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9 Iconic Charleston Experiences

By Stratton Lawrence

03.15.19

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Do as the locals do to find out what makes Charleston tick.

Courtesy of Explore Charleston

Do as the locals do to find out what makes Charleston tick.

Learn how to do the Charleston by following the locals’ lead. Master these easy steps to find out what makes the Holy City so charming.

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Charleston’s natives are friendly, the local cuisine is mind-blowing, and the weather’s divine. Figure out how Charleston got its groove by partaking in some immersive activities that are beloved by the locals. 

A walk along these eerily beautiful beaches reveals the encroaching ocean tides.
See the Ocean Consume a Forest From a Boneyard Beach

Coastal geography along the Carolinas’ barrier islands is impermanent, subject to erosion and accretion. Nowhere is that process more starkly played out than on the region’s “boneyard” beaches where the ocean has breached the dune line, overtaking the maritime forest. The resulting ghostly expanse of petrified trees is ripe for exploration at low tide and perfect for photography as the tide shifts and waves flood the former forest with briny water.

The most easily accessible boneyards are on Bulls Island and Botany Bay Island. The latter can be reached in about 70 minutes by car, then a short walk (follow signs to Edisto Island, then  to Botany Bay Plantation Reserve). It makes an excellent day trip, paired with dinner at the Old Post Office on your return.

Bulls Island’s boneyard is vast, and accessible only by a 30-minute boat ride. Take Coastal Expeditions’s $40 ferry to this pristine wildlife refuge, where you’ll see alligators and birds galore on a hike from the landing through the island’s interior, before emerging on the scenic beach. (You can swim here, too, so bring a suit and a towel.)

Seeing a boneyard beach also gives new perspective to a visit to Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island, or Folly Beach—were it not for the houses, seawalls, and groins fortifying these fragile islands, they’d look like Bulls and Botany Bay islands do today.

The sights and sounds of a military parade are a weekly occasion in Charleston.
Stand in Formation at a Citadel Parade

If all you see of the Citadel military college are the cadets jogging around town in their blue T-shirts, you’re missing a key thread of Charleston’s fabric. Many of South Carolina’s most powerful players are Citadel graduates who share a unique camaraderie forged by four years of studying (and suffering) together.

When college is in session, the students parade every Friday afternoon at 3:45 on Summerall Field at the school’s center (what other colleges would call a “quad”). You’ll hear barking commanding officers and troops’ rhythmic chanting as they march and handle their (fake) guns in unison. It’s a grand tradition and it’s free to the public. Arrive by 3:15 to park and secure a good view. (Note the parade does not take place if the weather’s bad.)

Specialized walking tours get you close to the city’s landmarks.
Walk (or Run) the City With a Local

A ghost tour and a carriage ride are almost mandatory on a first visit to Charleston, and in a city this charming—and with some seriously scare-inducing history—each is worth the time and expense. But if it’s your second visit, or you’d like to go deeper into a particular neighborhood or aspect of the city’s past, look beyond the kiosks of the bigger name tour companies on Market Street for a niche guide like Carol Ezell-Gilson, a local artist and Broad Street resident who offers specialized tours on the Great Quake of 1886 that devastated downtown, the local story of Porgy and Bess (the book that inspired the movie and opera was by a Charleston writer DuBose Heyward; Porgy is thought to be based on a real person), and the ornate ironwork that distinguishes gates of churches and homes in the historic district (much of it forged by Philip Simmons, an African American blacksmith who was active in the city for seven decades).

If you’re simply not the stop-and-listen tour type, there’s an option for digging into the city’s rich history: Charleston Steeplechase conducts three- to four-mile running tours of the city, which allow you to multitask by seeing various sites while getting in a workout.

Slurp Away at an Oyster Roast

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As the rule of thumb goes, oyster season spans the months whose names contain an “r,” although in Charleston, September’s waters are still so warm that most locals wait to host their first oyster roast until October. From Halloween until beach season, if you’re gathering with friends outside, it’s likely to be beside a table piled with steaming oysters, holding a rag in one hand and a knife in the other, saltines and cocktail sauce at the ready.

Lowcountry oysters grow in clusters of at least a half-dozen shells, all stuck to one another as they emerge from the pluff mud exposed during low tide. These aren’t pretty Massachusetts singles, served raw and chilled with a pinch of lemon. Charleston oysters are meant to be eaten by the cluster, lightly steamed and warm. You stand outside around a homemade plywood table and talk, flinging the discarded shells into a bin.

At Bowens Island Restaurant near Folly Beach, this experience is recreated every day in the humble ground-floor oyster room, where oysters are sold by the bucket. (The restaurant is officially closed on Sundays, but most weeks that’s so it can host oyster roast fund-raisers for local charities.) If you visit during winter, check the Post and Courier or the Charleston City Paper to see if there’s a charity event listed for Bowens Island that week. For a reasonable ticket price, you can attend and find yourself with a flowing keg of local brew, all-you-can-eat oysters, and the good conversation of locals gathered to support a cause they’re passionate about.

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The historic shopfronts along King Street include some local gems.
Shop in Style Alongside the Locals

King Street is the hub of Charleston retail, although many of the local shops have been pushed out by high rents and replaced by national chains that use the high-profile storefronts as a billboard. Still, legacy holdouts like Croghan’s Jewel Box and Berlin’s Clothing survive, along with independent high-end fashion boutiques like Ibu Movement and Hampden.

To see the local shops on full display, visit on Second Sunday each month, when King Street is closed to cars and transforms into a European-style pedestrian thoroughfare, with street performers and food vendors complementing the sidewalk sales.

That hometown buzz is nearly equaled every Saturday between mid-April and Christmas at the Charleston Farmers’ Market. From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Marion Square offers stalls selling produce, cheese, seafood, and meat, plus local craftspeople and artists, food trucks, and live music. (Find souvenirs at the stands of local makers like jewelry designer Jen Cruitt  and fragrance creator The Contents Co.)  

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The music is not the only magic during concerts at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard.
Attend a Concert at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard

For two-and-a-half weeks in late May and early June, Charleston comes alive during Spoleto USA, an international arts festival that attracts some of the world’s best operas, stage actors, dance troupes, and singers. Of all the venues and performances, the outdoor concerts held in the College of Charleston Cistern Yard summon a special magic. Spanish moss hangs low from the live oaks in this urban courtyard oasis, setting a mood as the humid evening air grants a cool reprieve from the steamier heat of the day. Even world-class performers like Esperanza Spalding, the Punch Brothers, and Jon Batiste seem captivated by the ethereal scene and often deliver notable career performances. Get tickets early, and know that there’s not a bad seat in the small, walled yard. (If your Charleston trip doesn’t fall during the Spoleto USA festival, try to visit the Cistern in the evening anyway to experience its tranquility.)

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Getting some distance from land can get you a closer understanding of how Charleston was settled.
See the City From the Water

Charleston is pretty from street level, but to fully appreciate its location on a narrow, marshy peninsula, you should see it from the water. A cruise around Charleston Harbor offers a perspective on the city’s military history and unique geography and landmarks—the steepled skyline, the Battery, Fort Sumter—that you just can’t experience on foot.

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The dreamiest way to see the harbor is under sails. The 84-foot Schooner Pride—a replica tall ship of an 18th-century trading vessel—offers two-hour sailings each evening for under $60 per person. If you can round up six people, it’s not too much more to charter Fate, a 50-foot yacht from Charleston Sailing Charters, for a private two-hour tour.

Get your hands dirty to figure out some local cooking secrets.
Tap Into the Local Culinary Prowess

Eat out a few times in Charleston and you’ll notice it’s a city of open kitchens. Restaurant owners—who double as the chef in many cases—are proud of their cooking staff and wood-fired grills, so they show them off by opening views of the kitchen to the dining room. You can really learn a lot by watching the chefs work as you dine at restaurants like Purlieu and Basic Kitchen, but to take home some new skills, sign up for a cooking class.

Set in an early 19th-century carriage house, the thrice-weekly, eight-person classes at Zero George led by chef Vinson Petrillo set a high bar for the genre. Class includes a three-course meal and wine pairing for $150.

Nearby on Market Street, In the Kitchen with Chef Bob Waggoner offers a similarly intimate experience for 10 students each night. Waggoner, who led the kitchen at Charleston Grill for 12 years (attracting Michelin stars and nominations from the James Beard Foundation), built this kitchen classroom to share his passion. The $150 classes/dinners sell out months in advance.

Most high-end Charleston restaurants have a dedicated pastry chef. If sweets are your bag, Christophe Artisan Chocolatier helps you chase your confectioner dreams with classes (generally under $100) on making chocolate boxes and sculptures, macarons, and truffles.

Attend a service and learn how the Holy City got its nickname.
Take Me to Church

The Holy City earned its nickname for more than just its steeple-specked skyline—this is a devout population. Seeing the important sites in Charleston usually involves visiting at least a few houses of worship, so why not get a true taste of the community by attending a service?

The big players are the Anglicans and Episcopalians. St. Michael’s white pillars dominate the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets (check out the Tiffany stained-glass windows behind the altar). On aptly named Church Street, St. Philip’s iconic spire lords over the French Quarter, up the block from the French Huguenot Church, which serves one of the last remaining populations of its denomination in the country.

Catholics can attend mass at the Gothic revival–style Cathedral of St. John the Baptistwhich finally got its steeple in 2010, a century after the construction of the rest of the building. In the center of town on Calhoun Street, Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal, the first AME church in the South, has become a symbol of forgiveness and resilience for its response to the horrific 2015 shootings there.

The most architecturally interesting place of worship may be the Circular Congregational Church on Meeting Street, a progressive, nondenominational congregation that hosts a monthly second-Sunday Jazz Vespers. For the spiritual-but-not-religious, Charleston’s second-oldest church building is the Unitarian Church on King Street, whose graveyard is worth a visit for the eerily beautiful no-maintenance approach to upkeep.

Nearby on Hasell Street, the Greek Revival Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue, which dates to 1749, is the place where Reform Judaism began. A vibrant Greek Orthodox community meets uptown at the Church of the Holy Trinity. Further up the peninsula, the Central Mosque of Charleston welcomes visitors to its services and Saturday evening community gatherings.

So, that’s our suggested nine-point attack on getting to the heart of the Holy City. But every stroll down a street south of Broad or chat with a shopkeeper can reveal a new local truth, a fresh epiphany about the charms of this old town. Maybe it's time to make your own personal list of iconic Charleston experiences . . .

>> Plan Your Trip: AFAR’s Guide to Charleston

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