Known to locals as the Holy City, Charleston has it all…a vibrant Southern culture, warm hospitality, rich history, striking architecture, celebrated restaurants and hotels, upscale shopping, beautiful gardens, and stunning beach communities. It is a city to fall in love with and return to many times! Charleston is a popular destination at any time of the year, so plan ahead to make sure you don’t miss out on the best restaurants and places to stay.
For upscale accommodations, Travel + Leisure Magazine recommends the John Rutledge House Inn, The Hotel Bennett, The Restoration, Wentworth Mansion and The Spectator Hotel as the top places to stay in Charleston. But if upscale is not in your budget, there are hundreds of other charming options, from historic bed and breakfasts to funky beach bungalows. Since we wanted to visit historic gardens, my husband and I stayed at the charming Inn at Middleton Place, about 16 miles from downtown Charleston. Middleton Place, considered “one of the most interesting and important gardens in America” by the Garden Club of America, is a must-see if you love nature and beautiful formal gardens.
There is so much to see and do in Charleston, that it is a little overwhelming. If it is your first visit, get the lay of the land and start with a tour. There are multiple ways to take a tour of Charleston – by bus, horse-drawn carriage, on a boat or a guided or self-guided walking tour. You can also purchase a comprehensive tour pass at TourPass.com/Charleston that includes admission to over forty area attractions. To understand the rich and complex history of Charleston, spend some time at The Charleston Museum, founded in 1824, and known as “America’s First Museum.”
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens – Still owned by descendants of the original owners, the Drayton family, this plantation on the Ashley River was established in 1676. It is listed with Travel + Leisure Magazine as “One of America’s Most Beautiful Gardens” and is considered the oldest public garden in America. There are many tour options to visit the gardens and historic buildings at Magnolia Plantation. To learn the poignant history of enslaved people who worked in the gardens and in the rice fields, don’t miss “From Slavery to Freedom: the Magnolia Cabin Project Tour” that focuses on efforts to restore the buildings used by enslaved workers and to highlight the slaves’ history and rich contributions.
Middleton Place – Dating back to 1705, it is considered America’s oldest landscaped garden. You can tour the stunning, classic formal gardens, the main house and ruins, the stable yards, carriage house, slave cemetery, demonstration rice field and the famous Middleton Oak – considered to be over 1000 years old!
MacLeod Plantation Historic Site – Located on James Island in 1678, the plantation is considered an important Gullah/Geechee heritage site, and local tours focus on the history of the plantation from the point of view of the enslaved workers. During the Civil war, the plantation was occupied by Confederate forces and the house was used as a hospital. You can tour the remains of six clapboard slave cabins, detached kitchen, gin house, barn and carriage house and learn about Sea Island cotton production.
Civil War buffs will definitely want to plan a tour of Fort Sumter, at the entrance of Charleston Harbor, where the opening shots of the war were fired in 1861. Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is a family-friendly attraction where you step aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, visit the Medal of Honor Museum and 28 historic aircraft and view the Vietnam Experience exhibit. Other must-visit attractions include the waterways of picturesque Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant for water sports and enjoying fresh seafood dining with magnificent waterfront views. A self-guided walking tour through the French Quarter and Rainbow Row on East Bay Street along the Battery is a popular activity to take photos of the 13 brightly pastel-painted historic homes.
Not for the faint of heart are any of the popular ghost tours offered in Charleston including the Spirits of Magnolia Cemetery, USS Yorktown Ghost Tour, Haunted Jail Tour, Ghost & Dungeon Walking Tour, and Ghost & Graveyard Walking Tour.
Don’t leave Charleston without a walk along one of the beautiful beaches at Folly Beach, Kiawah Island, or the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island.
Known for its culinary excellence, Charleston is a gourmet’s paradise! I asked a foodie friend for recommendations for fine dining and he suggested The Charleston Grill, located in Belmond Charleston Place Hotel on King Street. Described as “Southern soul with contemporary flair,” The Charleston Grill did not disappoint. You can enjoy your meal while listening to live jazz and an added bonus is free valet parking for the restaurant at the hotel. FIG is another downtown recommendation. FIG describes itself as “elevated takes on Southern classics with seasonal ingredients served in an upscale bistro setting.” My favorite stop, however, was the very casual, truly classic, Southern-style Bessinger Barbeque. Started in 1939 and still run by the same family, this BBQ joint is known for its famous mustard-based barbeque sauce. If good food is your “thing,” you can even take a guided best food walking tour in Charleston!
Start your shopping expedition in downtown Charleston on historic King Street where you will find a vast array of boutiques, antique stores, name brand shops and art galleries to fit any taste and budget. Considered the cultural heart of Charleston and the city’s most visited attraction, the City Market, spanning four blocks, is located on downtown Meeting Street and a must-see tourist destination. Here you will find a selection of art, food, jewelry and hand-crafted items, including the city’s signature sweetgrass baskets, a Gullah artisan tradition, originally made to winnow rice on plantations. Mount Pleasant Town Centre (in nearby Mount Pleasant) was voted by locals as Charleston’s Best Shopping Destination. The 17th Annual Sweetgrass Festival will be held in Mount Pleasant on July 24 and showcases the culture of the Gullah/Geechee heritage.
Plan a trip to the Holy City of Charleston. You won’t be disappointed! For more information on visiting Charleston, go to charlestoncvb.com.