Downtown Charleston is the gem that draws visitors and residents alike to stroll the wavy slate and brick sidewalks. At dusk on a spring night when the windows are open, a stroll on Church Street near the Battery lets you listen to people making dinner and having casual conversations. That's when you realize that people live here and the beautiful houses are not museums, but a living testament to those who want to keep the ancient brick and plaster buildings alive for another generation. 

The walled gardens and paths disappearing into greenery hint at a secret life lived beyond the iron gates and give rise to the imagination.

It's not hard to picture sailing ships creaking in the harbor, and horses and carriages clopping down the streets. So here's a few reasons why people want to visit downtown. 

It’s cool

No matter where you go, tell people you live in Charleston, and you get envious looks. By now, enough people know that we are a top travel destination, but we also are a growing population that is bursting at the seams. It's why there is hardly a house in the downtown area has not been renovated, painted and polished up. Where once you could see evidence of age, now Charleston houses are expensive enough to receive the care they deserve. To be able to live downtown is a privilege 

The restaurants

The food scene has mushroomed, with more restaurants and bars within walking distance than you could patronize in a year. The city’s cuisine has become as much of a drawing card for visitors as its history and art, and locals also are getting the benefits. 

Of course, some of the prices are more for special occasions than regular dining for most residents. But there’s certainly something for everyone in every price range. For instance, Rodney Scott's BBQ is on Conde Nast Traveler's list of the the best restaurants in Charleston, and those prices are aimed at the average diner.

You don't have to live in the center of the peninsula to be within walking distance of a restaurant worth checking out. Cannon Street, which is north of Calhoun, is undergoing a dramatic revitalization, as is the area along Morrison Drive, even farther to north. 

For nightlife, King Street north of Calhoun has become the hot spot. The sidewalks are crowded on weekends with people walking between scores of bars and restaurants.

Walkability

There’s no other place in the Lowcountry with more to do and see on foot. Whether you’re walking to your favorite eatery or just strolling through neighborhoods looking at the houses, it’s a city that’s meant to be enjoyed outside a car.

You can rent a bike from several shops around town, and the city has a bike rental program called Holy Spokes. Or you can shell out a few dollars and hop in one of the bicycle-drawn carts.

And of course there are the horse carriages. They’re not meant as a mode of transportation for residents, but they appeal to those looking for a reminder of the city’s history as they go around looking at the old houses.

The art

Charleston is full of art galleries, and even if you can’t afford to buy anything, you'll get a feast for the eyes strolling through the galleries. And who knows, you may find a painting or an artist that calls to you. Many an art collector began with a simple desire to see good art. 

Charleston may be historic, but its art scene is cutting edge, with more contemporary galleries opening each year. Solomon Guggenheim unveiled his controversial collection of modern art at the Gibbes Museum in 1936, putting the city in the center of a national debate over its worth. Now that museum holds a position of respect for its collection of regional art.

The City Gallery at Waterfront Park, with its big windows overlooking the harbor, is a great space for art but it's also a quiet air-conditioned space that offers a refuge for a tired walker. The exhibits are cutting edge so you never know what you will see.  

The College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art almost always has something thought-provoking on display, although it's not open on Sundays. Curator Mark Sloan seems to have some sort of inner divining rod for finding unusual talent.

The views

There are so many great places to relax by the water on the Charleston peninsula.

There’s The Battery at the southern end, with its seawalls, cannons and big oak trees.

Just a short walk to the north, you can stroll down to Waterfront Park and sit by the harbor and watch the ships and waves. If you can’t find an empty swing, the concrete benches near the water are a good vantage point.

If you prefer the shade, the wooden benches under the trees on the other side are great. The city’s gardeners always do a good job of keeping the flowers and other plants interesting as well.

If you’re closer to the center of the peninsula, the Maritime Center is another great place to sit and relax by the water. You can climb the steps to look from on high, walk out on the floating docks to be closer to the water, or chill out on the concrete benches.

It’s just a few more minutes north to the Fort Sumter Visitor Center, which also has steps for an elevated view of the water. It’s beside the great grassy expanse of Liberty Square and the South Carolina Aquarium.

If you want some good views of the city itself, some of the new hotels offer the best vantage points. The rooftop of The Restoration is arguably the best, with unimpeded visibility in every direction.

Dave Munday contributed to this report.

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