CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters Life!) - On the eve of the American Civil War, Charleston boasted of being one of the wealthiest and most glamorous cities in the world.
By the end of the bloody conflict, even Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman, who torched everything in his path, took pity on the city, according to historian Richard Rosen.
Today the homes that were once private playgrounds open their doors to reveal the luxurious lifestyles of the Old South as Charleston commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which started with a boom from its city cannons.
11:00 a.m. - Many good hotels are located in the historic district of the city. After unpacking, walk to the Visitor’s Center which provides plenty of information about tours and events.
12 - Start your visit with the Revolutionary War in a home where George Washington stayed for seven nights. The Charleston Museum’s Heyward-Washington House, on 87 Church Street, belonged to Thomas Heyward Jr., a colonial signer of the Declaration of Independence.
1 p.m. - Stop for something to eat at nearby Bocci’s Italian Restaurant at 158 Church Street or stroll to Queen Street where there are more restaurants.
2 p.m. - Head to the Nathanial Russell House at 51 Meeting Street. Curling upward like a chambered nautilus, a free-flying staircase dominates the Neoclassical home. www.historiccharleston.org
2:30 p.m. French Huguenots fled to Charleston to escape persecution. The Joseph Manigault House, at 350 Meeting Street, preserves the lavish lifestyle of a wealthy Huguenot rice planter. He grew the “Carolina Gold,” the rice that fed fortunes.
3 p.m. - Step next door to the Charleston Museum, which predates the Revolutionary War. It explores South Carolina’s Low Country history, including dinosaur bones found in its marshes. www.charlestonmuseum.org
4 p.m. - A hunk of man-made rock forms the flashpoint of the Civil War: Fort Sumter. Charlestonians fired on the Union troops holding the tiny island. Stroll to Liberty Square to the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center to board the only boat stopping at the National Park Service historic site. www.nps.gov/fosu/index.htm.
7 p.m. - Dine where George Washington once indulged at McCrady’s Restaurant. Located in historic Unity Alley, it has long been a tavern and celebrates with pre-Prohibition cocktails like sazerac. www.mccradysrestaurant.com.
8 a.m. - Shrimp and stone ground grits epitomize Low Country cooking and Dixie Supply Bakery and Cafe, at 62 State Street, dates their recipe back to the owner’s Civil War ancestors. Ignore the hole-in-the-wall appearance and follow locals inside. www.dixiecafecharleston.com.
9 a.m. - Arrive early at the historic Charleston Market where traditional sweetgrass basket weavers sell their products. www.thecharlestoncitymarket.com
10 a.m. - Follow the mellow scent of mules to the big red barn to join a Palmetto Carriage Tour. If you want to tour a particular area, book a special one with the Visitor’s Center. www.palmettocarriage.com.
11:30 a.m. - Stop for brunch at Virginia’s on King. Dishes are crafted from old family recipes and ingredients are from local farmers. www.virginiasonking.com
12:30 p.m. - Visit the Aiken-Rhett House, at 48 Elizabeth Street, which was preserved in its antebellum glory until a hurricane tore off its roof. The interior is a reminder of nature’s power, but the bones of this planter’s home tell stories of former days. www.historiccharleston.org
1:30 p.m. - Step back in time aboard a 1920’s replica bay steamer, The Carolina Belle and depart for a historic harbor tour. www.charlestonharbortours.com
3 p.m. - See the flip side of plantation life with a Gullah Tour or a Gullah program through the National Park Service. The still vibrant Gullah/Geechee culture and language evolved from the Africans brought as slaves to work the rice fields. www.gullahtours.com or www.nps.gov/fosu/index.htm
4:30 - Count the numerous steeples to see why Charleston is called The Holy City. Step into the only independent French Protestant (Huguenot) Church in America. www.frenchchurch.org
7 p.m. - Dine in one of Charleston’s historic homes at Cru, 18 Pinckney Street, and enjoy the famed macaroni and cheese. www.Crucafe.com
9 p.m. - For a different view of the city at night try Bulldog Tours which offer nightly spooky walking tours to jails, dungeons and graveyards. www.bulldogtours.com
9 a.m. - Have an early brunch on Poogan’s Porch, at 72 Queen Street, and savor their shrimp and grits. The original Poogan, a pup, lies in a small grave outside the historic home. www.poogansporch.com
11 a.m. - Charleston, the Holy City, doesn’t open until after church hours at 1 p.m. For visitors eager to get an earlier start stroll down Museum Mile and walks past 14 historic sites with another 24 on side streets.
1 p.m. - Before leaving the city visit the South Carolina Aquarium on Charleston Harbor. The aquarium focuses on the five major regions of the Southeast Appalachian Watershed. The salt marsh exhibit focuses on the Low Country ecosystem surrounding Charleston. www.scaquarium.org