During the seventeen days when the annual Spoleto Festival reigns, art aficionados flock to Charleston for back-to-back premieres of new works of theater, music, and dance. However, during the rest of the year, this South Carolina city remains just as much a vibrant cultural destination—it’s just a little less crowded.
Twenty years ago, outsiders often dismissed Charleston as a sleepy southern town—a place to drive through on the way to the beach rather than a destination in itself. While Charlestonians knew this to be false, they kept their secret to themselves. These days, tourists are attracted to the city for its food, history, and picturesque streets.
Downtown Charleston is situated on a peninsula jutting into Charleston Harbor, sandwiched between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, meaning its history was tied to its position as a port. Locals, proud of their city, will tell you that Charleston is where the Ashley and Cooper come together to form the Atlantic Ocean. The city had the “fortune” of a slow economy from the post-Civil War years to the late 1970’s, so that urban renewal—which turned many city centers across the United States into jungles of modern cement buildings—passed by the city.
Charleston is at the heart of Low Country—a low-lying coastal area running from the Carolinas to Georgia, replete with marshes and swamps and encompassing the barrier island that protects the mainland from the Atlantic’s fierce waters. The Low Country is also home to the Gullah, an African American people whose ancestors arrived with the slave trade and who still retain strong West African cultural traditions—from their language, which is an English-based Creole, to their traditions of storytelling and folk music.
The city is infused with history—South Carolina was a founding colony and played a pivotal role in the Civil War—nearby Fort Sumter was the site of the first skirmish of the Civil War and still sits at the mouth of the harbor. Walking across the peninsula today, you will find houses, hotels, and shops that have been restored to their antebellum glory, providing a suitably romantic backdrop to your trip. The streets are lined with elegant homes and narrow alleys connect cobblestone streets, while walkways dead-end at hidden colonial cemeteries.
Road Trips from Charleston
As a coastal city, Charleston has numerous beaches within a half-hour drive. Thirty-five minutes south is Kiawah Island’s Beachwalker Park, with its windblown dune beach and Ocean Course golf course, home of the 2012 PGA Championship, as well as four other Kiawah Resort courses. But look out for alligators as they have been known to wander onto Kiawah’s greens!
Folly Beach’s large county park and 1,045-foot fishing pier is just 11 miles from downtown Charleston. Watch the pelicans fly by as you eat at Locklear’s Beach City Grill on the pier, and don’t be surprised to see porpoises swimming by in the ocean.
Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, two other barrier islands, have beautiful beaches and a quieter, residential feel. Mount Pleasant’s Patriot’s Point golf course, located near the World War II aircraft carrier, the Yorktown, is a local favorite. And for a more adventurous outdoor pursuit, Charleston Scuba schedules dives off the Atlantic shelf where you’ll swim alongside porpoises, sharks and giant sea turtles.
Charleston is known as the “Holy City” and its church-spire spotted skyline is a testament to its many religious denominations since Charleston was the first colonial city to ensure religious freedom to its residents. Most of the churches are welcoming of visitors but avoid visiting during services. St. Philip’s Church and St. Michael’s Church are two of the oldest in Charleston, though neither are in their original buildings. Walkthrough the churches’ graveyards and discover buried confederate statesmen and soldiers (open to the public Mon-Fri 10am-12pm and 2pm-4pm). John Rutledge (1739-1800), once a delegate to the Continental Congress, is buried in St. Michael’s Churchyard and John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), a former Vice President, is buried at St Philip’s Churchyard.
To understand the role art has played in the city’s transformation from a cotton-producing port to what it is today, explore the Gibbes Museum’s collection of Low Country and plantation art (website). Art festivals have also become intrinsic to the city’s cultural fabric. During the Spoleto Festival in late May, hundreds of art, music, theater, and dance performances occur. With the success of this internationally renowned event, other art festivals have started, such as the MOJA Arts Festival, a celebration of African-American and Caribbean Art, which takes place every fall.
The picturesque, brightly colored houses of 83-107 East Bay Street, dating from the mid-1700s, are on every tour guide’s route, but walk Rainbow Row yourself and take photos of this postcard-worthy street. Charleston is also home to the oldest theater building in the United States, the Dock Street Theater, and one of South Carolina’s oldest community theater groups, The Footlight Players. The Dock Street Theatre was established at its current location in 1736 but is now housed in the shell of an old hotel that the theater took over in 1930. However, the theater is currently under a three-year renovation but should re-open soon.
Charleston is home to many sports teams, and on a hot summer night you’ll find locals watching the Battery, a professional soccer team that plays at Blackbaud Stadium, or the River Dogs, a minor league baseball team out of Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, which overlooks the river. In the winter the Stingrays, an ice hockey team affiliated with the Washington Capitals, plays at the North Charleston Coliseum. And every April, the Family Circle Tennis Cup is played at Daniel Island.
Be seduced by Charleston’s historical past and its excitingly vibrant present. With its myriad attractions, from fashion and shopping to beaches and food, every day can be an exploration of something new.
What Charleston Is
Charleston is a vibrant cultural destination, home to world-class art events and important historical sites. Buy a walking tour guidebook from the Charleston Visitor’s Center (375 Meeting Street) or join one of the many tours scheduled each day to refresh your early American history.
Charleston is surrounded by Spanish moss-draped oaks, like the 1500-year-old Angel Oak, golden marshes, and long wind-swept beaches. Make use of the famous Charleston front, or side porch, and relax to views of this Low Country scenery.
Charleston is the south’s new culinary mecca—get messy eating BBQ and peel n’ eat shrimp, splurge on one of the city’s elegant dining options, and root through the stalls piled high with local produce at the weekly farmer’s market in Marion Square. Take your time tasting grits and okra and promise you won’t dismiss these Southern staples before you try them.
What Charleston Is Not
Charleston is not the sweetest smelling city in the South. True, the confederate jasmine vines perfume its air in the summer, but with acres of swamps and marsh surrounding the city and a paper mill a few miles inland, humid days at low tide can sometimes be hard on the nose.
Charleston is not uniformly beautiful. If you stay on the peninsula or drive to the barrier islands both the natural scenery and historic buildings are stunning, but a little bit inland and up in North Charleston, the city’s role as a port city becomes evident with warehouses and run-down neighborhoods.
Charleston is not the best place to tour in the height of the summer. Unless you’ve grown up with 95 degree days and 90 percent humidity, most visitors melt.
Time to Visit: Summer is often considered low-season because of the extreme heat and humidity. If you decide to visit during the summer, plan to spend some time on the surrounding beaches or sitting in a cool café during the sweltering afternoons. Mid-November through February is also low-season and the weather can vary from cold and damp to 65° and sunny. If beaches aren’t a priority, this can be a great time to visit as the city is bereft of tourists and cool enough to walk around. The fall and spring are both spectacular with warm days and low humidity. If you love the arts, the Spoleto Festival (website) in late May and early June is not to be missed—but be warned: this international arts festival drives up hotel prices and limits availability, so plan ahead.
Tipping: Expect to tip 15% for lunch and 15% to 20% at dinner. Tip $1 a drink at a bar or 15% of the pre-tax bill if you’re running a tab. Tip taxi drivers and pedicab drivers 15% and offer tour guides $3 to $5 a person.
Language: Clearly all the locals speak English, but if you’re very lucky, you might hear Gullah, an English-based Creole language spoken by locals and African-American descendents of slaves.
Getting Around: Charleston has a comprehensive bus and trolley service with routes that encompass Downtown Charleston and the surrounding neighborhoods and cities from Mt. Pleasant to West Ashley and James Island. Fares: $1.25 for Fixed-Route Buses and Downtown Area Shuttles (DASH), the tourist based downtown Trolley Service. Express buses: $2.00.
If you’re exclusively using CARTA, Charleston’s public bus system, and DASH, consider one of these bus passes: 10 trips $10, 40 trips $35, all-day pass $4, three-day pass $9. Purchase passes at the CARTA Office, 36 John Street, (843) 724-7304 or the Visitor Center, 375 Meeting Street, (843) 724-7174. Day passes are available aboard buses.
Download the route map to your smartphone at RideCarta.com
Many taxi companies service the downtown Charleston area but busy weekend nights often mean a dearth of available cars. To order a taxi call one of these companies:
Yellow Cab (843) 577-6565
Express Cab Co (843) 577-8816
Bike-taxis are ubiquitous in the downtown area and provide a novel way back to your hotel, and in the evening are generally easier to come by than taxis.
Charleston Pedicab (843) 577-7088
Charleston Rickshaw Co (843) 723-5685
If you’re planning to explore the barrier islands or golf in the nearby resorts, rent a car once you leave downtown Charleston, public transportation becomes spotty and taxis are expensive.
Where to Stay
As Charleston has grown in popularity and the College of Charleston has grown in size—there are now more than 10,000 students—hotel prices have sky rocketed. It’s hard to find a centrally located hotel for under $200 a night, but there are still options available. Avoid graduation weekend (this varies but usually happens toward the middle of May) as prices are high and room availability limited. Also plan ahead if you decide to visit during Spoleto Arts Festival (end of May to the beginning of June) as hotels book up quickly.
The Meeting Street Inn is housed in a late 1800’s building at the center of Charleston’s historic district, just blocks from the Market and the water. Graciously elegant rooms are well priced at $109 for a midweek reservation.
173 Meeting Street
(800) 842-8022 or (843) 723-1882
With rates from $99 during off-season, December-March, Lavender and Lace B&B, housed in an 1870’s Victorian, is hard to beat. Innkeeper Judy Lynn Brown keeps the inn stocked with home-baked cookies and its location, south of Broad Street, ensures a quiet night sleep. High season rates for the two-story carriage house can reach $195. It’s eight short blocks to Charleston’s main shopping and restaurant area.
136 Tradd Street
(843) 723-8968 or mobile phone (585) 259-1980.
The King George IV Inn offers remarkable off-season rates from $89 for a queen with a shared bathroom to $139 for a queen with a private bathroom. During high season, these prices increase about $50 a night. The Inn is located off King Street, one of Charleston’s main commercial drags with a variety of stores from national chains to unique boutiques and antique stores.
32 George Street
For an affordable boutique hotel in Historic Downtown, the Andrew Pinckney Inn offers deals on their Historic Value Rooms, queen-size rooms with bathrooms that run $109-$139 in the off-season and $159-$199 during peak. Located off of Meeting Street, this hotel is quieter than many others though the rooms tend towards being small.
40 Pinckney Street
(843) 937-8800 or (800) 505-8983
Gibbes Museum of Art. 135 Meeting St. (843) 722-2706, website
Hours: Tues-Sat 10 – 5pm, Sun 1-5pm. Tickets: $9 for Adults. Nationally ranked art museum dedicated to exploring the visual culture of Charleston, the Low Country and the American South.
Farmers Market, Marion Square, Saturdays, 8am-1pm, from March-December. Gourmet home-cooked foods, Low Country produce and works of art.
Spoleto Festival, a 17-day music, theater and dance festival with over 120 performances in late May. Events range from free to $80/ticket. Various locations throughout the city. (843) 722-2764, website
As a sister festival to Spoleto, Piccolo Spoleto focuses on local artists and provides cultural experiences to a wide audience regardless of age, economic or social circumstances. Tickets are generally cheaper than Spoleto and over half the performances are admission-free. (843) 724-7305, website.
The Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon is a museum exploring early Charleston history. Hours: Mon-Sun 9am-5pm Tickets: $7, AAA discount available. 122 East Bay Street (843) 727-2165, website.
Watch locals weave sweetgrass baskets outside the Old City Market, a busy market in use since the late 1800’s. Over 100 vendors sell souvenirs and local foods. Find it on Market Street between Meeting Street and East Bay Street. Hours are daily from 10am-dark.
The Old Slave Mart Museum is housed in a former slave auction gallery and explains Charleston’s role in both the domestic and trans-Atlantic slave trade during the 18th and 19th centuries. 6 Chalmers Street. Ticket: $7. Hours: Mon-Sat 9am-5pm. (843) 958-6467
St Philip’s Church, 142 Church Street. (843) 722-7734, website
St Michael’s Church, 71 Broad Street. (843) 723-0603, website
Visit the colonial-era Magnolia Plantation & Gardens for a taste of pre-war Charleston life. Admission is expensive but the house and gardens are exquisitely preserved. Basic Admission $15, Plantation House $7, Nature Train $7, Nature Boat $7, Audubon Swamp $7. Hours: 8am-dusk, 365 days a year, winter hours may be shorter so call before you visit.
3550 Ashley River Rd, (800) 367-3517, website
Explore alligator-filled swamps at Cyprus Gardens. Hours: Daily 9am-5pm. Last admission is at 4pm. Tickets $10. 3030 Cypress Gardens Rd. Moncks Corner. (843) 553-0515, website
The Civil War began when the Confederate army opened fire on Fort Sumter. The fort is only accessible by private boat, tour boat or ferry. Spirit Line Cruises offers 2-3 tours a day departing from Liberty Square at Aquarium Wharf. Tickets $15. www.spiritlinecruises.com (800) 789-3678
Fort Sumter Park Website
Charleston Scuba, 335 Savannah Hwy. (843) 763-3483, website
King Street, one of Charleston’s main commercial drags, has blocks of beautifully assorted high-end clothing boutiques, cafés, restaurants and antique stores. Many antique stores are located between Market Street and Broad Street. For clothing, Berlin’s Clothiers (114 King Street, (800) 722-1665, website) has been around since 1883 and still offers a sophisticated, if slightly expensive, selection of clothing.
The design center, King Street north of Calhoun Street, was once home to 1950’s furniture and appliance stores, but has been transformed over the last few years into a quirky shopping and dining destination as high-end furnishing stores have taken up residence. Charlestonians search for the perfect bottle of wine at the Trusted Palate (563 King Street, (843) 577-7271, website) or Felice Designs (424 King Street, (843) 853-3354, website) for its one-of-a-kind jewelry, and Lulan Artisans (469 King St, (843) 722-0118, website, Mondays are by appointment only) for its hand-woven textiles.
Mary Norton, designer of many a Hollywood starlet’s favorite bag, launched her eponymous line in Charleston and her flagship is at 318 King Street. (843) 724 -1081, website
Sweetgrass baskets from the Old City Market are a Charleston must-buy. Sweetgrass, a native dune grass, is woven by the Gullah into baskets which were used functionally during the plantation era and are now objects of art, coveted by visitors and locals alike.
Also take home tins of she-crab soup to share the flavors of Low Country cooking with friend’s back home.
Shop for Low Country spices, recipe books and original art to take home at the Farmer’s Market in Marion Square, Saturdays, 8am-1pm, from March-December.