History, culture and southern gentility collide in this gracious southern town
Modern-day Charleston is a tale of two cities: One, draped in Civil War-era history and long-standing southern tradition, and the other in flux; transforming into a modern hub of culture, quickly asserting itself on an international radar. Ranked as a top destination in the world within travel and hospitality circles, Charleston, South Carolina no longer remains the hidden gem it once was—the word is out. The peninsula is home to four forward-thinking universities, making it a hotbed of cultural initiatives in regard to business, liberal and culinary arts, medicine and real estate development in a city where preservation is key. Settled by English colonists in 1670, as one of the oldest cities in North America, history lies around its every corner, scattered among countless restaurants, galleries, retailers and boutique hotels. Take your time, as each district has so much to offer. From the Palmetto-lined cobblestone streets and port-side estates along the East Bay to the 18th-century churches along the open-air City Market, take in all the details in a peninsula small enough to walk from east to west. Every May, the city plays host to Spoleto, a two-week festival that proffers avant-garde theater, music, dance, opera and art from around the world. Even Charleston's suburbs are home to sparkling beaches and top golf courses—but no matter if you're on the outskirts on enjoying its utterly historic downtown, hospitality is at the forefront of Charleston, and a warm, gentle atmosphere pervades throughout.
Located on the fringe of Upper King Street, Butcher and Bee is one of the latest additions to the burgeoning neighborhood, featuring an artisanal menu of seasonal fare in combination with a unique DIY setting. B&B caters to neighborhood locals and the few intrepid outsiders who are lucky enough to have caught wind of its offbeat location; an industrial space directly underneath the Interstate overpass leading into the city. Open daily for lunch, this constantly evolving menu strives to keep visitors on their toes, fusing genres yet remaining true to its local, farm-to-table theme. The staples are the fresh daily sandwiches you can enjoy at the beautifully designed communal table at the center of the space. If you’re in the neighborhood for a late night snack (B&B serves a limited menu until 3AM), pop across the street to another native favorite, Recovery Room. A must-see Charleston dive, this spot delivers with cheap drinks, pool tables, foosball and a jukebox.
Bridging the Charleston of past and present, Husk’s mission is simple and reflective of the transformation of the city of where it resides. James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock and Chef de Cuisine Travis Grimes fuse a mixture of ingredients served over the last two centuries and are native to the Lowcountry. A modern culinary etiquette and a location within a beautifully restored 19th century structure reflect Charleston today: Sleekly metropolitan but with old-world charm. The dishes are new classics—plates focused on the rediscovery of heirloom products, ingredient composition and modern flair. Just a few blocks away at the corner of Broad and King Street is Bull Street Gourmet, a second location to Bull Street Flagship. Owned and operated by chef Justin Croxall, the upscale eatery serves simple yet delicious deli sandwiches, soups and salads, alongside a grocery with fresh produce.
Over the past 10 years the James Beard award-winning Hominy Grill has raised the bar among the Charleston's culinary scene with its laid-back yet focused, traditional southern menu. After a multitude of much-deserved exposure, including spots on the Food Network and Travel Channel’s No Reservations, their location—sitting on the corner of Rutledge and Ashley Avenues—is fresh off a thorough renovation, expanding their dining room space and adding a street-side patio to provide the near-constant queue of Anthony Bourdain disciples a patch of solace from the heat. Suitably situated in a historic Charleston Single House, chef Robert Stehling and company strive to walk you through the culinary history of the city. Hominy is where you go to enjoy all those Charlestonian clichés: Sweet tea, shrimp and grits, coleslaw and collard greens, all finished off with Key Lime Pie. Across the street is Fuel, a mid-20th century gas station converted into a restaurant. A concept dialed up by owner Justin Broome, the place to sit is outside in the tropical backyard patio, perfect for happy hour.
Lying north-east of the Charleston peninsula, within the burgeoning suburb of Mt Pleasant, is Boone Hall—a sprawling plantation that is still active to this day. Producing crops for over three centuries, Boone Hall is a quintessential Charleston experience: Moss-drenched oak trees line the dirt road leading into the property for a half mile, along green, fence-lined pastures, before finally entering the driveway to the plantation home, which is adorned with flawlessly kept landscaping. Referred to today as Boone Hall Farms, the market serves all the fresh, hand-picked produce off of the nearby grounds to peddle in their very own butcher shop and winery. A short drive away is Seewee Restaurant, which is a well-kept secret among locals. With its fried seafood and home-style cooking, this rustic roadside spot is a true down south experience—any indication of its authenticity lies in the restrooms located outside.
Appropriately placed at the intersection of King and Calhoun Streets in the heart of the Charleston Peninsula, the Francis Marion Hotel is perhaps the most renowned structure in the city’s skyline alongside the Holy City’s steeples. Named after the Revolutionary War figure, the 12-story hotel—overlooking the lush park at Marion Square—fuses 1920s elegance with 21st-century contemporary comforts. Just inside the main lobby is the Swamp Fox Restaurant, serving award-winning shrimp and grits. After a meal serenaded by live jazz, walk just north and peruse the transformation of the Upper King Street District. This strip of bars, restaurants and shops bears the current pulse of the city, with countless concepts on every corner, and each feels more unique than the last. Browse for men's threads at Cartel Supply Co., and see the mixologists at the Prohibition-era Belmont work their magic for a taste of younger-generation Charleston.
Opened in 1990, Magnolias is an East Bay fixture that could be plucked out of Manhattan, with a black and white interior, track lighting and large paintings of magnolias lining the walls. Chef Don Drake specializes in his own take on contemporary Southern cuisine, creating dishes like the Down South Egg Roll—a fried delicacy stuffed with collard greens, chicken and Tasso Ham, alongside red pepper puree, spicy mustard sauce and peach chutney. Head for a post-dinner treat across the street at Social Wine Bar, a recent addition to the East Bay thoroughfare. Designed with a modern, minimalist eye, the interior may feel a bit out of place given its location, but Social is yet another example of the new generation of Charleston establishments.
A staple among the growing palate of soul food and Lowcountry-inspired menus, The Glass Onion has branded itself on local, natural and seasonal satisfaction. With its vintage roadside diner aesthetic as the backdrop, Chris Stewart and Sarah O’Kelley channel their deep-south upbringings as inspiration for their cooking, which is compounded by all-natural meats, fresh local seafood, and farm-to-table vegetables. An organic wine list and artisanal beers round out dishes such as the gumbo, deviled eggs and grass-fed hanger steak. Be sure to visit the nearby Avondale neighborhood, which is chock-full of options, including the classic gastro-pub Gene’s Haufbrau. A neighborhood institution, the staples here are the burgers and a myriad of beer options. Across the street lies the Italian trattoria Al Di La, whose menu is as impeccable as the retro-inspired interior—try the duck confit with goat cheese polenta, asparagus and fig balsamic jus.
The brainchild of Charleston's renowned REV group of restaurants, Poe’s Tavern prides itself on delivering the very best burgers and beer in the city. Only 15 minutes from the Charleston peninsula, the tavern is a Sullivan’s Island landmark, a modern-day reflection of the quaint coastal town and its deep historical roots. Named after Edgar Allen Poe, the restaurant and bar highlight his year of living on the island while stationed during the Civil War, which served as inspiration for his work entitled "The Gold Bug." Pair the Tell-Tale Heart burger with a locally brewed Holy City draught beer inside the open-air beach house or outside on the street-side patio, and finish things off with a swim in the Atlantic—just a short walk away. Be sure to make your way to the western end of the island to see Poe’s bunker at Fort Moultrie, where the first shots of the civil war were fired. The view offers a beautiful vantage point of the city, particularly of the vessels coming and going in the Charleston Harbor.
Chef and proprietor Martha Lou Gadsen creates the most genuine type of Charleston cuisine—soul food—and she certainly delivers. A visit to Martha Lou's Kitchen is an experience as authentic as the dishes served. The highly adored dive is cash only and diners should expect a wait, as Gadsen prepares every meal herself. Served on styrofoam plates, the food is a delight. Try the incredible okra stew served alongside lima beans, with a big gulp of sweet tea. While in the district, check out the Royal American, an old-school music venue known for its massive outdoor front porch.
The northernmost beach in the Charleston area, Isle of Palms is a lot like how the Hamptons are to NYC. Just a 20-minute drive from the cobblestone streets of downtown Charleston, IOP is a perfect retreat that maintains a salty personality while feeling all too comfortable. IOP somehow strikes the impossible balance between quaint and ritzy. Have breakfast at the Sea Biscuit Café, a vintage beach shack that seems like an anachronism alongside modern beachfront estates. Fill up for the day ahead with moderately-priced, classic breakfast entrees and then find your spot in the sand along the six-mile stretch of public beach. In between surf sessions, stop by the Morgan Creek Grill along the backside of the island, where you can enjoy the rooftop deck and views along the Intercoastal Waterway. Finish your day with a sunset dinner at The Boathouse—one of the islands best-loved eateries. Placed along Breach Inlet, dividing Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms, both the ocean and the back bay are on the horizon all at once. The She-crab soup is a must, and the shrimp and grits are also not to miss.