Charleston, South Carolina, is a famous southern city—famous for its history, its families tracing back to the town's earliest days, and its reputation as a living museum. But while it's become a major tourist draw, Charlestonians have winced in genteel discomfort as oglers peered into the windows of their sitting rooms and horse-drawn carriages clogged their narrow streets.
These days, though, the tourist bottleneck—accepted by locals as a fact of life—has ushered in a new age of possibility. Charleston is no longer just a quaint curiosity for passersby but a progressive, energetic city. Just look at the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, a stunning $632 million structure opened last July, which spans the Cooper River and metaphorically drags the past into the 21st century.
In particular, interest in southern art—in Charleston and well beyond—has exploded. Robert Hicklin is its main champion in town. His Charleston Renaissance Gallery holds more than 600 paintings, including a small watercolor portrait by William R. Hollingsworth Jr. that sells for $9,000 and an 1883 oil by Elizabeth Boott Duveneck offered at $130,000. On any given day, Hicklin might sell a painting to the Philadelphia Museum of Art or buy one that had been hanging in a Savannah saloon for generations. "The South is a culture apart, in its music, its literature, and its food," Hicklin says. "You can't separate the art from the culture."
To be sure, Charleston's traditions aren't the only force behind the revival. "Young people are flocking here," says Janet Gregg, a jewelry designer who left a career after 14 years in New York to settle into a tiny house on Stoll's Alley. Whereas the prospects for young professionals were once bleak—aside from real estate—the city now has something to lure native sons and daughters back home. "They're coming for the quality of life and small-business opportunities," says Gregg, who sells her one-off semiprecious necklaces and belt buckles privately.
Many people in town credit Charleston native Hank Holliday and his antebellum-style Planters Inn with the downtown revival. "People from New York, D.C., and Chicago buy houses here for $5 million, then barely live in them," Holliday says. "But all things considered, it's positive." One upside is that there are now quite a few good places to stay besides Planters. There's the Wentworth Mansion, with its preserved Tiffany stained glass, and a growing group of stylish B&Bs (historiccharlestonbedandbreakfast.com). Perhaps the smartest new addition is Hank's Loft, Holliday's well-kept secret, across the street from the Planters Inn. The 4,500-square-foot space has three bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, a Viking-appointed kitchen, and a dining table for 12—you could live here like a native. He has also begun reclaiming another small stretch of North Market Street, where his new Italian restaurant, Mercato, opened in July. Jacques Larson, a pupil of New York chef Mario Batali's, helms the kitchen.
Charleston has, in recent years, grown steadily richer with culinary talent. "When I was growing up, there were four restaurants—and one of them was a Shoney's," says Linda Wohlfeil, who leads private tours of the city's grand old homes, including her family's on the Battery (absolutelycharleston.com). But now there's Hank's Seafood, presided over by Frank McMahon, who trained at Le Bernardin; Hominy Grill, where Robert Stehling does a fresh take on old-school southern cooking (his wife, Nunally Kersh, produces Spoleto, the city's annual performing arts festival); and Fig, a spare, chic dining room that serves Mike Lata's Slow Food versions of traditional dishes. This new sophistication shows itself on wine lists that cover more international territory, in ingredients that are more common to Lisbon than to the Low Country, and at the newly inaugurated Distinctively Charleston Food + Wine Festival (charlestonfoodandwine.com).
"It's such a small town and the dining room is packed every night with locals," says Sean Brock, 28, a Johnson & Wales graduate who recently took over the kitchen at McCrady's, a 218-year-old former tavern. Brock brings innovative ideas to Low-Country cuisine, with appetizers such as Artisan Foie Gras Terrine (peanut-butter powder, grape jelly, and brioche served with six salts and grape-juice meringue) and main courses like Painted Hills beef tenderloin with thrice-cooked potatoes, trumpet royales, star anise, and arugula.
Where there's arugula there's retail, and King Street, which runs down the center of the peninsula, is the main drag. Amid Gucci and Saks, many small unique shops have blossomed. A. Fairfax Antiques specializes in southern furniture (say, a $45,000 Queen Anne highboy made in the Delaware River Valley around 1745) and is considered the best Americana dealer in Charleston. Bob Ellis Shoes, the family business that gave rise to Jeffrey Kalinsky of Jeffrey, in Atlanta and Manhattan, introduced stylish locals to Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo. The latest arrivals are farther north, on Upper King Street. Here Dwelling offers modern furniture and Assouline art books in a raw, high-ceilinged industrial space. Magar Hatworks displays Leigh Magar's charming collection, from plumes to porkpies (which she also sells at Barneys in New York). Parlor, Kelly Baldwin's narrow hair salon and shop, sells skirts made from vintage fabrics, and Lulan Artisans offers contemporary textile design fused with Southeast Asian weaving techniques. Eve Blossom, the architect who opened Lulan less than two years ago, moved with her husband to Charleston from San Francisco on a whim, bought a small house in the French Quarter, and hasn't looked back. Interior designers from all over have made her business a success, and more and more foragers come looking all the time. "We're in a unique design district," Blossom says. "We feel that we're on the front wave of something."
Hank's Loft $3,000; 10 Hayne St.; 800-845-7082
Planters Inn From $350 to $750. 112 N. Market St.; 800-845-7082; plantersinn.com
Wentworth Mansion From $315 to $700. 149 Wentworth St.; 888-466-1886
Fig Dinner, $80. 232 Meeting St.; 843-805-5900
Hank's Seafood Dinner, $80. 10 Hayne St.; 843-723-3474
Hominy Grill Dinner, $65. 207 Rutledge Ave.; 843-937-0930
McCrady's Dinner, $120. 2 Unity Alley; 843-577-0025
Mercato Dinner, $125. 102 N. Market St.; 843-722-6393
A. Fairfax Antiques $ 200 King St.; 843-853-2400
Bob Ellis Shoes 332 King St.; 843-722-2515
Charleston Renaissance Gallery 103 Church St.; fineartsouth.com
Dwelling 474 King St.; 843-723-9699
Janet Gregg 843-577-8019
Lulan Artisans 469 King St.; 843-722-0118; lulan.com
Magar Hatworks $ 557 1/2 King St.; 843-577-7740
Parlor 476 1/2 King St.; 843-727-3677
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.