After eight years in Shanghai and New York, I finally moved back home to Charleston. I returned to discover it's no longer the sleepy town of my childhood. I love exploring the city’s new discoveries, while also embracing the familiar staples from my past.
It seems every other day a friend and or client asks me to share my travel tips, so I’ve finally put pen to paper… Here are my top recommendations: a mix of tried-and-true tradition, hip hotspots, and beloved little gems that many guides overlook.
The sunny yellow dining room of this beautifully-restored building is the perfect backdrop for a lazy weekend breakfast or casual lunch. Suffering from a late night? Sit at the bar, sip on a Blood Mary and savor their Japanese-inspired omelettes, decadent cinnamon rolls and hangover-curing sausage sandwiches. I love to eat here by myself with a magazine or book, or cozy up at the bar with my man.
Second State Coffee is a sunny, minimal cafe that makes coffee lovers beam from ear to ear. Be warned, concoctions like lavender lattes are rocket fuel. This intimate space is not a laptop cafe; instead visitors chat and read The Times splayed out on the communal table. Bonus: the staff are cute, scruffy guys rocking out to New Order and Future Islands!
The Daily is a casual version of its sister restaurant Butcher & Bee. The industrial, modern lunch spot serves smoothies, salads, pastries, and coffee. The Daily is just cool … I always seem to bump into my creative friends (designers, photographers, artists) on each visit.
Huriyali is an earthy, vegan paradise with a shady courtyard out back. Inside the mint green building, gorgeous earth mommas whip up healthy smoothies, bowls and salads. They recently expanded to the building next door, where they have a small grocery area full of all of the best health foods and supplements. They have some more delicious menu items as well! This is a great spot to grab a coffee or smoothie before exploring nearby Hampton Park, Charleston's 60-acre park designed by Olmsted.
Goat Sheep Cow is a sardine-can-sized gourmet specialty cheese shop on Church Street. If you’re going to host a picnic or a party, their outrageous platters are worth the splurge. They recently opened a second location — a grownup sister restaurant — on upper Meeting Street where you can pretend you're French for a night with some gourmet wine and cheese.
Wine bar. Amazing cheese.
Original photo via Wild Flour Pastry on Instagram.
Wild Flour is where my inner fat kid does a happy dance. The double chocolate cookie and sticky buns on Sunday have ‘cheat day’ written all over them. The Cannon Street location has a little side garden where you can bliss out over a pastry and coffee.
Given its massive success and lines out the door, Callie's has ‘tourist trap’ written all over it. But her biscuits are the real deal. I take my friends first thing in the morning before the wait escalates. Pick up biscuits to-go and take them to the beach!
Harbinger Cafe is a newcomer that won my heart over immediately with its vegan salads, gluten free pastries and frothy matcha lattes. The cafe is airy, feminine and relaxed. I love to sit in the window and watch the wonderfully diverse neighborhood outside.
Queen Street Grocery is truly a local's spot and an unexpected gem with a casual-cool vibe. This little market has been around since 1922 and is still serving up breakfast all day, along with delicious salads and sandwiches. Pop in for some food or coffee, groceries, and a chill environment with some good tunes.
Brown's Court Bakery is a delicious little bakery located in a charming historic house. Stop by to refuel with some coffee or a delicious pastry. They also make the BEST breads that you can buy right there in house. Several restaurants around town use their bread and pastries!
Original photo via Mercantile and Mash on Instagram.
Mercantile and Mash is a hipster paradise that is housed in the old, expertly restored Cigar Factory. They have a grab-and-go case with yummy salads, sandwiches, and prepared meals. You can order any coffee or pastry your heart desires here, and they also have a full kitchen and unique menu items. Be sure to check out their brunch!
Caviar and Bananas is a fully stocked one-stop-shop for anything you need. Check out their gourmet grocery area- full of every candy, snack, pasta, and anything else you can dream of. They also have a huge selection of drinks- alocholic and non, an eye-catching dessert case, plus salads, sandwhiches, and a prepared food case. This is a no-fail option, especially if you need a spot that will be sure to have something for everyone! (Tip: try the raspberry lemon bar!)
Original photo via Kudu on Instagram.
Kudu is a chill little coffee spot in the heart of downtown. Sit inside to enjoy the baristas' excellent music selection, or oustide in their sunny courtyard. In addition to coffee and some snacks, they have a killer beer selection. It's a great casual location to stop and relax for a bit in between shopping and exploring.
Basic Kitchen is a newer health food spot for all you earth goddesses out there. From cauliflower wings to beet margaritas, they add a healthy twist to some classic comfort foods, not the mention their interior design is on point.
Original photo via Jeni's on Instagram.
Y'all, I love a good dessert. Jeni's is a gourmet ice cream spot that has the most unique and delicious flavors. Jeni's founder Jeni Britton Bauer has done it all, including studying art, working in a bakery, and blending perfumes. She uses only whole ingredients and dairy from grass-pastured cows to make for the best ice cream around. Plus, they have locations across the USA, so you can find a Jeni's on your other trips too!
Leon's is the first place I take a visitor to introduce them to Southern food in a vibrant, cool setting. Once we set foot into the converted auto body shop, I don't even need to look at the menu. I always order family style portions of fried chicken, hush puppies and fried oysters. The food is always great, and the vibe is always buzzing.
The Variety Store is a no-frills local diner right on the Ashley River downtown. Come here for a breakfast of shrimp and grits. The veteran waitresses keep your coffee mug full and call you “sugar.” The interior hasn't changed a bit since I used go here on Sundays with my granddad. We’d get a window booth and watch the dolphins swim by.
At night, this modest Broad Street bakery transforms into a neighborhood dinner gem for locals. The kitchen is helmed by “two Phils,” a chummy, hilarious duo who whip up incredible, simple dishes on small hot plates behind the bar. Also great for wine and raw oysters.
FIG lives up to its many awards and accolades. I’ve never had a less than marvelous meal here. Chef Jason Stanhope’s magic lies in his small plates crafted from hyper-local, seasonal ingredients. Order the eggplant and cottage cheese and ask the bartender Andrew to make you a wet martini. The dining room is very formal. I think the best seat in the house is at the lively bar.
With its fresh Asian dishes and laid-back surroundings, XBB is my go-to spot to catch up with girlfriends over dinner and drinks. The owners - who are also DJs - spin their electronic mixes for the restaurant's playlist, which pumps throughout the colorful interior of the former gas station. The menu of Asian soulfood "was inspired by kickass grandmothers everywhere" and features familiar comforts like papaya salad, mapo dofu and steamed fish.
So hip it hurts. Operated by the brains behind Xiao Bao Biscuit. This place is 'edgy' for Charleston but New Yorkers will feel right at home.
Good old Hominy Grill is Charleston’s most famous southern restaurant, known for its fried chicken and biscuits. While it's worth the wait, Hominy is usually packed for weekend brunch, so I suggest to go for a weekday lunch or dinner instead.
Butcher & Bee never disappoints when I want a flavorful, filling meal that’s still healthy. If you like to graze, order all of the small mezze plates like whipped feta with radishes and spicy carrot salad. This also makes a great weekend brunch option. If there's just two of you, sit at the bar in front of the kitchen to watch the talented young cooks in action.
Chill, intimate pizza spot where all the insider locals go. Order the salad that's essentially an italian sub in a salad but you don't feel bad because it's a salad.
We're spoiled with great BBQ in this town. Texan BBQ by John Lewis and SC native Rodney Scott are incredible options, but Hometeam is my top pick because -- not only is the pulled pork fantastic -- but you can balance out the indulgence with large salads and veggies. That said, if you want a total gut-buster, dig into the appetizer of pork cracklings and pimento cheese!
The Ordinary is my top pick for a special dinner out. Set in a beautifully restored bank, this upscale seafood restaurant oozes old world charm. I highly recommend settling into their classic oyster bar for a swishy happy hour. If you’re craving southern seafood in a little more casual setting, go for fried seafood across the street at The Darling.
Edmund's Oast is a great choice for a little bit of a nicer dinner that isn't just your typical southern seafood restaurant. They serve up delicious cheese boards, small plates, and dessert. You can also sit at the chef's counter and participate in a 7 course tasting menu if you want to switch up your usual night out dinner plans.
The Obstinate Daughter is right above Beardcat, one of my other recommendations, on Sullivan's Island. Spruce up after a nice beach day and head on down to this local favorite for dinner. You might want to make reservations ahead of time, because this place is always packed. Everything is delicious here, from pizza to pasta to seafood. Their old danger pizza is a no-fail option topped with a fried egg. Everything is instantly better when topped with a fried egg, right?
IBU Movement , Noddy, CandleFish, Maris De Hart, FieldShop at the Dewberry and Drift.
Owner Deirdre Zahl -- who moonlights as a DJ -- has curated a magical, girly fantasy world inside her Cannon Street store. Here you can find vintage clothes and accessories, as well as her own jewelry designs.
I encourage you a visit to the famous Jewel Box to see the magic of this multi-generational women-run business. For over a century, Charlestonians have trusted Croghan’s for gifts for debutante parties, bridal and baby showers, weddings and, of course, engagement rings. Mini Hay, the youngest granddaughter in the Croghan’s dynasty, is paving the future legacy with her own cheeky jewelry line of Goldbugs (ok, it’s a gold-plated cockroach… Charleston’s unofficial mascot).
Worthwhile established itself as the authority of bohemian-chic back in 1993 on King Street. Shopping at this lovely little store with a warm wood interior feels very personal and welcoming. It carries an eclectic selection of designs from Rick Owens to Isabel Marant, as well as jewelry and gifts, including a gorgeous gold silk quilt depicting the Charleston coastline by Haptic Lab.
Original photo via Candlefish on Instagram.
Visiting the sunny, open shop of local candle company Candlefish is sensorial joy. The shop is beautifully curated, with more than 100 scents to choose from. A chic souvenir is their Charleston Candle, with notes of jasmine, tea olive and magnolia… and sea salt of course. Candlefish also hosts weekly DIY workshops on candle-making.
IBU was founded by Susan Hull Walker, whoI am very grateful to call a friend and mentor. Susan travels the world in search of beautiful artisanal fashion. Every piece is handmade by women, promoting economic self-sufficiency through the art of their hands. Her boutique on lower King Street is a bohemian oasis and treasure trove, swathed in rich textiles and dotted with stunning jewelry (including my special edition earrings!) and accessories like basket bags and Moroccan babouches. Susan has an incredible eye for styling souk treasures in a timeless, modern way.
Owner Stacey Smallwood travels to Europe multiple times a year to pick a fresh, creative edit of major designers like Stella McCartney, Carven, and Isabel Marant and contemporary labels like Ulla Johnson, Tibi, Zimmermann and Rag & Bone. Hampden is the exclusive retailer of Golden Goose in town as well!
It goes without saying that number one thing to do in Charleston is to take in the beautiful homes and gardens located in the most historic quarter South of Broad. Biking is great way to cover a lot of ground (and catch a breeze!). You can hop a ride on Charleston’s own version of Citi Bikes: Holy Spokes.
Sullivan's Island has the most beautiful beaches in Charleston. I love going here in the morning for a walk and then grabbing some of my favorite barbeque at Home Team. If you go on a hot afternoon, there's nothing better than cooling down with sea salt and olive oil gelato at Beardcat.
Folly is the bohemian, funkier sister to Sullivan’s Island. On weekends, this little town fills up with food trucks, surfers, and beach bums. It's easy to rent surfboards out there, especially atMcKevlins. Don't even bother to brush the sand off your feet before digging into some fish tacos at Chico Feo.
This 60-acre park in northern part of the Peninsula features sprawling ancient oaks, magnificent flowering trees and broad lawns.
Walk or run over the Ravenel Bridge for magnificent panoramic views of the peninsula and surrounding islands. There is plenty of public parking on the Mt. Pleasant side.
I'm constantly rotating amongst yoga studios, enjoying their unique specialties. For a good flow, I go to Urban Yoga on King. For deep stretch, slow yin classes, there's Mission. And for hot power sessions, I sweat it out at Charleston Power Yoga (CPY), which has free community classes on Fridays at 4pm.
Most visitors paddle board and kayak at Shem Creek, but I recommend avoiding it because of boat traffic and poor water quality. If you want to get out into nature, drive a bit further to Isle of Palms to Ocean Fitness. This boutique operation offers great paddle boarding classes — from excursions to fitness classes.
The Battery is the iconic spot on the tip of the peninsula overlooking the Charleston Harbor. There is a rich war history here, so all you history buffs will be in heaven. Stroll along the water and catch a spectacular sunset here. White Point Gardens is the park right on the battery filled with picturesque sprawling trees. Architecture lovers will love all of the historic homes surrounding the area.
If you've already explored the Battery or want to check out another waterfront area, check out Waterfront Park just a bit further up the peninsula. The iconic pineapple fountain can be found here, along with a long dock and some swings for you to rest your legs after all of your exploring.
The Gibbes is Charleston’s premier art museum, housed in a grand Beaux Arts Building that was recently restored and renovated. Its collection features more than 10,000 works of fine art, principally American works, many with a connection to Charleston or the South. After a tour, enjoy a drink alfresco in the back garden reminiscent of Paris.
Redux is a non-profit community art institution that's home to 40 studios of local Charleston artists all creating together under one roof. In its spacious warehouse on upper King Street, the organization hosts diverse exhibitions and education programs for the public in addition to frequent open studio parties. Look at their website calendar for free art exhibitions, artist and curator lecture series, film screenings, and workshops.
The Halsey is the College of Charleston’s contemporary art institution that promotes up-and-coming visual artists and student shows. Check out their website for regularly curated artist lectures, film screenings and receptions.
Middleton Plantation is a National Historic Landmark and home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the US, covering 65 acres. The Gardens have been planned so that there is something blooming at Middleton Place year-round. Be sure to check out the tours to brush up on Charleston history.
When I'm craving fancy and cool, I hightail it to the lobby of the this luxury hotel in an immaculately restored midcentury building. Steeped in stunning 1960s design, the lobby transports you to another era.
Bars on King Street are kind of a hot mess that I tend to avoid. Cozy cocktail lounge The Belmont is an exception, with its laidback surroundings and subtle retro vibe. The handsome mustached bartenders whip up serious cocktails while classic black and white films are project on the back wall. It is great for drinks after dinner at the Ordinary or the Darling.
With over 40 taps, this friendly, funky beer bar boasts Charleston’s best selection of "unusual, rare and one-of-a-kind beers from South Carolina and beyond." The menu offers a fresh, local spin on traditional pub food like buffalo oysters and fried chicken sandwiches.
Taco Boy is a super casual mexican restaurant beloved by locals. Besides their tacos and other delicious food, stop here for some margaritas. Get yours frozen, on the rocks, with sugar or salt, or choose from several yummy flavors. Grab some drinks and enjoy them on their cute courtyard, along with all of the dogs that are usually there!
Check out that drool-worthy photo by my lovely friend Julia Engel of Gal Meets Glam. You can check out her extensive Charleston guide here.
The Watch is a fun rooftop bar on top of the beautiful Restoration Hotel. It has some of the best views in Charleston, and some stellar drinks and bites to boot.
I love a good outdoor space. Elevé is another great rooftop bar on top of the gorgeous Grand Bohemian Hotel. Serving up drinks and bites in a cozy outdoor spot overlooking the Charleston skyline, you can't go wrong here.
Charleston has no shortage of great breweries. We could have a whole brewery guide alone! Revelry brewing is a great spot located on the upper peninsula. They have a cute upstairs area as well that has the best sunset view. They also serve yummy tacos... and sushi!
The Faculty Lounge is a speakeasy-dance club, where you have to ring the doorbell to get in. This under-the-radar local favorite hosts the best local DJs who spin disco, funk, reggae, and house. The bar is laid back and fun. Buy your friends a round with the affordable cocktail prices.
It’s impossible to not have fun at The Commodore. When the owners reincarnated the old jazz club ‘A Touch of Class,’ they preserved the original leather booths and murals depicting blues musicians. The bar hosts live soul bands on weekends, crowding everyone onto the tiny checkered dance floor late into sweaty nights. When you get hungry, head to the nearby Palace Hotelfor late night hot dogs.
With neon lights, live music, and Harley Davidsons parked outside, Royal American reminds me of my barhopping college days in Nashville. I love the grungy vibe of this place, with graffitied bathroom stalls, stiff punch drinks and sticky floors. This lively joint books a steady stream of indie rock bands, so check their line-up.
Fancy cocktails with a good looking crew. Last time I was here we spilled several martini glasses and I heard a bottle of champagne break on the floor. Don't be fooled by the lovely surroundings -- this place can get rowdy.
Cocktail Club is a cozy upstairs bar perfect for a night out with your girlfriends or your man. The vibe of this place is very laidback earlier in the evening, but gets pretty busy later at night. If you're wanting more of a chill night, head here on the early side, grab a drink, and sink into one of their comfy leather couches.