Charming Charleston

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St. Philip's Church

St. Philip’s Church

Charleston, South Carolina is undoubtedly one of America’s most beautiful cities. Inhabiting an irregularly shaped peninsula at the mouths of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, Charlestown – or Charles Towne as it was originally known – was founded in 1670 and named in honor of King Charles II of England. Its colonial heritage is still visible today, especially when one wanders along cobblestone streets of the French Quarter lined with charming houses and ancient trees. Once this was a thriving neighborhood of Huguenot refugees and French merchants, and the core of the Charles Towne settlement.

Interestingly, that settlement was the only English walled city in North America. In the late 17th and early 18th century, the Spanish, the French as well as Native Americans posed a threat to the fledgling colony. The fort-like wall was built in 1690 and ran along what are now Meeting, Cumberland, East Bay, and Water streets. The north, west, and south walls were dismantled by 1730s but the harbor-side fortifications remained mostly intact until after the American Revolution. Not much remains today: eight bastion markers and a portion of the wall discovered during renovations of the Provost Dungeon in a cellar of the Old Exchange, the British customs office built 1767-1771 where Half Moon battery of the city’s fortifications used to stand.

Charles Towne

Charles Towne, the Walled City – 1733 map (Source: Library of Congress)

East Bay Street was once Charleston’s shoreline. It makes for a delightful walk with a chance to enjoy rows of colorful houses, including the famous Rainbow Row on the one side and green Waterfront Park on the other. Land reclamation has since extended the banks of the Cooper river as visible in this photo where a brick line in the pavement illustrates where the wall once stood. Now you can see the water only in a distance:

Charleston SC

Where the wall once stood…

Rainbow Row

Famed Rainbow Row of cute colorful houses between Tradd and Elliot Streets on East Bay Street

Battery

View of the Cooper river from the Battery, Charleston’s old defensive seawall and today a charming promenade

There is so much to see and do – and eat – in Charleston that I don’t quite know where to start. So let’s apply the Julie Andrews approach: these are a few of my favorite things!

St. Michaels Episcopal Church

St. Michaels Episcopal Church

Churches

It’s not for nothing that Charleston is known as the Holy City. Magnificent steeples line its skyline and each of the churches has a special story to tell. Most are surrounded by tiny, peaceful cemeteries hidden behind wrought iron gates. Leaning headstones, worn inscriptions – some in French – and adorable squirrels playing hide-and seek… My favorite cemetery is the one next to St. Michaels Episcopal Church (71 Broad St), the oldest church in Charleston built between 1752 and 1761. With its white 186-foot high steeple rising above historic downtown it is a true landmark of the city.

My other favorite is St. Philip’s Episcopal Church (142 Church St), the first Anglican church established south of Virginia. The current structure is the third building of the congregation – the first church, built in 1681, was at the present site of St. Michael’s Church. The imposing building we know today was built in the 1830s. Many prominent people are buried in the nearby cemetery, including colonial governors and Episcopal bishops, as well as John C. Calhoun, former Vice President of the United States, and Dubose Heyward, author and playwright whose work Porgy and Bess – set in Charleston – was made world-famous by George Gershwin who composed an opera based on it.

These are several other stunning churches I stumbled upon by just wandering without a particular destination:

French Huguenot Church (44 Queen St) built in 1845

French Huguenot Church (44 Queen St) built in 1845

St. Mary's Catholic Church (89 Hasell St), the first Roman Catholic Church in the Carolinas

St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church (89 Hasell St)

Circular Congregational Church

Circular Congregational Church (150 Meeting St) – its graveyard is the city’s oldest burial grounds with monuments dating from 1695

St John's Reformed Episcopal Church

St John’s Reformed Episcopal Church (91 Anson St) with a famous iron gate by Charleston’s late master blacksmith Philip Simmons

And then there is the gorgeous Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue (meaning Holy Congregation House of God, located at 90 Hasell St), America’s second oldest synagogue and the oldest in continuous use. I had no idea that the American Reform Judaism movement originated here back in 1824. Sephardic Jews migrated to Charleston in large numbers given that it was a major sea port and by the beginning of the 19th century the city was home to the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in North America, only later overshadowed by northern cities.

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue

Houses

I mentioned Porgy and Bess earlier so I would be remiss not to visit its setting, Cabbage Row, which was renamed Catfish Row by Dubose Heyward in his 1925 novel. This fictional name was further popularized by Gershwin’s opera. Cabbage Row, located on 89-91 Church Street, consists of twin three-story houses that date back to the Revolutionary War era. They used to house up to ten families, mostly African American, who sold cabbage on the spot. Today the ground floors are still commercial although the nature of sold goods has changed to gifts and stationary.

Cabbage Row

Cabbage Row houses

I hope I didn’t attract too much attention by humming Summertime to myself in front of the Cabbage/Catfish Row houses. In my head I sounded just like Audra McDonald, brilliant in her Broadway role of Bess =)

I was also fascinated by a common feature of many Charleston houses: their unusual orientation with the narrow side facing the street and the front door leading to an open porch running along the wide side of the house. Here is what that looks like…

CharlestonCharlestonCharleston I would have guessed that just like with New Orleans shotgun houses the reason for this architectural style had something to do with taxation being dependent on how much street-facing space the house claimed. But I was wrong. Apparently, colonial houses situated sideways to the street had to do more with South Carolina’s summer heat before the advent of air conditioning and the area’s prevailing southwest winds. As this fellow blogger points out, a breeze from the ocean not only kept houses cool but also kept flying insects away.

And then there are the houses of the super rich of yore… I visited one such stunning place, Nathaniel Russell House Museum at 51 Meeting Street. Russell, originally from Rhode Island, settled in Charleston in 1765 and made his fortune as a shipping merchant drawn to the city by the fact that in the late 18th century Charleston had per capita wealth nearly four times that of all the American colonies. He traded in Carolina Gold rice, indigo, tobacco, cotton – and yes, slaves. The house was built in 1809 and remained in the Russell family until 1857. Its hallmark feature is the beautifully preserved elliptical spiral staircase ascending three floors. I also much enjoyed the quiet charm of the surrounding garden.

Nathaniel Russell House

Imposing front of Nathaniel Russell House

Nathaniel Russell House

Russell House garden

Old Slave Mart

Visiting the nearby Old Slave Mart is a good reminder of where a lot of Charleston’s early wealth came from

Food

It is impossible to talk about Charleston without talking about its culinary riches. For enthusiasts of southern fare and foodies of all other stripes this is, simply put, heaven. A great place to start is Charleston’s famed City Market where you can enjoy treats like dried okra chips and sesame seed benne wafers.

City Market

City Market’s Meeting Street entrance. Covered stalls of local vendors stretch for four blocks.

Caviar & Bananas

Gourmet specialty foods at the City Market’s Caviar & Bananas

Restaurants… I simply don’t know where to start! These are hard choices but I’ll have to settle for just a highlight or two for each meal – otherwise it would have to be a separate blog just about food.

Breakfast and brunch: Virginia’s on King, located at 412 King Street (which happened to be super conveniently near the historic Francis Marion hotel where I stayed), with a great selection of upscale Southern cuisine.

Lunch: Husk at 76 Queen St – Award-winning Chef Sean Brock lives by a strict rule regarding his food “if it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door.” The menu changes daily and all ingredients come south of the Mason-Dixon line like this delicious Carolina catfish.

Husk

Lunch at Husk

Dinner: Options are truly limitless but let me just mention two exceptional places. Hank’s Seafood Restaurant at 10 Hayne Street is a great destination for oysters on a half shell or seared swordfish. Coast, located at 39 John Street in a former indigo warehouse, brings perfection to every dish, from fried greed tomatoes and she-crab soup to mouth-watering ceviche and the best shrimp and grits ever. And the ambiance is awesome!

Coast

Dinner at the Coast

Coffee break (and more): Hands-down winner for me was Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer at 4 Vanderhorst Street – cosy space, delicious drinks.

Nightcap: Closed for Business (453 King St), a perfect place to kick back and relax after a long day of sightseeing. Great selection of beer on tap, including the local classic, Holy City beer.

Read on:

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2 responses »

  1. Beautiful photos, love the row of colorful houses 🙂 I love looking at old churches. In my hometown (York, England) there is a saying that there are 365 pubs, one for every day of the year, and 52 churches, one for every Sunday!

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