I spent my birthday this year with my parents in beautiful Charleston, SC. It's actually a very funny story how we landed on Charleston – my best friend travels for work and told me she'd be in Charleston on my birthday so I bought tickets to join her. Fast forward a week when my friend realizes her Charleston job is Charleston, WV, not Charleston, SC, then to a phone call with my parents where I beg them to join me down south and April 9 we arrive in Charleston.
It was uncharacteristically cold when we were there – it was between 50 and 60 and a little rainy. It was still so gorgeous and we loved that it wasn't crowded when we were walking around. Plus we've heard that in the summer it can get so hot that you really can't be outside for more than a few minutes and we were so lucky that we were able to walk around all day.
+ My favorite visit of the trip was Magnolia Plantation. I've never been to the south before and heard a plantation tour was a must, and it definitely was. Besides the fact that the plantation was huge and gorgeous and had amazing wildlife and made for great photos it was a rich historical site that allowed me to hear more about the realities of life in the South in the Revolutionary period and Civil War period. I definitely had qualms about giving money to a formerly slave-worked plantation but it was nice to hear on our tour how much time was dedicated to describing the horrible reality of the slave lives.
+ The downtown Charleston historical district is fairly small and has almost everything you'd want to do – if you're staying at a hotel or AirBnb around there, you definitely do not need a car. If you want to do a plantation tour they are fairly far from the area (about 30 minutes drive) but it seems to be about a $30 uber each way, which if you're splitting is totally worth it. We rented a car because we were staying in a hotel in North Charleston and if you do rent a car it's super easy to find parking and it's $16-$20 a day.
+ The food in Charleston was unbelievable. Really the cream of the southern food crop. My family's philosophy when traveling is to always ask the wait staff what they recommend – we had the best biscuits, shrimp and grits, fried chicken, breakfast... I ate so much on this trip!
+ We only had 2 days in the city but we were able to hit most of the must-sees. We missed things that required more time, like taking a ferry to Ft. Sumter, but we felt like we saw all of the things we wanted.
We started at Magnolia Plantation. Despite their pretty plain website, this was one of the most beautiful, lush places I've ever been. We went right before blooming season, so there weren't many flowers around but everything was so green and alive and stunning.
I felt a little uncomfortable giving money to a private plantation (much for the same reasons that can be found in my amazing wedding planner friend's article on why you should absolutely not get married on a plantation) especially because slavery on the plantation was pretty glossed over in both of the tours we had. I know they offer a slave cabin tour which I'm assuming is a lot more comprehensive, but keep that in mind if you choose to visit a plantation.
At the plantation we ate in the peacock cafe (with real life peacocks wandering around!!), we went on an incredible nature tram tour with Joe (we saw a ton of alligators and enormous birds) then a tour of the plantation house. After that we spent a while wandering through the gorgeous gardens. We went right before the flowers bloomed so instead of color we had a green, lush garden, which was still amazing. The gardens are huge and winding (definitely take a map from the front to navigate them) and it was really easy to find spots to take cute photos.
On our way out we accidentally found the must-see Conservatory. It was basically an orchid nursery when we went and it was so pretty.
After we finished up at Magnolia we drove to downtown Charleston to catch a horse and buggy tour. Charleston has come under massive fire recently for many incidents involving mistreatments of horses. We chose Old South Carriage Co because it seemed to treat their horses much more humanely. We weren't sure if we even wanted to go on a horse and carriage tour but a neighbor from Charleston said it was the number one thing we must do. It actually ended up being a highlight for us on the trip – our tour guide, Mark, knew so much history about the city and we learned so much in an hour that we were able to put into practice as we explored Charleston on our own.
We ate dinner at Poogan's Porch – hands-down our favorite restaurant of the trip. We sat at their communal table (it's a long wait for a private one) and got to exchange tips with the other tourists sitting with us, who we found out were all from the same area of Mass as us! Poogan's had the best friend chicken we had as well as the best, sweetest biscuits that come before the meal. I had the best Moscow Mule I've ever tried and their sloe gin cocktail is amazing for anyone who likes their alcohol to taste like juice. We had the fried green tomatoes for an appetizer too and they were incredible. The only problem was we didn't have room for dessert, which I heard is also amazing! Also the waiter was so nice and when he heard it was my birthday he brought a glass of champagne!
We had drinks at the Thoroughbred Club after, which is inside the insanely nice hotel, Charleston Place. It had a sweet piano player and the staircase makes for some cute photo opps.
We started with breakfast at Toast. Their version of eggs benedict over corned beef hash is a must try! Afterwards we spent a couple of hours at the Gibbes Museum of Art. It's a small, easily digestible museum with lots of Charleston-centric art on their permanent exhibition floor. We caught a super cool folk art moving exhibition. It was a great little museum to visit and great for getting out of the rain.
Covering 4 or 5 blocks of Charleston is the Historic Charleston City Market. It's an awesome indoor market that sells mostly homegoods and clothing. We found a local vendor in the market called Old Whaling Co who sells (and I promise I'm not exaggerating) my new favorite moisturizer. I got an amazing milk/oatmeal/honey moisturizer that I'm using on my face 2-3x a day now and magnolia moisturizer for my hands. I also got a lavender bath bomb (their bath bombs have epsom salts so it's a productive soak) that I'm so so excited to use.
We walked through the market and then down through Waterfront Park to get to Rainbow Row. It was still drizzling a bit when we walked through the Park which made for great umbrella pics plus it was totally empty which was nice for pics too. When we walked back through Waterfront Park it had stopped raining and already more people were milling around – it was a beautiful park and very cool to be able to see Ft. Sumter just across the water.
Pro tip for Rainbow Row: wear pastels to match the facades! I got lucky that the two colors I was wearing were on adjacent buildings :)
Charleston is so stunning. It was so nice to just walk around and look at the beautiful buildings.
We went shopping (Blue Bicycle Books is a must-visit if you're a book store fan) then grabbed a quick birthday cupcake before dinner at DownSouth Cupcake.
We ate dinner at Justine's Kitchen – another local favorite for southern soul food. It had a ton of amazing southern options and the most incredible coca cola chocolate cake dessert. We got drinks at Henry's on our way to Tabbuli where my parents saw their first drag show! The performers were beautiful and amazing and it was such a fun end to my birthday.
What I Missed
We had a pretty packed schedule for the two days we were visiting but we also got some suggestions from locals that we weren't able to do – if you have the time, here's what we heard was also great: Charleston Crab House (our tour guide said it's where all the locals eat and you must have the stuffed Atlantic shrimp), nighttime tour of the old jail and asylum, visit the cemetery at the Circular Congregational Church for amazing headstones, eat at Lewis BBQ.
I loved Charleston. Like I said, it felt like the quintessential Southern city, one I'd highly recommend to any foreigner if they want to experience the best of the south. I cannot wait to go back soon and to visit other southern cities. Atlanta, Nashville and Dallas are high on the list. Do you have any other recommendations?
Have you ever been to Charleston? Do you have any tips from your own trip? I'd love to see photos!