In fall of 2008, I spent almost a week in Charleston, South Carolina. Wonderful time of year to visit. It was right after the heat of the summer, and before the leaves had fallen. Crape myrtles were still in bloom and the city wasn’t crowded.
I live in Richmond. I’ve often heard the comparisons between the two cities, but after my visit, I’m convinced there isn’t much for my city to lord over the “Holy City” of Charleston.
Seen from afar, the cities are similar and it’s a fair comparison. But up close in terms of tourist attractions, Charleston has many advantages over Richmond and is way ahead of the Capitol of the Commonwealth.
A recent commentary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch spurred by the Greater Richmond Chamber’s InterCity Visit to Charleston suggested Richmond needs to:
Establish a major visitor center: Richmond lacks the needed infrastructure and programs to handle increased tourism. … More than just a “rest stop,” the building should be of a size and layout that provides multipurpose uses. It should be the hub that can lead visitors to satellite centers and local attractions. The center, an attraction in itself, should be easily accessible with ample parking for local as well as interstate visitors. It will be a place to preview surrounding attractions, buy tickets for events, book tours and transportation.
This inspired me to revisit my thoughts about a comparison of the two cities. Charleston has embraced its destiny as a treasured and timeless tourist spot located in the center of a bustling modern city. Richmond has tried to be both, but sprawl, progress, modernization, funding and climate are constant obstacles. Plus, Charleston is not burdened with having to be the state capitol or the laws that prevent Richmond from annexing the surrounding counties to create regional cooperation.
First off, ocean trumps river. Yes, even the Mighty James cannot win in this battle. Charleston has marinas, cruise ships, yachts….Richmond is still working on getting just one public marina. The lands around Charleston were originally a colonial plantation founded on the profits of rice production. The harbor in Charles Town was the connection to the Old World, as far back as the late 1600s. Richmond is older as a city, but so much of Charleston’s original buildings are intact and concentrated on its magnificent peninsula.
Both cities have Revolutionary War history, but much of Richmond’s historic structures from that period were burned in April 1865 at the end of the Civil War or lost in the name of progress. Charleston has been able to maintain much of the integrity of it’s older buildings, and has never been burned or destroyed at its core to the degree Richmond suffered. Virginia certainly saw more battles in the War Between the States, but Charleston too had its share of battle scars from the Northern aggression.
Greater Charleston may have fewer Civil War battlefields than Greater Richmond, but both are host to many re-enactment events annually. In South Carolina’s favor, I’d argue that Fort Sumter is one of the biggest names of them all in terms of tourist attractions. Additionally, the setting is staggeringly beautiful, centered in Charleston Harbor and between two lovely stretches of beach shoreline. Throw in the lore of that great battle-tested Citadel and the fact that it served the Revolutionary War as well, and it counts as another win for old S.C.
Historic neighborhoods? OK, I’m not going to knock Richmond here. Rainbow Row dates back to the Revolutionary War and the origins of Charleston and many of the homes are remarkable. The architecture is wonderfully unique to the region. The Fan, Church Hill, Jackson Ward, North Side and what’s left of Monroe Ward, Court End, Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom compete well with colorful and elaborate homes and structures of The Battery, French Quarter and East Bay Street, just to name a few.
Historic Churches? Charleston wins, but in my mind only because Richmond has lost its steeples. Historically, upon return to Charleston, sailors were said to first see the steeples of the Holy City. Both cities have remarkable churches and I’m not sure that Richmond’s St. John’s Church isn’t more important in history than anything Charleston can muster. It appears perhaps Charlestonians may revere the history of religion more than Richmonders (and fear lightning strikes less?).
Plantations? Pick your style. A trip down Route 5 toward Williamsburg from Richmond compares favorably with anything around Charleston. What riches Charleston in plantation homes has is more to do with the climate. Grand live oaks draped with Spanish moss are a signature of the region, as you’d see at Boone’s Hall, which includes one of the most famous entrance ways anywhere — lined on both sides with hundreds of live oak.
Middleton and its sprawling and ancient gardens are top-knotch, and beat anything I’ve seen in the Richmond area. But, the main home at Middleton was burned and destroyed in the Civil War, as were many of the treasured dwellings of South Carolina along the Ashley River.
Drayton Hall craftily survived destruction, but few plantations did — and neither did many of the treasures inside them — whereas the homes in the Richmond area are largely intact and thrive as tourist destinations today.
Tourist attractions? Historic Charleston is confined conveniently on its man-made peninsula, and the area is small enough to offer tours of all kinds. There is plenty to see between the glorious homes and neighborhoods, with ornate cast-iron f
encing and immaculate gardens. Charleston’s best homes are attractions and you’re invited to visit, where Richmond’s are off-limits and exclusive.
Walking tours are also completely doable and safe. There are things to see everywhere. Tiny parks. Art galleries. Museums. Ancient renovated warehouses. Alleyways with flair. Statues. Shopping. Fantastic eateries. People-watching. All good. All walkable.
Horse-drawn carriage tours are the best — and most entertaining — way to the see the city. The drivers alone are worth the price. This couldn’t happen in Richmond. The streets are too busy, the sites are not confined to a small enough or significant enough space. Not to mention the fact that most horses would not survive the mythical rolling Seven Hills of Richmond. At least we have Canal Tours in Richmond and the historic Richmond tours from the Valentine Richmond History Center.
Yes, I loved my visit to Charleston I’d go there again and again. But, I’m not planning on moving there anytime — I’ll keep Richmond. It has skyscrapers built on granite bedrock. If I need a beach or a mountain, I can go find one quick. Hurricanes aren’t as much of a threat here. I can paddle rapids and there are real hills here.
Our city has a long climb to reach Top Tourist Destination status that Charleston enjoys. For them, it is a process that has taken more than 40 years to achieve and they seem to embrace it collectively. The crown jewel of the Palmetto state has made it happen. Richmond is more than 400 years old, and if nothing else we’ve learned patience.