Charleston, the world’s most popular tourist destination—according to many travel experts—was founded in 1670. By comparison, its closest neighboring community, North Charleston, didn’t come into existence officially until more than 300 years later.
For nearly a century of that span, North Charleston’s main claim to fame was the city’s U.S. Navy base, established in 1901 and one of the largest on the East Coast, as well as the primary employer for the city.
But when the base was closed during government cost-cutting moves in 1996, many locals feared that North Charleston would, as one resident put it, “fold up and die.”
Instead, Charleston’s “cousin” has flourished. In fact, it is now the state’s third-largest city with more than 97,000 residents as of the 2010 U.S. Census. Only Columbia, the state capital (129,000-plus), and Charleston (120,000-plus) are larger – and few other cities in the state have been as aggressive in building their reputation as a vibrant destination.
Fact: with 8,500 hotel rooms, North Charleston has twice as many as—you guessed it—tourist-crazy Charleston. It’s also home to Charleston International Airport, which greets 4.5 million travelers each year, and to the area’s largest entertainment venue, the North Charleston Coliseum.
Nine miles from downtown Charleston and 15 minutes from many of the area’s historic plantations, North Charleston has embraced the motto of “a different kind of Southern charm.” Indeed, knowledgeable locals often avoid the crowds on Charleston’s historic peninsula, flocking instead to North Charleston’s restaurants and entertainment venues.
“We invite everyone to the party,” says Amy Heath, the city’s director of tourism.
What changed North Charleston over the past 45 years from a mostly industrial and suburban community to a thriving, bustling attraction with plenty of great restaurants, historic sites, entertainment venues and more? Actually, it’s not “what” but “who.”
Mayor Keith Summey, serving since 1994, had a vision to diversify North Charleston, attracting businesses that would give the area a more cosmopolitan, eclectic feel, while retaining the small-town elements that make it different from the booming Holy City to the south. In so doing, he was following the example of John Bourne, the city’s first mayor, who brought the city back from the devastation of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
Talk about eclectic: North Charleston today is the state’s only community that produces both high-end automobiles - the Daimler Group Charleston Plant (Mercedes Benz cars) - and jets - Boeing’s massive facility located adjacent to the airport.
The city also offers professional ice hockey games the South Carolina Stingrays and concerts in the 13,000-seat coliseum and plays and performances at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center adjacent to the coliseum.
You'll find plenty of dining and nightlife, too, much of it located at the city’s bustling Park Circle. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect of New York City’s Central Park, this collection of restaurants and bars was built on parts of the former U.S. Navy Base and, with local support, has become a popular destination for young families, business professionals and, of course, in-the-know visitors. As an added bonus, the area has no parking fees.
Also built on the former grounds of the Navy Base—where the base’s golf course once stood—is North Charleston’s Riverfront Park. Besides offering views of the Cooper River, the park is home to the annual High Water Festival, a multi-day concert extravaganza. For history buffs, there’s the C.S.S. Hunley, considered the world’s first operational military submarine, which was raised from the mud of Charleston Harbor where it had rested since the Civil War and restored by military historians.
North Charleston also has some of the state’s most cutting-edge recreation facilities. For baseball fans, there’s the 48-acre Cal Ripkin Baseball Facility at Wescott Park; for golfers, the area’s only 27-hole facility, The Golf Club at Wescott Plantation, designed by renowned architect Michael Hurdzan, for swimmers, the under-construction North Charleston Aquatics Center. Add to that a three-gym complex located between Remount Road and Interstate 26.
History? Check out the state’s oldest African-American community at Liberty Hill, the site of phosphate mines near Ashley Phosphate Road, and Windsor Hill Plantation, home to Revolutionary War hero William Moultrie, namesake of Charleston Harbor’s Fort Moultrie, where Colonists fought off the British Navy and 80 years later, secessionist troops fired on Fort Sumter to start the American Civil War.
North Charleston’s military roots still remain. On the grounds of the former Navy Base, visitors can view the Homecoming and Lone Sailor statues—reminders of the city’s proud heritage, but also symbols of its newer, exciting future.