“I love Charleston to a ridiculous degree,” Vas, a Charleston, West Virginia, local told me at Lola’s Pizza, where we met.
“Why?” I asked her as I shoveled another bite of delicious Thai chicken pizza into my mouth.
“If you have an idea here, you can make it happen.” Her smile widened as she explained the dynamics of Charleston’s culture to me. I left the restaurant with a sense of excitement for my weekend ahead. I felt inspired to experience the Charleston locals know and love.
I had only three days, so I hit the downtown streets, bar scene and weekend gatherings to get a realistic feel for the city’s historic/modern atmosphere. I made it my mission to experience “unknown” Charleston by exploring the local haunts, particularly the lesser-known places where Charlestonians regularly hang out to grab a beer or enjoy the best live music in town. The more I explored and the more people I met, it became clear to me that this West Virginia city has a vibe all of its own—one that couldn’t be captured in any guidebook or by simply sightseeing. And here’s what I found, after my daytime excursions to local attractions, after the sun went down and the neon signs buzzed to life.
Friday afternoon, it was a short 10-minute drive from the airport to my hotel in the city center. My plan for the first night was to walk down Capitol Street—the pulsing center of the historic downtown district—hopping from bar to bar and chatting with whomever happened to be sitting on the stool next to me.
I started with happy hour at local favorite, Big Joe’s Bar & Grill. I travel solo pretty frequently and have found that places packed with regular customers can be a tough scene—not everyone is quick to welcome an out-of-towner. But, I didn’t have this problem in Charleston. It wasn’t long until I roused some curiosity from the patrons, who immediately pegged me as a tourist. (Perhaps my giant camera gave me away?) Word spread quickly down the bar and before I knew it, the bartender was pouring me a shot courtesy of one of the friendly regulars.
I figured I should fill my stomach with something other than whiskey. If I was going to make my way through downtown, I needed some sustenance. I placed my order with the bartender and prepared myself for typical bar food. It sure wasn’t average—my meal was elevated and delicious. The patrons assured me all the food at Joe’s was fantastic, but I can personally vouch for the sausage kale tortellini soup.
I paid my tab and began to put on my jacket when I heard, “Where you headed?” I turned around and saw a small group also making their way towards the door. “Sam’s,” I replied. “Awesome, we’re headed there now. You can hang with us if you’d like.” I couldn’t get over how darn nice everyone was.
When we got to Sam’s Uptown Café, I ordered a drink, sat down on one of the mismatched couches and took in my surroundings. The crowd was lively, but the bar itself was cool in a genuine and relaxed way. There was a motorcycle adorned with twinkle lights hanging on one of the exposed brick walls, while another wall was crowded with brightly colored chalk drawings. I immediately decided that I liked Sam’s.
Saturday, I got my introduction to Charleston’s food and music fare with the Hops & Heat festival, where I ate homemade chili and drank Appalachian craft beer while listening to two bands perform live. Afterwards, Charleston’s happening nightlife begged to be explored further.
I capped my second night at the city’s dive-y-est dive bar, the infamous Red Carpet Lounge on the city’s East Side. To say that the Red Carpet has character would be an understatement. Inside, you’ll find the walls lined with electronic poker games, TVs and a jukebox. The bar’s decor may be retro, but the eclectic crowd seemed to be ever changing. The patio was packed with young and seasoned professionals, sports fans, hipsters and everyone else in between. The city’s diversity continued to surprise me throughout the weekend.
By the time Sunday rolled around, I had still only seen a small part of Charleston’s local hot-spots, so I started my last day following a tip I got about another quirky, local favorite: Castaways Bar, just a short drive from downtown in Nitro. When I walked into the bar, I felt as though I’d been transported from West Virginia to Key West. The walls of the urban tiki bar were plastered with fishing nets and driftwood signs. Castaways may be miles from the sea, but beachy good vibes were easily found within this bizarrely wonderful off-the-beaten path watering hole.
I wanted to go out with a bang on my last night, so I looked in the mirror, applied a fresh coat of red lipstick and headed out the door. I was ready for what I had heard was a local staple: Mountain Stage, a state radio show produced at the Culture Center Theater and broadcast across the country by NPR. You can watch the musical acts perform live while they tape the show 26 Sundays per year. I was lucky enough to catch a handful of diverse artists including Grammy Award-winning Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, emotive singer-songwriter Seth Glier and a female folk-electronica duo Overcoats, who had created quite the buzz with their album, “Young.”
I had a great time at the radio broadcast, but the show wasn’t over. I had yet to experience the after-show at The Empty Glass. You can’t talk about the live music scene in Charleston without mentioning this venue. I was told that The Empty Glass is the place you want to be on a Sunday night after Mountain Stage, and I was lucky enough to see why for myself. The bar hosts world-class musical acts and entertains a colorful crowd of all types. I recognized several of the Mountain Stage performers tossing back cold ones, then watched as they hopped up on stage to perform with the band. My weekend was officially made.
I left feeling the same as I did when I left Lola’s Pizza—excited and inspired. I had seen the city and got to know its true personality. I fell for Charleston’s sights, sips and sounds, but the locals I met during my trip were what made the city truly stand out from the rest. Charlestonians are wildly passionate about their city and their enthusiasm is infectious. They mirror the atmosphere of the city itself. Parts of Charleston are plush with well-manicured lawns and immaculate historic buildings. And then there are parts of the city that are much different. They’re grittier and in transition. Aaron, a Charleston native I met along the way, summed it up perfectly for me: “Charleston is a big city hiding out within a small city.” I get it. Charleston has all the draws of a big city, but still maintains its small-town charm. The city was transforming right before my eyes.
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