Get the lowdown on this historic Lowcountry Mecca for fantastic food, creative cocktails, and antebellum architecture. Bring comfortable shoes, because this great walking town provides ample opportunity to burn off those delicious calories.
One of America’s most charming walking cities, Charleston, South Carolina, drew me in for its gracefully haunting antebellum architecture, gardens, and its reputation as a great culinary destination. But to truly understand this city, founded in 1670, look a bit deeper when you visit, to see where slavery and its legacy fit in.
I wanted to visit in late March, for the best weather. Plus, that’s when the loquats on Chalmers Street ripen, and locals make liqueur from them. For surely the most authentic and intimate Charleston experience, arrange a tour with Laura Wichmann Hipp, ending with a remarkable tea party in her home.
Walk past the famous pastel homes on Rainbow Row to Chalmers Street and its Old Slave Mart Museum. You might need a drink by then, so mosey down Chalmers to The Gin Joint. In 2005, South Carolina finally struck down the mini-bottle mandate that required all drinks to be dispensed in 1.7-ounce mini-bottles. Like artists with newly unshackled hands, local bartenders responded with an explosion of creative cocktails. The Gin Joint was Charleston's first real dedicated craft cocktail spot. Throw caution to the wind and order the Bartender’s Choice.
Next, head over to Husk or FIG, each just a few blocks away. At Husk, James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock reinterprets traditional Southern dishes to the tune of Kentuckyaki glazed pork belly wraps or country fried steak with root vegetable hash. In Charleston, whether you begin with chilled sweet tea or a custom cocktail, your beverage is always in hand before you even look at the dinner menu—it just wouldn’t be civilized any other way. Although at FIG, I’d say the Painted Hills hangar steak with Beauregard sweet potato and sauce bordelaise calls for a fine Spanish Tempranillo-Garnacha. A chocolate tart with hazelnut praline, burnt Minneola, and cherry will do just fine for dessert. Stumble across the street to your hotel, the 78-room Belmond Charleston Place. Its award-winning Charleston Grill, with live jazz nightly, is onsite. Those who dress to impress flock to the Thoroughbred Club, open till midnight.
Much of early Charleston was built and maintained by slaves, whose actual history is rarely presented. Alphonso Brown’s Gullah Tour is the perfect remedy. Next, drive up Ashley River Road to Drayton Hall, noted for its Georgian-Palladian architecture. Magnolia Plantation is often compared to Drayton but is completely different and a must-visit (see photos for details of both). The Magnolia Cemetery combines history, tragedy, current politics, and moody scenery. On many mornings you may stroll the grounds alone except for the herons, roseate spoonbills, Spanish moss-draped trees, and 33,000 souls buried here over the past 165 years, some of their graves decorated with little paper Confederate flags. Another place to find African-American-made sweetgrass baskets, ironically, is at the Charleston City Market, which sits just below the Confederate Museum. The museum is crammed with memorabilia: a lock of Robert E. Lee's hair attached to a signed letter, baby clothes, furniture, oil portraits, buttons, Confederate money and flags, rifles, bayonets, swords, and uniforms, all housed in an 1841 Greek Revival building. Creeped out, I needed another cocktail.
We started with a drink at Proof and then sauntered over to The Ordinary. Whoever named it has a good sense of humor, for this seafood emporium is as far from ordinary as you can get. Slide into a comfortable booth or pull up a chair at the raw bar and enjoy the show as experts shuck shellfish with custom knives. Unusual starters like kale Caesar salad and heirloom pumpkin soup with crab are tempting, and you can follow them with large plates of baked golden tilefish, poached flounder, crispy ginger-lime black bass, or grilled triggerfish—all in all, a seafood lover’s Valhalla. That's Charleston: incredible cuisine and Lowcountry culture. To complete your trip, consider adding a visit to nearby Edisto Island or Kiawah Island.
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