History Lite: Charleston and Savannah

Our family takes a trip every year--Rome, Barcelona, this year closer to home to Charleston and Savannah. We always manage to get in our favorites: food, walking, history, and lots of laughs. So here goes: what we ate, where we walked, and what we learned, with the good times throughout. Not quite as history-themed as some of my other blog posts, but you can learn an awful lot of history while traveling.

Most of the sights in both cities are within walking distance; in fact, we garaged the car for the duration. My Apple Watch logged our steps, 20,000 or more per day, but fortunately could NOT log the caloric intake. (See shortcut of eating/drinking suggestions at the bottom for those most interested in that information.)

Day 1: Washington to Sullivans Island to Charleston

After a slightly delayed departure while we waited for a late-arriving crew member, we and many unhappy babies boarded a small plane to Charleston on Christmas morning. But we forgot all that hassle when we walked out of the airport to sunny weather in the 60s.

Our first stop was Sullivans Island, on the Atlantic north west of Charleston. We parked near the lighthouse (the last one built in the U.S., in 1962--not exactly picturesque but functional and walked along the beach. We joined kite-flyers, dog-walkers, and frolickers enjoying the great weather.

At the end of the island, facing Charleston, sits Fort Moultrie, built to repel the British during the Revolutionary War (named for its commander, William Moultrie). When South Carolina seceded in 1861, the U.S. troops stationed at Moultrie decided to head over to Fort Sumter, where they thought they had better defenses. We know how that worked out.

Unfortunately, the history of slavery is never far away, even on a beach on a beautiful day. In the 1700s, Sullivans was used as a quarantine area when Africans were brought to South Carolina after their long trip across the Atlantic. Some of the descriptions compare it to Ellis Island, which is not exactly an apt analogy.

After soaking in the rays, we drove across the Ravenel bridge into Charleston to our base of operations for the next couple of days, the Francis Marion Hotel.

The hotel was quite the location in the 1920s, with such luxuries as private bathrooms and ballrooms where one could dance (the Charleston, of course) (bathrooms since renovated). Our rooms overlooked Marion Square, almost to the top. We could see clear to the waterfront from there, as well as down on the square where Citadel cadets once paraded. 

After a quick lunch at Tasty Thai (one of the few restaurants open; waiter wearing "ugly Christmas sweater"), we walked down King Street and Meeting Street. As in Alexandria, King Street has local stores with national chains moving in because it is so charming, thus defeating the intent. Meeting Street is more for churches, public buildings, and our first glimpses of the side-porched homes and beautiful gardens that characterize Charleston.

It was about a mile from our hotel to the Battery at the point of the peninsula. 

That night, we had dinner at Poogan's Porch on Queen Street. They offered a three-course meal for Christmas, our first taste of Southern cooking eaten in charming houses-turned-restaurants.


Day 2: Charleston

We took a left, not a right, from our hotel ("Upper King Street"), to the very tiny Callie's Hot Little Biscuit, at 476 1/2 King Street. We bought a sampling and went back to our elegant hotel lobby to devour them and the roughly pound of butter used to make them.

Thus fortified, we walked back to the lower part of town to meet Scott, our walking-tour guide who is also a historic preservation expert. The first thing we learned is that Charleston actively manages tourism. He and other guides can shepherd no more than 20 people at a time, must make sure they do not block the sidewalks or corners, etc., or face a stiff fine.

As we went from St. Michael's Church to Rainbow Row to the only discovered piece of the wall around then-"Charles Town," Scott told us about the immense wealth and sophistication that characterized a small segment of the population, built on rice, indigo, and cotton--and enslaved labor. Next to the fence in front of St. Michael's Church, he pointed out the intricacy of its ironwork, created by hand by slaves. 

An earthquake in 1886 caused significant damage to the city, with about one-third of the 6,000 buildings structurally damaged. Since the money was not there to repair most of them, development moved uptown. The advantage is that these older structures were not razed and replaced. When conscious preservation efforts began in the early 1900s, the buildings were still there to preserve.  The historic district was defined in 1931.

After the tour, we went by Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the second oldest synagogue in the country. Both here and in Savannah, the 19th century synagogue buildings are imposing and well-located, on equal footing as the churches of the day.

We also went to the Slave Mart Museum, the building used for slave-trading from the mid-1850s until 1865. Before moving indoors, the buying and selling took place in outdoor spaces virtually everywhere; it was like trading any other commodity. The two floors now have exhibits, including many examples of escape and protest.

From there, we returned at least to the 1970s or so and lunch at the Brown Dog Deli.  Album covers from Fleetwood Mac, the BeeGees, and others decorated the walls of this cheerful place on Broad Street.

Then on to Liberty Plaza to take the 30-minute ferry ride over to Fort Sumter. As we walked by the water, I looked up a side street to see the Grimke house (childhood home of abolitionists Sarah and Angeline Grimke, fictionalized in Invention of Wings).

As for Sumter, we all agreed that (1) the island fort was smaller than we expected and (2) it would not be a good place to be stuck on. After brinksmanship back and forth between the U.S. Army and the South Carolina militias in early 1861, Major Robert Anderson surrendered and was allowed to leave with his men and the U.S. flag. The Palmetto flag, soon replaced by the various versions of the Confederate flag, flew above Sumter until 1865.

So the question--why is it that South Carolina seceded first? According to several accounts, the wealthy planter families (i.e., the males of such families) decided that they wanted to and, therefore, they could. They were so powerful within the state, so used to dictating the rules of the game, it does not seem they thought through the ramifications of their move.

As we walked back to the hotel on Calhoun Street (another reason why SC seceded, although John C. died before the Civil War), we passed the Emanuel AME Church. Bible study still takes place on Wednesday evenings. A small sign said it all:

Later in the evening, we went out for a drink on Upper King Street at a place called Proof, where we realized we did not love boiled peanuts, and, back down on Queen Street, dinner at a much-heralded house-turned-restaurant called Husk. At the latter, gracious service and dishes with many ingredients.

Day 3: Charleston to Savannah

On our last morning in Charleston, we walked through the campus of the College of Charleston (CofC) and could see why a campus tour would be a very powerful recruiting technique.

Then on to another critics' choice restaurant for breakfast called the Hominy Grill--yes, we all had grits--and final walk/shopping trip on King Street. 

The trip from Charleston to Savannah is about 2 hours. We detoured to see Beaufort and Penn Center on St. Helena Island. Penn Center began as a school in 1862, funded by the Port Royal Relief Committee when the Union occupied the Sea Islands. While the government concentrated on crop production, it allowed Northern groups to organize schools for the blacks on the islands. The website describes Penn Center today--"16 historic buildings--all registered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation--sits quietly on a rural side street on St. Helena Island." Unfortunately, it was even quieter than usual because it was closed.

In addition to its use as a school, the Penn Center has provided health care, served as a conference and retreat site (Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, gathered there), and helped to preserve the cultural and environmental heritage of the Gullah.

We ate at the Blue Dog Cafe in back of the Lowcountry store, where, indeed, a dog named Blue kept us company.

On to Savannah. After stately Charleston and quiet St. Helena, Savannah seemed quite the big city. The book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil suddenly was very relevant and intriguing--I had started it a few years ago and did not get through it. An edgier place than Charleston, perhaps characterized by the difference in the two cities' dominant colleges: Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD signs everywhere) versus the College of Charleston and Citadel.

Our hotel, the Planters Inn, was in a great location on Reynolds Square, just a few blocks from the river. Again, very easy to walk everyplace and the weather cooperated. After a walk down and back up the the "historic steps," we returned to the hotel for its evening wine-and-cheese time, then next door to a Savannah restaurant institution called the Olde Pink House.

Day 4: Savannah

A walk up Bull Street to Forsyth Park goes through many of Savannah's prettiest squares, with grand houses, shops, and churches surrounding them, and a statue to someone (usually unrelated to the name of the square) in the middle.

At Montgomery Square, as we looked at the Mickve Israel synagogue, a resident started telling us about the 42 Jews who came from England in the 1730s, as well as many details about the dog she was walking. I wondered about her connection with nearby Mercer House (the focal point of Midnight), but decided she was probably sick of that question so didn't ask.

Forsyth Park (cover image at top) is lovely and well-frequented by runners and strollers. We headed back north on Abercorn Street, past Colonial Cemetery and through several other squares. James Oglethorpe designed the city as a series of squares between the park and the river. At one point, they were neglected pieces of dirt; now they are lush oases and have been called "the most intelligent grid in America, perhaps the world."

Then back to the Bohemian Hotel on the river to meet up with our Savannah Taste Experience food tour. It was a good way to learn local history, both long ago and more recent, at 7 stops from the river up to Broughton Street (see list below). James Oglethorpe intended Georgia as a place where people worked off their debts, a place without slavery or alcohol. Neither of those intentions worked out. As in Charleston, slavery and slave-trading became routine activities. As for the alcohol, Savannah is now known for its drink open-carry, just put it in a plastic cup without an identifying label and you're good to go.

At Ellis Square, Pamela, our guide, stopped to pay homage to popular song composer Johnny Mercer, a Savannah native (e.g., Moon River).

In the afternoon, we split up to shop and some final sight-seeing. As a former Brownie,  I went by the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts in 1912.

Then we went out on a quest for a "Chatham Artillery," which Pamela had described as a particularly lethal concoction named after the local militia that began in 1776. The only one we found was at the River House in a 22-ounce souvenir glass--hmm... maybe it's not something the locals drink after all. But in our gallivanting, we ended up next to the Moon River Brewing Company, one of the places on our list, and relaxed with beer, sandwiches, a friendly waitress, and room for dessert, an ice cream cone at Leopold's.

Day 5: Savannah to Home

It had to happen. Our waistlines required it. Arrived in DCA to a chilly wet day, but great times to remember.

Shortcut of eating/drinking suggestions


  • Tasty Thai (the usual + sushi)
  • Poogan's Porch (Southern cooking--fish, duck, she crab soup, etc.)
  • Callie's Hot Biscuits (sweet & savory)
  • Brown Dog Deli (interesting sandwiches)
  • Proof (craft beer, cocktails)
  • Husk (gourmet Southern)
  • Hominy Grill (great breakfasts)

St. Helena's Island:

  • Lowcountry Store/Blue Dog Deli (gumbo, chicken salad)


  • Olde Pink House (Southern, praline dessert)
  • Food tour stops: Rocks on the River (seafood soup); Tondee's Tavern (shrimp and grits); Ordinary Pub (pork belly); Molly McPherson's (shepherd's pie); Pie Society (sausage roll); Mabel's (butter-cream cupcake); Savannah Bee Company (honey tasting)
  • Byrd's Cookies (peach and benne cookies selected from among many)
  • Moon River Brewing Company (brews, burgers, etc.)
  • Leopold's (ice cream)
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