For an introduction to Southern hospitality, carve out a few days to explore the perennial charm of Charleston. As you meander down the narrow cobblestone streets and get lost among the church spires and imposing buildings, it can be easy to forget that you are on the water. But Charleston is very much a waterfront city -- in fact, both Carnival and Celebrity cruise lines have departures scheduled through 2011.
Museums, Walking Tours & Attractions
If you aren't setting sail for the Bahamas or the Eastern Caribbean, you can easily spend your entire time admiring the city's restored 18th- and 19th-century homes and antebellum mansions.
You can enjoy the oleander-lined streets on your own, or you can choose to join one of the historic walking tours offered by Old Charleston Tours (www.oldcharlestontours.com). The two-hour "History and Homes" tour runs at 10:30am and 1:30pm daily and costs $24.50 for adults and $15.50 for kids. The fascinating "Civil War and Slavery" tour departs at 10:30am daily and costs $18.50 and $10.50 respectively. "Pirates and Dungeons" starts at 1:30pm and is priced at $22.50 and $14.50.
Charleston's Museum Mile along Meeting Street runs from the Charleston Visitor Center to the Nathaniel Russell House. The Museum Mile includes 10 historic houses of worship, six museums, five historic houses, five historic public buildings including the Market and City Hall, and four scenic parks.
You can visit sites like the Charleston Museum, Colonial Dames (The Powder Magazine), the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry, Gibbes Museum of Art, South Carolina Historical Society, the Confederate Museum, the Edmondston-Alston House, and the city-operated Old Slave Mart Museum, and the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.
At dusk, take a leisurely walk along Waterfront Park to The Battery. Make sure you stop at the gazebos to rest on the swinging porch couches.
Where to Shop
Market Street, between Meeting Street and East Bay Street, is home to Old City Market, a collection of 100 or so mainly indoor but open-air market stalls. The main building, Market Hall, also houses the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum. Further down King Street, in what is called the Lower King Street District, you will find several art galleries and antique shops.
Plum Elements (www.plumelements.com) at Number 161 ½ specializes in visual arts and pottery; The Silver Vault (www.silvervaultcharleston.com) at Number 195 offers decorative silver art and jewelry from around the world; and Alison Sprock Fine Art (www.allisonsprockfineart.com) at Number 179 ½ features international and local contemporary art collections. For 18th-and 19th-century furniture, silver, china, and crystal, visit Geo C Birlant (www.birlant.com) at Number 191; Mary Helen McCoy (www.antique-french-furniture.com) at Number 120 has mainly French furniture and decorative arts; and Parham & Co (www.parhamandcompany.com) at Number 344 is a combination of original and reproduction interior-design pieces.
Where to Stay
It seems as if the city is divided into two distinct zones, north and south of Calhoun Street. Most visitors choose to stay in the historic district to the south, centered around King Street, the main thoroughfare of chic boutiques, chain fashion stores, and some old-school shops and restaurants. Staying at the Francis Marion Hotel (www.francismarionhotel.com) on the corner of King and Calhoun Street gives you the best of both worlds. You are right on the doorstep of the historic district and French Quarter, and you can venture to the left when you walk out the door. You're not far from the many restaurants and bars that line the more northern end of King Street, where locals tend to go out. Stately rooms with views over the Marion Square Park start from $139 per night at the Francis Marion.
I was rather shocked to find that the grand pink fortress, otherwise formerly known as the Citadel Military College, on Meeting Street and Marion Square Park, has been converted into an Embassy Suites Hotel (www.embassysuites.com). With room rates starting at $149 per night, you can always stay here and feel part of the city's rich architectural history.
Where to Eat
Although there are some good restaurants in the historic quarter, you'd fare better heading slightly north and discovering the more eclectic eateries north of Calhoun. Eat well at favorites like Joe Pasta (www.joepasta.com) at Number 428. For a sweet treat, you can't go past the delicacies at Cupcake (www.freshcupcakes.com) at Number 433. If you find yourself deep in the historic district after dark, try Maverick Southern Kitchens (www.mavericksouthernkitchens.com/snob) at 192 East Bay Street for southern cooking with a contemporary twist. Close by at 167 East Bay Street, Cypress Lowcountry Grille (www.magnolias-blossom-cypress.com) has specialized Lowcountry cuisine and an enormous wine cellar.
Day Trips from Charleston
If you feel the need to escape the city for a few hours, the barrier islands of Charleston are located less than a 30-minute drive from the downtown area. The beaches of Kiawah Island are particularly lovely with long stretches of unpopulated sand (albeit not white) and walking/cycling trails though low-lying beach grasses, live oaks, pines, palmettos, and yucca plants. While much of the island has unfortunately been sold off as private resorts and golf clubs, Beachwalker Park is open to the public ($7 per car entry fee) and offers 11 miles of unspoiled beachfront and nesting grounds for loggerhead turtles.
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