Stay Here - Eat Here - See This: Charleston, South Carolina
What comes to mind when you hear the word Charleston? Is it a beautiful old city in the south? Maybe you think of the classic candy bar the Charleston Chew. Or does it bring to mind some vague images of warm summer evenings with a bourbon on the rocks?
If you've never been to Charleston, South Carolina, then maybe the word doesn't evoke much of an image in your mind at all. I know that was the case for me before I ever visited this exquisite southern gem.
When I found out I was going to be traveling to Charleston, I had to look on a map to see exactly where it was. I have to admit I was a little disappointed that we were so close to other places like Florida and Myrtle Beach but weren't going to be visiting them. I didn't know what I didn't know.
When I told one of my well-heeled travel aficionado friends that I was going to Charleston and wasn't terribly excited about it, he nearly spit out his beer. He said "Charleston is incredible...the food, the culture, the history!" I had no idea; but he was right.
Charleston, SC is one of the most culturally rich cities I've ever been to. It's also one of the older cities in the US. It's older than some European cities and has so much 18th and 19th century charm, you won't believe it.
I wholeheartedly recommend you take a trip to Charleston, SC, if you've never been. So let's talk about what to do when you get there!
Ok so I've been to Charleston twice now, and have had two very different experiences regarding accommodations. The first time I visited, I stayed in the Francis Marion Hotel in the heart of Old Charleston.
The Francis Marion is a handsome old hotel with all of the charm of the early 1900's. It's well kept and in an excellent location. If you want to be right in the action, there probably isn't a better location in Charleston.
Just like I didn't know what I'd been missing with never having been to Charleston, I didn't know what I was missing by staying in a hotel rather than in a classic Charleston Airbnb.
The second time I went to Charleston, we rented an 18th century home near the Francis Marion Hotel. It was still near all of the action, but it was like stepping out of the 21st century and back in time to a glorious era in American architecture. I have built many houses as a former homebuilder, and I am completely amazed that a house this old is still standing, yet alone inhabitable and beautiful.
The home had been tastefully updated with the modern amenities you'd want even in a 200 year old home -- air conditioning and modern kitchen and baths were present.
Beyond that, this house was as original as they come. From the gorgeous southern pine wood floors to the wrap around covered porches to the stone chimneys to the lap siding, this house oozed southern charm. I've never felt so close to American history as I had staying here. It truly transported you to a different place and time.
The home was a little spendy (about $700/night), but it accommodated 9 of us very comfortably. And I am usually not one to say this, but you really couldn't put a price tag on experiencing a stay like this.
If it's not apparent yet, I fully recommend you rent a historical vacation rental when you go to Charleston. Such an excellent experience, but you definitely want to read reviews and pick a good one. I've also read some bad stories about dilapidated old houses so choose wisely and you will be rewarded!
Well, if it's not clear whether I enjoyed my time in Charleston, this section should clear it right up.
The first time I was in Charleston, I got food poisoning the night before I went. I didn't hardly have an appetite the entire time. This is one of the greater tragedies of my life (seriously).
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I am a full blown foodie. When I'm eating breakfast, I'm thinking about lunch. When I'm eating lunch, I'm thinking about dinner, and so on...
If you didn't know much about Charleston before reading this, then it may surprise you to find out it's a culinary paradise. The food scene is second to none when it comes to authentic southern fare. The best part is that it's not terribly expensive (or it doesn't have to be) to eat extremely well while you're there.
Our group was all huge fans of seafood, and Charleston, being directly on the Atlantic Ocean waterfront, is ground zero for exquisite seafood.
We spent almost every meal in a seafood establishment. There were so many great places to choose from, and they all had a southern flair. From fried oysters to shrimp and grits, you could find almost anything you wanted from the sea. And you could get it fried. Served with butter. Hungry yet?
No, the cuisine of Charleston is most certainly not the healthiest in the world. You would do well to consider your time in Charleston a "cheat week" with regard to your diet. And if you do, you will not be disappointed.
The place we most loved while dining out in old Charleston is called Pearlz Oyster Bar. We were initially drawn to it because of their happy hour oysters and cocktails, which were great and well priced. Beyond that, we didn't have much for expectations.
For some reason, Pearlz hit all the right notes for us. The building exterior is handsome and southern and the inside atmosphere is quaint and homey, just how you'd want an old neighborhood pub to be.
The place isn't very big, so if you have a larger group like we did, plan on waiting a little while for a table.
After our wait, we were seated together at a long table in the middle of Pearlz and were treated to excellent service (even by Pre-Covid standards). Drinks came quickly, and so did our appetizer selections. Everything on their happy hour appetizer menu was worth ordering. From the fried corn fritters to the oyster shooters, we were not disappointed.
For the main course, we each had another drink (or two?) and ordered from the regular menu. The crab cakes were great, the fish and chips superb, and the clam chowder and raw oysters with house mignonette top notch. We didn't order a thing that didn't satisfy.
All together, Pearlz Oyster Bar lived up to its fame of being a classic local seafood hotspot. It was not something you'd consider fine dining, but it was every bit as satisfying.
There's so much to do and see while you're in Charleston. If you're lucky, there might be a wine or food festival taking place across from the Francis Marion Hotel in Marion Square.
There are frequent walking tours of the city's architecture and history. There are culinary tours showcasing classic southern foods. There are even horse carriage tours of the many early American mansion neighborhoods near the waterfront. We did all of these and they honestly were worth trying out.
The one thing that ended up being the most surprisingly fun was the after dark tour of the Magnolia Cemetery. This tour is led by very knowledgeable and engaging tour guides through the Civil War-era Magnolia Cemetery.
There are graves that are hundreds of years old, which is creepy by itself. Add to that the fact that it's pitch dark outside and you're shown some of the more spooky gravesites of killers and psychopaths, and the hairs on your neck really start to raise.
The mere suggestion of ghosts and hauntings by the guide gets your mind wandering and wondering if every little stick cracking and squirrel scurrying behind you is some force from the unseen coming for your soul!
But don't be afraid, the tour really isn't too scary as long as you stay with your group. All of us made it out alive and live to tell the story of the time we spent a few hours in a cemetery in the dark.
This was a great experience, enriched by history and exaggerated by the dark. I definitely recommend it!
All together, I'd summarize Charleston as being fully unexpected. In a time where it seems like vacations can be dominated by chain restaurants, busy beaches, overpriced shopping, and meaningless activity, Charleston offered a refreshingly wonderful trip back in time. 5 stars and I'll definitely be back!