A Travel Channel Editor's Top Charleston Picks
Some of the best food and hotels in the country and cultural attractions galore make this Southern city by the sea a bucket list must-see.
Photo By: Tomas Espinoza
Photo By: Tomas Espinoza
Photo By: Spoleto Festival
Photo By: Babas on Cannon
Photo By: Babas on Cannon
Photo By: Kate Thornton/The Artist Collective
Photo By: Heart of Gold Gallery
Photo By: Ken Allen Studios/Gibbes Museum of Art
Photo By: Paul Cheney
Photo By: Hotel Bennett
Photo By: Hotel Bennett
Photo By: Olivia Rae James
Photo By: Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
Photo By: Out of Hand Charleston
Photo By: Jessica Foreman
Photo By: Kate Greer
Photo By: Stephen Blackmon/Circa 1886
Photo By: ExploreCharleston.com
Photo By: Wentworth Mansion
Photo By: Wentworth Mansion
Photo By: ExploreCharleston.com
Photo By: ExploreCharleston.com
Photo By: ExploreCharleston.com
Photo By: ExploreCharleston.com
Photo By: Wild Common
Style + Substance
Charleston is a fascinating, dynamic city always contending with the good and bad of its history (as the one-time center of the American slave trade). Consistently named as one of the country's top cities by glossy travel magazines, journalists and lay people alike have been seduced by Charleston's idiosyncratic beauty and bottomless charm. In recent years, this coastal South Carolina gem has transformed into one of the country's top food-centric destinations, home to the Charleston Wine + Food festival and a wealth of memorable restaurants, both humble and haute. Known for its easygoing pace and refined lifestyle, this sophisticated Southern city has attracted a raft of wealthy New Yorkers and Hollywood types (Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert and Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker) who have scooped up homes at a ravenous pace that has threatened to price-out locals. It's hard to blame them for their enthusiasm: the homes, gardens and the people of Charleston are exceptionally gracious (especially so considering the 7 million tourists who flock to the city each year but are welcomed with genuine Southern charm regardless). There are endless options in high-end lodgings from the nouveau luxe Hotel Bennett to the bespoke, chic Zero George whose epic porches are the local answer to Prozac.
Exceptional City Tours
There are countless Charleston tour operations at work in the city, offering ample opportunities to sample the rich history, stunning architecture, restaurant recommendations and the occasional touch of quirkiness that makes Charleston such an interesting city. But you would be remiss if you undertook a local tour without first making sure that tour guide par excellence John Hodgson, a former CPA and hardcore history buff, is available to be your history doula for the day. Book Hodgson for your Bulldog Tours "The Charleston Stroll: A Walk With History Tour" which delves into the region's indigo trade, pirates, wild parties and even wilder customs, local celebrity news (including the home where Stephen Colbert grew up) with insightful detours into how slavery impacted the region and other hard truths. If you like your local history with a serving of extra-dry wit, then Hodgson is your man.
Spoleto Festival USA
Though finding a hotel room can be a challenge in the midst of one of the country's most prominent arts festivals, visiting Charleston during the Spoleto Festival—an international, destination festival of the best in theater, art, music and performance—is a great time to see the city. Concurrent with Spoleto is the annual Behind the Garden Gate tour of the city's exceptionally beautiful gardens. The festival gears back up in May 22-June 7, 2020 with a ground-breaking world premiere opera from MacArthur Fellow and Grammy-winner Rhiannon Giddens. Giddens' as-yet untitled opera is based on the 1831 memoir of an enslaved Muslim-African man Omar Ibn Said, a story replete with contemporary relevance.
Pickled Shrimp Goodness
If you are going to eat one dish while in Charleston make it the pickled shrimp salad at the newly-opened bright and airy Babas on Cannon. Owner Edward Crouse and his wife Marie Stitt based the recipe on a popular dish on the celebrated Birmingham, Alabama restaurant Highlands Bar & Grill's menu. Crouse's mother-in-law Frances was married to Highlands' owner Frank Stitt and Crouse wanted to acknowledge that family legacy in his summer-perfect symphony of briny, vinegary shrimp, creamy avocado and greens.
Your #1 Charleston Food Objective
Pickled shrimp salad at the new for 2019 Babas on Cannon is destination dining and a beloved foodie family recipe.
Local Art Maven
Located in the charming village of Mt. Pleasant, The Artist Collective is the brainchild of contemporary art entrepreneur Allison B. Williamson. A hometown girl who has periodically left Charleston in the service of her art education, Williamson has created a bright, comfortable alternative to the usual white cube, slightly intimidating gallery. Filled with work by a host of Williamson's represented artists—many of whom specialize in color, coastal themes and easy-on-the-eyes work—the Artist Collective also plays host to several artist studios and provides an easygoing way for art fans to dip a toe into collecting art or expand an existing collection. Williamson has expanded her brick and mortar presence to Atlanta, Nashville and Washington, D.C. and her artists are also available for anyone to peruse on the Artist Collective website.
Every Picture Tells a Story
In a compact but mighty art strip in Mt. Pleasant village, the Artist Collective and Heart of Gold Gallery offer an opportunity to see what Charleston and beyond artists are up to, and perhaps pick up a painting or photo souvenir of your visit. Heart of Gold Gallery features contemporary photography from the Fifties to the present day. Owner Aaron Zych has a special love of music photography featuring greats from David Bowie to Johnny Cash but you are just as likely to see an exhibition devoted to surf photography as you are one dedicated to rock music in this eclectic art space.
The Gibbes Museum of Art in the heart of downtown brings big-city contemporary art to this Southern boomtown including a spectacular show presented in conjunction with Spoleto Festival USA of treasures from the permanent collection of the Studio Museum of Harlem. "Black Refractions" through August 18, 2019 brings together some of the biggest names in American art history, iincluding Romare Bearden, Lorna Simpson, Kehinde Wiley, David Hammons and Barkley Hendricks (pictured). But the Gibbes' historical treasures are noteworthy too, including a collection of 600 miniature portraits from Colonial times to the 20th century that present a fascinating window into the form rendered in the most intimate dimensions. The well-curated gift shop is a unique source for local and national talent including small works and crafts for sale.
A Resort-Style Escape
Though it's smack dab in the center of Charleston the freshly minted Hotel Bennett feels like a world's-away resort within the bustling city. Located in the city's former public library, the hotel's immaculate oasis-like luxury is immediately established in the Italianate marble lobby complete with an artist-painted mural paying homage to hotel owner Michael Bennett (whose father used to shine shoes across the street from the hotel). Enjoy a visit to the on-property spa where you can pick up one of Princess Diana's favorite fragrances, Revive Evening Shower and Bath Oil from Aromatherapy Associates as well as a variety of Lowcountry-sourced skincare products and candles. Service at Hotel Bennett definitely distinguishes the property as a luxury destination, with an entire valet team and front desk staff that commits your name to memory and goes above and beyond in making every wish their command.
The 179-room Hotel Bennett offers suites and rooms featuring epic soaking tubs, separate glass showers and luxurious finishes that make a visit to the bathroom feel like a spa vacation. The hotel itself features a rooftop pool and bar offering sweeping views of the city. An on-site French Patisserie is a symphony of rustic chic and elegant details like marble tables and exquisite jewel-like confections. An in-house spa, a restaurant helmed by a Galatoire's vet and a dedicated champagne bar, Camellias, give this massive downtown hotel the feel of a self-contained city.
Haute Southern at Gabrielle
What do you get at a restaurant where former Galatoire's chef Michael Sichel is at the helm?New Orleans' style haute cuisine with a strong French and seafood influence. Rich sauces and an inventive spin on the classics like a luxurious Oysters Rockefeller make this pretty space on the ground floor of the freshly minted Hotel Bennett a lovely place to spend an evening gazing onto Marion Square while sampling Sichel's decadent, deeply satisfying fare. In keeping with the high-low juxtaposition that is Charleston, attire at a restaurant that would be dressy in any other city runs the gamut from T-shirts to navy blazers. Gabrielle is notable for innovating even the tried and true including chef Sichel's Caesar salad. It's as much a highlight of his seafood-centric menu as is the homemade bread service including a cranberry-studded baguette that will make you want refills of your refills.
Trip to Bountiful
The Spanish tapas restaurant Malagon is tucked into a discrete section of Spring Street in downtown Charleston and feels like a successfully transportive visit to another country. Spanish groceries including saffron, rice and olive oil line the wall and are available for purchase in this atmospheric railroad flat space. A welcoming snack of corn nuts eases diners into a menu filled with Spanish wines and divided into meat, seafood and vegetable options. Gazpacho is served in a wine glass and tiny nibbles of seasoned lamb make for surprisingly hearty fare despite the tapas-sized portions. Chef Juan Cassalett's food is thankfully heavy on the spice and flavor and so even the most ethereal, whisp of a dish is a savory wallop.
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, at the College of Charleston, is a non-profit gallery space on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston that hosts contemporary art exhibitions by emerging and mid-career artists including the Chinese artist Jennifer Wen Ma working in cut paper for her exhibition (pictured) "Cry Joy Park: Gardens of Dark and Light." Entrance to the institute is free and there are often exhibitions of student artwork also on view in the bright, airy rooms adjacent to the Halsey which make for a nice respite from the Charleston heat.
Located in the cute-as-pie, tiny village of Mt. Pleasant just outside of Charleston the Out of Hand shop sits in a strip of local businesses including the retro Pitt Street Pharmacy topped with a vintage Rexall Drugs sign that boasts an operational soda fountain. Out of Hand offers a smartly curated selection of jewelry and clothing but it's also a wonderful choice for a quirky gift to take back home. Embroidered beer koozies, smart-alecky Goorin Brothers trucker caps, cocktail napkins and other home goods offer plenty of options for a creative present with some local, Southern flair.
Just Like Home (But Better)
The exceptional boutique hotel Zero George Street Hotel feels, from top to tail, like staying in a luxurious, beautifully designed private home whose owner not only has exceptional taste, but welcomes your stay with extraordinary graciousness. Part of that homey vibe: check-in inside the property's 1804 carriage house shares a space with the in-house restaurant Zero Restaurant + Bar's kitchen. You feel like you're stepping into your host's kitchen, and excitement builds from the get-go for what's to come. Two-time winner of Food Network's Chopped and Chopped Champions, chef Vinson Petrillo somehow manages to turn out critically-lauded food despite operating out of a tiny sliver of a very well-trafficked space.
With its iconic Charleston porches built for long, lingering cocktails or book-reading, the Zero George plunges you immediately into the elegant, leisurely, aesthetically elevated vibe and the best of what the city has to offer. Undoubtedly one of the most romantic hotels in the city, a leafy courtyard garden and another courtyard-within-a-courtyard unfold around the lovely historic buildings that make up the property. Rooms feature product from NYC's Malin+Goetz and thoughtful, gracious details like a linen mat to leave your slippers parked when you sink into bed and ample hooks for clothes and towels in the luxurious, updated bathrooms. Pine floors, gas lanterns and brass door hardware stay true to the inn's historic charm and Frette linens up the pampering factor. Service is unobtrusive but attentive and imbued with Southern hospitality save a snarky bartender who is very aware he has a perch at one of the hottest bar scenes in town. Room prices include a daily wine and cheese hour at the bar with a gorgeous single-serve charcuterie, olive, cheese and jam board for each guest. A lovely woman guides sleepy, caffeine-deprived guests through the myriad offerings in the creative complimentary breakfast spread laid out in the bar each morning, pointing out the location of the necessary tea and Gaggenau coffee and espresso bar. Even people who typically skip breakfast will want to linger indefinitely with a newspaper and a bite of quiche or smoked salmon, homemade granola, poached eggs or local carb-tycoon Callie's Hot Little Biscuits on the wide porch outfitted with comfy chairs. Very little will make you want to venture beyond the refined comforts of this elegant-but-laid back historic hotel, but you must, especially with the old-fashioned Zero George bicycles at your disposal to tour the city in style.
Charleston is a town already steeped in history but chef Marc Collins at Circa 1886 in the charming Wentworth Mansion has made Southern history the jumping off point for his creative, narrative menu that tells a distinct story about regional cuisine. Tucked into the Wentworth's cozy, romantic carriage house, Circa 1886 has the mood of a special occasion restaurant more than a cutting-edge foodie mecca, from its fireplaces and attentive servers to its jewel-like desserts. Options abound for guests to choose from dishes inspired by Lowcountry Southern cuisine but also Native American, Gullah-Geechee and African foodways, with sassy detours like a $39 Southern grilled cheese appetizer with caviar and pimento cheese mousse and the usual shrimp and grits replaced with a Lowcountry-specific, memorable shrimp and rice grits (pictured) topped with cabbage. The South Carolina-inspired buttermilk fried red hen is a must-try and a chef's tasting menu with wine pairings offers a chance to dip into the diverse menu and sample from an impressive array of wines. Collins has an encyclopedic knowledge of the South's complex food history and rightly pays homage to non-European influences in the region. A local legend for imprinting Charleston's food scene early on, Collins also pioneered the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, an annual event celebrated in the city each spring.
A sliver of a 34-seat restaurant that pops up like a daisy between the cracks of the urban landscape in the residential Westside neighborhood, Purlieu delivers solid French cuisine with hipster flourishes from Charleston chef and Cru Cafe owner John Zucker (who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris). It's hard to do a French bistro in America that doesn't feel derivative or, worse still, precious. But Purlieu manages the hardest trick of all in this game: a feeling of conviviality and an unpretentious, food-is-life vibe. The space is so intimate you may very well become besties with the couple at the table next to you, or at the very least share tasting notes. You certainly won't be able to miss their moans of approval at chef Jeff Williams' exquisite gruyere and butter drenched artichoke gratin that blows any Fifties-era iteration of this cocktail classic out of the water. As you might expect in a coastal town, fish dishes are aces and service is knowledgeable (our server's recommendation of slender pommes frites to accompany our mussels was a point well made), personable, and has the feel of a bunch of food-crazy friends chipping in to make something magic happen. It's pretty hard to leave Purlieu without basking in the glow of money and time very well spent.
Not Your Mama's B&B
If the hyper-intimacy of bed and breakfasts is not your thing, but you can't resist a stunning historic home, then the 1886 Wentworth Mansion may be your perfect stop in Charleston. Tucked into a pretty, leafy neighborhood downtown, the elegant Wentworth Mansion is warm and welcoming but never makes you feel crowded or intruded upon or like you are staying in someone's doily-obsessed home. Rooms are incredibly spacious with tall ceilings and the kind of well-appointed, luxurious bathrooms (and great water pressure) to rival any newfangled 5-star stay. Bespoke details like old-fashioned brass room keys and carved wood and stained glass architectural details transport you to another time without skimping on modern amenities. A dedicated parking lot and no valet fees are especially appealing in the age of luxury hotel parking sticker shock. There is a happy hour every evening with wine and hors d'oeuvres and a small room off of the parlor where guests can partake of a brandy, port or sherry nightcap or pregame for dinner. A cut-above sit-down breakfast included with the room rate is served in the pretty Circa 1886 restaurant on the hotel grounds and features copious, interesting options and daily specials like a Lowcountry-inspired crab cake Benedict. Lemonade and iced tea and a cooler of to-go waters are great for beating the Charleston heat in the summer months. Best of all, it's easy to get into the spirit of this city steeped in history strolling the beautifully landscaped grounds or ascending to the rooftop cupola with an expansive view of the city and the promise of a cool breeze even on the balmiest of nights.
Competitive Porch Sitting
Charleston has no shortage of great porches to while away your time in classic Southern style but guests at the Wentworth Mansion may appreciate the air-conditioned sun porch that makes a glass of wine or your morning coffee go down a little bit easier. Historic photographs of the Wentworth line the walls and a selection of newspapers make the parlor and porch places you'll want to linger before your next eating, drinking or sightseeing adventure.
If you're traveling with family or a crowd, The Restoration Hotel's ultra-spacious suites with kitchens (the fridge features both gratis treats like cheese and crackers and bubbly water and some, like ice cream, available for purchase), decks and living areas are multigenerational heaven. A boutique hotel that nails the little details, some of The Restoration's adorably bespoke amenities include a jar of bedside cookies, a local art program that features a guest artist in public spaces, delivery of a breakfast picnic basket to your door each morning and an on-call golf cart that will have you zipping around the city like a local. A nightly complimentary wine and cheese hour make your whole stay feel even more civilized. Adventurous types can borrow a hotel bike to see the sights. The Restoration is essentially two-stays-in-one: an historic and a newer building connected via atrium so you can choose your adventure though the blend of architectural character and fresh, cool touches is seamless throughout. The hotel is located within walking distance to almost everything that matters, so a car is by no means a necessity. The roof top bar and restaurant The Watch is a buzzy spot, but with downtown Charleston at your feet, it's hard to decide where to start in the food and drink department. A trip to the historic downtown liquor store The Tavern at Rainbow Row (established 1686 and the oldest liquor store in the country) isn't a bad place to commemorate your visit with a very booze-savvy staff and a host of locally made bourbons, gins and whiskies for the perfect drinkable souvenir of this charming city.
Old-Meets-New School Charm
Like a classic New York Italian joint with a sassy, hipster edge, Melfi's comes courtesy of the team (Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink) that brought beloved local favorites Leon's Oyster Shop and Little Jack's Tavern to the city. The thin-crust pizza (house-made red sauce and well-sourced ingredients set these pies apart) alone is worth stopping in for, but it is the creative design (old school banquettes and white tablecloths with a postindustrial flourish) knowledgeable service and an array of options that give this spot an extra does of locavore attitude.
From seafood pasta and standards like Cacio e Pepe, a punchy Caesar with a little heat and local spins on Italian fare like prosciutto and burrata with South Carolina peaches, Melfi's takes advantage of its prime Charleston location in the city's top-notch food scene to distinguish its menu. In place of the usual old guys in their cotton waiter blazers are a fair number of seasoned, sharp female servers who can speak with authority on everything from the craft cocktails (the Jungle by Night with black strap rum, Campari, pineapple, and enough spice to keep things interesting is indicative of the creative picks) to the array of Italian-inflected bellinis, spritzes and aperol sips. The crowd runs the gamut from date-night to party-hearty post-college friends and well turned-out Boomers enjoying a quiet night with friends.
An Altogether Excellent Oyster Shack
Some seafood spots coast on their fried food, beer buckets and ocean views, but Charleston's food-savvy scene doesn't tolerate amateurs even in casual dining spots like Leon's Oyster Shop whose chef has garnered a James Beard nod. Homey and jumping at all hours of the day with great service and a fun vibe, Leon's Oyster Shop has the added advantage of some truly memorable seafood. You can't miss with perfect, fresh shrimp dotted with tarragon on a buttery roll or char-grilled oysters topped with butter and Parmesan but there are lots of delectable options including a celebrated fried chicken sandwich with Southern fave Duke's mayo if turf rather than surf is more your style.
Wild + Wonderful
A memorable Charleston dinner spot tucked behind an event space called Cannon Green, Wild Common feels like a special little 30-seat secret, but one you'll want to share. The menu is not expansive, but what is on offer is across the board exceptional, from chef Orlando Pagan's tiny, succulent stuffed quail, like an entire Thanksgiving of flavor packed into one dish or the unconventional but extraordinary pork belly and squid appetizer with mustard seeds that manages to play the field between clean and fresh and decadently rich. There is a chef's table option for diners who want to experience the full-flavor of Pagan's culinary inspiration and an outdoor patio that feels like its own special secret. Gaze out at the foliage or sip a cocktail before dinner. The servers know the menu backwards and forwards and can make great cocktail recommendations depending upon your taste. Decor is airy, contemporary and California-inflected, to reflect Pagan's origins, with an enormous video projection overhead, all of which help to contribute to a memorable dining experience.