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For a long time, Charleston’s had a reputation as a specimen of the antebellum South trapped in amber, but in recent years it has transformed into one of the top travel destinations in the world, drawing in visitors with its horse-drawn carriages, cobblestone streets, award-winning restaurants, beautiful sandy beaches and charming historic district. But despite the millions of visitors each year, only a select few experience the city like a true local. Here are 10 insider tips to help you make the best of your next trip to Chucktown.
1. Know the Best Ways to Get Around Town
Uber is without a doubt the best way to get around Charleston. The local taxis take longer and cost more, and there are loads of Uber drivers around so you’ll be able to find a ride anywhere within minutes. If you’re only navigating downtown, though, take advantage of the Charleston Regional Transportation Authority, or CARTA, a free trolley that services the historic peninsula area. Look for the official green CARTA signs along the street. There are three routes, all of which converge at the Visitor Center, Marion Park and Charleston Museum — here’s a printable trolley map. If you’re looking to get around on the water, check out HOBA, a new app created by a local that’s essentially Uber on the water.
2. Discover the Bridge to Nowhere
If you want to watch the sunset over the water in one of the most secluded areas of Charleston, look no further than the Bridge to Nowhere, an unfinished platform that stretches across the marsh from the Wagener Terrace neighborhood in the upper peninsula, starting downtown at Herlot Street and trickling into the open marshland of the Ashley River. What was once supposed to be a developed residential and commercial area is now an abandoned plot of waterfront property. If you’re downtown and want to escape the crowds for a quiet sunset on the water, then follow the Bridge to Nowhere until you reach, well, somewhere. Plus, the odds of seeing dolphins are in your favor.
3. Hang With Locals at Happy Hour
Quite possibly one of the best things about Charleston is its lively happy hour scene. It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is — there always seem to be food and drink specials that draw in crowds to pack the house. Tourists often make the mistake of going out after 8:00pm, when really they should be joining the locals between 4:00pm and 7:00pm for food and drink specials, live music and the chance to see real Charlestonians blowing off steam after a long day. A few of my favorites include half-off sushi at Locals Bar in Mt. Pleasant on Mondays after 3:00pm, or $5 Moscow Mules at The Rarebit in downtown Charleston any weekday between 4:00pm and 7:00pm. Water’s Edge on Shem Creek offers cheap beers with a waterfront view, but my favorite happy hour in town is at Barsa Lounge and Bar on upper King Street, where every day (besides Sunday from 4:00pm to 7:00pm) you’ll find incredible paella specials along with some the cheapest drink deals in town — go on Thursday after 7:00pm for live jazz.
4. Avoid the Usual Tourist Traps
Every city has tourist traps, and Charleston is no exception. Don’t be fooled by cheap marketing tricks when you’re strolling past rows of restaurants with lines bustling around the corner — stay away from places like Hyman’s Seafood and Jestine’s Kitchen, which always have a line of suckers waiting outside the door. Put down the free tourist map and ask around. Everyone in Charleston is friendly and full of advice. For the juiciest burger in town, head to the Tattooed Moose and order a side of duck-fat fries. Pop into Revelry Brewing Co. and swig a fresh beer on its new rooftop. For a fancy night out, order a steak at Halls Chophouse followed by a locally brewed peanut-butter-and-jelly beer downtown at Edmund’s Oast. Find top-notch seafood at Coast Bar and Grill, then head to King Street and follow the sounds of live music playing. If you want to eat or drink on the water, Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, pictured below, is the place to be.
5. Don’t Miss First Friday on Broad
On the first Friday of every month from 5:00pm to 8:00pm, you’ll find locals gathering for a highly anticipated event that combines art with free wine. Located on Broad Street in the Charleston Historic District, everyone is welcome to browse from one art gallery, boutique or bodega to the next while enjoying complimentary refreshments like wine and cocktails. The event is known to locals as the Art Walk Downtown. Best of all, admission is free so it’s easy to spot the crowds of people strolling along Broad Street and join in on the fun.
6. Cast Away at Botany Bay Plantation
Known to Charleston locals as Botany Bay, the majestic beach officially known as the Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve and Wildlife Management Area is a must-see for those seeking a magnificently preserved stretch of shoreline. Countless seashells are sprinkled between hundreds of gorgeous deadwood trees emerging out of the sand and water — you’ll feel like Tom Hanks in Cast Away on this untouched and carefully protected seashore. Folly Beach and Sullivan’s Island are great if you’re in the market for a typical sandy experience, but if you want to see a beach that hasn’t been trampled and abused yet, put Botany Bay at the top of your list.
7. Check Out All the Free Attractions
Charleston can be an expensive city if you don’t know where to look. To help stick to your budget, try checking out some of the city’s best freebies, like taking a complimentary tour at the Charleston Tea Plantation or admiring the stunning floral display at Hampton Park. The Angel Oak is one of Charleston’s top attractions and it’s totally free. I recommend spending a full day walking around downtown to visit the historical sites; you’d be surprised how many of them offer free entry. You can also book a free walking tour with Free Tours by Foot and choose between four different focuses: the Civil War, haunted Charleston, history or architecture. If it’s sweltering hot outside, cool off in the splash fountain at Waterfront Park.
8. Take A Silent Stroll Toward Morris Island Lighthouse
Although you can’t actually get to the lighthouse itself without a boat, it’s still a perfect spot to go for a long, peaceful walk along the water. Go to the north end of the island until you reach the cul-de-sac, then park your car and walk 10 minutes until you reach the private beach facing the lighthouse — you’ll be completely saturated in nature, surrounded by only sand and water. Bring a hammock and let yourself slip into an afternoon of complete relaxation. Stick around for sunset and admire the vibrant colors reflecting off the water that surrounds you.
9. Stop by the Saturday Farmers Market
Every Saturday from April 8 to November 25, the Charleston Farmers Market is held downtown at Marion Square from 8:00am to 2:00pm. It’s the perfect opportunity to sample the best of Charleston all in one place and you’ll find local farmers, artisans, performers and food trucks lined up along the park to showcase their finest. Satisfy your caffeine itch with a freshly brewed coffee, indulge in a savory crepe or hand-pick your own produce. Keep an eye out for the popular group of breakdancers next to the fountain on the corner of King and Calhoun streets — they’re easy to spot because there’s always a massive crowd around watching them and you may even be picked to participate in one of their performances.
10. Visit the Dolphin Hot Spot
Only the locals know precisely where to go to find dolphins at every sunrise and sunset. My favorite viewing spot is the Station 12 beach access on Sullivan’s Island — there are clearly marked signs for each station, and number 12 is located right next to Fort Moultrie. Walk a few minutes down the narrow path until you hit the beach, and you’ll have a mile’s stretch in the direction of the Cooper River. Once you reach the end of the walkable part of the beach, you’ll be rewarded with a magnificent view of Charleston’s famous Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and a front-row seat to the dozens of dolphins breaking over the waves as close as 100 feet from the shoreline.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Charleston, South Carolina? Tell us about them, below.
Featured image courtesy of Daniela Duncan via Getty Images.
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