Charleston Top Spots; Grave History in the Holy City

Charleston, South Carolina is a gorgeous city on the Atlantic Coast known for its Live Oak trees, Low Country cuisine, antebellum architecture, sprawling town squares, and other facets of Southern charm.

Some of Charleston’s other claims to fame include being home of the country’s first museum, playhouse, golf club, and public college.

The College of Charleston was founded in 1770, the Charleston Museum in 1773, the Dock Street Theatre/Playhouse in 1736, and Harleston (not Charleston) Green Golf Club in 1786.


Charleston was England’s first surviving colony in the Southern USA. Because it is a port city on the eastern coast of the USA, Charleston has always been kind of a big deal.

It was originally settled in 1670 after King Charles II granted land to eight of his pals and named it Charles Town, after himself. It was not until after the American Revolution that the name was shortened to Charleston.

Three prominent chapters of American history are centered on Charleston; African Slave Trades, the American Revolutionary War, and the American Civil War.


Slave Trades (1619-1865)
Charleston history is saturated in the practice of slavery, as it was the prime location for one of our country’s greatest sins. African Slave Trade routes were established as early as 1660, a decade before Charleston was officially founded, but nearly 40% of all Africans who were abducted and brought into the United States during the 1850s and 1860s first landed in Charleston.

You can learn more about this and see actual artifacts in the Old Slave Mart Museum, if you can stomach it. The building was purchased in 1938 by Miriam Wilson who converted it into a museum of African art, and it has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.

In 2018 the City of Charleston formally apologized for its role in slavery, but no matter how lovely and reconstructed and hip it is now, there are historical markers everywhere that keep this grave history out in the open.


Revolutionary War (1775- 1783)
The first major win for Americans in the Revolutionary War was the Battle of Fort Sullivan, fought in Charleston in 1776. Multiple sites around Charleston have great Revolutionary War significance like the Powder Magazine, the oldest public building in the two Carolinas that held the area’s stock of loose cannon powder.

Middleton Place is a National Historic Landmark, home of Declaration of Independence signer, Arthur Middleton, and the set for the film The Patriot. Fort Moultrie, made of palmetto logs, fended off an attack from the British and earned the palmetto its place on the South Carolina. Edgar Allen Poe also wrote The Goldbug while stationed there.

South Carolina Historical Society has a ton of exhibits and Revolutionary War artifacts, and the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon is where the British kept American POWs. Marion Square and the Francis Marion Hotel, are both named for the famed war hero and have their share of historical markers and tales.


Civil War (1861-1865)
The first shots fired of the Civil War were at Fort Sumter, and Charleston is widely acknowledged as the “birthplace” of the Civil War. South Carolinians were the first to sign the Ordinance of Secession that set things off. Confederates wanted to take this port from the Unionists, and it took a continuous 34-hour bombardment before they finally surrendered.

Many historic monuments still stand in honour of Confederate soldiers, a justifiable topic of controversy. There are statues and monuments to Confederate “heroes” everywhere, and it left us feeling uneasy instead of jovial just like our visit to the Old Slave Mart Museum.


Holy City
Charleston calls itself the “Holy City because of the estimated 400+ churches and steeples that dot its skyline, and with churches come graveyards and cemeteries.

The Charleston Cemeteries Historic District is an area north of downtown with two dozen different burial grounds that showcase tons of unique funerary art and symbolism between the 1840s and 1950s.

Magnolia Cemetery circa 1849 is Charleston’s oldest cemetery and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2017. The Circular Congregational Church also vies for title of oldest, and has an unmarked grave dating back to 1695, as well as the distinction of being the only one where graves include portraits of the dead.


Unitarian Church Cemetery is notorious for spirit sightings and ghost tours, and it is the setting for Edgar Allen Poe’s poem Annabel Lee. St. Michael’s is known for being visited by both Robert E. Lee and George Washington, and its resilience through tornados, earthquakes, and other disasters that wiped out many of its neighbours.

The Charleston County Public Library has this awesome article and podcast episode  The Forgotten Dead: Charleston’s Public Cemeteries, 1672-1794 if you want to learn more.

Many of the structures have been reconstructed or rebuilt, and after a horrific earthquake in 1886. Historic buildings have large earthquake rods, and you can identify them by finding the large metal circles on the exterior. I am not a religious person but I really love unique architecture, which is often found in historic churches.


Knowing these major aspects of Charleston history will enrich your visit and add both relevance and substance to the countless monuments, statues, and churches you will see.

With all of that in mind, here are my top spots in Charleston!

1. The Joe Riley Waterfront Park is a paved, palm-tree lined walkway that winds along the Cooper River past Fort Sumter to where it meets the Ashley River. The trail tapers off and you can take any side street to connect to E. Bay Street, a main drag in the area.


Church Street and Meeting Street are the other two main roads in the peninsula, each running north to south, with countless historic homes and markers between them. A significant part of this area overlays the city’s French Quarter.

Below, you can see Fort Sumter in the distance.


One of the most popular tourist stops in Charleston is the city’s beloved Pineapple Fountain.


A couple blocks west the historic Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street, and you can visit the Slave Auction Site Memorial and the Old Exchange & Provost Museum on E. Bay Street.


Echo Rock Park (no website) is full of dreamy Live Oak trees and greenery, stretching its limbs around the Echo Rock itself, a sound-amplifying stone feature you can stand on and sing.


There are around a hundred benches spaced out comfortably for people to gather, and quiet enough to spend a peaceful day alone reading or making art.


2. The Battery & White Point Garden
At the southern tip of E. Bay Street around the peninsula, E. Bay Street becomes Battery Street, and Battery Street leads to The Battery and White Point Garden.

The Battery is a historic landmark; a fortified seawall used for defense during various battles and natural disasters. There are many statues and artifacts on display, including the cannons and cannonballs in my photo above.

Like the Waterfront and Echo Rock Park, White Point Garden is gorgeous, also full of dreamy Live Oak trees, but it unfortunately has many Confederate statues. I plan to take more strategic photos when I return.


3. Charleston’s French Quarter is a small, rectangular district located east of Meeting Street, between Market Street or Hasell Street at its northern boundary and Broad Street as its southern boundary. The Cooper River flows along its eastern side.

The French Quarter took its name due to the flood of French Huguenots that moved into the neighbourhood, creating churches and businesses with a deeply French flair. It is PACKED with properties on the National Register of Historic Places.


Washington Square and Charleston City Hall, the Dock Street Theatre, Gibbes Museum of Art, Buxton Books, US Customs House, Powder Magazine, several more historic homes, and the famous Charleston City Market are all found in the French Quarter.


We picked up early morning coffees at the Christophe Chocolatier & Patisserie which has two locations, and both are in Charleston. They offer handmade and hand-painted French macarons, truffles, chocolate bars, croissants, quiches, cookies, tartes, pastries, coffees, teas, and local art.


Truffle flavours like bananas foster, lavender, key lime cheesecake, star anise, peach pecan, blue cheese, Gianduja, Praline, and my personal favourite, the Earl Grey.


One block west of Meeting Street, walk or drive along King Street and visit all of its galleries, antique stores, and shops.


Meeting and King Streets run parallel to each other from the southernmost tip of the peninsula, all the way up to North Charleston, though the names change at some point.


4. Rainbow Row is on Bay Street, just south of the French Quarter, and features a strip of colourful homes ranging from cotton candy pink and seafoam green to lavender and pastel blues and yellows.


It was not until 1931 that a lady named Dorothy Haskell Porcher Legge painted her house pink, inspiring her neighbours to do the same.


Something I learned about Charleston while visiting is that it is essentially a replica of a small village called Bridgetown in Barbados. British settlers first arrived on Charleston soil in 1670 from Barbados seeking resources, and settled after finding sugar cane.

The new settlers started building right away, patterning the layout after Bridgetown, and named several streets after places in Barbados.


Charleston has its own signature colour, Charleston Green. This deep, dark green hue has an interesting story as well.

When the Civil War ended, officials up north donated tons of black paint to help refresh the city’s worn and damaged exteriors. Indignant Charleston locals did not want any such offerings or influence from the “Yankees” so they added their own “Confederate Yellow” and some dark blue dye to get the notorious shade you can see everywhere today.

I Googled “Charleston Green” and it is pretty on point, with some variation:


Yet another symbolic colour in Charleston is Haint Blue. This hue and tradition is common in Charleston and other coastal towns all the way out to New Orleans, the city Charleston is most often compared to. Superstitious folk paint the underbelly of their porch awnings with a light oceanic blue to deter any evil haints or spirits that may try to fly in.


5. The Charleston History Museum was and is America’s first museum, founded in 1773 as the Civil War began. The building was opened to the public in 1824 and its director, Laura Bragg, was the first female director of a museum receiving public funds in the United States. Bragg’s kin are the current owners of the Old Slave Mart Museum, unless I am mistaken.


Inside, the Lowcountry Hall tells the story of the lifestyles and innovations made by the Native Americans who this land was stolen from, and the enslaved Africans who transformed it into a profitable agricultural economy.


The Armory is a massive collection of weapons used from the 1700s through today, with a focus on those used or designed during the Civil War. We stopped to check out this submarine without realizing we had reached our desired destination, so you can not miss it.


I learned so much in the Becoming Americans exhibit, the story of settling the land, and Charleston’s contributions to the Civil War, for better or worse.

When I read this quote by Civil War Union Army General Sherman, it gave me chills:


The museum’s Bunting Natural History Gallery was fascinating, and my favourite display was the towering ground sloth skeleton that was found nearby a few decades ago.


The pelvis of this beast had to measure at least 5-6 feet wide and its vertebrae were larger than my fist. I was awestruck.


Other exhibits include art from around the world and some Egyptian pieces, a textile gallery and silver (as in silverware) made by from Charleston silversmiths in the Victorian Age.

Part of the museum’s collection is the Heyward-Washington House which was closed during our visit, and the Joseph Manigault House which is located directly across the street. This is just one of the house’s unique and varied sides.

Joseph’s brother Gabriel built this home at the very start of the 1800s and it is one of the few of its kind remaining, and certainly in one of the best conditions. The Manigault family was related to the French Huguenots.


At most plantations, if not all, slave labour bolstered the family’s wealth and the region’s rich economy of rice, indigo, and other crops. This estate was unfortunately kept by the same means, but is revered today for its preserved artitechture.

Some nice ladies saved the house from destruction in the late 1920s and the Charleston Museum stepped in to acquire it. Now the home is a registered National Historic Landmark and you can visit it with your museum admission.

6. Charleston Crab House was our pick for dinner. We shared some of the famous low country She-Crab Soup and two different seafood samplers.


We sat out on the deck overlooking the Cooper River and basked in a buttery-fingered afterglow.


Our second favourite meal was at Sticky Fingers BBQ. They have a few other locations in the southern region, but still pass the local vibes check and I would be remiss not to mention them.

I have never been much of a barbecue type and I can not bring myself to eat meat with bones in it, but I fell hard for their sweet potato casserole, macaroni and cheese, and smoked sausage. My friend is really into ribs and she said they were delicious.


7. The Ravenel Bridge is the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America, and it led us into Charleston from Georgetown, where he had just spent some time visiting. I have a fondness for bridges and I love the optical illusions its design creates as you get closer and begin to navigate its subtle curves.


Charleston’s Infamous Figures
I am most impressed with a story I learned at the Charleston History Museum about a man named Robert Smalls. He was born into slavery in 1839 but eventually worked to free himself and his family, moving on to become a politician, publisher, and businessman.

He is most known for his daring commandeering of a transport ship during the Civil War that carried his family and associates from Confederate territory where they had been enslaved, into freedom of the Union-controlled Beauford/Hilton Head area. His skill and success in piloting the ship paved the way for African Americans to be allowed entry into  the Union army.


Gullah and Geechee People
My greatest sadness of this trip is that we were not afforded enough time to delve into the culture and history of the Gullah and Geechee peoples. The Gullah Museum in Georgetown, a different Gullah Museum in Hilton Head, and as many places as possible on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor tour is what we will be prioritizing on the next visit to the Charleston area.

An interesting fact I learned is that residents of a Charleston orphanage were once taught by one Reverend Daniel Jenkins to read music and play jazz, which led them start the Jenkins Orphanage Band. The Geechee children’s dancing inspired the international, definitive Jazz Age hit song and dance craze “The Charleston” that was composed by James P. Johnson.


Other Notable Figures
Edward Teach, famously known as Blackbeard, was behind an incident in the Harbor of Charleston in 1718. He took several people hostage and refused to release them until he was given some medicine.

Lavinia Fisher, allegedly the USA’s first female serial killer, was convicted of murdering multiple men by luring them into her room and poisoning them. Guests at the Old Charleston Jail House frequently report sightings of a woman’s spirit that they believe is Fisher.

Local author DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy is a window into Charleston’s Gullah community around the 1920s.

George Gershwin may have written Porgy and Bess in Folly Beach, but the characters his play is based on are buried in Charleston, and you can read more about them in Kendra Hamilton’s book, The Secret Lives of Porgy and Bess.


Walking and biking tours are a bustling industry in Charleston, and you can choose your own theme from history, hauntings, architecture, Civil War, and others.


What We Missed
We visited Charleston during a time when people were practicing social distancing during the Covid-19 epidemic, so not everything was open, and rightfully so.

Aside from exploring the Gullah and Geechee cultural centers, we really wanted to visit the Church & Union Restaurant with its antique stained glass windows, the glitzy Stars Rooftop Bar with its 360-degree view of the city, Middleton Place with the oldest landscaped gardens in the USA, Bill Murray’s offbeat Container Bar, and the Charleston Tea Plantation & Garden.

I do love Charleston Tea Plantation’s Earl Grey Tea, and was glad to at least stock up from a local market while we were in town.


I am certain that many new places will have opened by the time we can return, so be sure to comment or send a message if you have more suggestions.

In the area for a while? Follow me to Folly Beach or Georgetown, and don’t forget to subscribe!


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