Charleston, South Carolina is an old city. Old by US standards at least. In fact, it’s so old that Charleston’s founding pre-dates the United States itself. It was settled in 1670 and originally named Charles Town after England’s King Charles the II. While we didn’t have a ton of time here, we packed our days (and our stomachs) full. Charleston captivated us in a way no other city on our travels thus far has.
Food brought us to Charleston. Well, technically Stan the Tan Van brought us to Charleston, but the driving force behind our visit was to fill our bellies. Our Charleston food obsession began a few years ago with our addiction to marathon watching Chopped. It seemed that loads of competitors were from Charleston. And these competitors had some serious cooking chops (pun intended). They were always concocting creative and especially delicious looking dishes .
We arrived hungry and quickly got to work. We’re amateur foodies at best, but we certainly have a fair amount of experience in the eating department. Here were our favorite food stops in Charleston.
Two words: shrimp sausage. Okay I can’t leave it at that, but the shrimp sausage was the most memorable dish of a very memorable dinner. We didn’t have restaurants picked out prior to arriving (see amateur comment above) so we obviously didn’t have reservations. Sorghum and Salt is a small and fairly new restaurant a few blocks from the main downtown area and it was busy on Friday night. We lucked out and were able to get seating at the bar immediately.
It’s a vegetable forward place (always a plus in my book) with locally sourced ingredients. So basically it reminded us a whole lot of Portland. The food is small plates style but the servings are very generous. The fresh pasta was perfection and you already know about the shrimp sausage. Plus their bar area is quite cozy.
This is the place for classic southern country cooking. It’s a busy spot, but not to worry. There’s plenty of waiting space on benches outside right next to the restaurant windows. This way you can be a creepy food voyeur while you wait.
Tom must’ve looked famished because one take-out-order customer took pity on him. After picking-up his order, he proclaimed to us that the food here is “better than your grandmother’s cooking!” He enthusiastically opened his plastic to-go container, explained the contents of each item in detail, and proceeded to give Tom a piece of his pot-roast. Southern hospitality indeed!
Then he hopped on his bike and got ready to pedal away one-handed while balancing his food. There was one final piece of parting advice offered, “Just don’t tell your grandmother about this place. If she finds out how good the cooking is here, she’ll come by and burn the place down.” Hopefully you’re not reading this grandma.
Friendly customers aside, Jestine’s delivered on the deep-fried goodness and southern staples we were looking for. Assorted fried meat and fish, pickled cucumbers, gooey mac and cheese, seasoned red rice. We finished with the best cobbler either of us has ever tasted. Fresh peaches and blueberries covered with an extra thick layer of perfectly crisped crumble. I’m not sure what grandma would say, but I’m definitely upping the butter quotient in my cobblers from now on.
While I’ve only included two of the food highlights from our Charleston visit, we encountered delicious surprises everywhere. A shop serving only ice cream sandwiches made with a layer of pie filling. A local alehouse with unique concoctions including cider + tequila, cider + Guinness, cider + Blue Moon. It’s certainly a city where creative food and drink abound.
Downtown History (and sore feet)
It’s really not an exaggeration to say that there’s history around every corner in Charleston. We didn’t have a ton of time there, but we made a pretty good attempt at walking off those deep-fried calories. We took in as much history as our heat addled brains could handle. Here are a few of the downtown historic stops.
1. Mansions and Museums
I don’t know exactly how many mansions and museums there are to tour in Charleston, but I counted 30 on this Wiki page list (and that’s just in Charleston proper). So you have a lot of options. I was particularly interested in the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. I know I’m a real party animal. Sadly, we didn’t have time to make it there this visit. We did walk the grounds of various other historic mansions in the downtown area including the Nathaniel Russell House and the Battery Carriage House Inn.
There are also loads of parks throughout the city. We walked to Battery Park on the water. The park has opulent old mansions on one side and views of Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter (where the first shots of the Civil War were fired) on the other side. See, I really did learn some history while we were there.
3. City Market
Guess what? The city market is also really old! Shocking right? Originally established in the 1790s, it was a meat and produce market. It was added onto over time and now consists of four blocks of sprawling connected buildings. You can find various souvenir items: jewelry, sweetgrass baskets, local art, and of course eating opportunities along the way. There are day and night markets so you can get your shop on anytime.
There’s also art around every corner. We saw gallery after gallery walking the streets. It may also be that the city looks like a work of art. We heard about the beauty of Savannah, but we didn’t realize that Charleston is just as lovely and picturesque.
Greater Charleston Sights
One nice thing about Charleston is that it really didn’t take long to drive through the city and around the area. There are a multitude of sights and activities just outside the city.
This turned out to be a surprisingly unique stop. The Charleston Tea Plantation is the only place in North America that commercially grows tea. There’s a free factory tour that we took.
Fun Fact: Black, green, and oolong tea are all made from the same leaves. The different flavor of each type of tea comes from oxidizing the leaves for differing amounts of time in the production process. Mind blown, right? I’m sure you’ll never look at tea the same way again;)
The plantation has a tasting counter, gift shop, and of course a lot of tea for sale. We couldn’t resist picking up a tin for our van pantry (vantry?).
Okay, I’ll be honest here. I had zero idea who Charles Pinckney was when we got here. I picked this site because walking around an old farm and plantation sounded like a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Turns out he was a South Carolina governor, senator, and member of the House of Representatives. He not only signed the U.S. Constitution, but also was a substantial contributor to the drafting of it. He even hosted George Washington at his farm.
The plantation grounds are filled with grassy walking paths meandering through live oak trees covered in Spanish moss. If you’re nerdy like me and wondering why they’re called “live” oak trees (I mean obviously they’re not dead oak trees), I’ll save you a Google. It refers to the fact that they live and retain green foliage year round instead of going dormant and losing their leaves in the winter like many oaks.
Sidenote: While fact checking my memories to write this post I stumbled across some lesson plans and teacher guides that the National Park Service offers. There’s actually a large section on the NPS website devoted to helping teachers create lesson plans using historic places in each state. I thought this was quite helpful so wanted to share for our teacher friends.
There are five different beach towns all in the greater Charleston area. We visited the Isle of Palms. Seriously, how could you not feel relaxed in a place with that name? Our beach time was brief, but it was a picturesque ocean-side community with white sand beaches, green lush dunes, and nautical vacation homes.
There’s something intoxicating about the city of Charleston. It has an energy. A liveliness. It’s somehow very old and stately but youthful and invigorating all at once. Perhaps it’s the contrast of jolly people hustling about set against the historic backdrop of grand buildings and tradition? Or perhaps it’s the same energy we felt in Portland 10 years ago, before the huge influx of transplants like us? From what I understand the city is undergoing a fair amount of growth from transplants (i.e. non native South Carolinians). Regardless, right now Charleston is at the top of our “absolutely must visit again soon” list.
Have you ever “fallen for a city” quickly while traveling? What’s your favorite city to revisit over and over?