Charleston, South Carolina is one of the most storied cities in America. Filled with Southern charm, the coastal city is home to award-winning restaurants, family-friendly tours, beautiful beaches, and of course, a history that has shaped America.
Known for its lowcountry cuisine and longstanding pre-Civil War homes, Charleston carries with it a complex history. The Carolina Gold Rice that the town is known for was expertly cultivated by African slaves, many of whom created their own communities, and eventually became the Gullah Geechee people. These people, many of whom still live in nearby coastal cities and islands like Edisto Island, John’s Island, and Hilton Head, have helped create and preserve some of South Carolina’s most precious agricultural offerings and cultural traditions.
Today, Charleston reflects these myriad of stories and cultures largely through its food. Whether you’re in town looking for fresh, local seafood, or want to dig into the city’s rich barbecue culture, Charleston has something for everyone.
Coffee and Cafes
Visiting new cities often means being outdoors for long periods of time. Charleston makes it easy to get the energy needed to sustain a full day of travel. Second State Coffee’s Brown Sugar Latte and Black Julep are both delicious and filled with just the right amount of espresso to keep you moving. At Clerks Coffee Company, located in the stunning hotel Emeline, guests can enjoy a great cup of coffee alongside breakfast options like the breakfast sandwich, and spinach and cheese pastries. Bitty & Beau’s Coffee usually has lines throughout the building, but it’s well-worth the wait. The quirky coffee shop offers great brews with a lovely ambience, while 132 Spring Coffee & Kitchen Bar offers classic Swedish pastries, candy, and egg sandwiches.
Gullah Geechee Cuisine
The Gullah Geechee community has provided remarkable agricultural knowledge and made significant contributions to Charleston’s culinary history and community. From red rice, which originated with the rice farming knowledge from enslaved Africans, to okra soups and stews, the Gullah Geechee community has made tremendous contributions to what we now know as Charleston and southern cuisine. Though many Gullah Geechee people live outside of Charleston, the islands and towns they’ve lived in, such as Johns Island and Ravenel, are right outside of town, and continue to offer the best of the culture’s cuisine. At Ravenel Fresh Seafood, garlic crabs are often, understandably, the star over the show, but snow crab legs, fried fish and hushpuppies, and crab rice are just a few of a seemingly endless roster of seafood dishes that keep patrons coming back. Nigel’s Good Food offers an earthy red rice and creamy she crab soup, both of which originated from Gullah fishing and farming traditions, and Taste of Gullah offers traditional Gullah Geechee food and meals, alongside lessons in history and community.
Barbecue is perhaps one of the most recognizable cuisines in the American South. From perfectly cooked ribs to tender and juicy brisket, you’d be hard pressed not to find a Charleston resident who knows just the right barbecue spot.
The city loves its barbecue, and James Beard Award winner and cookbook author Rodney Scott delivers. Rodney Scott’s BBQ became nationally known for its whole hog barbecue, a style of barbecue that emerged from enslaved African cooking traditions, and for years became less well-known. Scott, who grew up on whole hog, revived the style, and makes one of the juiciest whole hog sandwiches in the city. The restaurant also offers ribs, chicken, turkey, brisket, and just about any other meat one could think of. The sauces only add the meat eating experience, and the restaurant’s sides–like collard greens, mac and cheese, potato salad, and cornbread, are all so good, they could nearly stand as meals on their own. If you aren’t in the downtown area, there’s also great barbecue at Willie Jewell’s Old School Bar-B-Q, Lewis Barbecue, and Swig & Swine.
Seafood boils traditionally were outdoor gatherings. Friends, relatives, and neighbors would gather around a huge pot of boiling, seasoned water that would be filled with onions, crabs, corn, potatoes, and other seafood. After all the ingredients were done, the cook would drain the stew, serving the ingredients, or “stew” on newspaper or a brown paper bag.
Now, that experience has hit local restaurants. Seafood boils, also known as Frogmore Stew, are now served as a variety of boils with various seafood and seasonings. At Red Crab Juicy Seafood, guests receive their seafood boil in a large plastic bag, and can shake the food in the bag’s seasoning before pouring it out into a large bowl on a covered table. Hand wipes and bibs are provided, and it’s definitely worth using them. King Claw Juicy Seafood, Tasty Crab House, and the Seafood Pot also offer stellar boils for any seafood enthusiast.
Fine Dining and Local Restaurants
In historic Charleston, visitors are treated to markets, antique shops, and horse drawn carriage rides throughout some of the most famous homes in the city. The dining options, however, have also become central to the essence of the neighborhood. Sean Brock’s Husk continues to intrigue tourists, even though the chef has since moved on to other projects. Poogan’s Porch, a favorite of dog lovers, offers a remarkably decadent fried pimento cheese ball, and one of the most respected she crab soups in the city. Stop for local oysters at The Darling and southern fare at Magnolia and 82 Queen. All in or around the city’s French Quarter, these restaurants offer elevated cuisine, and make for perfect options for a night out on the town. Also worth a visit is the diner-like Millers All Day and Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, both excellent breakfast or brunch options.
Charleston has a number of restaurants that bring the cuisines of new and old immigrant groups to the table. Le Farfalle, which has indoor and outdoor seating options, offers a pleasant menu of Italian offerings, such as pasta, seafood, and an impressive wine selection. 5Church Charleston, built in an old church, has made ramen a mainstay in the city. Visitors can find sushi, Mexican food, and culinary ingenuity at MESU and Locals West Ashley, and 3 Matadors Tequileria makes it easy to get great tacos and other Mexican food. Visitors can quench their thirst at Bay Street Biergarten and The Belmont, carrying memories of the Charleston Day well into the night.
From waffle cones filled with brown butter almond brittle ice cream, to toll house pies, it’s not difficult to find a good dessert in Charleston. Off Track Ice Cream offers regular and vegan ice cream flavors, and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams makes use of southern taste in unique flavors like Texas sheet cake, and goat cheese and tart. La Pâtisserie in The Bennett offers delicate desserts with coffee and tea options, and Sugar Bakeshop’s delightful cupcakes bring back loyal guests on a regular basis. Drop by Kaminsky’s for a delicious slice of pecan pie, and crab a glass of wine and a slice of Lemon Cake at the French Quarter’s Carmella’s.
Things to Do
There’s plenty to do in one of the oldest cities in the south. Gullah Geechee people lead tours and information sessions in Charleston and the surrounding islands. Horse tours in Charleston allow tourists to view the city from up high—learning about old homes, new changes, and modern development in the bustling city. On King Street, visitors can stop by a number of national and local shops selling everything from clothes to antique jewelry. Visitors can also stop by the Historic Charleston City Market, a four-block market complex from the 1790s which hosts sellers offering food, art, and other local trinkets.
The Historic Charleston Foundation offers fascinating information about the city, and The Battery is now a historical landmark, preserving pre-Civil War homestyles and histories that allow guests to learn about the nation’s past, and assess its future. For a brisk walk or workout, visitors can stop by one of Charleston’s many parks or trails, including Allan Park, North Charleston Riverfront Park, Hampton Park, and Spanish Moss Trail.
Notably, Charleston is a seaside town. Folly Beach is perhaps the most prominent beach in the area. Technically a city that’s part of Folly Island, just south of Charleston, the beach stretches more than 1,000 feet into the ocean, and is home to Folly Beach Pier. There’s plenty of wildlife, a beloved farmer’s market and stellar views of the Morris Island Lighthouse, erected in 1876. Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, Kiawah Island are also wonderful seatime options, and each beach offers its own unique food and beverage options for guests. Charleston boat tours also offer another way to view the city’s beautiful water landscape and seaside offerings.
Where to Stay
After dining throughout Charleston, having just the right place to stay is essential. The city boasts an incredible range of hotel options. For a relaxing stay with friends, The Restoration and The Vendue – Charleston’s Art Hotel both offer classic, historic elements, alongside modern and refined hospitality. For a slightly more affordable stay, Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina offers stunning beach views and superb family-friendly pools. For a more luxurious visit, Emeline, Hotel Bennett, and the Spectator Hotel provide upscale elegance right in the right heart of the city.