In decades past, Charleston was largely unknown to visitors from the wider world.
But this city of pastel buildings, quiet alleys and picturesque gardens has been discovered. Millions now flock yearly to Charleston, which in 2014 was named the top tourist destination in the United States and No. 2 in the world by readers of Conde Nast Traveler.
While the city’s historic district with its almost 5,000 historic structures is still the main draw, visitors are also attracted to world-class dining and shopping and an array of festivals, including the Spoleto Festival USA. Many who visit end up returning for good: Charleston was one of the nation’s top 20 fastest growing areas last year.
In a city known for its past, the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau each year announces what’s new and this year’s release ran seven pages. There are dozens of new shops and restaurants. Among them are the Artisan Meat Share, a combination sandwich and butcher shop; Minero, offering casual Mexican cuisine in the heart of the city’s East Bay Street nighttime entertainment district and Tavern & Table, a new eatery with Carolina food on picturesque Shem Creek in nearby Mount Pleasant.
Also in Mount Pleasant is the new Vietnam Experience at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. The attraction immerses visitors in the sights and sounds of war with a soundtrack of thudding helicopters, machine guns and the cries of jungle creatures. New in May is Charleston Insider’s Weekend where visitors can experience the city’s history, shopping and food at events hosted by leading magazine editors and locals.
It may seem a bit cliche, but take a carriage ride. There are several companies and they generally charge about $25 a head for adults, with discounts for children. You’ll get a one-hour tour of areas in the historic district – carriages take different routes to ease congestion – and you also get a quick introduction to the city from the drivers.
Charleston has dozens of restaurants in every price range. Reservations can be tough to come by at Husk, but if you can, try the shrimp and grits – or anything else at the place that Bon Appetit declared America’s best new restaurant of 2011. Locals also love Sermet’s, a Mediterranean eatery in the King Street shopping district. The district includes dozens of stores from locally owned boutiques and antiques and jewelry shops to national chains like Brooks Brothers and Williams-Sonoma.
Be sure to visit White Point Garden and the Battery and stroll through the historic district, peeking into quiet gardens behind wrought iron fences. The nearby sea islands boast sandy beaches and there are antebellum plantations along the Ashley River and in Mount Pleasant.
Walk, don’t run – or drive. You can’t see much of Charleston from a car. If you try to drive, you’ll spend your time frustrated, navigating narrow streets that suddenly become one-way or are jammed with bicycle rickshaws, horse-drawn carriages and other out-of-town drivers who also have no clue where they are going.
Most downtown hotels have parking in garages. If you’re a day tripper, park at the Charleston Visitor Center garage and then visit the center where you can get maps, make reservations and see a film and displays providing an introduction to Charleston. Then catch the green trolley. They are free and take you within easy walking distance of the most popular areas in the historic district. It’s no surprise the busiest tourist seasons in Charleston are spring and fall. It’s cooler and there’s no oppressive summer humidity. If you do visit in summer, high temperatures average in the upper 80s, and bring a raincoat as there are almost daily afternoon thundershowers.
If you want to look at people – and a lot of them – head to the Charleston City Market, the open air market dating to the early 1800s, which four years ago underwent an almost $6 million face-lift. Here you can buy everything from T-shirts to pottery and anything else that 150 vendors can sell. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, the night market features musicians and other performers.
Another place to watch people is the city’s Waterfront Park with its pier with wooden swings. It’s also a great place to catch the sea breeze on sultry afternoons. Across the sweeping Ravenel Bridge is the Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park. Here too are benches on the pier, a great place to watch the sunset. On August nights you can watch free outdoor movies here. If you’re in the mood for exercise, it’s about a 3-mile (5-kilometer) walk across the bridge — the view from the bridge is a treat in itself – to the park on the Mount Pleasant side of the Cooper River.