There’s an old stereotype that things move slower in the South. While it may not be apparent in bustling big cities like Atlanta, it certainty rings true in the myriad small towns and charming enclaves spread throughout the region.
A prime example of this credo is the enchanting city of Charleston, South Carolina, a municipality steeped in history. Follow our guide to step back in time in this sweet Southern town and, maybe, discover a few new things to fall in love with along the way.
Where to Stay
Start your trip by checking into the storied Belmond Charleston Place. One of the grandest hotels in town, this Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star property boasts more than 400 sumptuously adorned guest rooms, a gorgeous indoor pool with a retractable roof and a two-story staircase that would make Scarlett O’Hara jealous.
When planning your elegant escape, be sure to book a Club Level room to enjoy extra perks, including bountiful culinary offerings throughout the day (don’t miss the evening dessert bar) and a gratis cocktail hour in the two-story Club Lounge.
Where to Wine and Dine
A visit to Belmond Charleston Place isn’t complete without dining at its Four-Star restaurant, Charleston Grill. Helmed by talented executive chef Michelle Weaver, this classic Southern dining room is anything but stuffy, serving up Lowcountry-inspired plates with a global twist all accompanied by the sweet swoons of a live jazz band seven nights a week.
After dinner, stop by the hotel’s swanky Thoroughbred Club for a nightcap and more live music. Savor classic sips with a modern flair, such as the Uptown Manhattan (the traditional rye-based tipple with a hint of maraschino liqueur) or the White Negroni (made with citrusy Suze and grapefruit bitters rather than Campari). Tapas and elegant sweets are also on offer should you start feeling peckish.
If you’re craving a taste of something new, stop by Tradd’s on East Bay Street for modern American fare in chic (and certainly Instagrammable) surroundings. Opened in October, the stylish space possesses a French flair (white-paneled walls, bronze accents and plush banquets) with a dash of local artwork.
Even if you can’t make it in for a full meal, belly up to the bar for creative cocktails and tasty appetizers — the incredibly fresh oysters and lightly fried fritto misto platter with herbed remoulade dipping sauce are must-tries.
What to Do
Thanks to the high-end hotel’s coveted location on King Street, you’re well-situated for some prime retail therapy. Head out the back door facing the famed boulevard (this was the building’s original entrance, hence the dramatic courtyard fountain) and take a moment to marvel at the statuesque Riviera Theatre. Owned by Belmond Charleston Place, the beautifully resorted art-deco cinema is the only one of its kind left in the city and now serves as a popular event venue.
After snapping a few shots of the theater, hit the modern shops along the reinvigorated historic avenue (Anthropologie, Bebe and Michael Kors all have outposts here) and take in the buildings’ centuries-old façades. For a unique souvenir, stop by the Preservation Society of Charleston’s boutique to browse a collection of locally made crafts, books and accessories made with materials like guinea, rooster and pheasant feathers.
While wandering through town, make your way to Rainbow Row. This famously colorful boulevard serves as a spectacular backdrop for your vacation selfies and the 18th-century row houses provide interesting insight into the Holy City’s history. Watch for the intricate ironwork along the road — the black accents against the pastel hues will make your photos pop.
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If you prefer your stroll through town to include an anecdote or two, opt for a walking tour with one of the city’s many talented guides. Bulldog Tours offers the best of both worlds with its Charleston Strolls and Savor the Flavors Combo Tour. Learn the details behind some of the most storied manors before embarking on a guided taste through a selection of the city’s culinary gems.
For a dive into Charleston’s spooky side, choose one of the group’s seven ghost tours, including a Haunted Pub Crawl of the Market, during which you’ll sip locally crafted brews while listening to spine-chilling tales.
If you’re in town in October, reserve a spot on The Fall Tours with the Preservation Society of Charleston. This exclusive experience brings you inside some of the city’s oldest and most famous homes and gardens, many of which are privately owned and not normally open to the public.
Where to Detour
Charleston’s history isn’t limited to the city center. Take a time-traveling day trip up Ashley River to visit Middleton Place, an 18th-century plantation-turned-museum.
Start your visit by exploring the property’s expansive, European-style gardens. The 65-acre, Versailles-inspired green space has been maintained to look as it did when it was built in the colonial era — in fact, the grounds of this National Historic Landmark are America’s oldest landscaped gardens. Look out for the nearly 1,000-year-old oak tree on the banks of the Ashley River.
When you need a break from the Southern sun, take a tour of the House Museum, which occupies the last surviving structure of the estate’s original three-building complex (the other two houses were destroyed by Union troops in February 1865). Admire elaborate portraits of the Middletons (original plantation owner Henry Middleton was a signer of the Declaration of Independence) and see how a wealthy family would have lived in pre-Revolutionary times.
Next, head to the stables to see history come alive thanks to a troupe of reenactors emulating colonial-era blacksmiths, carpenters and weavers. An array of heritage-bred farm animals also roams the barnyard.
Beyond the stables and livestock yards, you’ll notice a small white shack. Dubbed “Eliza’s House” after the structure’s last resident, this historical landmark is a Reconstruction-era freedman’s dwelling showcasing a permeant exhibit titled “Beyond the Fields.” This small but powerful gallery pays homage to the slaves who built and worked the estate for more than a century.
Before you head back to Charleston, grab dinner at The Middleton Place Restaurant. The Lowcountry menu highlights locally caught fish and seasonal vegetables grown on the property’s own organic farm and gardens.
While you nosh on time-honored dishes like shrimp and grits (many of the restaurant’s recipes are inspired by renowned Southern toque and the eatery’s original chef, Edna Lewis), feel good knowing that the venue’s proceeds all benefit the nonprofit Middleton Place Foundation.