Downtown Charleston is a window into colonial America: cobblestone streets, jasmine-scented alleyways, low-slung antebellum buildings no taller than the church steeples that dot the city.
But that charming veneer is only one piece of the story that Helen Hill, the CEO of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, wants to tell.
“The reality is, we have a lot of history in Charleston that’s not pretty,” says Hill. “We’re not selling a modified version of the Old South in hoop skirts. We are a real place, and we want to show visitors who we really are.”
Modern Charleston has several draws: a flourishing food scene with nationally known chefs such as Mike Lata and Sean Brock, who have put the area’s rich agricultural and coastal bounty in the gastronomic spotlight. It also has swimmable beaches just 15 minutes from downtown, and the arrival of boutique shops and modern hotels in recent years has upped the city’s style ante.
And then there are the city’s darker sides, which Hill doesn’t shy away from. That might mean walking visitors through the daily lives of slaves at Boone Hall Plantation, or funding a forthcoming International African American Museum on the wharf where half the nation’s slaves disembarked. Or even seeing the site of the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where nine people were killed by a white supremacist gunman—a tragedy that, Hill affirms, brought the community closer in striving for racial harmony.
Hill believes it’s this sincere approach to tourism that has put Charleston squarely on the traveler’s map. The destination has received numerous awards, including No. 1 City in North America in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best list for the past five years and Conde Nast Traveler Reader's Choice as No. 1 City in the U.S. from 2011 through 2016. The city now attracts more than 5 million visitors annually. This is thanks in part to new businesses such as a Boeing plant that helped establish new air service to the city, making it a go-to weekend getaway for bigger markets such as New York City, now a two-hour nonstop flight away.
“We have fundamentally changed where our visitors are coming from in the last few years,” says Hill. “The majority of our visitors were coming from within a six-hour driving radius before we started our air service push in 2010. Now, New York City is No. 1.”
But what has remained the same, according to Hill, and what sets Charleston apart, is the genuine warmth of locals. “The reason we are great is because we have great people. Charleston is special because people still stop in the street to give you directions.”