Ah, the Holy City, my current home. I’ve been living in the tourism capital that is Charleston for about a year and a half now, and I’ve got designs on staying a few more months. We welcome scads of visitors every year who arrive by the thousand via tour bus and cruise ship, eager to take in the beautiful architecture, rich history, and world-class food. The weather’s not bad, either. Truly, I run out of things to complain about. Founded in the 1670, it’s one of America’s oldest cities, and it’s still a functional port today. Though things have changed a lot here over the past few centuries, it remains a gorgeous city that is much more progressive, zanier, and more diverse than the rest of the state. Nicknamed the Holy City because of a nearly-embarrassing overabundance of churches, Charleston has played an important role in several faith traditions– Reform Judaism was born here, the country’s oldest Unitarian church is here, and it’s one of the most important cities in the Bahai’i faith.
It’s also routinely listed as one of the best vacation destinations in the world, so we get a true cross section of the population visiting, though they seem to fall almost entirely into three distinct categories: people who want to look at the beach, people who want to eat our food, and people who want to interact with a friendly kind of slavery. I’m always happy to see the first two, but believe me: I am not sympathetic to your position that the Old Slave Mart was “a downer” or your weird obsession with plantations. If you’ve got a soft spot for John C. Calhoun or want to tell me how human bondage wasn’t so bad, please just stay at your house and do not give money to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
After the jump, check out some photos I’ve taken around town and get my recommendations for the best places to eat, drink, stay, shop, and do in my adopted hometown.
Here’s what you need to know: Charleston is tiny and very flat. We’re talking maybe 5 miles end to end and 2 miles across. It’s all walkable and safe. If you’re planning on staying on the peninsula itself (and you can have a really nice vacation doing that, trust me), there’s zero need for a car. We’ve got pedicabs, and bikes are easy to rent. If you want to see a beach, you’ll need a vehicle, though Charleston has Uber and cabs are inexpensive and readily available. Make good choices! Most things tourists want to do are south of Calhoun, and approximately 90% of things that are of interest to out-of-towners are south of the Crosstown. People will happily give you directions, and those are the landmarks they’ll use most often. The visitor center is in the exact middle of the peninsula, so you’re never far from someone who can help you if you get lost.
Stay: I don’t often rent a hotel room in my own town, but I’ve stayed a couple places here for one reason or another. You can’t really lose around here, though I’d steer clear of the chains, which are often more expensive than the cute local places for reasons I don’t fully understand. A lot of my friends have had good luck with AirBnB, and I guess you could always call me and see if you can stay. My best bets for places to sleep are as follows:
- Not-So Hostel: I’ve stayed twice in this cute hostel in my neighborhood. It’s clean, inexpensive, and friendly. It has parking and includes breakfast, which is a great deal. It’s also about twenty yards from my house, so you can always come say hello.
- Zero George: A pretty boutique hotel, the Zero George also has a great restaurant on its first floor. It’s not in the hustle and bustle of the Market, quite, but it’s still central.
- The Wentworth House: If money’s no object, I can’t imagine why you’d ever stay anywhere else. It’s old as hell and so stuffy. I LOVE IT. The attached restaurant is great.
- Vendue: This is Charleston’s “art hotel”, a sort of 21C by the Sea. It’s brand new and has a great rooftop bar with beautiful views of the harbor and a very restaurant.
- The Francis Marion: Old-school and central, it’s easy to get around from here, and I’ve heard the spa is nice. Skip the restaurant on the first floor, as well as the Starbucks. It currently has a Shepard Fairey installation on the roof, though I’m not sure they’ve noticed that.
Of course, there are dozens more– Charleston Place, Meeting Street Inn, and so forth– that are all lovely, I’ve heard! You really can’t lose.
Eat: I wrote this fun article for Serious Eats about places to get great food in Charleston, so check this list out first for the essentials and don’t get shouty in the comments without checking it first. I’m not going to lie: It’s a great list. Here are the places I didn’t include, either because getting a reservation can be too tough or because I ran out of time.
- FIG: Straight up, I think this is the best food in town. Mike Lata isn’t doing anything that wild, but he is doing everything perfectly. The wine list is second to none, and I can’t say enough good things about the service, ambiance, and uh, you know, food. Getting a reservation can be tough, so call about three weeks in advance.
- Martha Lou’s: This hot pink trailer dishes up amazing soul food at rock-bottom prices. Be ready to stand in line and take your food to go. It’s really tiny, and so hot you can’t even imagine.
- Tattooed Moose: In the northern reaches of the peninsula is a fairly dirty bar that makes duck fat fries, bacon pie, and a Thanksgiving leftovers sandwich. They have $2 corndogs and cheap beer, but they also have a really impressive selection of craft beer that you’ll love.
- Bull Street Gourmet: Fast and casual, Bull Street Gourmet has one of the best breakfasts in town. I’m partial to the duck confit hash and the lox bagel, but I’ve never had anything there I didn’t want to rub all over my face. A nice selection of gourmet groceries makes this an easy pick for a quick meal.
- Fast and French: As a general rule, the further south you go on the peninsula, the pricier things get, but Fast and French is the exception to this rule. It’s not that this is the best French food you will ever eat, it’s that it’s the best French food you will eat for five dollars. Cheap, fast, and good, the authentically unfriendly service and crowded bar make this a great place to go when you’re starving, broke, and pressed for time.
- Collective Coffee: Though it’s over in Mount Pleasant, this is the best coffee in town without a doubt. I love how pretty the space is– you forget it’s in a strip mall it’s so nice. The food offerings there are good, and they have a cozy couch and nice baristas.
- Normandy Farms Bakery: This is the gold standard for an early breakfast. Though they now have three locations, the Broad Street one is best. Get a cheap breakfast sandwich and house roasted coffee and plan to spend awhile people watching.
- Charlie’s Grocery: This is a corner store. They have homemade falafel. I don’t think there’s much else I need to say, other than I love the Palestinian family that owns it with my whole heart.
- Dellz Deli: Charleston’s food can be pretty heavy, that’s for damn sure. Sometimes you want to hit the reset button, and this is the place to do it. They do smoothies and juices, as well as wraps and salads. It’s one of the best places in town if you’re vegan or vegetarian.
- Brown’s Court Bakery: Brown’s Court is my neighborhood bakery, and my BFF here works behind the counter most mornings. Get their iced coconut coffee and a ham and cheese croissant and then text me and tell me I’m a genius.
- Bowen’s Island: Way out yonder on James Island is a restaurant called Bowen’s Island. Get there at 5 and join the queue by the door. They’ll hand you a bucket of steamed oysters and a knife so you can eat them while looking out at the marsh.
- Obstinate Daughter: By far the best food on Sullivan’s, which is by far the best beach in Charleston. You can’t miss.
- Marina Variety Store: Atop the marina sits a little restaurant that opens at 5 a.m. and serves cheap and delicious diner food. The Marina Variety Store is fun because you get to see guys who are going out for a day on their yachts eating breakfast with clammers, retirees just starting the morning with frat guys drying out after a tough night.
- McCrady’s: There’s not question about it: McCrady’s is the last word in cuisine in Charleston. Reservations are tough and it’s default prix fixe menu is not for picky eaters, but prepare to be bowled over by their commitment to excellence in fine dining.
- Oak Steakhouse: I know, a steak when you’re right by the ocean? Okay, whatever, this is the best steak I’ve ever had.
- Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit: Callie’s is the size of a closet, and they only serve biscuits. It is my idea of a dream home.
- Five Loaves Cafe: Fair warning, this isn’t one of Charleston’s most amazing restaurants, but it’s very good and it’s by far the best place to go for lunch if you’ve got a lot of people with dietary restrictions. Vegan, gluten-free, low-carb, everyone can find something here.
- The Grocery: The Grocery gets left off a lot of the best-of lists and I’m never sure why. They do high-end Southern food in a pretty space. They have a parking lot. Service is good. The wine list is nice. I’m at a loss for why no one ever suggests it.
- Leon’s: A relative newcomer with a short menu. You can have either oysters or fried chicken, and that’s really about it. Both are excellent and really filling.
- Closed for Business: This is your standard upscale pub food place with a great craft beer selection. I always have a really nice time there and leave full. I cannot recommend the fried green beans enough.
- Butcher and Bee: Serving excellent sandwiches and a brown bag-only lunch, this lunch place has great options that are perfectly executed. Their space is cute, too, and they have a lot of nice magazines you can read if you’re dining alone. Check out The Daily, their new coffee and juice spot that features Stumptown coffee.
- Black Tap Coffee: Tucked into a tiny old house on Beaufain, this is great coffee in a pretty environment. I went to coffee with the guys who run the place and I don’t know how they could be more delightful. It’s a fun place to hang out and enjoy a cup of coffee with friends.
- Triangle Char Bar: Triangle Char Bar is my platonic ideal of a brunch place. Amazing brunch foods, dollar mimosas, and great for crowds. I have wasted many, many Sundays at this place.
Drink: Charleston is a hard-drinking kind of place, and I’ve lost track of a lot of time here. Cocktails are what we do best here, and we have scores of bars that serve excellent ones. A word to the wise: One of our blue laws states that a place that serves liquor that has its primary door facing the primary door of a church cannot serve alcohol all day on Sunday. Choose your brunch spot with care.
- Blind Tiger: A bighearted dive on Broad, the Blind Tiger likes to joke it’s what separate Church from State (it’s between these two blocks). It has a capacious back porch that is packed year-round, and I love the mix of people you see here.
- The Belmont: I love a good cocktail, and the guys behind the bar at the Belmont have some of the best in town. A great selection of liquor keeps this at the top of my list for a nice drink, but they also have a small but thoughtful beer and wine selection. I know they serve food here, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone eat it.
- Elliottborough Minibar: My corner bar! I kind of hope you don’t come here because no one really does and I like it that way. It’s roughly the size of your living room and sells only wine and beer. They’re nice and you can’t deny the allure of their very inexpensive happy hour.
- Cutty’s: The dive to end all dives. It’s filthy and they have dollar beer all day every day. There’s no sign. You just have to know it’s there and trust that you’re not walking into someone’s house. The pizza place across the street will deliver a pie to you there.
- Voodoo Tiki Lounge: A sister business to Tattooed Moose, this West Ashley velvet painting museum specializes in tiki drinks. You can’t not love it.
- Recovery Room: This is just a fun place to hang out, you know? It’s not clean. It’s not fancy. It’s not nicely decorated. It has fun activities (pool, arcade games, bocce, trivia), cheap beers, and a really good jukebox. You can bring your dog and sit outside!
- The Upper Deck: This is another shitty dive bar, but it has two things that set it apart: great DJs like DJ Party Dad and an openly gay-friendly door policy that makes it a welcoming place for everyone. The friendly bartenders will remember your name and drink.
- Moe’s: It is very dark in Moe’s, and that’s all I can ever remember when I leave there. They have tasty, disgusting bar food and inexpensive beer. People love going there, and I don’t blame them.
- The Rarebit: I keep forgetting the Rarebit is a restaurant, too, because I only ever go there to drink. They have housemade sodas and perfect classic cocktails that go down a little too easy. Also, there are really hot bartenders. After 10 p.m., they serve inexpensive breakfast in a SoCal kind of atmosphere that I dig x 1000.
- Charleston Beer Exchange: Just beer, but the best selection in town. They have retail, too, so you can pick up whatever you need there!
- The Royal American: The Royal American is in a kind of inconvenient stretch of Morrison Drive that doesn’t lend itself well to really making a night of it, but it is enormous and fun to hang out in, which makes it an ideal weeknight bar you can bring your whole office to.
- Stars Rooftop: I’ve only eaten here once and remember thinking it was pretty good, but the reason to come is the rooftop bar. Really, really beautiful people come here to drink their cocktails on tap. Sometimes, you get lucky and there’s dollar oyster happy hour.
- Craftsman Tap House: Uneven service and expensive eats kept this off my restaurant list, but I love their selection of craft beers and beer cocktails. I’m a recent but zealous convert to the Church of the Shandy, so they’ve seen a lot of me recently.
- King of Cups: Great food and drink is hard to come by out on Folly Beach, but King of Cups delivers both. I’m very charmed by their tarot card decor.
- The Griffon: A perfect dive bar tucked away in the fanciest part of Charleston. They don’t bat an eye when you order three shots of Ancient Ancient Age, neat, on a Monday night and down all three of them. They have good pub food, from what I can remember. It gets hazy in there fast.
Shop: King Street is the shopping destination here in town. Upper King has some kind of trendy places that are local, Middle King is all mall shops like the Gap and Urban Outfitters, and Lower King is mostly antique stores. I love going in those places, but I never buy much. Here are a few places I love:
- Curiosities: This antique store specializes in old silverware, and it isn’t the least bit stuffy. It’s pretty hip, but it keeps weird hours and is a little hard to find. I buy gifts here, and I’m always satisfied.
- Bits of Lace: A knockout lingerie store, Bits of Lace has everything from tough-to-find sizes to fancy swimwear. A friend’s mom owns it and I love shopping with them.
- Trunk Show: Trunk Show specializes in designer consignments, and they’ve got everything from this-season stuff with the tags still on to Chanel suits that are older than your parents. Heather is really nice and will help you find what you’re looking for, but be prepared to dig; it’s packed to the gills.
- Southern Seasons: If you’ve ever been to their flagship store in Chapel Hill, you’ll know why this makes the list. It’s a one-stop shop for any passionate cook, and their prepared foods are delicious. I stock up on local specialties here before visiting friends who live far away.
- Cook Charleston: Located downtown, Cook Charleston specializes in fancy cookware you don’t need– it’s like a local Williams-Sonoma. They offer cooking classes that you’d genuinely like to go to, and it’s right by the Gin Joint, which is always something I want to do.
- Grady Irvin: Bespoke menswear for the modern gentlemen. I cannot say enough good things about the amazing men who work here– they’re true artists who love to help you look good.
- Lily: Hands down the best cards in Charleston, plus tons of other pretty gifts at a range of prices for almost any budget.
- Ben Silver: Check out their unparalleled selection of men’s accessories from ties to cufflinks to umbrellas. Most of the best-dressed guys in Charleston shop here.
- Croghan’s Jewel Box: This shop has been in the same family for four generations, and has both new and estate jewelry you can take home. The people who work there couldn’t be nicer and they’re adept at helping you find just the right piece.
- Blue Bicycle Books: This is our only bookstore! It’s just okay, but I wanted you to know where to buy books. Sometimes they do signings, which is great.
- Heirloom Bookshop: Okay, I lied, there are two books. This shop only stocks vintage, rare cookbooks and is open at best sporadically.
- Gwynn’s of Mount Pleasant: I am to broke to buy anything in here, but they have an amazing selection of high-end lines and it smells spectacular to boot.
See/Do: It’s almost too much, all the things you can do in Charleston. Grab the City Paper (I’m the society reporter!) and check out the listings– there are always fun events happening here. Repeat after me: There is no reason whatsoever to go to the Market. I promise, there is nothing you want there and it’s overrun with people who don’t know where they’re going. If you like history, take a tour with Bear Barrow, one of the best guides in town.
- Have five beers and take a ghost tour. It doesn’t matter which one. Just see what’s on Groupon. This is hilarious, unless you believe in ghosts, in which case, it’s very informative.
- Spoleto: Held in April, this is the best fine arts festival in the new world (their words, not mine). It’s pricey, but the acts are outstanding. Everything I have ever seen here is amazing. If you’re not here during this time of year, that’s okay! We have one of the best live theatre scenes in America and you can see an outstanding performance any night of the year.
- The Music Farm: Charleston is a little out of the way for most touring musicians, so don’t bet on seeing live shows here if that’s your jam. That said, we get a fair amount of good stuff coming through, and my favorite place to see music is the Music Farm, and its sister venue, Charleston Music Hall. Check to see if anything good is in town while you’re here.
- The Library Society of Charleston: The oldest private library in America, this building is fireproof! You have to be a member to see the really good stuff, but they’ll let you go in the main room for free and they’re always hosting fascinating lectures on myriad topics.
- Unitarian Churchyard: I know, I know. It’s a graveyard. But it is the sexiest graveyard. Trust me. You need to go see it.
- Tea Plantation: Charleston is the only place outside of Asia where real tea is grown! That’s a pretty neat thing. The tea isn’t bad, either! You can buy it at most anywhere, but the tour is very informative and it’s the only reason I’m going to write you a pass for visiting a plantation.
- The Farmer’s Market: Because we have a very, very long growing season, this is almost every single Saturday of the year in Marion Square. There are some break dancers and artists who come, and the food trucks usually show up, too!
- SpaceCraft: I don’t know if this sounds like a fun thing to do on vacation or not, but you can learn how to do arts and crafts of all kinds at this tiny space in West Ashley. I learned calligraphy there, but they do basketweaving and all kinds of other things.
- The French Quarter: Most of the best art galleries are in this area, and they range from prices that are in line with mortgages to something you could reasonably take home. Wander into a few to get a taste of some of the best local art!
- The Cistern Yard: College of Charleston is one of the oldest universities in America, and it’s extremely pretty. The Cistern Yard is at George and St. Phillip, and it’s their main quad. The building is red, allegedly because Charlestonians slay a bull sent as a peace offering by the White House after the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter nearby. I don’t think that’s true, but it’s a great story.
- Fort Sumter: I’ve actually never been to this, but I keep meaning to go. Everyone says it’s really neat, and you get to ride on a ferry! Block out a whole morning for this.
- The South Carolina Aquarium: I am terrified of aquariums across the board, but I actually like this one! They have a bald eagle for some reason, which I enjoy a lot.
- The Charleston Museum: This is the oldest museum in America, and they have a lot of cool stuff that I don’t fully understand. I really like the silver collection, but there’s something for everyone here.
- The Angel Oak: This is allegedly the largest living organism in North America. I don’t know how they know that, but it IS really big. The drive out to that part of John’s Island is beautiful, and I think it’s worth checking out if you have a car at your disposal.
- Four Corners of Law: This is just a corner, and it’s only cool at night, but it’s really, really cool. The picture in the slideshow of the church steeple is one of the four corners. Ask a tour guide to show it to you! It gets its name from the buildings on each corner, each of which represents one of the kinds of laws that govern us: church, state, local, and federal.
- Gibbes Art Museum: This is closed for renovation until 2016, but I wanted to keep it here for posterity. It’s small, but its collection of local art throughout Charleston’s history is beautiful and fascinating.
- Second Sundays: Every second Sunday of every month, King Street closes below Calhoun and becomes a street party. If you’re in town, it’s a great way to meet locals, try new restaurants, and take advantage of sidewalk sales.
- Go to the beach. Sullivan’s is the best one. It’s cleanest, has the best restaurants, and isn’t as crowded. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Okay, now you may commence shouting at me! These are my favorite things about Charleston that don’t include lazing about.