Seeing Charleston Your Own Way

Seeing Charleston Your Own Way

More than a few people have told me that when they picture Charleston, South Carolina USA, they think something along the lines of “sleepy, Southern city on the water.” Although far from complete their preconceptions are not altogether wrong. The trouble with preconceived ideas, however, is that often they are exactly what you get. Whether you are visiting this multidimensional city for one day or ten, I would suggest you do some of your own conceiving of the perfect Charleston sightseeing tour. So how to go about this?

You Know You Want to Take a Tour, but Which One?

Charleston Sightseeing

Charleston’s sprawling historic district with its high density of pre-revolutionary built homes would be remarkable in Europe; in the United States it is nothing short of miraculous. From the minute you get to town, for better or worse, your focus will be directed towards horses and mules clomping around pulling carriage loads of visitors. On board charismatic guides expertly navigate Charleston’s narrow, cobblestone streets and car traffic, while telling stories of the city’s colorful past. Soon thereafter your hotel concierge will insist that your visit will be incomplete without going on a carriage or motorcoach tour. Frankly entering Charleston can feel like entering the gates at Disneyland.

The truth is many of the most intriguing aspects of Charleston sightseeing aren’t accessible by carriage or motorcoach. It is a city of nooks and cranies and quirky details, of hidden alleys, odd words on tombstones, and small architectural enhancements. It is a city of manicured gardens located behind wrought iron fences that were designed to be peered through.

If you’re up for it, a good walking tour is the best option. The city’s compact size loans itself perfectly to exploring on foot. These days there are not just general walking tours available from various operators, but more specific tours that run the gamut of interests from ghosts to culinary to Gullah culture. Having been on several, I can say that without a doubt, the smaller guides listed on the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau website, led by multi-generational Charlestonians, are the most worthwhile and entertaining – and you know what you’re getting is real.

History Buffs will definitely not want to miss

In April 1861 the first shots of the American Civil War were were fired by Confederate artillery on Fort Sumter. Visible from various parts of Charleston’s eastern waterfront, Fort Sumter is accessible only by water. Boats depart regularly from downtown Charleston in Liberty Square and Patriots Point.

Patriots Point, is also well worth some time for its other attractions. Located on the opposite side of the harbor from downtown Charleston it is also home to the Naval and Maritime Museum Complex which includes the U.S.S. Yorktown aircraft carrier as its centerpiece.

Nearby, but accessible by car is Fort Moultrie, where against all odds in 1776 a small band of South Carolinian soldiers were able to temporarily fend off the attacks of a large fleet of British ships. The fort has been restored, portraying various periods in its military history. Civil War buffs will also want to visit the Confederate Museum housed in Market Hall on Meeting Street back in downtown Charleston.  Sightseeing, history-style doesn’t get better.

Attention Serious Shoppers

Charleston Sightseeing

Here’s a Charleston sightseeing plan where only serious shoppers should apply:

  1. Visit the old city market, (located behind aforementioned Market Hall and Confederate Museum) where African American women of Gullah descent who make the area’s intricate seagrass baskets can be found busy at work, while displaying their handiwork amidst the usual kitsch, souvenirs and a occasional fashion bargain or two.
  2. Stroll King Street. If you are of the antique crowd be sure not to miss the antique shops at the south end around Queen Street. When you need a break, try to grab a table at Surmets Corner at the corner of King and Wentworth for people watching and sweet potato fries.
  3. If visiting on a sunny Saturday, many Charleston artisans without storefronts sell their creations each week at the Marion Square Farmer’s Market.
  4. Hand over your wallet to someone for safekeeping from yourself, and ooh and aah by walking through the shops in and around the Charleston Place Hotel.

Food Lovers want to eat well

Charleston Sightseeing

Drawing from the area’s unique influences, over the years Charleston has come into its own as a culinary capital. There are plenty of splurges, James Beard award winning chefs, and places so cool you need someone to point out to you that they’re even there. Here are several diverse choices based on cuisine, price and geography recommended for visitors who are in town for a few days – these will keep your energy levels up for all that Charleston sightseeing.

  • Splurge: Peninsula Grille, food, atmosphere and service are all amazing
  • Southern Genteel: 82 Queen, an old, traditional favorite
  • Hip: Fuel, affordable Caribbean cuisine, with a fun vibe and located in an old gas station
  • Breakfast or Brunch: Hominy Grille, longtime favorite offering Southern comfort food with a twist. Besides you’ll be able to go home and explain what hominy is to your friends.

How about if I want to do something else?

Charleston sightseeing

It’s hard to put all of the great Charleston sightseeing options into a box.  Stroll, bike or jog the sea wall that protects the antebellum mansions of the Battery. Biking the city suits its languorous pace and lack of elevation. Rentals are available at several places including Charleston Cruisers that will even deliver your bike right to your door. After you spot the new Cooper River Bridge, which just happens to be the longest cable stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere, you may want to to do as the Sunday afternoon masses do and cross it on your bike too and take in the view from the top.

Another way to see Charleston’s steeple dotted skyline from a unique perspective is from the water. Various boat trips are available including sunset and dinner tours departing from both downtown and Patriots Point. Nature lovers will not have to stray far to experience the areas biologically diverse waters and ecosystems. Coastal Expeditions offers guided kayak tours of Charleston Harbor as well as of the area’s tidal salt marshes. Also worth looking into, the Charleston Aquarium offers special behind the scenes tours of various programs such as its loggerhead sea turtle rescue program several days a week by appointment

Where to stay?

Charleston Sightseeing

There are plenty of hotels to choose from, but bed and breakfasts located “South of Broad” in a residential neighborhood feel off the beaten path even though they are a short walk to most everything. They often include off street parking, are taxed at a lower rate, and most importantly the experience will be infinitely more authentic, in a place where, judging from the guy in the pirate suit sauntering around the market selling ghost tours, authenticity is increasingly challenged.

The Cabell House, located steps away from most spectacular homes on the Battery, offers tasteful, laid back luxury with a charming and knowledgeable innkeeper and assistant. Just opened for business and located on the western side of the peninsula, The Cottage at 9 Limehouse Street (pictured above in the food section, actually) is a 900 square foot renovated boathouse situated on the sprawling property of the William Pinckney Shingler House, one of the most remarkably preserved Greek revival homes in Charleston, with the bonus of special insights and conversations with the native Charlestonian innkeepers.

And finally, When to go?

Charleston Sightseeing

Summers can be hot and crowded, but the Spoleto Festival, one of the world’s finest arts festivals held for 17 days each June is worth planning a trip around, and help make for a lively arts scene year round. Home and garden tours in the spring and fall have been a Charleston staple since long before the days of haunted, culinary and carriage tours. Then again Charleston dresses up elaborately well for Christmas.

On this one hard to go wrong!

Margo Millure is the editor of The Travel Belles, an online travel magazine for women.
Photo Credits: Margo Millure, designatednaphour, Margo Millure, Margo Millure, Charleston CVB, Margo Millure

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