One of America's five largest and wealthiest cities during the Colonial era, dignified and well-preserved Charleston rewards you with history that you actually want to see: antebellum art and architecture as well as important sites related to the Revolutionary and Civil wars and the nation's early commercial and maritime histories. At the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, this city of 125,000 is flanked by a series of barrier beach communities abundant with swanky golf and spa resorts. This is the heart of South Carolina's fabled Lowcountry, a sweeping coastal landscape of undulating sand dunes and reedy salt marshes that's noted for its African-American Gullah culture and a beloved seafood-driven cuisine that combines Caribbean, African, and Southern traditions.
One of America's five largest and wealthiest cities during the Colonial era, dignified and well-preserved Charleston rewards you with history that you actually want to see: antebellum art and architecture as well as important sites related to the Revolutionary and Civil wars and the nation's early commercial and maritime histories.
At the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, this city of 125,000 is flanked by a series of barrier beach communities abundant with swanky golf and spa resorts. This is the heart of South Carolina's fabled Lowcountry, a sweeping coastal landscape of undulating sand dunes and reedy salt marshes that's noted for its African-American Gullah culture and a beloved seafood-driven cuisine that combines Caribbean, African, and Southern traditions.
5…Admire the Oak Alleys
Charleston's elite planters accrued their considerable fortunes on cotton, rice, and indigo crops, a legacy revealed in several magnificent plantations that have been converted to living-history museums. Among these expansive estates, Boone Hall Plantation (1235 Long Point Rd., Mount Pleasant, 843-884-4371, $17.50, http://boonehallplantation.com) is particularly notable for its graceful gardens of centuries-old heirloom roses, exhibits and daily theatrical presentations that interpret local Gullah culture, and striking "allee of oaks" - a half-mile driveway framed by 260-year-old oak trees draped with live moss.
You'll find several other worthy plantations along Ashley River Road. Magnolia Plantation (3550 Ashley River Rd., 800-367-3517, $15, www.magnoliaplantation.com) stands out for its turreted mansion and ancient swamp garden, boat tours through a flooded former rice plain, and a petting zoo and nature center. The architectural gem among the group, Middleton Place (4300 Ashley River Rd., 800-782-3608, $25, www.middletonplace.org) comprises a 1755 redbrick house-museum and 65 acres of ornamental ponds and flower gardens. You can also stay at a posh, contemporary hotel - the Inn at Middleton Place - which adjoins the plantation property, and dine on outstanding Lowcountry cuisine at Middleton Place Restaurant.
4…Love that Lowcountry Cookin'
Charleston offers no shortage of fine restaurants specializing in exemplary Lowcountry cuisine, the arguable fan favorite being Slightly North of Broad (192 E. Bay St., 843-723-3424, entrees $17-$30, http://mavericksouthernkitchens.com/snob), aka "S.N.O.B." Classics served inside this converted 19th-century brick warehouse include shrimp and grits with house-made sausage, country ham, and tomatoes; and deviled-crab-stuffed flounder (available only Wednesday evening). A little less crowded and similarly superb, Blossom (171 E. Bay St., 843-722-9200, brunch entrees $6-$15, www.magnolias-blossom-cypress.com) occupies a warmly furnished dining room with high windows. Save this one for Sunday brunch, when you might sample buttermilk-fried chicken and biscuits with sausage and herb gravy, or a delicious pulled-pork hash with fried eggs and cracked-pepper hollandaise. If you’ve saved room there's splendid white-chocolate banana pudding for dessert.
Lest anyone think Charleston's culinary prowess lies solely in old-school Southern fare, consider dinner at Fig (232 Meeting St., 843-805-5900, entrees $26-$32, www.eatatfig.com), a refreshingly contemporary neighborhood bistro serving boldly flavored seasonal fare sourced from local farms and markets. Chef Mike Lata's elegantly presented sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi with spicy pork ragout, crisp-pork trotters with a sunny-side-up farm egg and mustard vinaigrette, and cornmeal-dusted triggerfish topped with lump crab and artichokes leaves customers feeling blissfully satisfied.
3…Cruise Charleston Harbor
On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on Union troops stationed at Fort Sumter, an island garrison in Charleston Harbor, at the mouth of the Ashley and Cooper rivers. By the end of the following day, the Confederacy's opening salvo had set the Civil War in motion and compelled Union troops to abandon this strategic garrison. Although attempts were made to retake the fort throughout the war, none succeeded until the Confederate Army evacuated Charleston during Sherman's march through the state.
The U.S. park service now occupies Fort Sumter National Monument (www.nps.gov/fosu) , which you can tour via one of the 30-minute narrated boat trips provided several times daily by SpiritLine Cruises (843-722-2628, $16, www.spiritlinecruises.com/sumter_overview.asp). Once on the island, you can visit the ramparts and museum and listen to park rangers further describe Sumter's pivotal role in U.S. history. SpiritLine tours leave from both downtown Charleston's Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center (843-883-3123, 340 Concord St.), which is filled with exhibits on the fort, as well as from across the Cooper River at the fascinating Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum (40 Patriots Point Rd., Mount Pleasant, 843-884-2727, $16, www.patriotspoint.org), where you can climb aboard the World War II-era USS Yorktown aircraft carrier and explore numerous other ships and planes.
2…Set out for Sullivan's Island
Charleston's dune-backed barrier islands offer a breezy, oceanfront contrast to the city's densely settled, historic downtown. For a particularly enjoyable seaside excursion, head toward Sullivan's Island - it's a 10-mile drive via the sleekly contemporary Cooper River Bridge. Now a laid-back beach community fringed by pristine gold-sand beaches and home to embattled South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, Sullivan's Island holds the ignominious distinction of having been North America's largest port of disembarkation for African slaves.
At the west tip of the island, visit colonial Fort Moultrie (1214 Middle St., 843-883-3123, $3, www.nps.gov/fosu/historyculture/fort_moultrie.htm). The restored fortifications, like Fort Sumter across the harbor, were the site of fierce military campaigns during both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Gothic suspense writer Edgar Allan Poe served briefly at the fort in the 1820s - he set The Gold Bug on Sullivan's Island. Follow your visit with lunch at the restaurant he inspired, Poe's Tavern (2210 Middle St., Sullivan's Island, 843-883-0083, entrees $7 to $10, www.poestavern.com), a rustic roadhouse acclaimed for its prodigious, delicious half-pound burgers. The "Tell-Tale Heart" - topped with cheddar, applewood-smoked bacon, and a fried egg - is a standout, best enjoyed with a side of bacon-blue cheese slaw.
1…Delve into Downtown's Architectural Riches
You'll notice as you amble around downtown the odd orientation of many Charleston mansions - their narrow sides face the street and longer facades and multistory piazzas run lengthwise in the other direction. It's a style called "Charleston Single House" and geared to take advantage of the cross ventilating breezes that cooled this sultry city in the days before air-conditioning. The city's prolific historic district, which takes up most of the downtown peninsula south of about Calhoun Street, provides visitors an education in both residential and civic architecture from the Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival periods.
Make sure you walk along Meeting Street, known as Charleston's Museum Mile (www.charlestonsmuseummile.org). Here you can visit the Joseph Manigault House (350 Meeting St., 843-722-2996, $10, www.charlestonmuseum.org), a prime example of Federal architecture, decorated meticulously with priceless early 19th-century furnishings. Also spend a couple of hours inside the Gibbes Museum of Art (135 Meeting St., 843-722-2706, $9, www.gibbesmuseum.org), an imposing Beaux Arts building whose holdings tell the story of Charleston's vibrant fine-arts tradition and Lowcountry lore. The museum's free cell-phone audio tours are an excellent way to learn about the paintings and sculptures you're seeing.