Historic Charleston, South Carolina is one of my favorite places in the United States. For someone who lives in a city that is barely 200 years old (and doesn’t look a day past 50), I am amazed by Charleston’s historic preservation and charm every time I return. After all, there are about 350 years of Charleston history to pull from. The city has the benefit of having not been destroyed by any world wars or catastrophic natural disasters, though not without trying. Through the colonial period, American Revolution, Antebellum era, Civil War, Reconstruction, and the modern age, Charleston has collected and maintained an assortment of preserved buildings not easily matched in North America.
With family in the Charleston area, I tend to only make it down there in the sweltering summer or during the slightly-too-chilly holidays. April, as it turns out, is the best time to go. We took an afternoon to wander, with no agenda or pressing engagements. Really, this is the best way to do it, like you would in Venice or Hanoi. Let your feet take you where they will. The weather for our afternoon stroll was in the 70’s with a warm sun and a consistent, refreshing breeze. It makes a big difference, believe me. August in South Carolina doesn’t mess around.
The immediate area around the Charleston City Market is quite busy but we managed to find a free parking spot on the street a couple blocks away. The market is a good starting point to your walk, or ending point if you don’t want to haul your inevitable purchases for the rest of the day. At any rate, it’s the center of gravity in old Charleston and a must-stop for shoppers looking for clothes, paintings, jewelry, or any number of other things that you don’t really need but are compelled to buy just the same. Much of what is on sale is locally made. Although the history of Charleston’s central market dates back to the 1690’s, the current market was constructed starting in the 1790’s after the family of Revolutionary War general Charles Cotesworth Pinckney donated a strip of reclaimed marsh. They weren’t doing anything else with it, I guess.
Our first dessert stop of the day was a block away from the market at Carmella’s at the corner of Cumberland and Bay. The hardest choice I had to make all day was also at Carmella’s. Cylindrical cakes? Plate-sized cookies? Cannoli? Gelato? It all looked fabulous. We went with the gelato. Limoncello, to be precise. While the desserts at Carmella’s run on the expensive side, they don’t skimp on the portion sizes of anything. $6 of gelato was certainly enough for my wife and I to share. I also opted for an iced coffee. The open-faced front of the cafe let in the prevailing afternoon breeze as we enjoyed our dessert. It was a divine 30 minutes.
Charleston, for those without a frame of reference, is a coastal city smack dab in the middle of where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, it is a city surrounded by water. Southeast of the market and Carmella’s is Waterfront Park, an excellent place to soak in the sun, the sea, and the seagulls. So many seagulls. And pelicans, which are fun to watch dive for fish. I usually see the dorsal fins of dolphins not too far out in the water, but I was not so lucky this time around.
The park has a famous ‘pineapple fountain’ that kids, or not kids, can dip their toes in or crawl under. Highly recommended on a hot day, though it will likely be crowded.
The central shopping and dining districts of Charleston are surrounded by historic houses from the colonial period on through the Antebellum South, the owners of which must stick to a strict code of preservation after they pay millions to live there. If I had several million dollars laying around, I would highly consider it. Many of the houses have layer upon layer of history surrounding their premises. On one street you can pass the house of a Declaration of Independence signer as well as the house of a Confederate general responsible for the capture of Fort Sumter, which for those who remember middle school history is where the American Civil War began. Walking through the old neighborhoods is a reminder of the often controversial role Charleston has played throughout American history. Plantations dotted the surrounding countryside. Thousands of slaves were sold. There’s still a Calhoun Street, named after famous statesman John C. Calhoun who notably called slavery ‘a positive good.’ Not a good look. But the city moves on, and it’s important to remember that these historic occurrences didn’t happen in a void, that the Charleston from 100 years ago felt the ramifications of Charleston 100 years prior, just as the Charleston of today does. The homes, businesses, and estates of these historic figures, heroes and villains both, are still here for us to not only enjoy aesthetically but learn from.
A stunning and less controversial landmark within these quiet residential streets is Rainbow Row, the longest stretch of Georgian row houses in the United States. It’s easily one of the most photographed spots in Charleston and worth a few minutes to find the perfect angle. Here’s my attempt:
By this point, we’d been walking for several hours and were ready to head back toward the car. After passing Hyman’s seafood restaurant for a second time (and grabbing a sample hush puppy also for the second time) we landed in Peace Pie, a hole-in-the-wall shop selling ice cream cookie sandwiches. We split an Elvis ice cream sandwich with chocolate ice cream, banana, and peanut butter. A-plus, Elvis.
That was enough dessert for the day for us, but originally we had planned on stopping in Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, which if you remember from the Columbus Food Adventures post, is my city of Columbus’ best export. It was kind of a long walk, and Peace Pie was closer, so gourmet ice cream sandwiches won out. Next time, Jeni.
Have a favorite dessert place or historical landmark in Charleston that I missed? I’m sure you do. There is so much to mention. Tell me where I should go next time!