Charleston, South Carolina

“After you eat the food here, you might not want to go back home,” says a taxi driver in Charleston, South Carolina. “That’s all people do when they come here: eat, eat, eat!” 

In fact, while Charleston has some of the country’s best food, that’s far from its only attraction. It is a beautifully preserved, historic city (founded in 1670 as Charles Town) where you hear church bells chime on the hour, palmettos rustling, and horses’ hooves clip-clopping on cobblestone streets. You see rows of homes painted in a rainbow of pastel colors and smell the fragrant odors of camellias and azaleas. There are sprawling plantations, many museums, Civil War sites, beaches, and boat tours of Charleston Harbor. You could easily spend a week here, but if you have only a couple of days to spare, you’ll still be able to enjoy some of the best Charleston has to offer.

Called the Holy City because it offered freedom of religion hundreds of years ago, it is home to 134 churches, including the South’s oldest Baptist church and oldest surviving religious structure (St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, completed in 1761). St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, built in 1872, has a 265-foot steeple, and no building is allowed to exceed that height.

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This travel article from BJT’s Margie Goldsmith received an honorable mention at last week’s prestigious Folio: awards.

Look around Charleston’s historic district and you’ll see flickering gas lanterns even during the day, ornate cast-iron gates leading to flowering gardens, and antebellum architecture. There’s history everywhere, especially at Fort Sumter, where soldiers fired the first shots of the Civil War. 

Tours of plantations and their slave quarters offer reminders of another sad era. The plantations grew white beans and squash as well as corn to create grits, cornbread, and bourbon; but it was the Carolina Plantation Gold rice that made Charleston the wealthiest city in the British colonies. One reason rice was so abundant was that there were enough slaves to tend to the crops. Forty percent of enslaved Africans were brought to North America through Charleston’s port.

You can take a horse-and-carriage tour of the city, but the carriages are too big to enter hidden gardens and narrow alleyways, so you’ll see much more by walking. Bulldog Tours offers a “Walk with History Tour,” led by knowledgeable and entertaining guides.

One such guide led her group to four historic buildings, one on each corner of Broad and Meeting streets (known as the Four Corners of Law): a church, the federal courthouse/U.S. post office, the county courthouse, and city hall. Pointing to each, the guide said, “It’s hail, mail, jail, and bail.” As the group moved on to the next location, she noted that Charleston is a city of American firsts: first public library (built in 1700, but demolished after 14 years), first museum (Charleston Museum, which has operated continuously, albeit in several locations, since 1773), first native-born architect (Robert Mills, though this claim has been disputed), and the aforementioned first shots of the Civil War. 

Many houses in the historic district have black metal discs on the walls that function as earthquake bolts. These discs—which were added to buildings after an 1886 earthquake destroyed much of the city—connect to a rod that bolts the house’s masonry to the timber frame. Because the bolts are highly visible from the outside, craftsmen created them in decorative shapes such as circles, stars, and crosses. 

The entrances to some homes have pineapple sculptures, a symbol of hospitality. Seafaring captains would return to Charleston from East Coast ports and tropical lands with pineapples they’d taken as souvenirs. They’d impale the pineapples atop the porch railings—a sign that they’d come home and were receiving visitors. 

Be sure to visit the Battery, originally a defensive seawall where the two Charleston rivers meet and also a promenade where some of the city’s most magnificent antebellum homes are located. The Battery’s Edmondston-Alston House, a city landmark that is open to the public, is the only downtown residence with a view of Charleston Harbor. 

Charles Edmondston, a Scottish immigrant and shipping merchant, built this Federal-style house in 1817 and lived there with his wife and family until 1838, when financial problems forced him to sell the property to Charles Alston, a member of one of South Carolina’s wealthiest rice-planting dynasties. On April 12, 1861, General P.G.T. Beauregard watched the bombardment of Fort Sumter from the home’s veranda.

On display in the parlor is a lithograph copy of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession from the U.S., which was signed in Charleston in 1860, as well as the 1865 pardon document from President Andrew Johnson that restored ownership of Alston’s confiscated property to him. Look closely at the penmanship on each document—almost no one writes that exquisitely today. Look, too, at the photographs on the wall—no one is smiling because dentists back then mainly did “tooth drawing.”

In the dining room is a large wooden table that opens to seat 22 people. Dinner preparations began in the early morning for a three-hour meal with up to nine courses. The family slaves rose early to shop for ingredients at Charleston City Market, a complex established in the 1790s. The City Market is now a four-block-long indoor complex offering everything from Carolina rice, grits, pickled okra, and children’s toys to souvenirs and the region’s famous sweetgrass baskets. 

These grass containers were sewn from the sweet-smelling plants in Lowcountry marshes. They were originally created by the Gullahs, African-Americans from Lowcountry plantations who created a new culture.During the colonial period, slaves with basket-making skills were among the most valuable because baskets were necessary for both agricultural and household use. For over 300 years, the sweetgrass baskets have been handmade, and they are prized by both tourists and locals.

Your itinerary should include Magnolia Plantation on the Ashley River. Founded in 1676 by a family from Barbados and now run by its 12th generation, this property has America’s oldest public gardens and has been open to visitors since about 1870. Luminaries ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Ford to Orson Welles and George Gershwin have come to this tranquil place, which features towering oaks, fragrant flowers, and a swamp with egrets, alligators, and other wildlife. It was here that John J. Audubon obtained waterfowl specimens for his paintings, and two of his large prints hang in the family home. The 700 acres of grounds and gardens are planted to offer the best blooms during every season, including azaleas, magnolias, and camellias.

When dinnertime arrives, you can find plenty of restaurants whose cuisine explains why visitors rave about Charleston’s food. But you’ll be just as impressed by the city’s long history, striking architecture, and Southern charm.


Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS:

Charleston, which is on an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, is South Carolina’s largest and oldest city. Founded in 1670, it is bursting with Southern charm, hospitality, and magnificent spring blooms. It offers history, antebellum architecture, historical plantations, and enough delicious cuisine to satisfy the fussiest foodie.

CLIMATE:

The best times to visit are spring and fall. Summer is hot with stifling humidity; in January and February, temperatures drop into the 50s.

GETTING THERE:

Charleston International Airport, where Atlantic Aviation and Landmark Aviation operate FBOs for private aircraft, has a 9,001-foot runway. Six commercial airlines serve the airport, which is 12 miles from the center of downtown.

ACTIVITIES: 

You can explore plantations or take a ferry to Fort Sumter National Monument, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Other options include an historical walking tour, surfing at Folly Beach, and golfing at nearby Kiawah Island or Wild Dunes on Isle of Palms. A walking food tour such as Bulldog Tour’s “Savor the Flavors of Charleston” is one of the best ways to sample specialties like fried green tomatoes and she-crab soup (a creamy treat made of crabs and the roe from female crabs). 


Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS: 

Belmond Charleston Place (A), in the heart of the city, has 434 guest rooms, including 47 suites and two presidential suites, plus a spa, an excellent restaurant, a large gym, a pool, and a two-level club. Hotel Bennett (A), a pet- and family-friendly new upscale hotel on fashionable King Street, offers a spa, fitness center, inside roof bar facing the pool, and 179 guest rooms. The inexpensive and spotless Cambria Hotel Charleston Riverview (B), a new property just a short distance from downtown, has 126 upscale guest rooms including 24 suites, a restaurant, a bar, and an outdoor pool.

CUISINE: 

Charleston Grill (A+) is a AAA Four Diamond and Forbes Four-Star Award establishment that offers live jazz and a 1,700-bottle wine list. Chef Michelle Weaver serves contemporary Southern cuisine such as foie gras with poached pears, candied ginger, and cinnamon raisin toast; and melt-in-your-mouth fresh flounder with grilled leeks…Husk (A+) offers traditional Southern fare in a more-than-century-old former home. The chef, Lowcountry native Travis Grimes, exclusively features Southern-grown ingredients. Options include slow-smoked pork ribs with bourbon honey glaze, toasted pecan, mountain apples, and fried cornbread; and tender, crispy catfish with sweet peppers, sugar snap peas, and fingerling potatoes…Nico Oysters + Seafood (A+), on Shem Creek, has a large selection of tasty oysters, which it serves both raw and grilled. 


Charleston’s Ghosts

Charleston is supposedly the most haunted city on the Eastern Seaboard, and over 300 years’ worth of unsettled spirits are said to lurk around every corner. There are almost as many “haunted” tours and sites as there are restaurants: you can opt for ghostly pub tour crawls, haunted walking tours, haunted jails and graveyards, and even a haunted evening horse and carriage tour.

Speaking of spirits, haints were said to be the restless evil spirits of the dead, and to keep them away and protect themselves from being taken by the haints, residents of Charleston used to place buckets of water on their porches each day. Eventually, tired of putting out buckets, they painted their porch roofs the color of water, thinking this would fool the haints. Even today, the roofs of many porches are painted “haint blue,” a color that varies in shades from robin’s egg blue to aquamarine.

Editor’s note: The author received complimentary air transportation to Charleston, accommodations at Belmond Charleston Place, and meals at the Charleston Grill, Husk, and Nico.

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