Charleston (South Carolina)

Charleston is a seaport city in the state of South Carolina in the United States of America. Its historic downtown is on a peninsula formed by two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, flowing into the Atlantic, and protected from the open ocean by surrounding islands. Charleston was captured in the Civil War without much property damage, so the historic part of town has buildings that are hundreds of years old. The current downtown skyline, with practically no tall buildings due to the city's height restriction ordinance, is dominated by church steeples and the stunning Arthur Ravenel cable-stay bridge over the Cooper River. The city is a major port on the eastern seaboard of the US and a popular destination for domestic and international tourists.

Understand

 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
 
Daily highs (°F) 59 62 68 76 83 88 90 89 85 77 69 61
Nightly lows (°F) 38 40 46 53 62 69 72 72 67 56 46 39
Precipitation (in) 3.5 3.1 4.4 2.8 4.1 6 7.2 6.9 5.6 3.1 2.5 3.1

Charles Towne, as it was first called, was established in 1670 by Anthony Ashley Cooper on the west bank of the Ashley River, Charles Towne Landing, a few miles northwest of the present downtown. By 1680, the settlement had grown and moved to its present peninsular location.

Around 1690, the English colonists erected a fortification wall around the small settlement to aid in its defense. The wall sheltered the area, in the present French Quarter, from Cumberland St. south to Water St., from Meeting St. east to East Bay St. The wall was destroyed around 1720. Cobblestone lanes and one building remain from this colonial English Walled Town: the Powder Magazine, where the town's supply of gunpowder was stored. Remnants of the colonial wall were found beneath the Old Exchange Building.

Luckily, Charleston was re-captured in the Civil War without much property damaged, and it was the first city in the U.S. to pass a historical preservation ordinance. Thus, much of the beautiful architecture, from early Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate to Victorian, remains for future generations to see and enjoy.

Charleston is also known as The Holy City due to the numerous church steeples, which dot the city's low-rise skyline, and the fact that it was one of the few places in the original thirteen colonies to provide religious tolerance to the French Huguenots as well as to Jews.

Charleston is in general a laid-back, but sophisticated, city and has an old-South feel, just like its neighbor, Savannah. Most people in Charleston are helpful when approached in a polite manner. If a traveler speaks little English, Charlestonians are still generally willing to help as best they can. It is advisable, however, to at least learn a few key English phrases, and perhaps carry a traveler's phrasebook.

Talk

The dialect here varies from standard American English, having a "Southern Coastal Accent" that contains British influences. For those who learned Standard English, some speech may be difficult to comprehend here. Generally speaking, one can easily get by with Standard American or British English, though. The inhabitants of Charleston are, to a large degree, transient (due to several military installations, port labor, rail labor, and other factors), and therefore many other languages are inherent in a minority role.

A minority dialect spoken here is Gullah, a dialect of English almost incomprehensible to most English Speakers. If you are familiar with "Porgy and Bess", you are familiar with Gullah. Gullah has West-African influences mixed with pidjin French and English. The dialect originated around John's Island. If you travel south of the city (to the islands, or towards Ravenel), the dialect becomes somewhat more prevalent (although still in a minority context).

Alternate languages include Spanish and Portuguese, brought to the city and its outskirts by its large Latin American population. One may encounter "Spanglish" here, which is an odd combination of Spanish and English.

Place names in and around Charleston are often very Americanized versions of French (Lagare Street, for example, is pronounced luh-GREE) or other languages.

Get in

The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge carries U.S. 17 over the Cooper River

By plane

Charleston is served by   Charleston International Airport (IATA: CHS), located about 12 miles northwest of historic downtown. The small 2-concourse terminal is functional, with dark decor absent of any antebellum charm (unlike the lovely Savannah Airport terminal). Taxis to downtown cost about $25; shuttles arranged by Airport Ground Transportation cost about $14/person to downtown. CARTA operates a local bus service, Bus 11, to downtown hourly on weekdays. Rental cars are available at the airport terminal; Interstate 526 connects the airport with Interstate 26, which in turn terminates just north of historic downtown at U.S. 17.

By car

Charleston is located nearly at the midpoint of South Carolina's Atlantic coastline. It can be easily reached by car, from the north or south, via U.S. Highway 17, which cuts across the Charleston peninsula, or from the west, via I-26, which terminates just northwest of the historic downtown at U.S. 17. The outer beltway Interstate 526 forms a loop from U.S. 17 in Mount Pleasant to U.S. 17 in West Ashley, passing the Charleston International Airport. Travelers from I-95 can reach Charleston via I-26 (Exit 86 from I-95).

By train

Amtrak has a   train station located 10 miles north of downtown. The Palmetto stops there on its way from New York City to Savannah, as does the Silver Meteor. Going South, the Silver has an unpleasant but not undoable early morning arrival (around 5AM), but the Northbound departure is a reasonable 9:23PM. The Palmetto is a day train and has reasonable hours in Charleston but due to its very long run, leaves or arrives in New York at unfortunate hours.

By bus

The   Greyhound station is in North Charleston. To get to Downtown Charleston, cross the street from the Greyhound station and take the #11 Airport bus (away from the airport). The last stop for this bus is the visitor center in downtown.

Get around

Outside of downtown, which is best explored on foot, Charleston is a city that is best traveled by car. Several rental car services are available at the Charleston International Airport. Some area hotels also provide transportation to and from the airport.

By public transportation

The public transportation system in Charleston consists primarily of a fleet of buses run by the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) and privately run taxi services. The bus system is not widely used by the upper-class residents of the city, and would be rated as fair by the standards of most larger urban areas. Bus Route 11 serves the Charleston International Airport and the downtown area. The most useful service for tourists CARTA offers are the three free trolley lines (Routes 210, 211, 213), called DASH (Downtown Area SHuttles), which carry riders around downtown and can cut down on the amount of walking you need to do. Regular fares are $1.75, but downtown DASH services are free of charge.

Taxis are generally safe and inexpensive in Charleston but are sometimes difficult to find unless they are prearranged by calling one of the taxi services in advance or you are in the downtown area, where it is easy to flag one down. If a taxi to the airport is required, it must generally be arranged in advance. Expect at least a half-hour wait for a taxi to arrive; if staying in a hotel, hotel staff can help arrange for a taxi. Another option is to take a shuttle van from the airport - this may be cheaper. However, upon noting that one is leaving the city for the airport, transport will generally arrive with undue haste.

By tour bus or carriage

Gray Line of Charleston offers a choice of guided mini-bus tours of the historic, charming city of Charleston, designed to give you a fun and informative look into the city’s well-preserved past.

A great way to tour the city is by carriage drawn by horses or mules (many vendors available at the Market in downtown Charleston), although one might prepare oneself for some derisive comment and exasperation from locals inconvenienced by such quaint methods of transit.

By foot

Luckily for visitors to Charleston's peninsula, the historic district is accessible on foot. If staying in one of the many hotels on the peninsula, a visitor could easily explore most of the city's major historical sites without the benefit of a car, either by foot or with the help of the DASH trolley lines. Unfortunately, the plantations—a significant part of Charleston's history—are not located within walking distance of the peninsula. If you are driving into the historic downtown, the first thing to do is to find someplace to park. Garage parking is available at the Visitor Center for $2/hr, but metered street parking is also available throughout the city.

The streets in historic downtown Charleston are more or less parallel and perpendicular to the Cooper River waterfront, forming a warp grid pattern, with a major shift in the angle of the grid at the east-west "fault line" of Beaufain/Hasell Street, just north of the old Market Area near the waterfront. The major east-west street, Calhoun Street, was once known as the Boundary Street, separating the then-suburbs north of it from the urban area south of it. The major north-south street, King Street, is the main shopping street in downtown, from the Upper King area north of Calhoun around the Visitor Center south to the upscale anchor, Charleston Place, at Beaufain/Hasell.

Several blocks south is a major east-west street, Broad Street, which divides two areas in historic downtown, aptly named North of Broad and South of Broad. Those South of Broad were nicknamed SOBs, and those Slightly North of Broad were SNOBs. The French Quarter, founded by the French Huguenots, is just south of the Market Area along the waterfront. The area near the southern tip of the peninsula, where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet, is known as The Battery.

There are many walking tours, which give you the opportunity to see more than just driving past in a bus or carriage. There is a walking tour for virtually every interest. You will find Pub Tours, Civil War tours, culinary tours, ghost tours, Gulla tours, architecture tours, art tours, and even pirate tours. Some of the walking tour companies offer tours with guides in period costume. Charleston Pirate Tours even has a costumed guide whose parrot, a blue and gold macaw, accompanies the tour.

See

A good place to start a tour of Charleston is the   Visitor Center at 375 Meeting St. (between John and Ann Sts.) (tel: 1-800-774-0006), not far from the terminus of I-26 northwest of downtown. At the Visitor Center, a traveler can find maps and guides, tour a small museum dedicated to the history of Charleston, book sightseeing tours, and view an introductory film to Charleston ($2). All the free DASH trolley routes serve the visitor center, so it's also a handy place to park your car and start exploring downtown.

Historic attractions

Fort Sumter

Charleston's primary attraction to visitors is its historical setting and landmarks. A list of some sites to visit includes:

Parks and gardens

The "Pineapple Fountain" at the Waterfront Park

Museums

Historic places of worship

One of Charleston's nicknames is "the Holy City," owing to its many historic churches which dot the downtown peninsula, but also because the city provided religious tolerance to many who fled persecution, including the French Huguenots, Church of England dissenters, and others. The first places of worship organized in the late 17th and early 18th century were located around the old walled town, the present French Quarter. As the town grew outward, later places of worship were mainly located towards the upper wards north of Boundary Street, the present Calhoun Street. Colonial Charleston was the wealthiest English town in America, which is reflected in the sophisticated architecture of many of the churches. If visiting over the weekend, consider attending a service at one of these places to see them up-close.

St. Philip's Episcopal Church

Do

Horse-drawn carriages are a popular attraction

Events

Buy

The entrance to Charleston Market

The Market and the shops lining Market street are a popular shopping destination for tourists. The Market itself is a large gathering of small vendors that sell everything from blankets to candy. Baskets and other sweetgrass crafts can also be bought at the Market. While the Market is full of the usual kitschy knick-knacks, if you look closely you will find some nice things. Gel candles filled with seashells make for a nice souvenir. Reptile and eel skin wallets are another nice item that you will have a hard time finding in other places. More traditional shops line Market street, and most of these sell merchandise that is aimed at tourists. There are a string of candy and confectionery shops along Market street where you can buy fudge, saltwater taffy and pralines.

Upscale shopping in downtown Charleston can be found at the shops lining King Street. These shops are known for selling high-quality merchandise, but are not known for bargain prices.

A popular souvenir in Charleston are sweetgrass crafts. Sweetgrass weaving is a Gullah specialty and done by hand to produce a wide range of crafts from coasters to child-sized baskets. It's interesting to see the weaving process and it can be viewed for free wherever sweetgrass crafts are sold. The seller will typically be working on a craft wherever he or she is selling them. For the larger baskets, they will sit inside of it while weaving. Sweetgrass crafts are quite expensive. A small basket to hold coins or keys will cost between $70 and $150 depending on the intricacy and features such as handles. Larger baskets can cost upwards of $500. The Market is the most convenient place to buy baskets as there will typically be several weavers there on any given day. If you want more of a bargain or a little more selection, there are roadside stalls on Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant. If you'd like an affordable sweetgrass souvenir, look for young children downtown selling sweetgrass roses that they've woven. These will typically cost a few dollars and make for a nice gift, but may be hard to find because police chase the children away if they're seen selling them.

Eat

Charleston is considered a great restaurant town in the Southeast U.S., especially for seafood.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Drink

Bars are not difficult to find in Charleston. Charleston has two favorite liquors of choice FireFly Sweet Tea Vodka (produced from locally grown tea) and Grand Marnier (a French orange liquor). All downtown bars and clubs have to close by 2AM and Charleston has an enforced open container law.

Sleep

Charleston is serviced by many local hotels and virtually all of the major U.S. hotel chains. Expect to pay a premium for a room on Charleston's downtown peninsula, especially in the historic hotels. A vehicle is not needed - nor recommended - to explore the historic downtown. If a vehicle is accessible during the trip, one may want to hop across the rivers to West Ashley or Mount Pleasant where hotels are less expensive. Both West Ashley and Mount Pleasant are less than a five to ten minute drive to the downtown peninsula. Also less expensive are hotels in North Charleston, which is convenient for the Charleston Airport, the Coliseum, and the Convention Center.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Go next

Routes through Charleston

Fayetteville Florence  N  S  Savannah END
Fayetteville Florence  N  S  Savannah Orlando
Columbia Orangeburg ← Junction N S  N  S  END
Myrtle Beach Mount Pleasant  N  S  Ridgeland Savannah
Winston-Salem Florence  N  S  END
Augusta St. George  W  E  END


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