With beautiful southern plantations, cobbled city streets, and world famous restaurants, Charleston is an ideal long-weekend getaway. There is so much to see and do–and eat–that you’ll never be bored. You can tour many of the city’s pastel antebellum mansions; historic Fort Sumter is only a boat ride away; several of the Ashley River plantations host world-class gardens; and for the foodies, there are literally endless choices! It’s no wonder that year after year Charleston is ranked one of the top cities to visit in the world. This is Part 2 of a 2 Part series on Charleston. Click here to read Part 1 – Plantation Life.
After our stay at Middleton Plantation, we were excited to see what else Charleston had in store for us. We arrived in the Historic District in the late morning. We wanted to get a jump-start on a full day of sightseeing since we only had two days to explore the city. We didn’t have a set itinerary other than dinner reservations for both nights and a Free Tours by Foot walking tour planned. I had done a lot of research and knew most of the top things to see and do, but I wanted us to have the flexibility to pick our itinerary as we went.
Whenever we visit a city that has a Free Tours by Foot office, I make it a point to book a walking tour with them. Not because it’s free–we always pay as much as we would on another tour–but because the guides always seem genuinely knowledgeable and energetic. (For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, you tip your guide what you feel the tour was worth at the end of the tour. It’s not a bad insurance policy knowing you don’t have to pay if it’s terrible, but I’ve never encountered one that was anything but exceptional.) This time, I chose the 1pm Historic Charleston Walking Tour.
After checking into our hotel, we wandered down to the Charleston City Market to check out the shopping and find some lunch before our tour. My husband wanted to try some Carolina BBQ while we were in Charleston, so this seemed like an ideal time. We found a BBQ counter that looked good, ordered two sandwiches, and sat down at some stools outside to eat. Our pulled pork and coleslaw sandwiches–garnished with Carolina BBQ sauce of course–hit the spot!
Then, we were off to meet our tour guide down the street. The tour provided the perfect introduction to this awesome city. It covered: The French Quarter, Four Corners of Law, Rainbow Row, St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, French Huguenot Church, Charleston City Market, Dock Street Theater, Old Exchange Building, Waterfront Park, Pineapple Fountain, and much more! The tour gave us a good feel for the layout of the city and allowed us to make mental notes of the places we wanted to go back and explore more on our own.
Photos: (Left to Right) St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Dock Street Theater, French Huguenot Church
Our guide was a wealth of information. Our first stop was the French Huguenot Church, followed by St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, and the Dock Street Theater. He provided interesting tidbits about each location and its construction. Then, we visited the iconic Rainbow Row (pictured below), Slave Market, Pineapple Fountain, and Waterfront Park. The guide piqued our interest in the Slave Market’s museum, and we made a note to get back to visit it during our trip.
In my experience, asking an honest guide or local for restaurant recommendations is a good way to avoid the tourist traps and find the places locals frequent. In Charleston, there were so many amazing, in-demand restaurants that I had already made reservations for our dinners, but I left our lunches unplanned so that we could still make a few on-the-ground discoveries. I asked our guide for a lunch recommendation for the next day, and he suggested that we check out Queen Street Grocery. The name didn’t really appeal to me initially–it sounded like somewhere I’d have to make my lunch with the ingredients I bought–but he assured me it was quite good and had awesome salads and sandwiches. I mentally added checking it out to my list for the next day’s itinerary, as well.
Photos: (Left to Right) Four Corners of Law, Nathaniel Russell House, Flower in Nathaniel Russell House Garden
After a brief overview of the Nathaniel Russell House, we concluded our tour with the Four Corners of Law and the Old Exchange Building. Once the tour was complete, we headed back to the Nathaniel Russell House to do an interior tour. Touring Charleston’s historic mansions is one of the city highlights, and the Nathaniel Russell House proved no exception. The guided tour provided interesting anecdotes of the home’s inhabitants, it’s artwork, and it’s architecture. The home was most well known for its famous spiral staircase; however, photos were not allowed. (You’ll have to go and see it for yourself!)
Our long day of sightseeing complete, we stopped into the Carolina Ale House for a beer before going back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner. They had a huge selection of beers on tap to choose from–my husband had a field day choosing one (or two). For dinner, we had reservations at Peninsula Grill, one of the best rated restaurants in the city. The attention to service was impeccable at Peninsula Grill. My husband said the specialty cocktails he tried were spot on, as well. We started with a seared tuna appetizer, followed by a grilled shrimp and succotash dish for me and a fish three-ways special for my husband. Both dishes were phenomenal. For dessert, we had to try the restaurant’s famed ultimate coconut cake. It was amazing; I can see why it’s famous!
The next morning, we got up early to fit in as much as we could on our last day in this picturesque city. The Old Slave Mart was our first stop. It provided a very educational–and disturbing–overview of the slave traded in North America. I thought it was important to see both sides of historic Charleston, though. We had visited the plantation houses, fancy downtown mansions, and historic city buildings. I wanted to be sure that we saw the ugly side of what built this famous city, as well. History sometimes tends to gloss over the bad parts, and I am a firm believer that it is important we study the good and the bad so that we don’t repeat our mistakes.
Photos: Historic House (top left), Carolina Ale House (bottom left), Slave Mart Entrance (right)
After the Slave Market, we went to the Aiken-Rhett House (pictured below) to tour another city mansion. This one, unlike the Nathaniel Russell House, was very much in its original form. The home had not been renovated or updated in recent years. The interior was shabby in some ways but much more authentic in others. It was probably my favorite house we toured while in Charleston because of this authenticity. The detailed audioguide also helped to bring the place back to life before our eyes.
Once the house tour was done, we decided to do a little antique shopping and get some lunch at Queen Street Grocery, where our guide had recommended the day before. In between our window browsing, we had some wonderful sandwiches there alongside the locals. The antique shops in Charleston had a lot of variety, and even just doing some wandering through the storefronts was educational.
After we’d had our fill of food and shopping, we took advantage of the gorgeous day and got on one of the boat tours out to historic Fort Sumter. The ride through the harbor, past dolphins and the city skyline was, for me, the highlight of the tour. It was fun to get to see Charleston from a completely different angle.
Fort Sumter isn’t all that large and can be toured relatively quickly. Famous as the site of the first shot fired during the American Revolutionary War, it was worth visiting it just for the history of the place. Fort Sumter definitely wasn’t the most elaborate fort I’ve visited in my travels, but it had an interesting little museum inside, and we were able to get an education on the battle that took place there and daily life for the fort’s inhabitants.
For dinner that night, we had reservations at another of the city’s top restaurants, Hall’s Chophouse. I have never experienced service like we did at Hall’s. From the time we walked in the door until the time we walked back out of the restaurant at the end of our meal, someone was on top of our every need. We were personally greeted by Billy Hall upon our arrival, and he took us to our table. Our server recommended some phenomenal dishes, including the fried green tomato appetizer with crab, shrimp, and bacon succotash. It was my favorite dish of our entire trip. For entrees, I had the 8 oz. fillet mignon and my husband got the veal chop (we shared). Both were excellent. We were so full that we hadn’t planned on dessert, but we got into a friendly conversation with Jeanne (Billy Hall’s mother), and she instead on giving us a dessert on the house. She recommended the caramel cake with warm bananas foster–delicious. In all of my travels, I have never encountered such a pleasant dining experience. When we returned home, we even received a handwritten note from Hall’s thanking us for our business. They truly went above and beyond.
Our time in Charleston nearly complete, there was just one remaining item on my list of things to do. So, the next morning before we caught our flight home, I made my husband take me out for southern biscuits. Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits was near our hotel, and a friend had recommended it to me. It was a narrow little storefront, but that certainly didn’t deter all of the people lining up to place their orders. The biscuits were the perfect combination of buttery, fluffy, and flaky. My biscuit sandwich–which could have easily fed two (we should have shared one)–was the perfect way to cap off my (10,000 calorie) tour of Charleston. We can’t wait to go back!