Charleston has seen a surge of visitors this year, thanks in no small part to one of the rarest of natural phenomenons: a total eclipse of the sun. Charleston was in the prime viewing path, and South Carolina officials reported the eclipse to be the biggest tourist event in the state’s history, with a whopping 1.6 million visitors in August alone.
Charleston, however, is much more than just a convenient haven to watch the heavens. The city was just voted America’s best small city by Conde Nast Traveler, after previously earning the distinction in 2015, as well.
But as the city geared up for the eclipse influx, it was hard not to catch an additional glimpse at just why Charleston deserves the accolades it earns.
Amy Bookout is a teacher in the California Bay Area who was visiting Charleston for the first time in August, and she loved it. “I was so excited to see all Southern stuff I’ve seen and heard about in real life.”
“Charleston was so beautiful with a rich history and friendly people,” she added.
Amy’s favorite activities were wading in the warm waters of the popular Folly Beach area, visiting the Middleton Place Plantation, and riding free bikes provided by her hotel, The Dewberry.
The Dewberry itself makes a great home base for a visit to Charleston. It’s housed in a renovated 1964 federal building reimagined as a luxury hotel, and it’s prime location means the roof bar has some of the best views of Charleston you can find.
You can get also get a good overview of the city’s history at the nearby Charleston Museum, which is just one of several local sites that gives visitors a glimpse at life in Old Charleson.
The Edmondston-Alston House, for example, offers tours of an incredible home built in 1825, and features views of Charleston Harbor. The story goes that General P.G.T. Beauregard of the Confederate Army watched the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 — which marked the beginning of the Civil War — from its porch.
The Heyward-Washington House also offers great tours of a townhouse built in the 18th Century for one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s been completely restored to its 1770’s splendor. The Aiken-Rhett House gives a further glimpse of antebellum life, showcasing areas where slaves once lived and worked.
On that note, the McLeod Plantation Historic Site details how some slaves lived both before and directly after the Civil War.
Shawn Halifax, the cultural history coordinator at the grounds, said, “We provide the opportunity for visitors to understand plantations in ways that perhaps they haven’t before. We provide a different kind of perspective and we are really focused on what life was like and the stories of majority of the people that lived here, the enslaved people that were here and in this case until 1860, about 100 people.”
Middleton Place Plantation is another of the many nearby plantation tours you can take. It’s also recognized as a national historic landmark, and claims to be home to America’s oldest landscape garden.
There are plenty of other plantations to visit with a variety of experiences, but one of the best is Drayton Hall, just outside the city. It claims the oldest preserved plantation house in America still open to the public.
“Drayton Hall is vital to our understanding of early American history — it’s witnessed the American Revolution, the Civil War, and natural disasters, and now it lives on as an architectural treasure and an active archaeological site,” said Carter C. Hudgins, Ph.D., the president and CEO of the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust.
“Visitors learn about feats of architecture and design, the Drayton family, and the enslaved people that once lived on the estate,” he continued.
Magnolia Plantation offers great tours that also explore the horrific legacy of slavery and the brutal conditions enslaved workers suffered. Their tours are often led via trolley car, which might make it easier for families looking to learn about history.
Another great activity for the whole family is to cross the famous Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge from Charleston to Mount Pleasant, where visitors can then explore World War II aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriot’s Point.
Richard C. West, a volunteer and coordinator at the U.S.S. Yorktown, tells Fox it’s a great place to visit. “You have an opportunity to experience what our sailors and soldiers experienced while they were at war, or on duty … I teaches young kids especially about the sacrifices men and women made through the years [so] they can have all the freedoms they have.”
“I love the volunteers,” West added. “I mean almost all of them are military veterans, and we could tell people what it was really like. We got four guys from WWII, several from the Korean War and a whole bunch of them from Vietnam. I just like the fact that you can just come here and experience all of this, and what they experienced.”
Charleston doesn’t lack in dining options either. There’s a great food scene, and one of the best places to try a local delicacy is Poogan’s Porch. But, in addition to dining on fried green tomatoes and a local chicken and rice dish called “Pirloo,” guests can also take in the erie scenery — Poogan’s is also said to be haunted by the spirit of a woman and a dog.
“Charleston boasts an exquisite culinary scene with bountiful options for dining and socializing,” says Dawson, but he loves the city for much more than just its food.
“Steeped in history, there is an abundance of opportunities to take in the sites whether it be on bicycle, foot, carriage, boat or by air,” he adds. “We truly are a city full of endless adventures, from gardens and plantations, to fishing and hunting, to taking in the fine arts with multiple museums and shows, to enjoying our beaches or buzzing around the bustling city.”