One of the wealthiest and largest cities of pre-Colonial America, Charleston today mixes expected, if stereotypical, Southern charms like plantation museums, cobblestone lanes, ancient military sites and traditional Lowcountry cuisine with a number of facets that surprise first-time visitors: hip coffeehouses, edgy galleries, informal restaurants and nightspots, and an increasingly more youthful and progressive population (Obama easily outpaced McCain in Charleston County in 2008). It's hardly surprising that this fast-growing, sophisticated city known for its arts festivals and historic architecture has become a favorite weekend destination among GLBT travelers.
Museum junkies won't lack for things to see and do here, although there's no reason to focus your explorations indoors, especially from fall through spring, when the moderate climate is perfect for strolling along the riverfront or trekking to one of the beach communities nearby.
A good place to begin exploring is with a stop at the Historic Charleston Foundation. A number of key events are held here, including the famed Spoleto Festival, which in late spring offers two weeks' worth of first-rate opera, dance, theater, music, poetry readings and visual arts exhibitions. The foundation also operates two superb museums, the 1817 Aiken-Rhett House and the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House. From the latter you can walk a few blocks south to Waterfront Park, a grassy tree-filled plot of land with gardens and an adjacent promenade overlooking the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers.
Walk north through the historic downtown along Meeting Street, Charleston's "Museum Mile," and you'll find one intriguing attraction after another. The Gibbes Museum of Art, with its 7,000-piece permanent collection and the Charleston Museum, which opened in 1773, are highlights. Meeting, King and Bay streets have their share of both high-quality and predictable gift and antiques shops, as well as several galleries.
Charleston figured pivotally in the American Revolution and even more directly in the start of the Civil War. Today Fort Sumter Tours offers boat excursions out to Fort Sumter National Monument, the 19th-century fort on which the first shot of the war was fired on April 12, 1861.
No visit to Charleston is complete without a side trip to one of the imposing plantations. Consider the 1740s Drayton Hall, the only extant antebellum mansion along the Ashley River (it's unfurnished, however); and Middleton Place, a 1741 spread whose colorful gardens are the oldest in the country.
In the other direction, head east and then south to the breezy Sullivan's Island, an excellent place to stroll along pristine gold-sand beaches. You can tour Fort Moultrie, another significant Civil and Revolutionary war site that's now run by the national park service. And then stop for a filling lunch at rustic Poe's Tavern, which turns out enormous and delicious burgers with names inspired by 19th-century horror writer Edgar Allan Poe - he was stationed at Fort Moultrie for a couple of years.
In downtown Charleston, you'll find countless opportunities to partake of the region's famed Lowcountry cuisine, which mixes soul, Creole, and Southern recipes. Head to Slightly North of Broad (aka "S.N.O.B.") for a creative take on classic Southern fare, including a flawless rendition of shrimp-and-grits. Just down the street, Blossom serves similarly creative Lowcountry cooking with a modern spin - try the pan-seared flounder with butterbean ragout and bacon jus.
Quite a few more modern establishments have been gaining favor with foodies of late. A good choice for sipping flights of different styles of wine while nibbling on tasty tapas is Social Wine Bar, which makes fantastic wood-fired pizzas - the one with prosciutto, fontina, sliced pear and mozzarella is a stand-out. Stellar farm-to-table mod cuisine is served at the trendy storefront eatery Fig, from Wagyu beef tartare to slow-baked black bass with baby clams.
An emerging restaurant row close to the city's two main gay bars, upper King Street, has several excellent dinner spots, including the swanky pan-Asian restaurant Chai's Lounge & Tapas and the cozy, romantic French bistro La Fourchette - an enjoyable place to feast steamed mussels in garlic and white wine with frites double-fried in duck fat.
With as strong a GLBT following as anywhere in town, Vickery's serves such tasty and affordable Caribbean-meets-Cuban victuals as fried-green-tomato turnovers, black bean soup, and grilled jerk chicken salads. Stop by the cozy coffeehouse Baked, the only place in the Southeast serving Portland, Oregon's famed Stumptown Coffee, plus tasty cakes and deliriously good sweet-and-salty brownies (filled with caramel and topped with sea salt).
Although Charleston isn't a major gay nightlife hub, you will find a couple of great hangouts near upper King Street. Convivial Dudley's Pub is a prime spot to chat with locals, shoot pool, sing karaoke, or watch videos, while just down the block and open only on weekends, Pantheon is the city's hottest gay dance club, with go-go boys, top DJs, and drag shows. You'll also find a couple of less touristy neighborhood bars in the region: Patrick's Pub & Grill, a 15-minute west of downtown, Déjà vu II, which is the same distance to the north.
Upscale and popular year-round, Charleston has fairly high hotel rates, but you will find some of the snazziest and most romantic accommodations in the country. If you'd rather not blow your whole budget on your room, consider a couple of the excellent - and gay-friendly - mid-priced chain properties in town, including the Hampton Inn Charleston Historic District (which is close to Dudley's and Pantheon gay bars) and the attractive Courtyard by Marriott Charleston Waterfront, which overlooks the riverfront and is a 10-minute walk west of the Historic District.
Among high-end lodgings, the sumptuous and centrally located Market Pavilion Hotel contains 70 beautifully appointed rooms filled with museum-quality furnishings and artwork. There's also a rooftop bar and pool affording panoramic views, and one of the best restaurants downtown, Grill 225, serving decadent steaks and Lowcountry seafood.
Around the corner, the five-story Harbourview Inn is another stunner - inside you'll find soaring ceilings, exposed-brick walls, and four-poster beds. The complimentary perks are many: Continental breakfast delivered to your room, afternoon wine and cheese, evening milk and cookies, local walking tours, and Wi-Fi. The Harbourview is part of a local hotel group that includes several other excellent properties, among them the 41-room Andrew Pinckney Inn, which occupies a beautifully restored 1840s building.
Another exceptional choice is the meticulously maintained Planters Inn, many of whose luxurious rooms have whirlpool tubs. This courtly property overlooks City Market and is close to many galleries and shops - it's also home to the stellar Peninsula Grill restaurant. One of the city's most historic options is the John Rutledge House Inn, which has rooms in the main 1763 mansion as well as in two adjacent carriage houses. The romantic, Italianate-style main building was built by a signer of the U.S. Constitution - its rooms, with 13-foot ceilings and elaborate plaster moldings, are supremely opulent, but those in the adjoining carriage houses offer a bit more privacy.
The city has a few gay-owned B&B, including 4 Unity Alley, is a gem hidden down a tiny alley off historic Bay Street. This 18th-century former colonial warehouse, in which George Washington is said to have housed his horse for a night, contains airy, light-filled rooms with fine antiques. Keep in mind that the four guest rooms here often book up quickly - it's wise to make your reservations well in advance. Guests can relax in a sunny garden, and off-street parking and a full breakfast are included in the rates.
The Little Black Book for Charleston, South Carolina:
Andrew Pinckney Inn
Chai's Lounge & Tapas
Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau
Courtyard by Marriott Charleston Waterfront
Déjà vu II
4 Unity Alley
Hampton Inn Charleston Historic District
John Rutledge House Inn
Market Pavilion Hotel and Grill 225
Slightly North of Broad
Social Wine Bar