Is Charleston not yet on your travel wish list? Heads-up: Make. Plans. Soon. Like an endearing friend who greets you with a ready smile, South Carolina’s hospitality-hearty city opens arms wide to travelers. Feel yourself gently wooed and warmed as Charleston dishes up the cherished three Cs of city sojourns —charm, culture and cuisine.
The sparkling highs in this Low Country jewel spotlight lush gardens, cobblestone streets, secret alleyways, horse-drawn carriages, architecture with graceful hideaway porches, candy-colored homes, church steeples aplenty, an abundance of art havens and award-winning foodie bonanzas.
Charleston is a change-maker. With a legacy that at times has played poignant, pivotal and polemical roles in United States history, this portside metropolis has proven to be a master of reinvention. Its strong sense of place, steeped in regional traditions, remains inviting, while a flurry of forward-thinking creativity swirls anew. A youthful vibe resonates.
There are scores of serene scenes in which to stop and smell the proverbial roses, as well as real-life jasmine, magnolia and wisteria under which to swoon.
Here, favorite ways — food, festivities and other fun finds — to optimize your vacation days.
Stay Overnight Just Right In this city of lodgings galore, an elegant newcomer is Hotel Bennett with 179 guest rooms and suites. This sophisticated salute to Southern charisma is accented with luxurious European architectural details and amenities. Its nine stories are ideally located on main thoroughfare King Street and alongside historic Marion Square in Downtown Charleston.
Get set to feel both dazzled and at home upon entering this pleasurable oasis, dressed in an interior decor well appointed by Design Continuum Inc. Note the marble-sumptuous lobby, dramatic double staircases and grand piano. A generous lobby bar serves fresh oysters, tony craft cocktails and Belgian frites. Its seating area in soft blues and grays is configured with groupings of comfy-classy sofas and chairs, plus winsome floor-to-ceiling windows, that encourage enthusiastic gatherings as well as romantic rendezvous. Peruse the lobby’s museum-quality artwork, focused on Charleston and environs, as well-trained staffers swoop to your side.
Across the lobby is sublimely sexy lounge Camellias. Outfitted in reclaimed pink marble, an egg-shaped bar, clusters of clubby chairs and a mirrored ceiling, this is Charleston’s best champagne-and-caviar niche. Indulge in its afternoon tea, too, and the signature Camellias Cake.
Masterminded by local hotelier and businessman Michael Bennett, Hotel Bennett — situated on the site of the former Charleston Library — has helped to stylishly transform its neighborhood. His family’s Charleston roots date to approximately 1850. During the Great Depression, his father shined shoes near where the hotel is now erected. It is managed in a collaborative partnership with Salamander Hotels & Resorts (founded by the inimitable Sheila Johnson). Adding extra oomph is its stellar restaurant Gabrielle and French cafe La Pâtisserie (see Pursue Palate Pleasures, below). The hotel’s piazza is a versatile al fresco veranda, perfect for casual sipping and supping in the shimmer of sunshine.
For prime pampering, head to Hotel Bennett’s Signature Spa with its five treatment rooms, including a couples’ retreat. Its Camellias Classic Massage utilizes a soothing oil blend of chamomile, rose geranium and sage to calm. Increase your hair care and decrease head-and-neck stress with its Scalp Quench remedy that rubs Vitamin E, passionflower and coconut oil into your tresses, adding shine. A first-class fitness center entices.
Don’t miss the swanky rooftop, Fiat Lux, with a 35-foot-long heated pool and the city’s only poolside cabanas, which can be reserved. Order from Fiat Lux’s ample array of spirits, local craft beers (Fatty’s IPA, Palmetto Nice & Brite Gose and Wicked Weed Uncle Rick’s Pilsner) and Mediterranean-centric dishes (such as grilled lamb pita and roasted beets with feta).
Guest rooms and suites feature chic hypoallergenic bed linens. Furnishings are upholstered in sand-and-sea hues that convey a coastal locale and mindset. Such niceties as curated books for browsing and a Nespresso machine are at hand. Many rooms open to balconies; all aim to access the glimmer of natural light.
Spacious bathrooms with city views encompass designer pedestal tubs (imagine unwinding in a deep-soaking bath sprinkled with rejuvenating salts), glass-enclosed marble showers, thick bathrobes and towels, top-shelf toiletries. You might even be tempted to dally unhurried hours in your beautiful bathroom, but Charleston beckons.
Make the Most of Sightseeing Moments
Wander Charleston’s picturesque streets for eyefuls of wonder. There is joy in such “Aha!” meanderings: neck-craned peeks down unexpected alleys and walkways; gazes that drift upward to scan a mansion’s roofline embellishments; gawks at enchanting home gardens. A city of color and verdant growth. That 10,000-steps-per-day goal you’ve been questing? In Charleston, one foot in front of the other is easily fueled by kaleidoscopic views of “Wow…look here” and “Look there!”
Yet be open to delve deeper, too, by joining a small-group stroll with Bulldog Tours, which delivers cool scoops about hot sites. Accompanied by personable guides, hear lively narratives about charismatic historical Charleston characters: their accomplishments, adventures and aberrations. You’ll peruse the French Quarter, Battery District, White Point Gardens, Rainbow Row. Better understand the dynamic goings-on that have built and bolstered Charleston since its foundation in 1670 — an action-packed stretch of 350 colorful years.
On these tours you’ll also learn about The Charleston Historic District — a National Historic Landmark and prominent centerpiece of American architectural styles and decorative arts. Thousands of structures are excellent examples of period forms, including Adamesque, Classical Revival, Colonial, Federal, Georgian, Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne and Regency.
A distinctive architecture style is the Charleston Single House, built during the 18th and 19th centuries, manifesting a single street door (often called a privacy door) that leads to a two-story piazza or porch. The actual door to the home itself is usually located out of public view, mid-way inside the piazza. If you have never seen this architectural brainstorm — developed to fit Charleston’s often narrow-and-long residential lots and to take advantage of welcome breezes — they are a marvel.
Family owned and operated for 36 years, Old South Carriage Company also extends its citywide expertise into engaging walking tours. This company is best known, however, for its lively horse-and-carriage jaunts with drivers’ descriptive discourses — an homage to Charleston’s clippety-clop yesteryear.
Sail the exhilarating Schooner Pride, a three-mast, 84-foot wooden schooner in Charleston Harbor. Spy seagulls, pelicans and dolphins on a two-hour daytime voyage. Sailor fantasies? It is a thrill to raise and trim the sails with crew — or just relax. Also consider a toast-the-sundown voyage. Cheers!
Climb aboard the 80-foot Carolina Belle ship of Charleston Harbor Tours.
Listen to stirring maritime lore and legends during a 90-minute narrated cruise that points out the USS Yorktown navy ship and its integral role in World War II; Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge — the longest cable-stay bridge in North America; and several important Civil War forts.
Pursue Palate Pleasures
Gabrielle is Hotel Bennett’s two-level, quietly glamorous restaurant, festooned with sculptural crystal ceiling lights and powered by visionary chef Michael Sichel, whose celeb pedigree includes appearances on Travel Channel’s Food Paradise and Bravo TV’s Top Chef: New Orleans. A first-generation American born in New York, Sichel’s earliest gustatory inspiration was the ace cooking of his mother, who immigrated to the United States from a coastal Italian city.
Passionate about his customers, cooks and cuisine, Sichel devises appealing Gabrielle menus emboldened by premiere foodstuffs of Coastal Carolina, incorporating ingredients from local and regional purveyors as much as possible. For starters: Try grilled octopus with turmeric couscous, dill yogurt and oven-roasted heirloom tomatoes; roasted butternut squash soup with coconut crème, smoked tasso oil and roasted pine nuts; or shrimp remoulade cocktail with chopped egg and smoked trout roe. Order an entrée of superlative duck a l’orange with sweet potato purée, roasted chestnuts and fried sage; celery root risotto with mushroom chips and truffle preserve; or opt for filet mignon accompanied by a choice of sauces: béarnaise, étouffée, horseradish cream, meunière amandine, poivre or tomato-olive tapenade.
Also ensconced within Hotel Bennett is an on-trend French cafe, La Pâtisserie, which presents, along with various coffees, superb napoleons, almond croissants, macarons, éclairs and artisanal breads. A French native, chef Rémy Fünfrock gleaned kitchen prowess at prestigious European hotels, a Michelin-starred New York City restaurant and elite chocolatiers and confectioners in France. Charleston is ooh-la-la fortunate to reap the results of this top talent’s experience. During evenings, La Pâtisserie switches to wine, craft beers, cheese and charcuterie.
Palmetto Cafe and Charleston Grill in the 434 guest room Belmond Charleston Place, another exceptional hotel, are attention-worthy restaurants.
Be satiated at lunch in Palmetto Cafe, gorgeous in a garden-like setting with floor-to-ceiling windows. Led by chef Steven Manall, whose fresh ingredient mantra is parlayed into Southern specialties infused with innovative twists, Palmetto Cafe promises to unfold a lazy afternoon escape when you want to take a break from sightseeing. A beloved Charleston staple is She-crab soup; Manall’s luscious version is splashed with sherry. Also savor seared scallops with cauliflower purée, fried capers and pine nuts. At Charleston Grill, where dark wood-paneled walls, rose-filled vases, white linens and jazz set a refined ambience, chef Michelle Weaver impresses. Order her King trumpet mushroom au poivre with roasted root vegetables; grilled crab cakes with creek shrimp, tomatoes and lime-dill vinaigrette; squab with blood pudding beignets, Dijon mustard, capers and tarragon; and charred broccolini with bagna cauda (hot dish of garlic and anchovies) and Parmesan.
The Peninsula Grill orchestrates a symphony of fine cuisine. Its handsome dining room is bedecked with head-turning 19th-century oil paintings plus a much-chatted-about colossal canvas of a mule, oyster-tone-velvet-lined walls, cypress molding, custom chandeliers and woven seagrass flooring — designed by Amelia Handegan. If you’re in the mood for lavish table settings, book an evening here and appreciate a wait staff that seems to effortlessly glide through the space, delivering to customers what they desire with determined aplomb.
You can also dine outdoors, under the stars, in the secluded Peninsula Grill Courtyard, a refuge by landscape architect Sheila Wertimer. It harbors bluestone and brick, boxwood shrubs, fountains, crepe myrtle and fruit trees. Gas carriage lanterns and votive candlelight cast fanciful glows after sunset. Chef Graham Dailey supremely satisfies a crowd that appreciates the best of baked oysters Rockefeller; Osetra caviar with potato blini; Burgandy escargot; seared foie gras with strawberry, almond crumb and balsamic vinegar; pistachio-crusted rack of lamb; pan-roasted jumbo sea scallops in citrus-lobster broth with garlic-chive potatoes; as well as a trove of beef — filet, strip, ribeye, porterhouse — prepared as you like and accompanied by such sauces as blue cheese-balsamic, brandy-peppercorn, ginger-lime beurre blanc and horseradish cream. Add sides of charred asparagus with lemon gremolata and goat cheese smashed potatoes. The dessert choices are equally deluxe, but the queen of Peninsula Grill’s sweets is a 12-layer coconut cake, which is baked daily and also available via mail order.
The restaurant S.N.O.B., which refers to its location, Slightly North of Broad, is a casual yet polished venue that highly values congeniality in what was once a cavernous 18th-century warehouse. Keen relationships with local farmers, fisherpeople and other producers are paramount for chef Russ Moore, who is dedicated to reinventing regional cuisine, and general manager Peter Pierce. Kudos to its bartenders for craft cocktails that excel: The Barn Raiser (honey-infused bourbon, Blenheim ginger ale and orange bitters); Un Beso (tequila reposado, Aperol, orgeat, lemon and orange bitters); Campfire Sling (Old Overholt rye whiskey, pure maple syrup, orange and chocolate bitters). Menu highlights: steamed clams with white-wine-garlic-cream, fresh parsley and a grilled baguette; Carolina quail with dirty rice stuffing, local kale and sorghum glaze; and barbecue tuna topped with fried oysters and green onions. Its cookbook, The S.N.O.B. Experience: Slightly North of Broad, is a winner.
Hungry for an exceptional eating adventure? Zero Restaurant + Bar astounds. Chef Vinson Petrillo is an imaginative, playful, one-of-a-kind chef. A reservation at this exquisite establishment promises an exciting romp through gourmand ever-ever-land.
Artistically arranged dishes are joyfully unveiled, one after another, often in startling and intriguing forms, ever more interesting in flavor and appearance than you would likely anticipate. There is an ambitious kind of kitchen magic involved, an awesome sleight of hand to elevate meals ever higher.
The restaurant is on Zero George Street, next to the timelessly lovely, boutique-style Zero George Hotel, which holds 16 guest rooms, set amid multiple buildings built in 1804. An outdoor veranda used by the restaurant is surrounded by trees and plants. An intimate, savvily stocked bar is energized by super-skilled mixologists, overseen by bar manager Cody Held, who concocts heady beverages that often have stories associated with them. The Pennylane (mezcal, strawberry-infused Bruto Americano, sweet vermouth, Xocolatl Mole bitters) is a dark drink destined for the changing of the season.
There are only two tasting menus with wine pairings for four to seven courses of ever-changing dishes. (Food allergies and other necessary preferences can be accommodated when advance reservations are thus noted.) But simply reading the menus’ straightforward words does not prepare you for giddy degustation. For example, a first “snacks” course includes a whimsical “potted plant” that turns out to be a miniature white peppery radish submerged in creamy, slightly sweet butter; the brown “dirt” in a gardening pot is made of puffed red quinoa.
Petrillo’s approach is ever painterly. He sculpts his taste-arousing presentations, implementing flowers, stones, woods, gold leaf, micro herbs, colors and unusual serving ware. Follow the restaurant’s seductive Instagram.
Look at What’s in Store
Ramble one of our country’s oldest public emporiums: City Market — a four-block retail extravaganza with hundreds of vendors.
At the Food for the Southern Soul stall, try Charleston Favorites Pickled Okra, popular Benne Wafers, Tidewater Shrimp Sauce and Lavington Farms Charleston Gold Aromatic Rice. Specialty shops, unique boutiques and art-antique galleries abound along cosmopolitan King Street.
Step into these gems: Billy Reid, Blue Bicycle Books, Candlefish, Croghan’s Jewel Box, Finicky Filly, Geo C. Birlant & Co., Hampden, Ibu Movement, Mac & Murphy, M. Dumas & Sons, RTW Charleston, Sugar Snap Pea and Worthwhile.
Marion Square, a leafy block in the center of Charleston for more than 150 years, hosts a bustling weekly farmers market on Saturdays in season with more than 100 local vendors of food, drink, art, clothing and jewelry.
Embrace Engrossing Museums
Definitely browse the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon, built in 1771. Major events in South Carolina history took place within its walls. Some with profound repercussions. Once a commercial exchange, custom house, prison (during the Revolutionary War, the British seized the city of Charleston, turning the structure into a torturous jail), post office, city hall and military headquarters, it is now a fascinating museum. Time your arrival to make the most of its elucidating guided tour.
Heyward-Washington House, built in 1772 for Thomas Heyward, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, is now on the National Register of Historic Places, owned and operated by the Charleston Museum. George Washington stayed here during his 1791 visit to the city. Its garden grows plants popular in late 18th-century Charleston.
Musicians, painters, playwrights, poets and writers moved to Charleston in the 1920s, energizing an artistic Renaissance that lasted through 1940. From across America, creatives — such as Elizabeth O’Neill Verner (called the best-known 20th-century woman artist of South Carolina) and painter-printmaker Alice Ravenel Huger — were drawn to a bohemian ambience, as well as a connection to Charleston’s geography and way of life. One of those who first relocated, notable painter Alfred Hutty, arrived in 1919 from the Midwest to teach at the Carolina Art Association; he wired his wife: “Come quickly, have found heaven.” At the Gibbes Museum of Art, these and other artists significant to the region are lauded.
As much as 40% of enslaved African people entered the 13 colonies and the United States through Charleston. Today, its Old Slave Mart Museum, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a thought-provoking, heart-breaking, eye-opening reminder about the decades between the drafting of the U.S. Constitution and the Civil War, when more than 1,000,000 slaves were bought and force-labored on Southern sugar and cotton plantations.
Public auctions frequently occurred near the former Custom House, now called the Old Exchange building. In 1856, a city ordinance forbade public outdoor slave sales, which relegated the evil practice to private clandestine rooms, markets and yards on Chambers, State and Queen streets. By November 1863, those actions finally ended. Bear witness and support this important museum.
During the 18th century, Charleston was the wealthiest colonial city. Its majestic U.S. Customs House, completed in 1879, was a bustling crossroads. Today, it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
About 15 miles north, Middleton Place, also a National Historic Landmark, contains America’s oldest landscaped gardens, as well as raises Belgian draft horses, cashmere goats, guinea hogs, peacocks, sheep and water buffalo. Enjoy demonstrations of blacksmithing, candle-dipping, open-fire cooking, pottery making and weaving.
Across the water from Charleston, Fort Sumter — where the first shots of the United States Civil War were fired — is only accessible to visitors via this national park tour.
This National Park and Civil War landmark contains preserved ruins and an education center helpful for discerning the crisis that America faced.
Personal interactions with park rangers, who describe soldiers, strategies and scenarios involved, make this excursion especially meaningful. On some end-of-day tours, you may be fortunate to join a park ranger who ceremoniously lowers the large United States flag from its tall pole — an emotional activity for many visitors.
Fort Sumter’s location had long been strategically important to its defense. If you are in downtown Charleston, board at Liberty Square near the Aquarium Wharf.
Attend the Best of the Fests
The spectacular Charleston Food & Wine Festival, in its 15th year, next launches March 4 to 8, 2020. Connect with farmers, celeb chefs, beverage experts, accomplished authors, storytellers and artists — as well as other culinary fans.
Spoleto Festival USA, one of the world’s major performance arts programs, will be held May 22 to June 7, 2020. Since 1977, it has produced exceptional dance, choral and chamber music, jazz, opera, symphony and theater shows.
For more Charleston and South Carolina travel tips, go here and here.