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Charleston Travel Guide

Forget NYC! This U.S. City Is the Best in the Nation for Holiday Cheer

And it’s 70 degrees. 

No one disputes that it’s a truly magical experience to watch the lighting of the iconic Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center before lacing up your ice skates for a lap around the ice rink. And there’s nothing like bundling up against the wintry winds for holiday shopping on Fifth Avenue with a cup of hot chocolate. But despite its twinkly lights and incredible displays, New York is expensive, busy, and cold. What if there were a U.S. destination as over-the-top sparkly, festive, and bright, but with palm trees shading your perfectly temperate outdoor holiday shopping? Welcome to cordial, cheerful downtown Charleston, South Carolina

Deck the Halls

A city that loves its pomp and circumstance, Charleston’s magnificent architecture and scenery are adorned in their most festive formalwear. With its wobbly cobblestone streets and spectacularly quaint gas lamps flickering throughout the night, it’s pretty easy to imagine yourself on the set of A Christmas Carol. But with gold, red, green, and silver trimmings on historic buildings, front porches, wrought-iron gates, and even horse-drawn carriages, you’ll be positively transported. Forget winter wonderland–Charleston in December is a full-on yule-tide extravaganza.  

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1. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.Rachael Levitt 2. The illuminated tree in Marion Square.Jeffrey Schreier

It wouldn’t be a Christmas kickoff without a tree lighting, and one of the best places in town to watch the fusion of Southern charm and holiday jolly is at the Emeline Hotel. The annual tree reveal showcases a 14-foot spectacular evergreen and, in the past, has included pop-up shopping, complimentary drinks and treats from the in-house restaurant, Frannie and the Fox, live performances, wreath-making, and even Santa’s sleigh.


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All month long, the hotel stays festive. Frannie and the Fox, with its Italian-American cuisine, even offers a classic Feast of the Seven Fishes menu on Christmas Eve and a holiday special on Christmas Day. The hotel itself is the embodiment of merriment, with bustling baristas, laughing bar patrons, and myriad guests hauling shiny packages through a garland-wrapped lobby. Sit at the bar and you’ll be surprised to find many of the hotel’s guests are local Charlestonians–is there any better stamp of approval than that?

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The hotel fuses Southern charm with holiday festive. Photos: Emeline

Stocking Stuffers

Another testament to the city’s yule-tide gaiety is the many locals and nearby out-of-towners who’ve come downtown to buy presents. They’re stopping to refuel at the many bars and restaurants nestled amongst the wild variety of markets, stores, stalls, and shops downtown before heading back out to patronize Charleston’s finest purveyors of goods. 

On a sunny December afternoon, you’ll find a world of local crafts and wares at the Charleston City Market, with stalls that could satisfy even the pickiest of gift recipients. Each seller at the historic marketplace offers unique, quality handcrafted goods for a wide assortment of tastes–everything from hot sauce to ornaments to paintings to jewelry to cigars, soaps, toys, spices, and decor. 

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Ornamental souvenirs; Charleston City Market; Buxton BooksRachael Levitt

Perhaps the most thoughtful and beautiful gift you can buy at the Charleston City Market is a sweetgrass basket, one of the country’s oldest and loveliest handicrafts of African origin, and an American folk tradition. Made from local sweetgrass, bulrush, pine needle, and palmetto fronds, the baskets originate from and are woven by the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of the enslaved Africans who cultivated rice in the marshy areas of the barrier islands of South Carolina. While the original function of the baskets served the utilitarian purpose of winnowing grains, the sweetgrass baskets today showcase highly artistic, intricately designed handicrafts that function as both storage and décor. The Market is home to over 50 resident Gullah artisans who often work on pieces while showcasing their wares for sale. 

If gorgeously handmade or impossibly creative isn’t preferred, you can still find personal, one-of-a-kind presents on King Street, where luxury goods and specialty boutique shops mingle among independent books and music stores, toy stores, and apparel. Pick up a local author’s signed work at Buxton Books or a rare vinyl album at Record Shop, or snag a seasonal pick at Candlefish custom candles. 

What a Bright Time

Perhaps the most superlative part of spending your holiday shopping in Charleston is the fact that it’s all made for strolling outside. Charleston City Market is open-air, while King Street is essentially a shopping precinct made for leisurely ambling.

While Christmas shopping often conjures thoughts of winterwear and boots trekking through the snow, Charleston’s climate is anything but chilled. A perfectly mild, sunny day brings out smiles across town, and the local fashion reflects both the silliness of frivolity and the seriousness of dressing up for the occasion. When the weather doesn’t dictate what you have to wear, it’s easy to embrace embellishment. 

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Dressed up downtownExplore Charleston, Rachael Levitt, Rachael Levitt

In fact, you’ll see terrific displays of holiday spirit on the Charlestonians themselves. Excited grandmothers adorned in lit-up Christmas headbands walk teeny pooches clad in cable knit sweaters. Sequined wedding parties and flamboyant churchgoers flutter to chapels in full-skirted gowns that twinkle and swish, and black suits with pocket squares (sans socks). There’s tartan and ruffles and leather and everything is perfectly tailored. Jewelry and accessories, like the handmade items found at The Tiny Tassel, pop with color and whimsy. It’s all possible because the month of December is so wonderfully mild in Charleston, with sunny averages in the mid-60s and lows in the low-50s. 

That Holiday Spirit

It’s no secret that Charleston is a foodie city year-round, so it’s unsurprising that the culinary scene embraces the season. Walk in any direction downtown, and you’ll find award-winning seafood, buzzworthy cocktails, and time-honored Lowcountry staples–it’s almost impossible to go wrong. But there are a few particular spots to check out to raise your levels of cheer. 

Classic Southern fare at Halls Chophouse Explore Charleston

Let the spirit move you to Halls Chophouse for Sunday brunch, where the live gospel singers and piano accompaniment join you for a big ol’ boozy feast of Southern staples: fried green tomatoes, popovers, grits and seafood, biscuits and gravy, and of course, steak and eggs. Wash it down with bloody Marys and mimosas and feel the miracles of the holiday season. It’s a raucous, rocking good time around the Christmas tree. 

If you’re looking for an establishment equally as storied and Southern but with a completely different vibe, don’t miss swanky 82 Queen. With its utterly fetching patio and refined cuisine, 82 Queen is the glamourous holiday rom-com setting you didn’t know you need. You can’t go wrong with any of the Lowcountry cuisine, but don’t miss the Southern tomato pie and she-crab soup. 

While not every meal can be a Christmas feast, it’s worth checking out the back bar at 167 Raw Oyster Bar, brunch at Millers All Day, seafood at Slightly North of Broad, tacos at Pink Cactus, and nightlife at Ritual Restaurant and Lounge. Whatever you do, don’t miss cocktails at Doar Bros for the Holy City’s most divine drinks. 

There’s No Place Like Downtown for the Holidays

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It’s the most wonderful time of the yearRachael Levitt; David AvRutick/Shutterstock; Rachael Levitt

Charleston is a year-round destination filled with rich history, cultural institutions and museums, churches and cemeteries, architecture to drool over, and a beautiful landscape of Spanish moss and salt marshes. But especially in December, downtown Charleston lures merrymakers of all creeds to get into the Lowcounty holiday spirit.