An Experts’ Guide to Charleston
A rich history, a hip style scene, and a charming genteel spirit make Charleston one of the country’s most irresistible cities. If the grand plantations and stately colonial homes don’t lure you (locals say the cityscape looks like it has been painted in watercolor), then perhaps the booming dining scene, we-want-everything shops, and wish-we-lived-here hotels will.
Book an impromptu long weekend right now; the Holy City is one of Reese’s favorite spots for a brief escape. On Monday you can catch the MLK Jr. Parade, one of Charleston’s biggest and most boisterous parades of the year. Or pop on down just about anytime—the weather is mild even in winter and the light so golden your Instagram will thank you.
With a little help from a few in-the-know South Carolina natives, we’ve rounded up a few can’t-miss spots that make the Lowcountry the perfect place for a visit. Don’t forget to print our guide before you go.
- Hanna Seabrook, the Charleston-based graphic designer who created some of our stationery and notebooks.
- Kaminer Haislip, the contemporary silversmith who designed our Magnolia Bowl.
- Monica Lavin, the entertaining, style, and travel blogger behind Lavin Label.
- Michiel Perry, the founder of Black Southern Belle, a Southern lifestyle blog.
- Emily Lott, the Charleston-based lifestyle blogger behind Cooper + Thames.
- Caroline McDavid of Bikinis & Brunch, a blog the Charlestonian launched just last summer.
“There is no cozier spot in the city than Zero George,” says Hanna Seabrook. The inviting boutique hotel is a collection of five restored historic residences and carriage houses overlooking a magical private courtyard. There’s even a cooking school!
A symbol of a true Southern hospitality, the 400-room Charleston Place hotel is a favorite of Kaminer Haislip’s. Kaminer also loves the equally elegant Market Pavilion Hotel, where the steak at the hotel restaurant Grill 225 is legendary and the rooftop bar is an always-festive oasis with unforgettable city views.
Hanna loves Hampden Clothing for its thoughtful mix of contemporary designers like Loeffler Randall and Proenza Schouler, as well as Worthwhile for its eclectic, avant garde selection. For unforgettable estate jewelry and stunning new pieces, Croghan’s Jewel Box is the place to go (and has been for over one hundred years). Another King Street landmark, Bob Ellis offers outfit-making shoes and accessories.
Home & Gifts
You’ll find Hanna’s own clever and pretty stationery designs at Mac & Murphy, a cheerful paper store that’s guaranteed to inspire some old-fashioned pen-to-paper correspondence. (Practically all of our insiders mentioned it as a must-visit spot.) At Candlefish, a favorite of Monica Lavin and Emily Lott, you can pay homage to the tradition of candle making by shopping from hundreds of hand-poured homemade candles or by signing up for one of the shop’s popular DIY workshops—a perfect girls’ night out.
Blue Bicycle Books specializes in “used, rare, and local” titles, but you’ll find plenty of bestsellers, too, at this modern-day throwback (a real-life bookstore!) that hosts loads of author events. For an infinite selection of furniture seemingly plucked straight from estates and plantations, we like John Gibson Antiques, a forty-year-old King Street mainstay now in its new home on Market Street (151 Market Street).
FOOD AND DRINK
There’s no quicker way to get Charleston’s well-mannered locals to (almost!) lose their cool than to engage them in a debate about the city’s best restaurants. The dining scene in Charleston has exploded in the past several years, making it a paradise for foodies and top chefs alike.
Breakfast in Charleston means bacon, eggs, and a side of grits—and it’s no small priority. Kaminer Haislip has three favorite spots (all serve lunch and dinner, too): At Toast, the namesake Deluxe French Toast is made from hand-cut currant bread stuffed with cinnamon apples or peaches and topped with apple or peach cider syrup. At Virginia’s on King, a signature Eggs Benedict comes with country ham and collard greens. And at Kitchen 208, the Lowcountry breakfast includes two eggs, cheddar grits, applewood bacon, and stewed “tomatoes ‘n okra.”
Michiel Perry of Black Southern Belle swears by Rutledge Cab Co.,where the breakfast menu is available all day long. (You won’t regret the short rib hash.)
For something simpler (but no less indulgent), Monica Lavin—along with countless others—craves Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit. Classic and filled biscuits galore, grits, and even a pimento cheese sandwich make up the menu at this perfectly seasoned 10-year-old hotspot.
Lunch and Dinner
Reese’s two favorite Charleston dining spots are, hands-down: Husk and FIG. Hoof on over to Husk for locally-sourced, farm-to-table spins on classic Southern cuisine—and look out for our Q&A with Husk chef/partner later this week.
FIG, which features creative, sustainably-sourced gourmet food in a laid-back, retro space, is closed now for renovations. But we’ll be welcoming it back later this month with a Q&A with chef/partner Mike Lata.
Other picks from our insiders:
Kaminer adores Hank’s Seafood for the raw bar and Southern fried seafood in a beautifully renovated turn-of-the-century warehouse, and McCrady’s for impeccably presented dishes combining Southern flavors and modern techniques.
Michiel Perry calls 82 Queen “quintessential Charleston”—as in, the shrimp and grits makes her “heart melt;” while Caroline McDavid of Bikinis & Brunch says Halls Chophouse has the best steak in town.
“Charming, unpretentious, elegant and small, you will not find a better spot in the city than Chez Nous,” says Hanna, putting her stake (er, fork?) in the ground. “Spare yourself the regret and go ahead and order one of everything.”
Snacks and Sips
For dessert (or hey, an anytime snack), Monica Lavin says you can’t miss Sugar Bakeshop. Order an almond chocolate coconut cupcake in our honor, please.
Michiel hearts Whisk for fresh-squeezed juices.
Emily Lott of Cooper + Thames spends her fair share of coffee breaks at Black Tap Coffee. “Cool, casual and so yummy, it’s the perfect stop for a cold brew or honey latte.”
More Restaurants We Love: The Macintosh, Closed for Business, High Cotton, Slightly North of Broad (S.N.O.B.), Magnolias, Cypress, Blossom, 492, Fish, Hominy Grill, Palmetto Café, Cru Café, Peninsula Grill, Pearlz, Minero, Leon’s, Xiao Bao Biscuit, Two Boroughs Larder, The Ordinary.
From craft cocktail lounges to wine bars, Charleston’s bar scene is as buzzy and sophisticated as its food.
A freestanding spot next to the main restaurant, The Bar at Husk is a draw for its intimate industrial vibe and artful cocktails. Emily heads to the Rooftop at the Vendue Hotel for “stunning views of the City and the Charleston Harbor,” not to mention the unforgettable margaritas. Caroline says Proof on King Street is the place to see a true mixologist at work: “I love the ‘Le GIN et Le JUS’ (a fancy gin and juice) and the unique setting.”
Other memorable spots to top off—or kick off—an evening include: The Gin Joint, Firefly Distillery (where you can taste spirits produced on-site) Coast Brewing Company, Saint Alban All Day, and Bin 152.
Located at the of the end of the Charleston Peninsula, the Charleston Historic District is the place to understand the city’s complex colonial history and view its gorgeously preserved estates. The area is home to the Nathaniel Russell House, a restored neoclassical dwelling on Meeting Street that’s one of Kaminer’s favorites, both for the grandeur of its rooms and its colorful gardens.
Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens, one of the country’s oldest working plantations—and its most photographed—is worth a short trip out of the city both for the history lessons inherent in its grounds and for its 700-plus acres that remain immaculately cared for.
For families, a boat ride to Fort Sumter (where the shots that began the Civil War were famously fired), a carriage ride, or a trip to the South Carolina Aquarium and Children’s Museum will be at once educational and entertaining.
For folks craving Carolina beaches, tiny Sullivan’s Island is only twenty minutes from Charleston by car, yet its picturesque beaches and delightful restaurants and shops make it a world away from anything a city has to offer.
And don’t forget to pay a visit to Redux Contemporary Art Center. The nonprofit space features an art gallery and twenty artist studios, including Kaminer’s own. “I always welcome visitors!” she says.