The moss-draped South is about more than good manners, gardens and sweet tea. This port city is sophisticated, with arts aplenty, gourmet food and chic shopping.
Beneath the old-world patina of this historical hot spot, Charleston, SC, is very much alive, edgy even, with a vibrant arts scene, an innovative culinary culture and plenty of outdoor activities. Sure, there are breezy piazzas overlooking the harbor, glossy magnolias, cobblestone streets with wrought-iron gates, and of course, shrimp and grits. By all means take a taste and snap a photo of these signature Charleston draws, but don’t stop there.
Though it tops the charts as a tourist destination, Charleston is more of a real, working city than a varnished museum — think of it as a college town, history lesson, architectural wonderland and guide to good style, all in one, with surf and sand added for good measure. Local artisans, small businesses and an enduring Gullah heritage add to Charleston’s distinct, authentic flavor. Fall is the perfect time to visit, as summer’s thick crowds and even thicker humidity have dissipated. In Sep- tember and October, monarch butterflies return, the marsh grass turns from emer- ald to gilded amber, and dazzling sunsets over the harbor explain why artists for centuries have come to visit, then stayed.
Lay of the Land Charleston proper is a narrow peninsula bordered by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers
“which come together to form the Atlantic Ocean,” as local lore boasts. You can walk (and should — it’s a town meant for mean- dering) the historic district without any problem; just leave the Jimmy Choos at home as old bluestone sidewalks aren’t heel-friendly. Greater Charleston includes the surrounding communities of West Ash- ley, James Island, Folly Beach and rural Johns Island to the west, Daniel Island and North Charleston to the (you-guessed-it) north, and Mount Pleasant, Sullivan’s Is- land and Isle of Palms to the east. Bridges and waterways lace it all together, creating a geographic collage of historic planta- tions, charming old fishing villages, diverse neighborhoods, farms, beaches, barrier islands and, of course, the peninsula, with its more 3,000 historic buildings, some dating back to 1670.
You can explore Charleston from a range of basecamp options. The indecisive score a win-win with a hybrid urban/rural sampling: a night or two at the serene Inn at Middleton Place on the grounds of Middleton Place Plantation and Gardens on the Ashley River, followed by the quaint and perfectly located 21 East Battery Bed & Breakfast, both operated by the Middle- ton Place Foundation, which offers a Town and Country package. At Middleton, visi- tors get a taste of Charleston’s former rice plantation heyday, a primer on its signifi- cant role in the American Revolution and a jaw-dropping appreciation of Charles- ton’s enduring horticultural extravagance. Shift to a downtown pied-a-terre and enjoy strolls along the high Battery and South of Broad from the dependency of the Edmon- ston-Alston House (one of Charleston’s museum houses, worth a peek).
For historic downtown posh, The Went- worth Mansion offers 21 antique-appointed rooms in a circa 1886 Victorian landmark, complete with Tiffany dome. At the corner of bustling King Street and Market, the upscale Charleston Place Hotel is smack in the middle of downtown action, with shop- ping, restaurants, Waterfront Park and the Market vendors right out your door.
Those looking for a saltier, eco-friendly escape will find it on Dewees Island, just a
20-minute ferry ride from the Isle of Palms marina, though it feels like a distant planet of pristine beaches with abundant shore birds and a few laid-back gators.
With water, water everywhere, a temper-
ate climate and easy, flat terrain, Charles- ton is the ideal outdoor playground.
Sweetgrass Cycles in Mount Pleasant offers bike rentals — pedal just a few miles to Waterfront Park’s pier and Patriots Point (home of the USS Yorktown and the US Medal of Honor Museum), then cruise over the Cooper River bridge with its amazing panoramic view, to tootle through Charles- ton’s antebellum neighborhoods, peek in famed gardens and wander down enchanted alleyways. Don’t miss lovely Hampton Park, Colonial Lake or the College of Charleston’s historic Cistern.
For a different perspective of the city, take a sunset kayak or paddleboard trip on the harbor, through tidal creeks or nearby blackwater rivers to see Charleston (and its dolphins and herons). Coastal Expedi- tions rents equipment and offers tours and lessons with knowledgeable guides.
Hawaii it is not, but the surf at Folly Beach and Isle of Palms is enough to keep plenty of locals and visitors stoked. Kai at SolSurfers has surfed these waves all his life and is the go-to guy for a private or group lesson or custom-shaped board.
Golfers will love Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, designed by the legendary Pete Dye. It boasts more ocean-front holes than any course in the Northern Hemisphere.
King Street wasn’t named one of the coun-
try’s top 10 shopping streets by U.S. News and World Report for nothing. It’s also one of the oldest and most charming. Skip the inevitable chain stores that have infil- trated the city and spend your time (and money) browsing the homegrown bounty and boutiques. Start on Lower King Street, which is its own antiques road show, with period treasures, Charleston-made silver and enchanting old world finds. At John Pope Antiques, the old comes alive with Pope’s strong design aesthetic, mixing high-end furniture and accessories with bold style. Alexandra is a treat for the Francophile, from gilded Louis XVI to simple French country with pottery and apothecary jars tossed in the handsome mix. Stop in The Preservation Society Book and Gift Shop (on the corner of King and Queen Streets) for Charleston-inspired books, historical art, artifacts and locally sourced souvenirs. From Middle to Upper King Street the focus shifts to fashion. Bob Ellis Shoes is where the well-heeled have come for decades, while Billy Reid keeps Southern men looking hip and haute, and Ben Silver sells its famed silk ties and all- things tailored and classic for men and women. Worthwhile is aptly named with unique gifts, whimsical displays and organic, hand-sewn clothing. On Upper King (north of Calhoun Street) stop in Blue Bicycle Books to peruse first editions, signed books by local authors and a fine collection of regional reads.
The Lowcountry’s alluring streets capes and expansive marsh vistas have inspired artists for centuries. With the annual Spoleto Festival USA upping the ante, Charleston’s visual and performing arts scene has matured well beyond predict- able watercolors of Rainbow Row and amateur theater. The French Quarter Art District is thriving with world-class talent across all mediums. The Gibbes Museum showcases masterpieces from the 1920s Charleston Renaissance and a world- renowned miniature collection. At Ann Long Fine Art Jill Hooper’s still-lifes and realist works evoke a refined Old Masters sensibility, while the Lese Corrigan Gal- lery and its teensy neighbor, LimeBlue, of- fer an imaginative array of abstract and contemporary work, ceramics and quirky whatnot. Be sure to visit Coleman Fine Art to see Mary Whyte’s uber-realist water- color portraits, and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, which always pushes the creative envelope. For primo performing arts, Pure Theatre stages cutting-edge plays that challenge and wow.
With world-renowned chefs, abundant local produce and seafood, and an innovative culinary culture that expounds on the worldly tastes of Charleston’s colonial elite, it’s no surprise that five- and four- star restaurants seem to be a dime a dozen (even if, sadly, their entrees aren’t!). At the acclaimed Husk, James Beard Award win- ning chef Sean Brock dishes up local and heirloom ingredients with dazzling twists on traditional Southern. Similarly at FIG, fresh, local and sustainable is the name of the game at Chef Mike Lata’s welcoming neighborhood eatery. The Ordinary is the new kid on the Upper King block, but hasn’t wasted time garnering national acclaim for its far-from-ordinary seafood dishes and fresh oysters. Two Boroughs Larder, stocked with local foodie staples, serves a killer breakfast, lunch and dinner to hip- sters and button-downed professionals alike (warning: it’s tiny and doesn’t take reservations). And for a romantic dinner, Fulton Five offers sumptuous, authentic Italian fare and a charmingly intimate European ambiance.
Favorite lunch spots include Slightly North of Broad (S.N.O.B.) in the historic district is popular for its farm- friendly Southern comfort food.