How much do I love the city of Charleston, let me count the ways…
It is a city rich in history, laced with cobblestone streets and dotted with palm trees. Each pastel colored house is more elegant than the next. There are bright flower boxes in every window and gas lanterns flickering in the evening. It makes you feel as if you have been transported back to the 18th century and want to throw on a hoop skirt and stroll the park with a doily umbrella in hand.
I love a small walkable city that doesn’t feel overwhelming. It reminds me a bit of Boston in that sense. You could cover the whole place in two days but I would recommend three.
The top 5 things you should do in Charleston are:
1. Walking Tour
2. Fort Sumter
3. Old Slave Mart Museum
4. Nathaniel Russell House
5. Tour a Plantation
1. Walking Tour
My favorite thing to do in Charleston is walk around the city. Don’t miss the picturesque Rainbow Row, the pineapple fountain in Water Front Park, or a stroll through White Point Gardens/ The Battery and see where pirates once hung from the gallows. St.Phillips Church was bombed during the Civil War while a mass was in session, but that didn’t deter the priest from finishing his sermon. While in that area, seek out Philadelphia Alley, a cobblestone alley way that is so picturesque, Darious Rucker filmed his music video there. In City Market, you can shop for crafts and goods from local artisans such as the sweetgrass baskets the city is so well known for. For more main stream, high-end shopping, head to King Street.
Note: please avoid the carriage rides. I promise you, horses do not want to drag around 20 tourists on an 80 degree day with their nose stuck in the exhaust of a car. There is a growing movement to ban these tours with 24 accidents occurring in the past two years. For more information, visit the Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates.
2. Fort Sumter
A 30 minute ferry ride will take you out to the place where the first shot of the civil war took place, marking the beginning of the bloodiest war in our nation’s history. If you are lucky, you might see dolphins on your way. I took the 9:30 trip, which was the first of the day. We had just over and hour to walk the grounds and imagine what it must have been like to be crouched on this tiny island with canons hurling at you from nearby Fort Moultrie. Interestingly, the first death of the Civil War took place on Fort Sumter, but it was accidental. A gun backfired, killing the soldier instantly. Fort Sumter is made of 7 million bricks, all hand-made by slaves. If you look closely, you can see their fingerprints. I had the honor of being a part of the flag raising ceremony, which was quite emotional. Inside the small museum, you can see the original tattered flag with only 33 stars, that had flown above the island. When A projectile shattered the flagstaff, a soldier ran through the battlefield to rescue the flag, nail it to wooden pole and re-raise it. You can still see the small nail holes along the edge.
3. Old Slave Mart Museum
A visit to the Old Slave Mart will give a glimpse into Charleston’s checkered past. It was just unimaginable to me that I was standing in the exact location where human beings were auctioned off like cattle just because of the color of their skin. Since the long arduous journey from Africa left the slaves weak and sick, they had to be “prepared” for the auction block. Traders made them exercise to appear strong, girls had oil put in their hair to make it shiny, any grey hairs were plucked, and their skin was greased to give it a healthy glow. There was even a price list for what a human life was worth- $100 for a 1 year old baby. I had to fight back tears looking at a pair of baby shackles. I couldn’t imagine having my children ripped from my arms and never see them again. As hard as it is to learn about these atrocities, it is also very important so we can be sure they never happen again.
4. Nathaniel Russel Home
This 30 minute house tour is worth it for the three story floating staircase alone. Nathaniel Russel was a wealthy merchant. His Federal-style House was built in 1808. The furniture was all built in Charleston and it is filled with antiques. The mantle place had been meticulously renovated. Twenty-two layers of paint had to be removed with a heat gun and chisel in order to reveal the ornate carvings underneath.
5. Tour a Plantation
A visit to Charleston is not complete without exploring one of the plantations just outside of the city. Boone Hall Plantation is where The Notebook was filmed. My favorite part is driving in between the huge old trees that almost create a tunnel with their windy arms and Spanish moss hanging down from the branches. Walk along the old slave quarters and learn about the Gullah culture by watching one of their live performances. You can tour the home and take a coach tour through the gardens and learn about the cotton trade.
Magnolia Gardens is another great place to visit. Here, you will have several options of different tours to take which you pay for separately. We did the Nature Trolley Tour and it was really exciting to see alligators, turtles and many bird species. After that, we walked through the extensive gardens. We didn’t have time to do the Audubon swamp walk or the house tour. It would actually take six hours to do all of the tours they offer.
The benefit of doing Magnolia Gardens, is that it is on the same road as Drayton Hall and Middleton Place if you want to visit those as well. They are just 25 outside of the city. They each offer something quite different. Middleton Place is the oldest public garden in America. It is a beautiful landscape with a herd of sheep grazing the fields.
Founded in 1738, Drayton Hall is the earliest and finest example of Palladian architecture in the United States. It can be found in every architecture book. Guided house tours are offered on the hour. Check the times before going since you are not able to just walk through the house on your own.
You can’t eat a bad meal in Charleston. My favorite place to eat was Poogan’s Porch, which is named after the dog who made that porch his home and it is believed his ghost still does. The rose sangria was amazing and they are known for the best friend green tomatoes in town. Although Husk is raved about, we were never able to get a reservation. Eli’s Table was wonderful. Don’t miss their memorable mojitos! Our other favorite place to eat is Brown Dog Deli. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you will have a tough time in this town. Southern dishes are very meat heavy and each place only had one veggie option that was not even listed on the menu. We couldn’t even find a place that served pizza or pasta. Brown Dog Deli had an entire veggie menu! The Santa Fe Wrap was amazing and the place has a fun, casual feel. There are now two locations in town.
Where to stay
While you definitely want to be in the historic district, hotels do get a bit pricey. I found the Mill House Hotel to be a good middle ground for us. It has historic charm, a courtyard that offers champagne toasts each afternoon, and a beautiful pool. Best of all was the location because could walk to everything in town. They kindly upgraded our room so that we had a little patio that looked over the pool. If money is no object, check out Zero George or The French Quarter Inn. For families, head to The Double Tree by Hilton.
What to do with Kids
Charleston is a perfect place to bring kids. The city is clean and safe, there is a history lesson around every corner, and there are beautiful beaches just outside of town. Kids would love The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, The South Carolina Aquarium, the petting zoo at Middleton Place, and climbing aboard the USS Yorktown. Charleston Outdoor Adventures offers kayak tours through the lowcountry where you can see dolphins and sea turtles. Venture 20 minutes outside the city to Sullivan Island, where you can relax on the beach and explore the flats. Hilton Head is just two hours south of Charleston. I did not have my children with me on this trip, but I can not wait to bring them to Charleston.
Sometimes I visit a city and even if I had a great time, I feel that I can check it off the list. Every time I leave Charleston, I leave hungry to come back for more. I will definitely be back to visit this beautiful city.