As one of the oldest cities in our country, Charleston is proud of her beautifully restored homes and cobblestone streets. In mid-April, we spent several days exploring this charming, welcoming city. Taking heed of our lesson learned during our visit to Savannah, we started off with a walking tour of the historic district.
The Colonial City Called “Little London”
In the wilds of the New World, Charleston was known as “Little London.” Settled by the British in 1670, over the next two centuries Charleston grew to become a wealthy city, thanks to the busy seaport, the slave trade, and the nearby plantations growing rice, cotton, and indigo. Charleston prided itself on having the finest architecture, fashions, textiles, and silver.
The Charleston Museum—founded in 1733 as America’s first museum—has excellent displays on early Charleston. It holds collections of silver (some retrieved from outhouses where it was hidden from Union soldiers—can you imagine that archeological dig?), gorgeous historic textiles, and exhibits on the indigenous peoples of the area and the life of slaves in the Lowcountry.
With wealth built on the backs of slaves (in the 1800s, Charleston’s population was 70 percent African-American), you can imagine how reluctant the people were to give up slavery. South Carolina was the first to secede from the Union, and the first shot of the Civil War was fired by Confederate soldiers on Union troops stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
The city was devastated by the war, and recovery was painfully slow. With few resources, people were forced to repair instead of replacing buildings. The unexpected benefit is that vast numbers of historic structures survived.
The Historic Beauty Of Charleston
Touring A Historic Home
Of several historic homes open for tours, we chose the Aiken-Rhett house because it promised a unique look at an antebellum townhome with an unusual approach to preservation. Nothing has been altered since the mid 19th century, and hurricanes have not done the house any favors. The goal is to simply preserve the house as it is, not improve it.
It was a strange and interesting experience. The house is said to be haunted. I wouldn’t be surprised.
The Holy City
One of the founding tenets of Charleston was religious freedom. When European settlers arrived, they brought with them a smorgasbord of Protestant denominations, Catholicism, and Judaism. Many of the congregations in Charleston date back to the late 1600s or early 1700s.
Today there are more than 400 places of worship, and the many spires rising above the city have earned it the nickname “The Holy City.”
South Carolina And The Confederacy
It’s hard to go anywhere in the South without encountering some kind of reminder of the Confederacy. It wasn’t until 2015, following the tragic shooting of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church by a white supremacist, that South Carolina finally removed the Confederate flag from the capitol building in Columbia. Decisions about what to do with statues dedicated to Confederate soldiers are still in flux.
Any kind of memorial to the Confederacy makes me uncomfortable. I grew up in the South, in the days when “colored” and “white” drinking fountains still existed, and black people were forced to move to the back of the bus. Even as a child, I was appalled by those laws.
My feeling about Confederate statues is “Take them down!” But I came across an interview with African-American Gullah artist and Charlestonian Jonathan Green, who said “Throughout history, there are always sides. You cannot have any forward motion unless there are two sides. Put the full story on those monuments rather than tearing them down, because it’s a piece of art, so why should it be torn down?”
There is much more to explore in Charleston—Fort Sumter, for one thing. But we found ourselves feeling the effects of history overload and will save that for another trip. Wandering around the city, however, was delightful.
Texas Barbecue In Charleston
In case you were wondering, there is plenty of fine food in Charleston, including the excellent Lewis Barbecue, recently opened by one of the foremost pitmasters from Austin, Texas. It doesn’t exactly fall into the category of “fine food” but it is delicious. I refrained from posting a photo of an entire pig they had just taken out of the smoker, in deference to vegans/vegetarians/and those who wish to remain naive about where their pork comes from.
About the campground
We stayed at James Island County Park, just a few miles from downtown Charleston. The sites are hard-packed dirt, partially shaded, and vary wildly in privacy and size. Avoid the “buddy sites” unless you’re looking for new friends. Full-hookups, Verizon is mostly usable, (the park internet, not so much), and they were in the process of renovating the bathhouses while we were there.
The park is insanely expensive for a county park ($50!!). It has a waterpark, dog park, climbing wall, and other amenities that we didn’t take advantage of. However, we did enjoy biking and walking the pretty trails. We got a hefty discount because they were renovating the bathhouses. Not sure we would stay there again if we had to pay full price, but there may not be any better options near Charleston.
I do love Charleston, even though I have only seen it once. We ate at Justine’s Kitchen, southern food at its finest, including pork chops. (I do know where my pork comes from although it is a good thing I don’t have to kill it myself.) We also stayed at St James park, and it is HUGE. We were there in December of 2007, and the Christmas light show was in full swing. We still have great memories of crawling home at 2 miles an hour through the line of cars seeing the lights to get to our campsite. Beautiful story about a beautiful city, and yes, history overload can come on very quickly in these iconic southern towns.
Sue, we definitely found ourselves suffering from history overload. It felt good to just walk around the city and enjoy the beauty. LOL at your comment about the pork. Justine’s is on our list for our next visit. The park must be beautiful at Christmas!
It is amazing that the building have survived for so long there with all of that history.
Considering the devastation from the war/earthquake/hurricanes, it’s remarkable that anything at all has survived!
Wow, I don’t recall seeing that Pineapple Fountain. Charleston is one of those southern cities that really take you back in time and offers several ways of experiencing its past. Since you did a walking tour and a tour of a historic home, you have shown me another aspect or views of the city. While we did the trolley and a boat tour also gave a different perspective.
Beautiful historic city and your photos and story captured it so well.
Thank you, MonaLiza. We would like to return and take a carriage tour (somehow it seems so appropriate in Charleston!) and a boat tour, as you did. There’s a lot to explore in Charleston, and it’s so beautiful, as you know.
What wonderful architecture with the huge veranda space. Always nice to see when communities take the pride and care to beautify their homes with flowers and plants. The quilt exhibition looks as though it was fascinating.
Funny re the ribs. I am one of those people that don’t eat meat very often but I do think it is important for meat eaters to actually see and connect with “where and what it comes from” rather than just see prepackaged slices in the supermarket! We were in Ecuador many years back when a host slaughtered a lamb in our honor and cooked it in the yard all day – I HAD to eat it!
That aside, am enjoying your posts and photos about this region unknown to me.
Peta, that’s an interesting story about the lamb dinner in your honor! If I could, I would be vegetarian—but I did that for 20 years and it wasn’t a healthy choice for me. I completely agree with your philosophy about eating meat.
I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts—Charleston is a fascinating and beautiful town.
Charleston is a beautiful city full of southern charm. Our visit as tourists was on motorcycle trip to Atlanta to see Kevin. We didn’t do too much touring because of the heat and rain; after all, it was July! Who visits Charleston in July!!! But we rode around enough to feel the city and observe a lot of the charm. Thanks for the addition tour inside the places we missed.
Pam, Charleston in July sounds miserable. But springtime was a perfect time to be there!
Have enjoyed our past visits to Charleston. Did a lot of touring on our first visit, which was a February getaway when we were living in Virginia … perfect weather to do a lot of sightseeing, including Fort Sumter. The last time was last year when our ship overnighted there around the 4th of July … way too hot to do much of anything, and most of the places of interest were closed for the holiday. Next time we’re in town, I want to visit one of the old plantation houses.
Erin, we have Fort Sumter on our to-do list when we return. I’d like to visit one of the plantations, too.
Charleston remains one of our favorite cities – so much to see and do and eat! One thing we didn’t have time for was a historic home tour. I remember reading about the one you visited and I agree, interesting decision to simply preserve but not protect or restore the property. It’s nice to see it as it was at the time, but I’m afraid it won’t last long. Also, interesting thoughts on the confederate monuments. In my view, they should be taken down and moved to museums. We’ve seen plenty of exhibits in museums about past bad decisions and policies. They are not erased from history but they are appropriately remembered for what they were. Not celebrated in the public square. It’s the difference between preserving an old Japanese internment camp as a museum and erecting a monument in the middle of San Francisco celebrating the Korematsu decision. One is a way to acknowledge history and learn from past mistakes (hopefully); the other is an insult to a large group of Americans.
Laura, that sounds like an excellent plan for dealing with the Confederate monuments. We cannot erase the past, but we certainly don’t need to celebrate the Confederacy and what it stood for. Too many of those monuments were erected during the Jim Crow era, and it’s painfully clear what the intention was.
I’ll have to find out more about what you did while you were in Charleston. I’m sure you discovered some restaurants we need to try!
Perfect time to visit for no bugs. And what luck to happen on the quilt exhibit. Although, were they really hand quilted? I take issue with machine quilted being called quilts, perhaps comforters would be better to distinguish the hand made from the machine made. I find to preserve but not improve a difficult concept. If something deteriorates you must preserve it so would that not be an improvement? Are they willing to let the plaster or the entire house fall down or get dry rot? I have to say that being from Charlottesville Virginia, though not there when the infamous march happened, I can see the civil strife that comes about over confederate statues. I agree with Mr. Green that as works of art, they should stay but each should have detailed signage describing the entire historical consideration. I had history overload when I was there as well. Though for having a 70% black population, it was difficult to see their history here. I’d like to return and take some of the African American tours. Perhaps the museum opening in 2019 will help with all this. I don’t get the sign at the BBQ. If cow is king, why were they serving pig? Lucky you to arrive at discount time. Wonderful post Laurel. It set me thinking about a lot as you can see.
Sherry, you’ll be happy to know that all of those quilts were hand quilted—most were from the 1770s and 1800s. And they were gorgeous! The historic home is being preserved (they take measures to ensure that it doesn’t fall down) but they are not improving it. There’s so much more to explore in Charleston—we’re hoping the new International African American Museum will be open when we return, although I think it may not be open until 2020.
The barbecue place is famous for their brisket—hence the cow. I just liked the sign. :-)
I’m with you. Its time to take down those statues. They are an insult to the black community and to anyone who believes the south should stop acting like they didn’t lose the war.
Ha, no kidding, JC! Well said. Something definitely needs to be done about those monuments. Anything or anyone that encourages feelings of white supremacy needs to go away.
I am back. I’m not typing but I’m dictating this.
You bring back so many wonderful memories for me. I remember the cobbled streets, beautiful crêpe myrtle trees, and the wonderful hospitality.
I didn’t know there was such a thing called an antebellum townhome. Boy is that one beautiful.
Man, I learned so much from this post. I had no idea that Charleston was called “The Holy City.” Very interesting.
I’m still struggling with the topic of the Confederate monuments. I see where they are a negative reminder, but I also see where we should honor those that fought and lost their life. I need to do some more thinking for sure.
Thanks for taking me back to many good memories. Also, thanks for teaching me two new facts today.
Oh yay, you’re back!! It’s wonderful to hear from you, Marsha. :-)
Charleston is definitely one of the prettiest cities we’ve visited.
I understand what you mean about wanting to honor those who died in the Civil War. I think the Confederate monuments can be viewed as encouraging white supremacy, though, and that’s a problem. There has to be another way—perhaps moving the monuments to a museum, or adding additional monuments that speak to the issue of slavery and the African Americans who engaged in extraordinary acts of courage against all odds.
We did not do Charleston justice during our visit. We were there during an early spring heatwave and tax time. We ventured out to the visitor’s center at the fort, met up for dinner with a friend from high school who I had not seen in 40 + years, and went to the market where we stocked up on our lifetime supply of grits. That was about it! We stayed at the lovely Elks Lodge, which cost next to nothing, as they offered no services. Charleston is on our “Go Back and Do It Right” list. :)
Haha, I believe I remember you stocking up on grits, Linda. Charleston is definitely worth a longer visit. We were there for three days, and it wasn’t enough. Then again, there’s only so much we can absorb at one time.
I’m totally with Laura in her position on where those statues belong!
We did Savannah and Charleston in a short time span and we were totally on history overload! Charleston is a beautiful city and your walking tour did it justice.
I wish we had visited the Aiken-Rhett House. We were first introduced to the concept of allowing a historic site to remain in a state of arrested decay in the ghost town of Bodie, California. Imagination is a wonderful tour guide to these places.
Sue, we did Savannah and Charleston in just over a week and were wishing we had more time. History overload is a real thing. :-) The Aiken-Rhett house was a bit strange but fascinating. You’re right, imagination is a wonderful tour guide!
Love that narrow cobblestone street! The city is so lovely with all the old buildings. I like your choice of historic homes – seeing the reality of time makes it feel “more real” somehow. Like Sue, I immediately thought of Bodie!
The statues are history themselves, even their placement is relevant. That they are considered to be “honoring” these traitors is the reason I find them appalling. If we remove them, do we then place a plaque that explains what was there and the reason it was removed? Sadly the statues reflect a division that is not just in our past.
We plan to spend some time in Charleston (if we can afford it!), and I’ll try to remember to pace myself on all the history :-)))
Jodee, you’ll enjoy Charleston when you visit. So many opportunities for photography! I agree with what you said about the Confederate statues representing a division that still exists. Sadly, there is prejudice everywhere in our country and in our world—I don’t understand it, except that it seems to always be based on fear and misunderstanding.
This post really brought back some wonderful memories and taught me a lot about Charleston that I had either forgotten (not surprising) or hadn’t learned. I feel just as you do about the Confederate statues but they are a sad part of our history so perhaps we should use them as a reminder of where we were and where we do not want to return. Love those quilts, the colorful houses, and all those flower boxes. Your header photo is beautiful!
Lu, it’s such a rich area historically, as you know. I can only absorb so much at one time. I’m glad you enjoy the historical tidbits—I go with the highlights and whatever happens to snag my interest and then write a bit about it on the blog. History is definitely much more interesting for me on field trips! I also loved the colorful homes and flowers, and the quilt show was gorgeous!