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Elegant and cultured, Charleston is one of the South's most romantic places. Timeworn cobblestone streets, battered Civil War fortifications and picturesque plantations trigger imaginings of another era, while upscale hotels and restaurants in impeccably restored landmarks offer 21st-century luxuries that keep guests grounded in the present.
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In DepthCharleston can be summed up in two words: classic elegance. It's easy to imagine a bygone era, with fashionably dressed ladies carrying their parasols, arm-in-arm with well-heeled gents, promenading along The Battery past gracious homes. Today, tourists snapping photos, families resting on benches and residents walking dogs take their place. The same grand mansions overlooking the waterfront continue to proudly hold court, withstanding the test of time—the Civil War, destructive storms, and just normal, everyday life.
In the Charleston City Market, folks still shop for trinkets, exotic spices and housewares, just as they did in the early 1800s. Charleston is for the romantic—not for the lover of skyscrapers and subways, but of horse-drawn buggies and cobblestone lanes. In a sense, the natural barriers of the Ashley and Cooper rivers preserved Charleston's character by isolating it. Change was slow to come, and many agree that's a good thing.
Charlestonians take pride in their history, and you'll find them well-versed on the subject. They'll point you in the right direction, to attractions and historic sites where you can gain a strong sense of the town's storied past. Capture the essence of Colonial life by visiting Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site, where English settlers came ashore in 1670. Explore Fort Moultrie, where American troops emerged victorious over the British forces in a brutal, 9-hour battle during the Revolutionary War. Board a tour boat and sail out to Fort Sumter, where the first shot of the Civil War rang out in 1861.
In addition to the spoils of war, Charleston also suffered through destructive natural disasters. Although the great earthquake of 1886 lasted only about a minute, nary a building had escaped cracks, damage or outright collapse, coupled with a significant loss of life. Hurricane Hugo made its fierce debut in 1989, damaging the majority of the city's treasured historic homes and pounding the adjacent coastal areas. Yet, as you'll witness today, Charleston has rebounded quite well.
Preservation efforts are taken seriously in Charleston, as reflected in the immaculately restored structures south of Broad Street in the historic district. An intriguing mix of styles is represented, including Colonial, Georgian, Adamesque, Greek Revival and Italian Renaissance Revival. Interestingly, it's not high-rises that dot the city's skyline, but steeples. Charleston has earned the nickname of “Holy City” thanks to an impressive assortment of churches—from St. Michael's Church, where President George Washington worshiped, to St. John's Lutheran Church, whose design is attributed to prominent Charleston architect Frederick Wesner, to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, aka “Mother Emanuel,” the oldest AME church in the Southern United States.
As you stroll throughout the historic area, you'll happen upon several architecturally significant pockets. There's the French Quarter, site of the 1859 Old Slave Mart (now an African-American history museum) and the 1736 Dock Street Theatre, reputedly where American theater was launched. It's also home to the Gothic Revival French Huguenot Church, organized in 1681 by refugees escaping religious persecution in France. On East Bay Street you'll pass Rainbow Row, a collection of houses colored in pretty pastels that inspires shutterbugs. Although Cabbage Row, 89-91 Church St., is now mostly inhabited by cute little boutiques, it served as the inspiration for DuBose Heyward's novel “Porgy” and ultimately the Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess.”
Charlestonians also deserve bragging rights when it comes to gardening—the elaborate medleys of shrubs and flowers you'll see adorning yards and other plots of land are nothing short of magnificent. And any trip to Charleston should include a tour of one of the plantations on Ashley River Road—these sites have been featured in movies and television shows seeking to capture the culture of the antebellum era.
While Charleston upholds time-honored traditions and epitomizes gracious living with its elaborate mansions, enchanting gardens and historic nooks and crannies, it also has managed to keep up with the times. One of the South's key cultural centers, the city hosts the Spoleto Festival USA, a 17-day tribute to the performing arts. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra keeps Charlestonians classically entertained the rest of the time, as do a plethora of acting companies. Culinarily speaking, Charleston has made a name for itself in the genre of Lowcountry cuisine. Don't leave town without sampling such delights as she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, hoppin' John and Huguenot torte.
By CarThe major approach from the north and south is US 17, which angles into the city proper over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge from the north and the Ashley River bridges from the south. US 17 cuts directly across the heart of Charleston and provides easy access to all parts of the city. US 17 links with I-526 to bypass the city.
I-26 approaches from the west, terminating at US 17 near the center of Charleston. It provides a link with several important routes, including I-95, another major north-south highway.
SR 61 is a scenic approach paralleling the Ashley River on the west and giving access to several historic plantations. Other important approaches include US 52, which parallels I-26 immediately west of Charleston; SR 41, which traverses the Lowcountry to the north and terminates at US 17 northeast of the city; and US 701, also from the north, which merges with US 17 and terminates in Charleston.
Street SystemCrowded as they are onto a narrow peninsula, most Charleston streets are parallel or perpendicular, and many are narrow or one-way. While a rough grid is evident, the angle of the grid shifts along the dividing line of Beaufain and Hasell streets in the lower part of town.
Several major north-south streets traverse the city. King Street (US 78), one-way heading south below Calhoun Street, and Meeting Street (US 52), a two-way street one block east, run through downtown and the historic districts. E. Bay Street (US 52A) branches off from Meeting Street in the north and winds down the east side, becoming E. Battery Street and then Murray Boulevard as it swings around The Battery. Ashley and Rutledge avenues, a block apart and going one way north and south respectively, connect with the western end of Murray Boulevard.
Major east-west streets that cross all of the above thoroughfares south of the US 17 artery include Calhoun and Broad streets, both going two ways, and Tradd Street, one way eastbound. The speed limit is 30 mph unless otherwise posted.
Unless otherwise posted, a right turn on red and a left turn from a one-way street onto a one-way street are permitted after a complete stop.
ParkingMetered parking at 25c for 20 minutes can be found on downtown streets. Downtown meters also accommodate SmartCards, available for purchase from the Charleston Visitor Center at 375 Meeting St. or the Revenue Collections Parking Division office at 180 Lockwood Blvd. SmartCards serve as an alternate form of payment for parking meters. Patrons pay a one-time fee of $5 for the card and can then purchase and charge meter time onto the card. Metered spaces are free after 6 p.m. and on Sundays and official city holidays. Parking garages also are available throughout the area; fees are $1 per half-hour (the maximum daily fee is $16) and may be paid in cash or with a credit card.
About the City
Sales TaxSouth Carolina sales tax is 6 percent. Charleston sales tax is an additional 2.5 percent. There is an admissions tax of 2 percent on most amusements and a 2 percent accommodations tax. The Charleston area has a lodging tax of 14.5 percent and a rental car tax of 13.5 percent.
Whom To Call
Police (non-emergency)(843) 577-7434
HospitalsBon Secours St. Francis Hospital, (843) 402-1000; MUSC (Medical University of South Carolina), (843) 792-2300; and Roper Hospital, (843) 724-2000.
Where To Look and Listen
NewspapersThe major daily newspaper in Charleston is The Post and Courier. The area also is served by several local weekly newspapers.
RadioCharleston radio station WTMA (1250 AM) is an all-news/talk station; WSCI (89.3 FM) is a member of National Public Radio.
Visitor InformationCharleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau 375 Meeting St. CHARLESTON, SC 29403. Phone:(843)853-8000 or (800)868-8118Self-guiding tour maps, brochures, performance schedules and information about events are available. The center is open daily 8:30-5 (also 5-5:30 during DST); phone (843) 853-8000 or (800) 868-8118.
Air TravelMost major carriers serve Charleston International Airport (CHS), 12 miles west on I-526.
Rental CarsHertz, (843) 767-4550 or (800) 654-3131, is at the airport and offers discounts to AAA members.
Rail ServiceThe Amtrak train station, (800) 872-7245, is at 4565 Gaynor Ave. in North Charleston.
BusesService is provided by Southeastern Stages and Greyhound Lines Inc., (843) 744-4247 or (800) 231-2222, at 3610 Dorchester Rd.
TaxisCab companies include Safety Cab, (843) 722-4066; and Yellow Cab, (843) 577-6565. The fare is $5 for all trips that pick up and drop off on the peninsula. A $2 surcharge is added for each additional passenger. Outside of the peninsula, the fare for the first 2 miles is $4 and 35c for each succeeding one-fifth mile. A $1 surcharge is added for each additional passenger. Cabs must be ordered by phone.
Public TransportationBus service is provided by Charleston Area Regional Transit Authority (CARTA); phone (843) 724-7420 for information about routes and schedules.
Inspector 33 / AAA
EssentialsBefore you set out to explore the old walled city, visit Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site (1500 Old Towne Rd.), the location of the original 1670 settlement, and learn how Charleston became one of America's most prosperous colonies.
During an afternoon jaunt through The Battery (1 E. Battery St.), see how Charleston's elite lived at the Heyward-Washington House (87 Church St.), Edmondston-Alston House (21 E. Battery), Calhoun Mansion (16 Meeting St.) or Nathaniel Russell House (51 Meeting St.), four elegant historic houses that offer tours.
Set aside plenty of time to marvel at Charleston's wonderfully preserved antebellum plantations. Visit the Ashley River plantations— Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (3550 Ashley River Rd.), Drayton Hall (3380 Ashley River Rd.) and Middleton Place (4300 Ashley River Rd.)—as well as Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens (1235 Long Point Rd. in Mount Pleasant ), beside the Wando River. If you've seen one, you haven't seen them all.
Go sightseeing Charleston-style. Companies like Classic Carriage Works (10 Guignard St.) and Palmetto Carriage Tours (8 Guignard St.) offer horse-drawn carriage rides at a leisurely, clippity-clop pace.
Walk on the wild side through cypress-and-tupelo black-water swamps at Cypress Gardens (3030 Cypress Gardens Rd. in Moncks Corner ).
View native flora and fauna from a flat-bottomed boat or a well-marked nature trail and learn about swamp-loving amphibians, fish and reptiles in the “Swamparium.”
When in the Lowcountry, eat shrimp and grits at least once. Most restaurants serve an interpretation of this concoction of shellfish in a creamy sauce piled atop a mound of grits.
Discover Charleston's many African-American heritage attractions, from plantations, churches and cemeteries to the Old Slave Mart Museum (6 Chalmers St.) and the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture (125 Bull St.).
Take a scenic boat cruise to Fort Sumter National Monument , a brick fortification on an island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Here, Confederate forces under the command of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard discharged the opening shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861. The Confederates blitzed the stronghold for 34 straight hours until the Union surrendered it; when it was regained 4 years later, its 50-foot-tall, 5-foot-thick brick barriers had basically been reduced to smithereens.
Find out how long you can keep the credit card holstered when you're browsing the upscale shops between Broad and Spring streets on King Street , Charleston's premier downtown shopping destination. This is the place to hunt for fine European antiques, unique apparel or a novel by bestselling author and onetime Charleston resident Sue Monk Kidd.
Befriend a green moray eel at the South Carolina Aquarium (100 Aquarium Wharf). It's one of the few fish on the planet that can swim both forward and backward.
Trace Charleston's cultural development at Gibbes Museum of Art (135 Meeting St.) as you admire paintings, portraits, photographs and sculpture representative of the Colonial, Charleston Renaissance and Contemporary periods.
Dizzy Girl / flickr
Top Picks for Kids
Under 13Geared toward kids ages 10 and under, the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry (25 Ann St.) features nine galleries full of fun and engaging exhibits. Youngsters can create masterpieces in The Art Room, dress up like a knight or a princess in the Medieval Creativity Castle or search for buried treasure in the Pirates! room.
The South Carolina Aquarium (100 Aquarium Wharf) is probably best suited for grade-schoolers, though, in our opinion, you're never too old for a staring contest with a nurse or sand tiger shark. Pint-size visitors will love being able to handle sea creatures like horseshoe crabs and sea urchins at the Touch Tank area, and The Coastal Plain exhibit's albino alligators will undoubtedly elicit a few excited squeals. The centerpiece of the waterfront attraction—the two-story, 385,000-gallon Great Ocean Tank—is teeming with several species of fish and also houses green moray eels and a loggerhead sea turtle named Caretta.
Running alongside the Cooper River, Waterfront Park (1 Vendue) is one of the city's loveliest urban greenspaces. Pack a picnic basket or just relax and take in the parade of sailboats and ships navigating Charleston Harbor. Besides plenty of grass for kids to run around on, the 12-acre park boasts two fountains, one of which is inspired by—a pineapple! Wading is permitted in both fountains.
A water taxi is an enjoyable way to get to Mount Pleasant , across the Cooper River from downtown Charleston. During the quick trip, the ‘rents can take in views of the cable-stayed Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge while the brood keeps on the lookout for playful dolphins.
TeensMost teens will want to pick up a few vacation keepsakes before heading home. In this town, the best place to shop for distinctive souvenirs and handcrafted merchandise is the historic Charleston City Market (188 Meeting St.), where vendors sell everything from charm bracelets to hand-painted iPhone cases.
Alternatively, take an afternoon horse-drawn carriage ride through downtown. Operators include Charleston Carriage Works (20 Anson St.), Classic Carriage Works (10 Guignard St.), Old South Carriage Co. (14 Anson St.) and Palmetto Carriage Tours (8 Guignard St.).
An entertaining evening option for teenagers is a ghost tour of Charleston, the oldest city in South Carolina. Paranormal experiences abound at local institutions like Poogan's Porch (72 Queen St.), an elegant Lowcountry restaurant said to be haunted by a spinster schoolteacher, and the phantom-friendly Dock Street Theatre (135 Church St.). Several tour companies operate in the vicinity.
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There's a little something for everyone at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (3550 Ashley River Rd.). In addition to themed gardens and historic structures, the 500-acre estate boasts bicycle trails as well as various guided tour options, such as boat and train tours. A petting zoo and nature center features animals ranging from pygmy goats to bobcats.
At the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum (40 Patriots Point Rd. in Mount Pleasant ), the main draw is the USS Yorktown; built during World War II, the 872-foot-long aircraft carrier draws young military buffs with interactive displays, weapons and vintage war planes.
When hunger strikes, share a 19-inch, New York-style pie at Andolini's Pizza (414 W. Coleman Blvd. in Mount Pleasant). Graffiti pop art covers the walls of the casual dining area, which is almost always crowded with local families.
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ShoppingCharleston delights with its intriguing mix of open-air markets and charming boutiques. Shoppers will not go home empty-handed, and that proudly acquired antique or sweetgrass basket will likely be a conversation piece for years to come.
Meeting Street, above Broad Street, offers a few interesting stops that shoppers should definitely peek into. This is where you will find The Shops of Historic Charleston Foundation (108 Meeting St.), which tantalizes souvenir seekers with books on the city’s culture and architecture, high-quality reproduction mahogany furnishings, jewelry or even a historically accurate paint color featured in a 19th-century property.
But, most importantly, Meeting Street leads to a shopping haven that has been satisfying retail whims since the early 1800s, the Charleston City Market . Touristy yet fun, this colorful cornucopia of open-sided buildings, boutiques and craft booths was deeded to the city by the owners, who stipulated that it always must remain a public market. The Greek Revival-style Market Hall serves as the proud centerpiece, with an enormous portico and stately columns—vendors are tucked within open-air “sheds” at the hall’s rear. This is a fantastic place to shop for spices and other local food items as well as arts and crafts, jewelry and clothing. Gullah women, locally referred to as “basket ladies,” present beautiful yet functional Lowcountry creations expertly woven by hand, a skill passed down by their antebellum-era descendants—you can observe them busily weaving.
If you’re after a more elegant, refined shopping experience, head to small yet upscale The Shops at Belmond Charleston Place (205 Meeting St.), where upper-crust retailers like Gucci and Louis Vuitton hold court alongside mid-range options.
The renovated cotton warehouses on East Bay Street, bordering the waterfront at the market’s east end between Market and Broad streets, hold many treasures ripe for exploration. Along this stretch of East Bay you’ll also encounter eateries, art galleries and nightspots.
As you stroll along Church Street south of the Charleston City Market, you’ll be immersed in French Quarter charm as you happen across a hodgepodge of stores sporting trendy clothing, collectibles and knickknacks. The Pink House Gallery (17 Chalmers St.) not only has a great selection of prints and photographs, but presents an opportunity to poke around an enchanting historic structure that once served as a 1690s tavern. Continuing on Church south of Broad, a little off the beaten path, look for eclectic galleries and shops scattered here and there, including those nestled in Cabbage Row/Catfish Row (89-91 Church St.). The section of Broad Street in the historic area also houses some high-end galleries and worthy retailers.
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The area of King Street extending down to Broad is known as Lower King Street, a target-rich environment inhabited by hip boutiques, art galleries and locally owned specialty stores sandwiched between popular chains. Antique hounds may discover a showpiece they can’t live without along Antique Row, the portion of Lower King between Beaufain and Queen streets. A standout is Geo. C. Birlant & Co. (191 King St.), purveyor of English antiques and crafter of the reproduction benches lining the Charleston Battery.
By no means are antique finds restricted to the area along Lower King Street. As you might guess, individual dealers dot the Charleston map in numbers too numerous to list. Those willing to venture outside the historic district should consider visiting 17 South Antiques (4 Avondale Ave.). You’ll have a good time roaming through Charleston Auction House (311 Huger St.), where undiscovered trinkets may await those willing to roll up their sleeves and dig a little
If you’d like to wander through a mall, the Charleston vicinity has a few to choose from. Citadel Mall (2070 Sam Rittenberg Blvd.) and Northwoods Mall (2150 Northwoods Blvd. in North Charleston) both house the usual assortment of specialty retailers. Neighboring Mount Pleasant offers Mount Pleasant Towne Centre (1218 Belk Dr.), where a medley of shops resides in a picturesque village. Bargain hunters might choose to explore Tanger Outlet Center (4840 Tanger Outlet Blvd. in North Charleston), for savings on designer fashions, sporting goods and more.
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NightlifeFolks in Charleston like to live it up, but they also appreciate laid-back casual spots where they can sip a libation and chat with friends. Nighttime entertainment options are mainly concentrated in the downtown historic district, running the gamut from live music venues to refined restaurant bars to cozy little neighborhood pubs. Clubs providing entertainment may include cover charges; to avoid surprises, phone ahead and confirm prices, opening hours, scheduled acts and dress codes.
Those in search of live music usually land at the Music Farm , 32 Ann St. This revamped train station hosts a variety of musical styles, so you might encounter college kids or a 30 to 40ish crowd depending on the talent, which can range from alternative to country; phone (843) 577-6969. There’s nothing like a healthy dose of Irish tunes to get your adrenaline going, and families, couples—you name it—all join in the merriment and sing along at Tommy Condon’s Irish Pub , 160 Church St., (843) 577-3818. While you’re at it, order up an authentic Irish coffee or ale.
Jazz enthusiasts in the know head to the upscale yet casually comfortable lounge at the Charleston Grill on King Street. It's a special place to have a cocktail and relish the sounds of the restaurant’s talented performers; phone (843) 577-4522.
Charlestonians enjoy lingering over an inventive cocktail and socializing in one of the town’s classy lounges. First Shot Lounge , tucked inside Meeting Street's The Mills House Wyndham Grand , is named for the first shot fired during the Civil War. Touches like a grand piano and a view of the pretty courtyard contribute to an aura of understated Southern elegance; phone (843) 577-2400. At the swanky Peninsula Grill Champagne Bar , adjacent to the Planters Inn on Market Street, mostly middle-aged connoisseurs of bubbly indulge in intriguing appetizers along with their Dom Pérignon or other champagnes by the glass or bottle; phone (843) 723-0700. For an inspiring view of Charleston Harbor and the historic district—or to catch a glorious sunset—head up to The Rooftop , a cocktail bar at The Vendue (19 Vendue Range St.) offering live music, decent bar food and an affable wait staff to boot. Phone (843) 577-7970.
Oenophiles should have no trouble finding a cozy nook that suits their style. At Social Wine Bar , 188 E Bay St., you can taste wines by the half-glass or try a flight of three to discover what pleases your palate. Prices are reasonable and the assortment is impressive at this hip spot, which, by the way, has some mighty fine wood-fired pizzas, tasty sliders and other top-notch snacks. Phone (843) 577-5665.
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Plenty of laid-back digs entice those seeking a more casual night on the town. A hodgepodge of locals, tourists and young professionals throw darts, watch their favorite sports teams on the tube, and order up brews and pub grub at The Griffon , a friendly neighborhood English-style tavern at 18 Vendue Range; phone (843) 723-1700.
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Performing ArtsCharleston's cultural heritage goes back a long way. By the late 1730s the city had a music society and the Dock Street Theatre, said to be the first building in the Colonies designed solely for theatrical performances. Today Charleston Stage performs at Dock Street Theatre at Church and Queen streets.
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SightseeingBefore sightseeing in Charleston, park your car. Trying to negotiate the narrow streets while sightseeing is difficult, and your visit will be much more interesting if you move at a leisurely pace. So, follow one of the AAA Walking Tours or take a guided carriage, boat, bus, van or trolley tour.
A good place to begin your exploration is at the Charleston Visitor Center, 375 Meeting St. “Forever Charleston”, a multimedia presentation shown continuously at the center, provides an introduction to the city and its people. Self-guiding tour maps and brochures also are available.
Two of the most prominent features of the historic area are the two major architectural styles: the double house and the single house. The front doors of the double house face the street, with one room to each side. The typical single house is only one room wide with the narrow gable end turned toward the street. To one side is a door that opens onto a porch, and gardens or courtyards are beside or behind the house.
No one knows why there are so many single houses in Charleston, but past speculation, which is now often discounted, claimed that the design might have been prompted by taxes levied according to how many feet of a house faced the street. Similar houses were built during the 18th- and early 19th centuries in New Orleans for this reason. The more likely explanation is that this design made the most of summer breezes and blocked the interior from the most intense sun during the day.
Many of Charleston's old houses have solid shutters on the first floor windows and louvered shutters on the windows of the floors above. The solid shutters helped keep the noise and dirt from entering the early houses, which had walls that rose from the edge of the street.
Perhaps the most common sight in Charleston is not a thing, but a color. Charleston green, such an extremely dark shade that it is almost black, is seen on everything from shutters to front doors to piazza trim. The color is said to have been devised during Reconstruction, when only black paint was available in quantity. Residents mixed in a small amount of yellow pigment and were able to use colored paint.
Boat ToursCharleston Harbor Tours
Bus and Carriage Tours
Routes for horse-drawn carriage tours are selected randomly; therefore, each company cannot guarantee which sites will be included on any trip since the guide doesn't find out until right before the tour departs.
Food ToursCharleston Culinary Tours
Guided Walking ToursArchitectural Walking Tours of Charleston
Thuyvi Gates / AAA
Charleston in 3 DaysThree days is barely enough time to get to know any major destination. But AAA travel editors suggest these activities to make the most of your time in Charleston.
Day 1: MorningSip a cup of joe and munch on a chocolate-stuffed croissant or jam-slathered baguette at Gaulart & Maliclet Cafe Restaurant , on Broad Street just east of King Street. Not a morning person? Not a problem. This lively bistro, appropriately dubbed “Fast and French” by locals, will give you that zing you're looking for. Don't fret over the carbs—you'll burn off every last petit déjeuner calorie during the trek you're about to make through The Battery.
The intersection of Broad and Meeting streets, a block east, is known as The Four Corners of Law—buildings on each corner symbolize religious, federal, state and municipal law. Be awed by the stunning stained glass windows, embellished interior and 186-foot-tall steeple of St. Michael's Church , on the southeast corner. Take a seat in pew No. 43, “The Governor's Pew,” and fix your eyes on the lofty pulpit—this is the same view President George Washington and Gen. Robert E. Lee had when they worshipped here centuries ago.
You'll pass a number of eye-catching historic homes as you head east on St. Michael's Alley, south on Church Street, southeast on Water Street, south on E. Battery Street and then west on S. Battery Street. Stop and snap some photos (or—if you have the time—take a guided tour) of the grandiose Heyward-Washington House (87 Church St.) or the Edmondston-Alston House (21 E. Battery St.); both allow a glimpse into the past lives of Charleston's most prominent residents. The former dates back to 1772 and was named for George Washington, who visited in 1791. Built circa 1825, the latter boasts verandas that afford striking views of the harbor. Don't be surprised if you find yourself resuming your stroll with impeccable posture and a raised chin—the elegance is contagious.
Day 1: AfternoonBefore your shoulders begin to droop a smidge and you realize you're decked in faded jeans—not a sack suit or an empire-waisted gown—embark on a tour of the 35-room Italianate Calhoun Mansion , at the south end of Meeting Street. You'll be captivated by the 17th- through 19th-century furniture and extensive antique collection. Do you feel an odd sense of familiarity as you explore what reputedly is Charleston's largest residence? If so, it's probably because you've seen the television miniseries “North and South” or the movie “The Notebook”—parts of both were filmed here. And now for the next question: What would you do with 35 fireplaces?
As you make your way north on Meeting Street, whip out the camera once again to capture the stately Federal-style Nathaniel Russell House . Bordered by lush gardens, the 1808 townhouse is best known for its self-supporting mahogany staircase that spirals up three levels. If you're the see-it-to-believe-it type, a guided tour is a must.
Now that you've managed to work off your breakfast and work up a lunch appetite, treat your taste buds to Lowcountry cuisine at 82 Queen Restaurant . Unwind in one of the dining rooms of this restored late 1600s house on Queen Street just east of King Street; or if it's a particularly pleasant day, soak in the flavors, sights and scents of the South in the serene garden courtyard. To really relax, say oui to a glass of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon from the extensive wine list. You can keep things scrumptiously simple by pairing a cup of steamy she-crab soup with a sandwich, or you can kick 'em up a notch with the barbecued shrimp and grits or the jambalaya.
You'll want to take a piece of Charleston home with you, so head over to N. and S. Market streets and let the souvenir browsing begin at bustling Charleston City Market. From handwoven baskets (observing the so-called “basket ladies” at work can be mesmerizing) to touristy tees to Southern spices, there's something within the arts-and-crafts stalls and charming boutiques for everyone. And there always will be, as the proprietors who ceded the site to the city stipulated that it must forever serve as a public market.
Day 1: Evening
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Day 2: MorningWill The Eye Opener live up to its name? Find out at Saffron Café & Bakery (333 E. Bay St.), where you can mingle with early-risin' Charlestonians who get their thrills from a no-frills, easy-on-the-wallet breakfast. Eggs served your way, melt-in-your-mouth biscuits, blueberry pancakes and Eggs Benedict are among the a.m. options.
Arrive at Liberty Square at least a half-hour before the earliest cruise departure offered by Fort Sumter Tours and buy your tickets. Chat it up with a National Park Service ranger at Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center as you check out exhibits that recap the tumultuous years preceding the War Between the States. Before long you'll be oohing and aahing over some spectacular views of Charleston Harbor en route to an hour-long up-close-and-personal history lesson at the site where the first Civil War gunshot was fired on April 12, 1861.
Day 2: AfternoonIf you have a car, there's not a single cloud in the sky and you're longing to be invigorated by a salty breeze, make the approximately 20-minute drive to Sullivan's Island , north of the harbor just over the Ben Sawyer Bridge. Grab a seat at Poe's Tavern , where the burgers and chicken sandwiches have been named for works by Edgar Allan Poe, who was stationed at Fort Moultrie 1827-28. Follow a well-beaten path to the tranquil shore and take a dip or a catnap, immerse yourself in a book, and behold a magnificent sunset.
If walking is your mode of transportation, or if you're simply up for an underwater adventure that doesn't involve swimsuits and sand, discover how residents of five regions of the Southeast Appalachian Watershed spend their afternoon at South Carolina Aquarium , in Liberty Square adjacent to the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center.
And if eating—rather than greeting—the bounty of the ocean is your cup of tea (or she-crab soup), fear not, for there's yet another alternative. Chow down at Fleet Landing (186 Concord St.), housed in a 1940s Naval debarkation point now garnished with pelagic decor; or Noisy Oyster Seafood Restaurant (24 N. Market St.), whose bill of fare includes peel-and-eat shrimp, raw or steamed oysters and clams, and pretty much any fish dish imaginable. Afterward, take your gorged belly and your credit card to Lower King Street (the segment of King Street extending down to Broad Street), which is lined with upscale shops brimming with antiques, artwork, clothing and specialty items. Be forewarned: Whether you're a full-fledged shopaholic or a disciplined window shopper, leaving empty-handed is virtually impossible.
Day 2: EveningYou've shopped ‘til you dropped, met enough sea critters for a lifetime or lingered over a walk on the beach, so a low-key dinner is in order. Go exotic for a change, opting for sushi or spicy teriyaki pork belly at casual O-Ku (463 King St.) or steaming pad thai or curry duck at upscale but surprisingly affordable Basil (460 King St.).
Day 3: MorningHow does a hunk of egg-battered, cinnamon-apple- or peach-filled, syrup-drizzled currant bread sound? Start your day off right at Toast restaurant (155 Meeting St.), whose tropical trapping might convince you that the real Margaritaville is smack-dab in the middle of downtown Charleston.
Walk a few steps to the southeast corner of Meeting and Cumberland streets, where a plaque showing Charleston's original layout will help you get your bearings before you kick off your jaunt through the “walled city.” Give yourself sufficient time to visit one of two exceptionally fascinating buildings (mentioned below) along the course.
Between 1690 and 1720, walls enclosed the area from Cumberland Street south to Water Street and from Meeting Street to E. Bay Street (along the riverfront), defending the 60ish-acre town from pirates, antagonistic Native Americans, and French and Spanish raiders. Jutting into the water was the Half-Moon Battery, shaped as its name suggests. A sizable section of this brick wall remains intact and is displayed in The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon (at E. Bay and Broad streets), which was built atop it in 1781.
It was in this Palladian-style structure's cellar that notable patriots pressed shackled hands against steel bars during the Revolutionary War, and it was in its Great Hall that South Carolina ratified the Constitution in 1788. If you're a history buff, you won't want to miss this place—expect to learn a thing or two the 500-pagers and TV specials didn't cover.
For an arts aficionado, crossing the threshold of the domed Beaux-Arts style Gibbes Museum of Art (135 Meeting St.) is like unlatching the brass buckle on a loot-loaded treasure chest. Trace the town's cultural development as you browse the impressive collections of sculpture, portraits, paintings and photographs representative of the Colonial, Charleston Renaissance and Contemporary periods.
Day 3: AfternoonThere's an important part of Charleston you haven't seen—one robed in acres upon acres of meticulously landscaped gardens in which polychromatic plants perform seductive synchronized wind dances. Take a tour of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens . Not only will you explore lush gardens, a Greek-Revival mansion and slave cabins, but you'll also hop aboard the Nature Train that traverses a 60-acre cypress-and-tupelo swamp. You can pack a picnic lunch and roam the grounds at your own pace (just don't get lost in the horticultural maze!), but you'll need a car to get there: it's about 15 miles northwest of town on SR 61.
Day 3: EveningGet down and dirty at Sticky Fingers Rib House (235 Meeting St.), where practicing good manners means licking every last remnant of the sauce caked to your chops after you've inhaled a slab of hickory-smoked ribs. Order ‘em hot. Or sweet. Or dry. You can't go wrong with any of these flavors, but if indecision gets the best of you, go with the sampler.
Swing by Kaminsky's (78 N. Market St.) and surrender to your sweet tooth. Whether you're in the mood for a wedge of zesty Key lime pie or a good old-fashioned ice cream sundae, you've come to the right place.
AttractionsIn a city with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
When it was settled in 1670 by British traders, Charleston was named Charles Towne in honor of King Charles II. Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site captures the essence of the Colonial era on 664 acres surrounding the site of the first settlement, across the Ashley River from present-day Charleston. Highlights include artifacts, archeological digs, a replica of a 17th-century ship and a visitor center with interactive exhibits.
That Lowcountry plantations are nearly intact is a marvel. Three along the Ashley River, each architecturally unique, document the antebellum culture—slavery, agriculture, horticulture, architecture, trade, society and so forth. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens , a AAA GEM attraction, has been lovingly maintained by Drayton family descendants since 1676; the gardens are said to be America's oldest. Drayton Hall is one of the South's finest examples of preserved Georgian-Palladian architecture. With its formal gardens, terraced lawn and stately house full of museum-quality artwork and family collections, the AAA GEM Middleton Place evokes Southern plantation refinement. House, grounds, nature or wetlands tours (or varying combinations thereof) are available at each location.
A city ordinance prohibits the destruction of buildings over 75 years old. As you tour Charleston on foot, look for preservation society plaques identifying historic properties, especially the hundreds of meticulously restored houses. While most are privately owned, the following of exceptional interest, all AAA GEMs, do offer tours: Edmondston-Alston House , Heyward-Washington House , Nathaniel Russell House and Calhoun Mansion .
Church steeples are among Charleston's tallest structures, and none stands more prominently than the 186-foot spire of AAA GEM St. Michael's Church , constructed in 1761. Multiple spires topped with finials top the 1845 Gothic Revival-style Huguenot Church , another AAA GEM. Other noteworthy examples of ecclesiastical architecture include Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim , a Jewish synagogue, and the imposing St. Philip's Episcopal Church, which protrudes into Church Street.
Contemporary Charleston's cultural scene thrives with its mix of performing and visual arts. Standout museums include Charleston Museum , one of the nation's oldest museums, and Gibbes Museum of Art , a AAA GEM attraction featuring outstanding American art. Historic Dock Street Theatre , another AAA GEM, frequently offers plays; visitors can tour this 18th-century classic on weekdays.
Although the compact city lends itself wonderfully to independent exploration, guided tours provide an excellent introduction to history, architecture and culture. Ghosts, gardens, Gullah, graveyards—you name the topic and there's a walking tour to cover it. Two of the most romantic ways to savor charming Charleston are by horse-drawn carriage and an evening harbor cruise. In addition to providing a climate-controlled environment for city sightseeing, motorized tours usher passengers to the outlying plantations in comfort.
Many bus and van tours pick up passengers at their place of lodging and then head to the Charleston Visitor Center on Meeting Street for the official start of the tour. If you don't stop here with a tour group, go on your own to pick up free tourist information and view “Forever Charleston” ; the orientation film is designed to help you prioritize your things-to-see-and-do list. Tip: If you're going to be in the area for a few days, the Charleston Heritage Passport, a discount attraction ticket giving admission to multiple must-see points of interest, offers great savings and can be purchased at the center.
Charleston's two riverfronts are a source of enjoyment for locals and visitors alike. White Point Garden, also known as Battery Park, is one of the oldest and most-visited public spaces. Fronting The Battery , Charleston's premier address with its colorful display of mansions, the park hugs the lower tip of the peninsula at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, allowing for extended views across the harbor—all the way to Fort Sumter. Aquarium Wharf, farther north facing the Cooper River, is home to the South Carolina Aquarium , a AAA GEM attraction; the wharf's Liberty Square (next to the aquarium) features the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center, one of two departure points for boat trips to AAA GEM Fort Sumter National Monument .
Tour boats to Fort Sumter also depart from Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum , a AAA GEM attraction across the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant . The centerpiece of this flotilla of naval vessels with military aircraft is the USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier. While in Mount Pleasant, you won't want to miss AAA GEM Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens . One of America's oldest working plantations, the estate includes a symmetrical oak allée planted in the mid-18th century, a “slave street” with eight original brick slave houses, Gullah presentations and house tours. Just east of Boone Hall is Charles Pinckney National Historic Site , the former plantation site of one of the framers of the United States Constitution.
AAA GEM Old Santee Canal Park in Moncks Corner, north of Charleston, preserves remnants of a vital canal linking the port of Charleston with inland cities. Exhibits here detail canal workings and regional history. At nearby Cypress Gardens , also a AAA GEM, visitors can follow walking paths through specialty gardens or explore the calm waters of a cypress swamp in a boat.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
RestaurantsOur favorites include some of this destination's best restaurants—from fine dining to simple fare.
Charlestonians uphold Southern culture and traditions, and nowhere is this more evident than in the culinary arena. Now, as in Colonial times, Lowcountry cuisine makes creative use of abundant ingredients from coastal waters, marshes, farms and fields. World-class chefs take Southern comfort food to sophisticated levels and consistently garner industry acclaim for Charleston's finest restaurants. As a major culinary destination, Charleston is the New Orleans of the Lowcountry.
Whether your cravings lean toward haute cuisine or Southern comfort food, there's a restaurant downtown to satisfy. The menu at Charleston Grill in Belmond Charleston Place features traditional Lowcountry cuisine with a dash of French influence, demonstrated in such dishes as the Grilled Kurobuta Pork Chop and the enticing Seared Flounder & Shrimp. The wait staff is well-versed in all menu selections, and the sommelier is ready to help you navigate the 1,300-plus vintage wine list. With low lighting, dark wood paneling and live jazz, Charleston Grill's upscale ambience comes off relaxed. The popularity of the restaurant has made it a destination in its own right.
At High Cotton you'll find straightforward, flavorful dishes prepared from the choicest meats, seafood and produce. Consider these menu options: Lowcountry boil, stuffed rabbit loin, grilled swordfish or a whopping 34-ounce rib-eye steak. Start or end the evening in the lounge, one of the most popular watering holes in the city. Housed in a historic warehouse, this chic restaurant exudes Southern gentility and dignified ambience.
Circa 1886 operates out of the elegantly remodeled carriage house of the Wentworth Mansion. Charleston's rich culinary history serves as the chef's inspiration for contemporary gourmet cuisine that reflects the availability of seasonal ingredients. The Sake Brined Salmon, 1855 Beef Tenderloin and Broken Arrow Ranch Antelope Loin are some of the representative dishes. Like many restaurants of its caliber, Circa 1886 is staffed with an accomplished pastry chef, so save room for dessert.
A seamless marriage of cosmopolitan accents and Charleston gentility, Peninsula Grill is simultaneously refined and relaxed. Velvet-lined walls and the plush interior of this restaurant bespeak the atmosphere of a cosmopolitan supper club from another era. And why not? Peninsula Grill is in the historic Planters Inn .
More than 30 years in operation and a host of industry accolades have earned 82 Queen Restaurant its place in Charleston restaurant lore. The chef honors his trade by presenting a diverse menu of Lowcountry favorites with French, Caribbean, English and African culinary influences. A representative dinner might include fried green tomatoes or fried oysters for an appetizer, followed by the jambalaya or roasted rack of lamb as an entrée, finished off with crème brûlée or Bourbon pecan pie for dessert. Seating is available in multiple dining rooms of a restored house or outside in a lovely garden courtyard around an oversize magnolia tree.
Basil is an upscale Thai restaurant offering an extensive menu. Patrons can watch the chef skillfully perform his art in the exhibition kitchen as they wait for colorful, artfully presented dishes. Each reasonably priced selection can be ordered at the desired level of spiciness. Pad thai and red curry duck are the house specialties.
Chef Robert Stehling boasts he doesn't open any cans in the kitchen of his nationally acclaimed restaurant, Hominy Grill , and a meal here easily supports that statement. With a strong commitment to using only the freshest local ingredients, the chef delivers beautiful interpretations of Southern comfort food. Catfish Creole, shrimp and grits, and a fried green tomato sandwich are among a large repertoire of longstanding favorites.
Heralded for its farm-to-table approach, casual-chic Husk Restaurant occupies a renovated antebellum mansion on Queen Street (the historic brick house next door is home to Husk’s cozy bar). Though the menu changes daily, you can always count on creatively tweaked Southern classics that incorporate only the finest ingredients from the chefs’ heirloom garden and from regional meat, poultry and seafood suppliers. Offerings might include country ham with acorn pancakes; deviled eggs with pickled okra and trout roe; and glazed pork ribs with lima beans and pickled peaches.
The menu of nouveau French cuisine at bustling Gaulart & Maliclet Cafe Restaurant features a variety of sandwiches, fresh breads, pates, cheeses, ooh-la-la desserts and wines as well as seafood, chicken and vegetarian entrées. The popular Thursday night fondue makes for a fun dining experience to share with friends. Expect seating at community tables or counters, and don't be surprised by the frenetic pace of the servers.
See all the AAA Diamond Rated restaurants for this destination.
EventsIn addition to its many cultural and historic landmarks, this destination hosts a number of outstanding festivals and events that may coincide with your visit.
Food festivals centered on local cuisine are a universal favorite. Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens in Mount Pleasant makes a lovely backdrop for two of the area's most anticipated annual foodie events. The Lowcountry Oyster Festival takes place in late January (imagine all-you-can-eat bivalves by the bucket served with cocktail sauce and crackers) and late September brings The Taste of Charleston , a gastronomic roundup of cuisine by some of Charleston's finest chefs. Oysters make a comeback in March at the Shuckin' in the Park Oyster Roast held in Old Santee Canal Park in Moncks Corner. Sample the city's best at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival in early March; more than 100 demonstrations take place in the Culinary Village in Marion Square. Beer, cocktails, spirits and food also are showcased at dining events and seminars throughout Charleston.
Since 1983, one of the nation's premier wildlife art shows has called Charleston home. Art celebrates nature at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition , held annually on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday preceding Presidents Day. Preservation and conservation are the underlying themes of this 3-day event featuring paintings, drawings, photography and carvings by renowned wildlife artists. Falcon flights and canine retriever demonstrations, live animal shows, wildlife exhibits and educational programs covering topics of global interest are additional offerings.
For more than a month beginning in mid-March, Charlestonians demonstrate the true meaning of Southern hospitality as they open the doors of their gracious homes to the public during the Festival of Houses and Gardens . Sponsored by the Historic Charleston Foundation, the tours coincide with the annual spring color explosion and feature some 150 homes and gardens. The Fall Tours , a series of evening walks hosted by the Preservation Society of Charleston, offers another opportunity to peek inside private residences. Held in October, this event introduces participants to homes with significant architecture, interesting history and lovely gated gardens in various historic neighborhoods.
In late April, shrimp boats parade one-by-one past clergy to receive a sprinkling of holy water during the annual Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival in Mount Pleasant. Festivities honoring the shrimping industry kick off with live entertainment, maritime exhibits, an arts and crafts show, shrimp-eating contests and a bountiful sampler of seafood dishes prepared by local restaurants.
From late May through early June, Spoleto Festival USA fills Charleston's historic theaters, churches and outdoor spaces with more than 135 performances by world-renowned artists and emerging performers in opera, theater, dance, chamber, symphonic, choral, bluegrass and jazz music. Piccolo Spoleto Festival , which runs concurrently with Spoleto Festival USA, highlights many of the same artistic disciplines but focuses on talent from the southeastern United States. North Charleston Arts Festival salutes the visual and performing arts from late April through early May with exhibits of fine art, photography, sculpture; a full lineup of concerts and musical performances; a gem and mineral show; and arts and crafts.
MOJA Arts Festival , from late September to early October, celebrates the rich contributions of the African-American and Caribbean cultures through visual arts, gospel, music, poetry, storytelling, food and much more. The Swahili word “moja” means one, an appropriate name for a festival promoting harmony among the Lowcountry's diverse population. Gullah singers, dancers, musicians, folklorists, artists and historians celebrate their African heritage during the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival , held in Mount Pleasant in early June.
The Holiday Parade of Boats takes place in Charleston Harbor in early December. Holiday Festival of Lights , starting in early November and running through New Year's Day, turns James Island County Park into a sparkling wonderland; drive the 3-mile route in your car or ride a train. On the first day of the Christmas season, the mayor lights the tree, and a month of festivities begins. On the second day of—you get the idea. The lineup of holiday citywide events truly is something to sing about. Included are hospitality tours, parades, concerts, pageants, plays, wine galas, and the list goes on and on. Charleston in its holiday finery owes a debt of gratitude to native son Joel Poinsett, who, while acting as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in the early 1800s, imported the first poinsettia plants to this country on his return to Charleston.
See all the AAA recommended events for this destination.
Mike Mahaffie / flickr
Heritage PassportCharleston Heritage Passport offers savings to those who plan to visit Charleston's historic and cultural attractions. Valid for 7 days from purchase, the passport covers the price of admission to eight sites: Aiken-Rhett House, Charleston Museum, Drayton Hall, Edmondston-Alston House, Gibbes Museum of Art, Heyward-Washington House, Joseph Manigault House, Middleton Place (gardens and stable yard only) and Nathaniel Russell House.
The passport may not be combined with any other discount and is not valid for admission during special events.
The passport can be purchased at the Charleston Visitor Center, 375 Meeting St., for $72.95. A 3-day pass is available for $62.95, and a 2-day pass is available for $52.95. For more information phone (843) 853-8000 or (800) 774-0006.
The Gullah CultureThe Sea Islands, a string of barrier islands off South Carolina and Georgia, have been home to the Gullah people for centuries. The Gullahs are descendants of West African slaves shipped to North America on the notorious Middle Passage slave trade route. In the 1700s, the majority of Africans imported to the British colonies entered through Sullivan's Island near Charleston and were dispersed to Lowcountry plantations.
The word Gullah may be a derivation of Angola, one of the countries frequented by slave traders. To communicate among themselves and with plantation overseers, slaves devised pidgin, a hybrid of various West African dialects and the informal English spoken by colonists. This Gullah language, as it came to be known, employs phonetic interpretation of English words (children/chillun) and idiomatic expressions (Tek'e foot een ‘e han, meaning run) and is spoken with distinctive lyrical intonations that might be compared to the Jamaican language.
Early in the Civil War, Union troops forced plantation owners out of the Lowcountry. With the help of transition camps and schools, freed slaves became independent and had the opportunity to purchase land; many chose to remain on familiar ground—the sea islands where they had toiled as captives.
As a community, the Gullah people became self-sufficient, largely due to inherent farming, hunting and fishing skills. Because they were autonomous, Gullahs were able to practice and preserve their African ways, including storytelling, religious worship, food preparation and craftsmanship. Today it is quite common to see Gullah women making and selling artistically coiled sweetgrass baskets—traditionally woven for use in African rice fields—in downtown Charleston and along US 17 in Mount Pleasant.
Except for small-boat commerce, Gullahs remained isolated from the mainland until the first bridges were constructed in the 1950s. Intrusion proved inevitable, however, and some of the coastal land owned by Gullahs was eventually sold and developed into resorts. The Gullah people maintain a strong presence in the Lowcountry, as their ancestors do in the annals of American history. To learn more about the Lowcountry's Gullah culture, visit Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston.
Places in Vicinity