Fierce local pride is a Charleston institution. It has helped sustain the city for more than 300 tumultuous years—from colonial times, through the Revolutionary and Civil wars, to the present. Pride has also sustained thousands of historic Charleston buildings—a big reason that travelers visit today. Be sure to take a stroll down East Bay Street (especially the section known as Rainbow Row) to admire the pastel houses bedecked with their breeze-cooled piazzas.
Spend some time lolling in the near-tropical warmth of Charleston's beaches, admiring the stoic architecture of The Citadel (the state's military college) or exploring the Charleston historic district, and you'll likely find this a very pleasing corner of the cosmos.
Charleston is on a peninsula bordered by two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, which provide a natural, watery barrier that has pushed growth and development toward the north. For instance, King Street, the city's main shopping strip, is now bustling not only on its lower end (long famous for high-quality antiques) but also on its upper end (known for bars, restaurants and shopping that also appeal to the younger set).
The city's original settlers laid out the streets in a checkerboard plan, beginning with the intersection of King and Broad streets, which remains the premier address of old Charleston law and real estate firms. The corner of Broad and Meeting is aptly called the "Four Corners of Law" because of the four types of law represented on each corner: the U.S. Post Office (U.S. law), City Hall (municipal law), South Carolina State Courthouse (state law) and St. Michael's church (God's law).
South of Broad (nicknamed SOB), the residential neighborhood encircled by the harbor, is still the most expensive spot to call home (a few bed-and-breakfasts allow you to do this, if only for a short time). You'll probably hear locals refer to the area around and in between North and South Market streets as "the Market," a popular spot that includes many eateries, touristy shops and the historic covered market, where vendors sell various goods.
Areas such as East Cooper and West Ashley carry the implicit phrase "of the" (as in East of the Cooper), which explains their locations with respect to the city's two rivers and provides visitors with a useful trick to get their bearings.
Various islands dot Charleston's harbor and coast, such as Isle of Palms, Sullivan's Island, James Island and Daniel Island, some of which have historic sites, beaches or other attractions.
In 1670, a group of English colonists traveled up the Ashley River and settled Charles Towne, named in honor of King Charles II of England. Ten years later, the colony relocated across the river to a more desirable site—the peninsula. By 1690, the city had become the fifth-largest in North America—a market town with busy wharves and a harbor full of sailing ships. But it was the area's tremendously successful rice-cultivation industry that made it rich. The Lowcountry rice plantations proved so profitable that their owners filled the city and countryside with elegant mansions.
At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1776, Col. William Moultrie's fort on Sullivan's Island held against the firing of British forces, giving the new nation one of its first victories. After the war, Charles Towne became the city of Charleston, and its native sons played a key role in the formation of the new national government.
The city prospered and grew tremendously in the antebellum period. Charleston's rich plantation economy depended on an enslaved labor force. Africans and African Americans not only worked on the plantations, but also served as domestic servants and craftspeople in the city. Most of the antebellum structures that remain today were likely built by slaves.
Tensions over states' rights and slavery led the state of South Carolina to secede from the U.S. in December 1860. Charlestonians cheered from the rooftops as the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Though the Confederates won that battle, the ensuing siege nearly destroyed Charleston. The war brought an end to slavery and forever changed the city's way of life. By the early 1900s, phosphate mining and a navy yard were bringing jobs and new residents to Charleston.
The city's wealth of architectural gems survives in no small part because of local citizens who, during the 1920s and '30s, formed the country's first historic district with regulatory control, thus preserving the structures. In the 1970s, the abundance of historic buildings and rich legacy were finally tapped by the Charleston Chamber of Commerce. Travelers still visit Charleston for its architecture, southern charm and appealing seaside climate.
In 1931, Charleston became the first city in the U.S. to establish a historic district to preserve its architectural heritage. It was obviously a good place to start: Of the 2,000 or so buildings in the district, 73 predate the Revolutionary War and 736 were constructed in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
For a quick introduction to the city's historic sites, stop at the visitors center on the north side of the Historic District for brochures and information. If you have a car, consider leaving it in the parking garage at the visitors center and taking a DASH (Downtown Area Shuttle) to the sights. Riding DASH is free, and parking within the Historic District is difficult and extremely limited.
When night falls, Charleston is full of activity. The city is home to several colleges and a growing population of young professionals, so on any given night there are a variety of animated spots with live bands. You can find everything from laid-back dessert bars with acoustic guitar performances to nightclubs and salsa spots.
Because of a city mandate, downtown bars in the historic area must close at 2 am. Parking in downtown is extremely limited, and towing is enforced, so seek out a parking garage or be careful where you leave your car.
Charleston's dining scene rivals that of much larger cities. The number and diversity of top-quality restaurants has resulted in the annual Wine and Food Festival each March; an event that draws in guests—and chefs—from all over.
The emphasis is often on Lowcountry recipes, sometimes given a contemporary slant. And as might be expected of a seaside city, Charleston is a great place for seafood. Shrimp, oysters and crab turn up in a variety of dishes, including the local favorite, she-crab soup (cream-based and laced with sherry). You should also try Carolina red rice and fried green tomatoes. Look for Beaufort or Frogmore stew (named for the towns just down the coast)—also known as a Lowcountry Boil—a combination of sausage, corn, potatoes and shrimp.
Shrimp and grits, a celebrated Lowcountry dish, can be found on almost every menu in the city. And hoppin' John (an African-inspired mixture of rice and field peas) also should not be missed.
Note that smoking is not allowed in restaurants or bars.
General dining times are 7-10 am for breakfast, 11:30 am-2:30 pm for lunch and 7-9 pm for dinner. If you're trying to get into a popular restaurant, call ahead for reservations.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$20; $$ = US$20-$30; $$$ = US$31-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.
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