Following our September wedding, my husband and I wanted a quick getaway for a few nights. Not a full-fledged honeymoon, as we’d planned that for the South Pacific in the dead of winter, but something closer by.
Given that two of our favorite U.S cities are New Orleans and Savannah, the decision to pick Charleston, South Carolina. came rather quickly. Somehow, neither of us had ever been to the city — which has been likened to the love child of the aforementioned cities. And similar to New Orleans and Savannah, Charleston has an incredible sense of place. It doesn’t feel like the everywhere-USA vibe that some sunbelt cities fall prey to. From the harbor to the Spanish-moss-filled parks to the incredible City Market, Charleston’s charms are quick to present themselves. It’s a romantic place, for sure, and we were made to feel welcome everywhere we went.
Eating like no tomorrow
We were no longer worried about fitting into our wedding suits, so we were up for trying some of the city’s legendary cuisine, and not skimping on cocktails or desserts! We found so much to enjoy all across the city, and here are some of our favorites for every time of the day.
Breakfast at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit is a must while in town. Located in the City Market (more on that later), the biscuits were incredible, but somehow the grits were even better. Mixed with chive butter, cheddar, and bacon, the dish smelled divine. When the cashier heard we were from “up North,” she made us promise not to add sugar to our grits, so we agreed. She was right — they were perfect just as prepared. For another breakfast option, head to The Daily, about a mile north of downtown; you really can’t go wrong here. We particularly loved the avocado toast, the date and salted caramel danishes, and the breakfast burritos.
Lunch at The Pass, located not too far from The Daily, is a great opportunity to slow down a little. It feels like a small deli, with a couple of long wooden tables inside and some outside seating, as well. They sell wines, preserves, pickles, pasta, chocolate, coffee olive oils, etc., in addition to the menu items. The sandwiches here all explode with flavor, from the “LT oh no!” to The Mort Sal. The menu here changes every 6-8 weeks. The Pass also offers a Chef’s Table experience that a single group can reserve each night, usually Wednesday through Sunday — but it often books up a month in advance, so make sure to plan ahead.
Another great option is Florence’s Lowcountry Kitchen, a short drive west of downtown in South Windermere. Chef Matt’s family recipes are delicious trip through authentic southern cuisine. Try the Crab Cake Plate with Collard Greens (the best we’ve ever had), the Fried Green Tomatoes with red pepper jam, and the Southern Tomato Pie.
The Lowcountry Seafood Pilau at The Grocery
Dinnertime options are vast, but reservations are highly suggested at many of the city’s best restaurants. Two we tried out were The Grocery and Husk. The Grocery, which has been open for 10 years, is chef-owned and -operated. The vibe here is a modern farmhouse feel, with cabinets full of canned fruits and vegetables. Everything we tried was very fresh — not surprising, as everything is locally sourced. The Lowcountry Seafood Pilau is a great dish to share — think of it as a regional version of paella. It’s a bit more brothy, with less of a tomato base, but incredibly flavorful. Another must try is the green tomato carpaccio, which has a delightful buttermilk-based breading. Over at Husk, a modern, sophisticated dining room, you will find that the appetizers are lovely but not huge, so aim for one per person plus an entrée. Standouts were the catfish, yellowtail snapper, and dark chocolate peanut butter pie with buttermilk ice cream, which features delicious pieces of toffee sprinkled on top.
History: the good, bad, and the ugly
Much of Charleston’s history has not been great, but the city seems willing to confront its past sins. We took some time to learn about some of the area’s past, starting with Fort Sumter. Situated at the mouth of Charleston harbor, a strategic location for the whole southeast, this fort is accessed by a 35-minute ferry ride, on which you’ll likely see schools of dolphins.
The fort was smaller than I pictured, and it was difficult to imagine being a soldier on the small island, the site of the first shots of the Civil War. You have about an hour on the island before your return ferry, which was just the right amount of time.
For the most part, the history seemed to be told in a reasonable light, ignoring the Lost Cause myths seen in parts of the South. There were things that did hit a nerve — a quote that Confederate soldiers were “ordinary men with an extraordinary purpose,” references to “slaves” instead of the preferred “enslaved people,” and continual use of Plantation, a term that romanticizes what these places really were — human forced labor camps. But all in all, we were impressed with the historical depictions we saw at the various attractions.
Another worthwhile experience is the self-guided tour at the Old Slave Mart Museum, in the heart of the city. This building explores the city’s role in the international trade of enslaved people. Auctions were held in the city’s streets until 1856, when a city ordinance prohibited public auctions — at which time they were moved indoors, away from the ordinary citizen’s view. At one point, 35-40 percent of the trade of enslaved people came through Charleston. While a worthwhile visit, this museum is one where a lot of reading is required; it does not have a plethora of artifacts from the building’s original use.
Emeline, our hotel for the minimoon, is a larger property — 212 rooms, all king beds — but the vibe of the lobby and attached restaurants and courtyard is of a boutique hotel. The concept of the hotel revolves around its muse, Emeline, that consummate Southern hostess with a throwback style. The result is almost a feeling of visiting with friends instead of a corporate hotel adorned with meeting space.
Emeline’s lobby is a great place to relax and watch the horse-drawn carriages amble by. On one end, it opens onto Clerks Coffee Company, a great place to enjoy breakfast or coffee. The pastry chef even makes special treats for the canine visitors, and the spot gives off more of a neighborhood café feel than it does a hotel restaurant. Our room was a suite, with plenty of room to stretch out, a generously sized bathroom, and great amenities from Red Flower. The hotel is ideally situated to explore downtown Charleston, and less than a block from the city’s famed market.
The Charleston City Market is a sight to behold. Someone told me prior to our visit that it was a mile long, which I found hard to imagine. And while that’s a bit of an exaggeration, the 180-year-old public market runs for four full city blocks, and is impressive, to say the least. The variety of shops is astounding, from 3D-printed carnival masks to candle shops and cooking supplies to photographs. We walked the market each day and seemed to find something new each time.
Charleston is a great walking town, too. Stroll along the palm-tree-lined esplanade in Waterfront Park for gorgeous views of the water, and head back into the city, walking past some gorgeous homes. Or you could easily spend the day walking up and down King Street, a retail-lined thoroughfare, with something for everyone. You’ll find major retailers, galleries, quaint boutique stores, pet shops, and something for everyone.
If all that walking and shopping has you parched, Dudley’s, the city’s premier gay bar, is conveniently located on Ann Street, a half block off King Street. Dudley’s is small but cozy, with a small pool table room in the back. We stopped in on a Tuesday evening and chatted with about 15 locals who were hanging out. It was lively for a weekday evening, with R&B music playing and plenty of laughter. The club hosts drag shows on Friday and Saturday evenings.