One City, Three Ways: Charleston, South Carolina

Explore architectural highlights, Black history, and top dining spots along the palmetto-lined streets of the Holy City

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King Street in Charleston, South Carolina

Photo via Bigstock

Charleston’s palmetto-lined cobblestone roads and distinctive Southern charm have long captivated visitors. Outstanding restaurants and cozy galleries tempt on every block, and picturesque architecture abounds, from the original brick structures lining the business district to the pastel homes with their breezy piazzas and hidden gardens.

It’s easy to walk these enchanting coastal streets, looking but not really seeing. There’s more here than meets the eye, and you’d do yourself a disservice to not dig deep into the Black history that touches every aspect of Charleston, the largest point of entry for the slave trade from 1670 to 1808. African American influence extends to the historic buildings, many of which were constructed by enslaved laborers, and the cuisine, which draws inspiration from Gullah Geechee traditions. Charleston is lovely, made even lovelier with an effort to see the bigger picture. Here are three ways to approach your next visit.

ANTIQUES & ARCHITECTURE

STAY
Occupying a set of 1780s auction houses, the Vendue comprises two distinct accommodations that both feel like museums—it was Charleston’s first art hotel, after all. The namesake Vendue offers eccentric fun, with an eclectically decorated lobby and popular rooftop bar, while the Enclave across the street has a cozy, intimate feel, with exposed brick and original beams.

The lobby at Vendue, Charleston’s first art hotel

Courtesy of Vendue

COLLECT
Charleston has some of the best antiquing in the country, but where to begin? Start a few steps off King Street, the main shopping thoroughfare, at David Skinner Antiques, which specializes in intricate period lighting (including rare chandeliers that go for upwards of $250,000). Down the road, Tucker Payne Antiques is a treasure trove of vintage furniture, figurines, and decor.

GET EDUCATED
In a city replete with home tours, a visit to the Aiken-Rhett House Museum is a must. Everything—from the paint and flooring to the furniture—is original and preserved as found, rather than restored. The enslaved people who once lived here take center stage, as understanding their stories is key to the home’s history.

STROLL
You’re always mere steps away from stunning architecture in Charleston. Join a guided walking tour (Bulldog Tours offers many) to hit the highlights, including Rainbow Row, St. Michael’s Church, and some of the historic antebellum mansions.

Downtown Charleston

Courtesy of Discover SC

Seek Out
Much of Charleston’s wrought-iron gates, balconies, and railings can be attributed to one master blacksmith: the late Philip Simmons. His legacy lives on in more than 600 pieces around the city, including the double-heart gate at St. John’s Reformed Episcopal. Tour his house and the studio where he worked from the 1930s until 2005, at the Philip Simmons Museum Home and Workshop.

BLACK HISTORY

TAKE HOME
Pick up a handwoven sweetgrass basket—a quintessential Holy City souvenir—at Charleston City Market, which features more than 50 resident Gullah artists in addition to dozens of other vendors. The baskets represent generations of tradition tied to West African culture.

Handwoven sweet-grass baskets are an essential Holy City souvenir

Courtesy of Explore Charleston

ENGAGE
Located on Gadsden’s Wharf, once the largest slave port in the country, the new International African American Museum offers perspectives on the African American experience, from the 1600s to today, interspersed with modern art. The museum invites visitors to tell their story in sound booths and offers genealogical resources for Black Americans to trace their roots.

International African American Museum

Photo by Joshua Parks

FEED THE SOUL
A hearty meal of fried chicken, red rice, cornbread, and several of the rotating daily sides is worth the slight detour north to Bertha’s Kitchen. The family-owned hole in the wall is a locally loved soul food institution with national acclaim (it won a James Beard Classic award in 2017). Don’t skip the signature okra soup.

HONOR
McLeod Plantation Historic Site on nearby James Island is one of two plantation sites in the country focused entirely on the enslaved laborers who lived there. Take a guided tour for the most instructive and impactful experience: Stops include original, preserved cabins; a cotton gin house; and a rare burial site where Indigenous people were laid to rest with both Gullah and white people.

McLeod Plantation Historic Site

Photo via explorecharleston.com

PAY RESPECT
Founded in 1816 and often called Mother Emanuel, the Emanuel AME Church is the South’s oldest African Methodist Episcopal church. Guided tours share its complicated but important history, from serving as a gathering place for civil rights activists (including MLK and Booker T. Washington) to being the site of a devastating, racially motivated massacre in 2015.

CULINARY GEMS

SLURP
Oysters are a must when you’re on the coast, and Leon’s Oyster Shop is an ideal spot to indulge in the briny delicacy. Start with a dozen raw, feast on fried chicken as your main, and finish with a cup of sprinkle-topped soft serve. The recommended sip? A frozen gin and tonic, the house specialty.

BOOK AHEAD
Reserve a table well in advance at FIG (aka Food Is Good), a three-time James Beard Award winner that helped establish the city as a dining destination. The menu rotates seasonally, but a few staples remain, including the bouillabaisse and ricotta gnocchi with lamb Bolognese.

CHOW DOWN
Make your way to Lewis Barbecue before it opens at 11 a.m., or plan to wait in line: This Texas-style barbecue joint always draws a crowd. All the meat is cooked in custom smokers welded by pitmaster John Lewis himself, and if you’re all about the sides, don’t miss the green chili corn pudding.

Lewis Barbecue

Photo by Robert Donovan

MIX IT UP
Sure, Charleston is known for seafood and Southern cuisine, but surprise your palate at Pink Bellies, a bright, chic Vietnamese-American spot serving dumplings, noodles, and burgers with an Asian twist that pair perfectly with experimental cocktails, such as the Pho Cocktail, made with pho syrup, fish sauce, gin, lime, and sriracha).

Noodles at Pink Bellies

Courtesy of Pink Bellies

TRY IT ALL
You never know what you’re going to get at Chez Nous, an inventive French fine-dining spot tucked in a cozy 1835 home. Chef Jill Mathias changes the lunch and dinner menus every single day and offers just two appetizers, entrees, and desserts—follow your server’s suggestion and order one of each to share with your dining companion.

Seafood and squid ink rice at Chez Nous

Photo by Andrew Cebulka

This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Southbound.

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