First impressions and reactions? It is good to arrive into a relatively small city with reliable GPS and big parking spaces. But what I will remember the most is the sweat dripping down my face. Charleston’s sun is brutal, humidity is high and breezes are minimal in this subtropical climate. My niece will be glad to know that yes, I sweat.
Sites to visit?Charleston has an impressive skyline. Rising against the clear blue sky are countless church steeples of all shapes and heights, earning Charlestown the nickname of “The Holy City.” One of the more architecturally unique churches is the Circular Church and its Parish House, Greek Revival and Romanesque buildings located on Meeting Street. The congregation was established in 1681. The circular form was the idea of Robert Mills, Charleston’s leading architect who also designed the Washington Monument in D.C. The church he designed might remind one of the Pantheon, though the current church is more of a cloverleaf design. This unusual building and graveyard are a pleasant stop.
A best use of time is to wander to enjoy the architecture and cobbled streets. There are countless historic churches, colonial homes, and public buildings to appreciate. However, as a whole, the streets are congested and noisy with traffic. I might be missing something here, but there are few parks and pedestrian streets, both necessities when enjoying a city.
The Confederate Museum atop the Historic City Market is a must. The 1841 building is a replica of the Temple of the Wingless Victory in Athens and chock-a-block with Civil War artifacts ranging from the first rifled cannon made in the Confederate states to battle and secession flags, numerous photographs and letters, and endless bric-à-brac from the era. Veterans around Charleston decided to help the United Daughters of the Confederacy establish a museum and a call went out asking former soldiers to bring their war-time possessions to donate. Veterans and their families responded with a treasure trove of mementos that fill the building. The museum opened in 1899. Even a Yankee would enjoy the museum. Cost is $5.
Beneath the Confederate Museum is the large City Market. Mostly it is booth after booth of crafts and ‘stuff’ from frond baskets to jewelry. It is partially air conditioned with a food court at one end.
The Old Slave Mart Museum presents a good description of the domestic slave trade in Charleston until 1865. Placards effectively describe the roles of buyer, seller, trader and slave. It is a well-rounded explanation of a tough subject in one of the biggest slave states of the Americas. Cost is $10/seniors $5.
Walk Charleston and look up. The historic buildings of Charleston cover a wide range of styles, as do the churches. Their best view is up, be it gables, columns, pillars, or steeples. Walking is the primary way to explore the quiet side streets lined with blooming crepe myrtle and the ubiquitous oak hung with Spanish moss.
Food? There are numerous restaurants along Bay Street and along the sides if the City Market area and most seem to have a seafood theme. Try the delicious shrimp and grits. I didn’t see as much street dining as I would have liked, but that may be because it is so hot before the sun goes down. Streets tend to be pretty noisy in the historic area.
Want to cool off and relax? Walk to Riverfront Park overlooking the Cooper River and Charleston Harbor. Its numerous fountains, shaded walks and benches facing the river and channel create the perfect place for a respite from the heat. There are many people with water carts around the area from which to purchase a cold drink. With subtropical temperatures, one must keep hydrated.
When in Charleston, be sure to go to Liberty Square’s Fort Sumter Visitor Center and sign up for a tour that takes you by ferry out to Fort Sumter at the mouth of the harbor where it meets the Atlantic. It is very busy in summer so you might want to go online to purchase tickets ahead of time. Ferries are the only way to get to the fort and once aboard a young man presented information on the history of the fort. I have an hour to explore the fort and museum on my own before I return to the ferry for the 30 minute sail back to the port. Fort Sumter, begun in 1829 and built on a man-made (mostly slave labor) island, is best known as the site for the first shots of the Civil War. Thank heavens for the cool breezes but do bring water. There are few places to buy it once at Liberty Square but there Re fountains to refill a container.
Parking around town is good with numerous parking garages at $2 an hour. I read about parking at the aquarium/Liberty Square for $5 a day but it does not exist. Public garages are the only options.
The heat! Actually, it is the humidity making it a real temperature of 110° that I will always associate with Charlestown. The other thing I will remember is the smell. Numerous horse or mule drawn carriages roam the streets, which means numerous horse smells. Observing the buggies and their load, I sympathize with the horses; there should be a law on how much horses have to pull in this heat. The combination of heat and smell of horse manure is not pleasant.
As I mentioned, strolling Charlestown’s cobbled streets, cemeteries and parks can make for a relaxing day. However, you also can ride one of the three trolley routes around town. All are free and might be a cooler way to sightsee. And if I am lucky, those ominous clouds mean rain and a break in temperature. I won’t even mind getting drenched as it will wash the sweat off!