In search of the real South – Charleston, South Carolina

charleston king street

Last Updated on April 13, 2021 by Dani

At times, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that being a nomad isn’t just about the freedom to go anywhere we want, but also about the opportunities we have to learn about all the places we visit – in essence to get to know the world. Nowhere is this more relevant than in your own backyard. In your own country, you may assume you know about a place that you have never even visited. That is why, when we started to play with the idea of a major US road trip this past year, we knew we wanted to drive through ‘The South’, a place that seemed as foreign to us as Guatemala, Laos, or Russia.

It was time to break through some of our stereotypes. It was time to find out what The South was really all about. And no better way to start off this quest than with a visit to Charleston.

charleston rocking chairsThe first major Southern stop was Charleston…a city as classically Southern as it gets: the friendly locals with pleasant southern drawls, large front porches wrapping around grand antebellum homes, humid weather that makes you move slow as molasses and the plantations we had only read about in books or seen in films. In fact, dozens of our Southern stereotypes clicked right into place, but what we discovered was that by paying attention to the details, we could pick up so much more of an understanding about southern life, past and present.

visit Charleston

Classically Southern Experience: Visit a Plantation

Detail: Hand Imprints

Making the trip to a plantation was a must for us both. To a couple from the northern US and Germany, the institution of slavery seems such an intangible concept and a plantation visit is the easiest way to really to create a deeper understanding of southern life in pre-Civil War America.

boone hall plantation south carolinaWhen you visit Charleston, a trip to a plantation is easy: A quick 25 min drive from Charleston, you find Boone Hall Plantation, one of the most famous plantations in the entire South.

What first registers is how peaceful it is, just the sounds of cicadas and we drove through the Avenue of the Oaks – the long, dirt driveway lined with 88 oak trees each over 300 years old. After the 30-minute house tour it is easy to imagine ourselves sitting on the front porch sipping peach iced tea, fanning ourselves and sharing the gossip of the ladies of Charleston.

boone hall plantationThat is, until we make our way to the gut-wrenching, yet gripping, Black History in America exhibit set up inside the eight remaining slave cabins on the property. The exhibit yanks guests right back to reality. Rather than reading about life as a slave in a book, standing inside the four by five foot cabin meant for two families makes the injustice incredibly palpable.

boone hall plantation slave quartersWe also learned an interesting detail that drove home the key role that slavery played in building the South. Before the Civil War, Boone Hall Plantation produced handmade bricks for the city. Take a close look at the older buildings in town, and you will see the slaves’ hand prints in the bricks. This physical connection, no matter how far removed by time, left a huge impression on us about what life before the Civil War in the South must have been like.

Tip: If you don’t have a car, you can visit Boone Hall Plantation via Uber / taxi, or book an organized tour from Charleston.

Classically Southern Experience: Visit a historic home

Detail: Joggling Boards

We were immediately attracted to the regal beauty of the homes in the French Quarter and visited the Edmonston-Alston and Heyward-Washington homes. These visits are always similar: A woman dressed in a historic costume, her graying hair in a bun, greets guests at the door with twinkling eyes, a drawn out Southern speech and a palpable passion for bygone eras.

visit Charleston
At first, the tour feels stiff; we always fear being bored to tears. Eventually we are won over when it becomes clear the tour is about more than its construction or furniture. We revel in details like what people would have eaten for dinner or how evenings were spent. It was at the Edmonston-Alston house where we learned that, in the 1800s, much time would have been spent on the joggling board. This long, pliable wooden board – almost always painted green – was originally invented for sufferers of rheumatism, but there may have been quite a few marriage proposals made on them as well. If unmarried young adults sat on either side and ‘joggled’ their way to the center, the experience would have been considered so intimate, the boy would have felt obligated to propose to the girl. What a difference to our concepts of personal space and intimacy today!

Joggling Board

Classically Southern Experience: Southern Charm

Detail: An invitation to the Pink House.

People in the South really are so friendly and everyone called us ‘sweetie’, ‘baby’ or ‘honey’ – sometimes all three in one sentence. We had random conversations with strangers almost everywhere – parks, restaurants, on the street, at the hotel. But one circumstance in particular really impressed.

At one point during our visit to Charleston we were happily wandering through the cobblestone lanes of the city’s French Quarter, and we heard a shout and saw a wave from a cheerful lady. Could she be talking to us, we wondered. Sure enough, she struck up a conversation and we got to talking about life in Charleston. After a few minutes, she invited us to her gallery. Called The Pink House, it the smallest gallery in Charleston. She did not want to sell us anything, just wanted us to see it. She talked about when it was built and by whom, just wanted to teach us a little bit about Charleston and told us a ghost story or two about the attic. We went up to check it out, but saw no ghosts that day.

Visit Charleston

Classically Southern Experience – Life on the water

Detail: Refreshingly unpretentious

I am not sure where this ‘water’ stereotype of mine was formed…maybe country singers like Tim McGraw, who sang about Johnny’s daddy who was always taking him fishin’ or Alan Jackson’s nostalgia for his teen years spent on the Chattanooga river. Somehow I always picture southerners out on the water whenever possible. Some of the beaches, even on a Tuesday afternoon, were packed when we pulled up, others less so. Either way, what was so refreshing was how unpretentious the entire beach experience was. Going to the beach seemed to be about relaxing, not to showing off six pack abs or drinking overpriced fruity cocktails with little umbrellas in them. Instead, beach-goers included young couples with kids, octogenarians in speedos, kite-flyers, kite-surfers, sandcastle builders and large groups of friends or family having lunch under the sun.

Tip: When you visit Charleston, you have a number of beaches to choose from. We visited the Isle of Palms beach.

visit Charleston

Tips for your visit to Charleston:

Stop in to the Charleston Visitors Center. It is an interesting tourist attraction itself, located in a former railway station, but the Visitor Center has hundreds of maps and itineraries and the staff is genuinely interested in helping you plan your time in town. You can also watch an introductory film to Charleston to get your bearings and a visit a small museum inside dedicated to the history of the city.

We got around much better using the GPSmyCity iPhone app, which has been a great help for us in quite a few cities this year.


Have you been to Charleston and Boone Hall Plantation? What are some great little details you remember about the city?



    1. Hi Tricia, glad you enjoyed the post. We actually had one of our less foodie times in Charleston to be honest. We had student grub for breakfast and touristy pub grub for a late lunch. There were three or four places we really wanted to try – but we spent the entire day on foot slicing through 99 of the most humid degrees sightseeing, so our appetites were actually low – we just focused on drinking water! 🙂 If you have suggestions for next time, we’d love to hear it – we’ll definitely be back to spend a bit of time on the Isle of Palms at some point at least!

      1. I have tons of suggestions-Charleston is a great town for food. My husband and I are actually heading down next weekend, and we are trying a few new places. I’ll let you know how those are, and I’ll send a list of my current faves, too.

        I’m guessing you visited in the summer based on your weather. If at all possible, I stay on the beach during the summer months. It is just too dang hot to be traipsing all over the place otherwise. IOP is one of my favorite beaches in the world, so I hope you love it. Be sure to check out Sullivan’s Island as well.

            1. Oh, and I wanted to add something that has been niggling my brain for a while in your post.

              “To a couple from the northern US and Germany, the institution of slavery seems such an intangible concept…”

              I wasn’t exactly sure how to take this at first, but I think it goes without saying that most modern day Southerners also can’t fathom an America with slavery.

              It is hard, though, because there are times when I almost feel a responsibility for something with which I had nothing to do, but also have a love for a place that has so many positive pieces of history and contemporary culture.

              So, I just wanted to say that though there are some intolerant, ignorant pockets of people in the South and everywhere in the world, really, I appreciate your honesty and I’m glad you visited.

              “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” -Mark Twain

              Best, Tricia

              1. Tricia, you make a good point. It’s strange to explain. I mean, in the north, I think we kind of grow up taught that all those bad things only happened in the south, so you grow up with the sort of stereotype related to the past and the South. But then it was reveled in the 90s I think that a slave burial ground was discovered in Manhattan when they were digging around the subway. I just meant it seems really foreign, and I assume a bit more foreign for us northerners because you actually have these plantations near your towns, so have at least some connection to where it all took place, does that make sense? Also, having said that – I think Dani would completely agree with this statement you make about mixed feelings. Germans have this heavy sense of guilt as well, wrapped up inside a ball of frustration, because this was so long ago that they don’t feel at all associated with this terrible thing that happened in Germany’s history, either. That’s why it’s hard for Germans sometimes to feel ‘proud’ of Germany – at least outwardly and openly – even though they should be because they really have an amazing country. Anyway, I really appreciate you saying something…I wasn’t sure how it sounded when I wrote it, and I dont actually know how southerners feel about that part of the past, because it honestly has never, in any conversation with a friend from the south, come up and I would have no idea how to ask. Anyway, thanks for your comment!!

                1. Funny that you say that about the slave cemetery in NYC-I literally stumbled upon the dedication of it during a “Gangs of New York” walking tour in 2005. My (white) tour guide didn’t know it was happening, and we were all standing on a grave right before the ceremony began…it was awkward, to say the least. It was also interesting and odd to be there for it, and I’m really glad I got the unexpected opportunity to be there.

                  And yes, there was slavery all over the US, not just the South. I personally think that teaching kids that it only happened in the South is an extension of the “us vs. them” mentality, just as Southerners in popular culture are still often made out to be uneducated hicks. There’s a lot more to both, but sometimes it is easier to gloss over a complicated history for the sake of brevity, humor and a veiled sense of superiority.

                  I can imagine it must be tough for Jess-sort of a Survivor’s Guilt type of situation, even though it happened well before she was born. I would also think it might be even a little more difficult for her and her compatriots as there are still people alive who remember the time and/or were born into the following generations. I’ve often wondered how that feels for them, and what their outlook might be.

                  I’ve also been thinking about the Confederate soldier monuments mentioned in the other comments. It actually made me think, because I’ve never even considered that it might seem odd before now. And yes, I guess it is a little strange. Here’s what I’m guessing it was: when the Civil War ended, the South did not necessarily rejoin the Union willingly. So, I’m thinking those monuments were a message to the North that the days may be gone but not forgotten.

                  Just like in any war, there was anti-enemy propaganda and the feeling that made Confederate citizens feel that the Union Army had plundered their homes and fields and lives even though they were not slave owners, and they were also still a little mad about the states’ rights issue. Putting up statues was a quiet but lasting image of remembrance for both sides.

                  Also, a whole lot of civilians and soldiers died in that war. Those memorials and statues were probably also a place for families who lost people to a cause they may or may not have believed in to prove that it wasn’t in vain, and that no matter what happened, there would be a piece of stone there to remind future generations that they existed. And perhaps also to learn from that it was or wasn’t worth the fight.

                  These are all my opinions, of course. I love this conversation. It has made me examine a few things differently.


            2. Hey there Tricia – wow this food is munchie heaven! I love that during restaurant week you’ve got Mac n Cheese AND popcorn your round up post! So southern 🙂 Thanks so much for the offer to help us with our menu next time we are in Charleston – though the adjustment from South East Asian to Southern cuisine will probably be difficult, mac n cheese is always a must 🙂

    1. Andi, thanks for your comment, and for really understanding this post. It’s really tough to love Charleston so much but reconcile its modern charm with a past that is so hard to understand.

  1. As a black traveler, Charleston surprised me. I didn’t have time to explore the historical aspects as much as you did because I was there for a wedding, but we were able to do a lot of walking and driving around the city. Even though the history is often so present (I couldn’t believe when I saw a statue honoring Confederate soldiers) and overall I’m not politically in line with South Carolina, I was pleasantly surprised with my experiences there. Racism is omnipresent in the US, even in my lovely city of San Francisco, but in the Charleston, there’s a bit more realness about it than there is here. People were incredibly friendly and welcoming to me, and from what I saw, there was quite a bit of racial mixing – couples and friends. Another surprise was that walking around on a Sunday, I saw huge congregations at two liberally inclined churches – the Unitarian Church and the United Church of Christ. Of course, my opinion on Charleston could change if I spent more time there, but I think there is something to be said for a place that has been forced to confront their injustices as opposed to the ones that never had to, but still have it lurking underneath the surface. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    1. Hey Ekua, I know exactly what you are talking about with this – I too had a hard time understanding tributes to the Confederate soldiers, but I also found Charleston and other smaller southern cities to be much more racially mixed than I expected. That was one reason why I wanted to go – because had I never gone to spend time in the South, I would still be picturing some warped historical stereotype. Thanks for your perspective,too – love the idea that Charleston is more real because of confronting injustice, whereas northerners never have had to…going to think on that for a while for sure!

  2. I haven’t been to “the South” in America, but I would love to do a classic road trip through there. I barely even have a clue what to see, but I think that feels like a good way to do it.

    1. Road-tripping is honestly the best way to see the U.S. – in every part of the country! We’ve got a few posts out on the South that might be useful if you do plan a road trip there…

  3. Wow! You really did it all 🙂 Sounds like great experiences. I think I’d really want to visit a plantation if I ever make it to that corner of the States. Would be really interesting!

    1. The plantation visits were definitely some of the most interesting aspects of our tour through the south. We did the one outside of Charleston and then also outside of New Orleans – the Laura plantation was a Creole plantation which showed a really original experience specific to Louisiana!

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