With a four-day weekend coming up, my husband and I decided to hop on a plane and head south to Charleston, South Carolina. With a long NYC winter on the horizon we wanted to get out of town and have a relaxing few days to wander around a new city.
With almost three full days at our disposal, we decided to learn some of the history, eat as much as we could, and walk the streets.
I love learning the history of a city when traveling. It helps me understand the cultural context, and get some background on some of the sights. Charleston Charleston has a long history in the Americas, and understanding the different sides of that history gave us a better understanding of how the city came to be.
Charleston was a major port site for the slave trade, which led to the city’s growth and wealth. While a generally religiously tolerant city (Jews were allowed to practice their religion), the dark foundations of the city can be unearthed in many places. It may be easy to overlook that aspect of the city when you see the opulent buildings and charming cobblestone streets, but it really shouldn’t be ignored during a visit to this city if you want to get the real picture.
After some consideration, we visited Magnolia Plantation, as we can’t see plantations here up north. It may seem controversial to spend your dollars at a plantation, however Magnolia Plantation was a fine choice. They do not gloss over the history of the enslaved people that lived and worked there. We went on a wonderfully done “Slavery to Freedom Tour” with a knowledgeable and honest guide who walked us through some cabins where enslaved people lived and discussed how they came to the plantation, the kinds of work they did, how they were treated, and the evolution of labor on the plantation.
We also elected to go on the “Nature Tram” to get a tour around the property including the marshes where we saw alligators, turtles and birds. Our timing worked out – Magnolia was hosting a food drive all throughout November 2019. We brought canned food and got discounts on the admission. Check their website for more information. The grounds were also being set up for the “Lights of Magnolia” festival, a Chinese lantern light show, which looks really charming with bright works of art and runs from November 15 through mid-March 2020.
Another way to learn more about Charleston’s history was visiting the Old Slave Mart Museum, formerly a site for indoor slave auctions. It was very informative but mostly panels to read about what the experience of being in the mart would have been like. A very somber experience indeed.
For a more uplifting piece of Charleston history, we visited Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue, one of the oldest congregations in the states, and although the synagogue itself was under construction, we watched an informative video about the history of Jews in Charleston and saw some items in their galleries.
There are plenty of other historical sites and museums throughout the city including a Museum of Natural History, an Institute of Contemporary Art, (both of which are free) as well as the Gibbes Museum of Art, and the South Carolina Aquarium, and had we more time we might have visited some of these sites.
The downtown area of Charleston is quite walkable, I was glad I brought comfortable walking shoes especially as some streets have cobblestones. The tall palm trees, lush greenery, and luxurious homes can be found on many streets and taking a stroll around is enough to feast your eyes!
Charleston also has two popular parks: Waterfront Park which is home to the Pineapple Fountain, along the eastern side of the downtown peninsula, and the Battery, all the way south, with water views along the promenade as well as the nearby White Point Garden. More sites to stroll through include Rainbow Row, a street of colorful houses near the Battery, and the historic Charleston City Market, where vendors sell their wares and food daily.
Tastes of Charleston
Where would I be without discussing the delicious food of Charleston? Many restaurants in the city offer standard lowcountry fare – seafood, grits, rice dishes, boils, and we had our fill!
Our first meal at Hyman’s Seafood, which came recommended, was tasty. It’s a very tourist friendly spot – although there was a huge line we got a table and food fairly quickly – and with a smile. The hush puppies were amazing and I loved the creamy shrimp and grits. I wouldn’t say it’s the most ‘authentic’ experience but it’s a fun excursion.
We ate seafood at the Charleston Crab House with their buttery seafood boil as well as at the out-of-the-way Nana’s Seafood and Soul where we had a spicier version – this was definitely a favorite local spot!
We were excited to try South Carolina barbecue, but were disappointed with Swig and Swine – so that just means we’ll have to go back to find somewhere else! Since I don’t eat meat I was a little underwhelmed by the selection of sides available.
A favorite find was Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams which had a variety of flavors available including a number of dairy free options. Try the two half scoops to sample more flavors!
While the city itself is not particularly friendly to those with dietary needs, service is friendly and most things can be adjusted. For folks searching for gluten-free options, we had luck at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit – call 30 minutes in advance to order – and if the had been open we would have checked out Breizh Pan Crepes which offers some gluten free selections. While it is easy enough to cobble together a meal for vegetarians, do ask about ingredients in things like potato salad, vegetable side dishes, and soups which may be made with chicken broth or have pieces of ham snuck inside. For vegan travelers do your research first before you go out to eat, as part of what makes the cooking so good is all the butter!
With rich (albeit heavy) history, beautiful architecture, and plenty of sights, shopping and food, Charleston makes a great place to visit for a few days. Paired with some days at the beach during summer months, I could see staying in South Carolina for a week, perhaps! We lucked out with the Fall weather, but I would suggest going late summer/early fall instead of November where nights can be cold and windy.
Have you been to Charleston? Is there anything we didn’t do but should have?