Charleston, South Carolina used to have a tourist season. Tourism would begin to ramp up during the weekend of “SEWE,” which stand for the “South Eastern Wildlife Expo,” and continued until Thanksgiving. But after major travel publications like Conde Nast and Travel+Leisure named Charleston the “Number 1 tourist destination in the world” (good lawd, y’all) there is no longer a tourist “season” in Charleston; tourist flock here year round.
I am not one of these “poo-poo the tourists” locals. In fact, I’m not even counted as a “local” by the poo-poo people. Your family has to have lived in Charleston for 2-3 hundred years before you’ll be welcomed at any Battery-addressed soiree without at least one disapproving glare as you walk through the door. I’ve lived in Charleston for 15 years, but in the eyes of the Blue-Bloods, I’m closer to a tourist than a resident. Which is why I believe I am most qualified to offer this list to tourists because, basically, I am one who simply hasn’t left since 2005.
There are hundreds of “Charleston Tourist Guides” on the internet. A few years ago, I wrote a piece called the “Ten Things I Hate about Charleston.” Not my finest work as it was an attempt to be different in the realm of Charleston lists, but worth a look if you’re interested. What I didn’t find on the internet was something that prepared you for being a tourist in Charleston. So instead of telling you what to do and where to go (I’ll do some of that), hopefully this piece will prepare you for being a tourist in Charleston and give you an idea what to expect while you’re here.
Preparing to Come to Charleston
First, pack some comfortable walking/tripping shoes. One of my favorite things to do in this city is walk around downtown. King Street, The Market, Broad Street, Colonial Lake and The Battery are definitely the most tourist-centric. I mention some good shoes to trip in because it happens all the time walking around Charleston. The city is full of uneven sidewalks and historic cobblestone streets, perfect for face-planting. In most cities, someone tripping is a humorous sight followed by at least a chuckle. In Charleston, someone tripping is met with a look of understanding because we know it will happen to us and Karma is nothing to be messed with. This is of course a joke. Charleston is a wonderful city to walk around, just pick your feet up.
Second, remember that it can be colder here than it says on the package. Our winters are thankfully short and sweet, but if you are coming in the winter months, prepare for cold wind. I love hot humidity and a nice, warm sea breeze. Charleston has both of those things. In January and February, though, those things turn on you and make things feel much colder than the reported temperature. People seem to laugh at the reported “feels like” temperature in some places. In Charleston, you won’t be laughing standing on the corner of Calhoun and King when you feel like that temperature. It can also be very HOT. But if you don’t know that, I can’t help you.
Finally, remember your elastic pants. I haven’t bought a pair of pants without elastic in the waistband since Bush was President. This is a city that you should be prepared to eat in when you visit. Leave your Keto diet at the Summerville exit. Plan on needing some expandable clothes. All the walking will help, but nothing will blow out a button faster than tucking in to the fried seafood platter at Hanks.
Locals complain about the traffic in Charleston all the time and mainly blame you, the tourist. I think this is an irrational response to a pretty mild problem. Drive five minutes in Atlanta or Charlotte and get back to me with your Charleston traffic complaints. Our traffic moves pretty well for a city that is rapidly outgrowing its infrastructure, so I think we should be thankful. I even wrote a Post about getting stuck in traffic because of a drawbridge going up all the time. In retrospect, while I still agree with the premise, that bridge causes a 6-minute delay. Unless you have a heart on ice on the way to a transplant, that six minutes shouldn’t ruin your day.
My only advice for tourists driving around downtown is, don’t panic. It’s a 400 year old city and the streets weren’t designed for cars, so take your time.
Parking is another story downtown. It’s expensive and scarce, so plan accordingly. If you are staying in an Airbnb, make sure they offer off-street parking for free. Don’t let them sell you on on-street parking being convenient and free because it typically is not. Now, they can offer you a pass that will be valid for the days you are renting, so make sure you demand that if your rental doesn’t offer off street parking.
Hotels should offer parking. It’s usually an expensive additional cost, but that is apart of the game. I was walking passed one of the many new boutique hotels that have popped up around the city the other day and the bellman was explaining to a guest where he should park. His advice for the gentleman was to park in a deck or on the street. I guess the hotel didn’t have their own parking. Nowhere in downtown Charleston can you park on the street overnight without a pass from the city, so I was surprised to hear this advice. Make sure there is parking where ever you are staying.
While You Are Here
You won’t be able to do everything the city has to offer in one trip. I’ve lived here for 15 years and I still haven’t done everything. I’m going to talk about a few Charleston basics that you should consider doing at least once:
First day, I would plan to visit the Aquarium in the morning and then go on the Fort Sumter tour in the afternoon. I wrote about how great the Fort Sumter tour was in this Post. The aquarium is great because it’s right on the water which makes it feel right. Going to an aquarium in the middle of a big city can feel weird. This one feels natural. And visiting Fort Sumter gives you a chance to take a boat ride through the harbor and see one of the great historical sites in the country. If you aren’t into history, at least go out there for the beautiful views.
Eating should be a major part of your Charleston plan. People ask me all the time where locals eat like we have some secret speakeasy that no one is allowed to mention. We actually do, but I wouldn’t dare expose them here or I’ll be banned. We pretty much eat where you eat. Places don’t become famous because they stink. New great places open here all the time. My list of “favorite restaurants” is fluid and yours should be too. “Chubby Fish” is a new, small place off the beaten path where I was recently blown away by the meal I had. Charleston is so full of good places to eat and it’s become so famous that it’s okay to take the suggestions of blogs or social media when it comes to where you should eat. Also, when you are here, ask people where they like to eat. Locals are proud of our culinary traditions and shouldn’t steer you wrong.
I recently became sober, so don’t take this next suggestion as a demand or something you must do, but I (well, not) would plan on doing some drinking while you are here. We have some beautiful rooftop bars that I would highly recommend patronizing for at least one drink. Charleston should be seen from a roof. Just make sure you don’t fall off. The nightlife here has exploded since I was in college. When I was a freshmen at C of C in 2005, there were three bars in the area we called “upper-King,” which is bellow Calhoun street. Now, there are 30. My advice would be to plan on visiting many bars. If one stinks, go next door. And if you are sober, still go, drink club soda and enjoy the next morning while everyone else is nursing their hangovers.
Finally, spend lots of money. Thanks.
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What Not to Do While You Are Here
Eat at Bubba Gump’s. Please. I’m begging you. Hanks is half a block from this monstrosity. I don’t understand why you would eat here in the land of fine seafood restaurants.
Eat at Red’s. Shem creek is a great afternoon. It’s not full of the best places to eat in Charleston, but Tavern and Table, Vickery’s, the Wreck and Saltwater Cowboys are perfectly acceptable. I eat at all of them. But, I think Reds gets takeout from Bubba Gump and serves it as their own. Drinking there is fine. Please don’t eat the food. This is the land of food. It’s unnecessary.
Finally, I’m done with horse-drawn carriage rides. I do believe the companies take care of the horses the best they can, even though I think they lie about abiding by any heat restrictions for the animals. There are many great walking, bus or boat tours that you can take around the city. You won’t go without if you skip the horse drawn carriage tours. Having horses draw anything in 2019 is simply unnecessary. It can’t be a good life for the horse, they don’t smell very good, they slow traffic to a crawl and it’s a purely antiquated mode of touring. Put an electric motor on those carriages, buy some trollies or go out of business. I’d like to see the horse carriage rides end in 2019.
When to Come
I’m biased, but I don’t believe there is a prettier place to be in the world than Charleston during the Spring and Fall. It’s 70 degrees with a nice breeze. The sky is blue and it’s pleasant. Of course, those will be the most expensive times to visit here, but I believe it is worth it.
Beginning with the Southeastern Wildlife Expo in February, there are events in Charleston almost every weekend. The Fashion Week, the Food and Wine Festival and SEWE are some of the best times to come here because of the events but also because the city is most alive.
When Not to Come
I mention those events with a caveat: things are expensive and crowded. Generally, this is okay if you plan ahead. One event I would skip is the Charleston Marathon. The Marathon includes a major traffic headache on a Saturday and unwashed runners with their numbers still on fill the streets. After the race, they pack bars drinking Michelob Ultras, begging for praise for their accomplishment. You should be proud of yourself if you complete the Charleston Marathon, but kindly take a shower before you go out in public afterwards.
January and February are my least favorite months here. This applies to almost anywhere for me because I don’t like the winter. Charleston can get lucky in these months and experience a few 60 degree beautiful days. But usually when it warms up like that in the winter it rains. If the “mild” winter here is an improvement from where you live, then by all means come on down. Just leave the snow and the yuck at home.
Thank you for coming! I think it’s cool that Charleston has become such a popular destination. I love this city. I love its beauty and culture and I’m so glad that so many of you do to. Charleston is a place that everyone should visit at least once. And I hope this post in some small way helped you get here.
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