Celebrating the Houses and Gardens of Charleston
Walking the streets of historic Charleston, you may find yourself trying to get a peek through the mansion windows—and wishing you could get your foot in the door. Well, once a year, you can. During the annual Festival of Houses and Gardens, which returns March 15-April 21, 2018, some 150 private homes fling open their doors. On any given day, only a small selection of those houses will be available for tours either in the afternoon or occasional candlelight ones in the evening. The festival also includes a variety of other events—history walks, lectures, and open houses at cultural institutions. (A schedule of tours and tickets will become available on November 1, 2017.) Judy Perl of Judy Perl Travel, a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council, has created an itinerary timed to coincide with the festival that’s perfect for anyone interested in architecture, design, or history.
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    Day 1
    Arrive in Charleston
    Given that you are visiting Charleston to see its historic houses, it’s only fitting that you stay in a historic building too. The Planters Inn has welcomed visitors to Charleston since it opened in 1844. As its name implies, it was long the hotel of choice for planters visiting to trade at the Charleston City Market (across the street) and to experience a taste of urban life before returning to their plantations. A Relais & Châteaux property, the hotel’s 64 guest rooms are furnished to reflect its long history. Wentworth Mansion is a 21-room hotel located in a Second Empire building constructed in 1886 for Silas Rodgers, a wealthy cotton merchant. The mansion has been meticulously restored and outfitted with antiques.

    After a quick lunch at your hotel of choice, you’ll join one of the house tours offered by the festival. These typically start at 2 p.m. and are self-guided, with docents in each house who will point out architectural details and notable furniture and objects.

    When you’re done with your tour and ready for dinner, head down East Bay Street to Magnolias, which helped usher in Charleston’s current culinary renaissance when it opened in 1990. Its menu proves that Lowcountry cuisine can be upscale as well as delicious.
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    Day 2
    Explore Charleston's Historic Neighborhoods
    Get a lay of the land this morning with a carriage tour through Charleston. Though its total area is relatively small—just one and a half miles separate the Battery at the district’s southern tip and Calhoun Street along its northern edge—more than 300 years of history have unfolded here. You’ll see many of the remarkable churches, mansions, and civic buildings that have been preserved and restored.

    Lunch today brings you to 82 Queen. This restaurant has been serving Lowcountry cuisine for more than three decades, although the buildings that house it are more than three centuries old. Whether you sit inside or, if the weather cooperates, under the magnolia tree in the courtyard, you’ll feel like you have stepped back in time.

    This afternoon you’ll visit another dozen or so houses as part of the festival’s tours.
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    Day 3
    Plantation Life
    While the Festival of Houses and Gardens focuses mostly on Charleston proper, anyone interested in the area’s history will want to visit at least one plantation too. Each has different appeals, with some of special interest for their focus on Gullah cultures, others for their landscaped gardens. For pure architectural elegance, the Georgian Drayton Hall tops many lists. It also has the distinction of being the oldest plantation house in America that is open to the public, dating way back to 1742.

    When you return to Charleston, have a late lunch/early dinner or what they call supper in this part of the world at Virginia’s on King. The menu includes almost every typical South Carolina dish you’ve ever wanted to try from tomato pie and she-crab soup to start your meal to pecan pie for dessert.

    This evening you’ll join one of the candlelight tours offered by the festival. These tours that begin at dusk reveal another perspective, with architectural details and glittering chandeliers shown to their best in the warm candlelight.
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    Day 4
    A House Museum Visit
    This morning, before you depart, you’ll visit one of Charleston’s house museums. Regularly open to the public, they provide an interesting contrast to the festival’s private homes. While you may see an Eames chair in a 19th-century parlor at the houses on the festival’s tours, these museums have all been furnished to reflect the period of their original owners. Some of the more popular are the Nathaniel Russell House Museum, the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, and the Edmondston-Alston House. After a long weekend of looking around other people’s houses, it’s now time to say goodbye to Charleston and return to your own with, we suspect, some design inspiration.