What’s in Charleston?
I got this question three times when I explained my choice of weekend destination with my younger sister.
The south of the United States has always compelled me as the one of its most distinctive and rich regions, and honestly speaking, the Bravo reality TV show Southern Charm had a hand in here too. I imagined a world of pastels, polo matches, dramatic Spanish moss draped trees (which you will hear several times is neither spanish nor moss), and a delightful accent… a place with tangible history and a strong sense of identity.
As you may expect – cash crops, trade and slavery were the money makers in the past but you may not know that tourists and the BMWs exported from its still-active port are the ones bringing in the money these days. The city has one of the largest and best-kept historic centers of any city in the US, with buildings ranging from colonial, Georgian, neoclassical and some are surprisingly still utilized as private residences (people like you and me with richer daddies ;)). The rigidity of the city’s preservation society is no doubt a pain for residents but it has made the city incredibly photogenic and a real pleasure to wander around.
Hear me out when I say that in a city like this, a walking tour is a good use of your time and money. Our friendly tour guide from Bull Dog Tours led us on a 2-hour walking tour where we learned about the French Hughenots who sometimes still organize religious services in French, how a 16-year old woman became the HBIC of indigo as a cash crop, and about the Wall Street friends who bought two adjacent mansions on the Battery. Aside from the organized tour, the best thing is to lose yourself in the narrow cobblestone streets and alleyways, take pictures of doors, read plaques on buildings’ previous residents, and play your version of: which house would you live in? Though I have a few years of work before I can buy anything similar to the waterfront mansions, hearing about a 1000 sq foot house selling for $650k in historic Charleston made me think a little bit. It’s only a 2 hour flight from NY so maybe I could commute?
As you walk and peek into houses, shops and buildings, an all-important question kept running through my head: when and where are we eating next? The city’s already large offering of traditional low country cuisine has been more recently expanded by a younger generation of entrepreneurs. In fact, it seems like Charleston has attracted all the bearded and tattooed young men from the vicinities to work its restaurants and bars as those you will find at Edmund’s Oast, Revelator Coffee and 167 Raw. Those that know my dating preferences and platonic crushes know this is most definitely NOT a complaint! This is a seafood-forward town so my pescatarian sister was well-catered for and many of the newer restaurants focus on inventive vegetable preparations so vegetarians will not struggle. In our short-two day stay, we did all the damage we could (including a 15 minute pre-airport oyster run to Darling Oyster Bar) but there are many top places I was not able to visit so more reason to return.
No trip to Charleston is complete without a visit to a plantation so make sure you build this in. A few of them easily accessible by car, some 20-30 minutes north of the city. On this trip we visited Magnolia Plantation, which was ideal for a visit in spring given the expansive gardens planted with blooming azaleas in the shades of white, light pink and fuchsia. Your entrance ticket includes a visit to the garden grounds and you pay extra for a special-interest tour – we chose one titled Slavery and Freedom. Granted I did not study US history but I learned more in those 45-minutes than I could have hoped for. It was shocking (but also not) to hear that this tour has only been conceptualized and opened to the public in 2006 while the house and grounds have been around for nearly 300 years. The tour guide was knowledgeable, thoughtful and thought-provoking, narrating the facts and answering questions on the lives of those other residents of the plantation, the hundreds of enslaved laborers responsible for rice production and the maintenance of the gardens.
It is said that nearly half of all approximately half a million enslaved Africans brought into the US ended up in Charleston later to be transported and sold elsewhere in the South. You will see reminders of this live history as you walk in the Charleston City Market and observe older Gullah-descendants weaving sweetgrass baskets in the same manner I imagine it was done centuries ago. It was bittersweet to hear that Joe Riley, who stepped down as city mayor in 2016 after a 40-year term, is proposing to build an African American museum – he seems to have the location and is raising the funds for it. You cannot keep but ask yourself: that is great, but what took you so long, Joe?
Our guide in the Magnolia plantation said that people do not go on holidays to be taken out of their comfort zones. We use words like disconnect and escape to define our reasons for traveling. But you can’t really cover the sun with one finger – that’s a Spanish saying which comes to mind in more ways than one. The parallels about history and current times can be overwhelming. As I reflect on the emotions stirred up by this trip, I feel a tinge of hope to see that it is not only my progressive echo-chamber leading me to believe strides are being taken in awareness and equality. It may be the optimist in me but I got the feeling that Charlestonians have started to slowly but courageously unlock doors, open shutters and windows and allowing the sun to light those dark, closed up, scary corners of their home and inviting us to step in.
In there, it feels slightly uncomfortable and cramped but I want to go again
Stay: no doubt stay in historic Charleston, especially on a first visit.
Belmond: for a pricier, classic hotel. The upscale Charleston Grill is formal bt food is excellent and so is the service (think waiters with white waist coats and tablecloths). They have live music and this is a good choice if you want to impress someone
Zero George: Expensive boutique hotel in an older house/mansion. If you can’t stay there, go for drinks in the porch and get the tres leches even if you think can’t eat/drink any more 🙂
Hyatt House: for all my people, the corporate warriors with points. Well-located on north part of King Street, the main shopping artery. What you’d expect, plus a kitchen and living room for longer stays.
King Street runs north to south and is lined with many independent boutiques and a few chains in addition to restaurants and bars. You will no doubt find yourself around here on your visit.
Eat & Drink:
Dewberry. It’s a new 5-star hotel and the two bars at either end of the ground floor are a must for drinks. Mad men meets West Elm. I want to live there or at the very least have prosecco cocktails and lounge on the comfortable velvet chairs. This is a must
Fleet Landing. Low key restaurant on water close to the historic market. Grab a seat at the porch and focus on the beer and drinks. Food OK
Edmund’s Oast. Slightly outside the main historic area, lots of outside seating area with biergarten tables. Inside you have a restaurant with wooden beams and high ceilings. While food is good, we enjoyed the wide selection of beers and think this is probably best for a cheese plate and charcuterie kind of situation. Having said that, the chocolate tart was amongst my sister’s best bites of the trip so now you know
167 Raw. Tiny seafood focused restaurant with a bit of a wait (when they say 45 minutes, they meant it). Best bites included the tuna burger and the fish taco. Grab some white wine and a seat outside while you wait
Basic Kitchen. Millennials and California hippies birthed this restaurant. From the same team as the Fat Radish in New York, light filled space decorated with earthy, natural colors. Food was delish including all the 2017/2018 best hits like grain bowls, avo toast, and I am pretty sure they must have kombucha. We are not hating because we loved our salmon grain bowl and my golden latte was yumz
Grocery. Huge restaurant serving a variety of vegetables and meat dishes. Best fish dish award goes out to the flounder on this menu. Attentive service
Transport Yourself: Perfect biking town despite the cobblestones. There is a shared rental service called Holy Spokes but also tons of rental shops. Ubers and Lyft are reasonably available though you may have to wait a while if returning to town from the plantations