A First-Timers Guide to Charleston
I have a hard time shopping for Jordan. He doesn’t ask for much and buys most of the things he wants, himself. This pushes me to get pretty creative around the holidays.
This year, I decided I wanted to take him to see one of his favorite bands, Gregory Alan Isakov. I looked through their tour schedule and knew it when I saw it. Charleston, South Carolina. A bucket list city for me. An emerging food mecca. Charming and historic. Perfect this time of year. And also home to one of Jordan’s BBQ idols, Rodney Scott.
I wrapped a series of manila envelopes, each containing a clue to where we were going and what we’d be doing. A Rodney Scott menu, an unmarked map, mock plane tickets, and finally, copies of our front row concert tickets. He was pumped. And I was too! We counted down the days until our romantic getaway to the East Coast - and I set off on a mission to find all the must-see spots and reserve tables at the most delicious eateries in Charleston.
I picked up so many great recommendations from friends, family, Instagram followers and Uber drivers - so I figured I’d put them all together in a mini travel guide — for anyone planning a trip to Charleston! I’m calling it a “first-timers guide” because I include some touristy must-see spots, but it’s really for anyone looking to explore this special city.
OUR HUMBLE ABODE
We booked this charming “Kitchen House” through AirBnb. I had a request to share some tips for booking cute vacation pads, so here are my best ones:
look AND book early. The good ones go first! We booked this one 4-5 months in advance.
Location is key! If you don’t plan on renting a car, make sure you’re staying somewhere in close proximity to the shops and restaurants you’ll be visiting. We stayed on Rutledge Avenue, a few blocks up from the water and within a mile from most things we had planned.
If you want the benefit of a prime location and a beautiful home, without blowing your vacation budget, look for guest houses that have some separation from the main house. Our kitchen house was in a pretty fancy neighborhood and had everything we needed, including our own gated entrance. The only thing it *didn’t* have was a ton of square footage, but that doesn’t matter when you’re spending most of your time out and about exploring the city!
My biggest tip is to make all of your reservations months in advance. If you’re thinking you’ll be able to call a couple days before or show up the night-of, you’ll be left scrambling (and probably a little disappointed).
167 Raw Oyster Bar - AMAZING must visit. Go on a week night and put your name on the list early (they don’t take reservations). We got on at 4:45 and were seated before 5. This was one of the best meals we had on the trip -- the oysters were amazing and the oven roasted crab dip is a must-have!
Poogans Porch - make reservations in advance. Their fried green tomatoes with bacon jam and pimento cheese was amazing! Their she crab soup was a little too thick for me so I recommend saving that for 82 Queen (they have the best in town!)
Rodney Scotts BBQ - I had read to get here at least 30 minutes before opening (they don't take reservations and notoriously have a line out the door) BUT since we were visiting on a weekday, we showed up at 11:20am (20 minutes after opening) and had no problem ordering and getting a table. Order one of the platters and try a little bit of everything ("the whole pig" was our favorite). And don’t forget to buy a bottle of the Rodney Sauce while you’re there!
FIG - this restaurant was on my reservation list. They release reservation times 6-8 weeks in advance. I went on to Resy the day after they released them for our weekend and they were all sold out. Reservations in Charleston are NO JOKE!
Husk - we had three different people recommend this restaurant... one of them saying it was the #1 restaurant in South Carolina (woa!). We already had all of our meals booked so I marked it down for our next visit.
82 Queen - one of the oldest restaurants in Charleston and located right next to Husk. If you want some authentic and delicious southern food with great service and a laid back vibe (think smart casual attire), then this is your spot. HIGHLY recommend the jambalaya (one of the best things I ate in Charleston), shrimp and grits, crab cakes and the she crab soup (SO so good).
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream - amazing ice cream akin to Salt & Straw. Fun flavors and super delicious freshly made, soft and crunchy waffle cones
Second State Coffee - right around the corner from our place. Great lavender latte and their bacon and cheddar quiche was delicious!
Another Broken Egg - Beignets with a honey orange marmalade. WOW! Another culinary highlight (at a pretty casual low-key breakfast joint!)
Chubby Fish - we had heard great things about Chubby Fish (another local said it was in his top two places to eat in Charleston) but unfortunately they were closed for lunch when we tried to go!! We are making it a point to visit next time around.
Chez Nous - talk about being transported back in time. A hot ticket in Charleston (make your reservations the day they’re released if you want to score a table), but worth the hype. This understated French restaurant is housed in a small two story colonial style home, down a tiny alley you might miss if you weren’t looking. The chef hand-writes the small menu each night, giving two options for each course. I opted for the wine pairing and was so happy I did - it enhanced the whole dining experience and the wines they selected were perfect compliments to our amazing meal.
Handy and Hot Biscuit and Pie Shop (no reservations) - we didn’t end up making it here but I heard the tomato pie, bacon pimento cheese biscuit and cheeseburger handpie are their must-try’s.
Church & Union - we passed this spot on our carriage tour and I had to do a double take. it was almost jarring to see this incredible church transformed into a super trendy (& happenin’) restaurant/bar. We didn't get a chance to go but I'm bookmarking it for our next trip!
A few more recommendations we didn’t have time for:
Kaminsky's Dessert Cafe
Lewis BBQ - Texas style BBQ. Some locals say it's the best in town
Xiao Bao Biscuit
Rainbow row - a pretty pastel row of houses that the city is known for (it's on magnets and t-shirts throughout the shops). A great photo-op but it gets crowded with people taking pictures so go early for good lighting and less people.
High Battery Park and surrounding streets - we walked down Meeting St. and Water St. to get there and oh man… every single house was a stunner (some shown above). The homes along the water are huge, impressive, and can run upwards of 6 million dollars.
Calhoun Mansion tour (in High Battery Park) - this was an Uber driver recommendation that we didn’t have time for, but man the pictures online look pretty incredible!
Old Slave Mart Museum (30 min tour) - bleak and sobering. An important experience to learn about this dark part of American history. There was so much I didn’t know and didn’t understand about how slavery came about, along with the large role this port city played in the slave trade.
The Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon (1 hour tours every 30 minutes) - we went on the dungeon tour near the end of the day. It was nice to take a walking break for the tour, while learning about this beautiful building that was so significant in the history of the city.
Boon Hall Plantation & Gardens - I wasn’t sure if we’d have time to visit a plantation, so I was happy when we were able to squeeze it in before our flight home Sunday. We did a tour of the plantation home, but the highlight for me was the "Black History In America" exhibit on display in nine original slave dwellings on the property. It felt like we were stepping back in time as we walked through actual living quarters and learned about the work, diet and living conditions their close to 200 slaves endured.
Waterfront park - Really nice views, a big fountain and a beautiful garden of shaded trees to walk through
Old South Carriage Company - we did their haunted carriage tour and it was so fun! A little shorter than I would have hoped but so fun to hear Charleston ghost stories and folklore that date back to the early days of America.
Tattoos at Blu Gorilla - great little spot. I emailed ahead of time to make sure we could get the first appointments and we were in, out and on with the rest of our day in an hour!
Charleston Music Hall - this is where we saw Gregory Alan Isakov. A super intimate venue in the heart of downtown Charleston. Excellent acoustics too!
Charleston City Market - a fun indoor market similar to Pikes Place in Seattle or the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Packed with tourists on the weekends but a great place to pick up souvenirs from local vendors.
King Street - There are so many fun shops on this street that runs through the center of the city. Everything from Gucci to little specialty boutiques.
Lower King has more mainstream shopping where Upper King has more boutique-type stores. The further you go, the more college-y the scene gets, with local bars, ice cream shops and, you guessed it, college kids!
Bill Murray is a Charleston resident — our Uber driver tipped us off that he lives at 1 Rutledge. He also said he can be seen bopping around town in his baseball cap… photobombing wedding parties and surprising bars full of unsuspecting patrons.
Make an itinerary with all of your reservations and plans. It was super helpful to know what we had planned when, and also what plans were more fluid if our day took us in a different direction.
Charleston was truly enchanting. The people were so friendly and engaging. The food was incredible and the vibe throughout the city brought us back to an entirely different time in history. If you’re contemplating a trip… pull the trigger and book it. You will not regret it! And if you have one planned, I hope these recommendations are helpful and wish you the best time exploring this beautiful and charming part of America!