Full disclosure; I absolutely love Charleston. I have for quite some time.
One of the real reasons I went to Savannah is because this sister city just down the road seems to get all the attention and I wanted to see if it is warranted. Savannah may deserve the rave reviews, but if I had to choose, it would be Charleston all the way.
Why do I love it? Lets list the reasons:
In 1718 Edward Teach a.k.a Blackbeard, held the whole city hostage for a week. Blackbeard captured every ship that left the harbor, took prominent citizens captive, and demanded a chest of medicine for his crew. He got his snake oil and let the city be.
Come on, thats a cool story. I suppose to prove the city was not a collection of punks, that same year they captured pirate Stede Bonnet and hung him at White Point Gardens, then threw his body in the sea. White Point Gardens is still a park but now it sports big civil war era cannons and statues rather than gallows.
Anyone who has ever been six years old, loves pirates.
2) Rainbow Row.
Pre- Revolution, Charleston rivaled both Boston and Philadelphia in population, and probably outpaced both cities in money and style. Unlike Philadelphia, Charleston did not explode during the industrial revolution, nor did it implode afterward leaving the urban blight so popular up north. Charleston’s historic town homes line the clean streets appearing so well kept that one may forget that they are historic at all.
Charleston has a great mix of stuff that was nice way back then, and still has stuff that’s cool now. Restaurants, galleries, law firms (surely filled with sear sucker clad men with Atticus type morals), real estate offices, etc. etc. hum along day to day housed in history but not becoming relics.
3) Gullah/Geechee culture and street markets.
The Rainbow Market was once the site of buying and selling people, now it sells bottles of sand, t-shirts, jewelry, and hot sauce. In the market, as well as up and down Broad St., and along most other main streets, you will find older black women (not always older women, but usually) sitting behind a blanket full of baskets. These pieces are hand woven from sweet grass in a tradition passed from generation to generation.
These artists are part of the Geechee or Gullah culture. Since Africans first came to American shores, the Carolina coast has been the home of both freed and escaped slaves. They lived autonomously for generations developing a distinct culture and tradition. These sweet grass baskets are a part of that tradition.
I must admit I have never actually purchased one of these baskets or anything else sold in the market. I will one of these days and I encourage you to do the same. I will probably buy it from one of the ladies on Broad st. as the idea of shopping in an old slave market creeps me out. But I do love the idea of open air markets and Charleston has one.
I have it on good authority that unlike the rest of the south, Charleston is NOT the place to find your culinary pleasures at a hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint, you will be disappointed. No, Charleston is the place to find a white table cloth, open the wallet just a little bit, and enjoy the sort of meal Paula Dean would pay for if she wasn’t cooking herself.
Magnolias offers many fine southern dishes along with standards… I had the filet. The butter for the bread was 50/50 cream cheese, the bleu cheese topping was made on site, the grilled tomato was fresh, and the service was superb.
Everyone has to eat… in Charleston you can eat well.
5) The Old Slave Mart Museum.
In 1856 public outdoor slave sales were outlawed. The actual capture and selling of slaves was never a completely respectable job and the 1856 legislation simply moved the sales aspect of the “peculiar institution” indoors. The building at 8 Chalmers housed these activities then, but now it houses a museum that educates the public on what life was like for the people of this fine city pre emancipation.
At the time of the American Revolution black people outnumbered whites by a huge margin. So much so that the British plan to capture the South hinged on promising freedom to all slaves who escaped to join the redcoats.
No aspect of life in old Charleston went untouched by slavery. It was in fact the whole reason for the cities existence, yet strangely the guided tours of homes and locations focus more on furniture, generals, and politicians.
The Old Slave Mart Museum holds artifacts that illustrate the realities that made all the money and style possible. If I had a suggestion to give the tourist in this beautiful and historic city I would suggest stopping at the museum before you go anywhere else. Stop there and look at the whips and chains that insured the wealth of the white population.
The houses will still be beautiful, the streets still romantic, but after visiting the museum you will know a bit more about who actually built the houses and cleared the roads.
Alright, I admit #5 was not the most cheerful reason to love a city. But again, I do love the city. One can still love a place with a dark past. I was not there then. I would not have loved it then, I love it now. History needs to be faced and should be done honestly. I love the food, I love palmetto trees, and I love streets lined with bright colored town homes. I do not love that a war to preserve the right of one person to own another began here. That war was won and is over and consequentially my wife and I can walk together in parks shaded by Spanish moss and the ladies selling baskets get to keep the profits.