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Spotlight: Charleston

Soak in the history of this quintessentially Southern town

The phrase “Southern charm” is a well-worn idiom in travelogues of the United States, but any attempt to distill the essence of Charleston, South Carolina, down to a single tidy phrase or sentence without it will be missing the mark entirely.

Like drawing water from a well, this historic coastal community is one of the few places in the American South where one can easily trace the source of such nostalgia. Horse-drawn carriages still navigate the downtown core’s network of antique cobblestone streets. Antebellum architecture is everywhere, as if in too vast a supply to be considered of any special significance. And extravagant church steeples predating the American Revolution by nearly a century casually rise over the cityscape, gifting Charleston the straightforward moniker of “Holy City.”

The modesty and ease with which Charleston wears its profound history and romantic glamour can only be attributed to heaping amounts of the aforementioned Southern charm.

The city itself sits on a peninsula jutting out into an inlet created by the convergence of the Ashley, Cooper and Wando rivers. Together, the waters flow into scenic Charleston Harbor, where a daily and nightly mix of narrated boat tours and gourmet dinner cruises zips back and forth across the water in a tireless maritime dance.

I, Maverick149

I, Maverick149

Walking Through History

As such, first-time visitors to Charleston are best advised to begin their explorations at Waterfront Park. Rimming the edges of the downtown peninsula, the park offers a mix of everything the city is renowned for: history, incredible ocean views and a chance to stroll about on foot. Old-fashioned park benches, water fountains and picnic areas are set against a constantly shifting backdrop of sailboats and small cruise liners.

From there, continue your exploration of the city on foot (you’ll soon quickly discover that Charleston is a city best experienced by walking). Must-visit city hotspots and districts include the Charleston City Market, French Quarter and King Street.

The Charleston City Market is open 364 days a year (it’s closed on Christmas Day) and dates to the 1790s. It spans four city blocks and the entire open-air bazaar is now an official National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Vendors hawk all manner of products and wares, ranging from fresh produce to rare used books to artistic crafts.

The French Quarter is where the echoes of old Charleston ring loudest. Here, the main cluster of cobblestone streets and old colonial-era city walls remain, as well as a slew of art studios and art galleries. Guided walking tours are a popular activity, with docents highlighting the history of the quarter.

Take a trip into the city’s agrarian past at Magnolia Plantation. Founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, Magnolia Plantation has witnessed history unfold before it from the American Revolution through the Civil War and beyond. It is the oldest public tourist site in the Lowcountry, and the oldest public gardens in America. Its sprawling grounds host thousands of plants, trees and gardens, making it a photographer’s delight.

When you’re ready for a break from shopping, sightseeing and navigating historic cobblestone streets, head to King Street. Here a good selection of the city’s best bars, cafes and restaurants make for a perfect pit stop.



Confederates and Buccaneers

Ready for more? At the top of the list sits Fort Sumter, a crumbling stronghold located on an island in the middle of Charleston Harbor. It was here that the opening salvo of the Civil War was launched. Boat tours to the island depart daily from Patriot’s Point. Once at the island, tours are continued by a National Park Service Ranger, who leads a walk through the Fort’s battered remains and on-site museum.

For a touch of real brick-and-mortar history, the Old Slave Mart Museum, Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon are three of the more humbling points of interest in the city.

The Old Slave Mart Museum is exactly what it sounds like. Once a place where the buying and selling of slaves was undertaken, the building is now home to an emotionally powerful museum and educational center that sheds light on the practice (and individual experience) of slavery.

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, meanwhile, is perhaps the most historic building in the entire state. Built in 1771, it served as a dungeon cellar for pirates in the 17th century, as a prison used by the British prior to the American Revolution, as a customs house and as an elegant entertaining hall. The Declaration of Independence was read from its steps, and pirates have been imprisoned in its basement. It’s a building with an eclectic history, and guided tours through its historic halls are among the most popular activities in all of Charleston.

For More Information

Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism