The streets of Charleston are lined with palmetto trees that harken back to the 19th century. The locals are polite in khakis or pearls, and cocktail hour is well-observed. Traffic is regularly held up by horse-drawn carriage tours, and the city's emphasis on preservation makes the average house worthy of its own history lesson. Travel farther north to neighborhoods like Cannonborough, Elliotborough, or Wagener Terrace, though, and you'll find a more dynamic scene populated by the city's growing creative class. For the full Lowcountry experience, try to steal some time off the peninsula to check out the area's swamps, creeks, and beaches.
It's hard to beat the mild temperatures of springtime in Charleston, with azaleas, magnolias, and jasmine in bloom. Locals cope with the summer humidity by taking to the water, boating, or heading to the nearby beaches. In the winter, palmetto trees are strung with Christmas lights and historic homes are dolled up with decorations.
The Charleston International Airport is located about a half hour from downtown Charleston by car. Taxis cost about $30, while shuttles—which run every fifteen minutes and don't require reservations—cost $14 per passenger.
Downtown Charleston is easily navigable by foot and bicycle, with taxis and pedicabs available for farther-flung or late-night trips. Public transit can be tricky to navigate, so car rentals are your best bet for destinations beyond the peninsula.
The best way to get to know the city? Get lost in the quieter streets downtown. Just wander the back alleys of a residential neighborhood like Ansonborough or Harleston Village. Then, ramble through one of the myriad graveyards dotting the city for a taste of what makes Charleston unique.
Charleston has long been a city rich in culinary delights: think shrimp, grits, and Frogmore stew. Highbrow and down-home restaurants keep food traditions kept alive and well, and you'll have no trouble finding Southern classics. In recent years, however, young chefs and restaurateurs are transforming old-school crops and the region's agricultural past in new, inventive contexts. Check out Xiao Bao Biscuit's creative Asian comfort food or Saint Alban's Parisian tartines and pastries for a taste of modern Charleston.
Charleston is rich with old-fashioned politesse, history, and tradition in all of its forms. With the city's deep commitment to historic preservation, one of the main cultural draws is simply strolling around and admiring the architecture. Charleston is sometimes called the Holy City because Carolina welcomed Protestants of all denominations at its inception. Today, a wealth of historic churches populate the city, most of them open to visitors. Be sure to visit the Gibbes Museum of Art and the Charleston Museum, both on Meeting Street. You'll find art galleries concentrated in the French Quarter.
The biggest event in Charleston each year is the Spoleto Festival: over two weeks of international arts performances ranging from full-scale operas to outdoor jazz performances. Piccolo Spoleto, a showcase for local artists, runs alongside the larger festival. The Southeastern Wildlife Expo is held in Charleston each year, drawing tens of thousands of nature aficionados. In less than 10 years, the Charleston Wine + Food Festival has become one of the year's main events. The MOJA Arts Festival, celebrating African-American and Caribbean culture, draws visitors with its performances, parties, and parades.
Don't be afraid to make eye contact and smile at strangers on the street—and don't be surprised if they do the same. Southern politeness is not a myth.
Angela is a writer and educator who spent her youth in Charleston, South Carolina, window shopping in antique stores and selling lemonade in White Point Garden. She's lived in Moscow, New York, and Baltimore, and currently calls Philadelphia home.