The Best Things To Do In Charleston, According To A Local

Good times and good eats abound in this beloved South Carolina city.

Charleston's Rainbow Row Homes
Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

I don’t have to work hard to convince my fiancé to join me for a weekend trip to visit my parents in my South Carolina hometown. For starters (and this admittedly is a biased opinion), my mom and dad are a delight to be around—but they also live in Charleston, which Southern Living readers have named The South’s Best City several years running. At this point, the Holy City requires no introduction or persuasive arguments in its favor: The booming food scene, colorful historic homes, and waterfront views make the case for themselves. It’s easy to fill a weekend itinerary there, and I’m never able to hit all my favorite spots in just one trip. Here are the places that land on my Charleston bucket list whenever I’m home, from the lauded, well-known destinations to the ones that fly a bit further under the radar.

Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop

The worst kept secret in the city is hands-down my favorite restaurant to take visitors, especially first-timers. For me, no other place in town captures so well the relaxed ease that seems woven into Charleston’s very DNA. Housed in an old garage and outfitted with warm wooden tables and an art collection that feels like it was passed down from generation to generation until it landed here, Leon’s is the kind of place that feels like it’s always been part of the Charleston dining landscape—a triumph considering it’s a relative newcomer, opened in 2014. Fried chicken and oysters may be the main draws on the menu, but don’t miss the scalloped potatoes either.

Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge

The two-and-a-half mile cable-stayed crossing between downtown Charleston and the suburb of Mount Pleasant is a scenic place to break a sweat. Climb the hilly spans on the protected pedestrian path, and stop at the top to catch your breath and score a bird’s-eye view of the sparkling Cooper River and downtown Charleston, including the many steeples that earned my hometown its Holy City moniker.

Marina Variety Store & Restaurant

In a destination filled with Instagram-worthy diners and boutique-y brunch spots, this casual, teetering-on-unbothered, harborfront joint isn’t appearing in the curated pages of luxury travel magazines. But at breakfast time, its familiar siren call beckons locals in droves. Here, you can count on a well-poached egg, plenty of salt in your grits, and silver dollar pancakes that’ll please even the pickiest tiny eater. 

Croghan’s Jewel Box

When there’s a special occasion to be celebrated in my family, our go-to spot for finding meaningful, heirloom-worthy gifts is this century-old shop on King Street that’s helmed by the third and fourth generations of the same family. Beyond curating an incredible assortment of new and estate jewelry and silver, they also carry the Goldbug Collection, a cheeky, more approachable line of pieces designed in-house and inspired by the city.

Cru Café

Just steps off the beaten path in an old Single House, this Charleston institution (it celebrated 20 years in 2022) serves up a thoughtful medley of flavors in homey surrounds. For a true Holy City experience, snag a table on the porch, and start with an order of the fried green tomatoes, which come topped with sheep’s milk feta, smoked tomato caramel, and pork belly croutons so good that my dad’s been known to order a side dish of just those.

Melton Peter Demetre Park

Only a few miles from downtown, James Island is largely residential without much draw for tourists. It’s where I grew up, and we spent many a low-tide afternoon hunting for sharks’ teeth on the little beach at a place we called Sunset Park. (I’ve since learned that many other locals refer to it as Sunrise Park. Tomato, to-mah-to, I suppose.) For a true locals-only experience, head to the city-owned waterfront spot, where you can picnic with panoramic views of downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant or cast a line off the 190-foot fishing pier.

Sullivan’s Island

For a quintessential Lowcountry beach day, there’s no stretch of sand more alluring than the pristine shore of Sullivan’s Island, a small barrier island ten miles from downtown Charleston. There’s not a trace of touristy kitsch in this bitty beach town, where historic homes line oak-shaded streets and storybook cottages invite passersby to stop and smell rose-wrapped trellises.

Chez Nous

Tucked in an historic house on a hidden away street, you likely wouldn’t just happen upon this neighborhood eatery that feels like a mini escape to Europe, and that’s half the charm. The cozy surrounds are elevated but inviting, and the handwritten menu of seasonally driven dishes changes daily. It’s fortunate, too, that the menu is so tiny (two appetizers, two mains, two desserts), as it provides a good excuse to order one of each.

Bowens Island Restaurant

Even after nearly eight years in Birmingham, Alabama, there's one thing I still can't stomach: Gulf shrimp. I'll take South Carolina's small crustaceans any day over the rubbery monstrosities they've tried to talk me into eating here. So when I'm home, there's only one place to load up on the good stuff, and that's Bowens Island, a nearly 80-year-old family-owned restaurant perched in a few ramshackle structures on the river. Order a fried shrimp platter with hushpuppies and slaw, or go for the Frogmore Stew (for the uninitiated, that's a shrimp boil), a drool-worthy combination of boiled shrimp, potatoes, corn, and sausage.

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