This peninsular jewel has long lured admirers with its carefully preserved rainbow of homes and Spanish moss–draped gardens. Now a deluge of renowned chefs and restaurants are reviving neighborhoods and burnishing the already gleaming reputation of one of the South’s most storied cities.
WHY WE LOVE IT
The charms of the Holy City’s steeple-dotted skyline, cobblestoned streets, colonial mansions, grand oaks, and pristine beaches would be reason enough to visit. But while history hangs as thick on the air as humidity in July, Charleston is no museum. Not with an international performing arts festival, a lauded food scene to rival San Francisco’s and New York’s reshaping the city, and decidedly twenty-first-century locals who embrace travelers from every corner of the world.
Thanks to enterprising artists, chefs, designers, and entrepreneurs, the peninsula’s northern districts are booming—Eastside and North Central are now two of the city’s hottest food hubs—and are worth the quick cab ride from the historic center for lunch or dinner. But if you have a couple of hours for exploring, these are the neighborhoods in which to lose yourself:
South of Broad
This is the Charleston of postcards and guidebooks, the southern tip of the peninsula where stately historic homes with walled gardens line shady cobblestoned streets and church bells mark the hour. Residents refuel at Burbage’s Grocery and Gaulart & Maliclet, a tiny French bistro on Broad Street.
The French Quarter
Named for the French Huguenots who first settled here, this smaller neighborhood just north of Broad Street on the Cooper River side attracts art lovers with its plethora of galleries. When you’ve had your fill of paintings and photographs, grab a burger at chef Sean Brock’s recently revamped flagship McCrady’s Tavern, followed by a local draft beer at the Griffon or a show at the Dock Street Theatre, site of the first playhouse in the country.
Hemmed in on the south by Bee Street and on the north by Septima P. Clark Parkway (known to locals as the Crosstown), this emerging district includes an eclectic mix of restaurants (try Xiao Bao Biscuit and Trattoria Lucca), bars (Elliotborough Mini Bar and Warehouse are musts), and boutiques (such as Mac & Murphy, a dreamy stationery shop).
Seek Out Seafood
Surrounded by water on three sides, Charleston is flush with fresh seafood. Order stone crab by the claw at the Wreck of the Richard & Charlene, tucked away on Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant; dig in to one of Leon’s fried or grilled fish sandwiches; down a dozen local Caper’s Blades oysters at The Ordinary; head to Bowens Island for a plate of peel-and-eat shrimp; experience fried flounder done right at Dave’s Carry-Out. And what about those classic shrimp and grits? You can’t do better than Hominy Grill.
Walk. Walk. Walk.
Throw a pair of tennis shoes in your suitcase. The best way to see Charleston is on foot. Hike the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge at sunset; get lost South of Broad; stroll historic Magnolia Cemetery on the banks of the Cooper (tip: Go when the graveyard’s abundant azaleas are in bloom); pack a picnic for an afternoon in the Olmsted brothers–designed Hampton Park.
There’s a good chance that a trek to one of Charleston’s barrier islands will be the highlight of your trip. Sink your teeth into a Poe’s Tavern burger or brunch at the Obstinate Daughter before sunning on Sullivan’s Island; watch surfers at the Washout on Folly Beach (or book a lesson of your own), then relax with a beer at Surf Bar; or, hop the Coastal Expeditions ferry to Bulls Island to see the Lowcountry in all its natural glory.
WHEN TO GO
Mild spring and fall are generally considered the city’s best seasons, but there truly is no bad time to visit Charleston. Even the sweatiest dog days of summer hold their own appeal—including a post-beach visit to Home Team BBQ on Sullivan’s Island for a Game Changer, a frozen concoction of rum, pineapple juice, cream of coconut, and nutmeg. If you would still like to hook your trip to a happening, though, these deliver: