One can think of a lot worse things than heading south during the winter months. And while Charleston, S.C., may not offer southern Florida’s predictable warmth, it is a manageable day’s drive or a quick flight from the Brandywine Valley.
Founded in 1670, Charleston is a multifaceted historical gem along the lines of Philadelphia and Boston—though in a quainter package. Only Savannah, Ga., comes close to equaling the Holy City’s vintage Southern charm. The aforementioned nickname refers to the many steeples and spires visible throughout the downtown area, where ordinances prohibited building anything higher than 55 feet—though that has since been modified to 85 feet as a concession to tech startups.
If you’re lucky enough to find your way to Charleston during the holidays, you’ll see its historic homes all decked out in historically accurate seasonal décor dating back to the 1800s. Two million lights shimmer during the annual Holiday Festival of Lights, a three-mile driving tour with drive-up concessions that begins in mid-November and continues through New Year’s Eve.
Charleston’s walkable downtown features cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and the pastel antebellum homes of the cozily elegant French Quarter and Battery districts. The Battery promenade and Waterfront Park both overlook Charleston Harbor. There, you can view Fort Sumter, a federal stronghold where the first shots of the Civil War rang out. For a festive take on the city’s maritime roots, spend your Dec. 12 evening checking out the 39th annual Charleston Harbor Parade, which features boats decorated for the holidays.
Located in Charleston’s historic district, the Belmond Charleston Place deftly balances Old World charm and sleek sophistication. You’ll find a pool with a retractable glass roof and a cutting-edge spa, plus the award-winning Charleston Grill and a selection of high-end shops. A private club level offers boutique-style amenities. Over the holidays, a fully operational replica of the famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express luxury train chugs along in the lobby. $331-$2,650 per night (December-February). 205 Meeting St., (843) 722-4900, belmond.com.
An artful fusion of boutique-style luxury and intelligent design, The Restoration is comprised of five buildings, all modernized with a dual nod to Charleston’s rich history and the offbeat effervescence of the New South. Staying in one of its eight suites is like renting an apartment from a city native with impeccable taste. Public spaces include a library, a coffee bar, and a rooftop pool with stunning views of the city. There’s also a retail store, a spa and nail bar, an on-site restaurant and bar, and free bikes for guests. $249-$599 per night (December-February). 75 Wentworth St., (877) 221-7202, therestorationhotel.com.
Widely considered one of America’s best food cities, Charleston has a more vibrant and competitive dining scene than many metro areas twice its size. It offers fresh seafood, Southern barbecue, authentic Lowcountry cuisine, and outstanding spins on pretty much everything else—and the city’s award-winning chefs relish putting a seasonal spin on the classics (think pumpkin-bread pudding). There are numerous exceptional spots in Charleston. Here are a few to get you started.
Coast Bar & Grill wisely lets the fresh seafood and local produce do the heavy lifting, with a menu that makes the most of the restaurant’s custom wood-burning grill. Highlights include fish tacos, braised grouper over cheese grits, and the fried shrimp plate. There’s also a raw bar. $5.99-$35.99. 39 John St., Suite D, (843) 722-8838, holycityhospitality.com.
A 130-year-old family-owned institution, Hyman’s Seafood could’ve easily gone the mediocre way of countless aging seafood spots. But while it is popular with tourists, it remains on point, offering ample build-your-own platters, killer po’ boys, and an array of no-frills Lowcountry classics. Try the Carolina Delight—a lightly fried grit cake topped with your choice of shrimp, salmon or a salmon croquette, smothered in Hyman’s signature Parmesan cream sauce with a hint of Cajun spice. $5.95-$36.95. 215 Meeting St., (843) 723-6000, hymanseafood.com.
Though it’s been open since 1976, Poogan’s Porch has the feel of a culinary institution that’s been around for centuries, partly due to its circa-1888 Victorian digs. Nothing surprising here—just Southern comfort delivered with impeccable skill, whether it’s the pimento cheese fritters with green-tomato jam, a bowl of rich she-crab soup, the signature buttermilk fried chicken, or decadent shrimp and grits. $8-$33. 72 Queen St., (843) 577-2337, poogansporch.com.
The more casual little brother to Poogan’s Porch is a first-class barbecue joint called Poogan’s Smokehouse. Both are run by chef Daniel Doyle, who’s as adept in the kitchen with meat as he is with seafood. Braver carnivores will revel in the sampler combo of pulled pork, chicken wings, ribs, pork belly and smoked sausage, served with two sides (the collard greens are a must) and cornbread. $7-$60. 188 E. Bay St., (843) 577-5665, pooganssmokehouse.com.
Enjoy a breakfast splurge in the sunlit Palmetto Cafe at the Belmond Charleston Place. Indulge in the Palmetto Omelet, with fresh lump crabmeat, lobster knuckles, mozzarella and spring onions. The hearty corned-beef hash is like none you’ve ever tasted. $5-$22. 205 Meeting St., (843) 722-4900.
Palmetto Carriage Works is the oldest carriage company in the city, and that experience is embodied in its witty, knowledgeable guides. It’s the best way to get acclimated to Charleston. From $25. 40 N. Market St., (843) 723-8145, palmettocarriage.com.
Follow up a morning carriage ride with an afternoon tour of the Charleston Harbor aboard the Carolina Belle. The 90-minute excursion covers over 75 points of interest, including Forts Sumter, Moultrie and Johnson; the USS Yorktown; St. Michael’s Church, which survived the Revolutionary and Civil wars; and the stately homes on the Battery. From $25. Charleston Maritime Center, 10 Wharfside St., (843) 722-1112, charlestonharbortours.com.
Dubbed “America’s first museum,” the Charleston Museum was founded in 1773. Its collections, exhibitions and events celebrate the history of Charleston and the Lowcountry. Its armory collection is particularly impressive, with examples of personal and military weaponry dating from 1750 to the 20th century. The museum also maintains the historic Joseph Manigault and Heyward-Washington houses. $5-$25. 360 Meeting St., (843) 722-2996, charlestonmuseum.org.