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Charleston, South Carolina Travel Guide

Long Weekend in the "Holy City"

Get Into the Swing
by Liz Rennie

Rainbow Row - the famous row of colorful houses in Charleston
Rainbow Row - the famous row of colorful houses in Charleston

Three days will whet your palate for the romantic port city of Charleston, SC. Consistently ranked in national polls as one of the top three North American destinations, this city lives up to its billing. Bursting with events that run the gamut from cultural and gastronomic to wild and obscure, Charleston nearly always has a festival or celebration in the works. Indeed, the city's off-season is rapidly shrinking to a three-week period in January.
From its founding in 1670, Charleston has blended many influences, including newcomers from Africa, the West Indies and Europe. In the early days, the city's tolerance for all worshipers made it a destination for Jews, Catholics and Protestants of many colors, cuts and creeds. The charter even allowed "heathens and dissenters" to establish themselves within its confines. Known as the Holy City, Charleston is a city of churches, whose steeples prick the skyline because, thanks to a firm city ordinance, no building may be taller than the looming steeple of St. Michael's.  This restriction yields an inviting and personable architectural scale—especially when navigating by foot.  But despite religious overtones, ample civilized sinning leads locals to joke that church pews on Sunday mornings are the perfect place to sleep off Saturday nights.

The Historic District covers three square miles.  And while an impressive number of restaurants, museums, tours and attractions are packed into this architecturally stunning space, downtown tells only part of the Charleston story. Coupled with outlying areas such as Mt. Pleasant and five distinct island communities, the Charleston metropolitan area encompasses more interesting geography and activity options than a casual glance might first reveal.

Founded by the English as Charles Towne, the "birthplace of South Carolina" is commemorated at Charles Towne Landing just west of the Ashley River. The settlers later moved to the peninsula formed by the Ashley and Cooper ("Cuppah" in the mouths of true Charlestonians) rivers, which locals claim, only partly in jest, meet to form the Atlantic Ocean. Charleston took its current name in 1783. The city played historic roles in the American Revolution and the Civil War, both of which are well commemorated.

Arrival via carriage at the Planters Inn
Arrival via carriage at the Planters Inn

Color bursts onto Charleston in the spring, when visitors flock to Spoleto Festival USA, Piccolo Spoleto and enjoy Historic Charleston Foundation's Spring Tour of Homes and Gardens. The plantations dotting the Ashley River pop with new blooms, and longer days yield the fragrance of honeysuckle and confederate jasmine while blooming azaleas buzz with the steady hum of pollinating bees.  Summer's heat pushes locals and visitors closer to the shore, where comfortable water temperatures and surf-worthy swells beckon.  Fall ushers out the humidity and escorts in Carolina blue skies. The clarity of October makes a trip across the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, completed in 2005, a memorable one.  Crossing the Cooper River, it is the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America.

Views of the Sullivan's Island lighthouse, salty marsh flats, the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point, forts where major battles of the Civil and Revolutionary Wars unfolded, Charleston's skyline and sailboats navigating the harbor towards the blue expanse of the Atlantic will enrapture anyone.  The success of the first Charleston Restaurant Week held January 2010 promises more of the same next year. The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in early February kicks off a litany of events. Heading into spring, the BB&T Charleston Wine & Food Festival in March adds to the steady pace that continues throughout the rest of the year.


The Visitors Center, located at 375 Meeting St., is the single best portal through which to enter the city. There are interactive displays and a small theater. Get free information and buy tour tickets from friendly and knowledgeable staff all in one stop. Be wary of any group that heckles you on the street to try to give you visitor information. The only official visitors centers are operated by the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the employees will be dressed in gear that indicates their affilliation. Other so-called visitor services may be fronts for timeshare offers.

The Gibbes Museum
The Gibbes Museum

The Restoration on King is a small, boutique accommodation that harbors antique charm. A restored group of retail and storage spaces circa 1863, the building features floor-to-ceiling windows and exposed brick, flat screen TVs, high ceilings, washers and dryers, stainless steel appliances, large furnished terraces and quiet workspaces.  A juxtaposition of tasteful privacy and understated modernity, it's the quickest way to find a home away from home in the Holy City.

But myriad other options also are available. Luxurious Belmond Charleston Place hotel positions you in the middle of a plaza filled with shops and boutiques, while the Embassy Suites Hotel near Marion Square is housed in a historic building. Planters Inn near the Historic Charleston Market is a Relaix & Chateaux property, one of only two in the state.

After getting your bearings, head north on King Street towards Marion Square, and window-shop the Fashion District along the way. If it's a Saturday in April through December, stop by the world-famous farmers market, then duck into Kudu on Vanderhost Street for a fresh African bean Joe to go.

Stroll south on King to John Street and take a left.  Look for a tour bus and friendly driver, Mr. Alphonso Brown of Gullah Tours. Step aboard as Mr. Brown booms a loud welcome to all the Cumyeh's—the "Come here's"—in his distinctive Gullah tongue.  Relax as he narrates the next several hours in a mix of English and Gullah as the bus motors past countless historic and modern African-American points of interest.  Visitors cannot fully grasp Charleston's complex history without first understanding the African and Gullah influences, making this an ideal introduction.

The Gullah Tour will deposit you in front of Gallery Chuma, which specializes in Gullah subjects and art. It's next to 39 Rue de Jean, which locals fondly refer to as "Rue," an ideal spot for a late afternoon beverage and a piping bowl of mussels on the covered outdoor patio or at the French bistro bar before moving on.

Appetizer crawls are very popular in Charleston. That's how you squeeze in plenty of bites from the burgeoning restaurant scene. A bit farther north, pop into Fuel, a popular eatery famous for its Mojitos and lauded for its casual Caribbean fare. If the night is still young, head farther south for a cocktail on a rooftop. The Pavilion Bar in the Market Pavilion Hotel welcomes a sophisticated crowd in the evenings and offers an expansive view of the city, the Cooper River and beyond.

For the blue-jean crowd seeking live music, The Music Farm offers everything from jam bands to hard rock. The drinks are served in plastic cups. Other popular downscale joints include Charleston Beer Works, where Trivia rules on Monday nights, and A.C's Bar & Grill—great for those who love to stay up late as it closes at 2 a.m.—while playing pool and enjoying good chicken wings. Meanwhile, The Blind Tiger draws an eclectic crowd off Broad Street to fill the meandering beer garden that stretches out the back door.

Continue to Day 2


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Middleton Place Gardens

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* Rainbow Row, Gibbes Museum and Middleton Place Gardens images courtesy of the Charleston Area CVB