Founded in 1680 by English colonists, Charleston has had the fortune of perfecting a blend of gentility and Southern charm. It boasts a storied history of arts and wars, jaw dropping sights, romantic vistas, and world-class restaurants.
Charleston is a perfect destinations for couples looking for a romantic getaway, families on vacation, fashionistas looking for world class shopping (and if you come in March a fantastic fashion week), golfers looking to play a few rounds in the city that is home to America’s first golf course, to those looking for a site for their destination wedding.
Home to a gay history for centuries, Charleston isn’t quite the staid, conservative place you may imagine at first glance. From Dudley’s on Ann (see below) to the College of Charleston’s work on gay history The Real Rainbow Row, Charleston has more to offer than you might imagine.
History abounds in everything from Charleston’s signature green (though almost black) paint you’ll see on shutters and accents everywhere to the storied sweetgrass baskets offered for sale at the Old City Market. Legend has it that after the Civil War, the North donated black paint to help in the efforts to rebuild. Leery locals mixed it with some “‘Rebel’ yellow” to produce a dark green that has become iconic to Charleston.
An interesting aesthetic feature to note is the popularity of faux finishes. European settlers were used to stone and marble as status symbols—unfortunately for them, marble cracks in the humidity and neither were readily available in the Lowcountry. Faux stone finishes were created by stuccoing over brick and scoring lines before it dried to simulate stone. Inside, marble-like finishes were added using handmade, specialty wallpaper.
A great way to explore these sights and get a great dose of history is to take one of the carriage rides through the old city. Though the use (and care) of working horses has come under fire, Charleston leads the way in finding a middle ground that protects the animals, tradition, and the environment. The Old South Carriage Company (details below) offer fine tours with informative, entertaining guides. Make sure to ask about the ‘lottery’ of each tour—an interesting way to combat congestion.
Any trip to Charleston is best served by jumping into luxury that will make you feel like your one of the city’s aristocratic forebears. A reservation at the Belmond Charleston Place (may I just recommend a Club Level room? You’ll make up for the extra cost by reveling in added luxury and enjoying complimentary breakfast as well as cocktails and canapés all day) will ensure you bask in unrivaled accommodations.
The Charleston Place is in a class of its own, with luxurious decor reminiscent of The Venetian and The Palazzo in Las Vegas and a friendly service unmatched by other brands. The daily turndown service fosters a stress free return for your evening respite. The notes with tomorrow’s forecasted weather help you to dress appropriately for whatever Charleston has on offer for you.
With the amazing selection of restaurants in Charleston—including some fantastical breakfast and brunch options—you may not want to indulge in a full room service breakfast but being awoken by a delivery of coffee, tea, fruit, and pastry is a start to the day you can’t beat. Breakfast in bed? Yes, please. Second breakfast? Let’s call it brunch and enjoy!
No vacation is complete without a trip to a spa for a relaxing and rejuvenating massage or facial. The Spa at Belmond Charleston Place offers a robust menu of skincare, waxing, and massage procedures—including specialty kid’s treatments so the whole family can enjoy being steeped in luxury. A customized body scrub will negate years of a lackadaisical attitude towards skincare and includes a massage to make sure you’ll feel as good as your skin will look.
When you visit the south, it’s hard to ignore the Civil War and the precipitating factors. What better way to get an understanding of the old South than to visit a restored plantation? Visiting Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, includes America’s oldest landscaped gardens (originally laid out in 1741 and expanded through the 18th and 19th centuries. Traipse around the precisely laid out gardens, get lost in a book in one of the hidden nooks, and enter back to an earlier time. Then, tour the residence and visit the ‘working plantation’ and Eliza’s House to explore history in all of its splendor and degeneracy.
The Old Slave Mart Museum is a great place to learn about the slave trade and the harsh realities of the practice. The museum has a collection of artifacts including wrist shackles for children and city-issued badges that the city issued to increase revenue and track slaves that had been hired out from job to job.
As a port city, Charleston has always been an important center of commerce (it was even the first city in America to have a chamber of commerce—formed in 1773), and today is no exception. The Port of Charleston is the 7th busiest commercial port in the United States. Take a river tour, perhaps on the Schooner Pride, and try to keep an eye out the hordes of dolphins and for the tug boats. Notice something unusual? They’re each named after a famous opera. On your boat tour, you’re sure to take a gander at Fort Sumter—where the civil war started on April 12th, 1861. Make sure to ask your guide about the Citadel’s role in all of this.
Speaking of the Citadel, Charleston is home to several noteworthy schools including the College of Charleston (founded 1770). This charming campus is home to the oldest institution of higher education in South Carolina and America’s 13th oldest college—the first municipal one. Perhaps a campus tour would be a good reason for a Charleston vacation? Never too early to get the kids to check it out, right?
Charleston is also host to the first museum opened in America. The Charleston Museum, opened 1773, is a wonderful repository of collections from the early Charleston families (details below).
Charleston may have more than it’s share of historical attractions, but that’s only a small component of what you should look forward to experiencing. Charleston is renowned for its food—something, I think, all of us can get behind. Regardless of where you stay, a trip to the Belmond Charleston Place is in order if for no other reason than dinner at the award winning Charleston Grill.
Helmed by Mickey Bakst, general manager, and Chef Michelle Weaver, the Charleston Grill is a study in relaxed elegance. Featuring live music, local art, and a luxurious atmosphere, the Charleston Grill offers contemporary Southern cuisine—with a menu in four distinct styles: Southern, Pure, Lush, and Cosmopolitan. While such a menu risks bordering on disjointed, Chef Weaver’s deft touch ensures it works exceptionally well. When asked about her cooking philosophy, Chef says it’s very simple: “Use what is in season. Make sure it’s greasy. Don’t over complicate it. Sprinkle it with love and call everyone to the table.” Her menu celebrates Charleston’s history as a port city—incorporating traces of the cuisines of France, Italy, and Spain with Southern flair and smatterings of Asian influence.
The food and atmosphere aren’t the only things to rave about at the Grill though. Sommelier Rick Rubel oversees a wine list with more than 1,300 labels—be sure to ask him for suggestions. GM Mickey Bakst says “For me, it’s really about the entire dining experience. I want to make sure that from the guest smiles from the moment they walk in, and that their delight continues through the evening because everything has come together perfectly . . . the atmosphere, the service, and the food.” Mickey doesn’t disappoint—his team leaves nothing to chance—even the live music is calibrated to hit that sweet spot of being audible without risking overpowering your conversation.
With King Street chock full of major retailers and luxury brands, Charleston has something for any style of shopper. That said, there are a few shops and products that are Charleston musts. With only ten feet of storefront along King Street, Blue Bicycle Books at firsts looks like something you can afford to walk past. However, the modest entrance belies the more than 50,000 titles stocked—with used and new books spanning the gamut from signed first editions of rare books to mass market fiction to many local books featuring Charleston, you need to stop by.
Charleston boasts something for everyone and is home to renowned beaches within a short drive from downtown, check with the Explore Charleston or the concierge at the Charleston Place for recommendations on which beach will suit your needs—from a romantic getaway to a family-friendly places for those of you traveling with children.
Ghost hunters will revel in the cities rich, and sometimes murderous, past. Bulldog Tours (see below) offers a 90-minute walking tour exploring the Holy City’s churches, lantern lit streets, and a dungeon dating to the Revolutionary War.
Where to Stay
More than the home to a twelve-foot Murano glass chandelier and impeccable service, it’s no wonder that Condé Nast Traveler seems to have a love affair with Belmond Charleston Place—often giving them the “Readers’ Choice Award” and naming them one of the World’s Best Hotel Brands. Belmond Charleston Place boasts luxe personal suites, offers the air of a fabulous 17th century residence (though with all of the modern amenities). It offers a sweet respite from daily life—indulge in it’s luxurious offerings. The hotel goes through more than four tons of chocolate a year in its turndown service and orders hundreds of roses a week to maintain the floral displays scattered throughout the property’s public spaces and guest rooms.
205 Meeting Street
Where to Go
Formerly the home to the president of the Continental Congress and a signor of the Declaration of Independence, Middleton Place Plantation is steeped in history. Make sure you allot enough time to take a tour of the house, visit the stable yards, and explore the gardens.
4300 Ashley River Road
Old South Carriage offers a range of tours that showcase their unique attention to care given the horses and Southern hospitality offered to their guests.
14 Anson Street
If you’re a lover of all things tea (or traveling with one) a visit to Wadmalaw Island in the Lowcountry is a Charleston must. Take a trolley ride through the tea fields, check out the greenhouse, enjoy the factory tour, and finish up with the all-you-can-taste tea bar featuring, hot or iced, the teas produced at the plantation.
6617 Maybank Highway
Wadmalaw Island, SC 29487
The Old Slave Mart Museum is this country’s first African-American museum. It offers visitors both a unique perspective and tons of information; however, it may not be suitable for children.
6 Chalmers Street
The museum educates visitors and local residents alike about the natural and cultural history of the South Carolina Lowcountry through collections, exhibitions, preservation, programs and research.
360 Meeting Street
Bulldog Tours has a history of excellence and a network of unique relationships that give them exclusive access to many interesting sites at night—their daytime tours are informative and entertaining, but you’ll want to go on one at night, too.
18 Anson Street
Just because you’re in the South doesn’t mean you can’t catch some great drag shows, cocktails, and meet some other fun gay guys. A night out in Charleston isn’t complete without a stop into Dudley’s—their happy hour specials will make the most jaded urbanite consider moving out of the metropolis and consider Charleston as home.
42 Ann Street
Where to Eat
The Charleston Grill offers a selection of Southern themed dishes suitable for the most demanding palate. If you don’t opt for the six course tasting menu (or, I suppose, even if you do), you may want to opt for a double dessert…the creme brûlée is exceptional. The world class (it’s in my top two) foie gras is on the menu as an appetizer but pair it with some icewine and it makes an excellent dessert.
224 King Street
Whether you opt for the Charleston Nasty (a scrumptious biscuit with fried chicken, cheddar cheese, and gravy—you do have health insurance, right?) or the fresh, house-made granola with yogurt and fresh fruit, you cannot miss this Charleston staple. Some coffee or tea and a mimosa will make this an excellent start to your day.
207 Rutledge Avenue
It should be illegal to visit the South without feasting on some fried, green tomatoes—Magnolia’s offers a delectable dish by that name, with white cheddar, caramelized onions, country ham, and tomato chutney—and by that measure you have to have some Blue Crab soup when you visit Charleston… order a cup of the bisque to complement your meal. You won’t regret it. You’ll want to skip the sweet tea and order a cocktail—their bar offers a selection you won’t find back home. The folks here know what pimiento spread should be, let them show you… skip the supermarket’s jars.
185 East Bay Street
What is a trip to the South without some barbecue? John Lewis, pitmaster, has created an amazing chapel to barbecue. Marrying the styles of his native Texas with the influence of his new home, South Carolina, John Lewis offers some melt-in-the-mouth meats with incredibly smoky flavors. Not one to follow the mainstream, John created his own smokers—ask about his unique creations.
464 North Nassau Street
Grab a delightful cocktail, and maybe order some tapas, in the lobby of the Belmond Charleston Place. The Thoroughbred Club is an ideal space for conversation and people watching while basking in it’s understated elegance.
205 Meeting Street
Where to Shop
Bring your imagination and sense of wonder when you visit Kapla’s store. Tom van deer Bruggen, creator of Kapla, says “through building, one builds character” and it’s easy to see why when you visit their gallery—the only brick and mortar location in the United States. The planks seem embarrassingly simple, they come in but one size and a variety of colors; that said, they make a wonderful gift for children of all ages.
125 Market Street
Founded in 1924, the Byrd family has been baking cookies for generations of Southerners and their fans. Modern fans need look no further than the Salted Caramel Cookies or the storied Key Lime Cooler. Harkening back to my roots, the Georgia Peach has a special spot in my heart—make sure you give it a try. Your tastebuds will thank you for visiting the Charleston outpost of this Savannah staple.
139 Market Street
Open every day aside from Christmas, the Old City Market is a Charleston institution at it’s finest. Make sure to keep an eye out for Rewined Candles and Bulls Bay solar evaporated sea salt while you explore the offerings of over 300 vendors and artisans.
188 Meeting Street
Jim and Lee Breeden founded the bookshop in 1995, as Boomer’s Books, changing in 2007 to it’s current name under the leadership of Jonathan Sanchez. Blue Bicycle offers more than 50,000 titles, it offers a bit of history and a welcoming atmosphere.
420 King Street
A collection of upscale shops like Mori Classics, Guide, Louis Vuitton, Lacoste, Pandora, Papyrus, L’occitane, and Godiva is located at the Belmond Charleston Place in the heart of Charleston’s premier shopping district.
205 Market Street
For further assistance, please check out the Charleston Area Visitor Center
375 Meeting Street