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Insider's Charleston
Text by Andrew Nelson    Photograph by John Kernick
Insider's Charleston
A short stack of blueberry pancakes at Hominy Grill can fill a tall appetite.

This Southern belle of a city is a real charmer—as lovers of fine antebellum homes, stately gardens, and eclectic shops and restaurants quickly discover. Let the locals guide you to their favorite spots—best enjoyed at a walking pace.


ince its birth in 1670, Charleston has survived pirates, Civil War bombardment, natural disasters, and tourist buses—never losing its urban polish or touch of raffish charm immortalized by fictional homeboy Rhett Butler. Bordered by two estuarine rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, and fronted by a first-rate harbor, Charleston is a vision of church spires and watery vistas. It's a place that has stubbornly refused to embrace modern-day "improvements" like Sam's Clubs, Big Gulps, and gas stations. Instead, it's one of the few American towns where the car is an afterthought. This compact colonial city of 101,024 people is made for meandering. "The appearance of the city is highly picturesque," said visiting British import Fanny Kemble in 1838. "Charleston has an air of eccentricity, too, and peculiarity, which formerly were not deemed unbecoming the wellborn."
 
Today you'd probably find Fanny ordering a shrimp po'boy from Joseph's on Meeting Street or toe-tappin' to the jazz at High Cotton on East Bay. Still, the Charleston she saw is largely intact—some 300 buildings survive from before 1840. Formerly poor, proud, and sleepy, Charleston largely avoided the urban renewals that savaged other American cities from the 1940s to the '60s. Such inaction saved legions of Charleston "single" houses—one-room-wide homes with graceful side porches, or piazzas. Starting in 1920, the city was gradually shaken awake by preservation-minded ladies, local artists, and a business community that saw profit in selling a rich history to tourists.
 
Charleston remains stately, but the town is strutting its aristocratic stuff with a new vigor, and Traveler shows you the results. You'll visit the great homes and gardens as well as the trendy King Street boutiques. You'll get insiders' tips on where to eat well on Low Country fare year-round. Wherever you go, you'll be struck by Charleston's sense of time and place. "You're so beautiful," Pat Conroy wrote of the town in his memoir My Losing Season. "Thank you, Charleston. Thank you so much for being so beautiful." Get out of your car and walk its streets. You'll thank Charleston, too.
 
20 Relaxing Ways to Take in the Very Best of Charleston, South Carolina
 
1. Romance by gaslight
"Charleston is not a Williamsburg. Walk it in the morning and you can see it alive and at work," says lifelong resident Julian Buxton, who runs historical walking tours. "At night, you'll see its romantic side, when it changes character with its gas lanterns, some of which have been here since the 1840s. Broad Street has always been the central street, and it still looks similar to what it looked like in the 1700s. The most famous intersection is Broad and Meeting, where St. Michael's Episcopal Church has stood for 244 years. Other notable buildings include the John Rutledge House, built in 1763 and now an inn; across the street is the home of Edward Rutledge, built circa 1761 and now also an inn, the Governor's House."
 
2. Sample the local scene
"Charlestonians like crowded places," says bartender Steven Smoak. "Rue de Jean [39 John St.; +1 843 722 8881] is casual and fun—a real French brasserie, with sushi. Another great place where the locals go is the Market Pavilion Rooftop Bar [225 East Bay; +1 843 723 0500]—think seersucker and Brooks Brothers—with its view of the entire harbor. The Blind Tiger [38 Broad St.; +1 843 577 0088] is one of the oldest bars in town, with a lot of tap beers and a great outside patio. A tapas restaurant with a mellow lounge is Chai's [462 King St.; +1 843 722 7313]."
 
3. See where the Civil War began
"Fort Sumter [+1 843 883 3123] is a place where kids can walk where a battle has been," says Kelly Gabriel, fourth grade teacher at Boulder Bluff Elementary School, Goose Creek, South Carolina. "This was the first battle of the Civil War. On the tour, you take a boat to the island from downtown Charleston or Mount Pleasant. It's a great experience for anyone who's not been in Charleston Harbor. At the fort, rangers give a 15-minute talk, then you can explore on your own. There's a wonderful museum with pictures and artifacts. You can touch cannons and see where some cannonballs are still stuck in the wall."


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