Any city can find its way onto a top-whatever list somewhere, but you know you’ve made it when you’ve hit Travel & Leisure‘s annual World’s Best Cities ranking. This year, Charlestonians are rejoicing over their #1 spot, having moved up from second place last year. Charleston has been named not the best American city but the number one in the world, appropriately bumping it to the top of many travelers’ to-visit lists.
The Holy City isn’t just another Southern site of antebellum nostalgia, but a cultural confluence of Deep Southern charm and youthful sensibility, infused with influences of the Gullah community and college students from across the country. But it’s not just luxurious lodging like the Spectator Hotel (which also took Travel & Leisure‘s #2 spot for world hotels) or trendy seafood restaurants like 167 Raw that make Charleston the world’s best city.
It’s hard to put your finger on the one thing that sets Charleston apart from other southern cities, but these five Holy City exclusives are definitely part of the picture.
#1: Marion Square Farmers’ Market
Right in the heart of Historic Downtown is Marion Square, a pleasant expanse of green off the side of Historic King Street. From April to November, Charlestonians and visitors will find the famous Marion Square Farmers’ Market, where farmers and artisans from the Low Country surrounding Charleston come to buy, sell, and gather with the community.
Aside from showcasing local goods—from homemade jams to sweetwater basket weaving to Sugah Scrub—the market also serves as a support and advocacy group for local farmers, artisans, crafters, and other producers. A few dollars spent at the farmers’ market will get you the freshest organic delectables available, and the money you spend is immediately invested in Charleston’s charm.
Market enthusiasts will also find a holiday market at Marion Square in December, and should walk 10 minutes further southeast of Marion Square to the Historic Charleston City Market.
#2 The NotSo Hostel
Every cool city needs a quirky hostel to give it that bohemian edge, and the NotSo Hostel brings that to Charleston. The only hostel in both the city and the state, you’ll find it just a few blocks off of Marion Square, your perfect base of operations for meeting other travelers while exploring Charleston.
Starting at $28 a night for a dorm bed, the NotSo has its main location on Spring Street, where it offers private rooms and camping in addition to the traditional dormitory option. Each individual dormitory and private room has its own style and setup, which you can read about in detail before booking, and if you’re looking for more options, the NotSo’s annex location is just a couple of blocks down the street. The interior of the hostel is decorated with local and Gullah-themed art, with plenty of common spaces for enjoying your complementary breakfast in the company of fellow travelers.
#3 Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer
Between its assortment of espressos and its quality craft brews, Kudu Coffee is a magnet for local students as well as artists and other creative professionals.
It’s locally owned, operated, and adored, and it’s easy to see why. The interior is cozy with plenty of sitting space for the laptop-bound professional or a group of friends waxing philosophic, and outside there’s a classy courtyard with relaxed lighting perfect for sipping on draughts.
Order up a spinach parmesan quiche with a blueberry scone and a mimosa for a light morning, or plug in and sit down behind your laptop and keep their French press working all afternoon. It’s also an ideal place to kick off an out in Downtown with a locally-brewed porter or pale ale.
#4 Hannibal’s Kitchen
You probably won’t see Hannibal’s in any guidebooks. Without knowing it’s there, you might walk right past without recognizing it, or you might make the mistake of skipping Charleston’s East Side entirely. And that’d be a shame, because it would mean you’d missed out on one of Charleston’s most genuine neighborhoods and the best soul food the city has to offer.
Hannibal was the nickname of Robert Lawrence Huger, who opened his restaurant more than 40 years ago, and the soul kitchen named after him has been a pillar of the local community since. Alongside serving up savory plates of smothered porkchop and crab rice, Hannibal’s also works toward the betterment of the neighborhood by sponsoring community cookouts and youth basketball programs, keeping the neighborhood well-fed and well-connected.
Don’t let the fact that it’s off the King Street main drag throw you off—Hannibal’s is a goldmine precisely because it’s a local favorite with few tourists, and it offers a taste of the succulent soul food Charleston enjoys outside of its tourist districts.
#5 The Philip Simmons Gardens
Less than a block from Hannibal’s Kitchen is the Philip Simmons House, memorial to Charleston’s “poet of ironwork” who spent 97 years in Charleston until passing away in 2009. What Mr. Simmons left behind was a city adorned by gates, fences, and a miscellany of ironwork that Charleston locals will recognize immediately as his, one of the many details giving Charleston the personal touch that makes it unique.
At the Philip Simmons House, you can explore two gardens—the Bell Garden and the Heart Garden —covered in his masterful ironwork. The house itself is in the St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church where Simmons worshipped. Simmons created over 500 wrought iron works in Charleston, and the Philip Simmons Foundation maintains a map of sites that are home to his work across the city, a great recipe for an artistic scavenger hunt through the city.