As I sat sipping my first Southern sweet tea at lunch in Charleston with my couchsurfing host, after we had been given a free frozen custard sample, I thought I could get used to this. The Southern hospitality, the warm weather in fall and the sweetness. I had only a day to see the South Carolina city that was last month named the second best city in the world by Conde Nast Traveler readers (behind Florence, but it’s hard to compete with Italy).
It seems to be constantly nominated for awards like this and I wanted to know why. What I did find was a charming city with well-maintained and colourful historic buildings, long stretches of beach and palm trees outside Louis Vuitton. This is how I spent one day in Charleston.
Free Tours by Foot
I was so excited when I discovered Free Tours by Foot operated in Charleston, as by this stage of my trip I was obsessed with the initiative. I walked the Historic Charleston tour and my guide, Scott was fun, knowledgeable and spoke with such enthusiasm about his city, which I appreciated. It must become increasingly difficult when you are coordinating tours so often. It was quickly realised that I was the only non-American on the tour. I thought it was good to see so many residents exploring their own country.
We walked around Charleston’s historic district, which is the most well preserved in the United States. The architecture has Dutch, Spanish, English and French influences. As Australia is an English settlement, I noticed the similarities in some larger buildings, but I favoured the Spanish and French-inspired houses. The wooden window shutters, the colourful facades and the wrought iron balconies with flower beds attached were a treat for the eyes.
We passed Rainbow Row and walked along Museum Mile, where we had a chance to try a wobble board at Nathaniel Russell House, which was an exercise regime for ladies in the past. Once again, I simply tipped Scott at the end what I thought the tour was worth.
My couchsurfing host recommended Persimmon Café for lunch, which is surprisingly located inside a laundromat. Nevertheless it was very busy when we visited so we were fortunate to get a seat looking out the front bay window. The staff were friendly, attentive and genuinely kind. When they unfortunately gave us the wrong sandwich, they were so apologetic that they offered us a free cookie and frozen custard sample – that’s Southern hospitality for you.
They were shocked to realise I had never tried sweet tea before, a Southern speciality. It reminded me of the many movies and TV shows set in the South where there always seem be an iced tea pitcher on hand. I tried an iced sweet tea, which was simply extra sweetened black tea and quite refreshing, as long as you like sugar. Frozen custard was the other delicacy I was fortunate to try, which tasted like ice-cream on sugar steroids. I could only manage a few spoonfuls and I’m a sugar addict.
This is the city’s main downtown thoroughfare, with chain stores, designer boutiques and independent retailers. I still fail to forget the oddly juxtaposed tropical palm tree outside luxe Louis Vuitton.
I wandered down Market Street to the Historic Charleston City Market. I love browsing markets in new cities, and found Charleston’s version to house the usual suspects: wooden Christmas ornaments, handmade jewellery, souvenir clothing and homemade spreads. The marketplace is undercover and stretches for a few blocks, so it is easy to spend time perusing the selection.
I was in a happy mood this day, probably from all that Southern joy I was absorbing. I had a brief look inside Kaminsky’s, a bakery and café opposite the market. As soon as I saw the description for the Tollhouse Pie in the cabinet, I knew I needed to taste it myself, à la mode of course.
A gooey goodness of chocolate chips and pecans baked in a flaky pie shell and topped with chocolate sauce and pecans served with vanilla bean ice cream.
It was the only pie I ate in the South, but once it met my lips I knew it was the only pie I needed. Delectable. I’m sorry there is no photo of the epic dessert as it was happily devoured as soon as the waitress placed it on the table.
Before I caught my bus to Savannah, my host and her housemate took me on a brief sunburnt excursion to Folly Beach. We began with brunch crepes at Tokyo Crepes. I struggled for about ten minutes, trying to decide between sweet or savoury. Although the chocolate and almond option looked delicious, I thought I should have something more “substantial” so went for the breakfast crepe of ham, scrambled egg and cheddar cheese, which was fresh, light and tasty.
I visited on a fall Saturday and there were hundreds of people enjoying the beach. The sand was different to what I expected – tinged grey and dark. There were yellow and blue umbrellas lined up on each stretch of beach either side of the pier. The houses on the left hand side looked like they were out of a Nicholas Sparks’ book, whilst the resorts on the other side were enormous rectangular eyesores, which was nevertheless important for tourism in the area.
The water was wavy and slightly murky, like home. As I walked along the pier and saw the young families fishing, I could have been at home. Until I turned to see the resort.
A Bone to Pick with Charleston
I was so impressed as I bussed down the East Coast and discovered the bus stations always seemed to be in close proximity to public transit. Until Charleston. For a city constantly found in lists of America’s best, I expected more from a transport hub. Fortunately my couchsurfing host picked me up and dropped me off, because Charleston’s depot is in the middle of nowhere.
As in, there is a petrol (gas) station across the road and that’s it. The depot itself is just a dull, white building on a slab of cement, surrounded by a couple of trees and dust. I also thought the city’s public transport system could be improved, but that’s my only critique for the otherwise welcoming and warm South Carolina city.
I can see how its charming historic district and beaches lure so many tourists each year. The buildings are hypnotising. Just be wary of overdosing on sweetness.