If you haven't visited Charleston, South Carolina, lately, you might be surprised at how trendy this genteel Southern city has become. Sure, you can still find historic mansions and cobblestone streets, but lately there's been an influx of stylish boutique hotels, craft breweries, cocktail bars, and buzzy restaurants helmed by chefs putting their own creative spins on traditional Southern cuisine. Here are the some of the best things to do in Charleston.
One of the best ways to see the historic district is via horse-drawn carriage, which will take you past the city's many spired churches and gorgeous antebellum mansions along the Battery, overlooking the Cooper River. At the four-block-long Charleston City Market, buy its signature item: a sweetgrass basket made by local Gullah women.
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Take the ferry to Fort Sumter National Monument, on a man-made island in Charleston harbor, to learn about city's pivotal role in the Civil War. It was at this small five-sided brick fort, on April 12, 1861, that Confederate forces fired on federal troops, thus igniting the Civil War (or the "War of Northern Aggression" you'll jokingly hear 'round these parts).
Take a tour of Middleton Place, a former plantation outside of Charleston. Though the original 18th-century mansion was destroyed during the Civil War (one wing is still intact), the 60-acre formal gardens have been beautifully restored. You'll find camellias, azaleas, moss-draped live oaks, and a spectacular five-tier terraced lawn.
Just minutes from the Charleston City Market and Waterfront Park, The Spectator Hotel has a glamorous vibe with art deco lighting fixtures and modern artwork on the walls. The speakeasy-style bar at this is the perfect spot to sip a hand-crafted cocktail (try the ginseng gin fizz) before heading out to dinner.
Chef Sean Brock is credited with igniting Charleston's red-hot food scene, which has attracted nationwide attention. At Husk Restaurant, expect dishes like grilled sweet corn salad with peaches and catfish and Carolina Gold rice. While you're in town, dine at his original restaurant, McCrady's Tavern, and his latest, Minero, with a Southern-inspired Mexican menu.
From the owners of FIG, one of the city's top farm-to-table restaurants, is The Ordinary, housed in a former bank and specializing in seafood. This is where you come if you want to feast on towers of shellfish (South Carolina littlenecks, razor clams, stone crab claws). Hot dishes include grilled white shrimp and whole roasted flounder.
The Peninsula Grill, within the Planters Inn, is one of Charleston's most sophisticated restaurants. Request a table in the lantern-lit courtyard and enjoy refined lowcountry fare (like she-crab soup and free-range chicken breast with cheddar grits) and a stellar wine list — and be sure to have a slice of its famous multi-layer coconut cake for dessert!
Charleston's craft beer and cocktail scenes have really taken off. Try a Gullah cream ale at Revelry Brewing; nearby are Cooper River Brewing and the recently opened Munkle Brewing Co. For cocktails, check out King Street hotspots like Proof and Cocktail Club, and don't miss a visit to the cocktail lounge at Husk — it's in a separate building and has an upstairs outfitted with couches and candles.
There are plenty of rooftop bars in Charleston where you can get a beautiful bird's-eye view of the skyline and harbor while sipping cocktails. Many of these sky-high lounges are located atop hotels, including The Watch at The Restoration, the Pavilion Bar at Market Pavilion, and The Rooftop at The Vendue.
King Street is Charleston's prime shopping drag. On the the lower end, you'll find high-end antique stores and galleries, while the upper end is a mix of clothing and shoe stores, home-good stores, and specialty shops. A must-visit is The Skinny Dip, which not only has all the latest styles, but also a patio bar, where you can unwind with a glass of frozen rosé!
For such a small city, there are plenty of museums and historic attractions to explore, including the Old Exchange, the city's old custom house, which served as a meeting place during both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Browse among the Confederate relics in the Charleston Museum, and see the famed miniature portrait collection at the Gibbes Museum of Art.
For a classic Charleston experience, stay at the Belmond Charleston Place, a full-scale hotel complete with upscale boutiques, a spa, and fitness center. It also has numerous eateries, including the Charleston Grill, a fine-dining restaurant that offers lowcountry dishes like pickled shrimp, crab cakes, and country ham with sweet onions, as well as live jazz seven nights a week.
Charleston is surrounded by water, so you're definitely going to want to get out in the harbor. The Schooner Pride is a classic tall ship that takes numerous two-hour sails throughout the day, including one at sunset that passes beside the Charles Ravenel, Jr. Bridge and heads out toward Fort Sumter. Keep an eye out for dolphins, which often swim beside the boat.
Sightseeing can get tiring, so when you need a jolt of caffeine, make a beeline to Bitty & Beau's, a recently opened coffee shop, just steps from the City Market. It not only has fabulous lattes, cappuccinos, and pastries, but it also employs people with developmental disabilities, including many with Down syndrome.
Charleston is an excellent city for biking. Cycle along the South Battery, where you'll pass some of the historic district's most magnificent mansions (be sure to take a break under an oak tree in White Point Garden). Other scenic streets in the area include East Bay and Tradd, and don't miss a trip down super narrow Stoll's Alley — it's only 5 feet wide!
One of the city's top hotels is the French Quarter Inn, steps from the City Market. This European-style inn has antique-filled rooms, a gas lantern-lined patio courtyard, and included-in-the-rate amenities that are nothing short of amazing. Expect a welcome glass of Champagne, a wine hour with snacks like pimento cheese, late-night cookies and port, and pralines at turndown and breakfast.
A popular lunch spot is the Butcher & Bee, which sells craft sandwiches made from local and sustainable ingredients. Some of the signature sandwiches include the pork belly (served with a cabbage-cucumber slaw and honey roasted peanuts on a baguette) and the veggie burger (topped with feta and roasted tomatoes on a brioche).
One of Charleston's nicknames is the Holy City, due to its many churches. The oldest church is St. Michael's, which dates from 1761. George Washington worshipped here on his tour of the south in 1791. Another major church is St. Philip's, built in 1836. Take a tour of the churchyard, where Charles Pinckney, a former South Carolina governor and signer of the Constitution, is buried.
You can't leave town without trying a praline, the Southern treat made of pecans and caramelized sugar. There are plenty of candy shops to buy them, but the most famous is Market Street Sweets. Watch the candy makers as they whip up batches (and offer free samples!). You'll also find chocolate turtles, candied apples, and many other treats.
After you've walked Charleston's historic district (those cobblestones aren't easy on the feet!), kick back on one of Charleston's beaches. The Isle of Palms, just 30 minutes from downtown, has miles of pristine beaches, as well as casual restaurants and bars. If you want to spend the night, book a room at the beachfront Wild Dunes Resort.