This post is about Mine and Melanie’s recent trip to Charleston. It’s meant to function as a minor travel guide, which is why it does not go chronologically according to what we did on the trip. I do, however, try to put some of the anecdotes in here for entertainment value.
Melanie and I had a hectic few months what with work, getting a duplex rent ready, renting it out, tours, wedding planning, etc; so 3 or so weeks ago we decided that we had to go somewhere for my birthday. While still a few weeks away, I get a paid day off for my birthday which was moved to Labor Day Friday, plus Labor Day itself is a holiday, making for a perfect long weekend.
Where to go? Mel’s grandparents who I’d never met live outside of Charleston, South Carolina. We figure that it would probably be good to meet the grandparents before our impending wedding. Coupling that with the fact that I’d never been to Charleston; we decided to killed two birds with one stone in this historic city. So I got the Richmond Tour Guys’ reliable and awesome tour guide, Ray, to take over tours this weekend (which, I might add were very well attended) and we were off!
NOTE: ALL HEADINGS ARE LINKS TO THE WEBSITES OF THE ACTIVITY/ATTRACTION/RESTAURANT IN QUESTIONS. ALSO, THESE PICTURES WERE TAKEN WITH MY CEL PHONE CAMERA, SO THEY ARE OF SOMEWHAT POOR QUALITY.
Getting There – Driving
We left Thursday Night after work to be able to spend more time in South Carolina and split our trip at the 4 (out of 6) hour mark to stay the night in Florence, South Carolina.
We had pre-booked the Suburban Extended Stay Hotel. For $55 for the night, it was what you’d expect. A bed, a TV, a bathroom, and a kitchenette.
I’ve been feeling itchy on my legs since we left that hotel.
The only time I wore shorts was to bed. You do the math.
Like any good road trip through the South… we spotted many-a- Cracker Barrel. Being from the West Coast, I’d never actually eaten at one. Being that our restaurant choices were few and far between in Florence, South Carolina, Melanie thought it a good idea to have me try it.
The food was what you’d expect for a $7 breakfast of pancakes, turkey sausage and eggs. But the table games, on the other hand…..
Outside of Charleston
We had some time to kill before going to visit Melanie’s grandparents, so we checked out some stuff around the City. There is a long row of plantations along the Ashley River. Our chosen victim was:
Magnolia Plantation – $15/Adult
It was (and is) owned by the Drayton family; an old South Carolinian family. One of the Drayton’s (a priest) got tuberculosis and began gardening as a treatment upon his doctor’s prescription. The result was a very awesome garden that was opened to the public. The gardens were probably much more colorful in the spring, but were still very pretty in early September. The best features were the Spanish Moss, the Live Oaks, the Peacocks……and….alligators!
Angel Oak Tree– 1,500 year old Tree
Who found it and how? Nobody knows…
Melanie’s parents booked us a room at the Hampton Inn in Historic Downtown Charleston. It was great! Hot breakfast in the morning, solid wi-fi, clean, comfortable beds, nice bathrooms, and killer black out curtains.Our booking even came with a free Historic Tour on a carriage (more on that later).
Only complaint is that there is no free parking. We had to pay $16/day for City Parking since Hampton has no parking garage. A forgivable peccadillo, but still an unexpected expense.
The City and the Sights
Prior to arriving in Charleston, we looked up places to go. There are about 40 different buildings and houses that you could visit in Charleston. Given unlimited time and funds, I probably still wouldn’t. As with churches in Europe, temples in SE Asia, and so forth, you can only see so many before it gets old. I imagine the same would be true for the inside of so many rich dead people’s houses. Not to mention they are around $12-25 to tour.
If you go to Charleston, be selective.
Charleston is a very old City (by American standards anyway). It was founded in 1670 and was surrounded by a wall. Over time, the City filled in the swamps that surrounded the original peninsula to increase its size. It was a center for drinking, gambling, and…… religious tolerance. (See Wikipedia for more history).
As a the proprietor of a fledgling historical walking tour business and an employee of a Restoration Builders of Virginia, just strolling through the City blocks was enough to make the trip worth it. It had some of the first (and some of the strictest) architectural preservation laws in the country. There is block after block of antebellum homes and buildings. There are a myriad of incredible and old churches (as a result of South Carolina’s religious tolerance). The main streets have gorgeous public and commercial buildings. It is almost like a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Aside from the beautiful older homes and churches, there are also several impressive commercial buildings of historical significance.
Four Corners of the Law
There’s a corner of Meeting and Broad Streets is called “Four Corners of the Law.” It is called that because it has St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (God’s Law); Charleston City Hall (Local Law); Charleston County Courthouse (formerly South Carolina’s provincial Capital so, State Law); and the US Post Office and Federal Courthouse (Federal Law).
Old City Market
This market was founded in the early 19th Century to be the meat market. Butchers would carve up their meats and sell it to shoppers. There was also a separate market for vegetables, dry goods, and slaves.
The market today however is a bustling center of artisans and entrepreneurs. You can buy your souvenirs and other tourist junk here, but also a lot of artists and craftspeople set up booths and do some pretty impressive work.
It’s also very very crowded.
“Is the Old Exchange Building a fancy architectural jewel designed to house 18th-century assemblies? Or is it the ghoulish prison of the Revolution, the place where the martyr Isaac Hayne spent his last night? Or is it the place where George Washington greeted his fellow citizens? And there is no question that slaves were sold for generations next to the very balcony from which the Declaration of Independence was read.” (from The Website)
The building itself is impressive and historical, but the neatest thing was the basement. It was a prison during the Revolutionary War where Loyalists and then Rebels were held. It is a brick structure. they built the brick arches by stacking wet sand and laying the bricks around that. It was also built over Charleston’s early walls. In fact, in the basement you can see remains of the old City Wall. It is pretty neat.
The basement tour is worth the $10 price of admission.
The rest of the building is sort of like a museum to the different functions that the building has held throughout it existence. It’s worth poking around in for a bit.
Being a walking tour guide, I usually prefer to take walking tours (our choice was Free Tours By Foot), but our hotel stay included a free Carriage Tour of Charleston ($25/per ticket), so we opted for that instead. The operator was Palmetto Carriage Tour.
Our guide took us from the market and through the North of Broad area of Charleston. He recounted stories and histories of Charleston; pointed out certain houses and talked of their residents. and pointed out architectural features of Charleston houses such as the large porches that had their own front privacy doors (see below).
We went by an old prison that was in used up from 1802 until 1939. Ouch! It’s supposedly haunted. Either way, it looks really neat.
I probably wouldn’t have gone on this carriage tour if it wasn’t comped by our hotel. I prefer walking tours, so this probably wouldn’t have been worth it to me at any price.
The tour itself was good, especially if you have kids who can’t do a lot of walking or if you are older. The guide was knowledgeable and interesting. It’s hard to take pictures from a moving carriage (which might explain the poor quality of some of the photos I have up here).You don’t see any of the major sights of Charleston. I would have been more disappointed by this, but we saw a lot of them on the Pub Stroll (talked about later).
However, if this was Trip Advisor, I’d give it 3.5 stars.
While waiting for our time on the ferry, the National Park Center had a lot of great background information on the American Civil War, as well as Fort Sumter. It gave a great context to what we were about to see.
Once the ferry left, we passed by a couple of other old forts as well, while a Park Ranger very unenthusiastically recounted the events of the assault on Fort Sumter that touched off a gruesome and tragic conflict.
The Fort itself was interesting. It’s a shell of its former self. When you walked onto it though, you could feel 170 years of soldiers killing down time on it. It has a modern portion that was used through World War II which now houses a nice museum. There are some old cannons and the Park Rangers are there to answer any questions.
(This coming from the guy who skipped the Louvre when he was in Paris because of the lines).
While we had a drink or two with various lunches and dinners, our main drinking was done on the….
Looking for things to do on Trip Advisor, we came across the Charles Town Pub Stroll and booked. We didn’t really know what to expect, but I’ve led bar crawls in Spain and they were a lot of fun and great way to meet people. This tour was the perfect blend of historical tour and pub crawl.
Our guide was knowledgeable, great at story telling, friendly, and recommended good drinks at great bars.
We met at Washington Square Park and our guide, Mike, was dressed as a pirate. He told some stories about Charleston and made a couple of stops on the way to the first bar.
Blind Tiger Pub: This was an old brick building that was a colonial bank turned speakeasy with 3 bars and a nice patio in the old bank vault. It was really, really cool. They even had an old pirate game of a ring on a string that you have to land on a hook.
More fun than it sounds.
Our guide gave us some suggestions of beers to try. We had the Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Beer. I don’t like too sweet of beers, but it almost like an amber with a twinge of sweetness, yet was also hoppy. I don’t have a very sophisticated pallet or ability to describe tastes, but I do know that it was very good stuff.
We hadn’t eaten dinner, so we decided to try the Crab Cakes appetizer. It was only one crab cake and a bunch of french fries. Melanie and I agreed that we would have preferred an extra crab cake and skip the fries. The crab cakes weren’t anything special. We didn’t have any entrees due to time constraints and not wanting to hold up the Crawl.
In between sips, the guide kept the conversation within the group flowing
The Griffon: was our next stop. It was a bit dark. It was another old brick building, except that it had signed dollar bills decorating the wall. Our guide said that they have the best Fish N Chips in town. We didn’t order them, but some folks on the tour did and very much enjoyed them
Our drinks were Coast Brewing (a Charleston based brewer) Hop Art which was good, but didn’t stick out anymore than hoppy beer XXX from any other craft brewer.
We also tried a local vodka from Firefly, a distillery based 30 mins outside of Charleston. Our guide talked up the Sweet Tea Vodka and it did not disappoint. I’m not even a big vodka guy, but this was so smooth and delicious. If you can rustle some of this up somehow, you definitely should.
Another anecdote by our guide and we were off to:
Craftsmen Taphouse: I have to be honest in saying my brain was getting a little fuzzy at this point. I remember ordering some sort of beer. We did order some Bratwurst Bangers. They were super delish with bratwurst and mustard on a pretzel roll. Super good, and it was half-off because they ran out of casing for Brats, so double score.
More great stories from our guide, of which I’m really getting fuzzy on at this point. (By the way, I’m not telling the stories so that you can go and I don’t ruin the tour for you.) Then our guide dropped us off at
Tommy Condon’s: Pretty standard Irish Bar. There was a great band that our guide told us about who does Irish folk music, but also modern songs in the form of Irish folk music. Super awesome; although their famed fiddler was out sick that day.
As far as the drinks, at this point I had had enough craft beer and just got a Yuengling and a shot of whiskey. We were pretty fuzzy at this point and the last thing I remember is devouring a Chicken Quesadilla which was delicious because I was inebriated and quesadillas are cheesy and delicious.
Then we walked back to our hotel around 11. (Don’t judge okay, I’m turning 30 this year, and we had been drinking since 6:30 when the tour began.)
If you’re in Charleston and you like to drink, I can’t recommend this enough. At $20/person it’s totally worth it if for no other reason than you get to meet other travelers.
Charleston has what they call “low-country cuisine.” It’s basically Southern food with more of an emphasis on seafood (it is an oceanic harbor). Fried Green Tomatoes are also a Charleston thing.
Outside of Charleston we ate at Gilligan’s Grill. I had the fish tacos which were extremely delicious. Melanie had the crab cake sandwich which features cheese and a fried green tomato. I was surprised by how good this place was for a random stop in John’s Neck.
A French cafe/restaurant. This was a really random choice. We actually walked about 4 blocks around the hotel looking for a place to eat (we found plenty, but none that we felt like eating at) and finally settled on this spot which was actually right next to our hotel! We had unknowingly walked a giant circle….
Anyway, once we sat down, we found the old brick building (looks like an old warehouse) to be very comfortable and wide open. The waiter was excellent and took time to describe the specials and answer all of our questions about the menu. I always ask the waiter what the restaurant’s specialty is and he offered up the Bouillabaise (Seafood Stewed In Garlic, White Wine And Saffron With Crostini And Red Pepper Rouille; $13.99)) and the Braised Beef Sandwich (Horseradish Aioli And Choice Of Gruyère Or Cheddar Cheese; we opted for Gruyere; $11.99).
Both were extremely delicious. Once again, I’m terrible at describing food, but I know what I like, and these dishes were incredibly delicious. We also got them at Lunch prices which was fantastic and the food we got was worth much more than the price we paid. Highly recommend for lunch.
The next day, after our carriage tour, we ate at Fleet Landing, a seafood/low-country (Charleston) food spot. This was recommended to us by the girl who sold us candied apples. I always ask people “If I only eat at one place in Charleston, where should it be?” and this was her suggestion.
They were very crowded at 2 PM, but we sat at the bar to avoid the wait. The atmosphere was very “coastal” for lack of a better term. It was right on a dock out to Charleston Harbor.
I asked the bartender the best things there and he suggested the Blackened Triggerfish Sandwich (Avocado Aioli, Pepper Jack Cheese, Shredded Lettuce, & Tomato on Toasted Roll; $9.99) so Melanie ordered that. As per the usual, I tried a bite and it did not disappoint.
I had the Chef’s fresh fish choice of the day which was salmon ($13.99). I got it with the daily fresh vegetable (collard greens) and red rice. It was the perfect meal. The salmon was sort of Cajun style, and the greens were so very mouth-wateringly delicious.
By the way, the service was great. Excellent choice candy-apple lady!
Charleston has a great vibe. It’s got so much culture and history. History, of course, is my primary interest when traveling and Charleston quenched that thirst in me. Prior to arriving, I had no idea the city had such a big historic district with so many old houses. We could have spent another day or so just walking around the neighborhoods.
Their was nothing special or particularly unique about the “low-country” cuisine of Charleston. As mentioned earlier, it’s basically Southern with a heavy emphasis on seafood. That being said, there are some restaurants that prepare this food very well, and Charleston is a great city for eats.
Would I go back again? Probably. There is a bunch of stuff we missed like walking around Battery Park, the South Carolina State Museum, the Aquarium, some of the other historical buildings that we did not get to go in. That’s stuff that I would be more likely to try out if we were there visiting Melanie’s grandparents again and took a day trip to the City.
I hope somebody find this useful!