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!
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
*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.