Consistently counted as one of the nation’s top small cities by travelers in the know, Charleston, South Carolina is becoming a destination for folks in search of warm weather, Southern hospitality, and high-end cuisine. Diners can expect to find the essential hearty dishes like shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes that define Southern cuisine, but Charleston’s growing restaurant scene is also filled with inventive offerings from enthusiastic chefs looking to make their mark on the city.
Charleston might be a “small town,” but there are several neighborhoods within the downtown limits — which Charlestonians refer to simply as “the Peninsula” — that offer varied experiences. The French Quarter, one of only two in the United States, is home to many of the quintessential Charleston restaurants, while the North of Morrison neighborhood, commonly referred to as NoMo, is a hip hub filled with craft breweries and boundary-pushing restaurants. In between, you’ll find Cannonborough/Elliotborough and Upper King, where the line between vintage Charleston and a playground for Southern transplants continues to blur, as evidenced by the countless Airbnbs and buzzing bar scene.
The Weekend Itinerary below takes you on a culinary tour through each of these neighborhoods, while also offering some recommendations for activities in between bites and where to stay, ensuring that your time in the Lowcountry is well spent.
Friday, 5 p.m.: Happy hour to start the weekend off right
Start your weekend in Charleston with drinks at Barsa, a Spanish tapas bar that was one of the first spots to hit the stretch of Upper King Street that’s now the epicenter of the Charleston restaurant scene. Barsa’s daily happy hour from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. has beer, wine, and cocktail specials, plus discounts on paella for those looking for a pre-dinner shareable snack.
Friday, 7:30 p.m.: A pasta-and-pizza dinner
You’ll only have to travel a couple blocks for dinner at Indaco, a dimly lit, buzzing restaurant focused on handmade pastas and creatively topped wood-fired pizzas, such as one with Brussels sprouts and pancetta. The big bar, high-top tables, and pizza oven make for an lively vibe, setting the tone for an energetic first dinner before hitting the bar.
Friday, 10 p.m.: Shuffleboard and cocktails
After dinner, you’ll want to sample the Charleston nightlife, which generally starts around 10 p.m. and ends before 2 a.m. A few blocks from dinner at the tip of Cannonborough/Elliotborough sits Warehouse, a bar/restaurant frequented by locals who live nearby. Ignore the unassuming, sign-less exterior and step inside for upbeat music, shuffleboard, local craft beer, and creative cocktails like the Employees Only, a combination of jalapeño tequila, hibiscus, pink grapefruit, and lime.
Saturday, 9 a.m.: Pastries and coffee to fuel up
Start your morning at Harken Cafe, a new Queen Street spot from the same owners as popular daytime destination The Harbinger Cafe & Bakery. Laptops are forbidden at Harken, creating a social atmosphere in the small, cozy dining room. For breakfast, find an ever-changing selection of made-from-scratch pastries (some of which are gluten-free), along with breakfast sandwiches, granola bowls, and avocado toast. Pair with a classic coffee or other drinks like a turmeric chai latte with oat milk.
Saturday, 10 a.m.: Sightseeing classic Charleston
From Harken, head toward White Point Garden, a downtown public park with Charleston Harbor views, to start a walk along the Battery, a seawall and promenade on the water. To your left, you’ll find historic homes like the Edmondston-Alston House before eventually running into Rainbow Row, a colorful stretch of houses frequented by Holy City visitors. Stroll through Waterfront Park — stop to snap a picture at the Instagram-worthy Pineapple Fountain — before finishing the walk at the Charleston City Market, where you’ll find handmade Charleston treasures like the famous sweetgrass baskets.
Saturday, 1 p.m.: A secular church lunch for the modern age
Just outside the City Market find 5Church, a new American eatery with a wide range of lunch options. Step inside the restaurant — housed in an old church at the corner of the French Quarter’s two busiest streets — and you’ll be awestruck by the decor. Large stained glass windows and chandeliers offer a touch of elegance, while the ceiling art featuring Sun Tzu’s The Art of War provides an unexpected touch. Start lunch with the Japanese fried chicken before diving into a Maryland crab cake sandwich or lamb burger.
Saturday, 2:30 p.m.: Some afternoon culture
You are spending the weekend in downtown Charleston, so why not get a sense of what urban life in the Lowcountry was like back in the 1800s? The Aiken-Rhett House, which sometimes doubles as a wedding venue, has stood the test of time and offers a glimpse into the lives of powerful Charlestonians of yesteryear.
Or if you’d rather check out some art, head to The Gibbes Museum of Art, which features an on-site cafe along with an array of paintings, sculptures, miniature portraits, and multimedia installations focused on American art that incorporates the story of Charleston.
Saturday, 5 pm.: Pre-dinner drinks
Charleston has so many craft breweries that there’s an entire district dedicated to them in the northern part of the peninsula. Revelry Brewing, a craft beer destination known for offering everything from easy drinking pale ales to funky sours, has been around for more than five years, making it one of the longest-standing in the brewery district. Revelry is also home to one of the top rooftops in the city, making this an ideal pre-dinner stop as the sun starts to set.
But if it’s cocktails you prefer, head to Babas on Cannon, an old-world-style European cafe offering pre-dinner bites and beverages. Pro tip: order the espresso martini, made with Southern-made vodka, Kahlua, fresh espresso, amaro, and clarified chocolate milk.
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.: The Saturday night main event
French bistro Maison has been one of the hottest tickets in Charleston since opening just under a year ago, as chef Vandy Vanderwarker continues to excite diners with dishes like burgundy escargot, steak frites, and dry-aged duck à l’Orange. The restaurant marries simplicity with flawless execution in an environment that transports guests to a modern city bistro filled with spirited conversation and gorgeous plates of food.
Saturday, 10 p.m.: Going out, whatever the mood
After dinner, head to the heart of King Street for a drink at Stars, where a semi-hidden rooftop bar offers a 360-degree view of the city. Settle in for a cocktail like the Stars frozen bellini before continuing the party downstairs where a DJ spins the latest hits.
If it’s a handcrafted cocktail you’re after, check out Prohibition, where the bartenders churn out innovative drinks like the gin, raspberry, and vermouth-filled Clover Club. This expansive bar features people in all walks of life, as the energetic dance floor inside is crowded with celebratory groups, while the outdoor patio is packed with people of all ages conversing over their beverage of choice.
Saturday, 12:30 a.m.: Late-night munchies
There’s nothing wrong with a slice of pizza at the end of the night, but The Darling Oyster Bar’s late-night service, a hidden gem, may lead you to change things up just this once. The King Street restaurant’s raw bar stays open until 1 a.m. on the weekends for hungry partiers looking to grab some oysters or littleneck clams before calling it a night. There are also slightly more substantial dishes such as tuna tataki and ceviche.
Sunday, 10 a.m.: A Charleston must-stop
Husk is and always will be an essential Charleston restaurant thanks to legendary former executive chef Sean Brock’s lasting influence on the city and Southern food, and brunch is a great time to step inside the cozy space. It might only be the late morning, but don’t resist the urge to order the renowned Husk cheeseburger, which comes with fried potato wedges. You’ll also find an array of ever-changing breakfast dishes such as the smoked breakfast sausage with creamy Edisto grits and red eye gravy.
Sunday, 11:30 a.m.: Cap it all off with nature
You’ve now spent the entire weekend on “The Peninsula” to get the most out of what downtown Charleston has to offer. On your way out of town, stop by a site west of the Ashley River that’s frequented by most who visit the Charleston area. A trip to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens offers the chance to tour the oldest public gardens in the United States, allowing you to finish your weekend in Charleston with a better sense of the city’s roots.
Luxury hotel The Dewberry manages to deliver the expected amenities that come with a top-tier hotel while also making guests feel as though they are staying in a quaint independent inn. There are multiple spa and dining options along with views from the eighth floor terrace at the Citrus Club, the highest rooftop bar in the city. Book your stay at The Dewberry.
Conveniently located within blocks of your Friday night destinations, the Hyatt Place Charleston/Historic District offers spacious rooms and complimentary breakfast. Pour Taproom, a self-serve rooftop beer bar, is attached to the hotel and offers a picturesque view of the church steeple-lined Charleston skyline. Book your stay at Hyatt Place Charleston/Historic District.
Parker Milner is a professional hockey player, Charleston food writer, and the editor in chief of Pregame Skate.