Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
In Charleston, the history is as deep and rich as a serving of homemade perlou. And just like the famous Lowcountry rice dish, the city’s flavors get more interesting with every bite.
Charleston has long drawn travelers to its balmy terrain along the mid-Atlantic coast. In fact, it drew some of the very first cross-Atlantic travelers—English colonists, who established “Charles Town” back in 1670. The roots of their influences remain, as do traditions of African Americans, whose Gullah culture is distinct in the region and infused into local food, farming, crafts, and music.
These days, Charleston is a favorite for weekend getaways, often prompted by hankerings for coastal seafood, barbeque, biscuits, and other South Carolina staples. Between meals, though, await discoveries of Charleston’s enduring, complex history; its contemporary arts; its parks and beaches; and its timeworn architecture and secret alleyways.
It’s just short of a five-hour drive from Atlanta into downtown Charleston, half of it along I-20 and half on I-26. Route 52, Route 78, and Route 17 (aka the Savannah Highway) are smaller highways that all lead into town, too. Charlotte, North Carolina, is just over three hours of drive time, passing through Columbia, the South Carolina state capital. Flying into Charleston International Airport (CHS) is easy too, with direct flights from most major U.S. airports as well as London Heathrow and Punta Gorda (seasonally).
This city loves to eat, so restaurants abound. Here’s your first hot tip: If you’re hungry on your way into Charleston, consider an introductory pit stop along the Savannah Highway at the Early Bird Diner. Friendly and affordable, the diner serves breakfast all day (9 a.m.-7 p.m., Mon.-Sat.), including some of the best local fried chicken and waffles.
Now head into downtown Charleston, which may feel less like you’re entering South Carolina’s largest city and more like a secret metropolis. The city occupies several islands across the “Lowcountry,” the marshy territory along the Atlantic coast. But visitors usually think of the downtown peninsula as Charleston, since it’s where the city began and is home to most of the action. Head there for central accommodations, and leave your car parked while you explore by foot or via the free DASH trolley that traverses downtown with four routes.
Get a great city introduction with a Bulldog Tours’ history, food, or ghost tour. You’ll learn about some of Charleston’s layers, its Revolutionary War history, and get the lay of the land, including eyes on East Bay Street’s famous Rainbow Row, 13 pastel rowhouses built between 1748 and 1845.
For tours focused on African American culture, check out Gullah Geechee Tours, Sights and Insights Tours, or browse the helpful Charleston CVB’s roundup of best Black history tours. The city also hosts a cool virtual museum called Voices: Stories of Change, which explores African American culture and diaspora in Charleston since pre-Colonial times.
Once the sun begins to set, it’s cocktail hour. If the weather is right, visit the Rooftop Bar at The Vendue waterfront hotel for a local craft beer or specialty cocktail or mocktail while you look over Charleston Harbor, Waterfront Park, and modern Ravenel Bridge across the Cooper River.
Or head to Prohibition on busy King Street for a refined libation in a romantic atmosphere—if the timing is right, arrive during weekday happy hours (4-6 p.m.) for drinks, snacks, and $1 oysters on the half shell. You can enjoy dinner there, too, or consider a stroll to Magnolias for classic Carolina fare, or The Grocery for Southern dishes with Asian and Italian twists.
Some cities enjoy brunch, but in Charleston, brunch is way of life. Many restaurants open early on weekends to serve up faves like crab-cake eggs Benedict and sweet-potato pancakes. Spots like the posh Charleston Grill and High Cotton each put on a “gospel brunch” with live music. More casual brunching awaits at Poogan’s Porch, a Queen Street institution inside a restored Victorian house. Reserve in advance for a shady courtyard table, and be ready to sample she-crab soup, pimiento cheese fritters, and fried green tomatoes.
Speaking of choices, are you in the mood for art or activity today? Let’s do both! Around the corner from Poogan’s Porch is the Gibbes Museum of Art, downtown Charleston’s only visual-arts museum dating to 1905. Its first-floor galleries are free, but it’s worth the $12 to head to floors two and three, where you’ll find paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, drawings, and miniature portraits by American artists. Stroll Meeting Street and its cross streets down to Broad to explore private galleries and maybe pick up a treasure to bring home.
Once you’re ready to burn off some biscuits, consider checking out wheels from Holy Spokes, the Charleston bike share system, to explore the ever-expanding bike-route network in the “Holy City.” Tool around town, where if the season’s right, you can breathe in blooming magnolia, wisteria, and jasmine. Don’t miss a spin (or walkabout) in White Point Garden at the peninsula’s southern tip, where you’ll find The Battery, wartime monuments, marvelous mansions, and a waterfront promenade.
On hot days, the Charleston Water Taxi is a fun way to cool off. Board at Waterfront Park or the Charleston Maritime Center for a one-hour harbor sightseeing cruise, or apply your $12 all-day pass to travel across the Cooper River to visit the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, home to the U.S.S. Yorktown and other decommissioned vessels and airplanes.
Once suppertime rolls around, don’t be surprised if you’re craving more fried chicken. Just drift up to Jestine’s Kitchen for a taste of what has been called the best fried chicken in America (along with loads of other accolades), from a menu that also features shrimp and grits, oyster po’ boys, fried okra, and blue-plate specials. In case your palate is craving real Carolina barbeque, head to Melvin’s Legendary BBQ—across the river in Mt. Pleasant, open since 1939—for ribs, brisket, chicken, and “Charleston’s original” chopped BBQ pork.
Top off your evening with a fine pour from Graft Wine Shop on King Street, a hot spot for chill conversation, music, and general oenophilia. For a local’s go-to bar with plenty of beer and a back patio, duck into Local 616 for craft ales, classic cocktails, and a half-dozen different “mules,” including a Buenos Aires Mule made with Fernet Branca and bitters.
By day three, you may still be feeling full from the past two days. But make room in your belly—because no trip here is complete without a pickup from the counter of Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, with locations on Upper King Street, and inside Historic Charleston City Market. Try the sausage, egg, and pimiento cheese; or build your own; or try a gluten-free biscuit.
The history in Charleston seems to be everywhere, but nowhere is it better encapsulated than at the Charleston Museum. It’s America’s first museum, founded in 1773, with exhibits and artifacts on display from the Revolutionary War, as well as galleries of natural history and African American stories. You can also check out historic houses that are part of the museum, and on the way, stroll some of downtown’s hidden alleyways.
For your final few hours in town, adventure further afield with a drive to sandy Folly Beach. Nature fans won’t want to miss seeing the magnificent Angel Oak on nearby St. John’s Island. It’s a massive oak tree estimated to be 400 to 500 years old, producing shade that covers 17,200 square feet. There are plantations all around the region, and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is a good one for visitors interested in learning about how slavery contributed to Charleston’s development, agriculture, and culture.
If there’s time, as you head home, take the Savannah Highway and grab one last meal at Swig & Swine, a roadside barbeque joint that’s mastered the Lowcountry art of smoked meats. And don’t worry if you’re in a hurry—they pack to-go too.
WHERE TO STAY
There are a good number of lovely lodgings in downtown Charleston. Belmond Charleston Place is a grand choice with a spa and rooftop pool, while The Restoration is a similar but hipper option. Along the waterfront you’ll find the Market Pavilion Hotel, the Harbourview Inn, and The Vendue art hotel, each with rooftops for dining and cocktails. The Hyatt Place Charleston offers good rates in the historic district, and there are a handful of boutique accommodations inside actual historic buildings, like the Andrew Pinckney Inn and the Fulton Lane Inn.
WHEN TO GO
Let’s face it, South Carolina runs hot and humid almost all year. Nevertheless, summer is fun for annual festivals like June’s Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival, and September’s Party in the Park, Flowertown Festival, and Restaurant Week 2020. Late May through mid-June is the big Spoleto Festival of art, music, and performance. Bivalve lovers should mark calendars for January’s Lowcountry Oyster Festival and August’s Seafood Beer and Wine Festival.