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Notes on Charleston
The Belle of the South
Last weekend I traveled to Charleston, South Carolina for a wedding. I last visited when I was 16 years old during a family trip, so I was excited to see the city again. Visiting a place when you are 16 is an odd middle ground. I remember the city far better than the places I visited as a 10-year-old, but I obviously couldn't drink and didn't care much about seafood or food in general (although it was on that trip that I had my first raw oyster). Here are some thoughts after a second visit:
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Charleston is known as the Holy City, which I assumed was a reference to its many churches. In reality, the nickname originated in the 20th century and may actually be a derogatory reference to the city's inhabitants in the same way the Windy City is making fun of Chicagoans.
Charleston International Airport does not have any international flights, at least not as of this writing. It does, however, have a very nice Priority Pass lounge, which surprised me given the airport's small size.
There is a $35 tour to Fort Sumter that leaves several times a day. The tour consists of a 30-minute boat ride to the fort, one hour at the fort, and a 30-minute boat ride back. If you're into history and the weather is nice, this is totally worth it. The boat ride through the harbor is beautiful, and there is a guide pointing out sites along the way. The fort itself is not a lot to look at, but still has a lot of historical importance as it was at Fort Sumter that the Civil War started. If you don't care about history and the weather is poor I would say skip this tour.
Speaking of the Civil War, I was interested to hear the local nomenclature. Some Southerners will say "The War Between the States" or "The War of Northern Aggression" (my favorite) instead of "The Civil War". At least in the touristy areas, I only heard "The Civil War", although I did see "The Great Rebellion" on a placard. Has the "The War Between the States" died out? Or it is still used in more rural areas?
Along with the Fort Sumter tour, there are many, many other tours. I saw walking tours, bus tours, and carriage tours. There are historical tours during the day and ghost tours at night. I went on a walking tour during my previous visit and greatly enjoyed it. Listening to the tour guides walk by, there are a lot of interesting anecdotes on almost every block - from Civil War stories to the house where George Washington gave an impromptu speech.
There were a lot of European tourists around. I heard German every day I was there, which gave the city a more international flavor. It always makes me happy to see international tourists getting outside of New York and California. I think Charleston is a great spot for any foreigner who wants to see the "real America".
The food scene here is a mix of traditional seafood and lowcountry cuisine, which I was not familiar with. That means you have your standard oysters and swordfish sandwiches, but also shrimp and grits. One word to the wise: when dining in Charleston it is important to remember that you are in the South. Things don't move as fast as in the North. Expect to wait for your food, but that food will be delicious.
Charleston is truly world-class when it comes to residential architecture. In my opinion, there is no city better in the world for walking through quiet neighborhoods. The world-famous Battery gets all the attention because of the mansions and proximity to the water, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Any of the streets south of downtown are chockfull of drop-dead gorgeous houses (see photos below). And each house is different. Many have a long outdoor porch that runs along the side of the building, complete with a front door that doesn't actually go inside. Others are made of brick, others of stone. These days any house south of Broad Street is going to set you back over $1 million, so they are all well-appointed. If I had a single day in Charleston I would spend all of it just walking the streets and taking in some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the world.
All together, Charleston delivers. There's history, great restaurants, and world-class architecture. It remains one of my Top 10 American cities, and I can't wait to go back.