Whenever I would say I wanted to visit Charleston people would ask me why?! It was not New York City, or LA or even Miami what was the attraction? Well… it all started with a little television show called Southern Charm (do not judge me!). I watch just about everything on Bravo so this show was no different. From the show, I learned how beautiful Charleston is. I did a little more research and learned more about all of the African American history in Charleston and decided that I MUST GO! I shared with you what I ate, but now let’s get in to What to See in Charleston.
At the suggestion of a friend, I took the Gullah History Tour. In short, the tour highlights many of the major Charleston sights while providing another layer related to black Charleston residents. The tour included stops in the Eastside of Charleston, a historically black neighborhood with beautiful art installations/exhibits. (The artists has signs asking that the images not be posted without their permission so I will not be posting them here). The most powerful image is a picture of a children standing at attention to an American flag retooled with the Black Liberation colors. Our guide talked about the strength of the community over the decades and the efforts they have undertaken to change the negative narratives about this historic neighborhood.
The tour took us through some of the mansions near the water including the home of the owner of Piggy Wiggly. His home is outfitted with pigs making it easy to spot. We quickly passed the Cigar Factory where a workers’ strike resulted in the creation of “We Shall Overcome” a key song in the Civil Rights movement. We also stopped at the home of Phillip Simmons, a brilliant blacksmith whose work can be found all around Charleston. His family operates a small museum in his home and maintains his blacksmith shop to continue his legacy.
Finally, the tour stopped outside of Mother Emmanuel Church in the heart of Charleston. Our guide did not even acknowledge the carnage that this church saw at the hands of a self-described white supremacist. Instead, he focused on the history of Mother Emmanuel Church as one of the oldest black churches in the country and a staple in the Charleston community. We all stepped out of the bus to pay our respects each silently acknowledging the story that we all knew. May they rest in power.
Charleston City Market
The famous Charleston City Market is a must stop during a Charleston visit. The market features local vendors selling a variety of goods many of which are unique to Charleston. We went specifically to purchase a handmade sweetgrass basket. The history of these baskets goes back to slavery and is a tradition passed down by blacks in Charleston for generations. Note that all are not created equal so keep an eye out for the better quality baskets which do cost more. I misplaced the card of the vendor I used, but once I find it I will update this post.
Aiken- Rhett House
During our Gullah Tour, the guide pointed out the Aiken-Rhett House, a mansion in Charleston that went back to before the civil wa. We decided to visit this one expecting a little different experience as this is an urban mansion compared to a Drayton Hall (more on that one below). In short, I found that Aiken-Rhett House had the grandeur that we always hear about with these wealthy slave owners.
Similar to Drayton Hall, Aiken-Rhett House also focuses heavily on the slaves who lived and worked here. At one point, the recorded tour noted that Aiken-Rhett was home to more slaves than owners. When you consider that, how can you ignore their presence? Here, they actually start you out in the slave quarters which are mostly intact. Our tour noted that blacks lived in these quarters through the 60s, then serving as domestic help. The rest of the house is pretty, but I say go for in-depth discussion of slavery in the urban south.
Listen, a quintessential “instagram” photo is a must! Rainbow Row is that place in Charleston. A beautiful row of pastel colored homes that makes for beautiful photos. During our visit, we actually saw an engagement! It is definitely picturesque place.
Waterfront Park/Pineapple Fountain
After leaving the Rainbow Row, we made our way to the Waterfront Park. Here you have views of Fort Sumter in the distance, beautiful water at the coast and the Pineapple Fountain. It is a beautiful park that everyone should visit.
So at some point I will write a post about how to pick the historical sites to visit especially when the sites focus on dark times in our nation’s history. I find plantations fascinating and not in the “I want to live like Scarlett O’Hara” way. I am fascinated by the plight of enslaved Africans. My ancestors. The people who built this country. With that in mind, I prefer historical sites that do not treat slaves as an afterthought, but rather an inescapable harsh reality of plantation life.
A friend of mine recommended Drayton Hall, because according to her they told the truth. So we visited based on that and she was completely accurate. From jump, our tour guide continued to make note of the slave experience in each room. Highlighting a hidden stairway used by slaves and even a thumbprint of a enslaved child on a brick. He ended his tour with an invite to a presentation on the economics of slavery. In short, Drayton Hall is not hiding their connection to slavery, they are embracing it head on as they should.
I am also going to say something that pains me to say… the place is beautiful. The land. The house. The trees. It is undeniably beautiful. But whenever I found myself caught up for a moment in the beauty I was quickly taken back to the atrocities that people who look like me experienced on this land. Then it was eerie and haunting even during the daylight. As we headed out, we made a brief stop at the African American cemetery which has an iron fence that says “Leave ‘Em Rest” and I just thought it was the most appropriate phrase. Leave ‘Em Rest.
When I arrived to my hotel, my uber driver said “okay you are now downtown.” I could not hide my confusion because for me downtown is identified by skyscrapers and large buildings! That is not the case in Charleston. In fact several locals told us that builders cannot make buildings larger than the city’s historic churches. Remember it is called the Holy City!
So we stayed downtown on King Street and walked the streets pretty much every day. Majority of the restaurants we ate at were on King Street. The street also has tons of shops (local and nationwide chains). It is also where the bar scene exists. To me, most of the crowds frequenting the bars looked college age which made sense since College of Charleston isn’t too far away.
Where to Stay
Picking a hotel in a city you are completely unfamiliar with is difficult! I knew enough to know that King Street seemed to be the center of downtown and the historic district. I plugged that in to hotels.com and came up with several options. We settled on the Hyatt Place because it was walking distance to many attractions, reasonably priced and had good reviews.
While I did enjoy the hotel, I would recommend other areas (near the Waterfront or the Rainbow Row) and I would suggest a local boutique hotel.
I really enjoyed touring the Holy City. We saw so many great things and there is still so much more to see during my next visit like the Charleston Museum and more of the historic homes.