The best way to sightsee in Charleston is to do your own exploring, on foot, but this may be more satisfying if you've first taken a tour. The choices include horse-drawn carriages, harbor boats, buses and walking tours. For information: Visitor Information Center, Charleston Trident Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 975, Charleston, S.C. 29402, (803) 722-8338, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
WHERE TO STAY: A place to stay can cost you. It can also be hard to find except in the dead of winter. Without a reservation you may wind up out by the airport or 10 miles down the road to Savannah, and be glad to have that.
There are hotels, of course, but the newest thing in accommodations is the inn, a number of which have sprung up in the old part of town in recent years. Most offer a welcoming sherry and breakfast and make you feel like a guest in someone's home. Among the inns are Lodge Alley, Indigo, Sword Gate, Kings Courtyard, Vendue and 2 Meeting Street. Rates are about $80 to $95 double except at 2 Meeting Street, where they begin at $50. Most have toll-free numbers -- call (800) 555-1212 for specific listings. Or write the Visitor Information Center.
WHERE TO EAT: Throughout the city, almost every building you enter, except for the newer hotels, is old. This is particularly true of the restaurants for which the city is known. At the better ones, where reservations are certainly advisable in season, dinner entrees run in the $10 to $15 range except at Roberts, which has a fixed price of $52.20 per person for everything, including tax, tips and wine.
Favorite restaurants among the locals include the Colony House, Adger's Wharf, the Cotton Exchange, Poogan's Porch, 82 Queen, Marianne and Henry's. Charleston restaurants come and go, both literally and in terms of their quality. Henry's, for instance, hit a low point some years ago but for some time now has been among th best. It is one of the oldest if not the oldest in town. Ask to be seated in the bar; there's more atmosphere there.
A small French restaurant currently in favor with Charlestonians is Le Midi. It's unpretentious to the point of having oilcloth tablecloths, the cuisine might be called simple French, the result is very good. An entree that's $4.25 for lunch goes up to $10 at night with the addition of soup and salad, and each meal is a bargain. Incidentally, you will find no fast-food places in the downtown area. City officials feel they would not be "in keeping."
WHAT TO DO: The city is full of "firsts" and "oldests," and among them is the Charleston Museum, dating back to 1733 and said to be the oldest in the country. It's not only old but good. As you view the collections displayed in the museum's new building, you're quickly aware of being deep in the heart of what was the Confederacy. Then there's the College of Charleston (1770), the first municipal college in the States. Its lovely old campus is worth driving by even if there's no time to go in.
As for the houses, you'll see them most everywhere, except for King Street, a business artery, and part of Broad. A few are open to the public for a reasonable fee, among them the Nathaniel Russell House, the Edmonston-Alston House and the Heyward Washington House, and the locals will give you directions to them. Even better if your timing is right, a number of residents put their homes on various house tours, most of them in the spring. One, sponsored by the Historic Charleston Foundation, is now through April 17 (no tours on Easter Sunday). It is a rare opportunity and well worth the $15 to $20 fee; credit card orders accepted by phone, (803) 722-3405.
SHOPPING: Right in the center of town is a three-block section known as The Market, or, erroneously, The Old Slave Market. In it are restaurants, fine shops, boutiques and a flea market. The Market is a must.
Three blocks south of The Market, just around the corner from the junction of Broad and Meeting streets, you will find women selling freshly cut flowers on all but the bleakest and coldest days. Buying a bunch or two of jonquils or whatever is in season is part of the tradition and romance you came for. Such a simple touch has done wonders for more than one romance.
SIDE TRIPS: Obviously, one could spend weeks exploring the city and barely scratch the surface. But there's a good deal more within 15 or 20 miles in all directions, and some of it is in the don't-miss category.
The Charleston gardens are world famous, meaning in this case the big ones -- Magnolia, Middleton Place and Cypress. They're all a few miles outside town and all charge admission. They are also very different in style.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, which John Galsworthy once called "the most beautiful gardens in the world," are 10 miles north of Charleston on state Rte. 61. They were laid out by the ancestors of the present owner, John Drayton Hastie. Magnolia has 900 varieties of camellias and 250 varieties of azaleas on its 500 acres, to say nothing of countless other flowers, lants, herbs and trees growing abundantly in informal pattern. The gardens are 300 years old.
Two miles farther out the same road is Middleton Place, a lovely, formal garden where everything seems almost too carefully planned. Besides, Middleton is only 244 years old.
Across the Ashley River is a real newcomer, municipally owned Cypress Gardens, which are only 50 years old.
Some of the great old plantation houses hidden away in South Carolina Low Country are open to the public. Two are Drayton Hall, near Magnolia Gardens, and Boone Hall, east of the city.
One of the most fascinating places in the area is Patriot's Point, just across the Cooper River from downtown. This naval museum consists of the aircraft carrier Yorktown, the nuclear cargo ship Savannah, the destroyer Laffey and the pre-nuclear submarine Clamagore. You go aboard and climb all over and through the vessels. Flat-heeled shoes are best.
Nearby is Shem Creek, where trawlers tie up outside good seafood restaurants, and just beyond that are the beaches of Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms.
No visit to the area would be complete without seeing Fort Moultrie, which dates to the American Revolution, and Fort Sumter, a Confederate stronghold during the Civil War.
There's more, of course.
There's Charles Towne Landing, site of the original settlement that later, and on another site, became Charleston. Now the area is a park, with gardens, nature trails and historical exhibits. And on weekend afternoons the Charleston Naval Base provides free tours of whatever ship happens to be in port that day. (Call the base for details.)
Finally, perhaps the best part of going out to Folly Beach, south of the city, is driving through the moody and everchanging Low Country marshlands, the sight and smell of which linger in the memory for years.