Charleston is an historic port city known for its deep southern roots. Due to its charming architecture, pleasant weather, and excellent cuisine, it’s a popular romantic getaway destination. However, it’s also well loved by history buffs.
Originally known as Charles Towne, named after Charles II, Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the US. Founded in 1670, it was the original capital of South Carolina, before the capital moved to Columbia in 1786.
Charleston was historically significant in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. This was primarily because of its location, and its importance as a trade center. As a hub for southern trade, it grew its wealth from indigo, cotton, rice, and slavery.
Shaped by its past, Charleston and the surrounding area have a lot to offer visitors, in both knowledge, and charm. Let’s dive a little deeper into what Charleston is known for.
Old World Southern Charm
Horse drawn carriages clack down cobble-stone streets. Overhead, Spanish moss gently rocks on the outstretched arms of the old oak trees.
Charleston is full of beautiful iconic Southern scenes like this one. Plus, there are palm trees everywhere, and who doesn’t love palm trees.
As we work our way through the things Charleston is best known for, you’ll notice a very clear theme.
When you think of “The South,” its Charleston you are imagining. Its picture-perfect Southern details and old-world charm are what draw the tourists to its historic center.
One of the prettiest areas of this old historic city is along the Joe Riley Waterfront Park. In the center of the park, Charleston’s most known and photographed attraction, the Pineapple Fountain.
The pineapple, a symbol of hospitality and friendship in South Carolina’s Low Country, has become synonymous with the city. You’ll see them on gates, statues, and in just about every souvenir shop.
At the end of the peninsula, The Battery also makes a lovely walk with views across the harbor.
City of Churches
Take any boat tour of the harbor and you’ll notice the dozen or so church spires forming Charleston’s historic skyline. So, it’s easy to see why most folks assume Charleston’s nickname “Holy City,” is a religious reference.
It doesn’t help that unknowing locals perpetuate the claim that Charleston has enjoyed religious freedom since its founding. According to historian Nic Butler, sadly this claim is not true. Early residents suffered religious persecution under laws and cultural practices inherited from England.
What is true, Charleston is home to a lot of big and beautiful churches.
Two of our photogenic favorites are St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s Episcopal Churches. They are easy to spot when wandering the old streets of the historic center.
Southern Food & Seafood
In our opinion, touristy cities and great food typically don’t go together. With a constant churn of new patrons, it seems restaurants don’t need to try as hard. They simply don’t rely on repeat business.
However, Charleston is a true foodie heaven, known for its southern comfort foods, steakhouses, and fresh caught seafood. Many of the restaurants are locally owned. That’s great news for those of us who don’t like the large chain brand experience.
We’d argue that the neighboring Mount Pleasant has even more amazing options. Especially for seafood lovers. Get yourself down to Shem Creek where it doesn’t get any fresher.
Historical Buildings & Homes
Adding to the old-world Southern charm are the historical buildings and homes found all over the city. Actually, there are over 2,500 historical buildings in the Charleston area. Architectural styles range from Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Classical Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Victorian, and Art Deco. Each style marks a distinct period of history.
Walking around the historic downtown, you’ll notice the houses look a little different. Adapted from English row houses, the Charleston single house is very narrow and stands two stories tall. Its most distinct feature is the piazza entrance facing the street.
When you think of large Southern homes you probably think of plantations and the area surrounding Charleston has several. Today, most of them are wedding venues, but a few are regularly open to the public.
With its large wrap-around balcony and alluring gardens, Magnolia Plantation is the most well-known plantation in Charleston. Its idyllic setting along the Ashley River makes it a photographer’s dream.
Other notable plantations in the area include Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens, Middleton Place, and McLeod Plantation.
Not everything Charleston is known for is pretty. With plantations, comes slavery.
But it wasn’t just plantations that made their money from enslaved people, the city was a key trade center in the South. It made a lot of its money from the practice of selling kidnapped people.
To learn more about slavery and the enslaved people, visit the Old Slave Mart Museum in the city center.
Middleton, Magnolia, and Boone Hall Plantations all have restored cabins where enslaved people lived on the property. Educational exhibits and discussions teach about what life was like for an enslaved person. Also, Boone Hall has a live presentation on the Gullah culture.
Take a drive along North Highway 17 in neighboring Mount Pleasant and you’ll find tons of little roadside stands selling grass woven baskets.
Originally used in rice production, making sweetgrass baskets is a skill passed down through the generations. Today, these beautiful baskets are considered art, with elaborate patterns and designs.
For the unassuming, you may be surprised by the prices. They can range up to a couple hundred dollars for a modest sized piece. However, like art, it’s the skill and labor you’re buying.
Revolutionary & Civil War Battle Sites
In 1780 the British laid siege to Charleston and won. The city and harbor gave the British a vital strategic base as they tried to gather Loyalist support and take back the southern states.
Less than 100 years later, Charleston became a key war site again in the Civil War. As the first state to secede from the Union, Charleston became a hot symbolic target for the Union army.
Sitting out in Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter is where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. Definitely catch one of the ranger talks, their stories bring the fort’s history to life.
Across the harbor, on Sullivan’s Island, Fort Moultrie has a different story to tell, but no less fascinating.
You can’t have two wars and a long history of slavery without having some ghosts around town.
You won’t have trouble finding a tour, several companies run them. The Old South Carriage Company does 40-minute horse-drawn carriage tours around the historic downtown. While Bulldog Tours specialize in the haunted cemeteries.
Where to Stay in Charleston
If you’re going for the full Charleston experience, we recommend staying in the historic downtown.
- Charleston Place, A Belmond Hotel – The full luxury experience with the best location in town.
- Grovernor’s House – Enjoy the city in true southern comfort at this luxury B&B.
- Church Street Inn – Offers great value in the heart of the city. Rooms include kitchens.
However, we rarely stay in Charleston proper because it’s just a bit on the pricey side. Instead, we tend to stay in Mount Pleasant, just 20 minutes outside the city.
- Homewood Suites Mount Pleasant – We love this area of Mount Pleasant. The prices are better value, and it has several great dining options within walking distance.
- Inn at I’On, Ascend Hotel Collection – If you’re looking for something with a pretty bed-and-breakfast feel, but the convenience of a hotel, look no further. The I’on is perfect and reasonably priced.
Books on Charleston
- Fodor’s InFocus Charleston: with Hilton Head & the Lowcountry – For a popular tourist destination, there aren’t that many good tourist guides. However, Fodor’s guide is quite up-to-date and includes a wealth of information on what to see and do.
- Historic Charleston and the Lowcountry – Full of beautiful imagery of Charleston. If photos are what inspires your travels, look no further.
- Charleston! Charleston!: The History of a Southern City – Packed to the brim with historic details on this important trade center.
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