Growing up in the South, there are certain cities you hear about more than others. Amongst large metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Charlotte, it’s the smaller towns that boast the most charm. As a kid, I made road trips to Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA and vividly remember the whimsy of Spanish moss dripping from ancient arboretums. So naturally, when planning my vacations for the year, I was interested in revisiting these antebellum cities and exploring them through fresh (adult) eyes. I like to think of Charleston and Savannah as sisters to Raleigh: all are little big cities with rich historic districts. Raleigh is the techie, Charleston a bit preppy, and Savannah the artist (duh, SCAD).
I left early Wednesday morning with the sun shining through the windows headed straight for South Carolina. Before reaching the heart of Charleston, I made a pit stop at the most stunning estate, Magnolia Plantation. You may recognize views of its tree-lined drive from Forest Gump, but the gardens were by far my favorite part. I’ll take a moment to acknowledge that yes, this home once held enslaved people, but I would like to focus on the beauty of the South rather than dwelling on a shameful past.
Just as I was approaching the grand gate of Magnolia it began to pour. This made for a very eerie entrance that felt reminiscent of the woods scene in The Wizard of Oz. On the plus side, this natural occurrence flushed out a majority of the tourists! I waited out the last bit of rain with a tour of the main house. Rebuilt/renovated three times, it’s an interesting composite of architecture and interior design styles throughout the 19th century. The Draytons were big fans of botanical and Audubon artwork, which are mixed in with family portraits and antique furniture. Oh, there’s also peacocks everywhere.
The incredible thing about Magnolia Plantation is that the gardens have been the primary draw since the mid 1800’s and were used as a way to recoup finances lost in the Civil War. The landscape is much more organic in its flow compared to structured English gardens of the era. Winding pathways and hidden glades boast camellias and azaleas, decorated with art nouveau statues and scenic bridges.
The heavy rain meant some pathways were off limits, but it also made for fantastic photo ops. It was so meditative to just wander and get a little lost in the foliage. I know I didn’t view half of the plantation, but what I did see left an impression. The estate closes at 5pm during the week and offers guided tram tours. There’s also a small garden shop with plants from the plantation — best type of souvenir!
From Magnolia Plantation I headed towards the city, then over to my hotel in Mt. Pleasant. Be warned, hotels and AirBnBs are hella expensive in Charleston. After a quick refresh, I caught an Uber downtown. There’s really no free parking, so Uber or Lift makes more sense most of the time (more on that later). Bonus points for a driver who can give you some sight-seeing recomendations. I had seen several great online reviews for a restaurant called Fig, but didn’t expect to need a reservation on a Wednesday night. Much to my dismay, there was a 45min wait and I was too hungry to stick it out. A quick Google search and I was walking towards a rooftop spot called The Watch. First impressions were solid – cool entrance and a hip crowd downstairs – but I should’ve known better when the place was less than half full.
TBH, the view was nice and that was about it. Easily the worst meal I had during my whole trip. But hey! You live and you learn.
Day Two was much more eventful. Remember how there’s no free parking downtown? Well I decided to find a parking deck and drive myself: same price as an Uber, but at least I can stash a change of clothes and store my shopping throughout the day. It would’ve been a great plan had I not accidentally locked my keys in my car… with the help of the locksmith down the street (and a $90 charge) I later regained entrance. Good thing I had already planned to spend the whole day exploring!
One of my favorite local finds was Candlefish. Y’all know I’m a sucker for candles and this place is basically heaven. I love the concept of a blind smell test and, while overwhelming at first, the overall experience amazing. Candlefish’s claim to flame is their library of over 100 scents, all numbered as not to elicit bias before smelling. Had I known about this place earlier, I would’ve signed up for a candle-making class! Needless to say, I left with four candles (and may order more online).
I still had some time to kill, so I popped next door to Savannah Bee Company (in retrospect I should’ve done this IN Savannah). In addition to a copious amount of bee products (everything from honey to home), the Bee Company has a cute little bar where you can partake in a mead tasting. Mead is some seriously delicious stuff and the bartender had great suggestions for mead-based cocktails. I left with a bottle of John Lemon, Peach & Love, and Pollen-nation (also a sucker for a punny name).
The mead left me a little peckish, so I walked towards Broad St. to check out a little French cafe a friend told me about. I opened the door and quite literally walked into the bar. This place is small, but packs a powerful punch. Their daily special is a sandwich, side, and glass of wine for $13. Sounds good to me! I went a little crazy and had an extra bowl of gazpacho (soooo good) and a glass of iced coffee to offset my mid-day fatigue. I would highly recommend Fast & French to anyone looking for something a little less snobby and their family-style seating is the one of the best ways to immerse yourself into local Charleston culture.
What’s the perfect thing to do after a delicious lunch? Take a leisurely walk and admire the historic architecture Charleston is known for! I opted out of the touristy Rainbow Row sight-seeing in favor of the hidden alleys and grand driveways of Charleston’s upper-class homes.
These houses are no joke. Who needs this much space?! So many porches! Still, I embraced every window box and cobblestone walkway. Outside of one home I had an unexpected encounter with guineafowl. Funny little things — I had to ask a passerby what the hell they were.
The house with the red car was by far my favorite. It has so much personality and 1920’s charm! I eventually made my way back up Meeting St. Pro tip: The Market is a trap. Too many people trudging along through stalls of over-priced goods. My next destination was a little more… cozy.
Side note: didn’t do a whole lot of shopping in Charleston (or in Savannah). King St is full of major brands (I was tempted to step inside Gucci, but knew it would be dangerous territory) and preppy boutiques. I’m not big on Lilly Pulitzer and everything else was far too expensive for my modest travel budget.
Quite possibly my favorite event of the day was the cat cafe, Pounce! The cafe acts as a home for the kittens, all of whom are available for adoption, as well as a way to facilitate in socialization. You can relax with a glass in one hand and a feather toy in the other. I made several furry friends and reeeally wanted to bring a few back to NC with me.
I mean, look at these gorgeous babies! In-between taking pictures and giving kisses, I thought to ask one of the employees for restaurant recommendations. This approach was way better than reading articles or searching Google. Find a local who looks like they could hang with your friend group and ask about their favorite spots in the city. I was referred to several eateries, but utimately ended up at Sorghum & Salt.
After some quality time at Pounce I finally met up with the locksmith to retrieve my car key. I was so gross from walking around in the heat, I was thankful for the forethought of throwing a sundress and sandals in my car. A quick change and I was ready for the evening! Earlier in the day I had passed a hip hair salon and realized I desperately needed to trim up my undercut. I didn’t read a single review on the place beforehand, but the presence of my go-to styling brand (Kevin Murphy, ty Onslow) and an available appointment seemed like a sign. My stylist recently moved to Charleston from Boston and was super friendly. He took care of business, plus washed and styled my curls! I left feeling fabulous and ready for dinner by myself.
Most of the time when I eat alone I feel a little unimportant. Like the hostess assumes I won’t be spending much, so they put me at a crappy table by the bathroom. Little do they know I love to indulge in food. I had called ahead for a reservation (learned my lesson) and was greeted by a friendly smile as soon as I walked through the door.
Sorghum & Salt was by far the best restaurant experience of my entire trip. My waitress remembered my name and even picked out a charming table by the window for me. Every dish was simple, yet intentional, and when I didn’t love something the chef sent out a special plate. I left feeing so loved (maybe it was the wine) and collapsed into my bed as soon as I reached the hotel.
Overall, I enjoyed Charleston. It’s a little uppity for me and I do think its a bit overrated, but it is a quintessential Old South city. Maybe things would’ve been different if I had more time? A few notable places that I did not have the opportunity to explore include; The French Quarter, Waterfront Park, Henry’s for rooftop jazz, Gibbs Art Museum, Philip Simmons art garden, Hampton Park, and The Hold brewery.
Up next: Savannah!