How often have you gone on vacation to a new place, itinerary in hand, determined to see every nook and cranny. How many times has someone else, a wife or husband, planned every moment of your down time, dragging you from walking tour to museum trip, before rushing off to that restaurant that you just have to try? How many times have you come home from one of those trips, only to plunge right back into the rat race of everyday life, feeling like what you really need right now is… well, a vacation?
It happens to all of us, but there are alternatives, ways to both experience the sites and sounds of a beautiful place, while taking the time to catch your breath and recharge, so you can head home feeling whole again. There are places that seem built for exactly that. There is Charleston, South Carolina in the spring.
It’s location, on the tip of a peninsula that juts out into Charleston Harbor, between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, allowed Charleston to flourish and grow into one of the most important cities in the South, a scenic marvel that married the natural beauty of the coastline with the stunning architecture of the old South. Today, it is a city that is both deeply connected to it’s past, while offering a comfortable, casual environment that helps slow life down to the right pace.
For those who are seeking a bit of culture and history, Charleston has everything you can ask for. From historic homes to gothic churches to the old slave market, the rich history of the South is still very much on display. One of the highlights of any trip through the city has to be the stunning architecture that is on display on almost every block. Buildings that date back to the 18th and 19th century still stand, remarkably preserved, and many of them are open to the public. One of the incredible aspects of visiting Charleston is that many of these houses are open to the public. Some serve as Bed and Breakfasts, while others have been renovated or restored to allow people to walk their halls. Two examples that stand out are the Aiken Rhett House and the Nathanial Russell House.
Aiken Rhett, located in the North East corner of downtown, stands out from many of the others because the property has not been restored in any way, but simply preserved, to maintain a character that is truly unique. Nathanial Russel House, located in the heart of downtown, blocks from the water, has been fully restored by the Historic Charleston Foundation to provide a glimpse into the splendor of the period. Tucked side by side with the private homes are stunning churches, such as St Michael’s Episcopal and the Unitarian Church, the two oldest churches in Charleston, and St Phillip’s, with a history that dates back to the late 17th century. The southern tip of the peninsula is rich with gothic architecture and history. A slow walk through the streets, or a morning tour on a horse-drawn carriage offers a relaxing way to see the beauty of the historic city. For those who have a little more time on their hands, just outside of Charleston are a number of old plantation houses, like Drayton Hall and Magnolia Plantation, which offer similarly preserved and restored examples of life in the South, combining a uniquely beautiful esthetic with a rich history that tells an important part of the story of how the United States came to be what it is today.
But a tour of the past is not all that Charleston has to offer. First of all, the locals are incredible. The people are the heart of Charleston, and they continue to prove that southern hospitality is alive and well. They are the best reason to choose a Bed and Breakfast over one of the bigger hotels. It will give you a chance to talk to Charlestonians, to get advice on where to go, what to see, and to find the hidden gems that aren’t in the guidebooks. It is easy to spend a quiet morning walking through Charleston Waterfront Park, shopping at the outdoor stalls on Market St, or window-shopping on King Street. Being surrounded by the beauty of the city makes it easy to let time slip past, taking with it the stresses of the world outside.
One of the true surprises of the city is its vibrant dining scene. It feels like someone offering their own take on Low Country Southern cooking has opened on every corning, and for the most part, the food is outstanding, drawing from the waters all around the peninsula, you can’t go wrong with the local seafood. But the real treasures of Charleston are a handful of restaurants that have truly embraced the seasonal, local movement, using it to elevate Low Country cooking into something incredible. Fig, helmed by Chef Mike Lata, and the Sean Brock led restaurants McCrady’s and Husk offer a dining experience to rival any city in the country.
Choose a quiet old house on one of the tree lined streets downtown. Find a place or two that pique your interest, that get you out to enjoy the gorgeous spring weather, recognizing that you don’t have to see every historic home, every church yard, every site the city has to offer, just enough to appreciate what is there. As the city brings together the beauty of nature with the rich history of the historic South, it offers an incredible balance of sites rich in history and beauty with an atmosphere that begs you to slow down, take a deep breath, and let time slip by just a little bit.
And don’t worry if you’ve missed anything. The charm of the city will bring you back time and again. You can see the rest then.