Travel and Leisure Magazine ranks Charleston as its Number One on a list of “The Top 15 Cities in the United States.” On another of its designations, Charleston is on the roster of “Friendliest Cities in America.” No wonder over 5 million visitors make their way to this Southern town with its coastal flavor, warm temperatures, lush natural surroundings and locals who invite you to “pull up a chair and sit a spell.”
Recently, my husband and I spent a few days in Charleston to relax and celebrate my birthday. It was a perfect splurge, well worth the drive and every penny we spent. When I think of all we saw and did, I believe four make my list of “Favorite Activities.”
Surrounding Myself in History
For first-time visitors to Charleston, I highly recommend the harbor boat tours out to Fort Sumter and the carriage rides in the downtown historic district. Both are fully-narrated and very educational. The first shots of the American Civil War were fired by Confederate soldiers at the Union troops holding onto Fort Sumter. After a 33-hour bombardment, the Union soldiers surrendered. That is only a brief summary of the important events that unfolded in Charleston Harbor.
During carriage rides, you get to see beautiful examples of architectural styles and learn WHY homes were designed in that way. You’ll also hear stories of colorful characters throughout Charleston’s history as you pass their former homes or places of business.
My favorite way of surrounding myself in history was getting to spend three nights at the John Rutledge House Inn. John Rutledge was a signer of the U.S. Constitution, one of the original five Justices of the Supreme Court and the 31st Governor of South Carolina. I especially loved the ornate ironwork incorporating both an eagle and a palmetto tree representing his service to his country and to his state – the eagle for the U.S. and the palmetto tree as a symbol of South Carolina. The opulent home was built for Rutledge’s wife as a place where she could entertain in the city. George Washington himself was once a guest there. The rooms are spacious and luxuriously comfortable. The breakfasts are bountiful, and the location is perfect for taking in the sights of Charleston.
Eating in Upscale Southern Restaurants Featuring Lowcountry Cuisine
Lowcountry cooking is particularly associated with the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and the Sea Islands. Naturally, the area is teeming with seafood, so shrimp, oysters, crabs, and fish are common, but you’ll also find grits, okra, fried chicken and every vegetable imaginable.
My most memorable meals recently were enjoyed at Slightly North of Broad, Tommy Condon’s Irish Pub, Hank’s Seafood Restaurant and Peninsula Grill.
Chef Russ Moore is at the helm of Slightly North of Broad (also known as S.N.O.B.), located at 192 East Bay Street. Read my full review here. The food is some of the freshest you could possibly eat and is truly delicious.
Tommy Condon’s Irish Pub and Seafood Restaurant is located at 160 Church Street, mere steps away from St. Philips Episcopal Church and its historic cemetery. Tommy Condon’s has a regular slate of live musicians performing, and its menu is wide with plenty of nods to Irish choices, such as Irish nachos, Irish potato chowder, Shepherd’s Pie, Corned Beef and Cabbage, and Reuben sandwiches. The location is great for walking in the cool evenings, and there is ample seating both indoors and outdoors.
Peninsula Grill is an elegant restaurant at 112 North Market Street inside the Planters Inn and complete with flickering gas lanterns, brick walkways and a wrought iron gate. We dressed up a bit more for our dinner there. It has been said by some to be the most romantic restaurant in Charleston. The whole dining atmosphere is superb, and the food is topnotch in every category. But, the signature dessert of 12-layer coconut cake is not to be missed! The slice is large, definitely shareable, and positively decadent.
Hank’s Seafood Restaurant at 10 Hayne Street has been voted Best Seafood Restaurant in Charleston for 16 consecutive years. The building is a turn-of-the-century warehouse that formerly housed the Garden & Gun Club. Some of its specialties include She Crab Soup, Charleston Oyster Stew, and diners can actually order Seafood Towers or Seafood Castles. Local Grouper, Atlantic Salmon, Yellowfin Tuna, Swordfish and Jumbo Shrimp are prominent on the menu. Reservations are strongly suggested for this wildly popular eatery.
Browsing the Shops and Galleries of King Street
King Street has evolved into three distinct sections. Upper King Street is where you’ll find most of the design and dining establishments. Middle King Street is the fashion area, and lower King Street is predominantly antiques. I somehow gravitated toward the stores specializing in women’s fashions, but my husband and I also browsed several remarkable art galleries. One, in particular, was the Rick Reinert Studio. Mr. Reinert was busily working on a painting and stopped for a friendly chat. The courtyard in the rear of his studio was enticing with cool breezes, blooming azaleas, and whimsical sculptures.
My only regret is not having more time to spend on King Street. For my next visit, I will definitely plan more hours there on my itinerary. One important note is that there are bike-taxis available for hire to shoppers with tired feet. I recommend flagging one down. The young people need the money, and the rest of us need to avoid succumbing to the heat.
Seeing One-of-a-Kind Attractions
Plantations can be found throughout the South, but the Charleston Tea Plantation is a singular experience. It is located on Wadmalaw Island, about a 45-minute drive out of the city. On the lush acres of this plantation, you’ll find the only place in North America where tea is grown. A short video in the gift shop and a trolley tour will give you a look at the whole process of growing, harvesting and processing the tea. Then, of course, you can shop for everything imaginable associated with brewing, serving and drinking tea and buy boxes of the tea varieties produced on the land to take home. A special treat is being able to drink unlimited amounts of brewed tea before making your selection.
Just a few short miles from the tea plantation, 3699 Angel Oak Road on John’s Island to be exact, is a southern live oak tree, called Angel Oak, estimated to be between 400 and 500 years old. It is 66 ½ feet tall and its longest branch distance is 187 feet. The tree is located in a free park and is well worth the short drive off the beaten path to see it. The tree is said to be one of the oldest living organisms east of the Mississippi. It is very sobering to try to imagine what life was like when that tree took root and to realize that unless a natural disaster destroys it, the tree will stand long after I’m gone.
So, now you have my 4 favorite activities during a visit to Charleston. Maybe they will motivate you to start planning a trip to the city that suits your own particular interests and desires.