Surrounded by Spanish moss–cloaked islands, fixed between two rivers on the Atlantic coastline, and lined with a symphony of pastel painted buildings of various architectural traditions, Charleston is one of the most idyllic cities in the country. Aside from these environmental and aesthetic delights, it also has a ton of historical significance. The city dates back to the Colonial era (hence the fusion of Southern American, British, French, and Afro-Caribbean cultural influences), and it's where the first Civil War shots were fired.
Though most of the original architecture is preserved, it's also home to a ton of gourmet eateries and fashionable shops. In other words, Charleston is the perfect blend of tradition and progression, approachability and refinement, and small-town charm and city-like hustle and bustle. And it's compact in size, so you'll be able to take it all in without feeling overwhelmed. If you're not already on the phone with a moving company, you will be once you read our city guide created with the stylish Charleston-based influencer, Julia Engel.
As the founder of Gal Meets Glam, you can count on her to give a definitive list of the best things to do in Charleston. Just like the driving message behind her blog, local recommendations will introduce a touch of glamour to daily life and give commonplace routines a little more meaning and beauty. Before you plan your trip (or move) to the Carolina coast, scroll through Engel's list of 21 must-sees in this Southern oasis.
Where to Dine
Goat Sheep Cow: For anyone who loves cheese (who doesn't?), this artisanal European-style café is a must-try. "This wine-and-cheese shop is a favorite lunch spot of ours. It serves delicious salads and grilled cheese sandwiches," Engel says. With exposed beams and bricks as well as bright red upholstered booths, we can't think of anywhere we'd rather share a bottle of wine with friends.
Xiao Bao Biscuit: Have you ever tried Asian soul food? If not, this is the best place to do it. With a variety of dishes inspired by "kick-ass grandmas everywhere," as well as Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines. Come for a casual meal to enjoy flavorful comfort food.
The Darling Oyster Bar: With mint-green, light turquoise, and sky-blue booths, this oyster bar is the perfect backdrop for all your foodie close-ups. "There's a reason it's called The Darling," Engel jokes. "We love this fun spot for a cocktail and hors d'œuvres or dinner."
Husk: This dinner spot is a Charleston staple. Located in the French Quarter and run by two local Southerners, you can expect charming wrap-around porches and dishes like chilled butter pea salad, cornmeal-fried catfish, a cornbread skillet, and peach rice pudding. Everything is locally sourced and fresh, so the menu is constantly changing to feature the best of the best. We don't know if we're more excited to admire the bones of the 1839 Queen Anne it's in or to sip down the watermelon sorbet float.
Chez Nous: Here's another delicious restaurant that features the distinctive architecture of historic Southern mansions. With a small rotational menu changing daily, Chez Nous serves up some of the best French food in the South. There's always two appetizer, two entrée, and two dessert options. And though it's pint-size, it's anything but limiting, and it allows the chef to master the selected features. They post a photo of its handwritten menu on Instagram daily so you can check it out beforehand.
Black Tap Coffee: In true Charleston fashion, this little shop turns coffee into a craft. Engel explains that Black Tap is "slightly off the beaten path of King and Market streets," but it's worth finding since "it has the best coffee in Charleston." Pro tip? Engel recommends its iced lavender latte. Yum. The homemade apple-spiced soda also sounds perfect for the start of fall, as does the brown sugar latte.
The Ordinary: You should try plenty of seafood while you're in the coastal Carolinas, and this oyster bar and seafood hall is an ideal place to do so. It's located in a historic converted bank, making the ambiance is great for a romantic night out on the town or a casual catch-up session with friends. It's nothing short of phenomenal—from every décor detail to the authentic creole cuisine and creative craft cocktails. Speaking of which, its specialty is rum. So we suggest saying cheers with the Miss Prissy, a beverage calling for Trinidad and Jamaica rum, rhubarb, Aperol, lemon, and grapefruit, or the Air Mail, which has white rum, lime, honey, and sparkling rosé in it.
Where to Shop
Hampden Clothing: "While I do most of my shopping online, I can always count on the selection at Hampden to find something special," shares Engel. "The shop owner, Stacy, knows how to curate selections from top designers," like Ellery, Carven, Giada Forte, Simone Rocha, J.W.Anderson, Monse, and Tibi, among other. So if you're a local looking to refresh your wardrobe or you're passing through, this is the best high-end clothing store to browse through in the flesh.
Worthwhile: Situated in a 19th-century building, everything about this concept store communicated a thoughtfully crafted narrative that makes it a joy to sift through. Worthwhile carries a range of niche, avant-garde designs, as well as minimal and vintage-inspired styles. It's the best destination around if you're hoping to add one-of-a-kind pieces to your wardrobe or your home and beauty collections.
Indigo Market: Engel tells us that Indigo Market "is [their] favorite go-to when looking for interior pieces for photo shoots," so if you want to re-create her aesthetic, now you know where to start. "You can almost always find unique, colorful pieces that can brighten up your house." And "even if you aren't in the market for home goods, it's worth popping in if you are already across the street eating at Butcher & Bee or Edmund's Oast," she says.
Mac & Murphy: This whimsical lifestyle paper and "stationery shop is located in an up-and-coming [Cannonbourogh] neighborhood," where "lots of restaurants are popping up," Engel tells us. She remembers falling in love with Mac & Murphy before she even moved to the city. "On our first trip to Charleston, we picked up a few stationary souvenirs to remember our trip by," she says.
Candlefish: With a fragrance library stocked with over 100 different handcrafted scents, it's impossible to not find a scent you love at Candlefish. Taking in the floor-to-ceiling shelves of candles is worth a trip alone. With a beautifully curated selection of candles, accessories, and small, decorative objects, it's an ideal place to shop for gifts. But it's so much more than just a store. We suggest signing up for a candle-making workshop to learn more about the craft from real experts while also having fun (and leaving with an artisan candle, of course).
Where to Explore
Gibbes Museum of Art: "In Charleston, you should always have a backup indoor activity (that's not eating more great food)," Engel jokes. "In the summer, it could be pouring rain or scorching hot," so you may want to keep busy somewhere exciting that also happens to give you a break from the elements. The Gibbes Museum of Art is a good idea with or without weather trouble since it "has some great pieces and is centrally located downtown." With incredible exhibits and aesthetically on-point paint choices, it's also rife with photo shoot opportunities, as evidenced above.
The Battery: Whether you're just passing through for a short trip or you're a long-term Charleston resident, you should pay a visit to this Civil War landmark. The Battery is what's left of the defensive seawall, and it's been converted into a promenade lined with antebellum-style homes and a park. If you'd like more thorough information about the area as you wander around, you can ask the hotel concierge to sign you up for a walking tour or a horse-drawn carriage ride with a guide. Or take a harbor ride over to Fort Sumter National Park to learn more about the place named after a Revolutionary War hero and where the Civil War began after the Confederates overtook the federal site.
Strolling South of Broad: For an outdoor activity that helps you get to know Charleston like a local, take a stroll South of Broad. It sits right next to the Battery, so it's a great thing to do once you're through visiting there. This exclusive residential neighborhood is home to the most breathtaking harbor-front houses and English-style gardens in the city, and some even feature plaques with short blurbs explaining the historical context of each.
Rainbow Row: The famed row of pastel rainbow homes is a charming gem. Once a bustling area of vendors and merchants in the mid-1700s when it was still a British colony, this strip of 14 homes along the waterfront will be a treat for anyone who appreciates architecture with local flair and character. There are a plethora of local legends explaining the reason behind the pastel paint. Some say the vivid hues were meant to function as makeshift lighthouses for drunk sailors, while others say it was to keep the interiors cool during the warmer months.
Not only does it provide ideal aesthetics for your Instagram feed, but it also exudes a peaceful atmosphere.
Where to Stay
86 Cannon: Though this three-story boutique hotel is situated in a single home that dates back to 1862, 86 Cannon boasts luxurious, spacious accommodations. There are two open-air piazzas, a study and bar lounge, and en-suite marble bathrooms and fireplaces.
The Restoration: This boutique hotel is comprised of five separate buildings, each of which is designed to honor the historic architecture while giving it a modern update. Easygoing and beaming with Southern hospitality, it's just like the city of Charleston itself. One of the buildings is a converted department store from the early 1900s, and they all have unique past lives (the oldest dates back to 1886).
The Dewberry: For a slightly larger luxury hotel in the heart of Charleston, consider staying at The Dewberry. With a stylish, fresh take on midcentury modernism, it offers a unique design that veers away from the predominant colonial-style buildings in the city. There's also an equally chic oasis of a spa in the carriage house if you want to unwind after a day of walking.
Zero George: This cluster of restored homes built together in an old-fashioned picturesque courtyard is a quintessentially Charleston boutique hotel. The lobby is located in the 1804 carriage house, as well as the modern kitchen, where you can sign up for cooking classes and wine-centric happy hours.
What are your favorite things to do in Charleston? Share your travel tips in the comment section below.