U.S. history, I’m afraid, was never my strong suit — until I visited Charleston, S.C.
American history is omnipresent in this southern city of 107,000, where you can’t help but get a crash course in pre-Revolutionary times, the roots of slavery and, of course, that famous War Between the States, as Southerners are fond of calling the Civil War.
Thankfully, a strong commitment to historic preservation has kept alive Charleston’s evolution from an English settlement and Civil War combatant into a lively, enchanting city rich with culture, handsome architecture, manicured gardens and hip gourmet restaurants. Where else can you walk around the cannon-filled fort where the first shots of the Civil War were fired and then descend into an old dungeon where Revolution-era rebels were imprisoned?
Summer heat and humidity aside, downtown Charleston is an easily walkable, relatively compact area, with a historic district situated on a peninsula at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers. It’s no accident that skyscrapers are absent from the historic area’s skyline, which instead is punctuated by soaring church steeples. That’s because local building regulations limit heights to 35 to 100 feet. While there are several slavery-era plantations miles beyond central Charleston that you can visit, there’s plenty to explore on foot right here in downtown. Its waterside location makes for pleasing strolls in the Battery, where you can wander down side streets and see the pastel-hued homes of Rainbow Row, the procession of elegant churches and centuries-old houses that are representative of Italianate, colonial, Federal and Gothic architecture. Take a sightseeing break and step into White Point Gardens at the tip of the Battery for a restful walk among giant oaks draped with Spanish moss, cannons and monuments.
Hop a carriage
A great way to capture the essence of historic Charleston’s beauty is to take a carriage ride, led by guides whose spiels are laced with humor and fun facts about the city and its history. Because of the proliferation of carriage tours, the city introduced regulations that essentially divvy up the routes where operators can go downtown, so on any given tour, you won’t see the entire historic district. But you’ll still get a good feel for the area and ideas for deeper exploration on your own.
There are tours galore in Charleston, from culinary, Civil War and architectural walking expeditions to nighttime visits to the city’s most haunted sites. One I wouldn’t miss is the Gullah tour, operated by Alphonso Brown, who is fluent in Gullah, the language spoken by the Low Country’s first Black inhabitants. He’ll chat a bit in Gullah and then escort you in a 21-passenger tour bus, offering up a history of Charleston from the perspective of Black Americans. “So much has been covered up because people are trying to hide their guilt over what their ancestors did,” said Brown, explaining why he leads the tours. “Some tour guides don’t use the word ‘slaves.’ They’ll say ‘carriage houses’ and ‘servants’ quarters.’ My goal is [to] tell the outstanding things that Blacks did, show the homes they built.”
Charleston, he points out, was at one time a major seaport for enslaved Africans entering America, with 40 percent of the slave-traded Blacks coming through nearby Sullivan’s Island — their Ellis Island, as Brown calls it. Among the places you’ll visit on his tour are the site of the Old Slave Mart, where slaves were inspected before being auctioned off, and Cabbage Row, the inspirational setting for Catfish Row, a tenement, in DuBose Heyward’s 1920s novel Porgy. The book was later turned into the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess.
Another stop, which is a good place to visit on your own, is the Old City Market, where women craft coiled sweetgrass baskets, a labor-intensive art form brought to the area centuries ago by West African slaves. “The best time to buy one is late at night when the ladies are getting ready to leave,” Brown advised us. Some baskets, he said, sell for as high as $3,000. “These ladies,” he warned us, “also don’t like their pictures taken.”
Throughout the course of the two-hour-long tour, Brown pointed out the decorative gates, balconies and window grills that adorn many of the homes in Charleston, many of them created by ironworker Philip Simmons, a nearly lifelong Charlestonian. But the real treat of the tour was when the bus stopped at a nondescript house in what Brown identified as the Black section of town. The next thing you knew, we were face-to-face with Simmons, now 95, who was relaxing in his living room, watching television. He seemed delighted to have visitors and still betrayed a keen sense of humor. When asked how large his house is, he responded, “Three bedrooms. I can only use one bedroom at a time.”
Brown later asked the tour group why no one had inquired as to whether Simmons is wealthy. “Well, he’ll say, ‘Can you still visit Reagan at the White House?’” Brown recounted. “’Well, you can still visit me at my house, so I’m richer than Reagan.’”
Glimpse of the past
One of the top places on my to-do list was a visit to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, a wonderfully preserved Colonial-era building that offers a glimpse into the lead-up to the Revolutionary War and beyond. Kids especially will like the dungeon, which seems to borrow from Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” with its animatronic figures, shackled and behind bars, recounting tales of piracy.
Yet another figure from Colonial times discusses The Tea Act, surrounded by crates of tea and spices. He grouses about the British levying taxes on tea, informing visitors, “We’re known as the Liberty Boys.” Our tour guide recounts that some 10,000 pounds of gunpowder had been stored in the basement of the building and then bricked over to hide it while the British occupied the town.
No visit to historic Charleston would be complete without a boat ride across Charleston Harbor to Fort Sumter, originally built to protect the harbor. Now a national monument operated by the National Park Service, the fort is most famous for being the site where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Park Service rangers offer a brief talk on Sumter once you arrive on the island, where you’ll learn that it took more than 30 years to build the garrison and some 75,000 tons of New England granite to build the island it sits on.
There is no shortage of historic homes to tour while in downtown Charleston. My favorite was the Aiken-Rhett House because it’s an intact representation of antebellum life that offers a glimpse into the role slaves played in the lives of wealthy Southerners.
Originally built in 1818 but expanded in the 1830s and 1850s by then Gov. William Aiken Jr. and his wife, the house was largely unaltered after 1858. You’re able to visit the slave quarters and see where the slaves slept in rooms dormitory-style above the kitchen and stable. The most highly trained house servants, you’ll learn during an audio tour, lived in more prestigious quarters with plastered walls and individual fireplaces. The Aikens, who appreciated the finer things in life, enjoyed entertaining and had a dining room table that could be extended to seat 22. On the tour, you see a formal dinner menu of mutton, ham, roast turkey and oysters.
While there is an abundance of inns and bed-and-breakfasts in downtown Charleston, my husband and I chose to stay in Mount Pleasant, a small, waterfront town just across the river. Our lodging was the Old Village Post House, a charming 19th-century inn that also has a cozy dining room with superb food and an even cozier bar that provided an ideal respite from daylong touring. The brief drive between Mount Pleasant and Charleston gave us time to admire the soaring cables of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge that spans the Cooper River and is the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America.
Charleston is clearly a foodie’s paradise. While Southern home cooking is in abundance on Charleston restaurant menus, local chefs have found inventive ways to re-create Low Country cuisine. I swooned over the goat cheese fritters and tomato basil soup (prepared with locally grown yellow tomatoes) I ordered at the Post House. Of course, we had to try the requisite shrimp and grits, present on nearly every menu. But the version at Slightly North of Broad that was paired with scallops and house-made sausage has to be one of the better embellishments of this classic dish.