With cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and antebellum mansions, visiting Charleston feels like stepping into a different era. The South Carolina port city, founded in 1670, enjoys mild temperatures well into the winter and early spring, making it a great destination for those looking for 60s and sunshine during the colder months.
Wandering here is such a pleasure, especially in the French Quarter—a historic neighborhood where I found myself wanting to stop to take a photo of a colorful clapboard home, impressively large porch, or a cluster of Spanish-moss covered live oaks every few steps. While many restaurant menus here are full of Southern classics like hush puppies and fried green tomatoes, as well as the local favorite She Crab Soup, others, like Basic Kitchen, offer inventive, vegetable-forward takes on regional fare (try the corn ribs). And of course, don’t forget the sweet tea.
There’s also plenty of shopping, art, history, and culture to keep you entertained. Recently, the city opened the much-anticipated International African American Museum, which is built on a former slave trading port, and will educate visitors on the African diaspora. Read on for more ideas for what to do, eat, and drink while you’re in town.
What to Do
Walk down this fortified seawall-turned-promenade, where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet, and take in the views of Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the U.S. Civil War were fired, and the many historic antebellum mansions. Some of them, like the Heyward-Washington House and the Edmondston-Alston House, have been turned into museums, so you can get a peak at the inside, too. And remember to look down: many of the sidewalks are made from bleached oyster shells.
No trip to Charleston is complete without a stroll down King Street, a main thoroughfare in the historic downtown that features some of the city’s best shopping. With boutiques set in historic storefronts selling floral sundresses in every color of the rainbow along the charming and vibrant street, which also features some of the city’s trendiest restaurants, it’s easy to see why King was once named one of the Top 10 Shopping Streets in the country. While you’re there, be sure to pop into EtúHome, a European-inspired kitchen store. The Atlanta-based lifestyle brand opened a large location on King Street in fall 2021 to bring their hand-carved wares and signature hand-blown glass items to Charleston. Keep an eye out for “found” items, brought in from Europe monthly.
Charleston City Market
The Charleston City Market spans four blocks and is home to hundreds of vendors selling crafts, clothing, jewelry, artwork, snacks, spices, and more. Originally established in 1790, the market was once where farmers came to sell beef and produce. The nature of the goods may have changed, but the market’s significance as a gathering place for residents and visitors alike is unchanged. It’s open every day during the day, and there is a night market on Fridays and Saturdays as well. Two highlights: sweetgrass baskets and Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit.
Where to Eat
The Darling Oyster Bar
Oyster bars are plentiful in Charleston, but there’s a reason The Darling has been called “the pearl” of the scene. The enormous, street-facing seafood display case bursting with lobster tails, crab claws, and a variety of oysters will likely stop you in your tracks as you pass by the 115-year-old storefront. If so, grab a seat at the raw bar just inside and enjoy watching the shuckers work. And if cooked seafood is more your thing, I highly recommend the Creole Shrimp.
Butcher & Bee
The cuisine at Butcher & Bee is meant to be enjoyed around a big table with friends and family. Owner Michael Shemtov was born in Israel to an Iraq-born father and a Louisiana-raised mother, and that combo resulted in the Middle East-meets-lowcountry fare that has made Butcher & Bee a hit since its opening in Charleston in 2011. The restaurant, which now has a second location in Nashville and spinoffs The Daily (in Charleston and Atlanta) and Redheaded Strangers (a Nashville-based taco joint), was a 2022 James Beard Awards finalist for “outstanding restaurant.” My personal favorite dish was the seared mushrooms, which are cooked in pork fat; they were, no lie, the first mushrooms I’ve enjoyed in my 38 years of life.
If you’re lucky enough to nab a spot at Chubby Fish, which doesn’t take reservations and starts to fill immediately upon opening at 5 P.M. every day (except Sunday and Monday), you’re in for a real treat. South Carolina native chef/owner James London has been fishing and cooking from a young age, and it shows—this man really knows his way around seafood. But the best part of dining here (other than the caviar sammich—my God!) is that you can feel good while eating. Chubby Fish is dedicated to sustainable seafood; London harnesses his relationships with local fishers and small farms to create a menu that changes daily, but is always delicious, no matter what’s being offered.
Where to Drink
It can be hard to get a reservation for dinner at the award-winning Husk without advance planning, so here’s a tip: The bar & patio located right next door is first come, first served, and offers the same menu as the restaurant. Put your name on the list when you arrive and enjoy a whiskey in the garden outside; once your name is called and you’re seated at the bar inside, you can order off the food menu (highlights include the Carolina Gold crab rice and the pimento cheese). The menu is a modern take on Southern fare and the establishment is fiercely committed to using traditional, local ingredients—the owners like to say, if it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door—and through seed-saving and heirloom husbandry, the team at Husk is helping to ensure the ingredients the region is known for will be around for us to enjoy for decades to come.
Palm Springs meets Southern hospitality at Little Palm, a poolside café and cocktail bar located at the Ryder Hotel. With pink and green hues, tiki-esque décor, and palm fronds throughout, the space was practically made for Instagram. And the drinks, with ingredients like watermelon, guava, and papaya, were made for your vacation.
The Gin Joint
When the Gin Joint opened in Charleston in 2010, it was the city’s first dedicated craft cocktail spot. Over a decade later, it’s still serving some of the best concoctions in town. As you might guess from the name, the speakeasy specializes in gin—they even have a gin eggnog for the holiday season. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can opt for the “bartender’s choice”; pick two words from their list (options include “bitter,” “vegetal,” and “smoky”), and prepare yourself for a real treat.
Where to Stay
Opened in July 2020, Emeline, a luxury boutique hotel, is a newer arrival in Charleston’s historic downtown. From the moment I stepped off the cobblestone street, through the historic front door, and into the spacious lobby, I was struck by the hotel’s interior design. Jewel tones, patterned wallpaper, brass hardware, Crosley record players in every room—it all felt more like being in a very cool person’s house than a hotel. The lobby “living room” was so well designed that I wanted to move in. The hotel’s restaurant Frannie & Fox was packed with locals every night (always a good sign), and the wood-fired pizza was delicious. I also enjoyed the Keep Shop, a very well curated store with accessories, art, and home goods from local artisans (the first time I’ve purchased something in a hotel gift shop!). Another nice touch: complimentary bikes to help you explore the city.
Mills House is perhaps one of the most eye-pleasing landmark hotels in downtown Charleston. Located in the historic French Quarter, it’s easy to spot with its charming pink exterior. It’s also conveniently located to many attractions, and within walking distance of the Waterfront Park pier. Having undergone a recent multi-million dollar renovation, the property features a rooftop bar and terrace, pool, café, and restaurant. Inside, you’ll find tall ceilings and inviting interiors. Rooms are elegantly furnished, incorporating modern stylish furnishings, with old southern charm, making it very hard to leave. Did someone say “room service”?
Right smack in the center of downtown Charleston is The Dewberry, a five-star hotel that balances modernity and old-world charm. Built in the 1960s and originally a federal museum commissioned by former president John F. Kennedy, The Dewberry’s 155 rooms and suites boast covetable views of the skyline and harbor. (There’s even a special John Derian-designed flat featuring the artist’s decoupage pieces and vintage-inspired textiles.) Also check out its award-winning bars, The Living Room and Citrus Club, for inventive cocktails and ingredient-rich dishes served on wooden bowls handmade by local artist Hugh Jeffers—from a 150-year-old tree that used to border the property.
Kayla Webley Adler is the Deputy Editor of ELLE magazine. She edits cover stories, profiles, and narrative features on politics, culture, crime, and social trends. Previously, she worked as the Features Director at Marie Claire magazine and as a Staff Writer at TIME magazine.