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Exploring Charleston's History, Art and Architecture

Amy Holtcamp Amy Holtcamp
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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Church steeple, dock street theater in downtown Charleston
St. Philip's steeple and the Dock Street Theater are downtown Charleston landmarks.

Day 1

Morning

First, get a sense of the history of the city at the Charleston Museum. The museum, founded in 1773, has the distinction of being America's first museum, and its collection provides a wonderful overview of the Holy City. Be sure to spend some time in the Historical Textile Gallery. Looking at the actual clothes people wore is a wonderful window into history, and the museum's collection is fantastic. 

Lunch
Just down the block from the museum is a favorite Charleston lunch spot. Not only does 39 Rue de Jean offer delicious French café fare like quiche, fried goat cheese salad and fluffy omelets, but located at 39 John St. (or 39 Rue de Jean in French) it's always easy to find.

Before moving on, head down the block for a little dessert. You might find it strange at first that this bakery is named the Macaroon Boutique, but one bite of the place's light-as-air confections and you will see that their wares are couture you can eat. If you have never had a traditional French macaron, you are in for a real treat. What's more, the Macaroon Boutique makes their light, sweet, delicately flavored macarons with 99 percent local ingredients.

Afternoon

Walk off lunch (and several macarons) by heading downtown towards the Old City Market, which has been a hub of activity in Charleston for 200 years. More than 100 vendors stretch for several blocks behind the lovely 1841 Greek Revival building. Although you will find every kind of souvenir - clothing, artwork, jewelry, food - pay special attention to the stunning traditional sweetgrass baskets on display. Enslaved Africans brought this form of basket weaving to America in the 18th century and passed the craft down through the generations.

Next, continue down to Cumberland and Church for a visit to The Powder Magazine. This small but excellent museum gives great insight into Charleston's life before the American Revolution, when it was a walled city named Charles Towne after the English king. It won't take long to tour the exhibits at the Powder Magazine, but the guides are exceptional and their passion for Charleston's history is infectious. 

Wind your way down Church Street, taking a moment to revel in St. Philip's Church and its glorious, 201-foot steeple. This Anglican Church was established here in 1641 and delights visitors and residents alike with its chimes.

When you reach Chalmers Street, take a left. There you will find the Old Slave Mart Museum. Located on the site of a former slave market, it offers a thought-provoking, educational look at Charleston's involvement in slave trade. 

Finish up your day with some window-shopping along East Bay Street, stopping for a cup of coffee and a cannoli at Carmella's or by watching the sunset from a park bench in nearby Waterfront Park.

 

Scallop and shrimp dish from Charleston Grill
Charleston Grill is known for Southern-French dishes served in upscale surroundings.

Dinner

The perfect soundtrack to an evening in Charleston has got to be the music of one of the many talented jazz musicians who call the city home. Visit the website of Charleston Jazz for their calendar of events or reserve tickets at Forte Jazz Lounge for a retro-jazz experience. Several area restaurants offer nightly live music including Charleston Grill, one of the most elegant dining venues in downtown. You will be impressed with their masterfully executed dishes infused with European and Lowcountry flair. Note: Make reservations far in advance.

Take an after-dinner stroll past the historic Dock Street Theatre. Built as a hotel in 1809, reopened a year ago after a multi-million dollar renovation. Charleston Stage is in residence at the Dock Street Theatre from September-July. If you are in town during the Spoleto Festival, the theater is a major venue.

 

Colorful Rainbow Row houses with window boxes and ironwork in Charleston
Visitors love to photograph the colorful, historic houses of Rainbow Row.

Day 2

Morning

Today you will get a chance to explore Charleston's magnificent architecture and grand historic homes.

Start the day with a self-guided architectural walking tour of the city. Learn about the city's 18th century architecture including historic churches, private homes and the historic Rainbow Row, which served as the inspiration for the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess.

After the tour is over, you might take some time to stroll through White Point Gardens on the Battery before heading to lunch. The waterfront green space is lined with gorgeous, antebellum homes. Also, look under the oak trees for a monument commemorating the hanging of the notorious "Gentleman" pirate, Stede Bonnet, and more than 20 of his men. After being hanged, local legend holds that the pirates were left on the gallows here in the Battery as a warning to other pirates not to mess with Charleston.

Lunch
The area near the Battery is quite residential, so your best bet for lunch is to head up to Broad Street where there are several low-key lunch possibilities. Gaulart and Maliclet - known locally as "Fast and French" - is a good place to have a tasty, inexpensive salad or sandwich with a glass of wine.

Afternoon
Charleston is filled with historic homes that you can tour for a modest charge, like the Nathaniel Russell House and Aiken-Rhett House.

Start downtown with the Nathaniel Russell House. This important neoclassical home is a National Historic Landmark and has been lovingly restored by the Historic Charleston Foundation using local craftspeople to recreate the elaborate decorative painting and to repair architectural details. The showstopper of this tour is the magnificent cantilevered staircase. Tour guides will show you around the house and give you some insight into the history of the people who lived there.

It's a long walk to the Aiken-Rhett House so hail a Charleston Rickshaw to get to your next stop.

The Aiken-Rhett House offers a very different take on historic home preservation. Rather than trying to restore the house to its past glory, the curators at the Aiken-Rhett House look to preserve any original detail of the house that they can. So the walls are not covered with a gleaming, new-looking reproduction wallpaper; instead, you can see remnants of the actual original paper hanging on the walls. The place might not look as magnificent as the Nathaniel Russell House, but with the help of an informative audio guide, touring the house is just as fascinating. The Aiken-Rhett House also allows a unique glimpse into the lives of Charleston's enslaved people with its preserved slave quarters in the back yard.

 

Dish of gnocchi with cheese on white tablecloth with silverware and wine
FIG's gnocchi and lamb Bolognese dish is a popular specialty of the house.

Dinner
Head to FIG for dinner. FIG stands for "Food is Good" and it certainly is at this laid-back bistro focusing on seasonally inspired dishes and local, sustainable providers. James Beard Award-winning chef Chef Mike Lata serves up magnificent dishes in an atmosphere that is both romantic and comfortable. Note: Make reservations far in advance.

 

Couple crossing King Street with shopping bags
King Street in downtown Charleston is known for its unique shops.

Day 3

Morning

Start your day at the Charleston Farmer's Market in Marion Square. Running from mid-April-December, the market is a great place to sample the bounty of South Carolina produce, but it also offers a chance to get to know local artists and artisans. Some of the area's best painters, jewelry-makers and craftspeople display their wares here every week.

You might consider getting breakfast from one of the many food vendors at the market before heading down King Street to check out some of the best shops in the city. Antique shops, clothing stores and upscale chain stores offer something for everyone.

Stop by Christophe Artisan Chocolatier to satisfy your sweet tooth, get to know some of our local designers as you scour the racks at the many small boutiques, or browse the treasures at Croghan's Jewel Box, a lovely little jewelry store that has been owned by the same Charleston family for more than 100 years.

Lunch

For lunch, head to Poogan's Porch. Located inside a Victorian-style house on charming Queen Street, it's a great place to go to sample Southern classics like she-crab soup, fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits. If you are really daring, order up a plate of the fried alligator for a uniquely Southern culinary experience.

Afternoon

After lunch, head to the Gibbes Museum of Art. The museum's permanent exhibit, The Charleston Story, uses the city's art treasures to give life to Charleston's history. The Gibbes also hosts a diverse array of temporary exhibits. Recent exhibits have included work by masters like Picasso and Jasper Johns, as well as in-depth collections of Southern artists. 


After you leave the museum, wander the cobblestone streets of the French Quarter and visit some of the neighborhood's terrific art galleries. Several times a year, the French Quarter offers special evening art walks that are free and open to the public, but any time of year you can plot your own course through the streets of the old walled city and check out some of the best artwork the Holy City has to offer. Click here for more information on art galleries in Charleston.

 

Outside of HUSK restaurant, verandas, porches
HUSK built a stellar reputation by serving dishes exclusively made from regional ingredients.

Dinner

The perfect place for your final meal in Charleston is James Beard Award-winning restaurant, Husk. Not only is the food here exceptional, but the restaurant is a celebration of the South. Everything that issues from the kitchen has been produced in the South. Note: Make reservations far in advance.

Treat yourself to a bit of history in a glass by ordering a drink from Husk's menu of handcrafted cocktails. Lift your glasses and toast to your stay in the Holy City!

Amy Holtcamp
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.