Charleston Rainbow Row USA

Falling for Southern Charm in Charleston

Charleston, South Carolina, might seem like an unusual choice for a couple of twenty-somethings visiting the USA for the first time, but it ended up being one of my favourite cities. It wasn’t the Empire State Building, the Grand Canyon or the White House which made me want to visit the USA. It’s the country’s regional diversity, which still manages to put up a good fight in the face of McMansions, big box stores and the slow transition of small towns into Everywheresville, USA.
Falling for Charleston's Southern Charm

Distinct regional diversity is what drew me to the USA because any regional diversity in Australia is so subtle that even Australians struggle to detect it. I was drawn to finding places where local speech, attitudes and architecture would be different to the last city I visited.

I couldn’t have picked a better city than Charleston to wedge between my two months in New York and my time in New Orleans. It is the sweet, genteel and slow antidote to New York’s gritty, brash, harried hustle and bustle. It’s the quiet, discreet and sugar-coated alternative to the free-spirited, raw and raucous energy of the Big Easy.

Charleston USA
Meeting Street, Downton Charleston

These three cities were all so different that picking a favourite is futile. New York inspired me and awed me and New Orleans delighted me and shocked me. Charleston enchanted me.

Magnolia Planation low country swamp Charleston SC
Low country swamp at Magnolia Plantation

It’s easy to fall head over heels for this sweet city in the South, but I had to remind myself to keep the city’s historical context in mind. It was especially hard to ignore as we walked along Charleston’s millionaire mile, The Battery. 

But you can’t hold modern people to the actions of their ancestors. The people we met in Charleston were some of the nicest that we met during our trip.  Southern hospitality is legendary and everyone we met lived up to the reputation. We immediately noticed the change in tune, starting with our shuttle driver, check in staff at DoubleTree and the waitress who served us at the Market Street Inn, a rooftop bar near our hotel. Everyone was noticeably friendlier and chattier than in New York City. It makes sense, moving from one of the biggest cities in the world to a small one, but it was still a welcome change. After the too-cool waiters of New York City, the service in Charleston left us speechless.

We spent our first evening in Charleston on the rooftop of the Market Street Inn, overlooking the quiet streets and enjoying the fresh breeze. The change in pace was already noticeable, and it felt so good to slow down somewhere friendly.

Market Street Inn Rooftop Bar Charleston
Market Street Inn, my favourite rooftop bar in Charleston
Green Mansion on the Battery Charleston SC
Mansion on E Bay Street, Charleston

The wide streets are quiet in the morning and just cool enough in the shade. Food here is cheap, which is a relief as accommodation is not.  We were pretty impressed by our digs at DoubleTree, after coming up empty in our search for a B&B or reasonably priced independent hotels, but it really gouged a hole in our pockets.

A mouthwatering taste of Southern hospitality

Kitchen 208 on King Street welcomes diners with sunshine-yellow wood-panelled walls and oversized, country-style wooden chairs which made me feel a bit like a child. For just $8, I had French toast with crunchy applewood bacon, maple syrup and fresh strawberries. David had scrambled eggs with house fries (baked potatoes) and biscuits with grape jelly. Biscuits are like salty, buttery, savoury scones. I don’t like scones, but strangely, I love biscuits! The mimosas were only $4, so it seemed silly not to get one after spending weeks paying $12 for the same thing in New York. As it turned out, these weren’t the same as in New York – they were much stronger! In New York, a mimosa is a glass of orange juice with about three drops of Champagne. In Charleston, the balance is much more in favour of the Champagne and all is right in the world.

Kitchen 208 Charleston SC USA
A Southern breakfast at Kitchen 208

On another morning, as we waited on the footpath for a table at Toast, the manager came out and asked, “Who wants to meet a neighbour?”. I didn’t understand what she meant until after a couple took up her offer, to share a four-person table with another couple. We were seated near the foursome later and watched as the two couples shared a meal and got to know each other a little. I can’t imagine anyone venturing outside their bubble at brunch in Australia, even at the popular communal dining tables!

One of my favourite restaurant experiences to date was at Magnolia’s, a beautiful white tablecloth restaurant on East Bay Street. We went for the Southern cuisine, but the outstanding service also had me swooning. Our waiter was a gentleman in his fifties, who seemed delighted to help us select a variety of interesting Southern dishes. We started with fried green tomatoes with white cheddar & caramelized onion grits, country ham and tomato chutney and crab cakes served with low country succotash and tomato butter. I had a blue crab bisque for my main and David had the bourbon-fried catfish with shrimp, andouille sausage and butterbean succotash with Creole grits and tabasco remoulade. I don’t know how we managed to squeeze in so much food (although, spending two months eating US-sized portions in New York might have helped), but despite our indulgent meal the bill was still under $100, including two cocktails!

We couldn’t resist buying bucketloads of praline, from a few of the many sweet shops around town. The sweet shops in the South are something else!

Charleston USA Sweet Shops
Sweet shop in downtown Charleston

Rainbow Row & the Historic District

Walking around downtown Charleston is like walking through a movie set. Are they sure these beautiful facades aren’t fake, and that these well-dressed, smiling people strolling through the streets aren’t actors?

Young men in navy uniforms stroll down the streets arm in arm with their girlfriends. The delicate, sweet scent of tea olive is carried in the gentle breeze down by the battery.

In the middle of town, pastel-hued homes and businesses are carefully preserved, as part of the largest Historic District in the United States. The historic district is mostly populated by art galleries, law firms, antique shops, fashion boutiques and interior design firms, as well as a number of bars and restaurants.

Charleston Rainbow Row USA
Rainbow Row, Charleston
Charleston USA
Left: Waterfront Park, Right: Real Estate Agency in the Historic District

Charleston USA Historic District

The world spins slower

Horse-drawn carriage tours meader through the city,  carefully managed by a city controller so as not to disturb the peace. When we wandered down a side street off East Bay St, we were rewarded with an enormous fountain, at the head of a long, narrow garden lined with live oaks.

At the end of the park, we came out by the water, near the Carolina Yacht Club. The calm Ashley River is lined with pale green sweetgrass which sways in the gentle breeze. We stopped for a minute to admire the view and spotted a pod of dolphins gliding through the water, emerging every now and then in a flash of silver.

Charleston Waterfront Ashley River

Waterfront Park on the Cooper River

Battery Mansions in Charleston SC
Carriage tours of the Battery
Palmer house B&B Charleston HEADER
The Palmer Home on East Battery, Charleston

Romance in White Point Garden

In a happy daze after a surprise dolphins spotting, we made our way down to The Battery, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in America. As we walked along the waterfront, we oohed and ahhed at pale green, lilac, sunshine yellow and bubblegum pink mansions, each desperately trying to out-do each other. At the end of East Battery, we found White Point Garden. The thick tangle of live oak branches almost completely obscures the sunlight, making the garden feel intimate even in broad daylight.

Live Oaks at White Point Park Charleston SC
Live Oaks in White Point Garden

We were walking towards an old pagoda when a young Southern man walked up to us and asked David to take a picture of him and his girlfriend. We noticed his hands were shaking. He whispered, “I’m about to propose.” The couple posed in the pagoda, and we took the few decoy photos until he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. We caught the whole thing on camera for the happy couple and wandered off again in a bit of a daze.

The air smells sweet, the people are polite, the cafes are warm and inviting and the food is cheap and bountiful, the heritage buildings are painted in pretty pastels, there are sweet shops around every corner, dolphins play in the river and we just participated in a marriage proposal. At first glance, Charleston seems to be plucked straight out of a fairytale.

Charleston USA White Point Garden
White Point Garden
Charleston USA White Point Garden Proposal
Proposal in White Point Garden

A tragic history

Of course, every place has its demons, and Charleston is no stranger to the ugliness of humanity. It was a Confederate stronghold during the Civil War, it was built on the profits of plantations worked by slaves and it prospered as its port became one of the most prominent slave-trading ports in the United States. Just a few months before our visit, a gunman had opened fire in a church, Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing nine innocent people.

During our stay, several Charlestonians referred to the shooting. They still seemed shocked that such an ugly crime could happen in their community. Whether they were mourning the lives lost in the shooting, lamenting about the recent flood or celebrating, the community spirit in Charleston was palpable.

We happened to be in town for the “Second Sundays” street party, held on the second Sunday of every month. King Street was busy, but not overcrowded, as droves of people came out to catch up over ice cream, BBQ ribs or any of the other street food offerings. In general, people in Charleston were pretty well dressed, but it was the four-legged Charlestonians that really set the standard. At Second Sundays we saw not one, but three dogs wearing bow ties, and one larger dog in a neck tie. They certainly seemed to have one up on the locals, when later that evening I had my first sighting of a non-ironic cowboy hat, worn by a man eating dinner at a restaurant.

Second Sunday Street Party Charleston USA
Second Sunday Street Party in Charleston

Between street parties, pastel-coloured mansions, beguiling Lowcountry landscapes and enormous plates of finger-lickin’ food for a fraction of the price, Charleston’s charms are hard to resist.

Have you visited Charleston? Where is the prettiest city you’ve ever visited?

 

9 thoughts on “Falling for Southern Charm in Charleston

  1. I’m so glad that you enjoyed your visit to Charleston! I love that you were really interested and tuned into the US’s regional subcultures. They really make the US unique and special. What was your favorite part of the Charleston cuisine?

    1. Hi Bailey! I’ve just realised that I haven’t responded to your comment, I’m so sorry! I’ve somehow missed all the comments on this post. I don’t even know where to start with the cuisine! The ingredients and flavours are quite different to what I’m used to (grits, fried green tomatoes, etc!), so it was partly the novelty but also that we never had a bad meal – no matter what the dish, everything had that “homemade” flavour. I want to go back and try some of the city’s top restaurants like Husk, etc too…one day I’ll be back!

  2. Yea it all seems so nice and sweet until you realize that every single delegate in South Carolina chose Trump and realize that the people are probably all racists! You’re lucky you’re white, I would never venture down south, and I live in America. Yes its history is ugly – the ugliest, but its modern day politics aren’t any better.

    1. Hi Claire, I’ve just realised that I haven’t responded to your comment, I’m so sorry! I’ve somehow missed all the comments on this post. I really appreciate your insight into the US, particularly the politics – I only have the briefest outsider knowledge, which probably doesn’t count for much. I have no doubt that you know a lot more about the modern day politics than I do, and so I’m sad to hear this.

      As I’m not American, nor a historian, I know I can’t do the topic justice. All I can speak for is my own experience, which I’ve tried to balance with my knowledge of the city’s history. I ummed and ahhed a lot about how to share my experience in the South, especially as a non-American. I was wary of judging every person living in Charleston by their ancestors (and some of their modern day peers). My own country (Australia) has a history that is also terrible in parts ( and we have some pretty backwards politicians too!), so I’m conscious that a sad history and racist politicians doesn’t necessarily represent the hearts and minds of every single person in a city. Thanks for your comment though, I really do value the opinions of Americans on this topic.

  3. I’m inspired to visit Charleston just by seeing your photos over in Instagram! Pinning this post for later when I finally get myself down there 😉

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