It only takes a few moments to see why they call Charleston the Holy City — everywhere you look in the South Carolina port there seems to be a church spire soaring skyward — but if you think that a visit here will be saintly, you’ve got another thing coming. The residents of one of the oldest cities in America know how to enjoy themselves, and, as quintessential southerners, they are more than willing to let you in on their secrets. Just don’t ask for their sweet tea recipe.
That feeling of joie de vivre is on full display the moment you step into the lobby of The Loutrel, a new boutique hotel that recently opened (and is generating plenty of buzz) in the heart of the city’s historic district. Inside a spacious lobby that resembles one of the ample outdoor porches that materializes every few steps in the town, a large swing beckons guests to kick back and let their worries evaporate, with a refreshing basil-cucumber-infused water in hand.
Each of The Loutrel’s 50 rooms, ranging from traditional king accommodations to spacious suites, has a hint of Art Deco married with old-world southern charm. The complimentary minibar in each room is stocked with local snacks, and the Lavazza coffee machines keep you energized to explore the city. When it comes to recharging between jaunts, the hotel offers several spots to unwind beyond your personal quarters.
The Rooftop Terrace, a quiet oasis, is the ideal spot to sip on a Steeplechase, one of the hotel’s signature drinks that’s made from Beyond Bourbon, Nippitaty Gin and Southern Amaro (all from local distillers) expertly blended with peach liqueur and an egg, mint and maple simple syrup, and garnished with a slice of peach. While marveling at your beverage you can take in a sunset over the city’s rooftops, especially when the bells inside the nine steeples visible from atop the building begin to chime the hour. On the mezzanine level, the cozy Clubroom offers complimentary beverages and snacks all day long. It’s an ideal place to plug in and knock out a little work if the office calls.
Tucked just off the main lobby, the Veranda Lounge with its well-provisioned bar is bathed in warm light from the towering windows ringing the room. In the morning, it’s the perfect place to enjoy the complimentary European breakfast; after an afternoon out exploring, head here for a spread of charcuterie and cheeses with a glass of the Arndorfer Zweigelt, a unique Austrian wine that resembles a robust Sauvignon Blanc. It’s in this parlor you’ll start to tap into the liveliness that makes the city so unique. During my stay, I met the descendent of a Union Civil War general, and was given recommendations from the staff of which stalls to visit at the nearby Charleston City Market, one of the oldest public markets in the nation.
Part of that feeling of welcome also comes from the unique layout of Charleston. Surrounded by water on three sides, the downtown brims with historic homes and apartments, many of which are over a century old. It seems every third one is slightly askew, almost leaning on its neighbor for support. The city has a European feel about it as its residents emerge from colorful homes, cobblestone alleys and doorways fronting open-side porches to go about their day under the iconic palmetto trees overhead, greeting both neighbor and visitor alike.
This pool of residents, a vibrant mix of legacy Charlestonians, transplants and students from the College of Charleston, has created a dining and nightlife scene one would expect to see in a much larger city.
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The aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” could be applied to the restaurant scene in Charleston. The city is home to three James Beard Award-winning chefs and a host of other establishments that routinely crank out inventive dishes that merge the Lowcountry cuisine prevalent in the region with new and exciting flavors.
That willingness to lean into the margins is what makes the food at Wild Common so interesting. Helmed by Executive Chef Orlando Pagán, a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast this year, the restaurant’s four-course tasting menu changes daily, mixing items like duck fat-fried hash browns with caviar, and foie gras with winter truffles.
It seems that almost every block of the city houses yet another inventive and delicious outpost. From the locally sourced ingredients taking center stage at FIG (Food is Good), the city’s first James Beard winner in 2009, to the ridiculously flavorful smoky pulled pork at Rodney Scott’s BBQ, the city’s latest winner in 2018, there is an embarrassment of riches. The fried chicken and champagne at Leon’s Oyster Shop alone are worth a visit.
Freshly shucked oysters, spicy curries, vegetarian bowls and southern soul food await those who wander the streets by foot or in one of the numerous pedicabs that whip about every night — these three passenger bike taxis are a fantastically fun way to cross the city, especially after a few beverages. Often you’ll hear them coming by the laughter emanating from the backseat.
But as the sun goes down, the Holy City’s sinful side quickly emerges. King Street, cutting straight through the heart of downtown and located just a few blocks from The Loutrel, is home base for bars and nightclubs. It vacillates between a slightly sophisticated and slightly sloppy vibe, much like a southern gentleman after one too many mint juleps. College students flock to the bars for beers while local families walk to dinner from their nearby homes. Tourists often crowd the sidewalks as they gaze into windows and discuss which spot to hit next. Local street musicians, in full force on the weekends, play instruments on corners and quickly gather crowds. According to locals, a dull evening is only had on King Street if it snows, something that never seems to happen in Charleston. From the craft cocktails and live music at Prohibition to the stellar wine list at BIN 152, there’s an after-dark destination here for every palate.
Perhaps one of the more interesting new arrivals to the scene is Share House. Located on a block between two of Charleston’s largest live music venues, Charleston Music Hall and Music Farm, it brings the open-air beach vibe you would find on nearby Sullivan’s Island or Folly Beach. Faded pastel colors, street art and a large outdoor deck set the tone while ice-cold brews and playful cocktails keep a visit loose.
Long into the evening hours the city’s playful side is on display. Vendors hawk boozy popsicles from street carts, buskers work street corners filling the night with music, and parks are filled with small pockets of revelry. It’s almost impossible to leave Charleston without a few stories to tell and a burning desire to return to the city, especially after waking up each morning in one of The Loutrel’s incredibly comfortable beds knowing a fresh mimosa or Bloody Mary is only steps away.
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