It’s hardly breaking news these days that Charleston is one of the country’s hottest travel destinations: Award-winning cuisine, vibrant nightlife and stately Southern charm go a long way in getting you noticed. And with a climate as warm as its culture, this quaint corner of South Carolina consistently lives up to its reputation regardless the time of year. The real revelation of the so-called ‘Holy City,’ though, is its enduring affordability.
Sure, Charleston is willing and able to cater to the high-rollers, but for the budget-wary traveler, there’s perhaps no better place in the U.S. to stretch your dollar in style. You simply need to know where to loosen it up. Here’s a heaping portion of Charleston on the cheap.
When you wanna whet your whistle, this city makes it easy to avoid over-inflated bar bills. “Moe’s is a great old dive with decent food,” recommends Lizzie Boyle, a local bartender. “If you want something a touch classier, The Belmont is a finely stylized craft cocktail bar. Then you’ve got the The Faculty lounge – a kind of speakeasy-type dark, windowless bar with instant ramen.” Although her favorite hangs run a range of styles, the idea of spending much more than $10 on a drink remains foreign to Boyle.
Cocktails at The Bar at Spectator Hotel are another great way to get a classy drink without breaking the bank. In fact, The Bar even has a $5 whiskey and soda special aptly named the Poor Man. But you’ll want to employ barman Allen Lancaster’s skills to more artful ends. Come in during happy hour in the early afternoon and order up the Sneaky Tiki — a tropical rum refresher with a smooth finish that belies its underlying booziness. A free charcuterie table accompanies the tipples, until dinner.
And speaking of food, Charleston lays claim to no less than three James Beard-winning restaurants (Husk, Hominy Grill, and FIG). They are priced accordingly – although still more moderately than their larger cosmopolitan counterparts. If you want to see how far your dollar can take you, hit up Butcher and Bee – an eclectic eatery borne out of a sandwich shop, where hearty share plates range from $5 to $15 a pop. Vegetable-heavy with a Mediterranean flair, dishes such as spicy roasted carrots with yogurt, and eggplant salad with harissa defy Southern stereotypes with unapologetic glee.
They are not alone. In actuality, Charleston’s dining scene is surprisingly broad, absent of the stylistic constraints hampering many Southern kitchens. Notable newcomer Sorghum & Salt is nearly impossible to define – beyond delicious. Strawberry gazpacho with shiso sits on the opposite end of the menu from seared grouper cheeks, surrounding a shrimp sausage-studded collard green Tagliatelle in the middle. Dine with a date and you’ll be well-fed for under $30 a head.
Along Bay Street, a primary hub of downtown, Cane Rhum Bar is making the city safe for caribbean fare. Just over a year old, the hotspot is riding the wave of tiki to land on lasting success. You might not expect to find excellent examples of curry pork with rice n’ peas in this part of the world, but you’ll be even more pleasantly surprised to find it served with rum & coke for $15 – total.
But don’t leave town without saving room for at least one classic culinary experience. Sunday Brunch at Magnolias will do just fine. The house-made pimiento cheese as well as the sautéed shrimp over grits are both worthy of postcard mentions. Together they total $25, and could tackle the hunger of two.
Downtown Charleston is less than a mile wide. It’s central business district stretches barely twice that, end to end. It makes the most of its space. As should you on your next visit here: Avoid the high-season, beware the heavily-hyped hotels and eateries. Put on your walking shoes and take stock of a storied past and a vibrant, promising future. For all the wealth on display you’ll be surprised at all that is afforded to you. Do it right, and a trip here will be far more than you bargained for.