Venerable old Charleston is growing like a supercharged kudzu vine: The U.S. Census Bureau ranks it 12th in the nation for rate of growth. As the city continues to win over new converts to its unique blend of easy living and creativity, neglected districts are being reclaimed and developed. That means new neighborhoods are being added to maps and the boundaries of established ones are shifting. Areas that simply used to be suburbs have taken on distinctive characters and become destinations in their own right. In short, you need more than a map to get a handle on Charleston, so we’ve created this guide to help you keep up with the ever-changing city.
South of Broad
Walking the streets of this mostly residential neighborhood is like moving through the physical manifestation of Southern gentility. Massive antebellum townhouses with gallery porches modestly turn to the side so that they don’t look directly out at the cobbled streets. Sidewalks curve abruptly to leave room for the trunks of ancient live oak trees. High brick walls can’t quite contain the pleasant sound of the fountains and birds inside. Where the walls break at front walks and driveways, pedestrians can peek at elegant gardens and admire the intricate design of the wrought-iron fences. The South of Broad neighborhood is where you’ll find East Bay Street’s Rainbow Row and many of the historic house-museums, like the Heyward-Washington House and the Calhoun Mansion.
French Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution, arrived in Charleston in the late 17th century and many of them settled and set up businesses and workshops in this neighborhood. On the quarter’s streets today, you’ll find the sole French Huguenot Church in the U.S., as well as many of the city’s art galleries and restaurants. The Old Slave Mart Museum, the Charleston Historic Society Museum, and the Gibbes Museum are here, too, and along a tourist-trafficked stretch of Bay Street by the City Market, the pier where the cruise ships dock.
- Eat and drink
This sprawling neighborhood covers the area north of Broad Street all the way to Calhoun Street and west of King Street to the Ashley River. Much of the district is taken up by lovely, leafy campus of the College of Charleston. (The central Cistern Yard, accessed through the picturesque Gate Lodge and surrounded by some of the city’s most historic buildings, merits a visit.) You’ll also find affluent residential streets full of stately townhouses and walled gardens, as well as hotels and, of course, lots of churches.
Along the length of King Street between Broad and Calhoun streets, some of the low-rise older buildings are still occupied by locally owned antique stores and galleries, though many storefronts are devoted to national brands like Williams-Sonoma and Madewell. If you’re strolling along, be sure to browse in the independent shops. In particular, the shop at the Preservation Society of Charleston carries goods by local makers and books by local authors: the best kind of souvenirs. Along Lower King, you’ll also find some restaurants and larger hotels, like the Belmond Charleston Place.
- Eat and drink
Ansonborough, stretching north of the City Market and east of King Street to the Cooper River, is crisscrossed by narrow streets with stately old townhouses, some shops, bars, and restaurants (mostly along East Bay and Meeting streets), carriage horse stables, and hotels. The quarter is more shady and residential than others this far down the peninsula, so walking or biking around provides a nice break from the business area and gives you a glimpse of how people have adjusted to life in a historic area.
Though not an officially named neighborhood, Marion Square, with Calhoun Street on its southern boundary, has a cluster of businesses and notable hotels that gives the area a distinctive air. On or near the park are the Dewberry, the Frances Marion, Hotel Bella Grace, and the Hotel Bennett, as well as the original site of the Citadel Military College, a pink castle-like structure now part of the Embassy Suites. Just east of Marion Square, the formidable Mother Emanuel AME Church anchors the north side of Calhoun Street.
This buzzing strip of businesses, bars, and restaurants runs up the peninsula from the northern edge of Marion Square all the way past the underpass of the Crosstown (Septima Clark Parkway) and peters out at Congress Street. Some of the low-slung buildings that used to define this neighborhood as an industrial center have been repurposed—their expansive interiors now house distilleries, restaurants, and shops, with former garage bay doors rolled up to allow outdoor seating or admit cooling breezes.
- Eat and drink
A walk along Cannon and Spring streets—which run parallel to one another—reveals a neighborhood picking up creative steam. Restaurants like Xiao Bao Biscuit and Josephine Winebar have become destinations for food lovers, and an all-day tapas joint, Malagón, opened nearby in March. On Cannon Street, the Grocery, J. Stark, Sugar Bakeshop, Mac & Murphy, and Indigo & Cotton have mixed shopping and dining destinations into what were once mostly residential blocks. Other makers like the Contents Co. operate their workshops (not open to the public) nearby.
- Eat and drink
If you listen hard enough on the leafy streets around Hampton Park, you may be able to hear the real estate prices climbing. Even decrepit craftsmen houses are snatched up and quickly renovated to better contain families, surfboards, and kids’ bikes. The strong community vibe of this neighborhood has fostered a clutch of new restaurants and means that the bleachers at the RiverDogs minor league baseball games are full of friendly faces.
- Eat and drink
In the urban eddy bound by overpasses and busy Morrison Street (North of Morrison), an area that appears to be a mixed-use industrial park turns out to hold some of Charleston’s most interesting purveyors of food and drink. While NoMo is not easily reached on foot, it’s worth a drive to see what the noise is about. The neighborhood, not beholden to the same strict building codes that the historic district is, means that distilleries and breweries have set up business here, expanding to include tasting rooms and restaurants.
Go a bit further and you’ll find the suburbs and neighborhoods where the real people live, as well as local landmarks and venues that are destinations in their own right.
- Folly Beach is known for a laid-back vibe, good beaches, ice cream shops, and funky bars and restaurants like Lowlife, Wiki Wiki Sandbar, and Jack of Cups.
- Sullivan’s Island, a residential beach community, with access to history (Fort Moultrie is there) is drawing attention from Charleston diners for Obstinate Daughter.
- Isle of Palms, a barrier island, is rapidly being developed with large beach houses, so surely more restaurants and bars will arise here soon. Wild Dunes Resort, popular for family and golf vacations, takes up the north end.
- Across the Ashley River, locals like West Ashley for a clutch of good restaurants, notably Al Di La, and Avondale Wine & Cheese.
- Mount Pleasant, on the far side of the Cooper River Bridge, is definitely a suburb of Charleston but has a charming older village area. Restaurants on the banks of Shem Creek include Saltwater Cowboys (for drinks with a sunset view) and Nico, an oyster bar with a distinct French accent, that opened in November 2018.
- North Charleston, a separate city entirely, sprawls from the peninsula all the way past the airport and thus contains lots of smaller neighborhoods. Notable restaurants like Bertha’s Kitchen, and some of the area’s remarkable historic homes—Magnolia Plantation, Drayton Hall, and Middleton Place—are in North Charleston.
All this new growth in a city as old and venerable as Charleston is exciting. With the booming expansion of restaurants and distilleries and workshops and boutiques in town sure to continue, you can look for an update of this directory of neighborhoods in the not-too-distant future.
>>Next: Plan Your Visit With AFAR’s Ultimate Charleston Travel Guide