I just got back from a long weekend in Charleston, SC. I decided to go there because Travel + Leisure readers voted it “the number one city in the United States and Canada” for five years in a row.
While I did have a decent time there, I am now wondering exactly how the voting was rigged. How does a town with a narrowly defined cuisine, a tiny downtown crammed full of unremarkable businesses, and a few tourist attractions sprawled across a large metro area with nothing interesting in between, get voted #1 city (charitably a city) in the world? Ahead of Cuzco (Machu Picchu), Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Rome, Kyoto? Don’t get me wrong, Charleston is great for a long weekend if you live in the USA and don’t want to take a long flight, but categorizing it as a top tier global destination is preposterous.
I would go to Charleston if you are seeking warm weather in fall / winter, enjoy rising late and a laid back atmosphere, or if you are a city dweller who wants to see some interesting natural scenery … or if you really want to buy antiques. It is not the best destination for people watching, unique or quirky shops, world class gastronomy (with the exception of oysters and clams) or street food, or museums.
Charleston’s Peninsula looks like a quaint relaxed place to stroll through, but it’s a shallow experience compared to taking a walk through a neighborhood in a real city. This place is mostly a tourist trap with a very pleasant facade, on a Peninsula where not many people live due to the expense, filled with shops you can find everywhere else.
If I were to do this trip over, I would do the following things differently:
- Make sure to book lodging in one of the inns that have a piazza, preferably a converted Charleston Single House. Anything in the Peninsula is going to be at least $200 a night anyway, might as well stay somewhere with architectural significance.
- Go to the Magnolia Plantation instead of the Boone Hall and Plantation. I don’t know if Magnolia is any better but Boone was underwhelming.
- Don’t stress out about not being able to get an Uber in the middle of nowhere, I had drivers who had to drive 10 minutes just to pick me up, but they came!
- Read bus schedules very carefully, some only come once an HOUR.
- Lower food expectations, except for seafood and Gullah style food.
We only visited two historic houses, the Aiken-Rhett and Nathaniel Russell Houses. Both are very nicely preserved houses, but in the Aiken-Rhett house you’re able to wander about and take your time, whereas the Nathaniel Russell House has you following a (great) docent on a guided tour. Furthermore at the Aiken-Rhett House they preserved the old kitchen house, and you’re able to tour the entire slave quarters, and everything about the house is very evocative. I especially enjoyed walking out on the piazza, which is one of the defining features of the Charleston Single House architecture form.
From there we wandered around the east side of Charleston’s peninsula, eventually ending up at the City Market. On Day 2 during our walking our the guide called it “our tourist trap”, which sums it up quite well. The City Market is a quarter mile long covered structure filled with souvenir vendors. It is completely uninteresting. If you want to go just to take a walk, or are walking to the piers, I would recommend that you walk along the outside of the covered structure. There are a bunch of candy shops lining the outside of the City Market, and they are always giving away free samples of pralines or fudge that are not very good in my opinion, but at least they are free, and window shopping is fun.
The waterfront is one long continuous park, and it is gorgeous. I found the vaunted pineapple underwhelming; I gave it a glance and went back to contemplating the sparkle of sun on waves.
After leaving the waterfront we walking through the French Quarter on our way to lunch. The entire downtown area consists of:
- OMFG so many art galleries.
- Seriously, so many art galleries all next to each other and more or less the same.
- Many antique shops.
- Many tiny law firms.
- Chain stores you can find anywhere. Putting a Michael Kors in a charming building doesn’t make it interesting.
- Some local restaurants.
Singularly unimpressive. It was like walking through an outdoor shopping mall (so, no air conditioning in the summer).
Finally, we set off for our Morris Island Eco Tour from Charleston Outdoor Adventures. This was one of the highlights of the vacation, but it would have been much better if we had gone some other day, because the wind was COLD, and we got sunburned anyway. The first part of the tour consists of a meandering boat ride through the estuary, with the guide telling you about the local wildlife as you come across them (egrets, pelicans, etc). Surprisingly, Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins abound in this estuary, and you’re almost certain to see a few. The guides are adept at guiding the boat very close to the dolphins (15-30 ft) and you can watch them as they travel in a “pod” of 5-10. It was awesome.
Then you’re allowed to wander on Morris Island for an hour, which would have been nice if the weather had been warmer. The island is … deserted. Completely and utterly deserted. There is not a single human structure to be seen on the horizon except the lonely lighthouse. You can walk along the shore until you’re on the beach facing the Atlantic. If you’re a city dweller and don’t get to experience that kind of peace often, it’s pretty great. I also like my Nature in bite size portions so it was good to know I’d only be here an hour.
After the boat tour we took an Uber back to town, and got dinner at Dave’s Carry Out. It was mediocre, and they were stingy with their mediocre sauces. The one thing I will say is that our fried chicken wings and shrimps were amazingly moist and tender. The fries were OK, not crisp but at least fluffy inside. But the batter had no seasoning, the meat wasn’t really seasoned, and the sauces were not very good, so unless you only care about texture when you eat and not flavor it just wasn’t very good.
Attractions: Stroll along The Battery, Old Charleston Walking Tour (guide Skip Evans), Nathaniel Russell House, Charleston Food and Wine Festival Event – Toasted.
Food: Kaminsky’s, BBQ Vendors at Toasted,
Today we spent most of the morning in our hotel because nothing really opens up until 10 AM anyway. The hotel had sweet, moist cornbread at breakfast. I ate a square almost every morning. It was like eating corn flavored dessert cake. We took a walk to Rainbow Row, which is nice, but there’s not much to it. So we continued walking along the edge of the Peninsula, along the Battery. The view is wonderful, the houses are grand, and the weather was perfect.
We skipped lunch because we were looking forward to a big dinner, but I couldn’t resist getting brownie sundae from an iconic shop called Kaminsky’s. The sundae was decent, service was too good. We got a coffee, and when the server asked how it was I said that it was alright in a neutral but chipper tone, which is what I always do when something isn’t very good but it’s not worth complaining about. When the check came, we were not charged for the coffee. So then I did what I always do when that happens, which is add a little bit more to the tip.
We wanted to save room for dinner because we bought tickets to Toasted, a BBQ event that is a part of the Charleston Food and Wine Festival. I picked this event to attend because it seemed the best combination of fun and value for money. The festival takes place every year and consists of a food “village” every day, along with various dining events hosted at high end restaurants around town, and this BBQ bash that I decided to attend. The food village consists of a bunch of stalls set up around big park in the middle of town, and costs $110 per person to get in and eat all you want — $125 if you go on Sunday. I thought that was absurdly overpriced. I can have dinner in at least three Michelin starred restaurants in Chicago for that much money per person (since we don’t drink alcohol). The restaurant hosted events also ranged from expensive to too expensive per person.
I forked over a “mere” $85 per person for the Toasted BBQ bash, because it sounded like a lot more fun than the other events, plus I had to have BBQ at some point in Cackalacky anyway. It was tons of fun! All of the food was at least decent, a lot of it was really good, a couple of things were excellent. I was excited because they advertised that this year they were “upping <their> vegetable game”, but it was not very upped, but it was still good though. I even enjoyed some of the alcohols we tried. The level of food waste was prodigious. I think everybody was trying to get their $85 dollars worth. My favorite item was Chesapeake White Stone oysters poached in Kimchi and Oyster Liquor broth, I had 7 of those oysters in all and they were fabulous. Other favorites include the tangy, smoky Brunswick Stew from Southern Soul BBQ, and the Sweet Potato Croquette with Fiery Agrodolce from chefs Wyatt Dickson and Ben Adams. Most of the actual meat BBQ dishes were pretty mediocre, but the 17th street bbq stall served up some mean ribs.
Attractions: Boone Hall Plantation.
I overlooked the fact that the bus to Mt. Pleasant only comes once per hour. Living in Chicago, that thought just didn’t occur to me. So we sat at the bus stop for 45 minutes, but at least it was a nice cool day and the bus was fast. We got off at the stop closest to our destination, then took an Uber to Jack’s Cosmic Dogs for some excellent Galactic Dogs. Then another Uber to the Boone Plantation. It was OK, the house tour was underwhelming because unlike the well preserved period houses we viewed in town this particular house was rebuilt in the 1930s. From then on the public portions of the house were nicely redecorated, but without any intention of preserving historical significance. It was very nice in a “how the other half lives” sort of way but ultimately unrewarding. The garden was nice, the expansive grounds were boring.
The well preserved slave cabins, one room brick structures each about 12 by 20 feet, had some cursory information about plantation life — only the “most valuable” and highly skilled slaves and their families occupied these cabins set close to the main house. We sat and listened to a guy give a lecture about how not even free white people could live in dwellings are glorious as these; and about how well treated the (skilled) slaves were, since after the owners had paid “hundreds of thousands of dollars” (totally false, inflation adjusted or not) for the slave of course they would be treated well.
We then attended the presentation on Gullah-Geechee culture, which was pretty good. The presenter really put a lot of effort into her presentation talking points, it was humorous and informative. The midges were out in force, I saw everybody distractedly slapping at them and endlessly fidgeting in an attempt to avoid them. I cannot imagine going to Charleston in the summer months. Walking around town and going to plantations would probably be intolerably miserable.
For dinner we sat on the bus for 1.5 hours across the breadth of Charleston until we got to Boxcar Betty, where we had the best fried pickles I have ever had, and a very good chicken sandwich with peach slaw (couldn’t really taste the peach) and bacon jam. They took care to hollow out the pickle chips to remove the watery seedy center, and sliced them so thin, and fried them so crisp, that it was exactly like eating potato chips! Fabulous.
We took an Uber back to town. I had the driver drop us off at The Darling where I proceeded to take advantage of their $1 oyster happy hour, downing 7 oysters and two amazing raw Littleneck Clams (briny and marvelous), for a grand tally of $11. And then we got a pretty awesome ice cream sandwich from Peace Pie — the Praline kind, which should really be called snickers bar. Then we passed out.
Attractions: St. Michael’s Church.
Food: Hannibal’s Kitchen.
I decided to visit the interior of St. Michael’s because our tour guide had recommended it. It was interesting because there was noooobody else there, not even docents. We just walked in the open door, and could have scampered all over the restricted areas if we had wanted to, but we were good. It was serene. We also had fun reading the tombstone inscriptions in the graveyard out back. I love stained glass, but I always regret photographing it with my cell phone because the cell phone cam just can’t capture the beauty of it.
For lunch prior to heading to the airport we finished our tour with a bang at Hannibal’s Kitchen. Food-wise this was the highlight of the trip. The crab rice was incredibly flavorful for how simple it looked, the crab was so sweet and expertly seasoned. The slab of liver, smothered with gravy and caramelized onions was spectacular, it looks terrible but tastes divine, better than any steak I have ever had. The collard green plate with pig neck bones and tail was ok, the meat was done impeccably but lacked seasoning, good thing the hot sauce was very flavorful, not merely hot.