Exploring the South: The Best of Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston, South Carolina. is well known for its “moonlight and magnolias” past, but today the little town is jostling with bigger cities because of its young and vibrant scene. Take it from me, a part-time resident: Ditch all the guide books (and we aren’t even mentioning that Bravo reality show) and venture into the less touristy areas. Here you will find James Beard award-winning food, nationally acclaimed art, and classic fashion that are making this old town sizzle in a whole new way. Charleston may be swinging, but nobody rushes nothin’ down here, so take a deep breath and grab a cocktail. As one of our favorite local artists, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, once said, “What is the use of hurrying when one is where one wants to be?”

Attractions

Horse and carriages are bearable, but there is a bountiful amount of other ways to explore America’s prettiest city and it’s surrounding areas.

Sullivan’s Island beach walk

Get up early, beat the heat, and drive to Sullivan’s for a beach walk to the lighthouse and back. Pick up shells, see some dolphins, and enjoy the way many locals start their day: with toes in the sand.

best things to do in charleston south carolina sullivans island lighthouse
Jo Anna Barbe/Commons/Wikimedia

Middleton Place Tour

There are a plethora of plantations near Charleston, but Middleton Place is the best in our opinion. They simply have it all: A grand house, America’s oldest landscaped gardens, heritage breed animals in the barn, and stables full of horses ready to ride as well as educational programming discussing the history of slavery on the property.

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The celebrated restaurant is not your usual tourist trap and offers a huge wine list and great regional cuisine. On Wednesdays, there are wine strolls on the property and if you really want to steep yourself in plantation life, the Middleton Place Inn is constantly rated one of the best Inns in the state.

Downtown Farmers Market

We love to eat local, so check out the downtown farmers’ market, open every Saturday from April through December. You can buy local produce from farmers, as well as fresh flowers, hand crafted soaps, jewelry, and local delicacies to take back home. There is also a food truck roundup located here too, so come hungry (and early) for a serious breakfast and shopping spree.

Downtown Farmers Market Charleston, South Carolina

Paddle Board on Isle of Palms

After all that amazing food and booze, you may want to get a bit of fitness in. There is no better way to work out in the low-country than on a paddle board in the Intracoastal waterway. Located 30 minutes away from downtown on the Isle of Palms, yoga and fitness guru (and one hot babe) Misty Lister will guide you out into the water where she will teach you the basics of paddle boarding and then teach a full body workout while anchored on your board in the middle of paradise.

Isle of Palms Pier Charleston, South Carolina

Shops

Please don’t enter The Market. Most items sold there are Made in China anyway. Support these great spots and come away with something worth talking about:

Indigo & Cotton

This is the spot for the best menswear in town. Sorry, you won’t find seersucker at Indigo, but you can find all of our favorite brands like Gitman Vintage, Saturdays NYC, Makr and Topo Designs.

best things to do in charleston south carolina indigo and cotton

Candy Shop Vintage

Warning, this is a total chick shop, but hey, you will get major points for taking her here and of course buying her something. Local Deirdre Zahl stocks great vintage pieces as well as vintage-inspired pieces she designs out of her Cannon Street shop. One of her best sellers is her Charleston Rice Beads.

Sugar Bakeshop

Constantly rated one of the best bakeries in the South, come here for authentic Southern finds such as Lady Baltimore cupcakes, pralines, and homemade iced tea.

best things to do in charleston south carolina sugar bakeshop storefront

J Stark

We have been following owner Erik Holmberg since he started making watch bands about five years back. Now he has a thriving business in Charleston’s coolest neighborhood (down the block from Indigo & Cotton, Candy Shop Vintage, and Sugar Bake Shop too!). His cozy, light-filled shop is a gent’s dream, full of bags, briefcases, wallets, and sunglasses. Don’t pass up the candles either.

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J. Stark

Edmund’s Oast Exchange

If the ladies are shopping on King Street, do yourself a favor and Uber up to 1081 Morrison Dr. and wallow in the amazingness of Charleston’s best new craft beer and wine shop. Built to resemble an Italian Rennaissance chapel, the two-story structure offers over 1,000 different varieties of beers and wines. Purchase a few to pop open in the hotel room.

The Ordinary Food South Carolina

Bars and Restaurants

Yes, yes, we know you came to the South for grits, but there is a bounty of other exciting food adventures than the usual grease and meat fest. You have heard more than enough about Husk, Hominy Grill, and Fig, and while they are superb, these are the spots that the locals (and the global food community) are chatting about now.

The Dewberry

Located in the former Federal Building (built in 1965), The Dewberry is like walking into Mad Men. Period furnishings, wood panelings, and lots of metal furnishings lend to a Don Draper vibe. The lobby bar is one of Charleston’s favorite places to commune for a 5 p.m. tummy buster.

Basic Kitchen

Downtown Charleston has very few quality lunch spots. They are either too pricey or too touristy, so we were very happy when Basic Kitchen opened in late 2017. The concept of Ben and Kate Towill’s (who are also behind New York City’s Fat Radish and design firm Basic Projects) light-hearted approach to healthy eating is a breath of fresh air in the fried food mix of other nearby spots. Order a freshly made juice, rainbow bowl, and cauliflower “wings,” and you will be satiated, yet not too wobbly to keep on exploring.

Restaurant Tu

Xiao Bao Biscuit is one of our favorite restaurants on Earth (more on that eatery in a bit), so we were pumped when the team decided to open a more global cuisine concept. We just reviewed this spot upon their opening, and you can read all about our experience right here.

Millers All Day

Don’t we all love breakfast 24/7? The brand new Millers All Day satiates that need. While they aren’t open for dinner just yet, come in any time the rest of the day for waffles, biscuits and gravy, or our personal favorite, Hoppin John. Also, they have pie by the slice. Need we say more? #HangoverHeaven

Lewis BBQ

While Charleston is most famous for it’s seafood for obvious reasons, barbecue has been blowing up the scene recently. One reason is the opening of Lewis BBQ. Located on the upper peninsula (near Edmunds Oast!), Austin’s famous pitmaster, John Lewis, has locals and tourists lined up for his prime beef brisket, pulled pork, and Texas hot guts.

best things to do in charleston south carolina lewis bbq andrew cebulka
Andrew Cebulka/Lewis BBQ

Chez Nous

Located in a 200-year-old home, tucked away in a back alley, you will want to move into Chez Nous. Every day there is a new menu with only two starters, two entrees, and two desserts. Don’t worry, all of it is so incredible you will think it was prepared by the Greek goddess Demeter herself. There are no reservations and it gets very busy in the evening, so go for lunch when it is quiet and you really do feel like you are dining at home.

Chez Nous Restaurant

Edmund’s Oast

Just a short car drive away from the center of things (and they have a parking lot, a treasure for this tiny town!), Edmund’s opened in early 2017 and has been pumping out generous farm to table cuisine since. They also have about a dozen house brewed beers on tap at any moment. Boom. Curious about the name? Edmund Egan was an English-born brewer who came to Charleston in the 1760s and started producing beer soon after. He had great success and donated large amounts of money to the American Revolution, earning him the name “The Rebel Brewer.” Oast is an old European term for a kiln used in the drying of hops. Together the two make the name.

Gnome Cafe

Vegans and vegetarians have a hard time in most cities, so Gnome is a welcome and very popular all-vegan destination for breakfast and lunch. If you have never tried vegan, do it. Their cinnamon roll, pancakes, veggie burger, and taco salad are hard to beat and an excellent hangover helper.

gnome cafe food south carolina
Leon’s

Located in a former paint and body shop, Leon’s raw bar and fried chicken joint is the hottest new spot on the peninsula. Opened in summer 2017, it’s located away from the throngs of cruise ship tourists, and is a great spot to cab up to for lunch or dinner and feel like you are all up in the know.

Obstinate Daughter

Located 20 minutes out of downtown on cozy Sullivan’s Island, this seafood spot is getting locals to actually drive somewhere (The Holy City is a big walking, biking town). The nautical interiors are refreshingly modern and the cuisine is too. We had Bloody Marys made with heirloom yellow tomatoes. Yes. We had two. Try their Lowcountry Shrimp roll and Lamb Scottaditto. Everything is good here though, so take your pick. Then head downstairs to Beardcat Sweet Shop for gelato and walk across to the beach for a sunset stroll.

Obstinate Daughter

The Ordinary

If you want quality, local seafood, look no further. Located in a former bank building, this is one of the more glamorous spots in town where people dress up, order a martini or two, and order a three tiered seafood tower while people-watching. Never a disappointment. Closed Monday.

Xia Bao Biscuit

It’s not Southern, but then again, we all need a little break after non-stop oysters and fried goodness. One of the more young and hip places in town — XBB as it is known to locals — is located in a former gas station and has an ever changing menu of items from all over Asia. It’s low key, fun, and seriously tasty. Closed Sundays.

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Tetra Images/Getty Images

Stay

There is a bevy of bed and breakfasts in Charleston, South Carolina, but they are a little too lacy and faux-finished for our tastes. Instead, here are five spots where we choose to hang our hat.

Francis Marion Hotel

This hotel was a veritable drug den in the ’80s and ’90s until 1996 when it was restored to its 1924 glory. It is the only old, big hotel downtown. and while it is good looking, it is also relatively affordable. It is also slap dab in the middle of everything, located adjacent to Marion Square.

best things to do in charleston south carolina francis marion hotel

The Restoration

While the hotel has been around for some time, it recently received a massive makeover and is now one of Charleston’s premier places. The boutique hotel is a little microcosm with it’s coffee shop, The Rise, serving Toby’s Estate; rooftop dining room The Watch (best views in town); The Port Mercantile, their eclectically curated shop; and their Assouline library, which is the perfect place to mole in after a long day hoofing around town.

Library at The Restoration on King

Wentworth Mansion

If you want a truly grand ole Charleston experience, the Wentworth is the way to go. Last year, it was voted third best city hotel in the U.S. by Travel & Leisure. That’s a big deal folks. But what’s a bigger deal is the size of this house. Built by a local cotton factor back in 1887 for his wife and 13 children, the manse still has original floors, molding, mantles, and serious stained glass by Tiffany. If you are celebrating a big occasion, book the ballroom suite. Don’t forget to wind your way to the top of the roof for a spectacular view of the old city from the cupola.

Zero George

Set on the corner of George and Calhoun Streets, this new boutique hotel is comprised of five historic homes that have been restored and feature the best modern amenities. Zero George is a really must visit, even if you can’t get a room. Come by for a drink, dinner, or try their award winning cooking school in the cook house built in 1805.

Zero George Charleston

Airbnb

Hotels can get pricey and if you are coming with a crew, renting a whole house may be just the ticket. There are hundreds of options listed, from historic homes to yachts and sailboats. Just remember, the only legal Airbnb’s are located in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood, and if you do end up renting that house, remember there are neighbors in this densly built downtown so don’t go shouting “Wahooooooo!” at 4 am.

Feature photo by Sugar Bakery, Olivia Rae James.  Article originally published March 9, 2016. Last updated April 19, 2018.