Charleston is a contradiction. The birthplace of the secessionist movement and the bloodiest conflict in American history that also hosts one of the largest gay-pride parades and calls itself the most-liberal city in South Carolina. It's this unique spirit, along with centuries of history, a flourishing food scene, and some of the country's best architecture covered in spanish moss (don't touch!) that make Charleston a destination for engagements (including ours) and honeymoons (including part of ours) throughout the year.
In my six years as a traveler, I've been to Charleston four times, once in college on an ill-advised road-trip and three times with Mrs. C&C. This doesn't make us experts by any means, as no city is so static a visitor can become an expert. Instead, consider this our well-versed guide.
While it's hard to go wrong in a city that sees as much tourism as Charleston, it's also hard to get it just right when it's time to choose a hotel. For a romantic ambiance in a prime location, The Vendue is the place to go. The buildings date back to the late 1700s, so if you're a history nerd like me, run your hands along the brick walls and imagine the conversations they've been privy to. The hotel houses an impressive collection of art you're free to visit regardless of guest status, and the on-site restaurant, The Drawing Room, specializes in high-quality seasonal eats at below-average prices. You'll likely need a reservation on the weekend but it's been fairly quiet when we've visited on weekdays. On the first night of our honeymoon, it was the only place we could get a table (our flight was delayed in O-Hare's seventh circle of hell) and we were treated like royalty, being comp'd dessert and an entire bottle of champagne. We recommend the Premiere King Room for its fire place, street view, and New York City loft sized walk-in shower, but it's a bit spendy if you're budget conscious. We've also enjoyed the cheaper Interior Queen rooms, which don't come with windows but more than make up for it with character and luxurious bedding. Don't forget to grab the Vendue's signature homemade chocolate chip cookies and milk in the evening!
For a different choice, the Belmond Charleston Place is a solid option. It lacks some of the same boutique appeal as The Vendue, but that's irrelevant once you're greeted by the overflowing floral arrangement centered between a double-staircase that leads to the hotel's large, open rooms.
When we stayed at the Belmond, our flight was trapped in O'Hare the night before, throwing our travel plans completely off. After three hours of rough sleep in a cheap Chicago hotel, a 6 a.m. flight to Charleston, and being encased in funk that starts to form when a person who hasn't showered in 36 hours melts into the South Carolina sun, the Belmond's staff were incredibly sweet, going out of their way to give us room access just a couple of hours after our arrival in the early morning. There were some a/c issues that persisted throughout our stay, but these were caused by the hotel's massive renovation project and should be fixed by now.
For breakfast, look to the Palmetto Cafe just across the lobby. If Charleston's essence could be encapsulated in a room, it's here. The decor is a unique blend of old-southern nostalgia and island paradise, the sweet tea never runs dry, and the pancakes have flowers on them.
Home of the should-be-world-famous Mike's Famous Duck Club, The Tattooed Moose is the dive bar of your wildest dreams, complete with a giant moose head adorning the spot above the bar. Don't let the kitsch fool you.
This downtown Charleston location has received numerous accolades, including from the Mayor of Flavortown, and you'll never be left wanting for beers from southern breweries. Try out our favorite, Lazy Magnolia's Southern Pecan, which pairs well with the Duck Club and the Duck Fat Fries. Don't be surprised if you eat here, take a nap, and then return for more. If you do and receive no flak for it, you'll know your partner is a keeper.
If ever there was a quintessential Charleston experience, eating at Hyman's Seafood is it. What was once one of the first distributors of Hanes Underwear is now the pinnacle of southern seafood. Not only is the food incredible (especially the hush-puppies, which are the best I've ever had), but the establishment takes customer service to a new level, even incorporating customer service slogans into their brand. Perhaps that's why they've been called one of the best seafood restaurants in the country and are frequented by famous guests. Don't believe us? Just have a look at the plaque on the table that commemorates a celebrity's visit.
AUTHORS NOTE: Since writing this piece we've been informed by our blogger friends at Cosmos Mariners that locals avoid Hyman's and tend to go elsewhere when they're seeking southern seafood, including Bowens Island. We've never been but it's now top of our agenda for next time.
Though we're still pissed at Prohibition for taking their life-changing creme brulee off the menu (seriously guys, what the hell?), it's hard to deny the love-making inducing atmosphere of the speakeasy-restaurant hybrid. If you've ever fancied yourselves the 21st century Fitzgeralds, we highly recommend you see therapists after settling in at Prohibition for award-winning craft cocktails and an up-scale take on shrimp & grits. They also offer live music most nights, so check the schedule ahead of time if you wish to dance or avoid the youths and their ruckus.
When a place calls itself toast, you expect them to have breakfast food. What you don't necessarily expect is a breakfast voted as one of the best in America by the New York Times. That's exactly what you'll get at this this Charleston institution. We don't typically like telling people what to do, but here we must insist you get the Deluxe French Toast stuffed with peaches and topped with peach cider syrup. Unless you're really hungry, the dish can be split by two people, so it's perfect for cozying up and sharing on a lazy South Carolina morning. If you need a side, go with the biscuits & gravy.
Take A Stroll through Battery Park
One of Charleston's most well-known and romantic locations, Battery Park is perfect for a peaceful stroll that will inundate you with the soul of Charleston. Wandering aimlessly through the area is the best way to experience it, stopping at leisure to admire the pastel mansions, oak and palmetto trees, and oddly beautiful cemeteries that tell the city's history. If you go at the beginning of dinner time, the side streets are typically barren, so we recommend walking them then in order to get the most solitude and couple time.
See the Remains of The Hunley
Not nearly as romantic as it is fascinating, The Hunley, a Confederate vessel in the U.S. Civil War, was the first documented successful use of a combat submarine. It mysteriously went down in Charleston harbor after completing its run and gave birth to a legend we're still debating. It currently sits in a preservation tank on the outskirts of Charleston and is a wonderful way to escape the humidity and digest a meal. Plus, one of you might find the tale of the Hunley's captain and his much younger lover romantic.
We're fans of aquariums when they're conservation oriented like the South Carolina Aquarium. While nice, the real star is the Sea Turtle Hospital, which offers daily tours in addition to the paid aquarium admission. All proceeds go to the hospital, so the $15 tickets are cheap when you consider all of the work being done, including numerous releases of rehabbed turtles that are often live-streamed. If you take a tour, you can meet the turtles currently being cared for and learn more about the fight to prevent extinction.
Theoretically one of the oldest things in the United States, the angel oak dates back to at least 1717, when it was included in a land grant to a man named Abraham Waight. The tree is truly a sight to behold, and it's one of the most beautiful places in South Carolina. We recommend going when it opens (9:00 a.m.) or near close (5:00 p.m) to avoid throngs of people clamoring for the perfect picture of the tree. While pictures of it are fun, this is one of those places where it's best to just relax, enjoy your partner, and make memories together.
Drive to the Sheldon Church Ruins
Though located about an hour southwest of Charleston, the Sheldon Church ruins are worth the drive. Holding its first service in 1757, the Sheldon Church, formerly known as Prince William Parish Church, has survived many trials and tribulations, including being burned by invading Redcoats in 1779, rebuilt, and then falling prey to the alleged burning by Sherman's pillaging army in 1865 that made the ruins you see today. What the Angel Oak has in crowds the Sheldon Church Ruins has in tranquility. When C&C went a few years back, the five people there were outnumbered 3-1 by lizards. It's a serene place perfect for introspection and deep conversation with your partner.
While certainly not comprehensive, this list is a great start to your romantic journeys in The Holy City. We'll have updates as time goes on. Do you see something we missed? Let us know in the comments!