What It's Like to Live in Charleston

Get to know the sophisticated Southern city and find out why locals are proud to call the historic area home.

Charleston is a hard city to leave. With its historical architecture, mild temperatures, amazing restaurants and sophisticated culture, it's no surprise that people come from all over the world to purchase a little slice of Southern charm and live the Charleston lifestyle.

Ned Brown, a Washington, D.C., native, found that out a few years ago when he visited the area. Recently, he bought a home on the peninsula on lower King Street. "I wanted a place as a respite from winter...somewhere exciting and elegant," said Ned. “The people in Charleston are interesting and doing great things, and there's a great sense of history."

Charleston, also known as the Holy City, prides itself on a rich American history. It was the site of the original Order of Secession singing and where Citadel Cadets fired the first shots of the Civil War.

The Holy City. There are hundreds of churches in the Charleston area, and the church steeples are prominent on the city's skyline. These church structures have also played a part in the city's long and rich history.

"Steeples were used as lighthouses, and the church bells and iron gates were melted down for cannons to aid the Confederacy,” said Fr. Gregory Wilson, rector at the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. "The spires were actually used during the bombardment of the city to site cannons, and the story goes that St. Michael's steeple was even painted black at one time to make it difficult to see at night."

Charleston was founded by Protestants in 1670, and it wasn’t until 1748 that the Jewish community was allowed to worship freely. It took another 40 years for Roman Catholics to be accepted with the establishment of St. Mary of the Annunciation, the oldest Catholic Church in Georgia and the Carolinas.

"Despite differences, people of a dizzying variety of faiths seem to come together in harmony under the one title 'citizen of Charleston,'" said Fr. Wilson.

Contributions to Architecture. Charleston's architecture is diverse with European and African influences. Many of the homes and buildings have withstood hundreds of years of wars, hurricanes, earthquakes and fires. For locals, preserving the historical integrity of these buildings is a priority. The American College of Building Arts was established in Charleston in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, because there were not American artisans to repair the homes.

"Our school is vital to both American preservation and new construction," said founder John Paul Huguley. “These students learn everything from traditional building arts to art history to Spanish to better communicate with contractors ... ACBA is the only college of its kind in the nation" The college is housed in the old city jail — a fitting site because of its own historical and architectural significance.

Charleston is also home to the College of Charleston, the Citadel, the Charleston Art Institute and the Medical University of South Carolina, which blends a young energy and college atmosphere with the city's history and sophistication.

So what's it really like to live in Charleston? Read on to learn how locals have adapted to this unique area.

Charleston's charming downtown is dotted with dozens of historic homes and buildings.

GETTING AROUND

A Pain to Park. On-street parking on the peninsula can be a pain. While residents have parking permits, if you’re on the peninsula to shop on King Street, grab a bite to eat, or visit art galleries and museums, your best bet is to find a parking garage with reasonable rates (there are plenty, and the all-day rates are better than the $14 parking ticket.) If you want to avoid parking altogether, you can always hail a cab or rickshaw (a fun way to get around when the weather is good, and when it’s not, most provide blankets).

Best to Bicycle. During the last few years, more locals and students have been riding their bikes to get around. Due to more bike traffic, there has been a large public push for cycling safety and cycling lanes. Recent construction has added bike lanes to the bridges that connect the island, and there's even a project in the works to connect neighborhoods off the peninsula to the downtown area with a bike path.

Carriage rides, cabs and rickshaws are easy ways of getting around the city without having to pay for parking.

WHERE TO LIVE

Getting Away From Downtown. While Charleston is best known for the historic downtown area, there are plenty of areas just a few minutes away with homes more reasonably priced. James Island, Johns Island, West Ashley, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant are all within a 10-minute drive from downtown.

Hartley Cooper has been selling homes in the Charleston area for more than six years and has seen the pressure this economy has put on price. "In April of 2006 the median price for a home on the peninsula was $365 a square foot ... four years later, that price has dropped to $297; that's an 18 percent drop," said Hartley.

Other downtown neighborhoods, such as Wagener Terrace and Hampton Park, are great places to look for housing deals. While homes there may not have as much historical significance, prices are lower and parking is abundant.

Beautiful Beach Towns. Easy access to numerous beaches is another perk of living in Charleston. There are several beach towns in Charleston County that are all within a 20-minute drive of downtown. Folly Beach is laid-back and most popular for those looking to surf, and with the summer months draw the biggest crowds due to renters and local traffic congesting Folly Road — the only road on and off the beach. There are plenty of restaurants, local surf shops and unique stores along Center Street, which makes Folly Beach a great area with plenty to see and do.

The Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island are farther east and the real estate prices on both are typically higher than on Folly Beach. Those living on Sullivan's Island are — for the most part — full-time residents. In fact, there are no hotels on the island. Sullivan's Island also boasts great restaurants and one of only two public schools in the nation on beachfront property.

The Isle of Palms can be accessed from Mount Pleasant by the Isle of Palms Connector Bridge and caters more to visitors and seasonal residents. The city operates a five-acre marina with plenty of public parking and a county park in the center of the island. The island is also home to the Wild Dunes Resort, many permanent residents, vacation rentals and two golf courses.

Bridges, bike lanes and short commutes make visiting the more expensive peninsula easy and convenient.

FINDING FUN

Fishing. Charleston is surrounded by water, and you can spot sailboats out in the harbor on any day of the week. There’s a large sport-fishing community as well, where some do it for fun while others make their living on the water running charter boat fishing trips. There are still families of shrimpers and fishermen who provide their catch to markets and restaurants — and have for generations — but cheap imports have decreased their numbers. Serving local seafood is a point of pride for Charleston restaurants, and they do their part to support the local economy. Besides, fresh seafood just tastes better.

Getting Active. Charleston is a great place to run or ride your bike with great views of the water — from the Battery to Waterfront Park. When the new Cooper River Bridge was built in 2005, a pedestrian and cycling lane was added and is now used every day by locals and tourists alike. The bridge connects the city of Charleston to the town of Mount Pleasant with a 2.7-mile route each way over Charleston Harbor.

A Golfer's Paradise. The mild climate in Charleston is perfect for playing golf and tennis all year, and there are many public and private golf courses and tennis courts. In 2010, Charleston was even named the USTA’s “Best Tennis Town,” beating larger cities such as Atlanta and Richmond.

In Charleston, there is always something going on. World-class festivals like the Southeastern Wildlife Expo, the Wine and Food festival, Charleston Fashion Week, the Family Circle Tennis Cup and the Spoleto Festival, USA, attract thousands from across the U.S. and other countries. In Charleston, there’s really no “off” season. Easy waterfront access makes fishing a way of life for many Charleston locals.

TALLYING THE COST OF LIVING

Smart Spending. Charleston boasts great restaurants, beautiful nearby beaches and a wide array of outdoor activities. But taking part in all the city has to offer isn't cheap. Eating out and paying to park really adds up, so you can cut costs by living, shopping and eating in neighborhoods away from the peninsula.

Sky-High Flight Costs. Flights to-and-from Charleston are expensive. For the last few years, Charleston International Airport has ranked as one of the most expensive airports in America, with an average fare of $451 (according to a study by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics), but that will soon change. Low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines will start servicing Charleston in March 2011, which should lower flight costs across the board.


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