Charleston has been on our weekend getaway list for a while now – having lived in the Carolinas, the South will always have a place in my heart. We were drawn there for the small-city charm, and left feeling warm from all the Southern hospitality (people actually smile and say hello on the streets?) and yummy food. It’s also hard to miss the deeply-rooted history that surrounds you in the city, which we only began to gain an appreciation for during this visit. Thank you to Charleston CVB for hosting us with flight and lodging on this visit. I’ve shared our trip highlights and favorite eats below, and already can’t wait to visit again.
Update: See this blog post for my 2018 updated favorite Charleston eats + travel outfits!
Getting around: For fellow Bostonians, Charleston is luckily a short, approx. 2 hour flight away via JetBlue, which offers two direct flights daily. From the CHS airport, downtown Charleston is about a 20 minute ride away. We were told we wouldn’t need a rental car and I’d definitely agree, as the city was extremely easy to navigate via foot, bike, or ride-sharing. At the bottom of this post I’ve included our custom map, which we usually make for each trip to see where places are in proximity to each other.
– Rainbow Row: Iconic slew of 13 colorful houses that you always see in Charleston photos (shown in my first picture above). These were mostly built in the late 1700s and restored in the early 1900’s.
– French Quarter: our favorite sightseeing activity was just walking around this historical area admiring all of the colorful buildings! The walk from Rainbow Row up Church Street was very picturesque, and took us ages to get anywhere since Nick stopped every block to snap photos while squealing “cute!” In this area you’ll also find the City Market, where ladies hand-weave and sell traditional sweetgrass baskets (these were used during the Colonial Era to sift rice) amongst other souvenirs.
– Waterfront Park: Park overlooking Charleston Harbor, featuring a very pretty pineapple-shaped fountain that represents Southern hospitality.
– Historic plantations: Both Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation were recommended to us, but we didn’t make it due to rain. Both of these date back to the 1600s and embody generations of history. Please note these are about 30 minutes out of the city, while everything else mentioned here is within a smaller radius of downtown Charleston.
– College of Charleston: if you’re in the area, this campus is rather pretty (dubbed a “Southern Harvard Yard” by Nick). It was interesting seeing dorms and school buildings being housed inside charming pastel buildings. We picked up some food truck fare and enjoyed it on a bench surrounded with blooms, right by the school’s iconic Cistern building (near the intersection of George & Glebe Streets).
– Horse-drawn carriage tour: You’ll frequently hear the clippity-clop of horse-drawn carriages around the downtown area. To avoid route congestion, the city requires that each carriage stop at a little powerball machine of sorts, which assigns the tour one of 3 possible routes. So what sights you’ll get to see on your carriage ride is up to the carriage powerball gods. We rode with Old South Carriage Co and our guide was very knowledgeable and passionate about the history of the city.
– Cooking class: We both love to cook, eat, and explore local traditions, so a cooking class on how to make southern fare was right up our alley. I think this will be a new tradition for us when traveling! I’m bummed that the company we went to is closed, but here are some alternatives: In the kitchen with Chef Bob Waggoner, cooking classes at Zero George hotel, or dinner at R Kitchen where you don’t do any cooking yourself, but watch a chef prepare your food and talk through the meal.
– Candle-making class: One of our male friends sheepishly told us Candlefish was his favorite Charleston shop, and upon stepping in we could certainly see why. It is so well-designed there and everyone was so friendly. Nick being an advertising nut was chatting them up about all the label fonts and branding, while I was fulfilling my Beauty & the Beast dreams sniffing the 100 scent combos on the wall. You can even make your own candles at their BYOB-style classes – what beats candles and wine? We were told classes fill up early so if you are visiting, plan ahead!
– Shopping along King Street: We stayed right on this street full of shopping, which was convenient for Nick to pick up new outfits (his luggage got routed to Orlando by accident, ha!). There’s the usual suspects J.Crew, Banana Republic, H&M, Kate Spade, etc. but also local boutiques like Hampden Clothing (with a bar for male companions…music to Nick’s ears).
Where we stayed: There’s lots of hotel choices, and everything in the downtown area is often within just a mile or so walk. We like trying boutique hotels and really loved the two we stayed at, each with a distinct feel. The Restoration is right on busting and central King Street, with a more modern design but several nods to history throughout. The hotel was restored just a few months ago, and our room was very spacious – bigger than our home in Boston! We loved the little menu each night where you order complimentary breakfast items, to be delivered the next morning in cute picnic baskets.
Our other hotel, Zero George, is exactly what I imagine traditional charming Charleston to be. It’s picture-esque to say the least, and perfect for a romantic getaway with just 12 guest rooms. The property is located in a quieter neighborhood but still walkable to numerous places that we went. See more photos of the stunning property in my post here.
Now for the fun part…where to Eat:
– Hominy Grill ($$): quaint, casual restaurant serving Southern comfort food from James Beard award-winning chef Robert Stehling. It’s first-come-first-serve, but the long lines at brunch went by quickly, plus you can order drinks at the takeout window while waiting. What to get: shrimp & grits (although I really wanted to try their shimp étouffée with rice), she-crab soup with crab roe, and anything with the pickled okra. Their other popular dish we saw on many tables is the “Charleston nasty,” which is fried chicken in a biscuit with sausage gravy poured over – no calorie counting allowed there!
– The Ordinary ($$$): American new-style food with lots of seafood options and good rum-based drinks. Located inside a converted bank with the kitchen inside the former vault. We popped in here to satisfy our search for local oysters, since many other places served mostly northeast oysters that we have plenty of in Boston.
– Husk ($$$) – going to this restaurant and whiskey bar was Nick’s “only wish” (as a big fan of another James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock), thus I was hustled there hours before opening to make sure we could get on the waitlist. The shrimp & grits dish I wanted to try turned out to be lunch-only, but just another reason to go back! You can also just try to get a seat at their bar next door for what I heard is a pretty good burger, and some of the same small plates served in the restaurant.
– Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit ($) – large array of freshly-made, sweet or savory southern biscuits. We didn’t actually go here but Zero George gets their biscuits each morning for breakfast.
FIG ricotta-filled gnocchi and seafood stew over rice
– FIG ($$$): American new-style place with a bar area for walk-ins. What to get: Ricotta-filled gnocchi seemed to be their most popular dish. I’m not usually a fan of either ricotta nor gnocchi, but this was pillowy, airy, and delicious. We also enjoyed lighter-tasting dishes like their many seafood options.
– Pink Bellies ($): Stumbled across this food truck near the College of Charleston, and did not hesitate to try when we saw it was Vietnamese food! I was craving some Asian amidst the southern fare, and this hit the spot fueling us up for more exploring. The banh mi sandwich was loaded and fairly authentic tasting, with small fusion twists.
And here’s some others that came highly recommended which we really wanted to try, but sadly just didn’t have enough meals in the day!
– Xiao Bao Biscuit ($$) – Asian + Southern fusion in a converted gas station. Pictures of their okonomiyaki (Japanese cabbage pancakes) topped with pork belly and egg look scrumptious. UPDATE: I personally did not love the food here, but I’m particular when it comes to Asian cuisine and usually don’t go for fusion.
– Poogan’s porch ($$) – cute yellow house (right next door to Husk) with apparently good burgers, mac n’ cheese, and fried chicken. UPDATE: the food was good (standard southern; on the heavier side) but our favorite part was the ambiance of dining on their balcony on a beautiful day!
What to pack: The weather is wonderfully mild there, ranging from 50s to 80s almost year round. I’d suggest packing sundresses, jeans, tees, a denim jacket, and lightweight sweaters. Also, sunscreen and bug spray (mosquitos!) as well as low, comfortable walking shoes or wedges are a must!