Walking the streets of Charleston, South Carolina’s well-preserved historic district, it’s hard to imagine that perhaps no other U.S. city has struggled so hard to survive over the four centuries since its founding. Raided by pirates, besieged by the British, burned to the ground during the Civil War, demolished by an earthquake and flooded by hurricanes, Charleston’s history is one of continual rebuilding after natural or manmade disasters.
Today, Charleston is a much more peaceful city that draws tourists with a rich inter-weaving of history, architecture and food. History buffs can spend days exploring the Revolutionary War and Civil War sites and plantations. For more recent history, there’s Patriots Point with the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier and other World War II and Cold War vessels.
Several historic homes from the 1700s and 1800s are open for tours, complete with rare period antique furnishings. Foodies will revel in the fact that Charleston has attracted so many talented chefs to expand on the city’s traditional low-country cuisine. White-sand beaches are close by on Sullivan’s Island. Most surprising to me was the large number of children-specific attractions and activities throughout the city.
So, here we go with The Travel Ekspert’s guide to Charleston:
Founded in the 1600s, Charleston is located at the intersection of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. Charleston made its fortune growing and exporting rice, tobacco, indigo and cotton. Crops were typically grown on large inland plantations using slave labor. By the late 1700s, Charleston was the 4th largest port in the U.S. behind New York, Boston and Philadelphia. In 1860, the city had the highest average per-capita income in the U.S. It showed, as plantation owners and shipping magnates built substantial three- and four-story mansions distinct with their verandas and elaborate ironwork trim.
Charleston played important roles in the Revolution and the Civil War. After achieving the first victory of the Revolutionary War, Charleston was ultimately captured by the British and occupied for the duration. A little more than a century later, South Carolina seceded from the U.S. and fired on Union-controlled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor to start the Civil War.
What To See and Do
I recommend starting off with a visit to the Charleston Museum and Visitors Center on Meeting Street. It gives a good overview of the historic sites in town. There’s a full-scale model of the CS Hunley, a Civil War era submarine out front (the actual Hunley sank and has since been recovered, but that exhibit is only open on weekends). And there are interactive kids exhibits, including a scale model of a city mansion where they can don colonial attire and play period childrens games. It’s tough to single out a few sites, but I have some favorites. Like visiting Yellowstone and not seeing Old Faithful, no visit to Charleston is complete without visiting The Battery at the southern tip of the city, where you can still see the cannon and mortars that fired on Fort Sumter. Then head over to Liberty Square to catch a ferry out to the fort. Combined price for the ferry and a fort tour is $16 for adults and $10 for kids. It’s also a great way to cool off and get a city view from the harbor. Over on Sullivan’s Island is Fort Moultrie, the site of several forts built to protect Charleston. It was here during the Revolution that cannonballs from British warships bounced off the first fort’s palmetto log fortifications (hence the palmetto tree in the state’s flag). Notable past residents of the fort include Seminole Chief Osceola and Edgar Allen Poe, who apparently was more of an author than a soldier. The fort has a small entry fee. Nearby is a fun themed burger joint called Poe’s that’s worth a stop. My third favorite historic site is another kid-pleaser – the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Here is where the pirate Stede Bonnet and crew were imprisoned before their hanging at The Battery. Kids can explore the dungeon with its animatronic figures. Parents, keep a weather-eye on all the pirate gear in the gift shop. The Exchange was where South Carolina elected delegates to the Continental Congress and also played host to George Washington. Adults $7, kids 7-12 $3.50.
Houses and Plantations
There are no fewer than a half-dozen historic houses open for tours. The houses stretch all the way from the Visitors Center to The Battery, a distance of 20-plus city blocks. Admission and a tour is typically $10-$15 per person. Tour houses include the Joseph Manigault House, the Heyward-Washington House, the Aiken-Rhett House, the Nathaniel Russell House, the Edmondston-Alston House, the Calhoun Mansion.
House tours are generally of the first and second floors. First floors include the dining rooms and parlor/offices where the planters/shippers met business associates. Sleeping rooms and entertaining rooms for guests were on the upper floors, where dust and odors from the street couldn’t reach and sea breezes could. Since Union forces pretty much gutted Charleston, most of the furniture today is from the period, while some is original to the specific house. All of it is pretty spectacular craftsmanship. Note the unusual rollers on much of the furniture, providing the ability to shift from one window to another to catch a breeze.
Hands-down, my favorite tour was the Edmondston-Alston House, where Jessie, our tour guide, knew every inch of the house and its furnishings. After explaining that the house overlooking The Battery had been used by Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard to supervise the bombardment of Fort Sumter, she pointed out the telescope in the corner that he had used and took us out to the veranda to stand where he stood and imagine the sights and sounds of all the cannon and mortar firing. And no tour concludes without testing out the joggling board, a contraption peculiar to Charleston that’s a cousin to the see-saw and allows riders to climb aboard and get the sensation of riding in a horse-drawn carriage.
Largely because rice can’t grow in brackish water, Charleston’s major plantations were located up-river a dozen or more miles away from the seaport. Plantations available for touring include Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Boone Hall Plantation, the Charleston Tea Plantation, Drayton Hall and the Charles Pinckney Plantation. The Pinckney Plantation is free. Admission to the other plantations can run anywhere from $10 to $45 for adults, or $7.50 to $30 for children. Most of the plantations give visitors the option to pay only for the activities they want, such as a house tour, entry to the gardens, carriage rides and special programs.
We visited Boone Hall and Middleton Place. Boone Hall boasts a long entry drive to the main house, lined by live oaks and Spanish moss. No one knows for sure, but some say the entry provided the inspiration for Tara in Gone With The Wind. Boone Hall also has an original collection of slave cabins with excellent audio and artifacts covering various aspects of slave life. The slave exhibit is included in the entry fee.
Middleton Place features expansive 17th century gardens with acres of flowers, live oaks, Spanish moss and working rice fields. The time-warp feeling visitors get here make the gardens worth the trip by themselves. On the house tour, be sure to explore the bookshelves and curio cases. You’ll find things like a pass signed by Abraham Lincoln that allowed a member of the Middleton family to cross enemy lines to attend a relative’s funeral, and the Appomattox Courthouse parole papers that allowed a Confederate soldier from the family to return home after the war. The plantation also has a stable area with exhibits on candlemaking, rice growing, barrel making and more. Watch your step by the water. The working rice fields have working alligators.
Charleston offers a variety of tours. The one-hour carriage ride (typically $20/person) is recommended. The guides provide solid overviews of the city and its history. Bring something to take notes on addresses and areas you may want to check out in more detail once the tour is over.
Numerous walking tours of the historic district are available. Some have physical guides. One resident, Tommy Dew, has created self-guided tours that can be downloaded to iPhones and iPod Touches from the iPhone app store. Kids in particular will be thrilled by Charleston’s ghost tours. And there are culinary tours that take visitors around to various restaurants to sample the low country cuisine and maybe even take a cooking class.
Where To Stay
Charleston had a wide range of hotels and B&Bs, and there are three basic considerations to make. One, what’s your price point. Charleston can go all the way from $50, 2-star chain hotels out by the airport, to $300 and up for luxurious 4- and 5-star hotels and B&Bs in the historic district. Check here to see the hotel price map for Charleston. Two, how much driving and walking do you want to do? With the exception of the plantations and Sullivan’s Island, most of Charleston’s attractions are centrally located. After your feet get tired, Charleston offers a $5 unlimited daily ride bus pass. It may make sense to pay a few dollars more to stay closer to the action.
And three, do you want a standard hotel, or would you prefer a place with more of a historical feel? We chose the French Quarter Inn, a smaller boutique hotel located right next to the old City Market on Church Street and midway between the Visitors Center and The Battery. With a winding central grand staircase, gaslamps, a private outdoor walled garden/patio and large guest rooms with equally large baths, The French Quarter Inn makes visitors feel like they’ve entered one of the grand houses on The Battery. A particularly welcome touch is the nightly wine & cheese reception for guests fresh in from hours of walking the Historic District.
Other popular hotel options in different price ranges include The Francis Marion Hotel, The Harbourview Inn, The Renaissance Charleston and The Best Western King Charles Inn. Check here to see all the Charleston hotels available through priceline.com. Priceline.com's hotel guide for Charleston will show you the top hotels for families (Hampton Inn & Suites, Charleston/West Ashley, Residence Inn Charleston Riverview, Springhill Suites Charleston West, Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Charleston, Hampton Inn Charleston-Historic District), for business travelers (Hampton Inn Charleston Historic District, Holiday Inn Charleston Airport & Convention Center, Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Charleston North, Quality Suites Charleston, Sleep Inn Charleston), the top romantic hotels (French Quarter Inn, Vendue Inn, Mills House Hotel, Andrew Pinckney Inn, Hampton Inn Charleston Historic District), and priceline.com customers overall top hotel choices for the city (French Quarter Inn, Harbourview Inn, Vendue Inn, Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Charleston North, Embassy Suites Hotel Airport Convention Center)..
Where to Eat
On my first trip through Charleston about15 years ago, it was all about the low country cuisine – shrimp, crab, fish, grits, okra, collard greens, sweet potatoes and some barbecue thrown in for good measure. That’s all changed. Within the past few years, Charleston has had an influx of new-blood chefs who focus their menus around the freshest local produce, meats and seafood available.
Much like the hotels, Charleston diners have to make some hard choices regarding how much of their bankroll they’re willing to part with. Visitors on a budget might want to check out some of the pricier restaurants for their lunch menus, which offer the same quality food with smaller portions at a lower price.
Traditional low country meals, like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes or fried chicken at places like Jestine’s Kitchen, Hominy Grill or The Noisy Oyster, will run a budget- and family-friendly $10-$20. Surroundings are low-key but, hey, you’re there for the food.
Diners looking for reasonably priced traditional seafood, beef and chicken in a more upscale setting should try Hank’s, a longtime Charleston fixture on Church Street. For $7 a bowl, the she-crab soup is another local specialty, a subtly flavored mixture of cream, sherry and crab that is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
Among the fresh-ingredients/new chef entries to the Charleston restaurant scene, take a walk down East Bay Street. The restaurants are all lined up with menus in the windows. Entrees are typically $25 and up. Dinner for two, with wine and appetizer, at many of these restaurants can quickly run north of $100. Some, like Robert’s, have multi-course tasting menus that start at $83 per person.
Unless you live in a major city, you’re not likely to have ready access to chefs and menus of this caliber, so the experience is definitely worth the investment. Restaurants in this category to consider include FIG, Slightly North of Broad, McCrady’s, Tristan, Magnolia’s, Blossom's and Cypress.
Since Charleston is a major city, airfares are quite reasonable. For example, priceline.com had an October fare from New York City to Charleston for $218. Priceline.com's Inside Track feature will show the best days to fly and other tips for getting the best deal on your airfare to Charleston. You can also Check here to see fares from your city.
Rental cars are also available on priceline.com. A mid-size car for that October trip was available on priceline.com for $30 a day. Travelers can save even more by using priceline.com’s Name Your Own Price services for airfare, rental cars and, of course, hotels.
Food photo credit Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau. Photo credit for all other images Lyle J. Ek 2009.