History at Home
First, pop into the Charleston Museum, an institution that explores the history of South Carolina Lowcountry life via a series of fascinating and family-friendly exhibits. With Revolutionary War-and Civil War-era weaponry and interactive pirate-centric activities for kids, the Charleston Museum is anything but stale.
Middleton Place is an 18th-century plantation home that interprets the four generations of the Middleton family. Guides lead visitors through the home, its vast gardens, and its stableyard, discovering plantation life from its earliest days through Emancipation and the early 20th century. Classical gardens bloom with azaleas in spring; it’s a popular spot for Southern weddings.
See more floral displays at Magnolia Plantation, where the oldest public gardens in America bloom throughout the year in magnificent fashion.
Drayton Hall is a perfectly restored Palladian plantation home filled with quirks, from false doors that lead nowhere to children’s growth charts that are 300 years old. Make a solemn stop at the grounds’ African-American Cemetery, which puts into perspective the origins of Drayton Hall’s slaves and their place in America’s turbulent history.
Finish up at Boone Hall Plantation in nearby Mount Pleasant. Once known for its cotton and pecan production, the plantation is now home to a working farm and a theatre that explores Gullah culture.
Aside from its iconic plantation homes (which are mostly further afield), much of Charleston remains a walkable, bikeable, tourable city. Many popular sights and attractions can be reached on foot, by bike or by horse-and-carriage.
First, hop on a tour with Palmetto Carriage, the oldest carriage tour company in Charleston. Explore up to 30 blocks of the historical city; expert guides expound on the opulent mansions, gardens, churches, parks and more along the way.
Pick up some goods at City Market. The gastronomic heart of Charleston, this public marketplace has been open since 1804, serving up speciality foods and artisan crafts like sweetgrass baskets (a centuries-old handicraft that incorporates West African weaving techniques and local materials).
Continue shopping along King Street, where antiques shops, modern art galleries, gift shops and cafes await splurgers and bargain hunters alike. (No surprise this stretch has been named one of the country's best shopping streets by U.S. News and World Report.)
Stroll by Rainbow Row. This string of 13 brightly colored pastel houses located along East Bay Road has been carefully preserved and offers some of the best photo ops in the city.
Take some time at Waterfront Park. Watch sailboats ply the water from old-fashion park benches or observe the little ones as they splash through the spray fountain. (It’s a great place to cool off after long, hot summer days.)
If it’s water you want, get even closer to the sea on a daytime cruise with the 84-foot tall ship Schooner Pride. Bring a picnic lunch and buy a glass of wine onboard. Then enjoy views of Fort Sumter, the Battery, Patriots Point and even a dolphin or two as they race along the ship’s bow.
Catch a show at the Dock Street Theatre, a 400-year-old playhouse that produces over 100 theatrical and musical performances each season. The theatre’s wrought-iron balconies and towering sandstone facade onced housed a hotel … where Charleston’s famous Planter’s Punch was born!
Speaking of, have a taste of Charleston’s most famous tipple at the Pavilion Bar. Insiders recommend this rooftop spot for its perfect sunsets and perfect cocktails, including a Pavilion Punch that kicks off the night in sweet style.
Charlestown is a foodie town, say the B&B owners who live and work in this genteel, gastronomic city. They’re not wrong! Traditional Southern fine dining is found all over, while tucked-away cafes offer different flavors, cool cocktails and great bargains.
Get a taste of upscale down-home dining at Magnolia’s, which many innkeepers mentioned for its modern takes on traditional South Carolina cooking.
Poogan’s Porch gets a shoutout for its farm-to-table approach to Southern cooking and a menu of she-crab soup, fried alligator salad and cornmeal-fried catfish with sorghum butter.
Charleston Grill offers very fine dining with a side of live jazz, plus accolades from Wine Spectator magazine for its wine program. This is the place to celebrate your anniversary or special occasion.
Seafood fans will love the fare and the ambiance at Hank’s, overlooking City Market. Slurp oysters and peel shrimp at the open raw bar.
Hall’s Chophouse wins awards for its prime steaks and chops. But it’s the Sunday Gospel Brunch that draws crowds seeking bloody Marys with a kick (and live music, too).
Cru Cafe is a modern restaurant that combines Lowcountry flavors and eclectic, global influences (think local seafood with Thai flavors or duck confit with candied pecans). The extensive beer list is filled with local brews.
Its very name stands for Food is Good, so you know it has to be true. FIG is a laidback favorite among locals who like its bargain-filled wine list and locally sourced ingredients.
SNOB (this one stands for Slightly North of Broad) isn’t snobby in the slightest, with a friendly staff and an affordable, creative slate of small and medium plates.
Insider scoop says the signature biscuits at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit are among the best they’ve ever had. A true Charleston “can’t miss,” these biscuits are best slathered with pimento cheese and chased with a strong French press.
Need more pimento for lunch? Pick up a picnic at Brown Dog Deli and try the fried-green-tomato BLT piled high with pimento cheese, Neuske’s bacon, and pepper jelly.
If you’ve had enough pimento but queso is still on your mind, Minero dishes up exemplary Mexican eats and affordable tequila cocktails on East Bay Street.
Festivals and Events
The Spoleto Festival is one of the country’s top performing-arts festivals, offering performances by renowned opera singers, actors, dancers, choreographers, symphonies, choirs and more. With premieres by Philip Glass and Arthur Miller and performances by greats like Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma, the Spoleto Festival is a cultural hotbed and a spring highlight for visitors to Charleston.
Piccolo Spoleto offers a local accompaniment to its parent festival, focusing on Southeastern U.S. artists and young performers during two weeks of visual arts exhibits, classical music, jazz, dance, theatre, poetry, film and children’s activities.
The Charleston Wine and Food Festival is a hit (no surprise, given the foodie cred found in this city). Meet local chefs, the farmers and purveyors that supply them, and the wine pros that pair the perfect sips. Visit the Culinary Village, attend workshops and cooking classes, and enjoy lavish dinners with Charleston’s top chefs.
Food (or one particular food, anyway) is the focal point at The Lowcountry Oyster Festival in January, where oyster-shucking and oyster-eating locals plow through some 70,000 pounds of the namesake bivalve.
Finally, The Cooper River Bridge Run brings together thousands of Charleston runners for a 10-kilometer road race each year. Proceeds go to local charities, while the entire community spectates and cheers on participants.
Travel Tips from Innkeepers
Allie Bankart of Zero George Street recommends you trust your innkeeper: “Guests really value our insider, local perspective and we try to recommend events, restaurants and activities that aren’t too touristy. ... We love to send our guests to gallery exhibits and local events that you wouldn’t find in a traditional guidebook.”
Charlestown experts at The Inn at Middleton Place recommend walking, biking, or really anything but driving, as “Charleston traffic can be congested at times.” Instead, hoof it (or hire a carriage) and get a slower look at the city: “The amount of stores and fun things you will see are greater that way anyways.”
According to the expert staff at the Battery Carriage House, “There is never a bad time to visit Charleston!” Check out an events calendar before planning your trip, because “there are a lot of festivals and different events going on that bring a lot of people into the city.”
Agree the Ashley Inn B&B hosts: “You can’t pick a bad time to come to Charleston” but “April and October tend to be the months with the best weather.”
The 27 State Street Bed and Breakfast crew recommend Christmas for your Charleston visit: “Although December can be cold, there are many Christmas events to enjoy throughout the month.” Check out Christmas in Charleston for packages, events, tours, and more, all with holiday flair.
And our favorite calming tip comes from the French Quarter Inn: “Sometimes when the hurriedness of life and work gets to be a little much, I like to get up early and park at the Battery and watch the sunrise. It is almost always empty at this time of morning. You can stand along the sea wall and breathe in the salty air and it brings me to a place of calm.”
Those are words of advice we think we can live by.
Elliott House Inn's innkeepers suggest the following for out-of-towners looking for a traditional Charleston experience: "I always recommend that they take time to do a carriage ride, stroll through the market, and dine at Charleston staples such as Magnolias and 82 Queen. Locals and frequent guests are totally different. They are looking for the newest additions and different things Charleston has to offer, so basically upper King Street district!"
"March to May and September to November are the best months to enjoy Charleston," according to HarbourView's innkeepers. "The temperatures are mild and the skies are lovely and pink and absolutely beautiful. The special events offered during those months include the Wine and Food Festival, Charleston Fashion Week, the Spring Homes and Gardens tours, Spoleto & Piccolo Festivals, and the Fall Tours of Homes and Gardens, just to name a few. Although December can be cold, there are many Christmas events to enjoy throughout the month. Room rates are also lower at this time. A good website to view the holiday festivities is Christmas in Charleston."
—by Dara Continenza