Getting to Know Charleston

Two years ago, I breezed through Charleston, S.C., in the course of an afternoon, just enough time for lunch and a stroll through the historic City Market.

Little did I know how much I was missing, that Charleston deserved my time and attention, and that I was just skimming the surface that seemed a tad too touristy.

As I discovered last week during my return trip, I was all wrong. Charleston is a terrific little town, worth several days of your time -- because there really is so much to do and see. This ain't no blip on the map, it's a serious contender on the vacation to-do list.

Here's what I now know about Charleston:

* It is a great walking city. Stumble out of your hotel and just put one foot in front of the other. The streets are flat, often narrow, tree-lined and romantic, occasionally feeling a tad European. Spanish moss, magnolia trees and palms are more the rule than the exception. Amble onto a side street and you'll see two and three-hundred year-old homes, which leads me to my next point...

* It's an architectural treasure trove. You'll see examples of federal-style town homes and the "single house," the dominant architectural form, with its trademark side "front" entrance, through a doorway and lower "piazza" (aka porch). There are the grand antebellum villas and plantation homes, Greek revival mansions, gargantuan churches in the Gothic revival style. You'll see slave quarters that have been morphed into detached condos, stumble onto alleys and secret gardens.

* Loaded with history is an understatement. It's not just one of America's oldest cities (dating to 1670), Charleston's historic district is enormous. It's got the oldest museum in the country with the Charleston Museum and the Avery Research Center for preserving and documenting the history and culture of Africans and African Americans in the lowcountry. South Carolina had more African slaves than any other colony; the slave trade would last longer there than any other colony, and as a result, is more Africanized than any other place in the United States, according to Dr. Bernard Powers, a professor of history at the College of Charleston.

* Regular cabs are expensive (It cost just under $30 bucks to get to the airport, a 15-minute ride). Pedi-cabs, aka rickshaws, are not, and a romantic way to get around town. You'll see plenty of young men with well-developed calves offering up rides for hire.

* It is a bridge-lover's destination. I am in awe of Cooper River Bridge, which connects Charleston to Mt. Pleasant, and is North America's longest cable-stayed bridge. It's a sight for sore eyes, with an amazing, unobstructed view of Charleston Harbor.

* Considering its size (a population of about 100,000), Charleston is a serious restaurant town, serving up a mix of high-end cuisine and classic home cookin'. On a tourist map covering about two square miles, there are 55 restaurants listed. It's hard to find a chain here, an indication of the commitment to local culinary traditions -- shrimp and grits, pilau of countless varieties, she-crab soup, fried pork chops, ham biscuits, roasted oysters and enough places that serve fried chicken you could easily compile a restaurant round-up.

* Internet access is hard to come by -- I won't bore you with the details of the fuzzy connection at my hotel or the weak signal at the nearby Starbucks. But thank goodness for a few independent wired coffee shops, offering free WiFi. During my three days in town, City Lights coffee shop (141 Market Street, 843-853-7067) was my living room away from home, an adorable dark-wood storefront serving Counter Culture coffee beans (Murky fans here in Washington will know why I'm mentioning), freshly squeezed orange juice and lemonade and beer and wine for a late afternoon sippy poo. Nicest people I met in Charleston, too.

I didn't have time, but City Lights customers I spoke too also had high marks for Kudu Café, owned by a South African, who's buying beans from Africa.

This list is far from complete, as I ran out of time. A third trip is already in the works. Share your favorite thing about Charleston, well-known or obscure, in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 26, 2007; 11:24 AM ET African-American History , Travel
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The first time I visited Charleston we went on two different carriage ride tours. It was a fun way to explore the Battery and to get to know about the place. WE took two because each went one went a different path and with different information. Its a great way to "get your feet wet."

Posted by: vch0920 | June 26, 2007 1:40 PM

I went to college in Charleston and had lots of fun exploring. My roommates and I bicycled all over the city on a regular basis. To really see the city - houses, gardens - you need to get off the main streets and stroll down the smaller streets and alleys. You will see some amazing gardens, cottages, and iron work. Also, check out the cemeteries. There is a ton of history to be learned by reading the interesting tombstones - made for a fun, cheap date for a cash poor couple that loves history! Charleston is know as the holiest city because of all the churches. There are some amazing churches there.

Have fun! I wish I was there!

Posted by: SC Native | June 26, 2007 2:39 PM

Kim, I don't know if you are aware of this or not, but The Cooper River Bridge also has a walking/biking/jogging lane on the bridge. There are benches to sit on by observation towers to take in the view. On the Mt. Pleasant side, there is a place by the foot of the bridge where you can rent a bike.

Another interesting thing to see is the only tea plantation not only in the United States, but in North America. It's known as American Classic Tea. The tea plantation is out on Wadmalaw Island, which is just past John's Island. The Bigelow company partnered with it to save the tea plantation and its rich history. You can go for a free tour on the grounds as well as inside there is a tour (also free) that shows how tea is made. While on the tour they give you a free sample of their iced tea and you can also buy the tea.

Not far from the tea plantation is a winery. They have wine tastings Thursday-Saturday from 11am-2pm. This is wine made from muscadine grapes and it is wonderful. It's $2.50 to participate in the tastings and the wine is $10/bottle.

There are some excellent places to eat in downtown Charleston. Hyman's Seafood is the absolute best seafood! Right next to it is Aaron's Deli which has wonderful sandwiches which would be a great stop for lunch. Aaron and Eli Hyman are brothers that run the restaurants. It's a family owned business where you will get excellent food and excellent customer service. Eli or another member of his family will personally come to your table to thank you for stopping by and ask how you like your meal. If it isn't satisfactory, they will take it back and fix it for you. Another nice place to stop by is Jestine's Kitchen for wonderful southern food. Come early or you will have to wait in line! These three restaurants are all on Meeting Street.

Posted by: Southern Gal | June 26, 2007 4:00 PM

Kim - in the chat today, you mentioned a spicy Thai beef salad. it sounds interesting - do you have a recipe? thanks!

Posted by: eidebc | June 26, 2007 5:16 PM

Charleston is terribly hot and humid in the summer, but it's perfect weather to visit one of the beaches on three nearby islands within 20 minutes drive. My favorite lovely-weather months in Charleston are March-April and October-November. The Spoleto Festival of the Arts in late May-early June offers 3 weeks of amazing arts entertainment.

Posted by: Charleston resident | June 27, 2007 1:56 PM

On the main east-west drag (Hwy 17) at the north side of the historic district, is a Hostel that has good rates, bunk, semi- and private rooms, parking, and internet access. It's called "The Not-so-hostel". I stayed there during Spoleto. The staff was pretty self-absorbed, but the facility was great.

Posted by: aww | July 1, 2007 11:17 AM

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