36 hours in Charleston, South Carolina

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36 hours in Charleston, South Carolina
The McLeod Plantation Historic Site on James Island, S.C., Aug. 24, 2023. Beyond Charleston’s historic district, you’ll find small islands with coastal views and waterways, and neighborhoods with their own wealth of history. (Hunter McRae/The New York Times)

by Ariel Felton

CHARLESTON, SC.- When most people think of Charleston, South Carolina’s oldest city, they often picture its walkable downtown, with its cobblestones, Colonial architecture and horse-drawn carriages. But beyond the historic district, you’ll find small islands with coastal views and waterways, and neighborhoods with their own wealth of history. While the city’s pivotal role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade continues to spark debate about how much to focus on that narrative for visitors, an answer has arrived in the International African American Museum, a $120 million project that opened in June after 20 years in the making. Charleston has been accused of being obsessed with history; in reality, it’s an evolving city amid a tourism boom that is striving to use the past to inform its future.



3:30 p.m. | Tour Black history

Take in history on foot with Lost Stories of Black Charleston, a two-hour walking tour that starts at Buxton Books on King Street and explores two downtown neighborhoods: the French Quarter and South of Broad. On a recent stroll, author-historian Damon Fordham (who said he never gives the same tour twice) pointed out the Broad Street location of the country’s first known Black law firm, Whipper, Elliott, and Allen, which opened in 1868. In front of the South Carolina Historical Society, he spoke of Denmark Vesey, a free Black man who, in 1822, planned an unsuccessful slave revolt. When his plan was revealed, white Charlestonians burned down Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Vesey was a member. The church was rebuilt in 1872 (and again in 1891, after an earthquake) and was the site of the 2015 shooting that claimed the lives of nine Black churchgoers.

7:30 p.m. | Take in performances

For a classic theater experience, try the Charleston Gaillard Center, which opened in 2015 and presents comedy, ballet and theater in the 1,818-seat Martha and John M. Rivers Performance Hall, whose high-domed ceiling and red velvet curtains mimic a classic opera house. This fall, you can catch performances by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Lake Street Dive and the Nashville Ballet, among others. For a more casual atmosphere, try Henry’s On the Market, which claims to be Charleston’s oldest continuously operated restaurant. Henry’s often has live jazz in its Whiskey Room on the second floor, and it also has a large rooftop bar. For a late-night snack, try traditional Lowcountry dishes such as she-crab soup ($12), a creamy soup with flavorful roe, or shrimp and grits, swimming in a gravy made with tasso ham ($26).


10 a.m. | Stretch out on the sand

Drive about 20 minutes east from downtown to Sullivan’s Island; cross the eight-lane Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, where you’ll see the Cooper River snaking past Charleston’s main peninsula. Grab brunch at the Obstinate Daughter, a sunny, second-floor restaurant and patio bar with prompt service, bleached wood and a beachy atmosphere. The shrimp roll ($19) comes with fried polenta sticks made with cornmeal from Marsh Hen Mill, a farm on Edisto Island. When you’re ready to lie on the sand, follow Station 21 Street to the public beach access. Afterward, indulge in Edgar Allan Poe lore at the Edgar Allan Poe Library, just a few minutes’ walk from the beach. The poet was enlisted in the Army under the name Edgar Perry and stationed on Sullivan’s Island from 1827 to 1828. The library staff members are happy to share everything they know about the writer’s brief time on the island.

1 p.m. | Discover Eastside soul

The Eastside neighborhood was planned as an elite suburb for white Charlestonians, before it became home to a community of free and enslaved Black people. By 1960, the neighborhood was predominantly Black. Charleston’s Black presence has shrunk in recent decades, but some Black businesses remain, including Hannibal’s Kitchen. Opened in 1985, the modest, family-owned soul-food restaurant has plenty of booths to dig into fried-fish plates, BBQ ribs, and Hoppin’ John, a pea-and-rice dish (entrees from around $15). Stroll a couple of minutes from Hannibal’s: Behind a condemned two-story house is a museum within the former home and workshop of Philip Simmons, the celebrated blacksmith, who died in 2009 (free entry). Some of his wrought-iron works still decorate Charleston, such as his heart gate in front of St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church downtown.

2 p.m. | Trace freedom’s path

Southwest of downtown is James Island, another of Charleston’s barrier islands. Today the island is mostly suburban, but pre-Civil War James Island was populated with plantations, where enslaved men and women produced the Sea Island cotton that the region was known for. The McLeod Plantation, now a historic site open to visitors, was once a leader in the island’s cotton production. Its 37 acres include slave cabins, a cotton gin house and the main McLeod home amid grassy fields and tall live oaks (entry, $20). McLeod places special emphasis on Black history, including the Gullah Geechee people, the descendants of the enslaved, who continued to live on the site until the 1980s. Timed guided tours, or self-guided tours via an app, are included and are mostly outdoors (the welcome center sells bug spray if you forget yours!).

3:30 p.m. | Explore a Renaissance

The first floor of the Gibbes Museum of Art, a stunning beaux-arts style building with columns and pediments, is free for visitors who can explore artist studios and the museum store — but its other two stories are worth the cost of entry ($12). On the second floor, see nature as art: Find red maple and sweetgum branches twisting toward the ceiling, a sculpture by environmental artist Patrick Doughtery, and a collection of woven sweetgrass designs by Mary Jackson, a fiber artist from Mount Pleasant. A permanent exhibition focuses on the Charleston Renaissance, a period, particularly between 1915 and 1945, of artistic and cultural revival. After the gallery, stroll King Street, a pedestrian-friendly retail corridor that includes George C. Birlant & Co., founded in 1922 and one of the largest antiques stores in the Southeast.

7 p.m. | Dig into seafood

Fleet Landing Restaurant and Bar is housed in a massive 1940s former naval building with views of the Charleston Harbor. The double-sided bar has both indoor and outdoor seating, and the patio wraps around the building. Fleet Landing serves Southern seafood favorites such as Carolina lump crabcakes ($32), and pan-roasted salmon with a side of Lowcountry grits ($28). The 6,000-square-foot establishment is as big as it is popular, so large parties should reserve in advance. The food, plus the sunset view of the Cooper River, makes Fleet Landing worth navigating the crowd.

Sorelle, an all-day Italian restaurant, opened in a former bank on Broad Street in February. Dinner reservations can be scarce, but its first-floor cafe offers a casual brunch for walk-ins and sandwiches to go.


10 a.m. | Visit sacred ground

The new International African American Museum sits on the former Gadsden’s Wharf, where tens of thousands of enslaved Africans were first brought to the United States. Take a moment in the African Ancestors Memorial Garden, an outdoor pavilion overlooking the Charleston Harbor that has silhouettes of bodies carved into the pavement and engraved stones that list the enslaved people’s various ports of origin. Inside the museum, a looped hallway tells a story of America through a Black Carolinian lens, from the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to 2015 when Bree Newsome Bass was arrested for climbing a flagpole at the state Capitol to remove the Confederate flag. There are also six other galleries that explore the state’s Gullah Geechee history, the significance of the rice trade and memories of the enslaved (entry, $19.95; advance tickets required).

Noon | Lunch at the Mercato

Sorelle, a restaurant inspired by Italy’s all-day cafes and markets opened in a former bank on Broad Street, just outside the French Quarter, in February to a lot of fanfare and with a James Beard Award-winning chef attached. While it might be difficult to get a dinner reservation, you can stop by the Mercato, Sorelle’s first-floor cafe, for casual breakfast and brunch fare to go. The sunny cafe is decked out in hanging plants and high-top tables, and has sidewalk seating. Try a slice of Sicilian-style pizza ($10), or a hefty prosciutto sandwich with fresh mozzarella and balsamic vinegar ($16). There are also plenty of pastries for the drive home.


Hannibal’s Kitchen has been serving authentic soul food for nearly 40 years.

International African American Museum is an expansive new museum chronicling Black history through a Carolinian lens.

The Obstinate Daughter is a sunny second-floor brunch spot on Sullivan’s Island.

Gibbes Museum of Art offers three stories of art centered on Charleston.


Fleet Landing Restaurant and Bar serves seafood dishes in a 1940s former naval building with a harbor view.

Sorelle is a new Italian-inspired restaurant, bar and market.

Henry’s On the Market offers live music and elevated bar food in a casual environment.


20 South Battery is a small hotel near Oyster Point with views of White Point Garden, Fort Sumter and the Charleston Harbor. Rooms start from $550 a night.

The Ryder Hotel is a boutique experience in downtown Charleston within walking distance of a wide range of retail, dining and nightlife options. Enjoy its midcentury modern décor and poolside bar, with rooms from about $350 a night.

Lavender & Lace is a bed-and-breakfast in a 1870s Victorian home, offering two suites as well as a two-story carriage house, all with private entrances. Rooms start around $119.

If you’d rather opt for a beach house, try searching for short-term rentals on Sullivan’s Island.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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