AFAR Ambassador and proud Southerner Kristin Luna shares her picks for exploring Charleston’s rich past. Add these recommendations to your itinerary.
Charleston wouldn’t be the southern coastal gem that we know and love today if not for its early and strong preservation movement. While many other American cities saw historic districts and buildings demolished over the course of the 20th century, Charleston took care to restore theirs instead.
While it is easy to navigate the greater Charleston area wherever you choose to stay, history buffs will want to stay in the city’s cobblestoned heart. Good affordable options include the Hyatt House Charleston – Historic House on King Street and the King Charles Inn on Meeting Street. When you walk out your front door, more than 300 years of history wait to be explored.
Just across the Ashley River from the Charleston Peninsula, Charles Towne Landing marks the site of the forerunner to Charleston, Charles Towne. Settlers from Barbados founded the town in 1670, though after ten years—and a series of attacks by French, Spanish, Native Americans and pirates—they wisely decided to move to the easier-to-defend Charleston peninsula and start over. A recreation of a 17th-century trip, the
Adventure, and replica of a colonial home provide insights into life in the earliest years of colonial America.
Four Corners of Law
After beginning again on the Charleston Peninsula, the settlers drew up a city plan—the Grand Modell. At the center of it was a civic square at the intersection of Meeting and Broad streets. Later this would become known as the Four Corners of Law, as municipal, county, federal and God’s law are all represented by buildings here, the last by St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. George Washington attended services at the church on his visit to Charleston in 1791 and it is one of many historic houses of worship that explain Charleston’s nickname, the Holy City.
Along East Bay Street, a series of 13 buildings represent the longest stretch of Georgian row houses in the United States. Built between 1770 and 1792, they are visual reminders of the wealth of Charleston in the colonial era and the decades after independence, when the city was the most important port along the southeastern coast of the country. They’re also a testament to the pioneering vision of Charleston’s early preservationists. Having fallen into neglect at the beginning of the 20th century, the Preservation Society of Charleston began purchasing and restoring the homes in the 1920s, and they were eventually painted the bright hues that give this landmark its popular name.
Old Slave Mart
Africans played a key role in the wealth developed in Charleston and South Carolina generally, and a number of sites in the city are connected to the history of that culture. The Old Slave Mart, built in 1859 on Chalmers Street is the only slave auction building in the United States that still stands. Today the building houses a museum dedicated to the history of slavery.
Charleston City Market
A more benign form of commerce unfolded at Charleston City Market, established in 1804. For more than two centuries, it has served as the primary place for city’s residents to buy produce, fish, and meat. While some of the 140 merchants here continue to sell raw ingredients, for the traveler visiting Charleston those selling crafts, including the famous sweetgrass baskets, and gourmet goods like preserves, honey, grits, and pralines are likely to be of more interest.
Charleston famously played a key role in the Civil War, with the first shots in that conflict fired at Fort Sumter, at the mouth of the harbor in 1861. It took Confederate forces 34 hours to capture the fort from federal troops stationed there, and the war that began with that battle would last four years. It remains to this day the conflict with the greatest number of American casualties. (Almost half of all American soldiers to lose their lives in combat died in the Civil War.) The fort can only be visited by boat, though a number of harbor tours either call at the fort or pass by close enough that you can get a good look at it.