A Charleston Christmas

November 2022
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
courtesy of Sutterstock; courtesy of Holiday Parade of Boats & Charleston County Parks

Holiday Magic in the Holy City

Charleston, our charming and historic neighbor just to the south of the Grand Strand, is consistently rated as a top tourist destination for travelers from around the globe.

While the Holy City (nicknamed for its many churches and visible steeples) is lovely to visit year-round, Charleston takes on a special glow and warmth at Christmastime. An easy drive (around 2 hours) from Myrtle Beach, consider all Charleston has to offer this holiday season. Centuries-old cobblestone streets, historic Antebellum mansions decked out in Christmas finery, holiday-themed shows, window shopping, and some of the finest restaurants in the world entice visitors. Add in special church services, Christmas light displays, Christmas markets and parades, guests looking for a little Lowcountry Christmas and New Years’ spirit close to the Grand Strand will find Charleston hits the mark.

Where to Stay

Few tourism hotspots have as many diverse options for lodging than the greater Charleston area. Most visitors prefer to stay on the peninsula and in the heart of the historic district, where restaurants, theaters, and shopping, are walking distance from many great hotels, some historic and quaint, others brand new and opulent. But beware: prime location comes at a cost.

We’re all getting used to higher prices, but Charleston’s peninsula hotel rates, especially on big weekends, can be downright scary—upwards of $600 per night for the nicest five-star hotels, and around $300 average (or more) for three- and some four-star hotels.

Some hotels offer holiday packages worth checking out for both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The art-oriented Vendue, the traditional and historic Mills House and Francis Marion Hotel, the ultra-posh Hotel Bennett, and many others are among the finest on the peninsula. Airbnb and other private residence sharing sites can save you money and offer excellent options in the heart of the city, but those prices can reflect the higher cost of this location as well. Hotels in nearby Mt. Pleasant (10 minutes north of Charleston across the bridge) can be much less expensive, and you might also consider the nearby islands and beach towns for stays off the peninsula, but still close enough for an easy commute. Note: Accommodations can sell out early.

(Left) The Charleston Holiday Boat Parade (Dec 10) draws tens of thousands of visitors annually.

What to Do

Looking for Christmas-specific events is as easy as Google search, but here are favorites that we think are worth special mention.

Holiday Festival of Lights: 5:30.-10 p.m., Nov. 12 -Dec. 31, James Island County Park 871 Riverland Dr., Charleston

Though the lines of cars entering can be long, this annual Christmas light drive-through extravaganza (complete with Santa’s workshop, marshmallow roasting, food vendors and more) displays an estimated two million lights fashioned into clever displays. ($20 - $30 per car at the gate). Folly Beach Christmas Parade: 6 p.m., Dec. 10

Folly Beach Park, Center St., Folly Beach

Floats, marching bands, food vendors, arts and crafts, and, of course, Santa, appear in this small city just 20-minutes south of Charleston. Center Street is where the action is, but the nearby Folly Beach County Park and views into Charleston Harbor are worth checking out.

City of Charleston Holiday Parade: Afternoon (Time TBD), Dec. 4, Historic District Charleston

Including a tree lighting in Marion Square at the parade’s conclusion, this event features music and participation by area clubs and organizations along Broad Street, Meeting, and Calhoun streets.

Charleston Holiday Boat Parade: 5:30 p.m., Dec. 10, Charleston / Mt. Pleasant

Teams of boat owners compete for bragging rights at the 41st Annual Holiday Boat Parade starting near Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, heading northwest toward the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, past Patriot’s Point in Mt. Pleasant, to the Mt. Pleasant Waterfront Park, back toward and around the Peninsula, concluding at the mouth of the Ashley River, where a fireworks display ends the event.

Sound of Charleston “From Gospel to Gershwin” : Dec. 2, 9, 16, 22, 26, and 30 Circular Congregational Church, 150 Meeting St., Charleston, (843) 270-4903

Founded in 1681, several church buildings have inhabited the space, using bricks from the previous churches throughout its history. The current church, dating back to 1892, is a cherished historic landmark of the Holy City and has proudly presented this musical performance for more than 10 years. The 75-minute production features a variety of songs including gospel, Gullah, jazz, light classics, and Christmas tunes in the month of December. Tickets required.

Shop 'til you Drop King Street, City Market, Marion Square, Charleston

Well known for its designer retailers, boutiques, and antique stores, King St. has remained Charleston’s commercial heart for 300 years. Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and even the Grand Strand’s Tara Grinna share the upscale offerings here along with plenty of shop-and-dine options as well.

Established in 1692 the Historic Charleston City Market now hosts more than 300 vendors selling anything and everything, from gifts and souvenirs, to trinkets, sweetgrass baskets and gourmet food items (just in case Gucci is out of your price range). Nearly 1300 feet long, this popular market comes to life in December, filled with families and Christmas shoppers.

Marion Square Holiday Market: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Dec. 3-4, 10-11, 17 329 Meeting St., Charleston

This six-acre greenspace in the city center was once the training ground for both Federal and briefly Confederate troops adjacent to the original Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, established in 1842. At Christmastime, Marion Square is punctuated by the city’s 64-foot Christmas tree and a holiday market. Technically a “farmer’s market,” in December, the event takes on special Christmas market airs with live music, arts & crafts, and much more.

The Holiday Festival of Lights on James Island through Dec 31 is a family favorite with plenty to do and see.

Where to Eat

From She Crab Soup to Shrimp & Grits, and Frogmore Stew to Fried Green Tomatoes, Charleston’s culinary fame has traveled the world over, its restaurants regularly winning national and international awards for excellence. Even the lesser known (and easier to get in) restaurants are mostly all very good, as they must compete and reach for the same high bar.

With too many restaurants to name (there are nearly 5,000 in the greater Charleston area) here are just a few fine examples of places to enjoy a holiday meal.

Peninsula Grill
112 N Market St., Charleston, (843) 723-0700

Here you’ll find fine dining in a stunning setting. Peninsula Grill is known for its service, wine list, diverse menu and countless awards (including being named one of the Top Ten Best Fine Dining Restaurants in America). Try the House Smoked Heritage Duck Breast, Roasted Colorado Rack of Lamb, steaks and chops, and specialty desserts. Peninsula Grill is an elegant choice for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.

39 Rue de Jean
39 John St, Charleston, (843) 722-8881

This casual-but-fancy French café-inspired eatery and bar is fashioned after a late 1800s Brasserie. Featuring fine French dishes and a Parisian atmosphere, 39 Rue De Jean has an accessible menu filled with basic comfort foods everyone can enjoy (omelets, sandwiches, burgers, soups and salads) for lunch and brunch. At dinner, this charming restaurant offers specialties such as braised rabbit, pan-seared duck breast, and more traditional fare, such as steaks, seafood, and chicken dishes. The fabulous lounge serves specialty cocktails, craft beers and, of course, fine French wine.

FIG (Food is Good)
232 Meeting St,, Charleston, (843) 805-5900

Considered one of the best restaurants in America, this award-winning eatery can be hard to get in, reservations are required, but with cancellations, or booking far enough in advance, anything is possible. A simple, minimalist dining room sits in both contrast and harmony with its menu. Open Tuesday-Saturday for dinner (closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), FIG offers about 11 starters, including oysters, lamb tartare, and squash polenta (among many other creative choices), setting patrons up for dinner, which includes grilled triggerfish, jumbo flounder, snapper, Lowcountry Bourride (white shrimp, Carolina Gold rice, piquillo), pork tenderloin and strip steak. Creative desserts and cocktails and an extensive wine list also help make FIG one of the most sought-after dining experiences on the peninsula.

Halls Chophouse
434 King St., Charleston, (843) 727-0090

One of the finest steakhouses in the Southeast, the Hall family of restaurateurs opened Halls Chophouse in 2009, and, with its success, opened additional properties of the same name in Greenville, S.C., Columbia, Summerville and in Nashville, Tenn. Like most great chophouses, Halls features USDA Prime Beef in wet or dry-aged styles and several cuts, from petite to jumbo. Enjoy attentive, unhurried service, a la carte sides big enough to share, seafood dishes, salads, desserts, and wine lists with a staff Sommelier to suggest pairings, all in a fine-dining setting. Live jazz emits quietly from the corner of the large lounge and can help set the mood for a wonderful and festive holiday meal.

We’ve barely begun to explore all the possibilities of this historic and resplendent city and its holiday magic—there are live performances and theaters throughout the City we’ve nary mentioned. We suggest you find time for a visit to see for yourself just how fortunate we along the Grand Strand are to have this special neighbor so close by and how it transforms into a magical, Hallmark-worthy holiday treat.