As someone who spent formative years in Europe, and was raised by a Southern belle mother, I fancy myself as a girl who appreciates charm. But it wasn’t until recently that I discovered a place that encompasses the best of two disparate but equally engaging cultures: the aged hush of cobblestoned European hamlets, and the welcoming hospitality of the American South. The destination is Charleston, South Carolina, one of the United States’ first cities, which exists today as a living museum of early American urban planning, architecture and furniture, as well as social customs and impeccable manners.
A recent weekend visit proved two things: Spring in the South, when azaleas are in bloom and days are long but not yet hot, is a glorious occasion. And Charleston makes for an ideal quick break from the northeast due to its easy access. (It could easily captivate visitors for a full week, or at least multiple returns.) The town makes for an ideal romantic getaway, offering charming walks amidst historic houses on cobblestoned paths; incredible meals; visits to gorgeous beaches and plantations; and stays in cozy hotels. Parents can use a visit to Charleston as an opportunity to teach their children about American history, from its founding and the Revolutionary War, through the success of 18th- and 19th-century shipping and plantation industries, to the outbreak of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
Like a town frozen in time, Charleston boasts (architecturally, at least) numerous wonderful examples of how the wealthy lived and socialized in the past. This mecca of early American architecture must be the world’s only place where residents would move into the city during the year’s hottest months (in order to escape malaria scares in the swampy Carolina bogs), thus creating an architecture specifically designed to battle heat, long before cooling systems were invented. Long, narrow houses, with multiple windows and verandas—including second-floor balconies—were instituted to make the most of ocean breezes, and chunks of ice were transported from way up north to keep drinks cool.
A pride of history and culture is evident in Charlestonians. The local residents have a desire to preserve their city’s traditions, adding fun and interesting updates along the way. Fashion boutiques dot the shopping streets, displaying new takes on Charleston’s oldest exports: cotton and indigo. The restaurants of the town embrace low country cooking, but with updates and modern twists. Horse-drawn carriages rival pedicabs for transportation—the ultimate in “green” transportation.
And yet the town plays by its own rules. One of today’s popular bars is called the Blind Tiger, a name leftover from the days of prohibition when patrons were forbidden to purchase alcoholic beverages. In order to get around this intemperance law, tavern owners started selling tickets to the public for access to see a “blind tiger,” which purportedly was stationed inside the pub. While patrons waited for the animal, which, of course, would never arrive, they would be served beverages. In an era when unwed couples were hardly allowed to be left unsupervised, the Charleston joggling board was invented, a bench, which, because of its sloping incline in the middle, causes two people sitting on it to inch closer and closer together (an example can be seen on the porch of Husk restaurant).
I typically steer clear of ‘humorous’ souvenirs, but on my last day in town I came across a dishtowel that seemed to sum it all up: It read, “Bon Apetite, Y’all!” I couldn’t resist bringing one home. It adds a little Southern charm to my Yankee kitchen.