Up until last week, I had never been to the South. My only reference for the land under the Mason-Dixon was Scarlett O'Hara, the bag of grits in my pantry, and my friend group in L.A., which is comprised almost entirely of Virginians and Carolinians. But that total unfamiliarity is what inspired Jonah, his mom Leah, and I to explore it last week. After traveling to Olympic National Park and Seattle together two years ago, we decided to apply the same city-with-nature format to this year's trip, traveling to Charleston then Congaree National Park. If you've never heard of Congaree, you aren't alone. Nearly ever person we spoke to in Charleston was unfamiliar with it too—it is, after all, among the most recently-created and least-visited National Parks in the United States. The overgrowth of Spanish Moss and greenery we witnessed in Charleston was magnified in the park, a swamp ground where snakes hang from trees and the mud could swallow you whole, if not for wooden walkways over many of the trails. The trip felt like a true adventure, as we made our way through nature (and piles of fried food), and did our best to take in the unique, complicated history of the South. Here's how we spent our week in South Carolina*:
*top recommendations are bolded!
Our trip to Charleston was comprised almost entirely of reader recommendations (thank you!). When we landed at 7 PM on Saturday night, we made a beeline from our AirBnB to León's for our first introduction to Southern food: fried clam wraps, fried chicken, fried hushpuppies (are you detecting a theme here?), and all sorts of delicious seafood. After dinner, we walked down King Street which is home to a million bars and, we noticed, as many bachelorette parties. The entire city was buzzing with energy, and we were happy to walk around observing it and the impressively long lines to nearly every bar.
While everyone else in the city seemed to be sleeping in, we grabbed coffees at 132 Spring then cinnamon-pecan rolls at Wildflour, a specialty served only on Sundays. On our way to King Street, we stopped into an impressive columned building that, despite its aging and uninviting exterior, had an intriguing name: Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. The place turned out to be a true diamond in the rough. The old church is home to the world's largest private collection of original manuscripts and documents (!). In the most unlikely of places, we browsed letters from Catherine the Great, Gandhi, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as the first draft of the Bill of Rights and the Confederate Declaration of Independence. The entire place was empty, and it was difficult to fully absorb the history at our fingertips.
After a quick stop at Callie's Hot Little Biscuit, and my first introduction to Pimento cheese, we walked around the cute side streets perpendicular to King Street, highlights of which included J. Stark Bags and juice at Five Loaves, until making our way to the Aiken-Rhett House, a well-preserved 19th century house that includes slave quarters. We took the guided audio tour, which was a fascinating introduction to the uglier side of the South's history. We enjoyed it so much, we continued to use the Historic Charleston Foundation app throughout our trip, for several other self-guided tours in the city.
We continued wandering, through the College of Charleston's beautiful campus, stopping at Christophe Chocolates (the blue cheese truffle was a favorite!), Candlefish (home to a million beautiful candles), and Worthwhile (a highly curated luxury clothing store), until heading to the small bar in a house adjacent to the restaurant HUSK. We took seats outside on the patio, where I ordered a delicious mocktail. By the end of the trip, I sampled all of their mocktails, each better than the last.
Pssst... Read more about my decision to not drink this trip, here.
For dinner, we headed to the Darling Oyster Bar, right in the heart of King Street. We ate shrimp and grits, blue crab tagliatelle, clam chowder, raw oysters, and a lobster and King Crab roll (which you can pass on, surprisingly). But the unanimous winner of the meal were the Fried Clam Strips, doused in a sweet chili sauce and tossed with Napa cabbage. They were so delicious and crisp, I fully plan on recreating the recipe at home.
After dinner, we headed to the one place we were recommended not to visit: the old jail. A family friend recommended we take a ghost tour "anywhere but the jail," on account of it being too creepy. Rather than heed their warning, we decided to go for the full scare (when in the South, right?), and tour the jail at night, learning about its infamous residents including the first female serial killer in the U.S. We weren't (too) spooked, but if we had more time we definitely would have opted to take additional tours—it's a fun way to learn about the history of the city!
After a slow start (lattes from Gnome helped!), we rented Holy Spokes bikes to explore the Battery, White Point Garden, and Waterfront Park. Charleston is a great biking town—the quiet streets and minimal traffic meant we felt safe to slowly make our way downtown. We ended our ride at lunch at HUSK (which you may have caught on my takeover of @shopcupcakesandcashmere), where we ate their version of classic "lowcountry" dishes like cornbread, fried chicken, Pimento cheese toasts, and "HUSKpuppies." Tip: If it's a breezy day, ask if you can sit on the balcony, easily the prettiest seats in the restaurant!
After returning our bikes, we walked along a slightly less touristy stretch of King Street, making a round-about way through the College of Charleston, grabbing coffees at Second State Coffee. We wandered through the Historic Charleston City Market (which I'd skip in favor of exploring the more charming side streets around it), then finally found ourselves in Marion Square, which is surrounded by beautiful, redone hotels. We took at seat at the bar at the Dewberry Hotel, where we grabbed drinks before wandering back towards our AirBnB for diner at Xiao Bao Biscuit, one of the only non-Southern meals we ate the entire trip but also one of my favorites. We ordered the okonomoyaki, pork and kimchi dumplings, and cumin lamb noodles. If we hadn't spent the whole day eating, we would have ordered the entire menu.
After another coffee at Gnome, we headed to Sugar Bake Shop which has arguably the cutest exterior I've ever seen. The sweets were just okay, but it was our first introduction to many lime-sugar cookies. We re-wandered down King Street, stopping in stores and museums we'd missed, including the Daughters of the Confederacy which I expected to be a museum of the Civil War but was, unsettlingly, what appeared to be a shrine to it, complete with coozies of the confederate flag (we practically ran out of there as soon as we walked in).
Lunch at Jestine's Kitchen was a true highlight of the trip and some of the best Southern food we ate there, including fried green tomatoes, collard greens, corn fritters and crab cake, pecan fried Whiting with fried okra, fried okra salad, and key lime pie and peach-blackberry cobbler for dessert. After lunch, we walked to the Slave Mart Museum, which is housed in the same location as one of the largest former slave markets. As beautiful and historically rich as the South is, I learned that it's impossible not to visit without being slapped in the face by our country's history. In contrast, we walked down Church Street to the Battery, which was one of my favorite parts of the trip, admiring the enormous hundreds-years-old houses.
We headed towards the French Quarter, where we grabbed drinks at The Gin Joint. The bar is housed in a beautiful old building, and was the perfect place to spend an hour reading before dinner, but we had some trouble with the way-too-sweet mocktails.
For dinner, we headed to Chez Nous. Like so many restaurants in Charleston, it's tucked into an old house and is downright magical. Each day, the chef creates a new menu based on what's inspiring to her that day—highlights included broccolini with whipped ricotta, roasted rabbit, and pork belly salad. Sit outside if it isn't too hot!
On our way to rent a car, we grabbed coffees and banana bread from Babas on Cannon which turned out to be, no question, the best banana bread I've ever eaten. I'll dream of that stuff...
The roughly two-hour drive from Charleston to Congaree National Park was broken up by several stops which made it go by in a blink, despite adding about thirty minutes to it to be able to see Sullivan's Island (a friend recommended we stop by the lighthouse before leaving town for some salt air and exposure to the pretty beach towns just fifteen minutes from downtown!).
After a quick stop, we grabbed lunch at The Glass Onion, about an hour outside of town where I ordered some delicious okra gumbo, and helped Jonah with his fried shrimp po'boy and collard greens.
After lunch, we got a taste of what a "country house" and plantation was like outside of the city, taking a house tour of Drayton Hall. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable, and it was so interesting to learn about how the house was used in both the Revolutionary War and Civil War as an army base. The history down there!
We finally arrived to Congaree National Park around 6 P.M., which gave us just enough time to take a mile-long hike along the boardwalks that start at the visitor's center, then headed to Columbia, a city thirty minutes away, for dinner at The War Mouth before heading to our AirBnB along Lake Murray another half-hour drive away.
When we initially booked our trip to Congaree, it felt like a comedy of errors. We accidentally scheduled our trip the weekend of University of South Carolina's graduation, which meant the closest lodging available was an hour outside of the park, and learned in the weeks prior to leaving that the ranger-guided kayak tours we'd been looking forward to were cancelled on account of firefly activity. But, in the end, all of these inconveniences turned-out to be blessings. Instead of staying in an airbnb in Columbia, we were forced to find a VRBO in Chapin, which led us to the discovery of a picture-perfect house on a lake, where I spent evenings floating post-hike. And the "firefly activity" turned out to be synchronous fireflies, an event that occurs over a two-week period in the South that we were lucky enough to catch. The park marked a trail where you could see fireflies everywhere, blinking in unison. It was nothing short of magical. And those kayak tours we missed? It led us to a fantastic private-guided tour. Yes, I also got 50+ bug bites my first day hiking, and almost stepped on more than one snake, but the park's magic was magnified by the fact that we were practically alone in the surreal landscape.
Thank you for reading, and again, for all of your fantastic travel trips! I'm already plotting my next National Park visit...