Charleston: Rambling through the Holy City
Charleston seduces with its cobblestone streets, antebellum mansions and steepled skyline.
Story by Carolyn Males
Hilton Head Island to Charleston
Duration: 98.2 miles (2 hours, 6 minutes)
Indeed, one of the pleasures of visiting this storied city, situated on a peninsula bordered by the Cooper and Ashley rivers, is to stroll along the Battery promenade, admiring its stately homes.
Then detour off into back streets, peering through wrought-iron gates at pocket gardens, chancing upon unique treasures at tiny shops, or stumbling across historic markers. One never knows what unexpected tidbits they’ll cite about ghosts of old buildings and people left behind. Sites of old schools and aid societies; sad stories of lives lost in war; glimpses of once-prominent Charlestonians (Dr. John Lining, first American to forecast weather using instruments.).
We’ve all heard about Fort Sumter, but did you know that in the early 1700s Charles Town was encased in walls built to repel pirate attacks and enemy invasions? Or that Revolutionary Gen. Benjamin Lincoln’s troops valiantly fought off a British bombardment, the longest in the war, only to surrender after 42 days? Or that from early on, Charleston supported religious freedom, hence all the houses of worship and the nickname The Holy City?
Downtown Charleston, however, is not all history. Nor is it all magnolias, wisteria and leisurely rambles. The heart of the walkable commercial district, King Street and its neighbors, offers myriad opportunities for local culinary fare, boutique shopping and uniquely Charlestonian lodging. What’s more, the upper King Street area has expanded the retail footprint and now sizzles with a lively bar scene.
And if you haven’t been to Charleston for a while, you’ll be amazed at all the cranes (so many that they could be an official municipal bird) around the Medical University of South Carolina area whose growth has also spawned even more eateries and hotel rooms.
WHAT TO DO:
Take a Tour
Some folks balk at taking tours, preferring to map out the lay of the land on their own. But expert local guides can enhance your city experience, offering captivating tales and bits of history and interesting sites you might not uncover on your own.
Charleston’s Alleys and Hidden Passages Tour
Meet up with guide Bill Stanton under a live oak tree next to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon on East Bay Street for a fascinating and entertaining two-hour walking tour of back alleys and little-known passageways. As he leads you down narrow cobblestone paths, past historic homes and gardens graced by artfully wrought-iron gates, Stanton sorts fact from fiction. Hear stories of earthquakes, fires, bombardments, seaport intrigue, along with histories of Huguenots, Rainbow Row, and the opera “Porgy and Bess.”
Stanton laces his commentary with oddball tidbits such as: George Washington’s habit of tracking the number of women who attended each gala honoring him; and the genesis of the whimsical Hat Man at the corner of Broad and Church streets.
Tours are offered daily. Book ahead because tours fill up quickly. The company also offers walking tours of downtown and of historic neighborhoods. From $25. Private tours also available.
Tickets and information at lowcountrywalkingtours.com or call 843-410-9688.
The Haunted Jail Tour
Thank your lucky stars that you didn’t live in Chucktown and commit a crime back in the 1800s or early 20th century. After you’ve gone on this tour of the Old City Jail, calling yesteryear’s treatment of prisoners “inhumane” seems like an understatement. An evening exploration of the infamous slammer means walking through inky dark passages and learning about cruel punishments not to mention the filthy conditions inmates lived in.
Barred windows had no screens or glass so that whatever the weather outside – bitter cold, rain or intense heat – it visited you on the inside as well. Vermin and insects were constant companions, attacking as you slept, ate and performed necessary body functions on reeking befouled pine straw while packed in wall-to-wall with fellow inmates.
And if you’re a woman or child? Don’t expect separate accommodations. It was a brutal short life and the walls (as well as the guides) have stories to tell.
Tours are 45 minutes beginning at 7 p.m.
Adults $25; children ages 7-12 $15. Not recommended for younger children.
Tickets and information at bulldogtours.com or call
843-766-2080 or 843-722-8687
WHERE TO EAT:
Charleston is a foodie’s heaven with accolades from every corner of the globe raining down on its culinary scene. Choices abound: Lowcountry ranging from down-home barbecue joints to award-winning gourmet, farm-to-table, fresh local seafood, international fare and even inspired fast bites.
Don’t expect this neighborhood osteria to serve up typical red-checked tablecloth Italian eats. Instead, Executive Chef Michael Toscano offers innovative interpretations of Italy’s regional cuisine with homemade pastas like agnolotti tossed lightly with duck confit, funghi misti and Parmigiano-Reggiano, as well as creative main plates like branzino with shishito peppers, herbs, broccoli rabe and citrus emulsion.
The cocktail list entices with inventive drinks such as Sicilian Squeeze and Hemingway’s Last Word. Perch on a stool at the blonde wood bar, sit at tables or high-backed booths in the informal lounge, or make reservations for the airy dining room with white tablecloths and contemporary art. In warm weather, relax beneath the trees and twinkling lights on the patio.
15 Beaufain St.
Lunch Monday-Saturday; Dinner daily;
lefarfallecharleston.com or call 843-212-0920
James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock named his casual Mexican eatery after silver miners who set off little charges called “tacos” to extract ore. Happily, you don’t have to go underground for the edible type.
Instead, head up to the second floor and enter a space with a lively bar and an open-dining area for creative takes on tacos filled with catfish, pork, chicken, shrimp, and yes, even grilled cauliflower.
A massive stuffed burrito and full platters cater to larger appetites. Orders of tortilla chips arrive tucked in a Day of the Dead quilted pockets with three salsas (spicy rojo, milder verde and pumpkin with benne seeds.) Pair them with a cool margarita or beer.
153 B East Bay St.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m. -11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; Happy hour 3:30-6:30 p.m.
minerorestaurant.com or call 843-789-2241
With only 16 bar seats and two four-top tables, 167 Raw is tiny, so expect a wait. But as those who’ve braved the line at this hole-in-the-wall will tell you, it’s worth hanging around for the lobster rolls, plump oysters and clams, po’boys, fish tacos, ahi poke and the rest of the small menu. Alas, the popular outdoor patio with its additional seating is no longer open. However, look for the restaurant’s second and larger location on lower King Street to open next spring.
289 East Bay St.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily except Sunday
167raw.com or call 843-579-4997
This cozy watering hole with a speakeasy vibe proclaims it may not change your life but it promises “to help you ‘Drink Proper.’ ” You can take the safe route with your usual preferred beverage, select an intriguing cocktail (Lost in Translation, Tunnel Vision, Sake to Me) from the menu, or you can put your libation’s fate in “the bartender’s choice.” That is, pick two adjectives off a list (for example – spicy and fizzy) and an expert mixologist will concoct a drink to fit that description.
Snack on boiled peanuts, barbecued chicken wings, cheese and other small plates.
182 East Bay St
5 p.m.midnight Sunday-Thursday: 3p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday
theginjoint.com or call 843-577-6111
WHERE TO STAY:
Charleston offers a range of lodging choices from historic inns, boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, chain hotels to Airbnbs. Staying in downtown, especially during Spoleto and other festivals, can be pricey, but it’s hard to beat the convenience of parking your car and not moving it until you leave.
This romantic oasis sits on a leafy street within walking distance of downtown attractions, shopping and restaurants. Three 19th century houses and two brick carriage houses edge a small landscaped courtyard where an oyster shell patio beckons visitors to kick back beneath the trees.
The boutique hotel’s 16 guest rooms and suites feature heart pine floors and period millwork. A palette of soft colors and plush Frette bedding with a selection of pillows offer instant serenity. Add in Nespresso machines, marble bathrooms stocked with high-end personal amenities, attentive concierge service, plus complimentary gourmet breakfast, evening wine and cheese, and you might be tempted to leave the rest of the city behind.
0 George St.
843-817-7900 or 855-242-1864
Back in 1964 when LBJ dedicated the Mendel Rivers Federal Building, who would have imagined that this eight-story structure would become one of Charleston’s chicest hotels half a century later? Owner John Dewberry has deconstructed and transformed the marble-and-brick-clad former government offices into a 155-room luxury property.
The mid-century modern rooms and suites with classic, clean-line furnishings, marble bathrooms and botanical wallpaper by local artist Becca Barnet all contribute to making this a standout hotel.
The Living Room, located in the lobby, with its sleek brass bar is a great spot to meet, catch up on emails, or settle in with a book from the hotel library. Henrietta’s, the Dewberry’s brasserie, offers Southern-inspired French fare. Other amenities include a spa, fitness studio, open air yoga on the rooftop terrace and complimentary bicycles. This spring look for the opening of The Citrus Club, a rooftop bar (the highest in the city) with a 360-degree view.
334 Meeting St.
thedewberrycharleston.com or call
The Kings Courtyard
When Col. J. Charles Blum erected this Greek Revival building on lower King in 1853, he disrupted what was then a “narrow dirty street” lined with modest housing and small shops. Blum helped refashion it into what would become a thriving commercial area. Over the decades, the structure saw a variety of uses, at one point even housing a second-floor skating rink. All that changed in 1983 when the building was repurposed into a 34-room hotel furnished in antebellum splendor with interior courtyards.
Today, the brick courtyards remain but the rooms with their plank floors and tall windows have been updated with fresh colors, refitted bathrooms and four-poster, padded headboard beds. Amenities include complimentary continental breakfast, wine and cheese reception and evening sherry. Part of the Charming Inns, the family-owned collection of lodging and restaurants includes the Fulton Lane Inn, John Rutledge House Inn and the Wentworth Mansion.
198 King Street
kingscourtyardinn.com or charminginns.com
843-723-7000 or 800-845-6119