City snapshot: Charleston, South Carolina

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Population 623,680 (greater metropolitan area)
Visitors per year 4.3 million
Language English, y'all!
Unit of currency US dollar ($)
Cost index Downtown hotel double $100-400, plate of shrimp and grits $12-18, one-hour carriage tour $20

The best-mannered city in America

If Charleston were a person, she'd be an achingly beautiful debutante in a white dress, gardenias in her hair. From a venerable old Southern family – Mother's in the Daughters of the Confederacy, Father's a wealthy shipper – she has impeccable etiquette (Charleston has been voted "Best-Mannered City in America" for eleven years running) and is schooled in all the aristocratic arts – waltzing, watercolors, the correct use of the oyster fork.

But just when you want to hate her for being Little Miss Perfect, she takes her hair down and becomes, well...cool. Charleston's got a lot going on lately, from a hip new food and wine festival to a recently debuted annual Fashion Week showcasing the city's burgeoning design scene. The streets just southeast of the College of Charleston campus are dotted with trend-a-licious boutiques selling everything from vintage cowboy boots to Pop Art teapots. Charleston may be historic, but she's certainly not stuck in the past.

Defining experience

Spoon up some shrimp and grits, a classic Charleston fisherman's breakfast, then hop in a horse-drawn carriage for a tour of the meticulously restored antebellum houses of the Historic District. Make the afternoon boat journey to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, then wind down with a sunset cocktail overlooking the harbor at Vendue Inn's rooftop bar.

Recent fads

Eating local. You'd be hard-pressed to find an out-of-state pork chop or sweet potato these days at any of downtown Charleston's of-the-moment Nouvelle Southern restaurants. On Saturdays, the Marion Square farmers market is all about fat homegrown tomatoes and glass quarts of raw milk from a dairy on nearby Wadmalaw Island. The same island is home to America's only tea plantation, where you can sip a locally-picked cuppa.

Festivals & Events

• Get out your shucking knives in January, when 65,000 pounds of bivalves are trucked into the suburb of Mount Pleasant for the Lowcountry Oyster Festival.
• The March Charleston Food & Wine Festival has become a hot ticket event, drawing celebrity chefs and food personalities from across the country.
• All of Charleston becomes a stage every May, when legions of opera singers, thespians and musicians descend for the jubilant 17-day Spoleto USA performing arts festival, modeled after a similar event in Spoleto, Italy.
• In September, the two-week MOJA Arts Festival celebrates African-American and Caribbean culture with a whirlwind of poetry jams, plays and gospel concerts.

What's hot...

Biking the Cooper River Bridge, bar-hopping on newly trendy upper King Street, upscale offal like the pork trotters (yes, pig's feet) with chanterelles at FIG, the newly reopened Old Slave Mart Museum.

...What's not

Pedicabs, buying junky souvenirs at Charleston City Market, getting sick off neon daiquiris, calling it the "War of Northern Aggression."

Random facts

• The ubiquitous pineapple – you'll see the fruit's image carved on mailbox posts, sewn on flags, painted on serving platters – symbolizes welcome. Sea captains would impale pineapples on their porch railings upon returning from long journeys, a practice they learned from Caribbean villages. Seeing the fruit, neighbors would know they'd made it home safely
• Those bald teenagers? They're "knobs" – first year cadets at Charleston's Citadel, a prestigious public military college notorious for its discipline.
• The Battery, a park and war memorial at the tip of the Charleston peninsula, is said to be haunted by the ghosts of pirates who were hung from the gnarled oak trees in the 1700s.

Most bizarre sight

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon was built as a customs house in 1771 but was frequently used as a subterranean prison for pirates and anti-British revolutionaries. You can almost hear their chains rattling as you tour the spooky brick cellar, now a museum.

Best restaurant experience

Despite the name, S.N.O.B. (it stands for Slightly North of Broad) is distinctly unstuffy. Its so-called "maverick Southern cuisine" – think fried chicken livers with caramelized onion gravy, braised organic collards, banana cream pie tarted up with rum caramel – has been winning raves hither and thither. The renovated brick warehouse dining room has a cozy, noisy, gastropub-y vibe.

Classic place to stay

From the vast marble lobby to the courtyard fountain to the ornate wrought-iron balconies, the Mills House Hotel oozes old-school Southern charm. Built in 1853, it's hosted such notables as General Robert E. Lee and Teddy Roosevelt. The clubby, wood-paneled cocktail lounge is perfect for making that backroom deal with the judge. A recent $11 million renovation has brought guest rooms into the 21st century.

More information

Fancy a stay in Charleston? Try a readymade trip from our Carolinas Georgia & the South Trips guide available through our online shop.

This snapshot was taken from our Best in Travel 2010 - it's all you need to inspire your travel plans for next year and beyond.