Charleston, South Carolina, USA skyline over Marion Square.
There are a variety of tours to take and buildings to explore to gain an appreciation for Charleston's rich history.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Southern Sophistication: Our Guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Uncovering All That the Holy City Has to Offer

Log on to Charleston.com, and you’ll find yourself greeted by a bold slogan: “America’s Favorite City.” I could forgive you if you thought that was unsubstantiated bragging. But it’s really not. Since 2013, this South Carolina gem has topped Travel + Leisure’s “Top 15 Cities in the United States.”

So what makes Charleston special? Well, take three centuries of history. Add a burgeoning gourmet scene. Combine high-end attractions with numerous outdoor activities. Dot the downtown area with awesome architecture. Sprinkle in a liberal dose of Southern charm. Stew for a few decades and voila! You have a recipe for an endearing American city.

Of course, it’s hard to know where to start when visiting an amazing American town. That’s why we’ve compiled this guide to things to do in Charleston, The Holy City of South Carolina.

As Ancient as America Gets: Charleston’s Rich History

Beautiful Places of Worship

A name like The Holy City might seem more appropriate for, say, the Vatican or Jerusalem. Yet Charleston earned that title for its ancient commitment to religious liberty. During Charleston’s founding, steeples speared the skyline of this old US city, and not every congregation was Christian.

The Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue of Charleston is the nation’s oldest Ashkenazic (i.e., of German or Eastern European descent) synagogue that has enjoyed continuous use. Ditto for the Circular Congregational Church, a silo-shaped structure that once welcomed exiled Huguenot Protestants from France.

Martial Sites to Be Seen

When it comes to things to do in Charleston SC, other historical sites have a more secular bent. Fort Sumter, where the first bloodless battle of the Civil War was fought, lies a 30 minute ferry ride from Charleston. Reserve your seat at Liberty Square, then join a tour group to explore the fort area, learn about the history surrounding the structure, and even board a boat for a Charleston Harbor cruise.

Interested in learning more about the area’s past? The Charleston Museum offers stupendous permanent exhibits on local history, old-time weapons, America’s founding and natural history. Young families will particularly enjoy the hands-on Kidstory section.

Fort Sumter may have fallen into ruins, but the city’s martial heritage has endured. Considered one of the nation’s most exclusive military schools, The Citadel turns undergrads into well-rounded warriors (although service in the armed forces isn’t required). The public can freely tour the 19th century campus or watch the full-dress parade that occurs every Friday.

Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum will let you get more up close and personal with the weapons of war — very large weapons. Set foot on the USS Yorktown (an aircraft carrier), the USS Laffey (a destroyer) and the USS Clamagore (a submarine).

Charleston is also home to grimmer reminders of America’s past. Commerce has swirled through the Charleston City Market for more than two centuries, a day-and-night bazaar that comprises four blocks in the downtown area. Less than half a mile away, though, lies the Old Slave Mart Museum, a testament to the area’s terrible trade in human souls.

Some historians believe that a quarter-million slaves kidnapped from West Africa flowed though Charleston and into America, and many were bartered in the country’s last remaining slave auction house — which now houses the museum.

A Rich African-American Heritage

The fact that 80% of African American’s can trace their ancestry back to Charleston makes it a wonderful place to study black history. The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston adds academic insight with its guided tours, workshops and permanent exhibitions.

Famed blacksmith Philip Simmons adorned the city with gorgeous ironwork, and a visit to the Philip Simmons Memorial Garden will show the extent of his craft. The Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau also had a web page for African-American history tours, which include Beyond the Fields at Middleton Place (a glimpse into the slave experience), Gullah Geechee Tours (which focuses on little-known facts of Africa-influenced Gullah culture) and Above Calhoun Tours (a walking tour).

Fresh oysters at the fish market in Charleston, South CarolinaSpend your time sampling the incredible cuisine on offer in Charleston — you won't regret it.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Grub and Grog Galore

Eating That Defies Southern Stereotypes

The only thing that Charleston has more of than history is food — really, really good food. Chefs such as Paula Deen may have popularized the idea the Southern cuisine concerns itself mostly with unhealthy staples such as butter, sugar and white flour. Yet the eats available in Charleston have taken many culinary standbys and infused them with new life.

Take, for instance, Hominy Grill. The delicacies dished up by the Grill won’t sound surprising to anyone remotely familiar with Southern cooking. Grits. Catfish. Okra. Boiled peanuts. But the twists that the restaurant puts on such staples makes for mouth-watering eating.

The Nasty Biscuit melds baking-powder pastry with rich white gravy and a crispy chicken breast, while the Fried Green Tomato BLT adds pimento cheese to the standard sandwich.

Husk puts more of a gourmet gloss on old favorites. There’s a good reason why Chef Sean Brock’s brainchild lands on so many “best of” lists. The mouth-watering menu sources many of its ingredients locally, especially fish. Brock also ensures that familiar dishes maintain their identity while infusing them with fresh flourishes.

The bologna and brisket melt combines Duke’s Mayonnaise with pickled green tomato slaw, while the funnel cake adds pickled peaches, brie and country ham to the fairground favorite.

You don’t enjoy high-end cuisine in Charleston without dining at Magnolias. Sporting the tag line “Uptown, Down South,” Magnolia’s has delighted visitors with gourmet-worthy offerings that have idiosyncratic flourishes. For instance, the appetizer menu includes homemade potato chips with crumbled blue cheese, as well as boiled-peanut hummus.

Count bourbon-fried catfish, porterhouse with okra-and-sweet-corn fricassee, and salmon with Sriracha beurre blanc as main courses.

Get Your Drink On

It’s not hard to find a favorite watering hole in Charleston either, particularly if you want a break from all the foodie fun. Dive bars such as AC’s and Burns Alley Tavern understand that its patrons don’t much care about the sourcing of their grog just so long as there’s plenty of it at a reasonable price.

Of course, you won’t have to look far to find lots of highfalutin offerings. Edmund’s Oast offers an enviable variety of craft brews, Proof gets fancy with its cocktails and The Cocktail Club boasts awesome ambiance.

Foodie Festivals

If you’d prefer to sample the city’s gastronomical delights all at once, schedule your trip during one of the many food and drink festivals. Charleston Restaurant Week takes place in September, as does Charleston Beer Week. However, Charleston Wine + Food occurs in March.

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South Carolina row of old historic business buildings, antiques and art galleriesFrom art galleries to theater companies to festivals, Charleston is brimming with cultural experiences.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Low-Country Culture

Plenty of people have assumed that, though the American South contains pleasant people and interesting history, it’s a bit lacking in culture. Charleston shows that they couldn’t be more wrong, and one of the main reasons why is the annual Spoleto Festival USA.

Modeled after the annual Festival dei Due Mondi (i.e., The Festival of the Two Worlds) that takes place in Spoleto, Italy, Spoleto Festival USA brings world class opera, music, theater and art to The Holy City at the end of every spring.

Stupendous Musical and Theatrical Performances

You don’t have to wait for the festival to enjoy great performances. Originally opened in 1736 and then subsequently destroyed by the Great Fire of 1740, the Dock Street Theatre now serves as home to the Charleston Stage. This group puts on classic shows such as Of Mice and Men, Mamma Mia and A Christmas Carol.

It also includes nods to newer, pop-culture-inspired plays such as Steel Magnolias and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Thirty-Four West Theater Co. take a more boutique approach to the stage. Expect crowd-friendly plays in an intimate environment. How intimate? The building used to house a yogurt shop, but the only eats you’ll find now are tasty munchies you can enjoy during the show.

Families with children will enjoy the fact that they can bring the kiddos to a play. The company strives to keep all of its performances PG rated.

Expect a blend of niche and mainstream music at Charleston Music Hall. Originally a passenger station for a railway line, today it brings in audiences eager to see everything from performances of soundtracks from Wes Anderson films to singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, female-fronted Beatles tributes to Christian-music king Stephen Curtis Chapman, live performances of the quirky science fiction podcast Welcome to Night Vale to Jonny Lang.

You get the idea: there’s music here for almost everyone.

Adventures in Art

Art aficionados will also find lots to love. Galleries abound in the downtown area. Check out the Meyer Vogl Gallery and Atrium Art Gallery for contemporary art with some abstract paintings. Sylvan-Highstreet Gallery contains more representational art, as does Robert Lange Studios.

Finally, Gibbes Museum of Art has a permanent collection with a wide array of works from the past three centuries. Its miniatures collection, which includes some 600 pieces, is unparalleled.

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