Exploring the South: The Best of Charleston, South Carolina

Skyline 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?”

PLAY

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.

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. The restaurant on the property 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

Downtown Farmers Market Charleston, South Carolina
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.

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

SHOP

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:

Candlefish
Everyone is always on the lookout for something local to bring back to friends far and wide. Besides, who doesn’t like candles? Candlefish is a smell-tacular shop off of King Street that stocks great gifts and of course a plethora of candles. Best part is that they have their own line so you can pick out the perfect scent, buy up some of their big box matches and BOOM, you got yourself a special Charleston gift.

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.

Commons

The Commons Shop
Tucked into a shady, vine filled alley, Commons specializes in American made goods for the home. Besides tableware, kitchenware, lighting, and furniture, Commons has an incredible collection or old, rare cookbooks. Don’t come here in a hurry!

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.

Sugar Bake Shop
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.

the library at candlefish

EAT AND DRINK

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.

Chez Nous

Chez Nous Restaurant
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.

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.

Panchito & Lefty
Located just up the road from Leon’s is this hip little cantina-style joint serving some mean queso, tamales, and other Mexican delicacies. Our favorite is the El Vampiro tacos paired with their classic margarita. This is the perfect place for a quick bite before hitting the bars or after the beach.

Obstinate Daughter

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.

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.

The Ordinary Food South Carolina

The Ordinary

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.

The Restoration

Library at The Restoration on King
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.

Wentworth Mansion

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

Zero George Charleston

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.

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.

Photo credit: Sugar Bakery, Olivia Rae James

Article last updated July 6, 2017 by Cator Sparks