Who could have imagined that the city where the Civil War began would one day greet all Americans as welcome visitors?

 

A trip to Charleston, South Carolina, is a journey into a vibrant modern city that embraces its deep historical legacy and maintains its distinct Southern architectural charm.

 

Indeed, if there's a war between the states these days, it's for the attention of the American traveler, vacationer and retiree. No less than Travel & Leisure magazine recently ranked Charleston as the No. 4 best American city for an extended visit (after heavy-hitters New York, San Francisco and Chicago). Meanwhile, Conde Nast Traveler places Charleston at No. 5 on its list of "Top Ten Places to Travel" in the United States.

 

And why not? The Charleston area is home to the famed Spoleto arts and cultural festival, as well as the site of some of the South's most exciting golfing, coastal beach-combing, shopping and dining.

 

"We have a tremendous number of people from Ohio coming here," observes Diane Beck, a Realtor for Luxury Land and Homes who has lived in the area for a decade. "It's a phenomenon. You drive into a grocery store, and every second or third car in the parking lot has Ohio plates."

 

Beck credits the coastal location and golf courses for drawing such Buckeye interest, but also notes the fact it's a one-day drive from Cincinnati, making it an easy commute for both tourists and owners of second homes. "We have fabulous beaches, fine dining and restaurants, tremendous arts with the symphony, ballet and all. It's just a tremendous city that offers a laid-back, Lowcountry lifestyle."

 

WHERE HISTORY COMES ALIVE

On April 12, 1861, provisional Confederate forces opened fire on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter, the opening engagement in the Civil War (ironically, the attack injured no soldiers on either side).

 

Today, Fort Sumter is a national park and a linchpin in Charleston's tourism industry. But the famed fort isn't all. The entire city is practically steeped in history (the original settlement was named Charles Towne in 1670 for King Charles II).

"We joke around here that if isn't at least three centuries old, it's modern," says Chris Kollinghoff, a transplanted Ohioan. (The rows and rows of antique shops in the city center certainly attest to this.)

 

Historic homes abound. You can tour the Edmondston-Alston House on Charleston's High Battery; residents have included Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Drayton Hall is America's oldest preserved plantation house (circa 1738), and the Aiken-Rhett House is one of the most intact structures to survive from antebellum Charleston.

 

Consider taking a ferry from downtown to the Fort Sumter National Monument, where the National Park Service has assembled one of the most complete collections of 19th-century seacoast artillery to be found in the country.

 

Not surprisingly, generations of Charleston residents have a military background. Charleston was once home to the country's third largest U.S. Naval base and the largest submarine base. The U.S. Air Force's 437th Air Wing remains here, and the city's military legacy is found everywhere.

 

The public can visit The Citadel and tour the Citadel Museum, which portrays the history of the Military College of South Carolina.

 

Or they can visit the American Military Museum, which includes exhibits on Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam as well as reaching back to both World Wars, Civil War and the American Revolution. Located on Aquarium Wharf, the museum features memorabilia including uniforms and insignias of such notables as Gen. George Patton and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

 

And the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is also worth a gander. The centerpiece at Patriots Point is the aircraft carrier Yorktown, but the battle group also includes a destroyer, the Laffey, the Coast Guard cutter Ingham and the submarine Clamagore.

 

ON THE GREENS

Of course, there's history of a different sort here. More than two centuries ago, Charleston became the home to America's first golf course and country club. In 1786, the South Carolina Golf Club and Harleston Green were established.

 

Now, the legacy lives on with such wonders as the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, a past Ryder Cup host and the site of this year's 68th annual Senior PGA Championship in May. Another notable is the Rivertowne Country Club, hosting the LPGA tour in May on its first-ever Charleston stop.

 

Or choose from Coosaw Creek Golf Course, Patriots Point Links on Charleston Harbor, and many more.

 

Once you've exhausted your golfing options, turn to the sun 'n' sand. At such locations as Folly Beach, Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island, Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms, beach communities and vacation rentals await you.

 

How's the weather down here? Summers are generally hot and humid. This is the Deep South, after all. Expect frequent afternoon thunder showers. More moderate weather is featured in the spring and autumn months. Winters are cool and damp, but freezing temperatures and snow are unlikely.

 

For shopping, head first to downtown's King Street and its wealth of shopfronts and unique stores. "You'll find more antique stores along King than any other single street in America, I swear it," says Kollinghoff, who moved here with her family in 1994.

Make time, too, for a stop at Citadel Mall with its 100 specialty shops and five — count 'em — five department stores.

 

Then there's the great seafood as well as some of the South's most enterprising eateries. "My favorites are a pair of restaurants named with numbers, Circa 1886 and 82 Queen," notes Kollinghoff.

 

At Circa 1886, look for unique twists on Southern cuisine (try the Carolina Flounder stuffed with lobster mousse, or the Carolina Crab Cake Souffle with pineapple relish and mango puree). At 82 Queen in the French Quarter, the fare is Lowcountry cuisine. Such staples as okra and grits share the menu with She Crab Soup, Lowcountry Jambalaya (shrimp and crawfish teamed with Andouille red rice), and Charleston Bouillabaise, a savory saffron broth of mussels, clams, oysters and jumbo shrimp.

 

Also on any shellfish lover's short list is the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company & Market, featuring p'™ boys, Dixie ribs and shrimp in every conceivable form, from Cajun to Mexican. One popular entree, "Boat Trash," is a melee of slipper lobster, mahi mahi and deep-fried shrimp dusted with Cajun spices.

 

SPOLETO AND MORE

Any visit to Charleston should take into account that, during the months of May and June, the city is immersed in the cultural festival that is Spoleto. It's a terrific time to take in the region, if you are interested in world-class opera, theater, jazz and classical music. However, if you're not, you are well advised to visit Charleston during any other time, when there's less peak traffic and you aren't paying a higher toll at hotels and enduring longer lines at attractions and restaurants.

 

One major such attraction is The South Carolina Aquarium, located on the aptly named Aquarium Wharf and showcasing a diverse menagerie of moray eels, sharks, river otters and turtles.

 

Other must-sees include the Charleston Museum, an institution that was founded in 1773 and lays claim to being the nation's first museum, and the City Marina, where luxurious yachts cavort with sailboats, motorboats and more.

Finish off your visit by hiring one of the many charter boats that offer some of the finest gulfstream fishing on the Atlantic coast.

 

"Tell 'em Forrest Gump sent you," chirps Kollinghoff.