Living in Charleston, South Carolina
Want to move to picturesque Charleston, South Carolina? Yeah, you and everyone else, too. No really, it’s getting crowded and for good reason
Over the past few years, the peninsula city of Charleston has racked up a string of accolades, like number one city in the world (Condé Nast Traveler, 2012), friendliest city in the US (Condé Nast Traveler, 2013-2014) and Best City in America (Travel + Leisure, 2013-2015). That means everyone is flocking here to see what the fuss is all about. And look, this place is paradise, mainly for its staggering coastal beauty, friendliness and food, but there are a few more things you should know before you take the plunge and make this lovely place your new home.
Let’s just get this out of the way: the traffic here sucks. It’s probably top of the city’s short list of cons. After I’d lived in Edinburgh for six years, moving back to a place so obsessed with and dependent on cars was a difficult adjustment. But owning a car really is a necessity here, especially if you plan to have affordable rent away from the central downtown area.
The good news, though, is that with a car, you can go to the beach anytime you want. Or on a day trip to Savannah, Georgia or Edisto Island or Beaufort or dirty Myrtle Beach. Hell, you can strap your bike on the boot and drive to New Orleans or Albuquerque if you so please – you have a car, after all. So while sitting in traffic for a despicable amount of time is not exactly an advantage, freedom of the road sure as hell is.
Charleston does have public transport/buses (CARTA), which I use whenever I can. But, oddly, there seems to be a stigma about riding the bus, as if it’s a system designed only for folk who are down on their luck. That shitty attitude prevents the system from being super-profitable and becoming a more accessible, dependable solution for getting around. But for many who are fortunate enough to live near a bus stop (West Ashley, downtown and North Charleston have the most), CARTA will help get you from point A to B.
In Scotland, you savour every warm, sunny day as you know another cold, rainy week is right around the corner. It’s the exact opposite here in Charleston. A cold wind gets us giddy, and we relish the opportunity to wear jeans and long sleeves. Cold fronts come and they swiftly go, and a day warm enough for a picnic is always within reach. The bad news is that June through August/September gets disgustingly hot. Humidity is the enemy here in the Lowcountry, and with it comes a 37-degree reality, hungry mosquitoes and high electricity bills.
We’re surrounded by water – rivers, inlets, creeks and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean. That means we also sail, fish, swim and kayak often, and locals love to just hang out on the beach. A bunch of terrible tourists started a beach brawl on Folly Beach one Independence Day a few years back, so technically alcohol on the beach is banned but that hardly stops anyone. Simply put it in a plastic cup, be smart and somewhat discreet about it and, you know... don’t, like, punch anyone.
Also, you need to know about river floating. At least once a summer, any self-respecting Charlestonian joins a group of friends for a float down the Edisto River. This usually lasts six-to-eight hours, and it involves leaving your phone in the car, packing a cooler full of beer and snacks and doing absolutely fuck all – except float, drink, repeat. Yes, we even have floating coolers for the occasion. This is our culture, y’all.
Charleston: The Holy City
Charleston is called the Holy City for its charming, church-steepled skyline. Considering the city is in the middle of the Bible Belt, the large number of places of worship here shouldn’t surprise you, but don’t let it cause you to hesitate either. Whether you’re agnostic, Muslim, Jewish, atheist or whatever, know that Charleston is also a relatively liberal, tolerant oasis in the South and has a little bit of everything to satisfy all.
South Carolina is a red state for sure, but Charleston is one of only two SC cities that voted against Donald Trump in the Republican primary. And that’s something to be proud of, thank you very much.
Arts & Entertainment
While Charleston culture may have a long ways to go compared to bigger cities, it does well for a wee Southern city. Stay up-to-date on the arts (and political) scene with the Charleston City Paper (full disclosure: I work there, but it’s the city’s arts-and-entertainment weekly so you’ll need it). Musically, venues like Charleston Music Hall, Palmetto Brewing, The Royal American, Tin Roof, Pour House and the Music Farm champion the thriving local scene. Seriously, there’s always a good gig or three to go to, so music lovers will find much reason to celebrate.
The F&B Industry
The food-and-beverage industry basically runs this town. There is certainly no shortage of restaurants, particularly upscale ones, which means there are also plenty of jobs. And food. There’s a lot of amazing food.
The Holy City’s favourite resident, Bill Murray, recently said that Charleston has spoiled him when it comes to food; eating elsewhere in the country leaves him with a case of the mehs. That’s partly because the city has offered culinary education for many years at universities like the Art Institute of Charleston and the Culinary Institute of Charleston. The town is oozing with talent and renowned chefs, so, no, you really can’t go wrong here no matter where you get your grub.
My favorite place? Early Bird Diner, which serves the Best of the South in one stop: chicken & waffles, fried pickles, fried okra, shrimp and grits, sweet tea, fried green tomatoes, weird homemade ice creams, grilled pound cake and buttermilk pie, to name a few.
Spotting Bill Murray has become somewhat of a sport here. I’ve personally seen him riding his bike along the Battery and getting out of a car on King Street, but countless locals have run-ins all the time at bars and particularly at Riverdogs baseball games, since he part-owns the team.
Where to Drink
One of Charleston’s big claims to fame is that we consume more Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) than any other place in the States, specifically at this hipstery dive bar downtown called the Recovery Room. Other downtown spots to hit up in order to avoid both tourists and annoying sorority chicks/fraternity dicks include the Tattooed Moose (eat duck-fat fries), Local 616 (watch the footy) and Upper Deck Tavern (sing karaoke).
In West Ashley, go to Gene’s Haufbrau and play shuffleboard. In Park Circle, play pinball at the Sparrow. On Folly Beach, find refuge from Jimmy Buffet-type stereotypes at Jack of Cups, the most non-beachy beach bar/restaurant in existence.
Find a Job and Anything Else, Really
Meet Craigslist, your new best friend. Our version of Gumtree, Craigslist.com is where you’ll find everything from a free air hockey table and a flat to a job and a cheap pile of records. I’ve found countless flats, roommates and jobs on Craigslist, not to mention a car and all kinds of random stuff, like fresh pecans, free firewood, moving boxes and a coffee table. No matter your US city of choice, you’ll probably rely heavily on Craigslist to get you on your feet.
Where to Live
Oh yeah, Charleston housing is getting expensive. Ten years ago, I rented a two-bedroom flat in the heart of downtown Charleston for $650 a month, but now something in the same area would go for no less than $2100 (thanks a lot, Condé Nast). Nowadays, you’ve gotta look for flats located away from the pretty pastel-coloured homes and nightlife and, rather, to the outskirts – neighborhoods like Elliotborough, though the rise of gentrification and boutique hotels there also means the costs can’t stay low for long.
To live downtown and go even lower on rent, head across what we call the Crosstown (Highway 17, which divides the peninsula) and try to find a deal around the Wagener Terrace area, which is still biking distance to the fun parts of downtown. If you have a car, you should get off the peninsula. Not only will you find cheaper rent in places like West Ashley, James Island and North Charleston, but you’ll also avoid your car flooding whenever it rains a lot or there’s a high tide, which the lowland downtown area is notorious for.
Cool Non-Downtown ‘Hoods:
Avondale in West Ashley: I pay $1150 for a three-bedroom house with a huge garden in the Avondale neighborhood of West Ashley, and I can walk to coffee shops, bars, restaurants, shops, grocery stores and (coming soon) a distillery and brewery. I can also bike downtown or along two different great West Ashley bike paths. Love.
Park Circle in North Charleston: The other trendy, up-and-coming ‘hood for punks and young professionals alike. You may hear gunshots once or twice a week (yeah, there’s that; ‘Merica), but it’s safe and fun for the most part.
Riverland Terrace on James Island: Ah yes, the islands. We have lots of them. This one’s conveniently between downtown and Folly Beach. For a bohemian neighborhood with a park, pretty live oaks and a good farmer’s market, look for a place to live in Riverland Terrace. It’s also cycling distance to the Pour House music venue, antique malls and restaurants.
Folly Beach: Beach bums unite, y’all. Charleston has several stunning beaches, but this is definitely the most entertaining one, full of bars and such, and is mostly inhabited by staunchly proud locals.
Also, you’ll find out quite quickly that the convenience of renting a furnished flat is very much one that is limited to the UK. Here, you’ll have to buy your bed, mattress, cutlery and whatnot, but if you’re not bothered by shopping at thrift stores (America has amazing thrift stores), you should get on just fine. And don’t forget, there’s always Craigslist.
If all else fails, ask a Southerner. As well as those earlier accolades, Charleston was also voted the friendliest city in America. While every place has its share of asshats, the Holy City really does radiate both sunshine and Southern hospitality, and we like to share everything from our casseroles to our secrets to surviving the god-awful heat.
A former Edinburgh resident and Skinny writer, Kelly Rae Smith is now the music editor of the Charleston City Paper