Southern comfort is in—from barbecue and grits to whiskey and heritage denim. But for every mustachioed and suspender-wearing waiter serving shrimp and grits in Brooklyn, there are hundreds where that came from in Charleston, South Carolina.
The family-run boutiques, cobblestoned streets, landmarks that date to the 1600s, colorful historic houses combined with Michelin-star restaurants, food festivals and the bustling nightlife on King Street make the seaside city and county of the same name a place where hip meets history.
For a true taste of Charleston heritage, don’t leave home without this list.
The Old Slave Mart Museum
Once the stock exchange of the slave trade, the Old Slave Mart is now one of Charleston’s most important museums, and one of the country’s most unique ones. This institution tells the story of the slave trade from three perspectives: slaves, brokers and traders. Through the use of visual aids and recordings of auctioneers shouting and chains clanking, cross-faded with first-person accounts of the experience, it is almost too easy to imagine what it would have been like. The tour is self-guided, but at the desk, Walter, whose family has been in Charleston for hundreds of years, tells a history you won’t find in textbooks.
Charleston Tea Plantation
Tea is a lot like wine in the difference in taste is attributed to the soil in which the plants are grown. As the only tea plantation in the States, the tea grown in Charleston (technically on Wadmalaw Island in Charleston County) is the only tea that tastes like America. The main facility is a small barn-like building with red rocking chairs overlooking the property. Though the free factory tour leaves something to be desired, the 40-minute $10 trolley tour of the plantation—which comprises 127 acres of tea bushes in manicured rows—is novel for its insight into a craft of production that you can’t experience otherwise in the U.S. Also, the all-you-can-drink tea included in the visit is a nice touch.
The Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon
The yellow, stately building at the intersection of Broad and East Bay streets looks more like the kind of place where powerful political decisions were made than it does a place where pirates and smuggled gunpowder were held. The truth is—it’s both. Maintained from the 1700s, The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon was the lookout point for boats coming into Charles Town (the city’s early moniker); before years of developers filling in the waterfront, this building marked the city’s shoreline. Today, middle-aged men dressed in colonial attire give tours of the dungeon—the oldest part of the building. Something about the cool, musky air and the stories of pirates who seized the city, feels like telling ghost stories.
Sunday Brunch at Hall’s Chophouse
Photo by Christina Garofalo
For people in Charleston, Sunday mornings are for two things: church and family brunch. At Hall’s Chophouse, the two collide in a Sunday morning brunch that serves bone-sticking comfort food soundtracked by live gospel music played by piano on the main level. Within 20 minutes of opening, both floors are packed with people in their Sunday best—some laughing and tossing back bloody mary’s, others singing along to “Amazing Grace.” Brunch begins with basket of just-baked popovers—a cross between Southern biscuits and French croissants—but the creamy pepper jack grits topped with roasted corn and finished off with a spicy kick are the true celestial experience.
Martha Lou’s Kitchen
Martha Lou Gadsden has been cooking in this same location for the last 31 years. A local legend, the 84-year-old chef runs the restaurant as a family business and is almost always there herself. The main draw is the fried chicken, which is made-to-order and is so perfectly crisp that you can’t taste the skin. Meals come with three sides—Southern staples, like mac n’ cheese, collard greens and chitterlings (chittlins)—and lip-sucking-sweet tea. The place is tiny, seating a couple dozen diners at best, but despite the small pink building’s modest appearance, Martha Lou’s serves what many say is the best Soul Food in Charleston.
Magnolia Gardens & Plantation
Owned by the Drayton family for more than three centuries, Magnolia Gardens are the oldest unrestored gardens in America. In spring, it’s like stepping into a Monet painting, with colorful camellias, daffodils and azaleas blurring behind sweeping Spanish Moss. Wander into a bamboo forest or a hedge maze, and end up at a long white bridge surrounded by Cypress Tress and a crystalline lake. Some sit and enjoy while others crouch behind bushes, trying to photograph a peacock before it runs off. The trail ends at a massive white Victorian home with wrap-around porches—the former home of the Drayton family, which is open for tours. Despite the numbers along the path to keep you from getting off track, this is the kind of place that’s easy—and fun—to get lost in.