Charleston’s attractions are so well-documented, it is hard to imagine anything there as “hidden.” But like any other wonderful place, there are secrets not to be missed. Here are a few to explore on your next visit.
White Point Gardens, located at the tip of the peninsula, provides great views of the Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter. In its early days, it served as a promenade or public square. In the early 1700s, pirates (including the infamous Stede Bonnet) were hanged here. Local lore has it that these 50 or so pirates continue to haunt the gardens that also were home to fortification for the city during the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Historic cannons and shells decorate the edges of the gardens.
Boats brought the earliest settlers to Charleston, but they also brought pirates and potential invaders. To protect themselves, early Charlestonians built a wall that ran along Meeting Street to Cumberland to East Bay and back to Water Street. The remnants of that wall are marked with bronze markers that can be found on a tour put together by Historic Charleston.
Boats are still one of the best ways to see Charleston. Check out Charleston Sailing Charters for sunset sails and other sailing tours of the city.
Charleston is filled with historic churches, and many of them still have their original cemeteries. A few of the more interesting are at the Unitarian Church, 4 Archdale St., and at its “mother church,” the Circular Congregational Church, 150 Meeting St. The earliest grave in the Circular cemetery dates back to 1695. Both historic churches welcome visitors for tours as well as for Sunday services. You can extend your tour to include the city’s Gateway Walk that also meanders through the peaceful gardens and cemeteries of St. John’s Lutheran Church, St. Philip’s Church, the Library Society and the Gibbes Museum of Art. For help making your way through, download the map at the Garden Club of Charleston which maintains the walk.
Charleston is famed for its welcoming of all religious faiths, leading to its nickname; “The Holy City.” The city is the birthplace of Reform Judaism and the synagogue where that movement was born is Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. Visitors can take a tour of the historic sanctuary and museum six days a week. The cemetery is the oldest surviving Jewish burial ground in the South.
Wrap up your world religions tour at the French Protestant Church. The Huguenots came to Charleston in the late 17th century to escape persecution by the Catholic Church in France. By 1700, there were 450 French protestants living in the Charleston area.
No cemetery tour of Charleston is complete without visiting Magnolia Cemetery, 70 Cunningham Ave. Founded in the mid-1800s along the banks of the Cooper River, this sprawling 92-acre cemetery is the final resting place of more than 2,500 Confederate soldiers, including three crews of the H.L. Hunley – the most recent burials coming in the 21st century when the bodies of the final crew were recovered with the submarine off the coast of Sullivans Island.
While we are thinking about the military, Charleston is home to military college, The Citadel, famed in story (think “The Lords of Discipline” and “My Losing Season” by South Carolina storyteller Pat Conroy). The cadets here drill on the parade grounds almost every Friday during the school year. The parades are free and open to the public. Visit the Citadel’s website for a schedule of upcoming parades.
While you’re downtown, you can find a lovely pink house at 76 Church St. It is here that DuBose Heyward, the author of “Porgy” lived from 1919 to 1924. Heyward’s most famous work was the inspiration for the Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess”. The novel was set in Charleston and focused on a the life of a crippled black beggar. The house has been changed much since it was Heyward’s home, serving now as a wing of a much larger home. But thanks to being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971, you can read all about it on the outside marker.
There are a few spots off the peninsula you shouldn’t miss, including the massive natural wonder, the Angel Oak. Located on Johns Island, the tree is named for Martha and Justin Angel, who owned the land where it casts a shadow over 17,000 square feet of land. The tree is estimated to be 1,500 years old, making it probably the oldest living thing in Charleston. It is 65 feet tall and 25 feet around. Its heavy branches plunge into the earth and re-emerge stronger. There is no charge to visit, be awed and take photos, but stop in the gift shop and buy a remembrance or make a donation to keep the tree protected from ever encroaching development. It truly is a sight for generations.
Since you are already out on Johns Island, just go a little farther toward the ocean until you reach Bowens Island. The restaurant does oysters the old fashioned way: They dig them up, hose them off and roast them over an open fire. It is worth a trip downstairs to watch the oystermen do their jobs and to show your appreciation.