A walking tour is a great way to explore the city at a leisurely pace and discover its impressive architecture, hidden alleys and other secrets. Charleston Strolls’ tours take you through the historic district and to homes, gardens and churches which are off the beaten track. Horse and carriage tours and bus tours are also available.
• 18 Anson Street, charlestonstrolls.com
More enslaved Africans were sold in Charleston than in any other place in the US, so it makes sense that we have a museum dedicated to this very dark part of our history. The Old Slave Mart Museum is the first African-American Museum, complete with moving displays describing the lives of slaves. Many of the staff can trace their history back to Charleston slaves. The museum is on a cobblestone street in an original slave-auction house. Charleston is also building the International African American Museum, due to open in 2020 or early 2021.
• 6 Chalmers Street, oldslavemartmuseum.com
Gardens and swamps
As a kid I loved all the rivers, creeks, waterways and beaches of Charleston – a city with nature at its heart. Gardens are considered an art form here and it’s incredibly beautiful in spring, when everything’s in bloom. The Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, about 20 miles from downtown, is spectacular. Founded in 1676, it opened to visitors in 1870 and is the oldest public gardens in America. You can tour the gardens – in bloom all year – and see everything from camellias to azaleas. There’s also a plantation house, which gives a glimpse into 19th-century life. A tram ride will take you through wetlands, forest and marshes, where you can spot alligators, egrets, herons and turtles. Audubon Swamp Garden, with trees growing from the water, is particularly abundant in wildlife. Explore this on foot, on boardwalks and crossing bridges, to be truly immersed in nature.
• 3550 Ashley River Road, magnoliaplantation.com
On the waterfront
There are many ways to explore Charleston on water. Board a tall ship for an afternoon dolphin sail or a romantic sunset wine-tasting cruise. For more of a workout, take a kayak out from Shem Creek and you’ll see dolphins and sometimes whales; there’s something magical about paddling through creeks and marshes while breathing in the salt air. There are great beaches further afield: the Isle of Palms, set up with showers and shops, is good for families, while Folly Beach is more laidback.
To the grave…
One of the most beautiful places in Charleston is the Victorian Magnolia Cemetery just outside the historic district on a former rice plantation. It’s a real who’s who of the city since the 1800s. So many stories can be told from here: this is where more than 2,000 Confederate soldiers who died during the civil war are buried. Spread over 150 acres, it was designed, as cemeteries once were, to be a park for gatherings and picnics. Resting on the banks of Cooper River and near a large lagoon, the scenery is magnificent, with landscaped paths and ponds and imposing monuments. It’s great for birdwatching and spotting wildlife, from alligators to turtles. We’ve just started evening tours where you’ll learn about the history of the cemetery and hear tales of unsolved murders and other scandalous tragedies.
• 70 Cunnington Avenue, magnoliacemetery.net
There’s a really vibrant food scene in Charleston today, and Magnolias has played a huge part in the culinary renaissance that has taken place over the past decade. Charleston has access to excellent fresh produce: we’ve been doing farm-to-table for 350 years! Magnolias has been an institution since the 1990s and its Lowcountry cuisine (associated with the South Carolina and Georgia coast and influenced by British, French and African immigrants) is an interesting mix that includes great seafood and traditional dishes, such as shrimp and grits. The restaurant was also a forerunner for upscale Southern cuisine and has done a great job of giving old-school recipes a twist. Try its fried chicken and sausage gravy, Charleston crab cake, and fried green tomatoes with caramelised onion grits.
• 185 East Bay Street, magnoliascharleston.com
A taste of the South
A local’s favourite serving some of the best gourmet comfort food in the Lowcountry, Cru Café was opened in 2002 by chef/owner John Zucker. Set in an 18th-century house, it’s a fairly casual affair – you can sit on the porch or on a communal table. The cafe takes pride in using local produce, offering a variety of salads and local seafood. Favourites include the four-cheese macaroni and the orange sherbert cake. Another good restaurant is Fleet Landing, based in an old navy building on the waterfront in historic downtown. From here you can watch boats go by and maybe even spot dolphins while eating seafood gumbo or fried oysters with barbecue sauce. Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, run by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is a great experience. Southern hospitality escalated, it’s so genuinely friendly and the coffee is great too.
Every Saturday, a huge variety of farmers, growers and food vendors take over beautiful Marion Square in the historic district for the Charleston Farmers’ Market. I love getting there early when the stalls are being set up, with the aromas of coffee and gastronomic delights in the air. All produce has to be grown locally, in South Carolina; bananas are the only exception! It’s great to wander and nibble, and try local favourites such as grits and jelly on toast. It’s also good for families, offering a bouncy castle and live entertainment. And there’s myriad stalls where local craftsman sell everything from jewellery to hats.
• Marion Square, charlestonfarmersmarket.com
Jump on a ferry
To get the best idea of the city’s layout, you’ll need to see Charleston from the water. Take a ferry ride out into harbour and explore Fort Sumter on the manmade island to learn where the American civil war began. The park rangers leading the tours are experts in this area, so this is a must-do for history fans. That aside, the boat ride is fun and the views are outstanding.
The world’s first killer sub
Raised in 2000 after being lost for over a century, HL Hunley was the first successful combat submarine in the world, but she went missing in 1864 during the civil war. The hand-cranked vessel can be visited at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where an international team of scientists are working hard to conserve her and find clues about her mysterious disappearance. Fascinating, particularly for naval history buffs.
• 1250 Supply Street, hunley.org
British Airways has just launched twice-weekly flights from Heathrow to Charleston – the only direct flights between Europe and the city. Fares start at £486 return.
Where to stay
Accommodation in Charleston isn’t cheap, but Days Inn by Wyndham Charleston in the historic district has double rooms from $114 and is well located for exploring the city on foot.
When to go
Charleston is beautiful in the spring when the flowers are in bloom and it’s not too hot. September to November is also a good time to visit, with lower room rates and fewer crowds.
John Laverne is the owner and a tour guide of Bulldog Tours
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