Charleston-based travel writer Claire Volkman reveals how to embrace the arts in Charleston. Add these recommendations to your itinerary.
Charleston is undeniably one of America’s most atmospheric and beautiful cities, but good looks are just the beginning. Scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find its artistic, culinary, literary, and musical traditions run deep. Luckily for visitors to Charleston, the city’s residents are eager to share its cultural riches—and that means not only its so-called high culture, but also folk traditions and even sporting events.
Before you embark on your cultural adventures, you’ll need a home base. Some convenient and good-value options include the Courtyard by Marriott Waterfront and SpringHill Suites Charleston Mount Pleasant, both overlooking the Ashley River, and the King Charles Inn on Meeting Street. The last property played a role in the city’s cultural history when Edgar Allen Poe wrote his short story “The Gold Bug” at an earlier hotel on the same site.
Check in and then check out these eight ways to experience Charleston’s creative side. The locals you meet along the way will surely have their own suggestions to add to your cultural calendar too.
Align your Visit with Spoleto
One of America’s premier art festivals, the annual Spoleto Festival takes place over 17 days every spring (from late May into the first half of June). It hosts daily and nightly performances all around the city in historic theatres, churches, and even on Marion Square. This programming gives you the opportunity to see everything from dramatic stage productions to jazz concerts and lavish performances of operas.
Catch a Game at the Joseph P. Riley Stadium
The RiverDogs may be a minor league team, but the stadium is a major hotspot during spring and summer. Do as the locals do and head to the Joseph P. Riley Stadium to root for the home team and enjoy locally brewed bottles of Palmetto Brewing Co. Ale and baskets of boiled peanuts — a Southern classic. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, the stadium is one of the best places to catch a breathtaking sunset with its location on the Ashley River.
Take a Gullah Tour
Get to know Charleston’s fascinating Gullah culture with a guided Gullah Tour. Each gives an inside look at the Gullah people as well as the history of the language, which was spoken by the Lowcountry’s first African-American inhabitants and can still be heard to this day. Plus, you’ll visit some of Charleston’s most famous landmarks, so ensure your camera or smartphone is fully charged. Expect to end the two-hour tour having learned a few Gullah words, thanks to the fluent guide, Alphonso Brown.
To get a taste of the Lowcountry’s famous food, head to any of the farmers markets that take place all across the county. The Charleston Farmers Market, located in Marion Square on Saturdays, features dozens of vendors selling everything from fresh produce to homemade soap. In addition to the downtown market, Johns Island, Mount Pleasant and West Ashley all have weekly markets, too.
Catch a Show at the Dock Street Theatre
Experience a living piece of history with a performance at the Dock Street Theatre, one of Charleston’s most iconic cultural landmarks. Built in 1736 on the corner of Church Street and Dock Street (now known as Queen Street), this is the oldest theater in America still in operation. Although the original building burnt down, it was rebuilt in the 1930s and later underwent a $19 million renovation in 2010. Now, the theater hosts over 120 productions, including both musicals and plays, each year.
Reach for the High Notes
Charleston’s musical culture encompasses traditional Gullah songs and others that date to the Civil War; gospel and spirituals; and jazz and George Gershwin’s works (Porgy & Bess was composed in Charleston and inspired by the city). The Sound of Charleston is a weekly concert that features some of the most memorable songs associated with the city, sung and played by its top musicians. The performances take place at the historic Circular Congregational Church, where the slave trader turned minister John Newton worshipped when he was in Charleston. His most famous work, “Amazing Grace,” ends every concert.
Thanks to Charleston’s sprawling and marshy ecosystem, intertwined rivers, and access to the ocean, crabbing is an accessible and popular weekend activity. For the best chance at a good catch, head to Shem Creek or the Pitt Street Bridge. The easiest way to lure crabs is with chicken necks, which can be bought at any local supermarket. Although you can catch them with a simple hand line, locals recommend using a net to pull them up and a bucket to put your crabs in once they are caught.
Stroll and Sip Downtown with an Art Walk
Charleston’s admiration for the arts runs deep, and that’s never more apparent than when you stroll past the dozens of galleries located within the city’s historic buildings. For a chance to shop, mingle with locals, and learn about the artists firsthand, join one of the Charleston Gallery Association’s Artwalks. The events are typically held on the first Friday of the month (visit the association’s website to check their calendar for upcoming walks). Over 40 galleries participate and at many of them the artists whose works hang on the walls attend the event.
Explore our recommended accommodations for culture lovers: the Courtyard by Marriott Waterfront and SpringHill Suites Charleston Mount Pleasant, both overlooking the Ashley River, and the King Charles Inn on Meeting Street.