charleston: the long weekend guide
When my parents invited us to join them on a trip for their 35th wedding anniversary (!), I jumped at the chance to go to Charleston. Just a few hours' flight from New York, known for an incredible food scene, great weather, and a lot of charm, it seemed like the perfect mini trip.
And it was all those things: the loveliest of locations for a leisurely long weekend, punctuated with oysters, lots of drinks, and long walks past star jasmine-covered homes and the waterfront.
But before we dive into the tourist experience (which is a great experience), it's hard to talk about Charleston, and to visit, without also acknowledging that it's a city whose wealth and foundation is intrinsically tied to slavery.
Every city finds its own way to grapple with its history. Berlin is a particularly interesting example--extremely self-aware--and then there's Charleston on the other end of the spectrum. While of course mentioned at historical sites, there was a shallowness around its past that often crossed from naive to dangerously false. As a classic liberal coaster, this was tough to see, but also a good reminder that different places have different reads on history, even now.
And so we go on to the itinerary, and all the delights we found--it's truly a charming city-- but just know that it's something to be aware of (and lacking from most guides).
Aiken Rhett House: When in Charleston, you see homes. The Aiken Rhett house is one of several historical properties that is open to the public, and in this case, extremely conveniently located. While perhaps not the deepest exploration of what it meant to live there as different people in different eras (see above), the home itself is really beautiful and evocative, with crumbling furniture, an imposing dining room, and the classic Charleston double balconies.
The Gibbes Museum: The Gibbes is the contemporary art museum, and while a tiny collection, had a nice focus on Charleston as a city (my favorite was a room of more contemporary work), as well as Japanese woodblock prints.
Rainbow Row & The Battery: Perhaps the most iconic image of Charleston (outside of the pineapple motif) - Rainbow Row itself is a very small row of brilliantly painted houses most often seen in lady instagram posts. After enjoying the frantic posing, continue to walk south down the promenade to see the original defense wall, enormous antebellum homes, and if you're lucky, dolphins in the water.
Unitarian Church & Gardens: My absolute favorite place we went. An overgrown, wild garden encompassing a historical graveyard, rumored to have inspired Poe's Annabel Lee. More and more I've found visiting cemeteries to be an interesting way to glimpse a city's background -- names, relationships, ages, epitaphs all painting a detailed, poignant picture. (Rome's Jewish cemetery was a recent favorite.) This was one of the most intriguing I've seen, and really quite beautiful.
Blue Bicycle Books: My other favorite way to see a city (okay, so there are many favorites, but still), is of course a local book store. Blue Bicycle is small, but had a great used selection -- the more we poked around, the more we found. I fell completely in love with Good's Family Flora which turned out to be a rare edition from 1845 (and far, far out of my league.)
Debatable: Magnolia Gardens & Plantation - when in the south, they say to visit a plantation, and given that the gardens were meant to be spectacular, we piled into a car and headed over to Magnolia. Upon arriving, we found a Disney World-esque level of chaos, charade, and screaming children. Again, the lack of insight around its history felt jarring, but we dutifully followed one of the garden paths. The Spanish moss was atmospheric, and we did come across an alligator with a full-sized wild pig clamped between its teeth (!) so perhaps not a total loss, though not one of my favorite experiences.
Skip: Charleston City Market - a hyper touristy market like any other, in any city that attracts tourists.
Think about: Old Slave Mart Museum. In our eagerness to see and learn more about Charleston's roots, we visited this museum. Unfortunately we found it pretty shockingly blind to its own subject matter. The whole experience was pretty disheartening, as we presumed of all places, it would have the most honest and unflinching portrait of Charleston's history, which it did not.
Missed: The beaches! One of the biggest draws in Charleston but we didn't have the time (or car or willingness to miss a meal). Also, The Commons is supposed to be a well-curated shop.
Leon's: Leon's is the restaurant you would go to all the time if you lived in Charleston. Casual and fun, it felt like the updated version of Jersey diner, just with great food. At Friday lunch, there were couples and babies, big family groups, tourists galore. They're known for their fried chicken (extremely good), grilled up oysters (though I'd say stick to the fresh); cold drinks; and vanilla soft serve with rainbow sprinkles. While not the best food of the trip, totally worth it.
The Ordinary: Housed in an old bank, The Ordinary is a buzzy seafood spot that totally won us over. Every dish was spot on--nothing extraordinary, forgive the pun, but all so, so good. The oyster sliders on Hawaiian rolls, crab toast, and whatever green vegetables we got were all impeccable, and the daiquiris made it a very, very fun meal (...hence the lack of memory around the vegetables, oops). A great dinner spot.
Martha Lou's: Martha Lou's, Bertha's Kitchen, and Hannibal's Kitchen are all soul food spots that come up when you research Charleston's best food. After deep digging and a coin toss, I landed on Martha Lou's, with its generations of lady owners and really, really excellent fried chicken. The restaurant is a rectangular block on the side of a highway and the proprietress herself welcomed us (I should note we were first in at 11:00 -- ever the new yorker, I was petrified of lines that never appeared anywhere on this trip). The sweet tea was sweet, the collard greens just as they should be, and the lima beans so damn southern. Epic and we rolled on out after that.
Husk: Husk is the restaurant that put Charleston on the yuppie food map. Sean Brock's focus on bringing back original strains of grain and using every bit of a pig won me over in this New Yorker piece years ago. Having had a really incredible meal at their Nashville outpost, I was excited to bring the parents to the original. My fried catfish in shrimp curry was unreal, and I'm told the pork chop was one of the best ever. Note that they have a bar/casual restaurant next door which was recommended as the place where everyone in the food industry eats their burgers and drinks their whiskey.
Raw 167 and The Darling Oyster Bar: When you're in Charleston, and it turns around five, you order yourself a nice cool drink and play a few rounds of "rank that oyster". Raw 167 is a small spot known to have really excellent seafood - everything we saw looked fantastic, and if we had had more time we would have eaten there (...beyond the lobster roll that we tacked on "just for the table"). The Darling Oyster Bar pops up for its adorable design, and while I figured it would be more looks than substance, the oysters were awful nice, those window booths nice and deep, and one could imagine whiling away a night quite easily. (Note that it's a few steps from The Ordinary - we did a double header of pre-dinner oysters and wine at Darling, then moved over to Ordinary for real dinner. Darling also takes reservations.)
Callie's Hot Little Biscuits: My mother declared that biscuits are Her Favorite Thing, and luckily Callie's re-opens 10pm - 2am on the weekends, just in time for a post-oyster, post-dinner, post-drinks, post-dessert snack. The biscuits were really, really great biscuits, and the clientele pretty epically bachelorette. I regret not going again (and again).
Rodney Scott BBQ: The tough part about having just a weekend in Charleston is that you get one pick for soul food (above) and one pick for BBQ. We went with Rodney Scott and damn it was good. The restaurant on King Street was more cleaned up than I expected, with the chirpy brightness of a really well run Chik-fil-A, but the food was still true BBQ with the best cornbread we had by far, and surprisingly great chicken. Afterwards, we wandered around the back for a glimpse of the pits and quickly found ourselves standing next to two full-on pigs -- one still intact but crinkled and crisp from the heat, the other full raked apart -- and tasting something known as "pig spaghetti" right off the heat.
Basic Kitchen: Basic Kitchen is where you wish you could spend every Saturday morning in the sunlight. Beautiful design, with a menu that veers fresh and not particularly ambitious -- think avocado toast, a rice bowl, and beet juice -- but is so damn pleasant. A nice walk from the Unitarian cemetery, mentioned above.
Missed, but would definitely not miss again: I knew I would regret skipping Hominy Grill, but sadly with our amount of time and already ludicrous eating schedule, something had to go, and brunch at Hominy was it. I've since been told that both their shrimp & grits and biscuits & gravy are the best in town. Alas, there will have to be another trip.
Did, but would probably skip on a short trip: I'm a believer in beginning the day with breakfast, and when you know that your lunch/snack/dinner/snack routine is going to be a touch heavy, a lighter, fresher start to the day has an appeal. Butcher & Bee fit the bill -- my hummus dish was totally enjoyable, the eggs were all good, the strawberry toast interesting -- but was it worth a vacation meal? Probably not.
Other places that come up: Xiao Bao Biscuit for what I think is still called Asian fusion (I suspect the sort of place one should skip if you're coming from places with great Asian food and definitely hit if not), FIG (considered a top restaurant in the US with a new American Italian vibe), Bertha & Hannibal (as mentioned, for more soul food), Edmund's Oast (for a brewery experience a la Austin) and McGrady's (for another Husk-y time).
Stay & logistics
A celebration weekend deserved a celebratory hotel: The Dewberry fit the bill perfectly with a detailed mid-century modern aesthetic and really warm service. The groundfloor bar is beautiful, and won us over with their spicy, caramel-ly popcorn. I've also heard Zero George is amazing, if pricey. (Note that they also offer cooking classes which could be a very fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.) And of course, Airbnb would be a great option, based on the number of really beautiful flower-covered homes we saw, which seemed to be only occasionally inhabited.
Charleston was really easy to get around without renting a car. Most of it is walkable and Ubers seemed plentiful (cabs are not common.) It's rumored to be the number one location for bachelor and bachelorette parties in the US, so be aware that at night you'll be tripping over big groups in their best going out shirts and giant sashes.