Charleston, South Carolina
Wandering through the city's famous Historic District, you would swear it is a movie set. Dozens of church steeples punctuate the low skyline, and horse-drawn carriages pass centuries-old mansions and town houses, their stately salons offering a crystal-laden and parquet-floored version of Southern comfort. Outside, magnolia-filled gardens overflow with carefully tended heirloom plants. At first glance, the city resembles an 18th-century etching come to life—but look closer and you'll see that block after block of old structures have been restored. Happily, after three centuries of wars, epidemics, fires, and hurricanes, Charleston has prevailed and is now one of the South's best-preserved cities.
Although home to Fort Sumter, where the bloodiest war in the nation's history began, Charleston is also famed for its elegant houses. These handsome mansions are showcases for the "Charleston style," a distinctive look that is reminiscent of the West Indies, and for good reason. Before coming to the Carolinas in the late 17th century, many early British colonists first settled on Barbados and other Caribbean islands. In that warm and humid climate they built homes with high ceilings and rooms opening onto broad "piazzas" (porches) at each level to catch welcome sea breezes. As a result, to quote the words of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, who visited in 1796, "One does not boast in Charleston of having the most beautiful house, but the coolest." Preserved through the hard times that followed the Civil War and an array of natural disasters, many of Charleston's earliest public and private buildings still stand. Thanks to a rigorous preservation movement and strict Board of Architectural Review guidelines, the city's new structures blend in with the old. In many cases, recycling is the name of the game—antique handmade bricks literally lay the foundation for new homes. But although locals do dwell—on certain literal levels—in the past, the city is very much a town of today.
Take, for instance, the internationally heralded Spoleto Festival USA. For 17 days every spring, arts patrons from around the world come to enjoy international concerts, dance performances, operas, and plays at various venues citywide. Day in and day out, diners can feast at upscale restaurants, shoppers can look for museum-quality paintings and antiques, and lovers of the outdoors can explore Charleston's outlying beaches, parks, and marshes. But as cosmopolitan as the city has become, it's still the South, and just beyond the city limits are farm stands cooking up boiled peanuts, the state's official snack. Everyone starts a tour of Charleston in downtown's famous Historic District. Roughly bounded by Lockwood Boulevard on the Ashley River to the west, Calhoun Street to the north, East Bay Street on the Cooper River to the east, and the Battery to the south, this fairly compact area of 800 acres contains nearly 2,000 historic homes and buildings. The peninsula is divided up into several neighborhoods, starting from the south and moving north, including the Battery, South of Broad, Lower King Street, and Upper King Street ending near the "Crosstown," where U.S. 17 connects downtown to Mount Pleasant and West Ashley. You'll see no skyscrapers in the downtown area, because building heights are strictly regulated to maintain the city's historic setting. In the 1970s, most department stores decamped for suburban malls, turning King Street buildings into rows of (architecturally significant) empty shells.
Soon, preservation-conscious groups began to save these beauties, and by the mid-1980s the shopping district was revived with the addition of the Omni Hotel (now Charleston Place). Big-name retailers quickly saw the opportunity in this attractive city and settled in as well. Lower King thrives and Upper King has been revived in recent years, with many new businesses—hip bars and restaurants in particular—targeting the city's young, socially active population. Look up at the old-timey tile work at the entrances; inevitably it will have the names of the original businesses. Beyond downtown, the Ashley River hugs the west side of the peninsula; the region on the far shore is called West Ashley. The Cooper River runs along the east side of the peninsula, with Mount Pleasant on the opposite side and cCarleston Harbor in between. Lastly, there are outlying sea islands: James Island with its Folly Beach, John's Island, Wadmalaw Island, Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island, Isle of Palms, and Sullivan's Island. Each has its own appealing attractions, though John's and Wadmalaw have farms instead of beaches. Everything that entails crossing the bridges is best explored by car or bus.
Yes, to eat. Of course, to eat. This is, after all, Charleston, which is blessed with a bevy of Southern-inflected selections, from barbecue parlors to fish shacks, to traditional, white-tablecloth restaurants. The attention to Southern foods has increased in recent years, largely because of improved exposure, large food festivals like Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in New York, and regional emphases. Charleston, to its credit, rests at distinguished crossroads, benefiting from established stock, and newer flourishes, such as the nationally recognized Charleston Wine & Food Festival.
And the city's status continues to rise, boosted by a group of James Beard Foundation repeat award winners. Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill, Mike Lata of FIG, and Sean Brock of Husk each earned the designation of Best Chef in the Southeast, in successive years. But the city boasts other prodigious talents, too: Jeremiah Bacon of The Macintosh, Craig Diehl of Cypress, Michelle Weaver of Charleston Grill, Ken Vedrinski of Trattoria Lucca, Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad, Nico Romo of Fish, and Josh Keeler of Two Boroughs Larder. It's the establishment of the New South, circa now.
As for attire, Charleston invites a casual atmosphere, appropriate for jeans or slacks, sundresses or skirts, and in many cases, even flip-flops. Don't forget, Charleston was recognized as the Most Mannerly City in the union by Marjabelle Young Stewart. Which means that residents are slow to judge (or, at the least, that they're doing so very quietly). But on the whole, the city encourages comfort and unhurried, easy pacing. The result is an idyllic setting in which to enjoy shrimp and grits, oysters on the half shell, and other homegrown delicacies from the land and sea that jointly grant the city its impressive culinary standing.
Charleston has gained a reputation, both nationally and internationally, not only as one of the most historic and beautiful cities in the country but also as one that offers superior accommodations. It is a city known for its lovingly restored mansions that have been converted into 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 are boutique hotels that provide a one-of-a-kind experience. Most are within walking distance of the shops, restaurants, and museums housed within the nearly 800-acre district.
Chain hotels pepper the busy, car-trafficked areas (like Meeting Street). In addition, there are chain properties in the nearby areas of West Ashley, Mount Pleasant, and North Charleston, where you'll find plenty of Holiday Inns, Hampton Inns, Marriott Courtyards, and La Quinta Inns. Mount Pleasant is considered the most upscale suburb; North Charleston is the least, but if you need to be close to the airport, are participating in events in its Coliseum, or aim to shop the outlet malls there, it is a practical, less expensive alternative.
Overall, Charleston is a lifetime memory, and to know it is to love it. The city's scorecard for repeat visitors is phenomenal. Now Charleston is a port of embarkation for cruise ships, and most cruisers wisely plan on a pre- or post-cruise stay. The premier wedding and honeymoon destination also draws many couples back for their anniversaries.
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, and cigar lounges. Rooftop bars are a particular Charleston tradition, and the city has several good ones. Many restaurants offer live entertainment on at least one weekend night, and these tend to cater to an older crowd. The Upper King area especially has grown in recent years, overtaking the Market area in terms of popularity and variety. 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. Last call is usually 1:30.
The shopping scene that exists today is a far cry—more like a shout for joy—from what existed here in the 1980s. In the not-so-distant past, King Street was still lined with retail shops with 1950s' facades, which sold merchandise that was not much more current. When Charleston Place (then the Omni) first opened its gallery of upscale shops in 1986, a spark was ignited that has continued to fire up a whole new generation of shops.
One-of-a-kind, locally owned boutiques, where the hottest trends in fashion hang on the racks, make up an important part of the contemporary Charleston shopping experience. Long-established, Christian Michi anchors the corner of Market and King across from the former Saks Fifth Avenue; its window displays are like artworks, and its innovative and European designs are treasured by well-heeled, sophisticated clients. Forever 21 has replaced Saks, which is indicative of Charleston's demographics. More mature shoppers are pleased to find such high-end shops that sell either their own designer fashions or carry names that are found in Paris, New York, and South Beach, like Kate Spade in the Shops at Charleston Place.
High-end shoe stores make up a category that tends to draw repeat visitors. The number and quality of shoe stores on King Street is surprising for the city's size. Family-owned shops like Berlin's are city institutions. Newer is Farushga, which is turning heads with its emphasis on handmade, cutting-edge Italian leather shoes; you'll often see boots and accessories there that are usually found only in Europe.
The Upper King District has furniture shops interspersed between the clothing boutiques and restaurants. These locally owned shops give the personal service that has always been a hallmark of existing King Street merchants in this area. The revival of this neighborhood has sparked a new wave of home-fashion stores; long-term antiques hunters, accustomed to buying on Lower King, have been lured uptown as well. Haute Design is one of the most tasteful of these shops, offering a wide selection of antiques, particularly lighting, imported from France and Italy. Charleston has more than 25 fine-art galleries, making it one of the top art towns in America. Local Lowcountry art, which includes both traditional landscapes of the region as well as more contemporary takes, is among the most prevalent styles here. Such innovative artists as Betty Smith and Fred Jamar, a Belgian known for his whimsical cityscapes, can give you a piece of Charleston to keep close until your next visit. Collectors will find high-end nationally and internationally renowned work in such exquisite galleries as Ann Long Fine Art and the more contemporary Martin Gallery.
King Street is Charleston's main street and the major shopping corridor downtown. The latest lines of demarcation divide the street into districts: Lower King (from Broad Street to Market Street) is the Antiques District, lined with high-end antiques dealers; Middle King (from Market Street to Calhoun Street) is now called the Fashion District and is a mix of national chains like Banana Republic and Pottery Barn, alternative shops, and locally owned landmark stores and boutiques; and Upper King (from Calhoun Street to Spring Street) has been dubbed the Design District, an up-and-coming area becoming known for its furniture and interior-design stores selling home fashion. Check out Second Sundays on King, when the street closes for pedestrian use from Calhoun Street to Queen Street, and visit the Farmers' Market in Marion Square throughout the summer months.
The Market area is a cluster of shops and restaurants centered around the City Market. Sweetgrass basket weavers work here, and you can buy the resulting wares, although these artisan-crafts have become expensive. There are T-shirts and souvenir stores here as well as upscale boutiques. In the covered, open-air market, shops are open daily and vendors have stalls with everything from jewelry to dresses and purses. And, thanks to a beautiful 2011 remodel, you can peruse the middle section of the market in enclosed, air conditioned comfort.