The Best of Charleston

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The Best of Charleston
Charleston is a city of cultural firsts, boasting the first theater building, museum, and municipal college in the country. It's an evolving cultural hub for the South, with a love for leisure, learning, and the arts, while still valuing tradition.
By Susan Mason, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
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    Outdoor Recreation for All
    The leisurely local attitude to life quickly rubs off on visitors to Charleston. Sailing, golfing, fishing, and surfing are all common and popular. Nearby Kiawah Island Golf Resort is one of the country's premier golf courses, and the city's surrounding rivers, marshes, and open ocean make for diverse boating and fishing options. From scenic runs over Cooper River Bridge (formerly called the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge) to games of Frisbee golf in forests, Charleston has outdoor activities for everyone to enjoy.
    Photo courtesy of Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
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    History through Architecture
    With a skyline of steeples and streets of elegant homes and grand public buildings, Charleston's architecture is a visual way to experience its history. Most noteworthy are the stately columns of buildings like Randolph Hall and the multi-tiered piazzas of mansions like the Edmondston-Alston House. A handful of homes are open for tours, including the interior decor, furnishings, and gardens of the Nathaniel Russell House, which give a personal glimpse into antebellum life. Charleston has a history of religious tolerance and is filled with churches, including an active French Huguenot congregation—the buttresses, vaulted ceilings, pinnacles, and iron decorations of the Gothic Revival church are stunning.
    Photo by Laura Jenkins
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    An Eclectic Music Scene
    Walk the streets any night of the week and live music will follow you from the open windows of restaurants and bars like Charleston Grill, Halls Chophouse, High Cotton, and Prohibition. From jazz to jam bands and blues to bluegrass, Charleston's music scene is an eclectic mix. For a classy night out, Charleston Music Hall is an elegant theater that showcases the best local, regional, and national artists. Music Farm books some of the coolest indie and rock bands in the country, while Charleston Pour House and beachside venue The Windjammer cater to a carefree crowd with funk, reggae, country, and jam sessions.
    Photo courtesy of Landon Neil Phillips/Charleston Music Hall
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    Thriving Art Scenes
    Charleston has notable fine art galleries as well as a thriving culture of contemporary and street art. Gallery Row, on Broad Street, and the surrounding French Quarter district are filled with established galleries featuring portraits and paintings of Lowcountry landscapes and wildlife. Scattered throughout downtown, a new wave of galleries like Robert Lange, Rebekah Jacob, and Redux are leading the contemporary charge. There is also a thriving underground street art culture, made famous by Charleston native Shepard Fairey (who created the Obama Hope poster) and the lesser-known Doug "The Sheepman" Panzone, whose graffiti wall behind a shopping center on the way to Folly Beach is a local secret.
    Photo courtesy of Robert Lange Studios
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    Classic and Contemporary Theater
    Home to the first theater building in America, Charleston has always had an affinity for the art of acting. From mystery theater to musicals, Charleston is packed with companies that entertain and enlighten audiences on any given night. Dock Street Theatre, built in 1736, is an historic landmark, an intimate space in which the Charleston Stage Company revives classics and recreates contemporary favorites. For a more niche experience, companies like Threshold Repertory Theatre and Footlight Players offer regular performances, and Theatre 99 hosts comedy improv.
    Photo courtesy of the City of Charleston
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    The Art of Cooking
    Culinary skill is respected as an art form in Charleston. Restaurants are of paramount importance to the city and the locavore movement has been the food philosophy here for centuries, way before it was a cosmopolitan trend. Local ingredients are central to Lowcountry cuisine; expect fresh produce to include corn, collard greens, field peas, and green tomatoes, among others. Chefs at restaurants like FIG, McCrady's and Magnolias are reviving traditional dishes and adding modern twists. At Husk, for example, you'll find catfish with summer squash, fennel, shishitos, sweet pepper, homemade chow chow, and dill. From fine dining to dockside oyster roasts, food is an experience in Charleston that is worth the indulgence.
    Photo courtesy of Andrew Cebulka/Husk
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    City of History
    Charleston is first and foremost a city of history. From wealthy years of trade to damaging years of war, Charleston has seen it all, the good and the bad. Preserved antebellum mansions such as Edmondston-Alston House and plantations such as Middleton Place are extremely grand, and war sites like Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, are humbling. A walk through the city will take you past historic landmarks like the Charleston City Market, while nighttime ghost tours introduce you to haunted sites like graveyards, the Old City Jail, and the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.
    Photo courtesy of Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
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    Escape to the Beach
    If the salty harbor breezes in downtown aren't enough for you, in either direction just out of the city are beaches and the chance to enjoy pure ocean air. From the serene upscale resort life of Kiawah Island to the casual surf scene of Folly Beach, each destination has its own unique characteristics and personality. Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms feel pristine and private, yet each are family-friendly and have their own lively dining and drinking scenes. Just as downtown exemplifies historic preservation, Charleston's surrounding beaches are protected ecosystems of sand dunes, marshes, and maritime forests, and are full of wildlife.
    Photo by Gary Carter/age fotostock