If the crisp fall air makes you long for summer, squeeze in a warm-weather getaway to Charleston, where you can bask in temperatures that hover around the mid-70s. But the sunny autumn days aren’t the only reason to visit the South Carolina city. Charleston has quietly emerged as a culinary hot spot, with chefs like Sean Brock and Craig Deihl leading the charge for new Southern cuisine; King Street’s high-end stores lure in shoppers; and there’s always a big festival in town (in November, it’s Park Day on Daniel Island on Nov. 9). Whether you want to taste Lowcountry fare or explore the fashion district, our Forbes Travel Guide editors put together a 48-hour itinerary to help you make the most of downtown Charleston.
First things first: Check into the right hotel. To be in the midst of the action in this coastal city, reserve accommodations in Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Charleston Place. The grand 440-room hotel sits across the street from the City Market (more on that later) and is a three-minute walk to the waterfront. But if you’re looking for a quieter spot, opt for Wentworth Mansion. The intimate 21-room home-turned-hotel is farther away from the fray, but is still only a five-minute stroll from King Street, downtown’s main shopping hub, and 10 minutes from the City Market. Each has its perks (Charleston Place has a pool with a retractable roof, along with its own mall housing Gucci, L’Occitane and more; Wentworth Mansion’s elegant rooms come with whirlpools and fireplaces, and there’s a constant buffet of snacks, tea, wine, brandy, port and sherry in the cozy wood-filled study and adjoining sun room), but both are luxurious.
Get a jump on the crowds by heading to Waterfront Park. That way, you won’t have to wait to snag one of the fun swinging benches on the pier. After rocking back and forth with a cup of coffee and taking in the view, walk along the waterfront, where you’ll see the harbor along one side and fountains and palm trees on the other.
When you start getting hungry, stroll over to the more than 200-year-old City Market. Setting the pulse of downtown, the market is surrounded by clacking horses pulling carriages full of tourists and store windows showcasing tempting sweets, like the saucer-sized cashew bear claws at Kilwins. But before you tackle the market’s more than 100 vendors, pick up some only-in-Charleston treats. Hit Sweet Charleston’s stall for some okra chips. The addictive “chips” are actually dried okra stalks—even those who recoil from the sometimes-slimy Southern vegetable will enjoy the crunchy snacks. Then stop by gourmet café and market Caviar & Bananas for a bag of Olde Colony Bakery benne wafers—local lore says that eating the sugary toasted cookies ensures good luck—and a refreshing raspberry Arnold Palmer. Finally, peruse the non-edible goods, such as the hand-woven sweetgrass baskets, which are unique to the region.
After grazing at the market, you’ll need a substantial lunch. Head to Husk for rich local fare from chef Brock. While Husk has been open since 2010, it’s still hard to nab a dinner reservation at the popular restaurant, though tables are easier to come by at lunch. The seasonal menu changes daily, but a mainstay is the towering Husk burger — the two bacon-infused patties topped with gooey American cheese, shaved white onions, secret sauce, and bread and butter pickles on a soft buttermilk benne-seed bun has a cult following.
To work off that heavy meal, walk to nearby King Street for shopping. The street is divided into three parts: Lower King teems with antiques, Upper King is known as the city’s design district and Middle King—our favorite—is the fashion corridor. Go there to peruse familiar stores (Louis Vuitton, the just-opened C. Wonder) and local boutiques (snap up clothes from Derek Lam or Rag and Bone at Hampden or colorful, preppy men’s separates at M. Dumas & Sons). Time your trip with Second Sunday on King Street, a monthly event where the road closes to vehicles to allow for an afternoon of pedestrian-friendly shopping.
After you’ve bought a new outfit, go back to your hotel to change into it. You’ll want to wind down in a quiet retreat, so make the upscale but relaxed Circa 1886 your dinner destination. Hidden behind Wentworth Mansion, the charming Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star restaurant serves seasonal regional cuisine. Request one of the romantic alcove booths and order chef Marc Collins’ antelope. A smear of blueberry-vodka-barbecue sauce brings out the subtle sweetness in the lean game meat, which comes with Dijon baked beans, toasted benne-seed slaw and spinach mac and cheese.
After a jam-packed first day, spend day two relaxing. Start at beloved spot Hominy Grill with a hearty Southern breakfast (order the cheesy shrimp and grits with scallions, mushrooms and bacon, or the Big Nasty biscuit stuffed with fried chicken, cheddar and gravy).
Next, take advantage of the summery weather and hit one of the three public beaches, all of which are about a 20-minute drive from downtown. Isles of Palm is the family-friendly option that’s popular with tourists. To escape the out-of-town crowds, choose Folly Beach, the choice of resident surfers, or Sullivan’s Island, a good spot for stand-up paddleboarding or kiteboarding.
Return to your hotel room to rest up and prepare for your last night on the town. First stop: Market Pavilion Hotel’s Grill 225 bar for one of the 30 show-stopping Nitrotinis. They are infused with liquid nitrogen, which chills the cocktails to minus 320 degrees below zero and results in a plume of smoke surrounding the martini glass. But the drink goes beyond mere novelty; we loved the effervescent French Nitrotini with Tanqueray, St-Germain Elderflower, fresh lemon and champagne. After imbibing, move the party up to the fifth-floor rooftop Pavilion Bar and pool area, where you can see the harbor and city skyline from the high-top metal tables. When the DJ starts spinning, the black-and-gray checkered deck converts to a dance floor. During the weekends, the line to enter the exclusive spot trails around the block (hotel guests get VIP entry). If you get hungry, order the spicy tuna tower. The appetizer easily can be a meal with thick layers of tuna tartare, crabmeat, avocado and rice drizzled with lemon-chile oil.
Last, but certainly not least: End with a late-night dessert at the dimly lit, boisterous Kaminsky’s Baking Co. The offerings in the glass cases rotate frequently, but you’ll find everything from the throwback Toll House cookie pie (a dish mom would bake with pecan and chocolate chip cookie filling topped with chocolate sauce and more pecans) to the recently unveiled Kronutz (the bakery’s version of the trendy croissant-doughnut hybrid). Either one will be a satisfying finale to a fall Charleston getaway.
For a late lunch, visit The Ordinary, an oyster bar and seafood hall from James Beard Award-winning chef Mike Lata. The menu includes everything from fried oyster sliders on Hawaiian bread to a three-level seafood tower.
Photos Courtesy of iStock-sgregponosian, Charming Inns, The Neighborhood Dining Group and Market Pavilion Hotel