Think you know Charleston? This petite South Carolina city might boast small-town numbers, but it’s a titan when it comes to history, culture, food and undeniable Southern charm.
With a narrative as captivating as a bestselling novel, Charleston sweeps you off your feet, transporting you through poignant chapters of American history and onto the exciting pages of what’s still to come. Charleston’s irresistible allure? It’s far more than the city’s Insta-worthy street scenes or the sweetness that permeates everything from its people to its tea. It’s the enchanting blend of time-honored tradition and trailblazing innovation that gives Charleston its unique character, and 2023 is set to be a real highlight, with the grand opening of the International African American Museum stealing the spotlight.
Let’s not forget the city’s food scene, as Charleston’s culinary universe is bursting with star power. Imagine sinking your teeth into hearty barbecue, fresh-off-the-boat seafood and Lowcountry delicacies that elevate tradition to art. Whether it’s a trendy bistro tucked away in a historic mansion or a charming eatery nestled on cobblestone streets, every meal here is a slice of Southern paradise.
Charleston isn’t just a city; it’s a sensory experience. With its architectural marvels, historical treasures, modern arts scene and subtle street style, this South Carolina hot spot invites you to explore every corner of its story. Here’s how to get the most of your trip.
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Where to Stay
At Hotel Bennett, the rooms are more like plush personal kingdoms. The spa? You’d think Aphrodite herself had a hand in its creation. And the rooftop pool and bar? It’s where the gods of relaxation unite over a craft cocktail, enjoyed while taking in dreamy panoramas of the city. If you’ve got an appetite for the finer things in life, the hotel’s signature restaurant, Gabrielle, is the belle of the Lowcountry culinary ball—be sure to try the Carolina Gold Rice risotto; you won’t regret it.
Ever wondered how it would feel to live like a 19th-century cotton mogul? At Wentworth Mansion, you can. This architectural marvel-turned-luxury hotel has old-world elegance written all over it. The 21 lavish rooms whisper tales of a bygone era, each echoing the sophistication of a period drama set. The mansion’s library and drawing room, on the other hand, are perfect for some me time when you’re not busy gallivanting around town. Don’t skip the blockbuster breakfast, with its spread of gourmet omelets, homemade biscuits and locally-sourced grits that will have your taste buds screaming for an encore.
This boutique hotel is composed of four gorgeous 19th-century townhouses and a couple of carriage houses, all oozing chintz-free charm. The 16 rooms are tastefully done up in cream, grey and sage, and let’s take a moment to swoon over the original heart pine floors and vintage millwork. Trust that you’ll want to plant yourself in the on-site Zero Restaurant, as Southern hospitality shines in the kitchen—it’s the heart and soul of the joint. Chef Vinson Petrillo doesn’t mess around with fussy sauces, instead letting the prime ingredients shine with minimal intervention, like royal red shrimp cooked in good old-fashioned pork fat.
What to Do
It’s been a long time coming—over 20 years in the making—but the International African American Museum (IAAM) is finally ready to make waves. Opening on June 27, 2023, just after Juneteenth celebrations, the IAAM sits right on Charleston’s waterfront, on the very ground where Gadsden’s Wharf once stood. This was no ordinary trading port; hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans first set foot on American soil right there. The brainchild of architect Henry Cobb, the museum is perched on 18 pillars, making sure it never touches the ground beneath, a sign of reverence for the enslaved Africans who once walked there. Below the building is a tidal pool and an “African Ancestors Memorial Garden” with indigenous plants sourced from West Africa, the Caribbean and South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Housed inside the 100,000-square-foot space are nine unique exhibits that encapsulate the extensive African American narrative, from ancient African civilizations through today.
Shem Creek Kayak Tour
Sometimes, you need to ditch the land and take to the water. And when you do, opt for a kayak tour of Shem Creek with Coastal Expeditions. As you paddle down the serene Shem Creek, your guides (more like waterborne storytellers) will share tales of the local flora and fauna. From the marshes that glow like gold in the setting sun to the playful dolphins that just might race you, it’s a visual feast from start to finish. You’ll even stop on a sandbank to search for fossilized shark teeth on the Crab Bank Bird Seabird Sanctuary.
Horse Carriage Ride
Stepping into a horse carriage ride in Charleston is like biting into a piece of sweet tea-soaked shrimp and grits; it’s a quintessential taste of the town. Palmetto Carriage Works is a top-tier time machine back to the city’s past; launched in the 1970s, they’re Charleston’s OG carriage connoisseurs. Their guides are seasoned spinners of tales, stitching together the city’s history, architectural marvels, and hidden gems as you trot merrily through the historic district.
A Day Trip to Folly Beach
Life’s good when you’re relaxing at Folly Beach. This easy-breezy seaside escape, just a short drive from Charleston’s hustle and bustle, is where locals trade in cobblestone streets for sandy toes. You can surf, swim or fish to your heart’s content, and if you’re lucky, you might spot a dolphin doing a backflip. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, make a beeline for Taco Boy, and treat yourself to a Folly-Rita.
Where to Eat
Leon’s is a Charleston institution. This converted garage may not look fancy, but its culinary game is top-notch. Let’s talk about their chargrilled oysters for a moment—drizzled with butter and dusted with parmesan, these oysters are the gateway to shellfish bliss. Oh, and don’t skip their chicken sandwich or oyster po’ boy—they’re slam dunks in sandwich form.
Located on Sullivan’s Island, this beachside beauty is a must-visit for any food lover. The menu is a culinary odyssey that traverses land and sea. The Geechie Frites—served with a garlic aioli that’s so good it should be illegal—are a must-try, as is the Old Danger pizza, a slice of heaven topped with pancetta, mozzarella and a perfectly runny egg.
Housed in a historic carriage house, this restaurant brings together the past and the present in a deliciously harmonious blend. Every plate is a love letter to Southern cuisine penned by executive chef Marc Collins. The Lowcountry-inspired dishes, like the Plantation Rice that’s bursting with duck and sausage, are foodie history lessons with a modern twist.
Aging like a fine wine, family-run Hannibal’s Kitchen has over four decades of experience delivering soulful Southern comfort food. The legendary crab rice—fluffy grains peppered with fresh crab—will make you daydream about your return visit before you’ve even left.
Where to Drink
Charleston’s culinary scene rocks, and star bartender Megan Deschaine is the lead guitarist. At Doar Bros, she’s dishing out smooth, cleverly-crafted cocktails like the PSL Milk Punch—a boozy, pumpkin spiced latte for grownups. Pair it with their truffle mac and cheese for a decadent treat.
With dark wood paneling, ambient lighting and whiskey-fueled cocktails, Bar Mash is one of the Holy City’s coziest drinking dens. It’s all fun and games with indoor bocce, live tunes and a killer happy hour. A perfect spot to match your mood, be it merry or mellow.
Occupying an 1803 building that once served as a speakeasy during Prohibition, this Charleston institution boasts a backstory as rich as its brew selection. The beer list is extensive, the Nashville hot chicken sandwiches are smokin’ and the cocktails are spot-on. There’s also a spacious patio—the perfect spot for a lazy Sunday afternoon or a lively Saturday night.
The Bourbon Thyme cocktail—a bold blend of apple-infused Jim Beam, lemon, Aperol, thyme, honey and orange bitters—is a house favorite. Prohibition, however, is more than just a spot to wet your whistle; it’s an experience. A robust menu showcasing Southern favorites like shrimp and grits or chicken and waffles, plus live music throughout the week, ensures no one leaves unsatisfied.
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