Three Perfect Days in Charleston
The South Carolina coastal city of Charleston offers a unique mix of old school Southern hospitality and new restaurants attracting the attention of critics. Serving local, seasonal dishes and preserving craft traditions may seem like the latest trend, but in Charleston, it's just the way things have always been done. If you want to experience the best of a city with more than 300 years' history in just three days, you need a plan.
Sights to See and Sounds to Hear
Explore historic Charleston with Uniquely Charleston Tours. From its church bells (the city has been nicknamed the Holy City thanks to its many houses of worship) to the elegant architecture of its antebellum homes, Charleston captures the attention of all your senses. As you wander King and Church Streets and peek into smaller side lanes, your guide will bring to life the history of Charleston, from its crucial role in colonial America and the Civil War to the impact of later generations of immigrants. Tours focused on the African-American experience are also offered.
The Historic Charleston City Market is a stately Greek Revival building. Enter and you will find a shopper's paradise. Locals still come here to buy produce and meat, but for the visitor (who isn't looking to stock their own kitchen) there are artisans selling handcrafted soaps, organic jams, and one of Charleston's most famous products: seagrass baskets. This iconic Charleston souvenir traces its roots back to slaves who brought their basket-weaving knowledge from Sierra Leone. In the 19th century, weavers began to incorporate pine and other plants that gave the baskets their characteristic flexibility. There are some 50 different basket weavers at the market, so take your time to check out all their wares.
The antebellum architecture of Charleston is what gives the city its unique character. One of the most notable examples is the Aiken-Rhett House, built in the 1820s and a private home until the middle of the 20th century (it opened as a museum in 1975). An immigrant from Ireland, William Aiken Sr. accumulated a fortune and purchased the house in 1827. Other members of the Aiken family were members of Charleston's elite and leading political figures. The home today provides an intimate look at domestic life of Charleston's wealthiest residents -- and the reality of slavery — in the 19th century.
High Wire Distilling has been attracting the attention of mixologists around the country with its grain-forward small batch spirits. The distillery opened in 2013 in a former car dealership and is the only distillery in Charleston. The owners say they're committed to reviving a tradition that faded away with the advent of Prohibition. Whether your choice is vodka, whisky or rye, High Wire Distillery will sell you a bottle, along with an explanation of how the alcohol was created. They also sell a line of first-rate mixers, saying their spirits shouldn't be paired with anything less than the best.
Many Charleston residents hail from other parts of the United States. Among them, chef and restaurateur Mike Lata, originally from New England, is universally recognized as the leader of Charleston's culinary residence. FIG, Food is Good, his first restaurant, and the Ordinary, a classic oyster bar and seafood hall, are two places to dine on the best of Lowcountry cuisine. And, this being Charleston, don't be surprised if you become friends with your neighbors at the Ordinary's communal tables before dessert is served.
The perfect Southern biscuit is a culinary work of art, and there's no better place to try one than at Callie's Charleston Biscuits. Owner Carrie Morey's biscuits have been recognized by Southern Living, Food & Wine, and other publications. If you want to take some of the flavors of the South home with you, packages of the biscuits are available for sale while the pimento cheese spread will give a Charleston kick to any old slice of toast.
If you want to sleep in an antebellum hotel, The Mills House on Meeting Street fits the bill. Dating from 1853, the Mills House is a short walk from most of historic Charleston's sites, from the Old City Jail to the harbor tours to Fort Sumter that depart just steps from the hotel's entrance. The courtyard, with its splashing fountain, provides a quiet place to put your feet up after exploring the city for the day.
Also on Meeting Street, the Belmond Charleston Place has long been the city's leading luxury option. The hotel's lobby is all gleaming marble and crystal chandeliers, while the rooms are impeccably furnished in a style that manages to feel rich but not stuffy. Even if you aren't staying here, a meal at the Charleston Grill is a must when visiting the city.
The Restoration on King Street has developed a following by offering a different hotel experience in Charleston. The 16 rooms at this boutique hotel have a loft-like feel and come with fully equipped kitchens, washers and dryers. There are also personal touches that are rare these days from wine and cheese waiting in the lobby to port at the end of the evening. The staff is small and you'll know them all like old friends after a few days.
John Newton is the Senior Editor, Branded Content at AFAR Media. He was previously a senior editor at both Condé Nast Traveler and Travel+Leisure and has written travel stories for many other outlets.