Charleston, South Carolina, isn’t really a hard sell. With a year-round forecast of balmy beach breezes and Southern sunshine, a historic and cultural richness of unrivaled complexity, and a population that is consistently voted the friendliest around, it’s no wonder that the Holy City draws in over four million tourists each year. With typical Southern hospitality, Charleston offers up an impossibly bountiful spread to fill the appetite of its guests, leaving visitors in the rather unfamiliar position of deciding what not to do on their vacation. Though there is much to be left to personal taste—and the city has a flavor to match them all—there are a few things that every person who calls on Charleston must do before taking their leave.
- Taste a Bowl of Charleston with She-Crab Soup A sweet and savory blend of cream, sherry, and Atlantic crab, She-Crab Soup is Charleston’s signature dish (photo courtesy of Anna Barber)
Southern belles come in all shapes and sizes, but ask any connoisseur of Charleston cuisine, and they’ll tell you that the best ones have broad bodies, beady little eyes, and ten long legs. Female Atlantic Crabs are as special as any other Southern debutante in Charleston, celebrated for their essential role in the city’s signature dish: She-Crab Soup. Somewhere between a bisque and a chowder, this rich meal-in-a-bowl combines milk, heavy cream, dry sherry, and savory-sweet chunks of she-crab meat. Though both genders of the crustaceans are found in abundance off the Carolina Coast, the ladies tend to be—as Southern ladies do—just a little sweeter, and in addition, carry the sunshine-hued roe that gives the soup its signature color. Fortunately, one doesn’t need an invitation to set a date with this classic Charleston dish; it’s featured in some variation on just about every menu in the city.
- Stop and Smell the Flowers at Magnolia Plantation The gardens of Magnolia Plantation proved to be good for more than wooing. In 1870, the gardens were opened to the public, saving the plantation from floundering in the post-Civil War economy. (Photo courtesy of Doug Kerr)
It should come as no surprise that the grounds of Magnolia Plantation were designed with romance in mind. Begun almost 200 years ago as a Southern gentleman’s attempt to coax his Northern bride into a love of the low country, the gardens are an unrestrained celebration of Southern flora’s lush abundance. With over 390 acres of thickly-layered, draping mounds of blooms-blossoms-and-leaves, meandering pathways, and deep, cool pools of dark water, Magnolia Plantation offers a refreshingly peaceful respite from the bustle of the city. On tours of the plantation—which are available by tram, foot, or boat—one can catch a glimpse of egrets, herons, and piles of sleepily sunning alligators, along with endless seasonal display of the garden’s thousands of plant varieties.
- See Where it All Started at Fort Sumter Surprisingly, there were no Union casualties during the Confederate siege of Fort Sumter, though two Union soldiers were killed during a planned 100 gun salute during their evacuation
In the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, the first shot of the Civil War was fired . . . and was subsequently followed by around three thousand more. Though Fort Sumter, a defensive manmade island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, was built to protect the prized port city from foreign invaders, Federal troops left manning the garrison after South Carolina’s secession from the Union found themselves isolated in the heart of Confederate territory. Tensions mounted, and after months of gridlocked obstinacy on both sides, came to a head. Union troops soon discovered that the same strategic position that made the fort an invaluable defensive asset also left it perfectly situated to receive fire from the nineteen coastal batteries that lined the harbor. After thirty-four hours and over three thousand shots, the troops surrendered Fort Sumter, providing the Confederacy with a vital hole in the Union blockade of the Atlantic Coast. Though over the next four years Union attempts to reclaim the fort would almost destroy it, it still stands today, accessible to visitors willing to take a short ferry ride to its shores.
- Sneak in a Little Bit (or a Lot of) Shopping at Historic Charleston City Market The sweetgrass baskets made and sold at Charleston’s Historic City Market carry on a West African tradition hundreds of years old (Photo courtesy of Woody Hibbard)
Clothing, paintings, pottery, jams, jellies, jewelry, and dessert are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad offerings of the four block stretch of stalls that make up Charleston’s Historic City Market. Deeded to the city in 1788 with the stipulation that it be used as a public market in perpetuity, the City Market originally catered to the usual farmer’s market fare—meat, fish, and vegetables—but has since evolved to encompass a cornucopia of authentic Southern offerings. Hundreds of vendors come to the market to peddle their wares 365 days a year, so whether you’re after a jar of hot pepper jelly, a color-splashed painting by a local artist, or a one-of-a-kind sweetgrass basket handcrafted on site by one of the market’s famous Gullah ladies, the Charleston City Market is sure to please.
- Indulge Your Inner Aristocrat Walking the Battery and White Point Gardens Stately southern mansions overlook Charleston Harbor on the Battery (Photo courtesy of Ryan Bowley)
Leave it to Charleston to turn military fortifications into an opportunity for a social event. The Battery, a defensive seawall running along the southernmost tip of the Charleston Peninsula has been the place to promenade since the city’s earliest years. Lined with stately Southern mansions and providing unspoiled views of the Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter, Castle Pinkney, and Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse, the Battery is the perfect place for a morning constitutional or a twilight stroll. If public perambulations sound exhausting, White Point Gardens provide a relaxing counterpoint at the end of the road. Filled with monuments, memorials, and the sun-dappled shade of ancient oaks, the Gardens offer a soft patch of ground upon which to rest.
- Stand in the Footprints of Giants at the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon During the 1780 Siege of Charleston by the British, over 10,000 pounds of gunpowder were hidden in the Old Exchange Building (Photo courtesy of Peter Elmon)
Though the veins of history run deeply in the streets of Charleston, the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon pushes the limits of historical saturation. Built in 1771 to appease the trade demands and aristocratic tastes of the city’s wealthy merchants, the Old Exchange Building grew to provide the city with far more than a hub of commercial activity. In addition to the daily bustle of import and export, the Exchange saw the state’s first elections for the Continental Congress, its signing of its declaration of independence from Britain (and, ironically, the site where the British held prisoners during the Revolution), the leaders of South Carolina’s ratification of the US Constitution, and finally, the visit of the country’s first President, George Washington. Both the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon have been opened to the public, offering visitors to the Holy City the opportunity to walk the same halls as legends of history.