When the ultimate vacation includes afternoons of historic-home browsing and nights filled with award-winning eats and drinks with a Southern flare, it’s easy to think New Orleans is the only option. But Charleston is hot on its heels, with national magazines consistently ranking the South Carolina port city among the top travel destinations in the U.S. Sure, it’s a 12-hour haul from Little Rock. But we’d go even farther for a pile of boiled peanuts and a plate chock-full of grilled oysters.
Charleston is hot. And not in the way that a tall, cool gin and tonic will help.
Charleston is hot in the way that makes reservations absolutely necessary. It’s hot in a way that makes national media swoon in its cobblestone streets. And it’s hot in a way that lets residents boast that their town was not only named the best destination in the U.S. by Conde Nast Traveler in 2013, but one of the top five cities in the world. The whole world. All of it.
So, what’s encouraging so much praise to rain down on this storied Southern city? The answer lies somewhere in its blend of the old world with the thoroughly modern. Here, an afternoon of horse-drawn carriage rides can be capped off with a dinner of rave-worthy spicy papaya salad. A deep-fried lunch can be countered with a fresh-pressed vegetable juice at the downtown farmers’ market and a stroll along the waterfront.
Charleston’s old-world charm—a blend of Colonial and Victorian architecture where large porches and tall shutters rule—comes from sheer staying power. As the oldest city in the state, the port city has long been known for its fresh seafood; and trips to the many barrier islands nearby are a weekend ritual for many. And yet the routine never seems stale. Thanks to Charleston’s buzz-worthy status, innovators are constantly opening the next big restaurant, store or art venue.
Even in the most unlikely places, fresh ideas mingle with Southern heritage. Take a walk to eye the wow-worthy homes south of Broad Street in the city, and in the historical residential neighborhood you’ll find the likes of trendy goat. sheep. cow (106 Church St.; goatsheepcow.com), a small store serving up gourmet cheeses, wines and charcuterie.
In the city’s most popular restaurants, dinner remains trendy, but always true to the unapologetically Southern dishes that have traditionally shaped the dining scene. At Hominy Grill (207 Rutledge Ave.; hominygrill.com), visitors can chow down on okra-and-shrimp beignets dipped in a crisp cilantro-lime sour cream, jalapeno hushpuppies tempered with sorghum butter, and pinto beans whirled into hummus with a charred eggplant relish. And those are just the appetizers.
Things don’t get much lighter across town at The Glass Onion (1219 Savannah Highway; ilovetheglassonion.com). All the major players have a seat at the table—pimento cheese, deviled eggs, gumbo, fried chicken po’boys, cornmeal-fried catfish and buttermilk-fried quail—at a place where traditional soul food’s reign goes undisputed. No, nothing about Charleston dining is done small.
And neither are the drinks. After all, who should have to suffer the humidity of a Charleston summer without a cocktail? While many ornate downtown hotel lobbies provide an excellent option for midday lounging, a world of well-crafted classic and new craft cocktails can be found in slightly newer, slightly less stuffy locales. Many locals will point in the direction of The Belmont (511 King St.; thebelmontcharleston.com) or Prohibition (547 King St.; prohibitioncharleston.com) for classic whiskey or gin mixes. But the best drink in the city might be any consumed on a patio, rooftop, courtyard or porch whilst soaking up the salty breeze. The Blind Tiger (38 Broad St.; blindtigercharleston.com) holds court as the most legendary outdoor drinking option in town: The building that houses the bar was erected in 1803 and the name pays homage to the speakeasies of the city’s past. Skip the food here and go straight for a drink on the shady courtyard patio, where the ambiance has a distinctly hidden-pirate-bar vibe.
The rooftop at Stars Restaurant (495 King St.; starsrestaurant.com) provides a sweeping view of the city, and, thanks to its position on upper King Street, the restaurant is central to shopping, dining and night life. Like a hybrid of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, King Street’s artery runs heavy with boutiques and restaurants. Want to pick up something from a local designer and then head to a brag-worthy lunch? This is your spot. But on the flip side, the streets are heavily laden with national chains like H&M and high-end brands like Gucci. And while tooling through the sales rack at a national chain isn’t exactly a true Charleston experience, the storefronts remain unique, with colorful facades jutting up beyond lamppost- and palmetto-lined sidewalks.
No matter the neighborhood, there’s never a question that you’re in the South when you’re in Charleston. Because no matter the place, there’s no shirking heritage here. Trends may come and go, but the best things about Charleston tend to, thankfully, stay the same. —evz
• A good choice for vacationers looking to get a lot out of their home base, the Belmond Charleston Place (205 Meeting St.; charlestonplace.com) includes a large spa and a luxurious glass-enclosed indoor pool.
• Located just a block away from the bars and shopping of King Street, the Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel (115 Meeting St.; millshouse.com) is central to nearly everything in the city and comes complete with an outdoor pool and a courtyard perfect for afternoon lounging.
• History buffs, prepare to swoon: The writing of a few drafts of the U.S. Constitution took place in the John Rutledge House Inn (116 Broad St.; johnrutledgehouseinn.com). And if that doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the chocolate on your pillow and gratis nightly brandy.
• Be sure to snag a reservation at popular downtown eatery Fig (232 Meeting St.; eatatfig.com), where the menu shows off the best of Lowcountry dining with an emphasis on seafood dishes like soft-shell crabs, fish stew and razor clams.
• Settle in at Husk (76 Queen St.; huskrestaurant.com), where James Beard winner Sean Brock serves up a daily menu of Southern-tinged favorites like fried oysters, heritage pork chops with butterbeans and skillet cornbread.
• Overdosed on shrimp and grits? Asian-Southern fusion spot Xiao Bao Biscuit (224 Rutledge Ave.; xiaobaobiscuit.com) offers the antidote with its spicy green papaya salad, fresh whole fish and a sichuan-style hanger steak.
• Though the city is known more for its cocktails, Holy City Brewing (4155c Dorchester Road; holycitybrewing.com) is one of several breweries in Charleston keeping local beer on the map. Stop by the tasting room for a tour and stick around for live music.
• While historic (and haunted) tour options are plentiful in town, the Old South Carriage Company (14 Anson St.; oldsouthcarriagetours.com) is one of the oldest providers, taking visitors on horse-drawn carriage rides past some of the city’s most historic homes.