With gorgeous Antebellum architecture, secret gardens, and cobblestone streets to explore, Charleston is my ideal long weekend escape. It’s friendly residents, charming neighborhoods, and innovative culinary scene draw me back again and again. And I’m not the only one - Charleston has been recognized as the #1 US city for six years in a row by Travel + Leisure.
Charleston is a living museum of its own deep history. At least 100 buildings in the city center were built before the country was founded. The preservation of landmarks is serious - while strolling the streets, you’ll notice plaques on the walls of historic properties, proudly showcasing their National Register of Historic Places status.
My favorite way to experience one of America’s best-preserved cities is on foot or bike. Get lost in the alleyways, passing live oaks dripping with Spanish moss alongside enviable mansions. Peer through the wrought iron fences into the lush backyards, filled with gardens that bloom all year long and ivy crawling over the original brickwork.
There are opportunities to step inside one of these iconic homes. Two of the most popular are The Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House; daytime tours offer a fascinating glimpse of how Charlestonians lived in the early 1800s.
Stop by the aptly named Rainbow Row, the longest cluster of intact pre-Revolutionary row homes in America. Legend has it that the pastel hues helped drunken sailors find their way home. For another colorful surprise, notice the ceilings of most porches. Homeowners still paint them a shade of light blue, as they say it wards off pesky flies and evil spirits.
Stroll along King St, the main drag in Charleston. This three-mile long road cuts through the center of the peninsula and has picturesque storefronts, trendy restaurants, and sophisticated locals.
Pop into the Charleston City Market as you head down King St towards the waterfront. It’s busy as can be and is definitely touristy, but it’s worth a walk through for some souvenirs or local treats. The city market is the epicenter of woven basketry, one of the nation’s oldest and most beautiful handicrafts originating from West Africa. For more than 300 years, locals have been weaving baskets utilizing native materials such as sweetgrass and palmetto leaves. Make sure you take a moment to admire the talents of the resident Gullah artisans.
After visiting the Charleston City Market, cruise along the harborside promenade past Waterfront Park and White Point Gardens, at the Southernmost tip of the peninsula. If you’re on wheels and are hoping to burn off some biscuits, continue biking to Colonial Lake and then onwards to Hampton Park. Any of these parks would be a dreamy setting for a picnic. The scent of camellias, Japanese magnolias, roses, wisteria, and jasmine blossoms permeates the air.
Hit the Waterways - Explore Charleston’s winding waterways on your own or on a guided kayaking or stand up paddle boarding tour. Canoe in the Lowcountry wilderness in Francis Marion and Sumter National Forests. Rent a boat for a fishing excursion or scenic booze cruise.
Coastal Beauty - Soak up the sunshine on one of Charleston’s gorgeous coastlines. Some of the best beaches within driving distance of downtown Charleston are Folly Beach, the Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island, and Kiawah Island. Each beach town has its own unique community and attracts different crowds.
Where to Stay
Charleston has an impressive and growing hotel scene. Here are my top choices for luxurious experiences, always with a touch of Southern charm and hospitality:
The Dewberry – The inside of a former federal building overlooking Marion Square has been transformed into a swanky mid-century style hotel, fitted with brass fixtures, rich woodwork, and mustard yellow accents.
Zero George - Three historic homes surrounding a tranquil courtyard have been thoughtfully renovated into a cozy and elegant boutique hotel.
The Spectator - Set in a 1920s art deco building in the romantic French Quarter, this sophisticated and stylish hotel proves to impress even the most discerning guests.
Hotel Bennett - Michael Bennett’s thirteen-year long dream has finally come to fruition with the opening of the grand Hotel Bennett at the start of 2019.
Charleston’s culinary scene has exploded in recent years. Because of this, make reservations in advance or else you’ll miss out. Chefs take advantage of the direct access to Lowcountry farmers, fisherman, and butchers for incredibly fresh cuisine.
Best Spots for Coffee and Brunch & What to Order:
Second State Coffee (formely Black Tap) - Iced Lavender latte
Poogans Porch - Shrimp and grits & fried green tomatoes
Hominy Grill - The Charleston Nasty Biscuit - fried chicken and cheese sandwiched in between two buttermilk biscuits and smothered in sausage gravy … need I say more?
SNOB – If you’re imbibing, get the sparkling wine sampler which comes with pomegranate, peach, and blood orange juices so you may mix and match to your liking. Food wise, I loved the crab cake benedict.
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits (can be late night too) – Get the chive biscuit with pimento cheese or cinnamon if you’re feeling sweet.
Butcher & Bee - Mediterranean fare is their specialty, and the mezze plates and shakshuka are favorites.
** If you’re in town on a Saturday, visit the farmers market on Marion Square to discover the goods of over 100 vendors. Most are keen to have a chat and share their passions.
Afternoon/Evening Establishments & What to Order:
167 Raw – Oysters and the lobster roll
Leon’s Oyster Shop - Leon’s Fish Fry, consisting of fried catfish, oysters, shrimp, hush puppies and your choice of side. Fancy a frozen gin & tonic? They have them here too.
The Darling – Splurge on a seafood tower & order a few extra rounds of oysters
Husk – The menu changes daily, but the skillet cornbread with buttery bacon crumbles is included every night and outshines your typical bread & butter basket.
Fig - Ricotta gnocchi
Halls Chophouse - Tomahawk steak … hands down, the best steak I’ve ever had.
The Ordinary - Ceviche & oyster sliders
Charleston is an idyllic destination where you can really slow down. Especially since the city is not massive, there’s no mad rush to squeeze in all the hot spots in one day. You can post up on a rooftop or a waterfront bar for a couple of cocktails and not feel guilty about missing out. Lucky for me, it’s an easy 1 hour and 30-minute flight from Philadelphia, so it’s the perfect long weekend adventure.