What to See and Where to Eat in Charleston, S.C.
A 24-hour guide to the Holy City.
It seems like every year Charleston, South Carolina, wins another award for being the best city to visit or the friendliest, and as anyone who has spent time in the Holy City will tell you, the accolades are well deserved.
I first visited Charleston for a weekend in 2013 and immediately fell in love with the charm of the city. I’m not sure if it was the palmetto palm-lined avenues or the countless world class restaurants but a few months later, I packed my bags and became a Charlestonian.
During the time that I lived in Charleston, I discovered a few hot spots around the Lowcountry that I would always take friends and family to when they came to visit. The key is mixing in a few locals-only hideouts with fun tourist destinations worth the wait.
If you’re planning on visiting Charleston soon, I recommend filling in at least one day with the following:
6:30-7:30 a.m. – Sunrise
The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge spans the Cooper River and connects downtown Charleston to the town of Mount Pleasant. It’s the iconic structure across the city skyline and the coolest part is there is a pathway where you can walk, run and even ride your bike. Head out onto the bridge on a clear morning and bring your camera. The views are some of the best in the city.
8-10 a.m. – Breakfast/Brunch
After watching the majestic sunrise over the city, you’re going to want to get some breakfast to power you through what will be an exhilarating day. I recommend heading over into the West Ashley area of Charleston and stop by the Early Bird Diner. This favorite of Guy Fieri’s has all the hype of one of those fancy downtown restaurants but maintains its locals-only charm. The menu is simple and service is always excellent. Wait for a seat and enjoy a plate of shrimp and grits or buttermilk pancakes. Keep in mind though that on Sunday they do open slightly later for brunch and that the menu changes weekly.
If it’s brunch you crave and you’re visiting on the weekend, the Obstinate Daughter is where you need to be. Located on Sullivan’s Island, this restaurant opens at 10 a.m. on the weekend and offers a delicious brunch menu featuring local ingredients and craft cocktails that are almost too beautiful to drink. Almost. You can’t go wrong by ordering the eggs benedict but my go-to is the Low Country Shrimp Roll with Geechie frites.
11 a.m.-12 p.m. – Fun in the Sun
If you’re visiting Charleston between the months of May through August, be prepared for heat and humidity like you’ve never experienced before, especially for those from states above the Mason-Dixon line. Shade is your best friend during these months, and you should seek it out whenever you can. Another great way to cool off is to head to one of the many beaches that surround the city. My favorite is Sullivan’s Island. There are no lifeguards and no bathrooms, which may deter some — especially if you have children — but, with many of the beaches becoming crowded and parking scarce, Sullivan’s remains relatively quiet. Isle of Palms, or IOP, is another good option as well as Folly Beach, but both are popular with out of towners so expect some congestion.
There are only a few months out of the year when you wouldn’t want to go to the beach in Charleston due to the weather, but during those times, there are still plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy. Hampton Park is the largest park on the peninsula and offers many Instagram-worthy scenes. Walk the trails or simply lay down a blanket and have a picnic.
If history is more your speed, Charleston has that in spades. Partaking in a walking tour is the best way to see the sights and learn about the beautiful homes you see on the peninsula, especially along the famous Battery. Charleston also has many plantations that are open to the public. One that I would recommend visiting is Drayton Hall. This 18th-century home has been preserved instead of restored, unlike some of the other homes that have been updated. After the tour of the home, guests are invited to walk the grounds, which feature stunning trees draped with Spanish moss.
Speaking of trees, the Angel Oak must be on your list of outdoor activities. Located on Johns Island just outside of Charleston, this massive tree is free to view and towers over guests at 66 feet tall, 28 feet in circumference and its longest branch is 187 feet long. The Southern live oak is thought to be 400-500 years old but some believe it could be even older. Photographing the Angel Oak can be difficult with people walking into your shot, but if you time it right you can come away with a unique portrait.
1-2 p.m. – Lunch
My favorite part of the day and there’s only one place I have eyes for. Lewis Barbecue is the best lunch spot for several reasons. First, and most important, the barbecue is some of the best you’ll ever taste. Pitmaster John Lewis mastered his craft in Austin, Texas, before opening a restaurant in Charleston, and his Texas-style brisket is so tender you can eat it with a plastic fork. For those new to the barbecue world, Texas hot guts may not sound appetizing but trust me, order at least one. These homemade sausages have just the right amount of kick and pair perfectly with an ice-cold beverage. There’s plenty of parking for those making the drive, and with indoor and outdoor seating, Lewis Barbecue is ready to accommodate no matter what the weather brings.
3-6 p.m. – Shopping
Now that you’re full of delicious barbecue, it’s time to hit King Street: the main drag in Charleston full of great shopping. Start out at Jeni’s, an artisanal ice cream shop, and order a couple of scoops. With your dessert in hand, walk down King until you eventually end up at White Point Garden, a public space with monuments, palmetto palm trees and a picturesque gazebo. The walk is a little long so either bring your comfortable shoes or be prepared to hop in a pedicab. Along the way you’ll spot many shops that you know and a few that you may not. You’ll pass the College of Charleston, one of the most beautiful campuses in the country, as well as Marion Square and residential homes that you’ll wish you could go inside. Once you’re at White Point Garden, walk to the water’s edge and see if you can spot Fort Sumter, the historic island that sparked the Civil War.
7-9 p.m. – Dinner
I did mention this town likes to eat, right? Here’s the thing though: There’s no perfect place to go for dinner in Charleston, and that is because there are so many outstanding options. If you’re looking for something formal, you can’t go wrong with HUSK, FIG and The Ordinary. The latter is located inside an old bank and specializes in seafood, especially oysters. I recommend going all out and getting the shellfish tower. HUSK and FIG are usually at the top of everyone’s list and for good reason. Their spin on Southern cuisine with native ingredients has led to national recognition, and if you can get a reservation you should absolutely go.
If you’re looking for something a bit more casual though, Hominy Grill, the Glass Onion and Minero are great options. Hominy Grill is an icon and a must-visit for anyone new to Charleston. The Glass Onion is more of a locals-only spot in West Ashley and their menu features some New Orleans flair. Minero would be my go-to if you’re craving Mexican-cuisine.
10-11 p.m. – Drinks + Stargazing
Whether you get dessert or not at dinner, save room for some bourbon — you’re in the South after all. There is no shortage of places to sample the finest of whiskeys, but my favorite place is the Bar at HUSK. Located right next to the restaurant, this cozy carriage house serves up classic cocktails and light fare if you need a late-night snack (their burger is famous). Seating is first come first serve so be patient and snag a spot when one becomes available.
Since you’re downtown, take a short walk over to Waterfront Park where a giant pineapple water fountain will greet you. Snap a few photos and then continue walking down towards the water where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet, and on a clear night you can see the stars over the Ravenel Bridge, the place where your Charleston adventure began.