The ideal way to explore Charleston is on foot (or on a bicycle if you’ve got one). The historic district comprising the lower portion of the peninsula is an elegant introduction. Walk by the sparkling gray water of the Cooper River along The Battery, the famous promenade once used for Civil War artillery, spotting sailboats and dolphins on one side and admiring antebellum mansions on the other. Wander the paths and cannons of White Point Gardens and then continue toward the palmetto-tree-lined and oak-canopied Water Front Park. Pause for fountain photo ops, sit on the swings on the pier, and take in the views of the Charleston Harbor and the Ravenel Bridge, an eight-lane, diamond-towered steel wonder. (Sometime during your stay take advantage of the bike and pedestrian lane for glorious views from the continent’s longest cable-stay bridge.)
Nearby on gorgeous Broad Street is a little boho restaurant called Gaulart et Maliclet Cafe that has community tables and very reasonably priced, very European specials that include a glass of wine. Locals refer to it as Fast and French. Turning onto lower Meeting Street feels like going back in time 150 years. Most of the churches and graveyards date back to the 1600s – hence Charleston’s nickname the Holy City. Up King Street, the city’s shopping avenue, the high-end antique shops and boutiques begin.
When you cross Calhoun Street you’re approaching Upper King Street, the up-and-coming design district. You could take a detour here and follow the brick sidewalks into the Spanish moss-and-ivy covered grounds of the College of Charleston campus, est. 1776. On a Saturday morning a side trip to the farmer’s market in Marion Square Park is in order. Browse the local produce and artisan stands and maybe even order a crepe.
Back on King Street stop for a fresh baked gourmet Black Forest or Carrot Cake cupcake at the adorable Cupcake bakery or take a fair-trade latte break at the African-themed Kudu Coffee, frequented by students and creative types. Monza is a good lunch stop for Neapolitan-style pizzas and salads made with fresh, local ingredients. Or you could take a little walk to the corner Bull Street Gourmet for a sandwich. You’ll want to come back to Upper King later for the bar scene. The sleek Chai’s Lounge and Tapas is a standout. The earthy Asian interior with paper lanterns can feel yuppie-ish, but the bamboo garden courtyard in the back is where it’s at in the evenings.
Even though Upper King hosts the city’s new night scene, out-of-towners still flock to the Market Street bars. If bachelorette parties and Jello shots aren’t your thing, wait in line for Rooftop Restaurant and Bar for glowing city views among a preppy crowd. Although with the exception of the renowned Gullah sweetgrass basket weavers the Charleston Market is a best-avoided tourist trap, don’t miss the street itself. Stop by Market Street Sweets for to-die-for praline samples on your way to the dark, Victorian Kaminsky’s Café for desserts made daily by pastry chefs and served late into the night. Wait in line for a table if necessary -- it’s worth it. The Tollhouse Cookie Pie has a cult following (order it a la mode). For a bit of frugal ambience, wait until 11 p.m. for half-price pizza, $2 champagne, and live jazz at the stylish and sensual Mercato, an upscale Italian restaurant.
If the weather’s warm, leave town at least once for an afternoon at one of the nearby beaches. Isle of Palms is the family friendly beach where the vacationers head. The surfers and coeds with beer coolers flock to shabby Folly beach. Taco Boy decked out in umbrellas and Christmas lights is great for lunch and cocktails. (The new downtown location on Huger Street is also a hotspot with bands playing on the patio in the evenings.) Charming Sullivan’s Island is the quietest beach and the closest at barely 15 minutes away. Pass the lighthouse and head to station 17 if you don’t mind a 10-minute nature walk (wildflowers and butterflies!) to a secluded shore that you’ll most likely have to yourself. On the island Poe’s Tavern, named for Edgar Allan Poe who was stationed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s, is famous for its burgers and can get rowdy.
To find out what’s going on back downtown, grab a free copy of The Charleston City Paper. The alternative weekly also includes a vast restaurant and music directory. The online Charlie Magazine also gives voice to all happenings artistic and progressive in Charleston. Or end your stay with one of two stand-by options: signing up for a commercial but oh-so fun ghost tour or taking in an indie flick with a bottle of wine or chocolate chip cookie at the art house Terrace Theatre on humble James Island.
Gaulart et Maliclet Café, 98 Broad St. (843) 577-9797.
Charleston Place Hotel, 205 Meeting St. (843) 722-4900.
Cupcake, 433 King St. (843) 853-8181.
Kudu Coffee, 4 Vanderhorst. St. (843) 853-7186.
Monza, 451 King St. (843) 720-8787.
Bull Street Gourmet, 60 Bull St. (843) 720-8992.
Chai’s Lounge and Tapas, 462 King St. (843) 722-7313.
Rooftop Bar and Restaurant, 23 Vendue Range St. (843) 723-0485.
Market Street Sweets, 100 N. Market St. (843) 722-1397.
Kaminsky’s Café, 78 N. Market St. (843) 853-8270.
Mercato, 102 N. Market St. (843) 722-6393.
Taco Boy, 15 Center St. (843) 588-9761.
Poe’s Tavern, 2210 Middle St. (843) 883-008. Terrace Theatre, 1956D Maybank Highway (843) 762-4247.