Charming Charleston

Founded in 1670, this friendly city is rich with history, cuisine and culture. And it’s easy to explore without a car

iconic pineapple fountain
Charleston’s City Gallery overlooks the iconic pineapple fountain in the city’s 12-acre Waterfront Park. Pineapple decorations, which symbolize hospitality, are used in architecture throughout this historic city.

The irreverent nickname for Charleston, South Carolina, is Chucktown — originally named Charles Town after King Charles II of England.

The town’s more reverent moniker is the Holy City — for its many historic churches as well as its founders’ longstanding principle of welcoming religions of all types. (Today, more than 400 houses of worship dot the city.)

Charleston is a marvelous place to visit when it’s blessed with relatively cool weather.

Early May and early October are the two optimum times to enjoy all that Historic Charleston has to offer. (October boasts an average high of 77 and an average low of 56, versus 89 and 72 in August.)

Furthermore — except for those who are serious patrons of the arts — it would be smart to avoid overbooked hotels and congested traffic during Charleston’s annual Spoleto Festival that starts in late May.

Note: The official Atlantic hurricane season begins in June and ends in November — with August and September as the typical peak months.

As a tourist destination, The Battery — a defensive seawall and promenade in Charleston — is famous for its stately antebellum homes.

Getting around

Exploring Charleston is easy enough. Forget about a rental car: Use a taxi or shuttle service to reach the heart of the port city where the historic center is located.

Even if you drive into Charleston, your visit will be infinitely more enjoyable if you keep your car parked and use the many available forms of public transportation — city buses and taxis, free hop-on/hop-off trolley buses, free Scoop Car electric taxis, horse-drawn carriages and pedicabs.

You’ll also notice skateboarders in the midst of all the traffic. (In Charleston, skateboards are treated as street-legal vehicles.)

Finding your way around downtown Charleston is a snap.

Just a few points of reference and you’ve got it nailed: Meeting Street and King Street give you a north-south orientation. Calhoun Street and Broad Street provide east-west orientation.

To make it even easier to locate places of interest, tour companies offer 90-minute get-acquainted excursions aboard small buses with large windows.

The buses depart every half hour from the big visitors center on Meeting Street; there you can also sign up for tailored tours that include outlying mansions and plantations.

A 13-inch Civil War mortar (cannon) with shells (bombs) is on display along The Battery in historic Charleston.

Military histories

You’ll quickly realize that Charleston’s history has a dominant military theme, from the Revolutionary War all the way through to even our most recent conflicts.

Landmarks and monuments everywhere manifest Charleston’s proud military heritage.

Among them are The Citadel, The Battery, Fort Sumter and Patriots Point. The latter includes the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum aboard the USS Yorktown.

If you opt for a boat excursion out to the Fort Sumter island fortification, note that the huge Charleston Aquarium is also located at the dock area you’ll be departing from for your trip.

Hoppin’ John is a rice dish with black-eyed peas or dried local field peas, onion and sliced bacon. Though it’s available year-round at Charleston restaurants, Hoppin’ John is especially popular at family celebrations on New Year’s Day.

Food and drink           

Dining is a pleasure in Charleston.

You’ll find a rich variety of fast-food joints on King Street, many of which are locally born establishments.

And there are restaurants aplenty for those who favor more formal dining experiences, too.

But check prices before committing. After-the-fact sticker shock could sour your sweet desert.

Charleston features some can’t-miss unique fare such as She Crab Soup (a cross between a bisque and a chowder, made with blue crab meat), Hoppin’ John (a rice dish made with black-eyed peas) and Huguenot torte (an apple and nut dessert that’s a bit like pecan pie without a crust).

On Saturday mornings, there’s a vibrant farmers market in Marion Square where you can enjoy the area’s specialties as you wander around the small park.

A common denominator in local cuisine is the use of fresh rather than frozen ingredients: Take note, seafood lovers.

Scenic Folly Beach is a 25-minute drive from the heart of Charleston. It’s situated on Folly Island — a barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean.


Surprisingly, the historic district has a very youthful spirit that’s largely due to the presence of a university and several colleges, including The Citadel military college.

Smart-looking young folks are always walking and jogging throughout the city.

By the way, there’s little doubt that young gals wearing scanty shorts led to the demise of the textile industry in the Deep South; they greatly reduced the demand for fabric!

At any rate, the downtown area hosts a happy mix of folks, most of whom enjoy Charleston’s jazzy nightlife late into the night.

Charleston is known as The Holy City for its more than 400 places of worship, including St. Michael’s Church, the city’s oldest religious structure, built between 1751 and 1761.

Authentic souvenirs

Now what about a keepsake to take home?

The city’s market is in the southwest portion of the peninsula, Market Street to be precise.

You’ll stroll through a series of large buildings that create a bright and airy tunnel of sorts — with hundreds of imbedded shops offering too many choices.

Beyond the requisite refrigerator magnets, two big favorites are handmade reed baskets and cypress carvings — not made in China.

Local craftspeople weave a variety of reed baskets well suited for holding fruit and bread, and the cypress carvings are especially nice because termites can’t stomach that type of wood.

Sunrise illuminates a tree-lined walk in a downtown Charleston.

Pretty place, friendly people

Clearly, at least one visit to Charleston is an absolute imperative.

The well-preserved European-style architecture — characterized by Georgian, Neoclassical and Greek Revival-style plantation homes and mansions — is extremely impressive.

And, perhaps most important, this port city is the heart of gracious Southern culture: You’ll be treated well in the Lowcountry, and there’s no need to feel out of place.

In fact, the locals don’t even declare themselves to be native Charlestonians unless they can officially trace their family roots back to the earliest immigrants.

So, although you may not be a descendant of The Old Guard, wonderful Charleston is unofficially your town, too — even if just for a few pleasurable days.

John Liburdi is a freelance writer. His latest book, Italian American Fusion: Italy’s Influence on the Evolution of America, is available at Minnesota Good Age editor Sarah Jackson contributed to this story.