The Charleston Guide
Over the course of three centuries, Charleston—one of the oldest, most storied cities in America—has developed a rich culture shaped by a number of historic events (the Civil War commenced at Fort Sumter, for one) and distinct geographic elements (the city is flanked by two rivers and a beautiful harbor on the Southern tip). And due to its compact size, you’ll inevitably stumble on significant sites and the picturesque Charleston single houses, with their piazzas and lace-like facades, simply by taking a post-dinner walk. What’s more, many of the newer restaurants, bars, and shops are housed in old buildings that have been beautifully converted to accommodate modern-day needs—though they still retain the old-world charm that makes Charleston so unforgettable.
Drayton Hall Plantation3380 Ashley River Rd., West Ashley | 843.769.2600
Born on Magnolia Plantation, John Drayton was the son of Thomas and Ann Drayton, a prominent colonial family in early South Carolina. He purchased Drayton Hall plantation in 1738, in the days when South Carolina (along with the rest of the country) was still a colony of Great Britain. In fact, the building is famous among scholars of architecture as the first fully executed example of the symmetrical, European Palladian style in America. Since then, the home has played an important role in practically every one of the region's historic events, from the Revolution to the Civil War to Reconstruction, making it an ideal—and stunningly beautiful—place to learn about South Carolina’s unique history, including the history of slavery. Today, the 350-acre property and painstakingly-restored house are open to the public, hosting tours of the house, lectures, and walks throughout the day.
Walking TourSouth of Broad
Charleston is the ultimate walkable city, i.e. one of those places where it's enjoyable to actually wander around until you're fully lost. Its' relatively small size also means you can cover a lot of ground in a weekend, or even a day. One of the best neighborhoods to walk is the residential section of town known as South of Broad, i.e. literally south of Broad Street. To see some of the city's oldest architecture, quintessential Charleston homes (from tiny, quaint houses to grand, stately mansions), and lush gardens, walk down Church Street, taking detours to Stoll’s Alley and Zig Zag Alley. Also near Church Street is Rainbow Row (on East Bay Street, between Elliot and Tradd)—a colorful stretch of homes that dates back to the 18th-century, and perhaps the most photographed Charleston location. Another great walk is doing Tradd Street from east to west. Further south, below Tradd, and below South Battery Street, you'll find the waterfront White Point Garden, where you could walk the Battery, Charleston's historic defensive sea wall, along the Cooper River. Word to the wise, though: There are no public restrooms South of Broad. The city is trying out temporary bathrooms at Hazel Parker Playground (70 E. Bay St.), but a permanent solution is yet to be announced.
Since it’s only 45 minutes from downtown Charleston, Kiawah (a beachy, Spanish-moss-covered barrier island) makes a great day trip or weekend getaway. The Sanctuary, the island’s best-known hotel, is right up along the more than 10-mile-long beach, with a gorgeous pool and one of the area’s best spas. The island is ideal for exploring via bike, and it’s also home to some of the country’s best golf courses, which can be reserved by hotel guests and members of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort (an old-school private resort that takes up most of the island). Have dinner at the Ocean Course golf club, where big windows look out over the beach.
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens3550 Ashley River Rd., West Ashley | 843.571.1266
These are the oldest public gardens in the United States—they were founded in 1676 and have been open to the public since the 1870s. Filled with camellias or azaleas, depending on the season, they're a pretty stunning backdrop for walking and exploring. They’re also a surprisingly great family outing: Kids can check out the petting zoo, and a peacock café that features mini horses alongside the colorful birds. The original plantation home is open for tours, and unlike Drayton plantation (the gorgeously preserved house that belonged to founders Thomas and Ann’s son John), it’s furnished with family heirlooms in an effort to give visitors an idea of what life was like in the house in the 19th-century. If there’s one must-do, though, it’s the property’s award-winning “From Slavery to Freedom” tour, which explores Gullah culture in South Carolina from slavery through segregation all the way to the Civil Rights movement.
Tour Fort Sumter360 Concord St., French Quarter | 843.722.2628
It’s difficult to imagine now, but when the first battle of the Civil War broke out, the people of Charleston ran to their rooftops to watch the show—at 4am, the cannon fire looked almost like a fireworks show. As then, the ruins of the fort (which is now a National Park) can only be accessed by water, so you’ll have to book a boat tour with Fort Sumter Tours or drive a private boat there to do any exploring. On the way, keep an eye out for dolphins, which can usually be seen swimming around the sailboats in the harbor.
Middleton Place4300 Ashley River Rd., West Ashley | 843.556.6020
Of the many beautiful plantations in the Charleston area, Middleton Place along the banks of the Ashley River might be the most kid-friendly. In addition to the usual tours of the gardens and home, there's a stable and barn filled with heritage breed animals like sheep, water buffalo (a throwback to the property's days as a rice plantation), goats, chickens, pigs, and cows. On self-guided tours, you'll encounter artisans practicing trades that were once commonplace here, such as weaving, carpentry, pottery, and blacksmithing. History buffs will also love it: Arthur Middleton, who owned the plantation during the American Revolution, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the home almost didn't survive the Civil War, when it was burned by Union Troops. Of course, there's also the requisite garden, which was restored in the early 1900s and still boasts three original camellias that were brought to the house as a gift from a French botanist back in the 1800s. For a quiet, out-of-the-way vacation, the property also hosts guests in a lovely inn.
The Gibbes Museum of Art135 Meeting St., French Quarter | 843.722.2706
With a 100 year history in the same building, the Gibbes Museum was more than due for a renovation. The building itself is the only Beaux Arts building in Charleston, and the renovation is really a celebration of its original layout: The two year makeover uncovered, cleaned up, and put on display original details like tile, original wood, and gorgeous stained glass. The renovation also neatly divided the building into distinct spaces—the first floor is open to the public, with a library, shop, and public programs; the second floor shows works from their collection (more than 10,000 strong); and the third floor offers contemporary artwork and visiting exhibitions. If you're there during the week, stop by on a Wednesday night, when you can hear lectures and watch film screenings on the ground level.
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art161 Calhoun St., Harleston Village | 843.953.4422
Conveniently located on campus, very close to King Street, the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute is one of the city’s only institutions exclusively devoted to contemporary art. Their program is targeted at mid-career artists, which means that you’ll inevitably see someone for the first time that you’re likely to see again at a larger show. Look out for their student retrospectives, artists in residence program, and collaborations with other departments—they also do artist lectures and film screenings that are open to the public.