I am a huge lover of history and usually jump at the chance to visit any historic sites when I travel. What I didn’t realize about Charleston, South Carolina is that I would be walking into a history book. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t do much research before traveling to Charleston. Sometimes I like to visit a destination without any expectations.
One of the first things I did when I arrived was jump on a walking tour. Bulldog Tours organizes a variety of tours including haunted history, culinary and LGBTQ history tours, so of course that is the one I chose. My knowledgeable guide Zach and I spent two hours strolling around downtown Charleston visiting many of the historic sites of the city while he recanted tales of the city’s harsh past. He also included some LGBTQ historical facts, and we visited some significant sites along the way.
Charleston was one of only three walled cities in North America and the historic society has imposed some of strictest rules and regulations in the country to ensure that the city remains well-preserved. Charleston sits on a peninsula surrounded by two rivers which lead to the Atlantic Ocean, so it became one of the earliest port cities in the country due to its geography. It is also extremely walkable, giving it a European feel. I was able to walk almost everywhere I visited with the exception of a few off-the-beaten path restaurants.
A person can’t visit Charleston without learning about its controversial past. Given its location as I described earlier, the city was a key port that was responsible for the sale and transport of enslaved Africans. Numerous plantations still exist throughout the region including McLeod Plantation, a former slave plantation located on James Island. The plantation is considered an important Gullah heritage site, preserved in recognition of its cultural and historical significance to African-American and European-American cultures. The plantation grounds include slave cabins, a gin house, and gardens. The property has served in many capacities over the years including a Confederacy Hospital, a burial ground for slaves and Union soldiers, and a headquarters office for the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Touring a plantation can be emotionally draining, so after grabbing a quick bite at Leon’s Oyster Shop, head to the South Carolina Aquarium to lighten the mood. My main reason for visiting this aquarium was to tour its renowned sea turtle hospital and rehabilitation center. Guests are given the chance to learn about all of the turtles at the center including how they were injured as well as their path the recovery and ultimate release back into the ocean. The aquarium also features a wonderful stingray touch pool where guests can feed the rays. I’ve done this activity many times in the past, but I can’t remember the last time the rays were so excited and friendly.
After a long day of touring the city, head to The Loutrel, a brand-new boutique hotel in the heart of downtown Charleston. The elegantly appointed property is conveniently located to almost every attraction in the city and just a block away from the City Market. The 50-room property has a 24-hour fitness center, mezzanine level where friends can gather and enjoy complimentary snacks and beverages as well as a rooftop patio boasting panoramic views of the city. My corner room contained a living area, large bedroom with king-size bed and a bathroom complete with a walk-in shower. The property is so new, I am pretty confident that I may have been the first guest to stay in that particular room. After a quick wardrobe change, grab a signature cocktail at Veranda Lounge before heading out for the evening.
For dinner, check out The Grocery, about a 25-minute walk from the hotel. Begin your meal with the Marinated Beet, served with Granny Smith apple, walnut, feta, and herb-tahini yogurt. The restaurant prides itself of its fresh produce and this dish was a testament to their vision. If you visit with family or friends, I recommend sharing the Lowcountry Seafood Pilau, basically Charleston’s version of paella, served with shrimp, clams and fried fish over a bed of rice.
Charleston is home to one LGBTQ bar, so after dinner at The Grocery, head over to Dudley’s on Ann, the oldest gay bar in the city. The space hosts drag performances throughout the week as well as a small dance floor.
Even though there is only technically one LGBTQ nightlife venue in the city, the people of Charleston are pretty laid back and non-judgmental. It has an East Coast sophistication and many of the locals told me they feel comfortable expressing affection in non-LGBTQ specific establishments as well.
I had the opportunity to speak with Harlen Greene, a local historian and archivist who most recently began a project to collect materials and documentation about Charleston’s LGBTQ history. “Charleston prides itself in its history but sells various versions of its history to people,” Green mentioned. “History is an elite club, so finally LGBTQ people came and started telling me about their history.”
In 2018, an initiative called The Real Rainbow Row was launched, to collect photographs, diaries, memoirs, religious and institutional records, as well as Pride, bar, and other items related to Charleston’s LGBTQ history. Input and suggestions from individuals regarding archival materials and oral histories are eagerly sought and tax-deductible financial contributions are necessary to keep the project active.
Wake up early the next morning and enjoy the complimentary breakfast as The Loutrel before setting out to explore the city. I suggest heading south from the hotel as that is where many of the stately mansions are located. As you get closer to the tip of the peninsula, the houses become grander in stature. Swing by Rainbow Row, a collection of 13 colorfully painted homes along East Bay Street. It isn’t a gayborhood unfortunately, but it does make for some wonderful Instagram photos. End your tour at Riley Waterfront Park, home of the city’s iconic Pineapple Fountain.
Before you depart Charleston, stop by Rodney Scott’s BBQ for a taste of true South Carolina BBQ. The award-winning establishment is home to delicious melt-in-your-mouth BBQ and is famous for their pulled pork. I decided to try a little of everything, but given how much I walked on this trip, I decided to treat myself.
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