charleston, south carolina guide


illustration by julia rothman

i have a love for charleston, south carolina that’s hard to put into words. the southern charm, grace, and beauty of this historic city is so breathtaking that i always feel as if i’ve stepped back in time when i visit. and though the historic parts of charleston are almost limitless, there’s also a great independent art and design community in town that’s a joy to see. so i’m thrilled to have charleston local sandra carmola with us today to share a guide to shopping, eating, and site-seeing in town. also, a big thank you to cameron at the cottage industrialist for sharing some great additional charleston hot spots with us. i’ve noted her additions with * below. thanks, sandra and cameron!

*if you’re in charleston, be sure to stop by hominy grill- it’s where ac and i spent one of our first breakfasts after our wedding and their “big nasty” biscuit breakfast is to die for.

CLICK HERE for the full city guide after the jump!

Many thanks to Grace for allowing me to give her readers a glimpse of our beautiful city of Charleston!  I have lived here for nine years, and made my way here via my now-husband, who after grad school wanted to live somewhere that felt like we were on permanent vacation.  Charleston certainly fits the bill, with its palmetto trees, tropical climate and endless variety of things to do and fabulous restaurants to try!  Words can’t properly paint a picture of Charleston, but I hope to convey how special this city is and inspire you to experience it on your own!

First, a geography lesson:  Charleston is located in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a region full of beautiful tidal salt marshes, ports and barrier islands.  Downtown Charleston is located on a peninsula formed between two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, and where they meet to – as locals like to say – form the Atlantic Ocean.  West of the Ashley River are West Ashley (part of the City of Charleston) and the town of James Island, and east of the Cooper River is Mount Pleasant.  Beyond these are the beaches of Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms and Folly Beach – each about 15-20 minutes away from downtown, and inland are a number of towns that altogether form the Charleston metro area.

Downtown Charleston is much like a charming European city; the best way to experience the peninsula is by foot.  A stroll around the residential areas of downtown will reveal secret gardens and alleyways, intricate iron gates by master craftsmen, and pristine nineteenth century mansions.  In your wandering you may notice an architectural typology that originated in Charleston called the Single House.  One room wide with the narrower façade facing the street, the style developed in reaction to the hot, humid summers before air-conditioning, with two-story piazzas along one full length of the house, overlooking the side garden.  The piazzas allowed for windows and doors to be kept open for ventilation while sheltered from the elements, and maximized outdoor living space.

After strolling the neighborhoods, meander to King Street for your shopping fix.  King Street is the center for retail commerce in Charleston, and is divided into three distinct districts:  Lower King is the antique district, Middle King is the fashion district, and Upper King is more recently known as the design district, which hosts design walks in the spring and fall to celebrate this “Soho of the South.”  Here you’ll find locally-owned shops featuring designer furniture and fixtures, home accessories, lighting, handmade jewelry, and a number of trendy restaurants, among other diverse boutiques.

If art is your thing, the French Quarter neighborhood is home to over 30 galleries on cobblestone streets, and hosts a free art walk on the first Friday of the month, when the galleries keep their doors open late and offer wine and hors d’oeuvres.  Nearby, the City Market is where local vendors set out their wares daily, offering everything from jewelry to souvenirs to sweetgrass baskets, handcrafted in the tradition of ancestors centuries before. The Saturday Farmers Market in Marion Square also features local artists and craftsmen in addition to the freshest local fruits, vegetables, baked goods and food vendors.

Speaking of food, Charleston is top-notch in culinary endeavors and has emerged as a great southern foodie destination.  Our best local chefs – many nationally-recognized award-winners among them – have reinvented Lowcountry cuisine, updating the traditions of Southern food and blending them with Caribbean and Gullah influences, using the finest local ingredients.  The New York Times recently hailed Charleston as a “new capital for regional cuisine.”

The city is also the capital of southern hospitality.  It has been repeatedly voted the most polite city in America, and it’s no wonder – how could anybody be rude or unpleasant with such picturesque surroundings, sunny weather and rich culture and history?

STAY

There are a number of revered historic, charming and elegant places to stay in Charleston; this is just a small sample:

Francis Marion Hotel: Great central location if small rooms in this historic hotel. 387 King Street.

Planters Inn: Top notch service in an elegant setting, located right at the City Market. 112 North Market Street.

French Quarter Inn: A boutique hotel in a great location. 166 Church Street.

SHOP

Dwelling: Modern furnishings and accessories. 474 King Street.

GDC Home: Furniture and home accessories, linens and fabrics. Multiple locations in the metro area.

Celadon: Contemporary furniture and housewares (fabulous lamps!) with a sustainable component. 1015 Johnnie Dodds Blvd, Mount Pleasant.

Lesesne: Contemporary furniture, housewares, and stationary. 539 King Street.

SIG: High-end kitchen and bath fixtures. 511 King Street.

Lulan Artisans: Artful fabrics from the collaboration of contemporary American textile designers and Asian master weavers. 469 King Street.

Hampden Clothing: A fashion-forward women’s clothing boutique. 314 King Street.

V2V: Fresh and modern women’s clothing boutique. 295 King Street.

Butterfly Consignments: Recycling is all the rage, and here you’ll find like-new designer labels in women’s fashion and accessories. 482 King Street.

Filigree: Chic handcrafted metal + gemstone jewelry by artisan Heather Key Tiller. 47 John Street.

Felice Designs: Sometimes delicate, sometimes chunky, colorful one-of-a-kind glass jewelry by local jewelry designer Felice Killian. 424 King Street.

Elizabeth Stuart Design: Traditional and contemporary furnishings, curated together with a great eye for design. 422 Savannah Highway, West Ashley.

Poe Studio: Unique children’s items, jewelry and gifts. 819 Savannah Highway, West Ashley.

*Magar Hatworks: Custom made hats that truly have to be seen to be appreciated (for both men and women).

*Blue Bicycle Books: A great local bookstore on King Street

*Elizabeth Stuart Designs: A beautiful upscale design “emporium”

*Out of Hand – Tucked away on a quiet Mt. Pleasant street, this eclectic boutique of home goods, paper treats, and jewelry is a hidden jewel. 113-C Pitt Street.

*House of Sage – An eco-friendly boutique for men, women, and the home. 51 George St.

*Mac & Murphy – A one-stop shop for all things paper–from letterpressed cards to wrapping paper and accessories. 74.5 Cannon Street.

*Geo. Birlant & Co. – In a town steeped in history, Birlant’s is positively drunk with it. Even if antiques aren’t your thing, the sheer scope of Birlant’s is something to behold. 191 King Street.

*Artist & Craftsman Supply – Want to paint your masterpiece, but left your sketchbook at home? Stop in for watercolor postcards, some charcoal, and a set of paints. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, so don’t be afraid to ask if you can’t tell your gouache from gesso. 143 Calhoun Street.

EAT

O-Ku: Contemporary Asian-inspired interiors and exposed brick walls make this a sophisticated hotspot for sushi and cocktails. 463 King Street.

Trattoria Lucca: Off the beaten path, so it’s where the locals go for authentic Italian fare downtown. 41 Bogard Street.

F.I.G.: Food Is Good – and artful, and local, and memorable – at this favorite neighborhood bistro, and with James Beard Best Chef Southeast Mike Lata at the helm, you won’t be disappointed. 232 Meeting Street.

McCrady’s: Modern preparations of local ingredients make chef Sean Brock a master craftsman of the culinary field. 2 Unity Alley.

*City Lights Coffee: A great local gem with delicious coffee.

Al Di La: A seasonal Northern Italian menu sings with simplicity and satisfying dishes at this local favorite trattoria. 25 Magnolia Road, West Ashley.

Kudu Coffee: A locally-owned favorite for a cultured cup of joe. 4 Vanderhorst Street.

Ted’s Butcherblock: Famous for the big green egg smoker, pick up an affordable bottle of wine and some gourmet meats, cheeses, and prepared foods to-go, or eat-in off the shop’s gourmet sandwich menu or $12 Friday wine-tasting dinners. 334 East Bay Street.

Monza: Wood-fired pizzas and Italian favorites with local flair in this chic space. 451 King Street.

Basil: A hip Thai hotspot. 460 King Street.

Chai’s: Basil’s sister restaurant, for trendy tapas and cocktails. 462 King Street.

Poe’s Tavern: People watch on the porch and enjoy the beautiful weather and great burgers at this island destination. 2210 Middle Street, Sullivan’s Island.

Hominy Grill: Southern comforts from a James Beard Best Chef Southeast award-winner. 207 Rutledge Avenue.

Cru Café: A fusion of Asian flavors and local favorites in a charming Charleston single house. 18 Pinckney Street.

Glass Onion: New Orleans meets Lowcountry cuisine at this smart comfy diner with an emphasis on local ingredients. 1219 Savannah Highway, West Ashley.

*EVO (Extra Virgin Oven) Pizza – Woodfired pizza featuring fresh, local ingredients in the heart of the newly revitalized Park Circle neighborhood of North Charleston. 1075 East Montague.

*Shine – Enjoy “international street fare” in a swanky dining room far, far from the madding crowd. 58 Line Street.

*Tattooed Moose – Supposedly, there are things on the menu here other than the famous Duck Club Sandwich, claimed by many to be the greatest sandwich in the world, but why anyone would order anything else is a mystery. 1137 Morrison Drive

TREAT

Sugar Bakeshop: An adorable shop with stellar goodies. 59 1/2 Cannon Street.

Peninsula Grill coconut cake: Locally and nationally famous and rightly so. 112 North Market Street.

*Baked – The popular Brooklyn bakery has colonized the South! Brownies, cookies, tarts, and more in a bright, cheerful spot with wide, inviting benches. 160 East Bay Street.

*Sweetteeth Chocolate – While at Sugar Bakeshop, don’t forget to pick up a couple of Sweetteeth’s handmade chocolate bars, which are sold at Sugar and other spots all around town.

TO DO

Spoleto Festival: A two-week international arts festival beginning at the end of May.

Farmers Market at Marion Square: Saturdays from April through December, featuring local artists and craftsmen, produce and fresh food vendors.

French Quarter Art Walk: Free and open to the public on the first Friday of March, May, October and December.

Charleston Wine + Food Festival: Highly acclaimed and growing every year, in early March.

*Moja Arts – Music, Art, Dance, and Theater, highlighting the many African-American and Caribbean contributions made to western and world cultures. Late September-Early December.

*Charleston Fashion Week – The Southeast is quickly becoming a new hub for fashion design, and each March, designers from the South and beyond gather to celebrate all that is new, now, and on the horizon in fashion.

*ART/THEATRE/MUSIC*

*Cameron sent in this extra section for the guide. Thanks, Cameron!

Eye Level Art – Art gallery meets gathering spot in this large warehouse and event space. 103 Spring Street.

Redux Studios – View works of art from local artists in their own habitat—many exhibiting artists have studios in the building and teach classes to the public here. 136 St. Philip Street.

League of Charleston Theatres – Charleston is steeped in centuries of theatrical tradition—from classic favorites to contemporary work pushing artistic boundaries, member companies bring theater to thousands every year.

Gallery Chuma – Specializing in the art of the Gullah people of the Lowcountry sea islands, the gallery boasts a huge collection of local wunderkind Jonathan Green’s bright, soulful paintings. 43 John Street.

Gibbes Museum of Art – Focusing on the art of the American South, the Gibbes is known primarily for its historic collections of colonial and Charleston Renaissance works, but it continues to amass an impressive collection of contemporary Southern work. 135 Meeting Street.

Scoop Studios – Features primarily mixed-media work by local, regional, and international artists. 57 1/2 Broad Street.

Music Farm – Nevermind the questionable acoustics, this is a Charleston music institution, and the energy inside this old train depot is infectious whether the bands are playing jam band tributes, country ballads, reggae beats, or rock anthems. 32 Ann Street.

52.5 Records – Features an eclectic selection of CDs (and some vinyl), with a focus outside the mainstream. 561 King Street.

  1. Becca says:

    Aww, my heart may have skipped a beat, seeing this. I live an hour away from Charleston! It’s such a neat place. How wonderful :)

  2. sarah says:

    Great post! I checked out Lulan Artisans’ website and loved it. Just hope to go there someday in person.

  3. charleston is wonderful! i plan to make a road trip up there from savannah so this will be very handy. :)

  4. Lyn says:

    How timely! I’ll be heading down to visit my good friend Nathalie Dupree, a southern chef and cookbook author. I didn’t know much about Charleston but now I’m super excited to go. And don’t forget to mention Spoleto.

  5. Awesome city! We visit often since we are 3 hours away & my sister lives there.

  6. lisa wislon says:

    don’t forget Mustard Seed and El Bohio- across the street from each other on Maybank Highway on James Island. After a yummy meal of Cuban or inspired Nouveux American, hit the Terrace Theatre for an indie movie (and bucket of beer) or the Pour House for the latest in live music. That one small block has so much to do!

  7. courtney says:

    Add me to the list of people who would love a Charleston print!!!

    I moved to Charleston from Savannah two years ago and I could not be happier with the decision…while they are both unforgettable places to visit, Charleston is truly a wonderful place to live.

  8. Jason says:

    We moved back west from Charleston not too long ago. We really miss how beautiful that part of the country is. There is a great restaurant just off of East Bay Street called The Buccaneer. Good food, not too expensive and the ambiance is awesome.

    http://www.thebuccaneerrestaurant.com

  9. Lauren says:

    I agree with Rachel Lachel, Joseph’s should DEFINITELY be on the list. I tell people all the time it was THE BEST BREAKFAST OF MY LIFE (I had their sweet potato pancakes w/ toasted pecan butter). I’m going back for the 2nd time this May for a bachelorette weekend and already sent this post to all the other girls :-) Thanks!

  10. Caroline says:

    Thanks for the mention!

  11. Meredith says:

    I absolutely love charleston! Elizabeth Stuart Design is may favorite store in town!! FAB

  12. Mindy says:

    I would also recommend staying at the VENDUE INN! That is where we stayed for our honeymoon and the quality of rooms (marble fireplace, full tub with jets, down everything on the four post bed…) plus the SERVICE is unbeatable. There was a note to the “Mr. and Mrs.” from the manager when we arrived. Complimentary southern breakfast, wine and cheese reception, and cookies and milk before bed! It was a dream vacation in every sense.

    Also, I would like to add my request to Amber’s for the Julia Rothman print of Chaleston above. Please pass it along Grace! I have a space above a 50’s dinette set next to my photographs of the churches, harbor, Market, White Point Gardens, and cobblestone streets of Charleston that is dying for that print….

  13. Chelsea says:

    I’ve been waiting for a city guide for Charleston!! Just moved here to a suburb near that city and hunting for great finds and I’ve noticed no shortage of places to eat!!

    I want that print as well- she needs to sell them asap.

  14. AJ says:

    Yes! I have been waiting for a Charleston Guide. Definately should have added Hope and Union, Worthwhile, Lime Blue, and Caviar & Bananas as all are very design-oriented.

  15. Alicia says:

    Thanks so much for featuring Charleston, Grace! Although my husband and I regretfully had to move away for grad school and jobs, I will always hold this city close to my heart. We’re vacationing there for a week this summer, and I appreciate the tips on new places to try! (especially food – isn’t it clear that Charlestonians love our fine food?!) La Fourchette on Upper King is a favorite of mine – hope it’s as good as I remember!

  16. I looooove Charleston. Family friends have a house on Sullivan’s, and we visit at least once a year. My husband and I (New England bored and bred) love it so much down there that we got married at the Historic Rice Mill!

  17. BethAnne says:

    Did anyone mention Burbage’s? It’s one of the last old fashioned neighborhood corner grocery stores…though there are quite a few around downtown.
    Mr. Burbage makes one of the best barbecue sandwiches I’ve ever had. It’s fun to stop in there, slip back to the tiny deli counter and order a sandwich with a glass-bottled Cheerwine to enjoy on a park bench by Colonial Lake just across the street.

  18. Nicole says:

    Ah, Charleston! I went to college at the College of Charleston and am planning a much anticipated trip back next month when I visit my friends and fam in the States (I’m in London now)… Def miss it – Rue, Sugar, Yo Burrito, Momma Brown’s BBQ, Mellow, Hominy etc etc etc!!!

  19. Sarah says:

    Thank you so much! I’m going to Charleston on my honeymoon in a month and a half. I’ve been checking for a city guide, and HOORAY! You have one now!

  20. Jess says:

    What about S.N.O.B? or Dixie Dunbar for Jewelry? I’ve found some great vintage pieces and jewelry made from antique charms and I always try to stop by! http://www.dixiedunbarstudio.com/ Cumberland’s is my favorite lunch spot for tasty shakes, fries, burgers… and its in front of Granny’s Goodies which is a pretty sweet thrift store!

  21. olivia rae says:

    such a wonderful, comprehensive guide to Charleston!! I love living here, and fully appreciate it every second of every day!

    xo

  22. lisa Thomas says:

    Sorry you miss the old village of mt pleasant, just over the bridge. Its a wonderful spot with the old post house, the village bakery, the amazing old fashion pharmacy and of course Out Of Hand. Next trip?

  23. Suzanne says:

    Your synopsis is excellent. I am grateful for being able to live in such a charming city! My boyfriend and I recently started a blog to keep our friends and family abreast of all the great stuff going on around town.

  24. Suzanne says:

    Your synopsis is excellent. I am grateful for being able to live in such a charming city! My boyfriend and I recently started a blog to keep our friends and family abreast of all the great stuff going on around town.

  25. Andrea says:

    Charleston is my fave city, along with SF!! We enjoyed dining at Shem Creek Inn (seafood) in Mt. Pleasant and stayed at the Charleston Harbor Resort – beautiful view of the city and a 5 minute drive over the bridge. Make sure to tour Fort Sumter, shopping on King Street, and tour the surrounding islands in the area – the beaches are fabulous! Boone Plantation was one of ‘The Notebook” locations, too.

  26. Ooooooh! Sweet! Thank you for this kind mention & for linking to our blog! We LOVE Design*Sponge and are thrilled to see this feature on our lovely city!

    And we agree w/ Amber: the Julia Rothman illustration is so great!

  27. sarah says:

    Planning a wedding there next year. Anyone recommend a florist? Venue? Thanks for your help.

  28. connie says:

    i was once in Charleston and went into a shop where they sold old plates and flatwear from hotels ,old shiplines etc. does anyone know where I am talking about

  29. Catherine says:

    You should really add the Jack Patla Co. at 181 King Street to your list of great places to shop. They have to die for antiques and garden ornaments. Very sweet people to deal with, too!

  30. Amy S. says:

    my hubby and I just went to Charleston for 3 days and printed out this guide – it was FANTASTIC – thank you so much! We stayed at the french quarter inn – HIGHLY recommend it.

  31. Jaci says:

    Thank you! I actually just moved here and bought my new dining room table at Celadon in Mt.P. I cant wait to explore the city!

  32. Casey says:

    Are there any good flea markets or thrift stores in the Charleston area that are worth checking out???

  33. Mary says:

    Charlestonians love Coast (on John Street, near Marion Square) for seafood. Check out The Glass Onion on the Savannah Highway (US 17 South) for great lunches too.

  34. candice says:

    Ahhh, tattooed moose has an AMAZING burger! and ask for jenny as your bartender. she’s the best!

  35. Erin says:

    A quirky gift shop called Indigo is definitely worth a visit when you’re in Charleston. It is located at #4 Vendue Range (right across from Waterfront Park). We sell artfully (some locally) made jewelry, art, clothing and home goods. It’s a bright little shop that’s very very special.

  36. Morgan says:

    Ooh!! Another great foodie spot is Husk– farm to table and oh, so fantastic. The bar is the old carriage house and is a great place to have fancy drinks. 76 Queen Street

  37. Allison says:

    Thank you for another great City Guide. Between the perfect guidance for a visit to Detroit and more excellent guidance for Charleston, the designsponge city guides really are essential traveling companions.
    Thanks too to all the commentors. I was just in Charleston with two friends and we had fantastic meals at Husk, Monzo, Poe’s Tavern (I was skeptical but the burgers were cooked to perfection and really tasty), Trattoria Lucca (I’m still thinking about my meal), and Hominy Grill (we were offered dessert after our breakfast–woah!). I wish I’d gotten to F.I.G!
    Cupcakes at Sugar Bakeshop were so good, as was the caramel and sea salt chocolate bar from Sweetteeth Chocolate I picked up there.
    My favorite place in Charleston: Mac and Murphy. I spent far too much money there on calendars, cards, notecards. A lovely lovely shop. Definitely head to Mac and Murphy after cupcakes at Sugar Bakeshop.

  38. Aubrey says:

    I am desperate for a cluster of these City Guide prints on my wall…I would love one for each of the cities I’ve called home- Seattle, Memphis, Greenville, Raleigh/Durham, and now Charleston. Julia was responsible for Seattle, Memphis, and Charleston- sign me up for one of each!! (Sadly neither Raleigh or Durham guides came with an illustration- i’ve been searching the web for something stylistically similar!)

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      aubrey

      you should drop julia a note and tell her ;)

      grace

  39. What a lovely city and sure want to go there sometime! Southern charm and elegance rolled into one.

    Great guide!

  40. Majeed says:

    I would like to visit this city as soon possible. Great city!

  41. Melinda says:

    The BIG NASTY is a must on every trip to Chuck. Last time I was there, I ordered from the road & ate it in my car with my bare hands. *embarrassing*

  42. Paul says:

    Great write up! I love charleston. I would say a trip to sullivans is required.

  43. Amanda says:

    This guide was great for my recent trip to Charleston! One to add, and not to miss: Curiosity, a great little antique store at 56 1/2 Queen Street. It’s tucked down a little lane, and is full of reasonably priced vintage items, including dishes and old photos. The owner is lovely, and very helpful.

  44. Jared M says:

    Great blog! Amazing City! I am local realtor here in Charleston and stand strong that this is the best city in the World! that’s right, the World. The list goes on and on about the wonderful accolades The Holy City receives and something tells me they are still to come. If any one needs convincing on why this city is the best, come visit and you’ll be sold within hrs…

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