Charleston weeps beauty – this thought was distinct in my mind as I was leaving this beautiful southern American city. The city is steeped in a rich history that is almost tangible and suppressed in so many ways. The Angel Oak tree perfectly encapsulated these feeling of weeping beauty as we drove through the different plantations located in the city; they were incredibly beautiful, but almost mournful in a way. This city has such a rich history that is evident in the make-up of its inhabitants, food, and infrastructure, but it’s very interesting how the place-markers of this history have been formed to give it a certain narrative that suppresses some of its darker elements.
As you can imagine, we were pretty interested in not only the beauty of Charleston but its history. Our top tip for Charleston is to plan your activities and tours before you visit. We unfortunately missed out on the City Market, which included a tour of the slave market, since it wasn’t conducted on Sundays (and we hadn’t checked that in advance!)
Do: Visit Fort Sumter
We spent around two hours at Fort Sumter which is a drive away from the historic area of Charleston, and it was worth the (quick) visit. There’s a great (older) movie of the use of the Fort through the civil war screened at the Visitor’s Center that we surprisingly enjoyed (not being big fans of watching informational movies at monuments). We strongly recommend watching this movie before taking a tour of the Fort itself as it helps greatly inform your walk around.
Don’t: Try to visit all the plantations
The plantations are beautiful. We weren’t big fans of how they were advertised (see the romantic gardens!/no trace of their historical significance) but enjoyed their beauty nevertheless. We were lucky enough to have dinner with a local couple on our first night in Charleston and as per their recommendations visited Magnolia Gardens first, which didn’t disappoint. It was striking to see the homes of former slaves in the shadows as you drove through the plantation. Strapped for time? No problem: you can choose to drive through the plantations and not necessarily enter their visitors’ lodges and still take in their beauty and historic significance. The private plantations also usually have entrance fees (such as Drayton Hall which includes a tour of its opulent mansion) and this is something you can keep in mind when choosing which plantation to visit, and where you’d like your money to go!
While Magnolia and Middleton are the most famous when you look up plantations to visit, the Boone Hall plantation is also worth the visit.
Do: Plan ahead when visiting the plantations
Due to their beautiful, spacious locations, the plantations are often used for entertainment and sporting events. In our case, we visited Middleton Place in the middle of a Scottish cultural celebration that had taken over the enter plantation! It’s a good idea to check ahead (call/online) before visiting to make sure you can visit the plantation of your choice.
We recommend visiting Charleston in the spring or the fall; we did a weekend trip towards of the end of September and while we missed out on the bloom of the spring that brings out the best in the “romantic” Magnolia and Middleton Plantations, it was still beautiful to see the city in its oaken splendor during the summer/fall transition. In addition, we visited during Charleston’s restaurant week, where you could visit a host of fantastic restaurants and get three course meals for around $20. If you’re foodies like we are, this is a great time to visit Charleston!
The temperature was pretty comfortable in September but fair warning – it can get very hot in these parts, especially in the summer – and even towards the end of September (during the day)!
Do: Visit the Exchange and Provost
Visiting the Exchange and Provost building tucked away on the downtown historical trail was one of the highlights of our trip. It is a much more informational tour of the south before and during the civil; more so than the plantations themselves by far. There is a tour of the dungeon of the provost that is included that was fairly interesting (this was used to house prisoners as well as the city’s mail and administrative offices!) but we found the pictures and histories of the Confederate soldiers of more value. The Declaration of Independence was read from the steps at the Exchange and Provost and this in and of itself makes it a must-visit if you’re interested in learning southern life during and after the civil war.
Do: Rent a car (if you don’t already have one)
This is pretty much a given when traveling the US. You need a car to get around Charleston as taking the bus would be way too time-consuming.
We stayed at the Hyatt Place, which has some great deals for a comfortable, economical stay. As you may have already seen, we’re a big fan of the Hyatt properties (which offer great last minute deals too!)
Staybridge Suites in North Charleston is also a fantastic place to stay. They offer a great breakfast, suite-style rooms with full-equipped kitchenettes for extended stays, and even in-house movie rentals! It’s located ten minutes outside of downtown but it’s a great bargain for the comfort and price it offered.
Do: Visit Sullivan’s Island
Sullivan’s Island is a great (more local) place to have a drink or dinner over the sunset. We visited Poe’s Tavern for an afternoon drink after nearby Fort Sumter, which had a great local vibe with its – you guessed it – macabre-edged Edgar Allen Poe themed décor and menu items. The bathrooms were especially interesting – not too dark, we promise you!
Do: Walk around
Charleston is one of the few cities in the US where there are great promenades to walk and just enjoy the view. From The Battery at Charleston’s southern tip to the Riley Waterfront Park to the promenades you’ll find as you drive around, it’s a great place to just spend a morning, afternoon, or evening enjoying some ice and taking the view from one of the many (clean!) park benches.
All in all, we actually wished that we had more than a weekend to enjoy beautiful Charleston – the city beams with southern charm and beautiful oaken grandeur that makes it a perfect place for a relaxed and yet informative tour of the more southern American life.
Do: Rent a car (if you don’t already have one!)
Do visit in the spring or late summer/fall — if the latter, look for restaurant week! If the former, the plantations are in bloom!
Do: Plan ahead; for restaurant week, plantations that may have special events, and the City Market’s limited tour dates and times. Research a plantation or two in advance. We recommend Middleton Place and Magnolia Gardens.
Do: Visit the Exchange and Provost for an excellent history of the south during the civil war. Beautiful old photographs included!
Do: Visit Fort Sumter. Watch the short film on the history of the Fort before explore it.
Do: Walk around. Go to Sullivan’s Island, Battery Park, and the Riley Waterfront Park.
Do: Look for last minute deals on Staybridge Suites or Hyatt properties.
Do: Try to stay at least 3 days!
Been to Charleston? Planning a trip there? We’d love to hear about your experiences! Share your stories with us below!
As always, be a conscious traveler: Take nothing, and leave nothing behind. Be conscious, be welcome! Read more about conscious travel here.