An Insider's Guide to Charleston

United States » Charleston

By Sarah Johnson

The ultimate guide to Charleston, South Carolina from a native who loves the city!

Quick Hits Too busy to read it all? We have some highlights here

  • Eat...

    at Fig

  • Lunch...

    167 Raw is unbeatable for fresh seafood

  • Breakfast...

    go to The Daily and get the bacon breakfast sandwich it might be the best breakfast sandwich of all time!

  • Sleep...

    the charming Zero George Hotel

  • Splurge...

    at The Ordinary and make sure to order lots of oysters

  • Visit...

    Drayton Hall and Magnolia Plantation just 15 miles outside of Charleston

  • See...

    The historic South of Broad area of Charleston and walk around the historic homes

  • Shop...

    on King Street

  • Tip...

    Eat, drink and have fun! Also, reach out if you have any questions or need any advice

Welcome Down South

Charleston is brimming with history, charm and beauty and is one of the most gorgeous cities in America. Charleston was founded in 1670 as Charles Town in honor of King Charles II of England and adopted its present name, Charleston, in 1783. Charleston has a rich history ranging from pirates like 'Blackbeard', playing an important roll in the American Revolution and Fort Sumter which was the location of the first shot of the Civil War. Charleston is now known for its beautiful historic homes, cobblestone streets, vibrant food scene and it's charming locals. Charleston to me is reminsicent of a beautiful European city and I don't think there is another city with as much beauty, charm or history to be found in the US.

My Hometown

Yes, I may be biased, this is my hometown where I grew up, but just ask anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting and you will hear glowing reviews. I have lived in NYC for almost 10 years, but I still consider myself a Charlestonian. My parents still live in the same house I grew up in South of Broad and I use any excuse I can to visit as often as possible.  Charleston has been consistently been ranked as the best city in the US and for very good reason.

Food, Fun and Drinking

Charleston offers something for everyone - the history buff, the blogger looking for beautiful photos, the gourmand, the golfer (Kiawah is our neighbor), the beachgoer (a plethora of beaches no more than 20 minutes away) and more. The people are lovely and very charming and the weather is unbeatable (maybe skip August), this is a city to fall in love with. A true walking city, where I implore you to get lost walking around downtown Charleston and like all visitors become enchanted with this beautiful Southern City. 

The Hotels

Luxury Down South

The Charleston hotel scene offers something to every type of traveler. Even though they are all located fairly close to each other, every establishment has a unique vibe that may appeal to different people.

If you love to shop and want to feel like you are in your own apartment with a kitchen and terrace, stay at The Restoration on King. If you are looking for a charming oasis that is begging to be photographed (I'm talking to you bloggers) stay at Zero George, a perfect place for couples as well! For "old world" charm and a slightly older and well heeled crowd, go the Relais & Chateaux property Planters Inn. Families and those in town for business should look no farther than the historic Charleston Place hotel, also perfect for those looking for a large more corporate feeling hotel with many ammenties (including a pool). The Spectator is the newest arrival on the Charleston scene and offers a great bar, incredible service and many rooms have incredible views of Charleston; perfect for couples, friends or families. Whatever you are looking for Charleston has a lovely hotel that will fit your needs and please feel free to reach out with any questions you have!

The Spectator Hotel

This brand new hotel is located in the French Quarter right off Market Street and couldn't be in a better location. Gorgeous rooms, many of which boast incredible views of Charleston. Each guest will have a butler to help them personalize and enhance their stay as well as complimentary use of the mini-bar and complimentary bike service. The service and friendliness of the staff here is exceptional. The bar at this hotel is fantastic and I love the fresh decor. This hotel is perfect for couples young and old, a mother-daughter day trip or girls weekend, families and anyone looking for a great location and a beautiful new property.

Zero George

In my opinion, Zero George is the most beautifully decorated and charming hotel in Charleston. The property is set in a landscaped courtyard and the hotel comprises 5 historic residential buildings. Location wise it is not as well situated as the other hotels and is a bit off the beaten track, though only a quick walk will get you back in the action. What this hotel lacks in location it makes up for in charm, service and personality. The hotel staff are fantastic and will help you curate the best trip. Each night they have a complimentary wine and cheese hour. Cooking classes can be arranged and they have a fabulous little bar on site and many porches to relax on. This hotel is perfect for couples, bloggers (lots of instagram opportunities), families looking for a boutique and personalized experience and a sophisticated clientele.

Planter's Inn

Planters Inn is part of the Relais and Châteaux group, and is a small luxury hotel perfectly situated in Charleston's Historic District. Even though it is located right next to Charleston's more touristy market, once you enter the property you feel like you have an oasis of charm and calmness. All the best parts of Charleston are in easy walking distance, King Street shops, historic South of Broad area and many restaurants and bars. Many of the best rooms have fireplaces and verandas and are all beautifully decorated (though some say a few rooms could use a face-lift). This hotel is full of old world charm and the clientele tends to be slightly older and more well heeled (if you know what i mean). Perfect for a couple looking for a charming, and luxurious hotel, The Planters Inn is home to the first "mind blowingly good" restaurant in Charleston, the delicious Peninsula Grill Restaurant (which also has a fantastic bar). Note: no gym on site

The Restoration

This boutique hotel opened in 2010 and is ideally located right off King Street amidst many shops and restaurants. Staying at the Restoration is like having your own apartment in Charleston. Many of the rooms have small kitchens or kitchenettes as well as washer and dryers, in addition to boasting private balconies. The hotel is made up of four buildings and if you want to feel like you are staying at a full service apartment where you have a bit more space than the average hotel room, I highly recommend staying here. The hotel has a rooftop terrace with many couches and tables, 24 hour drinks available in the lobby, loaner bikes and a wine and cheese reception every night. The hotel doesn't have a gym, but guests can use a nearby athletic club. This hotel is great for families, couples and friends traveling together.

Belmond Charleston Place

Charleston Place hotel is located just off King Street, right in all the action of great shops and restaurants . The hotel has spacious rooms and I would recommend booking on the club level to receive a few more amenities like an evening cocktail. The hotel has a heated saltwater swimming pool on the rooftop with a retractable glass ceiling surrounded by a deck with lounge chairs and their is a spa on site. The Charleston Place has a more corporate feel and I would recommend it for families and business travelers.

The Food

The Food Will Blow Your Mind

The restaurant scene in Charleston has experienced a resurgence over the past ten years and there are more incredible bars and restaurants to choose from than ever before. When I was a little girl, my Dad and I would eat out at the same 3 restaurants every week, but now I feel like he is trying somewhere new every other day. The great part of downtown Charleston is most everything is in walking distance and if not you can always get an Uber.

There is nothing so lovely as strolling home around the beautiful streets of Charleston after a great meal. Listed below are some of our favorite and go-to places in Charleston and there is something for every occasion or need. I also have to say, the people who work in the restaurants of Charleston are some of the nicest and most outgoing I have ever met. It is one of my favorite towns to grab a meal in.

PS. No local that I know has ever eaten at Hyman's Seafood

167 Raw

Possibly my new favorite dinner spot in Charleston, I really can't say enough good things about this place. The atmosphere at this tiny happening spot is casual and cozy. The lines out the door are laughable and they don't take reservations, so get there early because this is a place you don't want to miss. The oysters are amazing, the ceviche and tuna poke delicious, the tacos incredible and the lobster roll a must order!

The Ordinary

Their oysters are fantastic and this is the place in Charleston to go for fresh seafood! The price bump is because I can't contain myself when it comes to these oysters and end up ordering a ton. If you are a normal person who can control themselves, it will be very reasonable.

FIG

Upscale bistro fare and southern local cooking, Fig is a restaurant that you can depend on to deliver a great meal. Chef and partner Mike Lata is a James Beard Award winning chef, and even though the menu changes regularly, the food here never disappoints. The restaurant has just been totally renovated and is definitely one of the hottest and best restaurants in Charleston.

The Daily

My favorite place in Charleston to go for breakfast - whether that is a green juice, Stumptown coffee & pastries, yogurt or the much more delicious bacon breakfast sandwich. They also sell beer & wine, grab-and-go provisions, cold press juices, small menu of breakfast sandwiches and a stellar avocado toast!

Monza

Monza is a raceway themed Neapolitan wood-fired pizza spot serving up the best pizza in Charleston. We recommend to take the wheel and make your own pizza to your liking, they also serve delicious salads, appetizers and pastas. Monza is popular and doesn't accept reservations so there may be waits, but not to worry put your name down and go next door to Closed for Business for a drink while you wait. Note: Beer and Wine only.

Oak Steakhouse

Oak has constantly been our go to restaurant in town, whether it is for a special occasion or just for a lovely Sunday night spot. It feels like a steakhouse you could eat at every night of the week because of the laid back vibe. It's Broad street location couldn't be better and the best seats in the house are the booths on the ground floor. The very knowledge staff are fantastic, the wine list extensive and the food delicious! Also, a great spot to grab a drink at their bar. Insiders tip, Oak offers half off on bottles of wine on Sundays!

The Obstinate Daughter

My favorite place on Sullivan's Island for dinner! This eclectic American restaurants has an incredible raw bar, small plate, pizzas, and pastas and much more served in a incredibly beautiful space. They have great cocktails too!

Cypress

Cypress offers sophisticated, creative American cuisine that takes advantage of the best ingredients the lowcountry has to offer. The food is served in a upscale contemporary setting with a big open kitchen and a fantastic upstairs bar. The kitchen is lead by two-time James Beard nominee Craig Deihl. Cypress has a fantastic wine list (with an iPad app to help make your selections) and the cocktails at the bar upstairs are not to be missed. This is one of Charleston's top fine dining destinations. Insiders Tip: On Monday nights guests can head to the bar for $5 burger night, where a variety of burgers are available.

The Lot

I love The Lot. It is that simple. I haven't had a dish I didn't love at this awesome spot, and its so laid back and low key that I never want to leave when the meal is over. A bit of a trek from downtown, but the commute is worth it for their fantastic cuisine and cocktails. Last time we were here there were Bloody Marys, burgers and fried chicken sandwiches consumed. Not to suggest that the food isn't sophisticated. We just ordered the least healthy stuff on the menu and it was totally worth it. I would highly recommended The Lot for both brunch and dinner, but make a reservation and come hungry!

The Macintosh

"New American" gastropub type restaurant. The Macintosh is one my top restaurants in town and a must visit location for visitors. I would describe the menu as "meat heavy" in a ridiculously good way, with the deckle and the pork being the standout dishes. They also have the cocktail club upstairs and a fantastic brunch. If you love food you will love The Macintosh. If you don't really like food, you will still love it.

Edmund's Oast

Beer enthusiasts flock to this awesome spot for great drinks and delicious food. Be sure to try their Peanut Butter and Jelly beer and do not miss their goat sheep cow cheese plate. Great place for both brunch and dinner. Good large tables and lots of outdoor seating make it a great group spot and a perfect place to start your night.

The Westendorff

Great for both lunch and dinner, even though the service both times was fairly slow, we found the food to be ridiculously delicious. Their fried chicken sandwich on the lunch menu is one of the greatest things we have eaten for lunch in a while. Maybe that is why it took so long, because they were sprinkling unicorn tears? Either way, if you are looking for a delicious meal you can't go wrong here, and for lunch and dinner in warmer weather (which is most of the time) they have great outdoor seating.

The Westendorff

Great for both lunch and dinner, even though the service both times was fairly slow, we found the food to be ridiculously delicious. Their fried chicken sandwich on the lunch menu is one of the greatest things we have eaten for lunch in a while. Maybe that is why it took so long, because they were sprinkling unicorn tears? Either way, if you are looking for a delicious meal you can't go wrong here, and for lunch and dinner in warmer weather (which is most of the time) they have great outdoor seating.

Basil Thai Restaurant

I adore their basil rolls and have never found their equal anywhere else! Great spot for lunch on king street, with outdoor seating.

Leon's

Laid back no reservation restaurant serving oysters, fried chicken and other southern cuisine in a fun setting. This spot was able to make a fried chicken lover out of me, something I believed to be impossible. The neighborhood is definitely up and coming but you can easily take an uber here for a fun night out with friends. A great casual spot for a fun trendy night out.

Mercantile and Mash

This gourmet food emporium is great for breakfast meetings, lunch, picking something up on the go or take out dinner for a night off from cooking. This place has it all - wine, cheese, grab and go go food, local products, kitchenware, basically anything one might want they can find at this awesome spot. They also have a great bar on site - Bar Mash that I recommend checking out (a selection of 100 whiskies) P.S They also have a great private event space.

Tattooed Moose

The perfect spot to to nurse away your hangover, a favorite of ours on New Years Day for their killer bloody marys, satisfying food and big buck hunter. The perfect family friendly dive bar that is always packed. Mike's famous Duck Club is legendary for good reason!

Gaulart & Maliclet Fast & French Inc.

This bustling french all day eatery has been a fixture on Broad Street since 1985. This is a wonderful little french restaurant in Charleston, that I love to go to for breakfast or lunch! They offer many daily specials too.

Must See

A Walking City

Charleston is a beautiful city that was meant to be walked around and enjoyed. I would skip the touristy carriage tours, though you can arrange for a private tour that would be better. You can hire a walking guide to give you the history of Charleston, your hotel would be able to recommend someone. There are tons of golf courses nearby, including the five incredible championship courses at Kiawah. Visit some of the nearby beaches, my favorite is Sullivans. Go fishing, ride a bike around, visit Fort Sumter or go outside of the city and visit some of the historic plantations.

South of Broad | Charleston's Historic Homes

Rainbow Row, East Bay, walk all around this beautiful neighborhood.

Golf at Kiawah

Kiawah has five incredible golf courses!

White Point Gardens

Located on the peninsula of Charleston in the historic South of Broad area. park, cannons, gazebo.

King Street Shopping

Antique shops, restaurants, boutiques and more!

Sullivans Island

Take a walk along the beach, surf or swim! Grab lunch a burger at Poe's after or check out our favorite Sullivan's restaurant Obstinate Daughter.

Magnolia Plantation

Charleston's most visited plantation was selected by Travel and Leisure as one of the most beautiful gardens in America.

Drayton Hall Plantation

Drayton Hall is an gorgeous 18th century plantation located on the Ashley River about 15 miles away from Charleston. An extraordinary example of Georgian Palladian architecture it is the only plantation house on the Ashley River to survive intact through both the Revolutionary and Civil wars, it is a National Historic Landmark. A beautiful place to visit, walk around and take a guided tour. Also, nearby many other plantations that are open to the public.

Charleston Aquarium

Located on the water, a fun activity to do as a family. See the albino alligator and learn about local species of South Carolina.

Must Drink

A Drinking Town

Charlestonians are not one to miss cocktail hour! "In 1980 I moved back to South Carolina, where drinking oneself to death could more readily be passed off as a full time job" - Blanch McCrary Boyd

If you like a good drink, Charleston is a great place to visit. There are several bars and cocktail lounges that serve up delicious libations. 

The Belmont

You can't go wrong with any of their creative and delectable cocktails! Their take on a Cosmopolitan is life-changing good. Great location on King Street makes it perfect for pre or post dinner drinks.

The Cocktail Club

This stylish speakeasy has an incredible array of cocktails. They have a rooftop terrace as well. cozy brick and exposed beam interior.

The Gin Joint

The service is slow, though when making each elaborate cocktail from scratch it is to be expected and the end result is totally worth the wait. Bourbon lovers note a very extensive list.

Husk

The restaurant Husk is not our favorite, but we do love their bar next door. If you love bourbon, you need to visit this spot. A great cozy spot and a free standing house. Make you feel as you have traveled back in time.

Rooftop Cocktail Bar

Sunny day and looking for a place to have a few drinks - look no further than this amazing rooftop bar. Perfect place to hangout with friends or have a drink while watching the sunset.

Must Shop

King St Is The Place To Be

King Street has many antique shops, clothing boutiques and home stores which are great to checkout . Around the Charleston Place Hotel are some higher end boutiques, and I personally would recommend looking into Christian Michi for some fun antiques/glasses/clothes.

Beckett Boutique

Cute boutique on Upper King

The Ben Silver Collection

Classic Men's Store: Selling gorgeous sweaters, blazers, shoes, and more