Few American cities are as quietly captivating as Charleston. I’ve found it’s the type of place that sticks with you for a while after your visit, no matter how short — and I’m certainly not alone in that feeling. And the South Carolina port city has topped our readers’ list of the best U.S. cities since 2013, even taking the top spot in the world in 2017.
Each year, Travel + Leisure asks readers to share their travel experiences and vote on the top islands, cities, airlines, cruise ships, and more for the World’s Best Awards. Readers rate cities for their sights and landmarks, culture, food, friendliness, shopping, and overall value for visitors.
So, what’s kept Charleston at the top year after year? For one, its charming downtown historic district is undeniably easy on the eyes. Palmetto-fringed streets, grand antebellum facades and piazza-lined “single houses,” and the most magical of golden hours make for an Instragrammer’s dream. But crediting beauty alone for Charleston’s allure would be almost unfair to this Lowcountry gem.
It hits all the marks of a relaxing vacation destination: locals as innately pleasant as the climate, a walkable and bikeable downtown, easily accessible beaches nearby, no shortage of personality-packed hotels — the list of draws is long. Readers also vouched for the city’s broad appeal to couples, work conferences, groups of girlfriends, and families with young children.
“I’ve been to Charleston many times and always find something new to see and do,” one reader said. Here, the top three reasons readers keep coming back.
Our country’s past is very much still palpable in Charleston, which is in large part to the credit of the major historical preservation, restoration, and education efforts there. As one reader phrased it, “Charleston feels like a European city in the middle of the Deep South.” A walking tour with Bulldog Tours will give a stellar introduction to the stories, sights, and secrets of downtown — from fun facts about how armoires once served as a clever tax evasion strategy to the origin story of the humble, fried hushpuppy. A narrated carriage tour is also an excellent way to take in the city and pinpoint stops you’d like to check out on foot during your trip.
And though it’s a touch more complex, you’d be remiss to leave without experiencing some sort of immersive history lesson regarding the city’s role in the slave trade. I won’t soon forget my visit to Middleton Place, a former rice plantation, where our tour spoke to the lives of both the white plantation owners and those of the enslaved communities there. Ten years of research went into uncovering the names and stories of more than 2,800 enslaved people who were owned by the Middleton family from 1738 to 1865. Their names are listed in a moving permanent exhibit on the walls of Eliza’s House — a former dwelling that was built post–Civil War for emancipated families who chose to stay at the plantation, because it was where they’d been for generations. The house is named for its last resident, Eliza Leach, who lived there until her death at 94 in the 1980s. You can take the Beyond the Fields tour to learn more.
The heartbeat of any city is its locals, and as one reader put it, “the people in Charleston are so friendly, you’d think you’re part of their family.” This sentiment extends beyond service industry folk, too. You’re just as likely to befriend a shop owner as you are to meet a local on the sidewalk who’s eager to offer directions, recommendations, stories, or just a warm welcome. And you’ll even find pineapple motifs throughout the city as a symbol of that classic Southern hospitality.
While touring hotel properties during a 2017 visit, I was most enamored of the ever-present attention to detail. The amount of heart and thought that goes into the guest experience there is awe-inspiring. For instance, at The Dewberry, I had a minor conniption over the botanical armoires in the guest rooms — I’d never seen anything like them. They’re paneled with a proprietary pattern of the hotel, commissioned from artist Becca Barnet, that features various plants native to the South (including dewberries, of course). There are endless nuggets like this for curious travelers to uncover; all you have to do is ask.
The thriving restaurant scene in Charleston has made an international name for itself, and not just the grits, gumbo, and biscuits (though, Callie’s has arguably perfected the latter).
You’ll find innovative takes on all sorts of cuisines and delightfully unique dining concepts — from casual spots like Leon’s Oyster Shop in a revamped auto garage and the food court–esque Workshop to accolade-winning mainstays that never quite lose their culinary lustre like Husk, F.I.G., and The Ordinary. One reader summed it up nicely: “Food is an experience here.”