Charleston, South Carolina has been a mainstay on lists of America’s top destinations for nearly a decade, with its dramatic oaks and pastel-hued homes. Founded in 1660, the historic coastal city was the site of the first shots of the Civil War and has hosted the likes of Blackbeard and Edgar Allan Poe. Today, there are hundreds of incredible restaurants, with a high volume of James Beard Award winners.
Visitors love snapping photos of Rainbow Row, a colorful section of some of the city’s oldest homes, and the historic market. Looking ahead to the future, the new International African American Museum will open in January 2023, honoring the legacy of the enslaved people forced to work on Charleston’s plantations.
I spent my twenties living in one of the country’s most beautiful places and have spent much of my career singing its praises. And while downtown has its charms, there’s more to the city than just the peninsula. To help you along should you be planning a visit, here’s how to plan the perfect Charleston weekend.
How to Get There
Charleston International Airport has a number of nonstop routes from major cities like Chicago, Seattle, Miami, New York City and Washington, D.C. Amtrak and Greyhound also have stops in North Charleston, an easy taxi ride from downtown. It’s a five-hour drive from Atlanta, Georgia and 3.5 hours from Charlotte, North Carolina.
Where to Stay
Since travel and hospitality is the biggest industry in the city, visitors have a wealth of options when it comes to hotels. It really depends on your budget and which area you want to be based in.
Emeline is a stylish boutique hotel steps away from the city market and its many restaurants. That said, should you stay here, don’t miss Frannie & The Fox, the hotel’s restaurant with playful Italian fare and “cocktail windows” where you ring a bell and receive your drink from behind the wall. Their rooms also have record players and a selection of LPs to spin.
Across the bridge in the charming Old Village of Mount Pleasant, Post House is a seven-room boutique hotel and restaurant, the latter of which features incredible dishes like fish curry paired with locally-grown rice. Borrow one of their bikes to explore the neighborhood.
For unrivaled beach access, Wild Dunes on Isle of Palms is your best bet. The resort has two distinct hotels featuring large rooms with balconies, several restaurants, and activities like golf, tennis and a spa. Don’t miss The Nest, the rooftop bar, for tropical beverages and sunset views.
What to Do
Day 1: Downtown and North Charleston
On your way into the city, detour to the oft-overlooked area of North Charleston, which is known for being home to the airport, an outlet mall and performing arts venues. But go a bit further and you’ll find Park Circle, a charming planned neighborhood with excellent restaurants like EVO Pizzeria and Jackrabbit Filly. Firefly Distillery, creator of the original sweet tea vodka (among many other spirits), relocated to the area a few years ago and offers live music and food trucks.
The old Charleston Naval Base is also worth a drive through. Since it was decommissioned in 1996, the buildings have been used as locations for television shows and movies as well as a music festival site. When you’re ready for a drink, it’s an easy drive to the city’s brewery district in what’s called “The Neck,” the stretch between North Charleston and the Eastside. Don’t miss Edmund’s Oast, an excellent brewery and restaurant specializing in German-style beers.
Most visitors flock to downtown Charleston to roam the cobblestone streets and admire the iconic row houses. While you’re here, start at the Charleston Museum, the nation’s oldest, dating back to 1773, which covers the history of the city with artifacts from before America’s founding. There are about a dozen historic homes you can tour, depending on your interest level. But the best option is wandering around by foot.
The Gibbes Museum of Art has pieces like sweetgrass baskets and art from the Charleston Renaissance, a period of creativity that followed World War I. The City Market sells a range of souvenirs, but it’s the sweetgrass baskets woven by Gullah artisans that are the most notable.
Charleston is known for its award-winning restaurants, but if you want to get into the hottest tables in town, like Husk or The Ordinary, you’ll need to nab a reservation or go early. If you can’t get a table, look for alternatives away from downtown like Leon’s Oyster Shop or Rodney Scott’s BBQ.
Day 2: Mount Pleasant
Cross the iconic diamond-shaped Ravenel Bridge to the community of Mount Pleasant. The Old Village neighborhood is like a time capsule, appearing on screen in The Notebook and Netflix’s Outer Banks. Explore on foot or borrow a bike to navigate the streets.
Shem Creek is the seafood capital of the city, with shrimp boats lining the water to provide the freshest ingredients to restaurants. You can’t go wrong with just about any of them, but The Wreck of the Richard and Charlene is a local legend, and still family owned. Go early to enjoy the sunset views over a local beer and Lowcountry fare like fried oysters and deviled crab. Nico is another option, with French-inspired and wood-fired dishes, and plenty of rosé. If you visit during the day, kayak the creek with one of the local outfitters to spot dolphins and countless species of bird.
Further into Mount Pleasant is Town Center, a typical suburban outdoor mall. But there are some great restaurants to detour to on your way east. Malika Canteen is among them, the first Pakistani restaurant in South Carolina. Get the thali, which lets you try a number of small dishes.
After a bite to eat, stop by Palmetto Islands County Park, a nearly 1,000-acre space with boardwalks over the marsh and bicycle paths. Bring your binoculars to spot birds and a picnic for when you get peckish.
Day 3: The Beaches
You can’t come to Charleston without going to the beach! There are a number of options, but locals love laid-back Sullivan’s Island, a 15-minute drive from downtown. You’ll find that Middle Street is lined with bars and restaurants: Poe’s Tavern is named for Edgar Allan Poe, who was stationed at the nearby fort, and offers burgers and fish tacos; The Obstinate Daughter pulls from French, Spanish and Italian influences; and you can settle in for tropical drinks and wood-grilled shrimp at The Longboard.
Find a spot on the beach near the odd black-and-white Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse (Station 18 ½ is my favorite) or learn about the island’s role in the Civil War at Fort Moultrie. During World War I, the fort was used to watch out for submarines.
Since Sullivan’s Island doesn’t have hotels, plan on basing yourself on neighboring Isle of Palms, which has various stores if you need any essentials. Drive past the grand beachfront McMansions on your way to Wild Dunes Resort or start with a meal at one of the isle’s eateries.
Catch the sunset at The Boathouse at Breach Inlet, which focuses on local seafood. Islander 71 is found at the recently remodeled marina, where you can grab a bite before heading out on the water on a kayaking tour or hop across the creek to Goat Island. Finally, at the end of the night, catch live music at The Windjammer, a legendary local venue.
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