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|
|Blueberry mojito at the Market Pavilion rooftop bar|
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|
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|
|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.