The past is alive in Charleston. Walking along the city’s cobblestone streets between well-preserved antebellum mansions, 18th-century churches, and trees draped in Spanish moss, you might feel like you’ve traveled back in time—though with several notable improvements. Today, many of the historic buildings are occupied by top-tier art galleries, interior design companies, and trendy restaurants serving innovative Lowcountry cuisine.
A Tour of the Old South
- Walking tour: Downtown Charleston is made for leisurely strolls and window-shopping, with its outdoor markets, promenades, and gardens blooming with magnolias and honeysuckle. Many tour companies in town offer walking tours; some focus on architecture, others on ghosts, and some are led by guides wearing period costumes. Stop by the visitors’ center for brochures with self-guided routes.
- Bike tour: To see a little more of the city, head to the Bicycle Shoppe, a popular rental outfit. Staff members are happy to give advice on sightseeing trips, such as a ride through Legare Street, with its famous wrought-iron gates, or Rainbow Row, a stretch of candy-colored townhouses from the 18th century.
- Civil War history: Fort Sumter, where the first battle of the Civil War took place, is reachable by a 30-minute ferry. If you don’t have time for a tour, head to The Battery on the waterfront, where you can visit a Civil War museum and see Sumter from a distance.
- The French Quarter: Early on, Charleston provided refuge for many disenfranchised religious groups; consequently, there are more than 400 churches of various denominations throughout the city. One of the most interesting is the Gothic Revival–style French Huguenot Church, the only congregation of its kind in the United States.
The James Beard Foundation has named a different Charleston chef the best in the southeast three out of the past four years. In the city’s restaurants, you’ll find a mix of traditional Southern food—grits, biscuits, seafood—prepared with a modern twist.
- Husk Restaurant: When it comes to ingredients, head chef Sean Brock is steadfast: “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door.” The menu changes daily, and the restaurant’s location is classic downtown Charleston—it’s housed in a stately white mansion with black shutters.
- Southern brunch: You can’t go wrong with shrimp and grits from almost anywhere in town, but Hominy Grill does them especially well, blending in scallions, mushrooms, and bacon.
- Rooftop bars take advantage of Charleston’s warm temperatures and its location on a peninsula, which translates to lovely views. Enjoy a margarita at the bar of the Market Pavilion Hotel or hit up the Rooftop Bar at the Vendue Inn.
Where to Stay
- For luxury and Southern charm: The 5-star Wentworth Mansion, built downtown more than a century ago for a wealthy cotton trader, has a rooftop cupola with great views of the city. It’s within walking distance of all the key historic sites.
- For the history buff: The Palmer Home, also known as the “Big Pink Castle,” is a bed and breakfast located inside the former Citadel Military College. There are original exposed brick walls in some rooms and preserved gun ports on the facade.
- For families: Hilton Charleston Harbor Resort is set along the harbor in Mount Pleasant, just a ferry ride from downtown. The hotel has its own artificial beach and rooms with views of boats passing nearby Patriots Point.