Wandering through the city’s historic district, you would swear it was a movie set. The spires and steeples of more than 180 churches punctuate the low skyline, and the horse-drawn carriages pass centuries-old mansions and carefully tended gardens overflowing with heirloom plants. It’s known for its quiet charm, and has been called the most mannerly city in the country.
Immigrants settled here in 1670. They flocked here initially for religious freedom and later for prosperity (compliments of the rice, indigo, and cotton plantations). Preserved through the poverty following the Civil War, and natural disasters like fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes, many of Charleston’s earliest public and private buildings still stand. And thanks to a rigorous preservation movement and strict Board of Architectural Review, the city’s new structures blend with the old ones. In many cases, recycling is the name of the game—antique handmade bricks literally lay the foundation for new homes. But although locals do live—on some literal levels—in the past, the city is very much a town of today.
Mount Pleasant and Vicinity
East of Charleston, across the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, the largest single-span bridge in North America, is the town of Mount Pleasant, named not for a mountain or a hill but for a plantation in England from which some of the area’s settlers hailed. In its Old Village neighborhood are antebellum homes and a sleepy, old-time town center with a drugstore where patrons sidle up to the soda fountain and lunch counter for egg-salad sandwiches and floats. Along Shem Creek, where the local fishing fleet brings in the daily catch, several seafood restaurants serve the area’s freshest (and most deftly fried) seafood. Other attractions in the area include military and maritime museums, plantations, and, farther north, the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.Take the internationally heralded Spoleto Festival, for instance. For two weeks every summer, arts patrons from around the world come to enjoy local and international concerts, dance performances, operas, improv shows, and plays at venues citywide. Day in and out, diners can feast at upscale Southern restaurants, shoppers can look for museum-quality paintings and antiques, and outdoor adventurers can explore all Charleston’s outlying beaches, parks, and marshes. But as cosmopolitan as the city has become, it’s still the South, and just outside the city limits are farm stands cooking up boiled peanuts, recently named the state’s official snack.
North of Broad
Large tracts of available land made the area North of Broad ideal for suburban plantations during the early 1800s. A century later, the peninsula had been built out, and today the area is a vibrant mix of residential neighborhoods and commercial clusters, with verdant parks scattered throughout. This area is comprised of three primary neighborhoods: Upper King, the Market area, and the College of Charleston. Though there are a number of majestic homes and pre-Revolutionary buildings in this area, the main draw is the area’s collection of stores, museums, restaurants, and historic churches. The farther north you travel (up King Street in particular), the newer and more commercial development becomes. In times past, Broad Street was considered the cutoff point for the most coveted addresses. Those living in the area Slightly North of Broad were called mere “SNOBs,” and their neighbors South of Broad were nicknamed “SOBs.”
South of Broad
Locals have long joked that just off the Battery (at Battery Street and Murray Boulevard), the Ashley and Cooper rivers join to form the Atlantic Ocean. Such a lofty proclamation speaks volumes about the area’s rakish flair. To observe their pride and joy, head to the point of the downtown peninsula. Here, handsome mansions surrounded by elaborate gardens greet incoming boats and passersby. The look is reminiscent of the West Indies with good reason: before coming to the Carolinas in the late 17th century, many early British colonists had first settled on Barbados and other Caribbean isles where homes with high ceilings and broad porches caught the sea breezes.
The heavily residential area south of Broad Street and west of the Battery brims with beautiful private homes, most of which bear plaques with a short written description of the property’s history. Mind your manners, but feel free to peek through iron gates and fences at the verdant displays in elaborate gardens. Although an open gate once signified that guests were welcome to venture inside, that time has mostly passed—residents tell stories of how they came home to find tourists sitting in their front porch rockers. But you never know when an invitation to look around from a friendly owner-gardener might come your way. Several of the city’s lavish house museums call this famously affluent neighborhood home.
Victorian homes, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, line the public park. Colorful gardens brimming with camellias, azaleas, and wisteria abound. Downtown and residential streets curve around tall pines, as a local ordinance prohibits cutting them down. Visit for a stroll in the park, or to go antiquing on the downtown shopping square. Summerville was originally built by wealthy planters. It has become a town that is being populated with young, professional families and well-to-do retirees transplanted from the cold climes. It has an artsy bent to it, and some trendy eateries have opened. The presence of the revered resort the Woodlands adds a lot to the genteel, aristocratic ambience.
West of the Ashley River
Ashley River Road, Route 61, begins a few miles northwest of downtown Charleston, over the Ashley River Bridge. Sights are spread out along the way and those who love history, old homes, and gardens may need several days to explore places like Drayton Hall, Middleton Place, and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Spring is a peak time for the flowers, although the gardens are in bloom throughout the year.
Charleston Restaurant Reviews
Eating is a serious pastime in Charleston. You can dine at nationally renowned restaurants serving the best of Southern nouveau, or if you prefer, a waterfront shack with some of the best fried seafood south of the Mason-Dixon line. Local chefs have earned reputations for preparing Lowcountry cuisine with a contemporary flair, and there is plenty of incredible young talent in the city’s kitchens. The local food revolution began in the early 1980s, with the reintroduction of original Lowcountry cuisine onto restaurant menus. As Lowcountry cuisine evolved and contemporary adaptations became commonplace, the city’s remarkable pool of talented chefs grew, and Charleston began to be thought of as a destination for foodies.
Reservations are a good idea for dinner year-round, especially on weekends, as there is almost no off-season for tourism. Tables are especially hard to come by during the Southeastern Wildlife Expo (President’s Day weekend in February) and the Spoleto Festival (late May to mid-June). The overall dress code is fairly relaxed: casual khakis and an oxford or polo shirt for men, casual slacks (or a skirt), top, and sandals for women work in most places just fine, but in the fine-dining restaurants, particularly on weekends, people tend to dress up.
Charleston Hotel Reviews
Charleston is known for lovingly restored mansions that are now atmospheric bed-and-breakfasts, as well as deluxe inns, all found in the residential blocks of the historic district. Upscale, world-class hotels are in the heart of downtown as well as unique, boutique hotels that provide a one-of-a-kind experience. All are within walking distance of the shops, restaurants, and museums housed within the nearly 800 acres that makes up the historic district.
The major chains line the busy, car-trafficked Meeting Street in the historic district; you’ll find others in West Ashley, Mount Pleasant, and North Charleston. Mount Pleasant is considered the most upscale suburb; North Charleston is the least, but if you need to be close to the airport or are participating in events in its Coliseum, it is probably the cheapest of alternatives.
You can find it all here, across the board, for Charleston loves a good party. The more mature crowd goes to the sophisticated spots, and there are many: piano bars, wine bars, lounges featuring jazz groups or a guitarist/vocalist, rooftop bars, and cigar lounges. Many restaurants have live entertainment on at least one weekend night or every night. But Charleston is also a college town, and the College of Charleston students line up to get into the latest in-spot, which is usually located in the Market area. A city ordinance mandates that bars must close by 2 am and that patrons must be out of the establishment and doors locked by that hour.