This charming metropolis offers visitors plenty to see and do

The quintessentially Old South city of Charleston has begun drawing increasing numbers of gay and lesbian visitors in recent years. Readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine rank it among the top U.S. leisure destinations. Indeed, this charming metropolis offers visitors plenty to see and do. Historic house-museums, sophisticated restaurants, renowned galleries, a first-rate lineup of cultural events and festivals, and a few convivial nightlife venues have helped to turn this Colonial-era gem into the cultural anchor of the Carolina Lowcountry.

If you’ve spent time on Caribbean islands like Barbados or St. Thomas, Charleston’s pastel-hued Colonial buildings, with their trademark broad piazzas, may look familiar. The city’s sunny palm-lined streets, water views, and nonstop bustle also recall a festive island village. Meeting Street runs the length of the Historic District and contains many of the city’s top attractions.

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The Historic Charleston Foundation is ground zero for information on local architecture and house tours. Specifically, the foundation sponsors a month-long Annual Festival of Houses and Gardens in mid-March through mid-April, during which gaggles of Garden Club ladies and Southern queens descend upon the city’s most beautiful homes. The other major event is the Spoleto Festival, which offers two weeks worth of first-rate opera, dance, theater, music, poetry readings, visual arts exhibitions, and other cultural festivities at venues throughout the area. It runs from late May through early June.

Year-round you can tour either of two foundation-operated museums, the 1817 Aiken-Rhett House and the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House. From the latter you can walk a few blocks south to Waterfront Park, a grassy tree-filled plot of land with gardens and an adjacent promenade overlooking the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers. Be sure to walk back up toward town by way of East Bay Street, which is lined with mansions of every 18th- and 19th-century ilk.

Other leading attractions on Meeting Street include the Gibbes Museum of Art, which opened in 1905 and stages excellent exhibitions as well as showcasing a 7,000-piece permanent collection, and the Charleston Museum, which opened in 1773, making it the oldest museum in America. Meeting, King, and Bay streets all have their share of both high-quality and borderline-tacky gift and antiques shops, but the best shopping is had at the dozens of crafts stalls found inside the covered Old City Market, opposite which are several restaurants.

The city played an important role in the American Revolution but is probably best remembered for its early role in the Civil War. Today Fort Sumter Tours offers boat excursions out to Fort Sumter National Monument, the 19th-century fort on which the first shot of the war was fired on April 12, 1861.

No visit to Charleston is complete without a side trip to one of the imposing plantations. Consider the 1740s Drayton Hall, the only extant antebellum mansion along the Ashley River (it’s unfurnished, however); and Middleton Place, a 1741 spread whose colorful gardens are the oldest in the country.

Charleston specializes in Lowcountry cuisine, which blends soul, Creole, and traditional Southern recipes and takes advantage of the region’s bounty of local seafood. One of the best restaurants in the region, Peninsula Grill recalls the vibe of an elegant, vintage supper club and serves such innovative fare as skillet-seared Carolina mountain trout with mango brown butter sauce and sundried tomato-grits. The same owners operate nearby Hank’s, a similarly esteemed restaurant that specializes in delicious retro fare, such as shrimp and grits, plus broiled and fried seafood platters. Head to Slightly North of Broad (aka “S.N.O.B.”) for delicious yet relatively affordable New Southern cooking with flawless service and several seats facing directly into the high-tech kitchen.

Another of the city’s purveyors of reinvented Southern fare is Anson, which is housed within a handsome former warehouse and serves such revelatory creations as cornmeal-dusted okra with chili oil and goat cheese, and fried double-cut pork chop with potato puree, collard greens, and creamy onion gravy. Set in an intimate 1837 house in the Upper King Street neighborhood, the aptly named Fish serves first-rate seafood at reasonable prices. Try roasted-corn-and-crawfish chowder, followed by mahimahi with butternut squash puree, shiitake-mushroom-and-sherry reduction.

Just down the street, grab dessert at Cupcake, a diminutive storefront that bakes unbelievably rich and moist cupcakes in about 25 tantalizing flavors, including red velvet and banana-butterscotch. A favorite restaurant with the gay community is Vickery’s, the Charleston outpost of a popular Atlanta restaurant that serves such tasty and affordable Caribbean, Cuban, and Lowcountry cooking as grilled jerk chicken, black bean cakes, and fried-green-tomato turnovers.

Charleston’s gay nightlife is limited, but the few options are friendly and fun. The two main gay nightspots, operated by the same owner, sit a couple of doors from each other, just off the increasingly gentrified upper end of King Street – about a 15-minute walk north of the heart of the historic Market Street area. Of the two, convivial Dudley’s Pub is the best spot to mingle with friends or meet new ones. It consists of an attractive little bar up front and a pool room in back. The larger venue is Pantheon, a hopping dance club with go-go dancers, a DJ spinning pulsing music, and drag shows some evenings. The remaining gay option is Patrick’s Pub & Grill, a friendly neighborhood spot that’s a 15-minute drive from downtown. You’ll find all kinds of fun theme nights here, from Disco Inferno Wednesdays to female-impersonation cabarets on Saturdays.

When it comes to choosing a place to stay in Charleston, keep in mind that rates are among the highest in the Southeast, typically averaging $200 to $350 a night, but accommodations here are among the most sumptuous and romantic in the country. Take comfort, however, if you’re looking to save a little money – the city is represented by virtually every chain hotel you can think of. The Hampton Inn Charleston Historic District is one of the nicest moderately priced options, and it’s a short walk from gay nightlife.

Among the top-of-the-line lodgings, the very gay-friendly Market Pavilion Hotel has become a clear favorite since it opened in 2002, just a stone’s throw from the historic City Market. This stately 70-room boutique hotel offers plenty of stylish touches, from Hermes bath amenities to museum-quality paintings and artwork. There’s also a rooftop bar and pool affording panoramic views of Charleston’s historic skyline. On the ground floor, be sure to plan a meal at the hotel’s Grill 225 restaurant, where tender steaks and decadent desserts (such as banana bread pudding with hot caramel sauce and homemade caramel ice cream) dazzle gourmands.

Another exceptional choice is the painstakingly restored Planters Inn, many of whose luxurious rooms have whirlpool tubs. This dashing hotel sits close to City Market as well as a number of tiny boutiques and antiques shops. One of the city’s most historic options is the John Rutledge House Inn, which has rooms in the main 1763 mansion as well as in two adjacent carriage houses. The romantic, Italianate-style main building was built by a signer of the U.S. Constitution – its rooms, with 13-foot ceilings and elaborate plaster moldings, are supremely opulent, but those in the adjoining carriage houses offer a bit more privacy.

Operated by the owners of the John Rutledge House Inn and another similarly outstanding property (the Fulton Lane inn), the Kings Courtyard is a historic Charleston inn just an 11 minutes walk from the beach and 3 minutes from the City Market. Guests can enjoy complimentary wine or sherry on arrival and a morning newspaper delivered to the room.

The city’s one gay-owned B&B, 4 Unity Alley, is a gem hidden down a tiny alley off historic Bay Street. This 18th-century former colonial warehouse, in which George Washington is said to have housed his horse for a night, contains airy, light-filled rooms with fine antiques. Keep in mind that the four guest rooms here often book up quickly – it’s wise to make your reservations well in advance. Guests can relax in a sunny garden, and off-street parking and a full breakfast are included in the rates.

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