The Ultimate Travel Guide to Charleston, South Carolina
This year, when Conde Nast took on the daunting task of naming “the Best City in the World”, the prestigious award wasn’t granted to London, Paris or Tokyo. Taking many people by surprise (but not anyone who’s been there), it was the one and only Charleston, South Carolina.
From the sweeter-than-sweet-tea locals, to the stately and historical old Southern colonial homes, Charleston is the charm of the South. The only shame in visiting the city is that so much of its magic comes in its pace and way of life – something hard to grasp in a short trip. Whether you’re there for a weekend or a week or more, I promise you won’t be able to get enough of this city. Going to school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill left me a short 4 hours away from Charleston, so I got there quite a few times in college, and each time had a different experience. With groups of friends, I love experiencing the nightlife and the beaches on the coast. With my girls, I can’t get enough of the King Street shopping. And with my family, I love the top-notch southern dining and taking in all the history & beauty of the city. Charleston has so much to offer for everyone, and every group – so let’s talk about what y’all should do when you get there.
Hands-down my favorite place to stay in Charleston. The location is impossible to beat (directly on Upper King, surrounded by all the shopping and restaurants of your dreams), and the rooms are SO beautiful. They each feature a glam standalone tub, and charming-but-contemporary furnishings that will make you feel like it’s your home away from home in the South.
The Hotel Bennett building used to be a public library and was just opened this year as Charleston’s newest luxury hotel. It’s grand, but quaint at the same time… in true Charleston fashion. And my favorite part is there’s a to-die-for rooftop pool on the top floor. It gets HOT in Charleston, and having this oasis in the middle of the city to come back to after a long day of walking and sightseeing was the ultimate luxury. There’s also an incredible spa with the nicest staff. I had a facial with Kelly and I think I’m going to need to plan a trip to Charleston every few months just to see her. She worked wonders on my jet-lagged face.
And, even if you’re not staying at Hotel Bennett, make sure you pop in for a meal at their restaurant (Gabrielle, a Parisian style outdoor/indoor eatery started by an acclaimed chef from New Orleans), or their ultra-instagrammable Patisserie (which has some of the best pastries & coffee around).
With it’s picture-perfect central location on Meeting Street, this elegant hotel is one of the most luxurious and kid-friendly hotels in the Holy City – and is always my choice of where to stay in downtown Charleston. Located across the street from the market and adjacent to hopping King Street, it’s one of the most central hotels in the city. Not only that, but it’s stunning — a perfect blend of southern charm and classic elegance. A massive Murano chandelier, weighing nearly two tons, illuminates the open Georgian staircase in the lobby. Ask for a room on the club level – in addition to complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, the resort offers a great continental breakfast (hello, biscuits and gravy), afternoon tea, delicious cocktail hour snacks, and evening desserts. club privileges. I always like to upgrade to a club-level room in any property, because the perks typically more than make up for the cost.
Zero George’s mantra is “Historic elegance meets sophisticated chic,” and the hotel embodies that at every corner with its commitment to upscale hospitality. Zero George’s immaculately restored 1804 buildings and private courtyard are the ideal ground zero for exploring Charleston. You can stroll around town on their complimentary bikes; indulge in their award-winning dining; or just simply relax with a cocktail in hand on their courtyard.
Want to feel like you were born into southern royalty? Stay at this inn on Charleston’s famous Meeting Street. The mansion was originally built in the 1800s as a gift from a father to his daughter on her wedding day and is the ultimate Southern experience in a charming Charleston inn. Your vacay is only complete with their beautiful daily afternoon tea on the wraparound porch, surrounded by the majestic draping willowtrees. Heaven.
If you want to splurge on a true luxury hotel, the 5-Star Wentworth Mansion is your place. It was named the #1 Small City Hotel by Travel & Leisure, and the #12 Best Hotel In the World, and it truly definines decadence and romance. Originally a Charleston home built in the 1800’s, this gem embodies the charm, relaxation, and history of this little city. You’ll even stay in what used to be the bedrooms of the family that built the elaborate house. Luxury at its finest.
Set in Charleston’s charming cobblestoned Historic District, The French Quarter Inn is a sophisticated southern gem located right in the heart of horse-drawn carraiges, delicious Charleston restaurants, high-end art galleries, and within walking distance to the more rowdy King Street. The best part about this inn is the personalized experience—upon arrival, guests are greeted with Champagne and in the evening, and turndown service comes with complimentary port wine and cookies.
Located about 30-45 minutes outside of the city is the gorgeous Kiawah Island Resort located on a secluded little beach town called Kiawah Island. This Santuary lives up to its name, feeling like a relaxed, quiet oasis outside of the city. Golfers will love the award-winning PGA Championship golf course, and beach-lovers will flock to their picture-perfect Carolina coastline. Rent bikes from their rental center just off of the lobby, and ride them all along the beach and around the island. That’s right you west-coasters, the beaches in the South are famous for their sand hard and flat enough that you can ride a bike right on the edge of the waves. It’s beautiful! Just try not to go too far into the water.
What to do in Charleston
Charleston is jam-packed with activities for everyone… whether you’re here on a bachelor or bachelorette party, a girl’s getaway, a romantic couples’ weekend, or a family vacation. Here are a few of my favorite things to do in and around the city:
Head to this famous flea market is in central Charleston and you’ll find anything and everything to bring back for all your loved ones. It’s open 365 days a year, and features everything from handmade pottery, to Charleston’s famous sweetgrass baskets, to gorgeous paintings, jewelry, souvenirs and more. Definitely worth checking out.
Shopping on King Street
Oh, King Street. The beautiful street where my wallet goes to cry. This expansive shopping area is one of the very best in the world – and has everything from big brands like J. Crew, Vineyard Vines, and Kate Spade to small boutiques full of beautifully-curated collections. You can’t go wrong spending a day shopping on, or just strolling down, King Street. My favorite boutique on King is a store called Skinny Dip – on 345 King St. – where you can shop on the first floor, and then head to the second floor to their rooftop patio and coffee/wine bar after – the best frosé in all of Charleston!
If you’re looking for the top Instagram spots in Charleston, this is it. This stretch of charming, colorful houses (running from 83 to 107 East Bay Street) is one of the most beautiful and historic areas in all of Charleston. Located in an area known as South of Broad Street, the famous 14 houses in a row are painted in bright pastels all of the colors of the rainbow, and have been ever since about 1740. It’s one of my favorite places in all of Charleston, and a must for any trip to the city.
Beautiful and historical plantations are a must for your first time visiting the South. The Boone Hall Plantation is one of America’s oldest working plantations, continually growing crops for over 320 years – and has been made famous in more recent years for it’s starring roles in movies like The Notebook (yep… it’s THAT house) and Forrest Gump (the Run, Forrest, Run! scene), and was also the site of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds wedding. This plantation tour is not only stunningly beautiful, but you’ll learn all about slavery and southern history as you tour the grounds, and have a whole new appreciation for the rich history that underlies the city of Charleston.
Charleston has a lot of haunted history, and the famous Charleston ghost tour is the only way. The true tales of intrigue, tragedy, and lost love reveal the dark side of Charleston’s character that isn’t apparent during the day. The highlight of this tour is our exclusive nighttime access to the 18th century Unitarian Church Graveyard, where you will experience “something magical”… DUN DUN DUN
There’s no better way to learn about the history of Charleston than on one of its famous horse-drawn carraige rides. Experience all the beauty and history of downtown, learning all about “The Holy City” and it’s Civil War history. If history’s not your thing – don’t worry, you get to see all the gorgeous mansions in the city, too.
Where to eat in Charleston
Check out my post The Foodie Guide to Charleston
James Beard award-winning HUSK features an ever-changing seasonal menu of locally sourced Southern dishes served in a gorgeous restored Victorian-era home. At Husk, there are some hard-and-fast rules about what can go on your plate – if it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door. While supper at the iconic Husk is unbelievable and a destination dining experience for travelers worldwide, it can be hard to get a reservation, which is why it’s recommended to just head across the street to the Bar at Husk, which features a similar ingredient-driven food menu, and a drink menu full of beautiful cocktails and 50+ bourbon choices that will knock you right off your rocking chair.
Looking for the best Mexican in the South? Did you even doubt for a second that I’d find it? If you guys follow me on Instagram Stories, you know my undying, unadulterated love for good Mexican food (and great margaritas). So let’s taco ’bout the best Mexican restaurant in the South for a minute. Minero has homemade melt-in-your-mouth corn tortillas and chips, fresh guacamole that will make you feel like you’re in Tulum, mouthwatering carnitas, to-die-for fried catfish tacos, chicken taco salads, fresh-fried churros and chocolate sauce, and so, so much more. The only thing I’ll knock them for is they do charge for chips and charge per tiny container of salsa (Sacrilege! Only in the South can you get away with that – Californians would never stand for it). But, luckily, this Mexican gem also happens to be one of the best happy hours in Charleston – Minero’s happy hour (Monday through Friday, 3:30-6:30) features $3 PBR pints, $2 tequila shots, $3 bourbon shots, $4 select wines, and $2 off margaritas, micheladas, and sangrias.
This adorable date night hot spot is a new gourmet wood-fired pizza & wine spot and is quickly taking over Charleston’s foodie scene. Not only does stepping into the restaurant feel like you could be some chic restaurant in Florence, New York City, or San Francisco, but each and every one of their inventive wood-fired pizzas will blow your mind. They’re small which makes them perfect to share amongst a group when you want to try all the different kinds. Make sure to head there on the early side, or be prepared to wait, as it’s a small restaurant (only about 12 tables), and they don’t take reservations (you can sit at the bar, though!).
My order: The Montepulciano wine, the Shabazi pizza, and the Rocco pizza. (Holy cow you guys these both were easily some of the best pizzas I’ve ever had).
This contemporary Southern American bistro is a Charleston staple. From scallops, to Carolina flounder, to lamb, to shrimp and grits, SNOB is one of the best restaurants in Chucktown. But wait- you haven’t even heard the desserts, yet. Sour cream apple pie? Banana cream pie? Creme brulee? You’re already dialing the restaurant to get a reservation, aren’t you?
This place is so good – I’m talking finger-lickin’ down-home-country-cookin-on-the-cutest-southern-porch-y’all-have-ever-seen good. Fried chicken, biscuits, sweet tea glazed salmon, fried pimento cheese, local seafood, filet mignon …. this menu has everything you could ever want and more that you’d ever thought you’d try (fried alligator salad? Only in the south). Check it out for brunch, lunch or dinner – you won’t be disappointed.
If you’re walking down King Street past 1am, you’re likely to see a long line of partiers lining up outside a small storefront labeled with a simple “HLB”. Hot Little Biscuit, which started as a local counter selling Callie’s world-famous flaky buttermilk biscuits has quickly turned into the best late night available in all of Charleston. So, whether you want to make your morning way better with a sausage, egg, and cheese breakfast biscuit, or soak up a long night of partying on King Street with a late night assortment, Callie’s is a must-do. Open until 2pm on all days, and reopens from 10pm-2am on Fridays and Saturdays.
For more tips on where to eat in Charleston, check out my Foodie Guide to Charleston here
Nightlife in Charleston
Being a college town and a young professional haven, the nightlife in Charleston is awesome. Lots of live music, sporty pubs, upscale bars, and a lot of good-looking people looking to have a good time. Although it’s easy to just walk King Street and find a number of hotspots, here are a couple of my favorites to get your night started:
The Stars rooftop – located on the top level of Stars restaurant – is a hot spot at night or in the mornings for their frozen Bellinis, mimosas and Bloody Mary’s. This place is particularly great for groups, with it’s number of large tables and couches set up lounge-style outside on the rooftop. Be sure to get there early in the night, though! It’s an extremely popular spot in town, and you don’t want to be waiting in a ridiculous line just to get in (and then again for your drinks).
The only rooftop brewery in Charleston’s NoMo neighborhood, Revelry Brewing has become a popular destination for the after-work set looking for award-winning beers and and breezy views.
When a bunch of friends and I went to this historical bar, we were expecting a small pub… but walk further into this seemingly neighborhood pub and you get to the most beautiful (and packed) outdoor patio area that truly makes this bar the gem it is. It feels kind of like an old historical English courtyard mixed with a jungle. Check out their Sunday brunch for $3 mimosas, bellinis (my favorite) and Bloody Mary’s until 3pm!
“Great service” takes on whole new meaning at this one-of-a-kind bar and restaurant that is actually a transformed church! Complete with original windows and gorgeous sky-high ceilings, this unique space makes for a great nighttime hang. They have great food & delicious drinks – as if you need more convincing to be able to say you got drunk in church.
Beaches in Charleston
While you won’t find sandy beaches in downtown Charleston, there are multiple islands just off of the city, accessible by bridges, that offer some of the most beautiful coastlines in the Carolinas, each with their own unique vibe. Check out Folly Beach for a low-key, casual beach town (check out Juice Joint for acai bowls, and Chico Feo and Taco Boy for delicious mexican), Isle of Palms for a lively escape (check out Banana Cabana during the day for lunch on the beach, and Windjammer bar at night for great live music), or Sullivan’s Island for an upscale tucked away oasis (Check out Obstinate Daughter for dinner, and be sure to get Sullivan’s Island local Kenny Powers’s favorite -a gamechanger drink at Hometeam BBQ).
Know before you go
Do I need a car in Charleston?
Yes and no. Charleston is extremely walkable, and you won’t find yourself needing a car during the days exploring the city. It’s small, and you’ll find yourself walking all around it, getting lost in the magnificent architecture and cobblestone streets. But, if you want to head out to the beaches and islands like Kiawah or out of town to sites like the Boone Plantation, it helps a lot to have a car.
What time of year is best for visiting Charleston?
Spring and fall are the best times for Charleston, but there really is no bad time to travel to this charming city. It is absolutely stunning year-round.
Check out my blog post on Packing for Charleston!