Charleston, SC Review
A weekend trip to Charleston - in the winter. Not exactly high season, but I think it's the RIGHT season.
Ok so here we come with another city review and report from Always Wander. Today, we're going to talk about Charleston, SC. A city that, when asked, seems to be on so many American's "I really want to go there badly" list - it's increasing its development but still keeping a small city feel. And if I'm being honest, it almost doesn't feel like an American city when you're walking around. Until that is, you get to speaking to the friendly Southerners that call it home.
Charleston is on the sea. I'm not sure why, but not many people might know that. It lends itself to a wonderful seafood culture here, not too unlike the one I'm used to in New England. Raw bars full of local and near local oysters dot the town (mixed in with a few Wellfleets - the familiar standards). But it doesn't stop with the seafood. While Netflix has helped make it a modern food destination, those that have lived here or have been coming here for years have known all along. Because of that, there's some amazing restaurants here both longstanding and new slash hip. I'll get into my favorites and some recommendations.
With no shortage of hotels (both classic and modern choices), fantastic weather almost year round (hot in summer, mild in winter, at least to Northerners) - could this be worth crossing off your list?
This is my Charleston, SC review and report for a weekend trip.
What To Do In Charleston
Charleston is not big as far as cities go, and I liked that just fine. It makes for a really walkable city in general. Except when we were traveling to a spot out of town, we walked everywhere. It's quiet and safe and neighborhoods range from college housing, to super wealthy homes, to the blue collar backbones of the city. Regardless of the neighborhood, we found it easy to walk there. And you should walk here. It's a great way to see the architecture.
We were really amazed at the old homes with courtyards, house-length balconies (which I think are actually a Charleston thing), and the sheer number of brick homes here. There's so much Georgian styling that I was curious if the British ever left. The local trees on the sidewalks looked like nothing I'd ever seen before, and without trying to be overly dramatic their texture and shape really seemed to be like a part of nature Gaudi would have loved to mimic in his work. They were very, very cool.
It helps to have a few destinations in mind so you're not going around aimlessly. We were on the hunt for oysters and seafood, so I had found a few choices before hand which made wandering easy. We started out down Wentworth Street, and headed down to East Bay Street. From there, we decided on a restaurant to go to and went to King Street, the main drag, and walked basically its entire length upwards, ate, then back down to the sea. Was fantastic, particularly towards the south end where it turns into a small neighborhood street before reaching The Battery.
We finished walking around by The Battery (which is a great seaside park commemorating the old Civil War defensive station that used to exist there) and from there back to our hotel. Easily filled the entire afternoon between popping into shops, taking pictures, and maybe sneaking in an ice cream bar. Or two. Look away, I'm a monster.
For day 2, we headed out on the road. Since breakfast was included in our hotel, we ate there. Lucky for us, it was really high end and an amazing breakfast. I'll mention it in the food section. We decided that we were going to take a quick 20 minute drive and visit one of the massive plantations outside Charleston. I chose Middleton Place as I heard it had the nicest grounds for walking around. Neither of us had ever been to a plantation before, and I was a History Major in college, so it was certainly an interesting choice for us.
This turned out to be a great idea and we spent much of the afternoon there just wandering the gardens and the grounds. It's right on the coastal rivers and inlets, so there's a good backdrop to the gardens. Pictures below. Now I will come out and say that, we have to understand that this isn't somewhere to go and celebrate "a plantation". That would be an insult to what happened on these former farms. You go to learn about the history, and maybe ensure these things aren't forgotten. It's part of the area's story - and that's important to learn when you wander. It's a big reason why we go to places we've never been. But it's also great for some quiet walking and self reflection, and is a good change from a go-go-go in a city trip.
Like anywhere else, there's so much more to do in Charleston than this. Since I was there for essentially a day and a half, this was perfect. But, the surrounding communities have a lot to offer, as well. James Island and Sullivan's Island over on Mount Pleasant are supposed to be fantastic places to hang out and get some local culture. So, if you have more time, I'd recommend spending a day in those areas. There are also a few different plantations, so pick another if you fancy it. Magnolia Plantation was another that came up in recommendations. You've got the central market in town (while I hear it's a bit touristy I bet it's still good to check out, markets are always fun). The city has a lot of little galleries as well, so if supporting local artists is your thing, check those out. The jewelry stores down here seem to do a lot of vintage stuff, which was interesting to see.
I should also note that Charleston does have it's fair share of bars and wine establishments as well. So if you're the type of person that likes to mix a little good old fashioned imbibing with your tourism, you won't be bored in this town.
What To Eat In Charleston
Charleston is a culinary destination. You'd easily be able to go here and just make eating your entire purpose. It's really that good. The cuisine here goes from the usual casual (Asian and Mexican joints of various types) to the hyper local (Southern Food and seafood) and upscale.
To start, no Charleston review would be worth its salt if I didn't point you in the right direction for real coffee. I've used this term before, but I'm talking third wave coffee. Not your chains. Stay away from those if you can. Local businesses will thank you, and so will your coffee tastes. I targeted a few spots: Kudu Coffee, Second State, and The Rise. Ultimately, we went with the Rise as it was right on the same street as our hotel and fit the bill. Was great. They use Springbok Coffee, which apparently is roasted in the same neighborhood, so that's really cool. I'd feel comfortable sending you to either of the other two as well, however. No hesitation here, you'll like them I'm sure. They also have more room to sit down.
Right out of the gate on Day 1, we had strong goals in place to GO GET OYSTERS! So after checking in, we started right out to the Rise for a waffee (walking coffee - just invented that, does it work? Ok yeah didn't think so, strike that from the record please) and then off to the raw bar. I settled on 167 Raw, which I guess can be said to be a bit more upscale. But, this had waiting people stuffed out the door (I know it was Friday, but it was 1pm people, aren't you working?!) so we took off back to King Street and I headed towards Darling Oyster Bar. It has a great look with its building and decor, but it was closed for lunch! Man, I was really striking out. From there I decided to go to the furthest (but I was pretty sure best local feel) and go to Leon's Oyster Shop. The walk was a touch on the long side if you want to only remain directly in the thick of things, but we didn't mind. Place was awesome. Scored a seat outside, ordered a local beer, and we had our fill of fried oysters, fried chicken with their own-spin sauce, local Carolina's raw oysters, and a cheeky scalloped potatoes. Oh and a cold cucumber salad which was fresh and light. Loved it here.
For dinner, I had reservations at Husk. Now if you're into food, chefs, and Chef's Table/Mind of a Chef, you should know Husk. It's the very famous spot that was developed as a Southern-US-ONLY food specialist. It serves local south ingredients, some of which might be very old or only found there. It's really great and frankly, what you want out of a food destination. I want, at least in some form, to try food I can only get there. Husk delivers. Sean Brock is no longer here, but the current Chef, Travis Grimes, is continuing the unique tradition of Southern food showcasing here. We had the corn bread, ribs, some local fish, and duck. The sides were full of things like corn and local beans, etc. Was hearty, and delicious. I'd say it's fine dining, but not in an overly fancy way. Just in the sense that they are truly obsessive about their ingredients and local flavors to elevate traditional Southern dishes.
For breakfast both days, we ate at Circa 1886, which is the restaurant for the Wentworth Mansion hotel. We stayed here, and breakfast was included. So, we kind of had to (with good reason though, it was delicious). So while I can't speak to the other local cafes, I can definitely recommend this for an elevated breakfast for sure. Sit down, white table cloths, but very, very nice food, ingredients, etc. Fresh juice is on offer, and each table gets a selection of mini pastries as well. Super staff here, too.
For our big dinner, which by the way I was really looking forward to, we got ourselves some reservations at McCrady's tasting room. Another project started by Sean Brock, it's the sister restaurant to Husk. This one however, is small-room, tasting menu style and very much haute cuisine. They of course are incorporating local ingredients like oysters, fish, and even heirloom rice - but then are adding on top of those with other, more exotic items that you'd expect from experimental food. Yuzu powder, squid "noodles", things like that. I loved pretty much every dish we had there. At the end, they gave you a copy of the menu, sealed with wax and a stamp, and autographed by the entire staff. This was a really great touch. Chef Ben Norton heads up the team here now, and he's clearly doing wonderful things. Some definite Asian inspirations are lurking in these current dishes.
Beyond the places we actually went and can directly recommend, there a a few others I had identified in my research as places I would have gone had I had more time. The already mentioned Circa 1886, Fig is another big one here, Charleston Grill for further upscale dining, and lastly Rodney Scott's BBQ to get some good meat-sweats going. Again, not an exhaustive list by any means, but places I had decided to put on my personal list, and I think you'll like, too.
Where To Stay in Charleston
The city is absolutely loaded with hotels from all budget ranges and brands. You've got small boutiques, local bed and breakfasts in the area, large chain budget, large chain upper end, and some super nice 5-star types as well.
If you're big into your brand-loyalty and a points chaser, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, all have options here for you. Hilton seems to have the best number of choices of those brands, though there is an Autograph Collection hotel here, too. I'm a Hilton member as a point of reference however.
You've got some good independent choices here. One such, The King's Courtyard, is right on King Street as it were. Now we didn't stay here, but walked into the grounds as it looks really cool and quaint. I did some research on it when I got home, and I think I would have no problem recommending this one. In fact, I think I'm going to tell my parents about it. Would be perfect for them.
Image Courtesy of Wentworth Mansion, Charleston, SC
Rounding out the more classic, high end spots, you can check out the Dewberry, French Quarter Inn, or the Belmond. The last one seems to come up a lot as the "best hotel in Charleston". In this case, that probably means "fanciest". Which is neither meant as a good thing or bad thing in this comment. Merely using the clarification.
The hotel I chose, was fantastic. I put a lot of time into my research before I go somewhere (which of course it why I love sharing so much here), and I tend to choose places that are nicer, and have something unique. When I can. I'm all for a sleek, modern hotel with luxury items too when the price to value ratio is there. But if I can get something more historic in a location, and also luxury, I'll do that. For this reason, I went with the Wentworth Mansion. It was amazing. The details in the hotel, the history behind it, and the level of service was top notch. The staff were also the type that can help you with anything you need, and help you greatly, but leave you alone to be at your own pace otherwise. I put this on par with the Chanler in Newport, RI stylistically, but a little bigger with slightly more history to it and more original details in the room.
Other nice touches were an upgrade at check-in to a room with an in-room fireplace (Thank you, Wentworth), on-site spa, the aforementioned restaurant on site, turn down service, reading room, afternoon tea, sherry/port to drink at will, etc. All you'd expect at this level of boutique experience. You can also venture up to the rooftop to get some great views of the surrounding city. We loved it, and frankly didn't want to leave. I want to be clear that the upgrade had nothing to do with this site, and I did not notify them ahead of time that I might write about them. Being the winter, I think their occupancy rate was just lower, so they threw us a bone (and a cool one at that) which was very much appreciated.
Final Thoughts on my Charleston Review
OK, you made it. There's my review of Charleston, SC if you're going to be there for one weekend. We absolutely loved it down there, and I really thought the "low country" lived up to its advertised charm (for those wondering, the low country refers to it's specific geography in SC as opposed to the Up Country; this is not a slang term for the general South).
We walked well, we ate VERY well, and the overall vibe was charming and relaxed. Now, I know this is becoming a popular spot for bachelorette or bachelor parties, but frankly we encountered none of that. I enjoyed this as an off season jaunt, because the weather was not the humid, southern heat and the amount of tourists are way down in January. I found it the perfect time to be there. Taking into account this is an unusually mild winter, maybe target March or October for your visit.
A long history of local food, and now high end food (I believe that might be due to the old Johnson and Wales culinary school helping to pollinate the local scene), and an even longer history as an important military town, go ahead and take Charleston off your "I need to go here list" - and add it to your "I went and loved it" list.
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