In spring, anyone who wanders the narrow, well-groomed streets of Charleston’s three-century-old historic district will catch the fragrant scents of tea olive and pittosporum blossoms drifting over the high garden walls. But few visitors will get the chance to enter one of those secret gardens—unless they’re here during the annual spring Festival of Houses & Gardens.
For 60 years, the Historic Charleston Foundation has organized tours to give visitors a glimpse inside the city’s loveliest private homes, from grand antebellum mansions to intimate Georgian townhouses. This year’s festival runs from March 15 to April 14. Each day’s tour takes in 8 to 10 properties; guides wait at the doors to show you around (843-722-3405; historiccharleston.org; tours $45). Some tours visit gardens only, and those sell out first in this horticulturally crazed Southern seaport. But call now, and you should be able to book a house-and-garden tour this spring.
Preserving the past has long been a priority here—in fact, Charleston was the first American city to establish an official historic district, when it passed an ordinance back in 1931.
This peninsular city of 90,000 retains a very human scale, since no house may be taller than its highest church steeples, which top out at 265 feet. Spiky palmetto trees brush the sky as they have for hundreds of years; fresh paint gleams on the mansions along the Battery at the foot of the peninsula; slate sidewalks, cobblestones and gas lights recall the past.
But Charleston knows how to keep modern-day visitors happy. For every historic house open to the public there are dozens of horse-drawn carriages offering rides, and shops selling candles, jewelry and postcards of Rainbow Row (14 houses from the 1740s, each painted a different color). After dark, clusters of visitors on ghost tours scurry along the shadowy back lanes. Daytime walking tours visit sites related to pirate treasure, black history, the Civil War and Gone With the Wind (this is, of course, Rhett Butler’s hometown).
Two years ago, as part of Charleston’s careful dance with the present, two old bridges over the Cooper River were replaced by the exuberant new Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge (generally called the Cooper River Bridge). It quickly became a symbol of the new Charleston; with a main span of 1,546 feet, it’s the longest cable-stayed suspension bridge in North America. Residents love to bike or stroll its 2½-mile length, pausing under the diamond-shaped trusses, 200 feet above the water, to rest on benches and admire the view of Charleston’s harbor. If you’re visiting, call Bike the Bridge to rent a Raleigh seven-speed (843-853-2453; bikethebridgerentals.com, $25/day); you can even pedal across the bridge then ride back on the new Charleston Water Taxi’s catamaran (charlestonwatertaxi.com).
Change is also afoot just northwest of the city at the historic park known as Charles Towne Landing. Here on the marshy banks of the Ashley River, English settlers came from Barbados in 1670 to establish the first European colony in the Carolinas. The site was used for only a decade; then “Charles Towne” was relocated to the peninsula where it stands today. In recent years, the 664-acre State Historic Site fell into disrepair, but a $19 million renovation has revived it. Interactive exhibits in the new glass-and-pine visitor center explain how the settlers established the new colony using a slave-based sugar-plantation economy they called the “Barbadian model.” (These days slavery is acknowledged more openly than it was just a few decades back, as befits this sad history—Charleston was to become the major entry point for Africans brought to America in the 18th century.)
Elsewhere on the park grounds are replica settlers’ cabins, a reconstructed 9½-foot-high palisade, originally built to protect from a Spanish attack that never came, and the Animal Forest, a natural-habitat zoo with bears, bison and pumas. Shipwrights are building a replica 17th-century trade vessel that will be afloat sometime this year, and a new boardwalk is freshened by salt sea air blowing in off the marsh.
In the past few years, Charleston has become one of the country’s hottest restaurant destinations. A company called Charleston Cooks offers classes that focus on South Carolina tastes and recipes—grits and hoppin’ john, crabcakes and Frogmore stew. During the 90-minute Taste of the Lowcountry class, you’ll help prepare an appetizer, one or two main courses and dessert, tasting your handiwork and sipping wine all the while (843-722-1212; charlestoncooks.com; $25).
The city’s new Food & Wine Festival is already a hit (this year’s takes place March 1 to 4). Then there’s the annual Spoleto, two weeks overflowing with music, dance and theater (May 25 to June 10). But organized events are only one way to enjoy Charleston. You can simply stroll the eminently walkable neighborhoods, discovering vest-pocket parks and ancient cemeteries where gravestones tilt beneath the Spanish moss—and breathing in the heady perfume that seeps over the walls of those secret gardens.