Do the Charleston: Plan a quick getaway to this Southern belle of a city

In a curious way, New Yorkers will feel right at home in Charleston, S.C.

Think of Charleston as the kind of city Manhattan might have been had Gotham not become the seat of global commerce.

Imagine picturesque pockets of Greenwich Village spread across all of lower Manhattan, river to river.

At the southern tip, Charleston has its own Battery, a similar street grid with familiar names like Broad, an old city also once protected by a wall,  two rivers meeting at the tip of a peninsula that looks eerily like Manhattan on a map, and a common lineage as great port cities born with an acquisitive streak and a practical tolerance for difference. Charleston's skyline is defined by churches, as Manhattan's once was.

Of course, their paths diverged centuries ago, and the similarities may ultimately be superficial, but there are enough to cause reflection, certainly on other unassailable commonalities: fine architecture, charming streets, history at every turn, and remarkable cuisine.

Many will tell you spring is the season to go, but then you'd miss Christmas in Charleston.  Its yuletide charm glows even warmer thanks to the truly hospitable nature of its people.

The basics

Carriage Rides: Get a quick sense of the city with a carriage ride tour. There are several choices, but we went with Palmetto Carriage Tours and were impressed with our guide's knowledge. 40 North Market St., 843-723-8145

Walking Tours: Charleston has some of the finest architecture in the U.S. Fern Tuten of Architectural Walking Tours of Charleston will give you a thoughtful, in-depth tour of the city's finest, showing you streetscapes that haven't changed in 200 years. 800-931-7761.

Highlights

Charleston City Market: This market has been selling all manner of wares for centuries. Its Greek Revival front is a Meeting Street icon. It's a good spot to score the obligatory sweetgrass basket. Between North and South Market streets.

Four Corners of the Law: This intersection of Broad and Meeting, made famous by Ripley's Believe It Or Not, has buildings representing church, state, federal government and city.

The Battery: Amble down toward the Battery and then explore the park and the gorgeous homes along South Battery and East Battery.

Rainbow Row: These are historic waterfront merchant homes on East Bay Street that were painted in pastel hues during the 1930s. They are essential Charleston and a milestone in modern preservation.

Churches: This is the Holy City, after all, so there is no shortage. Highlights include St. Philip's and St. Michael's.

Plantations: Head out of town and explore plantations. We visited Middleton Place, with remarkable landscaping, gardens and ruins from the end of the Civil War.

Fort Sumter: No visit is complete without an afternoon at Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began.

Where to shop

King Street: Once an old American Indian trade route, King remains the heart of city shopping. You'll see everything from antiques, mom and pops to chains. The real dazzle is in the beautiful buildings, which represents a range of styles.

Preservation Society of Charleston: A good spot to score smart history books, souvenirs and support the group that keeps Charleston looking beautiful. (147 King St.)

Where to eat

The dining options are outstanding and it's hard to go wrong. A few highlights:

SNOB: Short for Slightly North of Broad Street, there's nothing snobby about this place and its imaginative lowcountry cuisine. 192 East Bay Street. 843-723-3424

Jestine's Kitchen: Don't just take Rachael Ray's word for it: Jestine's Kitchen offers primo Southern cooking. The proof is in the lines always snaking outside. 251 Meeting St. 843-722-7224

Blossom: The seafood is the draw here, but so is the dining room and courtyard. 171 East Bay St. 843-722-9200.

Sweetwater Café: A perfect stop for local flavor and a nice breakfast before starting your walking adventures. 37 Market Street. 843-723-7121

Where to stay

There's a host of spots to consider in historic Charleston. Nice hotels can be pricey but are worth the extra bucks for convenience and character. A few reliable options:

Mill House Hotel
Dating to the mid 1850s, the Mills House is refined, recently renovated, and in the heart of Museum Mile. Big plus: Cheap municipal parking is right next door. 15 Meeting St. 843-577-2400.

Ansborough Inn: A former warehouse converted into sumptuous B&B, with atrium lobby and comfortable suites. A Harris Teeter supermarket across the street adds to the convenience. 21Hasell Street, 800-522-2073

Charleston Place: This is one of the finest hotels you'll find anywhere, and the rates reflect that. 205 Meeting St. 843-722-490

A holiday primer

With festive parades, tree lightings, and bedecked historic homes, Charleston is a Christmas charmer. Here are highlights:

1. The lobby of the Charleston Place Hotel, (205 Meeting St.) is transformed into a Christmas wonderland.

2. The Christmas parade runs through town 2-5 p.m. Dec. 6.

3. Festival of Lights at the James Island County Park offers a fun drive through a jolly landscape just 20 minutes from downtown.

4. The Christmas tree lighting at Marion Square Park is at 4:30 p.m. Dec. 5.

5. Parade of Boats: Boats are decked in holiday lights in a beloved show that runs from the Cooper to the Ashley rivers. Culminates with fireworks. Starts 5 p.m. Dec. 5.

Essential Charleston

1.) Earthquake bolts: You see these everywhere on the facades of historic buildings. They are the ends of bars installed in buildings to prop them up after the great earthquake of 1886.

2.) Carolopolis: This noble medal is given to buildings that have undertaken admirable preservation efforts.

3.) Boot scrapers and carriage steps -- Boot scrapers (to get that muck off) and carriage steps (for folks mounting or getting off a carriage) still abound.

4.) Cobblestone streets: Trot on real cobblestone, not Belgian block, which everyone mistakes for cobblestone

5.) The Single House: The signature house style of Charleston, they feature side porches, or piazzas, that take in breezes, and a street door that leads to the patio, not right into the house.

 

Tags: Charleston , travel , history , architecture

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