I wrote a “36 Hours in Charleston” feature for the Boston Globe than ran on Feb. 24, timed to the first nonstop flights from Boston to Charleston, SC (Jet Blue). But any time is a good time to visit this vibrant city. Well, maybe not August. Start packing, and feel free to follow my lead.
By Diane Daniel
CHARLESTON — A visit to the Holy City, so named for its historic houses of worship, pulls you back in time. Horse-drawn carriages transport tourists along cobblestone streets flanked by centuries-old, beautifully preserved, and impeccably manicured gardens and homes, many open to the public. From land, you can gaze across the harbor to Fort Sumter, where Union soldiers suffered the first hit in the Civil War. But Charleston comes with a fast-forward button, too. Lowcountry cuisine keeps raising the bar, and a new wave of boutiques and bars buoy several neighborhoods. Mix it all together for heavenly results.
1:30 p.m. Meet Martha: Before you hit the highfalutin eateries, start simply and soulfully at Martha Lou’s Kitchen (1068 Morrison Drive, 843-577-9583), operating since 1983. Inside the pink cinder block building, savor a hearty, homemade Southern meal. Daily dishes ($8.50) might include fried chicken, lima beans, mac and cheese, and collards.
2:30 p.m. Uncivil acts: On April 12, 1861, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, turning decades of conflict into what became the Civil War. You can trace the war’s path there and at Fort Moultrie, both part of Fort Sumter National Monument. Sumter can be reached only by boat — a scenic 30-minute ferry ride from Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center (340 Concord St., 843-883-3123, ferry $11-$18), while you can drive to Moultrie (1214 Middle St., Sullivan’s Island, 843-883-3123, $1-$3). While there, visit “A Bench by the Road,” a memorial placed by the Toni Morrison Society in memory of the estimated 300,000 Africans brought to the barrier island on their way to being sold into slavery.
5 p.m. King’s crown: Recently arrived independent shops, bars, and restaurants are transforming Upper King Street, above Marion Square. At Jlinsnider (539 King St., 843-751-6075) Jamie Lin Snider carries quality vintage clothing and her own fashion line. A block away, ethereal bridal wear creator Rachel Gordon hosts a range of designers at her One Boutique collective (478 King St., 843-259-8066). When it’s time for a refreshment, try tricked-out diner The Rarebit (474 King St., 843-974-5483) or Closed for Business (453 King St., 843-853-8466), sporting the city’s largest selection of craft beer on tap.
7 p.m. Anything but ordinary: Late last year, celebrity chef Mike Lata of FIG fame opened The Ordinary (544 King St., 843-414-7060), a locally sourced oyster bar and seafood restaurant housed in a former historic bank building. The massive vault door divides the raw bar from the kitchen. Start with New England Style Fish Chowder ($12), where meaty pieces of the daily catch take center stage in a perfectly seasoned broth.
9 p.m. Avondale after dark: Grab a pint at Oak Barrel Tavern (825 Savannah Highway, 843-789-3686), a cozy, laid-back bar with specialty drafts in hopping Avondale Point, 4 miles west of downtown. The reinvigorated shopping and eating destination includes a wildly designed Mellow Mushroom (19 Magnolia Road, 843-747-4992) housed in an old theater, and the boisterous Triangle Char & Bar (828 Savannah Highway, 843-377-1300), specializing in grass-fed burgers ($9-$15).
8 a.m. Sugar fix: Energize your day with a sweet treat from Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts (481 King St., 843-577-5557), where you’ll find such delicacies as chai coconut, maple bacon, or plain glazed doughnuts ($1.50-$3).
8:30 a.m. To market: The historic Charleston City Market (188 Meeting St., 843-937-0920) reopened in 2011 after a $5.5 million makeover added wider walkways, skylights, and fans. Among the more than 100 vendors, you’ll find regional items including barbecue sauce, sweetgrass baskets, Gullah paintings, and framed ceiling tins.
9:30 a.m. Painful past: Not only was Charleston’s wealth built on the backs of slaves, the city served as a major slave trading center. The Old Slave Mart Museum (6 Chalmers St., 843-958-6467, $5-$7), housed in a former auction gallery, starkly recounts past transactions. Two blocks away, slaves were traded outside the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon (122 E. Bay St., 843-727-2165, $4-$8). Inside the historic building, one of the most significant used during the American Revolution, American patriots were held prisoner in a musty dungeon that children will love touring. Remnants of the city’s early-18th-century wall can be seen here, too.
11 a.m. Broad to Battery: Wander the blocks south of Broad Street, lined with gorgeously restored private homes, such as the 1740 William Vanderhorst House (54 Tradd St.) and the nearby Lamboll Double Tenement (8-10 Tradd St.), from 1726 and rebuilt in 1781. Around the corner sits stately Rainbow Row (83-107 East Bay St.), called the longest cluster of intact Georgian row houses in the country and named for their muted hues. Continue south to the Battery, a landmark promenade along the Charleston peninsula. If you’re craving a savory snack, stop by goat.sheep.cow. (106 Church St. 843- 480-2526), a European-style fromagerie.
Noon. Steeple chase: More than a dozen historic places of worship dot downtown Charleston. St. Michael’s (Episcopal) Church (71 Broad St., 843-723-0603), completed in 1761, is the city’s oldest church building, and its eight bells have rung for most of the time since. In the cemetery at St. Philip’s (Episcopal) Church (142 Church St., 843-722-7734), established in 1670 and rebuilt in 1838, you’ll find graves for Edward Rutledge, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Charles Pinckney, signer of the Constitution. The cemetery at Unitarian Church in Charleston (4 Archdale St., 843-723-4617), which underwent a Gothic remodeling in 1854, purposely keeps its fauna hauntingly overgrown. Up the street, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue (90 Hasell St., 843-723-7324), established in 1749 and now housed in an 1840 Greek Revival structure, was the birthplace of American Reform Judaism in 1824.
1 p.m. Singular sandwiches: Butcher & Bee (654 King St., 843-619-0202) has the city’s quirkiest operating hours — 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Any time is the right time to indulge in their creatively crafted sandwiches, such as the Blue Plate, with pork belly, lima beans, and poached eggs ($12). The geek-chic room houses a few small tables and an extra-long one with mismatched chairs, perfect for their pop-up dinners. The alcohol-free eatery allows BYOB.
2 p.m. Furnished or unfurnished: The Historic Charleston Foundation maintains two significant houses with diverse approaches to restoration. The neoclassical 1808 Nathaniel Russell House (51 Meeting St., 843-724-8481, $5-$10, closed for renovation until mid-March), fronted by formal gardens, is furnished with period antiques and features an often-photographed free-flying staircase. A mile and a half away, the 1820 Aiken-Rhett House (48 Elizabeth St., 843-723-1159, $5-$10, or $16 combined with Nathaniel Russell), one of the country’s most intact urban antebellum complexes, includes a main house, stables, work yard, and extensive servants’ quarters. It is preserved, but not restored, and some parts verge on dilapidated, making the past more palpable.
7 p.m. Southern sourced: Star chef Sean Brock followed up his magic act at McCrady’s with the acclaimed Husk (76 Queen St., 843-577-2500), where rich, rustic dishes with an eye toward preservation are concocted using only ingredients produced south of the Mason-Dixon line, such as cornmeal-dusted North Carolina catfish with creamed sweet corn, fried baby cabbage and Benton’s bacon, and Appalachian tomato gravy ($25).
9 a.m. Plantation and a paddle: On a 5-mile stretch of Ashley River Road northwest of Charleston, you’ll find a spectacular riverfront plantation for every taste. Drayton Hall (3380 Ashley River Road, 843-769-2600, $6-$18), the country’s oldest unrestored plantation house, circa 1738, is remarkable for its Palladian-inspired architecture and historic landscape. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (3550 Ashley River Road, 843-571-1266, $10-$47), dating to 1676, most appeals to families, with boat tours, a tram, swamp walk, and wild gardens of camellias and moss-draped live oaks. The grandest of the trio, Middleton Place (4300 Ashley River Road, 843-556-6020, $15-$37), settled in the late 17th century, offers child-friendly craft demonstrations, but the setting is more formal.
To experience the natural side of the tidal river, paddle the Ashley River scenic corridor with Charleston Kayak Co. (843-628-2879, guided tours from $30 a person, rentals from $20). Glide past long-abandoned rice fields, once tended by slaves, and up Heron Creek, where you might see its namesake plunging for fish at the edge of the reeds.