Charleston, South Carolina: Quaint, Traditional, and…Icy?!

At the end of January, I took a semi-impromptu trip to Charleston, South Carolina. My cousin moved down there in April 2013, and my aunt followed a few months later. It’s funny, because prior to my cousin moving down there, I didn’t really know much about Charleston at all, but it seemed as though as soon as she moved there, I kept hearing about what a lovely town it is. And the more I researched it, the more eager I was to visit.

This winter has certainly been more brutal than recent winters, and even places in the south have been feeling its wrath. January is an awfully unpredictable month weather-wise, so I knew that I was taking a bit of a gamble traveling down there that time of year, but hey.

As soon as I stepped outside of Charleston’s airport, I was greeted with glorious sunshine and a temperature in the mid-60s; two things I hadn’t experienced in Buffalo in months. It was such a lovely and foreign feeling for me to experience such weather that time of year, and I got a good chuckle seeing the locals all bundled up in their hats and scarves because it was too mild for them. I’m really glad I arrived in the early afternoon, because my first day in Charleston was the only day I was going to experience warm(er) temperatures…

I was picked up by my cousin Chelsea and she took me straight to my hotel, an Embassy Suites located in downtown Charleston, which used to be the Citadel, a famous military college. The hotel was gorgeous inside and out; the outside is painted a pale pink and is reminiscent of an old castle.

The lobby of my hotel.

Charleston was really my first foray into the American South, I’ve been to Florida a few times, but I wouldn’t consider Florida the “traditional” south. As soon as my cousin and I cruised around town, I could see that Charleston is a great blend of history and contemporary; it’s a huge college town so downtown was filled with college students walking and biking, and the streets were lined with trendy shops  and upscale boutiques.

Seeing the Antebellum homes up close was such an experience! The homes were massive yet quaint and charming at the same time. Most of the homes still used gas lanterns for their porch lights, and many of them had these gorgeous open-air porches that stretched alongside the home with a doorway. My cousin told me those are iconic to Charleston homes and were designed to catch the breeze from the ocean to help beat the heat. The streets were narrow which made it difficult to navigate in a car, especially when you had to share the road with horse carriages pulling tourists. Chelsea said it can be a real pain to get caught behind them, but if you pulled up close enough with the windows rolled down, you could hear the tour guide, which was pretty neat.

After driving around a bit, my cousin drove me to Battery Park, a great spot near the waterfront filled with the iconic southern live oak trees. I’ve been dying to see these beautiful trees in person! They honestly were the things I’d been most excited to see, aside from the Antebellum homes…and my family. It felt so reinvigorating to be near the ocean again. I just love, love, love the ocean. Any body of water, really. I don’t know if it has anything to do with growing up next to a Great Lake, but I’ve always been drawn to the water and everything that living near it entails.

Visiting the south also means eating a lot of food, and I was so ready to indulge in some southern delicacies. I was lucky enough to have my aunt and cousin take me to some tried and true places, but I also reached out to Katka Lapelosová, a managing editor at Matador Network, to suggest some great places. Katka went to college in Charleston so she was full of great suggestions!

My first meal in Charleston was at a restaurant called Virginia’s on King, and we honestly chose this place because we were both pretty hungry and it was literally right outside of my hotel. The interior was beautiful and both the hostess and my waiter had thick southern accents, so it was easy for me to like it right off the bat. I got fried pickles and a shrimp po’boy, and they were both pretty damn good. I actually ordered a fried clam po’boy, but my waiter made a mistake putting in the order so I ended up with the shrimp po’boy. I really didn’t care that much and felt too bad saying something, but my cousin Chelsea spoke up for me. To apologize, he decided to send us a slice of pecan pie for dessert, and oh my god…it was to die for! I think I made out pretty well for my first southern meal, yeah?

My very healthy meal I ate at the famous Hominy Grill... Fried chicken in a biscuit with sausage gravy and stewed okra and tomatoes as a side.

My very healthy meal I ate at the famous Hominy Grill… Fried chicken in a biscuit with sausage gravy and stewed okra and tomatoes as a side.

It was so easy to fall in love with Charleston, and I wanted to kick myself because I kept saying the words “quaint” and “charming” over and over again, but those truly are the two best words to describe it. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t on our side, and we were in for a quite unique experience over our upcoming days…

There was a huge ice storm brewing and many people were preparing for the worst. My mom and I got a chuckle out of this, being from Buffalo, but it really was a huge deal for the southerners. They simply do not have the resources to combat an ice storm, so all the schools and many businesses were shut down during our stay.  The weather itself didn’t bother me that much, as I’m from Buffalo, although many of the museums and places of interest I wanted to see were closed, so that wasn’t ideal. But what can you do? I’m SO grateful that we were staying at a hotel located right downtown, because almost everything was within walking distance. Had we been staying at a hotel near the airport, we really would have been screwed because many of the roads and highways were closed because of the ice.

A fountain outside of the Thoroughbred Club covered with icicles.

Even though the weather was putting a damper into what I wanted to do, it was pretty amusing seeing the city try to handle the elements. We even saw a business owner pour boiling water on his steps to try and melt the ice, and when we tried to tell him that was a terrible idea, he got annoyed with us and continued. Sometimes I’d encounter a few people originally from the north who were now living Charleston, and we would exchange winks and laughs at how the entire town was shut down because of some ice.

With a lot of businesses closed, it was a challenge finding places to go, but ironically, one of the few places open on King Street was a really cool bar called Closed For Business. Funny, right?! It turned out to be a really cool bar with an extensive beer menu, so it was a nice place to chill out instead of hanging out in my hotel room.

For the nightlife, I’m more of a dive bar/pub kind of girl, so I really enjoyed a bar called ACs which came at Katka’s recommendation and was really close to my hotel. It seemed like a perfect place for the college crowd to hang out, and I know if I lived in Charleston, it would be one of my haunts for sure. I also enjoyed Juanita Greenbergs (another one of Katka’s recommendations!) for my taco and margarita fix.

We also stopped at a very swanky steakhouse called Halls Chophouse, and what a kick that was. I got the vibe that when anyone who is famous/important rolls through Charleston, they definitely stop there. It’s pretty pricey, but it’s worth it to stop in for at least one drink to just experience the owner…he was hilarious! He literally comes up to every single person in the restaurant to shake their hand and thank them for stopping in. Talk about southern hospitality! We stopped in on our first night and then a few nights later, and he still remembered all of our names and that my mom and I were from Buffalo. When my cousin and I were standing at the crowded bar, he searched high and low for stools for us, and he eventually found some for us. I just got a kick out of watching him run around to make sure he stopped and talked with everyone.

I wasn’t able to see any of the plantations because of the weather, but I was able to tour the historic Aiken-Rhett House. It was very well preserved, with lots of original artifacts and pieces from its time, and I was glad to have toured at least one historical destination to gain some more knowledge of Charleston’s history and the Old South.

No, I'm not a fan of the University of South Carolina, but I just had to get a picture by the store given its lovely name...

No, I’m not a fan of the University of South Carolina, but I just had to get a picture by the store given its lovely name…

While the weather certainly wasn’t convenient, I still felt like I experienced a lot of Charleston and I still got a good feel of the city. I saw the beautiful architecture, the ocean, market vendors on Market Street, a museum, delicious southern food, and wonderful, hospitable people. I’m really excited to return to Charleston when it’s in full swing, when the poor palm trees aren’t being weighed down by icicles, and the locals aren’t using sand paper scrape ice off their car, or pouring boiling water on their front steps…