Charleston is known for its cobblestoned streets, gas lamps, and plantation homes, not to mention its ridiculously friendly locals, who are proud of their city and want to show it off. But this gracious port city isn't stuck in the past. Charleston has a thriving creative class, and in this food-obsessed town, it seems that a new restaurant, bar, or food truck launches just about every week. Here are five reasons to visit Charleston now—or at least before summer’s sticky humidity settles in.
1. Charleston Comes Clean
Charleston has plenty of antique-filled bed and breakfasts, but if you prefer more streamlined design, check into the Zero George Street. This hotel has been snapping up accolades left and right, including Fodor’s 100 Hotel Awards 2013. This 18-room boutique hotel is spread across five historic buildings clustered around a courtyard; at night; it looks magical illuminated by white lights. The look is classic but pared down. The guest rooms have original heart-of-pine floors and are decorated in subdued colors; the bathrooms have subway tiles and pedestal sinks—think of it as Southern style by way of Restoration Hardware. Although there is no restaurant on-site, a small menu of nibbles is available in the early evening, featuring kale chips or pickled shrimp with pomegranate seeds. The cocktail menu is equally interesting; try the Infringement, a blend of Tangueray, Antica Carpano, Cointreau, and lemon juice. The Kitchen Carriage House, located inside the hotel, offers weekly cooking classes that teach guests how to prepare lighter takes on Lowcountry classics.
2. Bottoms Up
Charleston is experiencing a mini boom in craft distilleries. Prior to Prohibition there were zero distilleries in the city; starting next month, there will be three in operation. These include Striped Pig Distillery, which uses locally grown ingredients to make moonshine, rum, and vodka; and Charleston Distilling Co., opening in early April. They'll launch with a vodka produced from local corn and Carolina gold rice, an American-style dry gin, a barrel-aged gin, and three macerated liqueurs. Stop by High Wire Distilling Co., which produces a sorghum whiskey, bourbon, and rum. Don’t miss their Hat Trick Botanical Gin, made with just the right amount of fresh juniper.
3. Eat, Eat, Eat
It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the food scene in Charleston; new restaurants are opening practically every week. Some of the most notable newcomers include The Ordinary, an upscale oyster bar owned by chef Mike Lata (of FIG fame). Housed in a former bank, most of its shellfish comes from local legend “Clammer Dave.” Head to Indaco to tuck into hearty but creative Italian fare. Diners can choose from wood-fired pizzas to family-style platters of roasted meats and fish, kale salad, and pappardelle with pork sugo. The hottest Southeast Asian restaurant in town is arguably Xiao Bao Biscuit, but it's getting competition from just-opened Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen, which focuses on Chinese classics with a twist. Look out for Edmund’s Oast, a combination restaurant and brewery that opened last month. Owners Scott Shor and Rich Carley previously launched the Charleston Been Exchange and The Greenville Beer Exchange, so these guys know their stuff. Here, there's an in-house brewery, more than 40 beers on tap, and a menu that changes daily. Also keep an eye out early this spring for two new upcoming restaurants from local foodie Brooks Reitz—he’s the man behind the Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. and is the former manager at The Ordinary. He'll be opening Leon's in a former garage on Upper King Street, and will be serving fried chicken and oysters in that space. His second venture is St Alban’s, an all-day café (710 King St., no phone yet).
4. Save Time for Shopping
Two of the most interesting new shops in Charleston happen to share a retail space. Located just off Broad Street, The Heirloom Collection sells a well-edited selection of hard-to-find and vintage cookbooks. The other side of this cozy retail space is home to The Commons, which showcases American-made goods for the home. Some of the best bets include slate cheese boards made in Brooklyn, hand-turned wooden bowls, and sailor knots from Keith Hudson. The shops occasionally host alfresco suppers, book signings, and tag sales as well. Men who want to bring a bit of Southern gentlemen style back home should head to Indigo & Cotton, which sells clothing and accessories. Look out for General Knot & Co. ties, Shinola watches, and jeans from Raleigh Denim.
5. Mark Your Calendar
Late winter/early spring is one of the best times to visit Charleston, as the weather is mild and visitors can walk everywhere without worrying about excessive heat and humidity. It’s also when some of the city’s most important events take place. Foodies should make a pilgrimage in early March for the BB&T Charleston Food + Wine Festival (March 6 to 9), one of the city’s biggest highlights. Guests can watch James Beard-award winning chefs at work, sample Lowcountry food, and snap up artisanal sauces and marinades. Charleston Fashion Week (March 18 to 22) showcases emerging designers and models, and will offer more than 35 runway shows. In late spring, Charleston hosts the Spoleto Festival USA (May 23 to June 8), one of the country’s leading performance arts festivals. There will be more than 120 shows of opera, jazz, theater, orchestral and contemporary music, as well as events for literature and visual arts.
Christina Valhouli has written about travel, beauty, and lifestyle trends for The New York Times, the New York Post, and Departures.com. Follow her on Twitter.