Not only is Charleston, South Carolina, the most popular place for destination weddings in the United States, but it is also one of the most popular tourist locations overall. If you’re looking to take a late summer/early fall vacation, then Charleston is definitely worthy of consideration, to say the least. After all, not only did Travel and Leisure named it the number one city in the entire world for 2016, but also the picturesque city is equipped with beautiful beaches, historic architecture, and tons of great places to eat. So why not travel to “The Holy City,” replete with many old churches, historic homes with wrought iron fences, extravagant gardens, horse-drawn carriages, and cobblestone streets?
While you’re walking around shopping or out for lunch, you will probably get hustled into buying a hand-woven palmetto rose on the street, but that’s part of the charm of the city. It’s like a step back in time but in a modern and trendy way. So crank up your appetite for shrimp and grits, buy a new swimsuit, and take a trip to one of the most beloved cities in the whole world.
Where To Stay:
Zero George: For a true Southern experience, look no further than Zero George, a restored collection of homes (some from the early 1800s) that have been turned into the most charming of hotel rooms and an exquisite restaurant (more on that below) and bar (that hosts cheese and wine happy hours daily!) surrounding a picturesque private courtyard (see above). After being greeted with a glass of Champagne at check-in, make your way to the spacious rooms with original architectural elements but stocked with modern indulgences like Malin+Goetz toiletries, Frette sheets, and plush robes. Whether you choose to drink wine on your porch, borrow complimentary (and Instagrammable, thanks to their mint color) bikes that the hotel offers, or take a hands-on cooking class on the property, you will be hard-pressed to find more Charleston knowledgeable staff to assist you in your plans. Plus, minor but very important, the complimentary breakfast serves some addiction-worthy homemade quiches and ham and cheese croissants. —Irina Grechko
The Restoration: These sleeping quarters ain't cheap, that's for sure. But with a location in the prime downtown area, this five-building boutique hotel makes up for the price with its chic downtown New York-esque decor with exposed brick, tall windows and ceilings, and luxe suite rooms. In addition to housing a bar, library lounge (which also can serve as a bar), scenic rooftop, outdoor pool, and coffee bar (that partners with Toby's Estate), the hotel also has a bespoke spa that offers an amethyst massage and a sapphire facial.—IG
The Francis Marion: Located right on Marion Square, the heart of historic Charleston and the center of the downtown area, this hotel is the perfect location for tourists. Right off King Street, travelers are within walking distance to dozens of the best restaurants and shops. The luxurious-looking lobby will make you feel like you stepped into a historic mansion. And this isn’t just a good place to rest your head at night, the hotel also has a full-service day spa, Spa Adagio, and you can get some classic Southern food from the hotel’s Swamp Fox Restaurant & Bar.
The Battery Carriage House Inn: This romantic bed and breakfast is charming and homey. Dating back to 1843, the historic sleeper has nine rooms, and each one has a private entrance and its own unique vintage decor. However, if ghosts aren’t your thing, then this may not be the place for you because it is said to be the regular dwelling place of “The Headless Torso,” “The Gentleman Ghost,” and more.
Where To Eat (day)
Cannon Green: In Charleston, brunch typically only happens on Sunday (sad, we know), so wherever you choose to have it, make sure it's worthy of a week's wait. All to say, go to Cannon Green, Zero George's sister restaurant, that looks like a charming greenhouse-meets-manor and hosts a live DJ every Sunday. The high-ceiling airy space with a grand staircase and an outdoor patio, decorated with palm trees and fountain pathway, doubles as a wedding venue, and for good reason! Try the spectacular shrimp and grits or skillet eggs with chorizo and salsa roja paired with a peach mimosa or the restaurant's signature Bloody Mary that has vodka and bourbon. Also, ask for the extra scones with the garlic butter. Just trust us on this. —IG
Jestine's Kitchen: This no-frills spot has earned its spot in the locals culinary playbook for the very good fried chicken and other cholesterol-skyrocketing foods that they serve. Be indulgent here, and get all the fried deliciousness there is. —IG
Hominy Grill: Brought by a James Beard Award-winning chef, this ultra-popular restaurant, housed in a red shingled house, serves some of the best Lowcountry classics in the area. Think: chicken fried steak sandwich, jalapeño hush puppies, okra and shrimp beignets, she-crab soup (a must in Charleston even if it's scorching hot outside), and slow-smoked ribs. We can guarantee that this will become your favorite lunch spot while in town.—IG
Lewis Barbecue: Speaking of ribs, this smokehouse from a Texas (!) barbecue veteran is another go-to for locals and tourists alike. Order the brisket, ribs, or pulled pork at the counter and watch them cut it in front of you for a sandwich or plate. The corn pudding is as good and the margaritas as strong as everyone says. —IG
Toast!: If a good brunch or breakfast for dinner is one of your requirements, then you should definitely eat at Toast!. They serve breakfast all day, but the lunch and dinner are good, too. The fried sweet tea glazed chicken is our personal favorite, and you can’t leave without trying one of their flavored Bloody Mary’s.
Fast & French (Gaulart & Maliclet): Charleston’s own little pocket of France. It’s small and you may be sharing a table with strangers, but its authentic French cuisine and atmosphere are completely worth it. Go for the lunch special and you can get a croissant or baguette sandwich, a cup of their daily changing hot or chilled soup, and a glass of house wine all for $11. Just like in many European restaurants, you also don’t have to add on any extra money for tax or leave a tip.
Smoke BBQ: One of the best places to get BBQ in Charleston. Meat lovers can have their choice of slow cooked pork, famous wings, chicken, brisket, and more.
Hyman’s Seafood: Tons of celebrities have dined here, and although it’s a pretty touristy attraction, the seafood is delicious and they serve you tons of food so you will definitely have leftovers for later. Nameplates on the tables will show you what famous people ate at the same seat as you (I sat in Cam Newton’s seat).
Queen Street Grocery: If you’re taking a stroll through the city and you want a quick snack, then you should get a crepe from Queen Street Grocery. It looks like any other corner store at first glance, but this place offers a yummy variety of sweet and savory crepes (including gluten-free options), as well as fresh smoothies, omelets, sandwiches, and salads.
King Street Cookies: Sweet tooth calling? King Street Cookies has a huge selection of unique flavors including MexiCoCo Spice, Peachy Keen, and strawberry pink lemonade. Of course, they have traditional flavors, too, like chocolate chip, sugar cookie, and snickerdoodle. They offer a wide selection of gluten-free cookies as well. You can wash down your treats with a variety of coffee drinks or help yourself to the milk bar.
Where To Eat (night)
Zero Restaurant + Bar: I've been pretty fortunate to eat my way through my share of award-winning restaurants, both Stateside and abroad, but after trying chef Vinson Petrillo's seasonal- and local-inspired tasting menus, I have to say, it was one of the best meals I have ever had. From the first course, an amuse-bouche explosion of flavors made up of a lobster salad-filled puff, truffled deviled egg, topped crispy sunchokes, and butter radishes served in a mini planter of crunchy quinoa to resemble dirt; to the appetizers, that included a fresh-from-the-ocean scallop tartare in young coconut sauce, liquid center corn tortellini that exploded in your mouth (I did all but dunk my head in the creamy sauce made up of chanterelles and parmesan; seriously, I would eat this dish every day for the rest of my life) and braised Japanese eggplant with truffle miso and dashi; to the entrees, like the beef Wellington with aerated potatoes that made me rethink all beef Wellingtons; and dessert, a coconut milk-heavy tres leches, Petrillo crafts a contemporary American story of gourmet proportion. And, with every single dish a culinary masterpiece unlike the one before it, where flavors, textures, and playful presentations all interact with each other in a food dance intended to seduce the diner, it's a story that we should all be closely taking notes on. Note: Make sure to spend extra on the drink pairings, which are perfectly matched and include both all-around favorites as well as unexpected boutique wines.—IG
Fig: No restaurant is spoken of more in Charleston than Fig. And all the reviews are true—it's insanely good. With a focus on local and seasonal cuisine, chef Mike Lata serves straightforward fare (not be confused with boring) that melts on the tip of your tongue. A love letter to the Lowcountry traditions, expect the most unexpected fish pairings, succulent meats that include suckling pig and steak with bone marrow potatoes, and traditional homemade pastas turned on their head like in the ricotta gnocchi and lamb Bolognese dish. You might want to cry a little bit when it's all over. —IG
Le Farfalle: This relative newcomer specializes in traditional Italian cuisine with a twist. Begin with a cocktail from a Negroni list (yes, a list!), with concoctions ranging from fairly traditional with a splash of Prosecco to a mezcal-infused one that will blow your mind. Next, down it with warm rosemary focaccia skillet bread dipped in tomato Parmigiano sauce left over from the tenderest of pork meatballs (meatballs? Oh, they're long gone before the bread even arrives). Tack on a few more appetizers, like the delightful octopus carpaccio that will satisfy even the pickiest of seafood aficionados with pickled eggplant and the beef tartare with a foie gras aioli and black truffle vinaigrette (yes, you read that right). If you haven't overdosed on the meatballs, you would be a fool not to try the homemade pastas, like the agnolotti with duck confit and mushrooms and scialatielli with littleneck clams —IG
Oysters: A bartender in Charleston told me that the only way to eat your way through Charleston in less than a week is to have one appetizer at every restaurant on your list, therefore fitting at least a couple spots every night. I would apply this logic to oyster bars, which there are plenty of in Charleston. Begin with Leon's Oyster Shop, a converted auto body shop a 10-minute ride north from the downtown area, for some of the freshest oysters and top-notch fried chicken. Stop next by The Darling Oyster Bar and sit behind the marble bar overlooking the selection of seafood offered that day (props if you make it here to catch happy hour). From the chef behind Fig, The Ordinary, housed in a former bank, should be next on your list for its Southern take on seafood, with items ranging from crispy oyster sliders to barbecue white shrimp. End your night at 167 Raw, a tiny restaurant (there's an outdoor area to get drinks should you need to wait for a table) with roots in Nantucket and a more straightforward menu that includes New England classics like lobster rolls and creamy clam chowder. —IG
5Church: While this is a mini chain, this is the only outpost that is housed in an actual church. Enjoy a glass of brosé (a hibiscus shandy) and a hearty cut of steak as you take in the stunning stained glass windows and the soaring arched ceiling that has text from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War handwritten over it. —IG
Husk: With only two current locations (the other is in Nashville), this extravagant restaurant is located in a gorgeous Victorian style building. The head chef, Sean Brock, has been featured on TV shows Iron Chef and The Mind of a Chef. Known for celebrating the use of Southern ingredients, the menu changes frequently, but I recommend, believe it or not, the Husk Cheeseburger. It’s one of their staples and one of the best burgers in the South.
Basil: You can only get this “refined Thai cuisine” in the Carolinas, and the one in Charleston was the first location founded by Henry and Chai Eang after they immigrated to the U.S. from Cambodia. The atmosphere is very classy, and you can see the chefs at work behind a glass wall that separates the kitchen area from the dining room. They offer a variety of curry dishes, pad Thai, and fresh seafood, a nice antidote to all the Southern cuisine you'll be having.
Where To Drink
Rooftop bars: Rooftop drinking is a sport in Charleston, and there are plenty of spaces where you can join a team and participate. Our favorites include the Pavilion Bar, The Rooftop Bar at Vendue, and The Watch. —IG
The Cocktail Club: If your vibe is craft cocktails with a speakeasy or Prohibition history, you will love this lounge, tucked away above The Macintosh restaurant on King Street, that offers house-made infusions, rare liquors, and fresh garnishes from the rooftop's terrace. The historic space, from 1881, will take you back in time with original beams, a reclaimed wood bar, and fireplaces. Hey, after a few of turmeric gin-infused cocktails, you might be even tempted to sign up for their VIP membership. —IG
Red's Ice House: This is the ultimate Charleston-area dive bar if there was ever one, which makes the fact that you can see dolphins from its outdoor patios that much more impressive. It's worth the short drive to Mount Pleasant. —IG
Bakehouse Charleston: This bakery has made appearances at many a weddings (including that of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, NBD) and lists (Anthony Bourdain is a fan). Browse through their fairly large assortment of cookies and bars, as well as coffee concoctions like Irish Cream frappes and honey lavender latte. —IG
City Lights: This adorable coffee shop has tons of flavors for your coffee or latte. You can grab it to go or chill out in their quaint, trendy space covered in edgy art and screen prints.
The Gin Joint: Not to be fooled by the name, this bar’s extensive list of cocktails has more than just gin. To make the most of the experience you can choose two words from a list of adjectives (fizzy, smoky, tart, fruity, spicy...) to give to the bartender and they will make you your very own personalized mixed drink.
JohnKing Grill & Bar: At night the upper floor of this restaurant turns into a party with a full bar, live music, and board games (like Jenga and giant Connect Four). The environment is super chill, and you and your friends can either lounge on the couches or get a small table by the stage.
Tricera Coffee: The dinosaur-themed coffee shop has all of the classic forms of espresso and iced lattes, but if you want to try something new, then go for their signature saffron latte, which tastes kind of like an extra spicy chai.
Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer: Can’t decide between a place that offers refreshing craft beer or a fancy macchiato? Well, this place offers both. You can grab a drink with friends or get some work done with a cup of joe. The inside is small, but they also have a lovely patio with outdoor seating.
Where To Shop
Candlefish: Be prepared to leave all your money at this adorable gift store that features more candles than you'll ever see in one place at one time, with brands ranging from the constellation-adorned Spitfire Girl to the millennial-loved Boy Smells and city-specific 42 Pressed. In addition to being a candle retailer, Candlefish boasts its own library of candle scents, made of 100-plus unique fragrances, and offers candle-making workshops (which are BYOB). —IG
Goat Sheep Cow: I've never met a cheese I didn't like, and this artisanal shop carries some of the best options in the city. Stop by the Meeting St. location, which also moonlights as a restaurant, for a solid charcuterie and cheese plate and wine list. —IG
Mitchell Hill: Jonathan Adler fans will love this eclectic home decor store located on King St. Expect lots of quirky objets (a gold pig piggy bank, anyone?), small- and large-scale artwork from up-and-comers and established artists, and whimsy pillows and throws. —IG
The Trunk Show: This vintage consignment shop has tons of designer finds. From Chanel bags to Manolo Blahnik heels, you can get a full Carrie Bradshaw-inspired outfit at a discounted price.
Charleston Krewe: This colorful shop has tons of accessories for women and men such as printed ties, pocket squares, and scarves. You can also get a leash and collar for your pet or a fun pineapple graphic tee for yourself (the pineapple is a common Charleston symbol that represents hospitality).
City Market: The Charleston City Market has literally everything: sweetgrass baskets, art, jewelry, candy, decor, and souvenirs. It’s the most popular shopping destination in the city, and visitors are able to meet the entrepreneurs who make most of the goods. As of 2011, the market is air-conditioned and home to hundreds of different vendors.
Blue Bicycle Books: Probably the most charming bookstore you will ever come across, this place has tons of new and used books. You can find signed autobiographies, cookbooks, children’s books, and even some extremely rare finds, like signed Faulkner and Harper Lee novels.
What To Do
Ghost Tour: The-80 minute walking tour gives you some interesting history of Charleston, but in a pretty spooky way. Based off of the book The Ghosts of Charleston by Julian T. Buxton III, the tour guide relays the stories of various ghosts around the city, as well as takes you through a creepy church graveyard at night. And if ghost tours aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other tour options offered through Tour Charleston.
Beach Day: There are multiple beautiful ocean beaches to attend. If you’re looking for a party, then Folly Beach has volleyball nets, a fishing pier, and tons of bars. If you want a less crowded or more family-friendly location, then check out Isle of Palms Beach or Sullivan's Island Beach.
Carriage Ride: When you walk down Charleston’s cobblestone streets, you will see tons of horse-drawn carriages. While we typically don't endorse taking a horse-drawn tour, the Colonial style transportation is an extremely educational way to get to know more about the history of Charleston.
Harbor Cruises: Spend a relaxing hour and a half cruising around the harbor on a two-deck boat. There is a snack bar on board and most tours will point out dozens of landmarks. And keep an eye out for dolphins!
Rainbow Row: If you’re looking for the perfect Instagram picture to document your trip, then you should definitely take a walk down the famous Rainbow Row. Beautiful houses right off the water are painted in pastel blue, pink, yellow, and green, making it an ideal place for a photo op.
Gibbes Museum of Art: For all the art lovers out there, you will definitely enjoy seeing the beautiful paintings and other works of art housed in The Gibbes. You can go for a regular stroll through the galleries on your own or take advantage of the various workshops, talks, and classes they offer.
Waterfront Park: This seaside park is home to Charleston’s iconic Pineapple Fountain. There are also other fountains that people splash around in, a huge pier, and a few awesome seafood restaurants close by.