A Sweetgrass- and Soul Food-Filled Winter Getaway to Charleston
For as long as I can remember, I've had a palmetto palm rose from Charleston, South Carolina. On a trip to the Lowcountry in my adolescence, a sweetgrass basket weaver at the Charleston City Market handed it to me, inspiring a collection. The pale green woven flower sits in a vase with other roses from my travels, but it—and its maker—holds a deeper significance.
Related: A Warm-Weather Getaway to Savannah
Sewn sweetgrass baskets are an indigenous art form and one of the most easily recognizable traditions of the Gullah people. Gullah, a lyrical word, describes the linguistic and cultural heritage of local sea island inhabitants who share African lineage. Their imprint on Charleston runs deep. More than 50 artisans sell the intricate baskets (as well as palmetto roses) at Charleston City Market, one of the oldest public markets in the U.S. Historic African American sites, including homes and churches, pepper the city and preserve Gullah history and traditions. Restaurants serve Lowcountry dishes heavily influenced by African flavors and techniques, like hoppin' John (field peas with rice and bacon), Charleston red rice (a tomato and rice dish descended from African jollof rice), and shrimp and grits.
After 20 years in the making, Charleston is opening the groundbreaking International African American Museum this year. Located at Gadsden's Wharf, where 46 percent of enslaved Africans entered the U.S., the museum shows how enslaved and free Black people shaped economic, political and cultural development. Visitors journey through eight galleries beginning in 17th-century West Africa and ending with the formation of new African American communities in the 21st century.
"Charleston has a deep and rich history, but a significant, very dark part of this history is often overlooked, denied or buried so deeply into the footnotes of history that one would think it never existed," says Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, president and CEO of the IAAM. "Yet the proof is omnipresent. It's in the adorned colonial architecture, the Lowcountry Southern cuisine, the sweetgrass basketry, even the rural landscapes and waterways. Most importantly, it's in the faces of the descendants of the Africans, kidnapped, enslaved and forced to build the very places where their stories have been relegated to the periphery."
The museum, along with chefs, makers, historians and more, keep Charleston's Gullah history alive while using the past to inspire the future, one sweetgrass basket at a time.
What to Do, Where to Eat and Where to Stay in Charleston
Familiarize yourself with the city and its history on a Gullah Tour led by South Carolina native Alphonso Brown. The two-hour bus tour stops at several historic sites and includes Gullah language demonstrations by Brown. Browse locally made wares—including art, specialty food and clothing—at Charleston City Market. The striking white Mother Emanuel AME Church, founded in 1816, is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Southern U.S. It's also home to the Emanuel Nine Memorial honoring the victims and survivors of the 2015 Charleston church shooting. Take a stroll down Cabbage Row to see Revolutionary-era homes previously inhabited by freed slaves. The homeowners would sell cabbage from their windowsills, lending the area its nickname. Preserved plantations like the McLeod Plantation, a Gullah-Geechee heritage site, and the urban 1820 Aiken-Rhett House pay tribute to the enslaved Africans who lived on the grounds.
Both Hannibal's Soul Kitchen and Bertha's Kitchen have been serving real-deal soul food for more than 40 years. Inside Bertha's bright blue building you'll find dishes like oxtail and smothered pork chops. Hannibal's specializes in Gullah-style seafood, like shrimp and crab rice and their famed shark steak. At Rodney Scott's whole hog BBQ, the James Beard-winning pitmaster cooks whole hogs to serve with his tangy signature sauce. For a nice night out, Husk focuses on leveled-up Lowcountry cuisine and firmly rejects any ingredient not grown in the South. Slurp oysters in the fun atmosphere of Leon's fine poultry and Oyster Shop or find dock-to-table cuisine like Smoked Catfish Curry at Chubby Fish.
Relive the glamorous Roaring '20s at The Spectator Hotel, one block from the city market. At Post House Inn in nearby Mount Pleasant, book one of seven charming rooms—some painted in "haint" blue, a color said to ward off evil spirits—in a building built in 1896. If you've wondered what it might be like to live in one of Charleston's historic townhouses, Zero George Street is a hotel made up of five restored townhomes and carriage houses.