The city of Charleston is easy to explore on foot. // © Thinkstock
In the spring of 1670, a group of English colonists, indentured servants and slaves sailed into what is now Charleston harbor. Several centuries may have passed since that arrival, but the city of Charleston, S.C., continues to attract visitors by the thousands every year who are looking to get a feel for this port city’s storied history.
Last year, Charleston was named the Top U.S. City in the Conde Nast Traveler Readers' Choice awards. The city also recently completed a $5.5 million restoration and renovation of its City Market, one of the top tourist attractions in downtown. Add to these two recent accomplishments an array of perennially popular historic sites, undeniably tasty lowcountry cuisine and interesting accommodations at a variety of price points, and it’s easy to see why Charleston continues to sell as a vacation destination.
The Lay of the Land
Like Savannah to the south, the city of Charleston is known for its stately mansions and historic public buildings. But Charleston is also known for its role in one particularly important moment in U.S. history; after all, it was at Fort Sumter, which sits just across the harbor, that the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861.
Today, the ferry ride to that well-worn fort is one of the must-do activities for first-time visitors. But a big part of the city’s allure resides right downtown, in the historic city center. One of the most memorable ways for clients to get an overview of the city is by taking a horse-drawn carriage ride. Several companies operate these guided tours on a daily basis, leaving from near the City Market. After getting an overview, it’s that much easier to get around this city, which is easily walkable. Most vacationers will spend some of their time visiting Charleston’s Museum Mile, a one-mile section along and near Meeting Street that’s dotted with six museums, five historic homes and four parks.
Charleston’s landmark mansions are among the most popular tourist magnets. These former homes of politicians, plantation owners and business moguls from centuries past — many of which are now open to the public for guided tours — give a fascinating glimpse into Charleston’s elegant past. The most impressive include the Aiken-Rhett House, which dates to 1820 and is furnished with items from before the Civil War, and the Heyward-Washington House, a home built in 1772 that is the setting for Dubose Heyward’s “Porgy,” the novel that inspired Porgy and Bess.
Top museums include the Charleston Museum, which highlights the culture and traditions of South Carolina’s lowcountry, and the Old Slave Mart Museum, which opened in 2007 in a former slave auction hall and offers interesting insight into a painful part of the nation’s history.
Clients who are fans of military history won’t want to miss the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that marked the beginning of the era of submarine warfare when it entered service in 1864. After sinking that same year, it was finally located in 1995 and moved to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston. Hunley tours are available every Saturday and Sunday.
Sleeping in Style
Charleston’s hotel options are interwoven with the city’s elegant traditions and historic ambience. Among the top choices for luxury seekers is Charleston Place, an Orient-Express hotel just steps from the City Market, which has a rooftop swimming pool, a popular upscale restaurant and a spa.
Another excellent choice is the Wentworth Mansion, a stately creation built in the 1880s as a private residence that is today a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Gracefully maintained and decorated, it’s one of the best places to sample a bit of old-fashioned Charleston living firsthand.
Clients looking for a bit of sun and sand during the warmer months might prefer to spend a few nights just outside of town at one of the more resort-style hotels, such as the Tides Folly Beach Hotel, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation. The property offers warm-weather activities including boating, fishing, swimming and parasailing. Gliding high above the coastline in the warm breezes with the harbor visible in the distance, clients just might be able to picture those first colonists sailing in.