Wednesday, May 2, 2012

12 Reasons Why You Should Visit Charleston, SC

What makes a city great? In my view, it's usually two things: A distinctive character and a nearby, preferably large, body of water.

To me, the great cities of the world share these two traits. San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, Paris, Sydney, London, Venice, Florence. These are all places to which tourists flock and for which former residents pine.

To this list, I add Charleston, S.C. Despite the hotly contested influx of tourists and cruise ships, this beautiful peninsular city has lost little of its character. Sure, Charleston is relatively similar in superficial ways to Savannah, Ga. For me, however, Charleston possesses a cultural vibrancy that the comparatively sleepier Savannah lacks.

But let's not rehash that tired old Charleston vs. Savannah debate. Instead, I'd like to share some of my favorite experiences of Charleston, where I lived from 1982 to 1984 and to which I have repeatedly returned in the years since. These are my top 12 things to do, eat, and see in Charleston, in no particular order because they're all so damn good.

1. Eat she crab soup in the courtyard of 82 Queen restaurant. And if they're serving fried green tomatoes, well, you know what to do.

2. Eat the Coca-Cola cake at Jestine's Kitchen.

Coca-Cola cake, Jestine's Kitchen
3. Go for drinks to the Market Pavilion Hotel rooftop bar. You get a gorgeous view of the city, amazing cocktails (like the blueberry mojito, below). If you go, make sure no one in your party is wearing flip flops or cut-offs, because they're kinda persnickety about their dress code. 

Blueberry mojito at the Market Pavilion rooftop bar
4. Take a private walking tour of the historic area from Laura Wichmann Hipp of Charleston Tea Party Private Tours. Laura gives an unforgettable tour, and she may even get you into a private mansion for a look-see and some mint tea made from a local tea plantation. Call Laura at 843-577-5896 and tell her Jim and Nick in San Francisco sent you.

5. Go shopping on lower King Street. Gorgeous (and expensive) antiques, interesting women's clothes, some highly traditional men's clothing store (that would be you, Berlin's), and lots of chain stores like Gap and Apple. A pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

The 'latest' men's fashions at Berlin's
6. Shop on King Street north of Calhoun. This is where you'll find quirky, interesting shops and restaurants you won't see anywhere else.

7. Go to the Unitarian Church cemetery by way of the alley. On King Street, across from the Charleston historical society/library, there's a wrought-iron gate surrounded by two brick walls. Past the gate, you'll find a path that leads to the cemetery of the Unitarian church. It's Southern gothic at its best, with Spanish moss dripping off ancient live oak trees, and crumbling tombstones from the 1800s with inscriptions such as "They were lovely and pleasant in their lives together" (this was for a married couple, buried together).

Unitarian Church cemetery
8. Go to the Piggly Wiggly. Just because you can. There's one at 445 Meeting Street. If they have a red cooler bag like the one below (which I bought at the Folly Beach Piggly Wiggly), get it. I use mine all the time.

One reason why "I'm big on the pig"

9. Eat at Old Towne restaurant, which is an old-school (but recently refurbished) Greek restaurant on King Street. And buy a bottle of their Greek seasoning to bring home. Nick and I sprinkle this stuff everywhere: on chicken, pork, steak, potatoes. I've considered putting it on my toothbrush. That's how good it is.

10. Walk around Ansonborough, a beautiful neighborhood in the historic district without all the tourists. I used to live here, at 6 Wentworth Street--conveniently located near the Harris-Teeter grocery store and a tiny ABC store. (An ABC store, for you Yankees out there, is where Southerners go to buy hard liquor.) This is where I accidentally dropped an air conditioner out of a second-story window while completely naked, but that's for another blog post.

6 Wentworth Street

11. Spend an afternoon at Folly Beach. It's a funky, Left Coastish town, a touch of Santa Cruz on the Carolina coast. The far western end of the beach is often sparsely populated and quite beautiful. Worth knowing: George Gershwin spent a summer on Folly Beach during the 30s while composing his opera Porgy and Bess (which is set in Charleston).

The stark beauty of Folly Beach

12. Walk south on Church Street, beginning around St. Philip's Church. Just do it. You'll thank me. And if you see an alley, here or anywhere else, enter it. Charleston alleys aren't like the ones in your city or mine, trust me.

St. Philip's Church

Above all, wear comfortable walking shoes, because you will be walking. Dress lightly, because if it's warm, you will be sweating. Go during the Spoleto festival if possible, which is the last week of May and first week of June every year. If you get the chance, read something by Pat Conroy before, during, or after your visit, preferably The Prince of Tides, South of Broad, or The Lords of Discipline. And when you return from your trip, please tell me all about it. I never tire of hearing people's Charleston stories.


  1. It looks great there. If I ever get enough money to travel, I might go.

    1. Start saving, Aimee. I think it's worth your money!

    2. If it helps, we stayed in N Charleston, near the Convention Center (Courtesy HOTWIRE, for $45/night. Not a fleabag type, either. Free made to order breakfast and evening manager's reception. The service was just as good as places that are much more. We traveled into Charleston to recreate. There are great seafood restaurants and we took a touristy dinner cruise that had dolphins at the helm as we went out on the water. Charleston is one place I have visited that I intend to visit again. Market Pavilion is in my crosshairs! Keep an eye on Groupon for accomodations.

  2. #13: Come visit me!

    You definitely picked the high points. Well done! Come back James!

    1. Hi JuJu, I don't have any Charleston plans in the near future (sadly) but will definitely let you know next time I'm there! -- Jim

  3. I have to have a piece of Coca-Cola cake, and I don't even like Coke.

    Seriously, thank you for introducing us to SC. It will be high up on my destination list (after Paris and Panama).

    1. You're welcome, Feisty Cat. I hope you get there one day and then tell me all about it!

  4. You sold me Jim. Charleston it is! By the way, ever been to Greenville, SC? My brother lives there. Bill and I are visiting in a couple of weeks. Downtown Greenville with their wonderful park is fabulous!

    1. Hi Ron, I went to Greenville, SC briefly on business many years ago. I agree, downtown was quite beautiful. -- Jim

  5. Jim,
    I can cross off all but 1, 2,4 and 9. Our favorite restaraunt downtown is El Cortil Del Ray, a fantastic Italian place on lower King Street.
    A few other things to do:
    1. Wrangle yourself an invitation to one of those parties held in the gardens behind the gates. Especially when the Jasmine is blooming!
    2. Take a kayak ride starting at Middleton plantation
    3. The French Quarter Art Walk is a wonderful free night out, you get to see interesting art, sip wine and have snacks.
    4. Walk the Battery, we do it from the Coast Guard Station to the Yacht Club and back (a great way to tire out the dog)
    5. Stay in a bed and breakfast instead of a hotel, our favorite is the 1836 on Wentworth. It's supposed to be one of the most haunted.
    6. Head out to John's Island and eat at the Fat Hen (you have to eat the mussels).
    7. Eat at Bowen's Island, the oysters are the sweetest I have ever eaten, they dig them nearby.
    8. If you are in town over the weekend, check out St Stephens Episcopal church in Ansonbourough. It is very welcoming to everyone!
    9. Visit JuJu and I at the same time!

    I could go on but...I can't wait to hear about the air conditioner!


    1. Hi Colleen, Great list! I hope to get back to Charleston in the next year or so and will definitely let you know, and do at least some of these things on your list. -- Jim

  6. Jim, I went to Charleston for the first time two years ago and loved it! I hit most of these spots and they were the pinnacle of our trip. I don't know why I waited so long.

    1. Glad you loved Charleston too, Bill. It's truly a spiritual home for me.

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Wow! Thanks for letting me know. Does your brother in law rent or own the home? I still miss that place!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. hi james

      My name is Michele and my husband and I own the house on your blog. We love it down here. We rehabbed the house on our own and that has made it really special for us. Charleston has it all, history, beautiful architecture, great restaurants, wonderful beaches, cool cemeteries, ghosts and the friendliest most welcoming people. and the weather...just great. Next time you are down knock on the door.

    4. Hi Michele, I come to Charleston about every summer. Though I moved away in 1984, it has a special place in my heart, and I am compelled to return as often as possible. I would LOVE to say hi next time I'm there. Thanks so much for the offer! And I agree -- Charleston has so much going for it. If I'd had money when I lived there (I was a reporter for The News & Courier, just a year or two out of college), and if the house had been for sale, I would have snapped it up. I have plenty of stories to share about my landlady, Bernice Engel, who as I recall was born in the house, lived there all her life, and I assume was living there when she passed on.

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