 N. Market St., (843) 723-8145.
Follow up a morning carriage ride with an afternoon tour of the Charleston Harbor aboard the Carolina Belle. The 90-minute excursion covers more than 75 points of interest, including Forts Sumter, Moultrie and Johnson; the USS Yorktown; St. Michael’s Church, which survived both the Revolutionary and Civil wars; and the stately homes on the Battery. $18-$25; combo tours also available.
Charleston Maritime Center, 10 Wharfside St., (843) 722-1112.
The first thing you may notice about Charleston City Market is that it’s not unlike Center City’s Headhouse Square. Once you stroll its four vendor-filled city blocks, you’ll wish the Philly version had something this permanent and elaborate. Established in 1790, this year-round cultural hub is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Be sure to hit Market Hall to check out the flags, uniforms, swords and other memorabilia in the Confederate Museum.
188 Meeting St.
Dubbed “America’s First Museum,” the Charleston Museum was founded in 1773. It offers an array of collections, exhibitions and events relating to the history of Charleston and the Lowcountry. Its armory collection is particularly impressive, with examples of personal and military weaponry dating from 1750 to the 20th century. The museum also maintains the historic Joseph Manigault and Heyward-Washington houses. $5-$25.
360 Meeting St., (843) 722-2996.
Built in the early 1750s, Drayton Hall is America’s oldest unrestored plantation home, a 350-acre showpiece that was the hub for a vast commercial empire. Throughout his lifetime, original owner John Drayton oversaw 100 different plantations in South Carolina and Georgia, where African and Native American slaves and their descendants grew rice and indigo and reared cattle and pigs. This eye-opening history lesson is well worth the 20-minute drive over the Ashley River from downtown Charleston. $6-$22.
3380 Ashley River Road, (843) 769-2600.