City Guide: Charleston, South Carolina
I want to start by saying that I urge everyone to exercise caution when traveling. Please wear masks as often as possible, use hand sanitizer liberally, and do your best to keep a safe distance. We’re not out of this just yet.
Charleston, South Carolina is one of the most historic cities in the entire United States, and it wears this history on its sleeve, for better and for worse. As the oldest and largest city in South Carolina, Charleston has a lot to offer anyone, even in the time of social distancing. Read on to see how you can (safely!) enjoy a trip to Charleston, even in the time of COVID-19!
A Little Bit of History
Charles Town was founded in 1670 by settles from Bermuda, although they moved to the current downtown area in 1680. They named the new settlement on the banks of the Ashley River in honor of King Charles of Great Britain.
Throughout its history, Charleston has suffered fires, earthquakes, and even, in 1718, a naval blockade by none other than the legendary pirate king Blackbeard. Despite all this, the town always rebuilt, owing to the miraculously well-preserved historic district you see today.
From the beginning, however, Charleston also played an important role in the import of African people for chattel slavery. It is estimated that up to half of all enslaved humans brought to the US were brought through Charleston. The appalling practice is ingrained into the very mortar of the town’s history, and will come up often when talking about the past.
For what it’s worth, in 2018 the City of Charleston publicly apologized for their major role in the slave trade, which is more than other towns have done.
Charleston has grown into a city of about 140,000 people, although its size is bolstered by the 800,000+ inhabitants in the metro. Having the very first historic preservation program of any city in the US (inaugurated in 1931), Charleston has retained virtually all of its former splendor. Walking the streets of Downtown Charleston today feels like you’re walking through an 19th-century port town back during its heyday. It’s an incredible experience.
You’ll hear Charleston referred to as “The Holy City.” There are two possible explanations for this:
1. Originating from the early days of the city, when it was relatively religiously tolerant, and welcomed practitioners of all faiths, or
2. Originating from the 20th century, to refer to the “self-satisfied” attitudes of its inhabitants.
A lot of hay is made about Charleston’s “Southern charm,” which is interesting because we didn’t experience too much of that. At no point did anyone stop and say hello in the street, and rarely in any stores. This was not a problem for either of us, but something to be aware of.
Like a lot of cities, there are stark demographic shifts that you encounter between much of historic Charleston and the less-traveled areas. However, also like in a lot of cities, the segregation shouldn’t keep you from enjoying all that the town has to offer.
Kristen and I stayed at the Suites on Cannon, a cute little apartment in the heart of walkable Central Charleston. Parking is an extra $10/night fee, but the lot is located at a church less than a block away. Prices are a little higher, but it’s perfect for couples.
However, be aware that the Suites on Cannon are right across the street from the NotSo Hostel. Even though there’s an 11 p.m. noise curfew in effect, it will still get loud. I would recommend bringing ear plugs if you’re a light sleeper.
Charleston is a great food city IF–and this is a big IF–you know where to go. Unfortunately, there are a lot of overpriced and underwhelming options in this town, and it’ll help to know which to avoid.
Shrimp & Grits
Shrimp & grits is a local favorite, born of the blend between coastal seafood and Native American hominy.
I personally can vouch for Early Bird Diner‘s baconized take on this classic. Trust me, it’s worth the drive.
She-crab soup gets its interesting name from the original special ingredient: crab eggs. This practice was eventually banned, but the moniker stuck. While I have no way of comparing it to the original recipe, Hyman’s Seafood today is known for their she-crab soup, and it’s the best bowl of soup I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not even lying.
Of course, you’re in the Deep South, and you need to try some southern “soul food.” For this I recommend venturing off the beaten path a little and seeking out the hidden gem that is Hannibal’s Kitchen. Believe me when I say that their collard plate is the best $7.25 you’ll ever spend in the US. You get very generous portions of collard greens, rice, smoked neckbone, and pig tails. It’s enough for two meals and it’s good.
Other Good Restaurants
Toast is a fun sidewalk diner that also offers indoor dining at this time. If you’re out for a morning walk, stop by for their specials on mimosas. For $14 you get a full carafe to share.
Five Loaves Cafe is a tasty diner that’s a very short walk from Suites on Cannon, if you decide to stay there. Bear in mind that they do not open their doors until 11 a.m.
Places to Avoid
Sticky Fingers is a chain that serves Memphis-style BBQ, not South Carolina-style. It was pretty dry, anyway, so don’t worry about it.
Definitely avoid the Big Bad Diner. If I wanted to pay $40 for fast food-level grub I’d go to a McDonald’s and tip the cashier.
Downtown and Central Charleston are very walkable, retaining their orderly grids from the “Grand Modell” of 1670.
The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) operates 3 completely free “DASH” bus lines snaking throughout the city: the 210, 211, and 213. Keep in mind that these are operating under the Sunday schedules, so service will be a bit slower, but it’s still a good way to see the city.
Charleston’s bike share program is called Holy Spokes and you will find stations of the blue bikes on many street corners.
Things to See and Do
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that as of May 2020 every single tour in the city of Charleston is cancelled, and virtually all of the historic monuments are closed to the public.
Having said that, this city guide takes that into account, and I will updating it as I hear about any re-openings. Believe me, even in the time of COVID-19, you can still enjoy the place. If anything, it’s pretty relaxing only having to share the sidewalks with a fraction of the normal crowds!
I feel like someone telling you to just go somewhere and “walk around” has become something of a stale phrase nowadays.
I’m happy to say that this advice is as fresh as the breeze off the bay when it comes to meandering through Downtown Charleston! You really just have to go there and soak up the architecture and the ubiquitous palmetto trees. It’s a wonderful town to get lost in.
As you’re wandering along East Bay Street, you’re bound to come across block after block of pastel-colored buildings. This is Rainbow Row, the longest stretch of Georgian homes anywhere in the US, with many of them date all the way back to 1680. This are is considered part of Charleston’s French Quarter, which is the second-largest in the US, only behind New Orleans.
The history of Charleston has an odd sort of duality to it. At once, you’re marveling at the gorgeous facade of the Historic Charleston City Market, a four-block maze of restaurants and vendors, then you look closer and realize that the plaque above the entrance reads “Daughters of the Confederacy.”
The Old City Jail is the stuff of classic literature, and you can’t help but imagine there being ghosts eternally wandering its halls. Then you remember that it would have been Union soldiers imprisoned behind those overgrown stone walls. Pirates, too, but that’s beside the point.
The Old Slave Mart Museum is a former “market” where human beings would be auctioned off as property to plantation-owners, whole families torn apart in the process.
The 19th-century citizens of Charleston loved their “peculiar institution” so much that they were willing to fire on their own countrymen to protect it. These salvos fired at Fort Sumter ignited the blaze of the Civil War, which eventually put an end to their appalling practice.
The Charleston Museum has out front a full-scale replica of the Hunley, an early submarine that is credited as the very first to sink an enemy ship in combat. Pretty neat, until you remember that it was piloted by Confederates, and that the ship it lanced with a bomb, the USS Housatonic, was a Union sloop. For what it’s worth, that same explosion may have sparked a sentience in the riveted hull of the Hunley, and with it, a conscience: shortly after this engagement, all eight men aboard were drowned at the bottom of the bay in the vessel’s iron embrace.
Sullivan’s Island is within a 30-minute drive of Downtown Charleston and offers several fun ways to relax.
You’ve got Isle of Palms Beach, which does feature the characteristically brisk Atlantic waters, but also clean, warm sand, and plenty of sunshine. You can park nearby for only 2 bucks an hour.
Fort Moultrie is a well-preserved coastal fort that saw action against the British during the Revolutionary War.
I would also recommend stopping in for a drink at Poe’s Tavern.
Note: Traffic going to and from Sullivan’s Island can sometimes get backed up to the swing bridge connecting the two landmasses. It may be a bit of an inconvenience, but it’s also pretty neat to see in action.
Once the tours do start up again, I recommend taking one of Alphonso Brown’s Gullah Tours. The Gullah (pronounced like “gala,” and also called the Geechee) were the first Black inhabitants of South Carolina’s coastal “Low Country.” Their isolation from Whites of the time allowed them to preserve many of their traditional ways from the old country, and they developed their own English-based creole language. Alphonso Brown’s are the oldest and considered the best tours of this heritage.
For pamphlets, maps, books, and more information on tours and what to do in Charleston, stop in to the Charleston Visitor’s Center. Niki is very friendly and happy to speak about the history of her home.
Shopping on King Street
I’ll be honest, King Street can be pretty bougie. There’s no shortage of stores like Lululemon and Louis Vuitton. Having said that, it also means it’s a shopper’s paradise. It’s the kind of place where you can find an Urban Outfitters housed in a gorgeous former theater.
Kristen enjoyed shopping at Oops, a clothing and souvenir store. We both liked Half-Moon Outfitters, a little slice of outdoor adventure in the heart of the historic downtown. They have a lot of gear, clothing, and literature packed into a relatively small space, and the owners are taking steps to limit the spread of coronavirus by limiting the number of people inside and mandating hand sanitizer use at the door.
Yes, there are several bars reopening during the time of COVID-19. You can find a good list of them here.
I want to recommend Uptown Social, because their service was good and they have a nice rooftop patio. However, I have to warn you: the drinks came with an obscene amount of ice, and I felt literally nothing after two of them (and I’m not a heavy drinker). If you do decide to go, ask for less ice and make sure they’re pouring the correct amounts.
I hope you are able to enjoy all that Charleston has to offer, even with the current closures. If you like my post and found it useful, please Like, Share, Pin, and Tweet using the buttons below!