Mother Hoods: Charleston, South Carolina

Written by James Kicinski-McCoy
1:00 pm

For many, the Carolinas can elicit an ethereal ideation of dancing willow trees, row boats on rivers that flow to the ocean, and freshly pressed, pastel Sunday’s best—an image not far removed from the watercolor-painted vistas straight off the pages of a Nicholas Spark novel. And, while that paints a pretty picture, it’s far from the whole truth of the Carolinas narrative, particularly South Carolina. If you’ve ever wondered what the real Southeast is like, or fancied a visit, allow Gray Benko to be your true-to-life tour guide. Below, the photographer and mama-of-two, takes you on a journey through Charleston, and pinpoints all the best places to eat, shop, and play—with or without the kids in tow.

What are your favorite places in Charleston to…
1. Eat with the kids? 
“This one’s kind of a toss-up. One place I love to take the kids for lunch is Leon’s. They have great friend chicken sandwiches for me, and the kids swear by their avocado toast. The atmosphere is amazing, but most importantly, they have soft-serve ice cream and sprinkles, so it is always a treat for the kids to get to go there. Another place I love taking the kids is Taco Boy. Like Leon’s, it has a great atmosphere, but is just loud enough that you don’t have to worry about your kids bothering anyone. They also have a great outdoor area where the kids can feel less confined to their seats. If you go, get the queso and a frozen screwdriver. They will ask you if you want the floater—always, yes.”

2. Eat with just adults?Xaio Bao Biscuit. Go there immediately. They have the best ambiance and incredible food and drinks! I suggest the cabbage pancake fully loaded and a Mapo Mule to drink. They categorize themselves as ‘authentically-inspired Asian comfort food and classic Southern cuisine’. A lot of the food has a good amount of heat, and I don’t typically like spicy food, but XBB is still one of my staples, if that tells you anything about how good it is. The menu is constantly changing, but you can’t go wrong, I promise you.”

3. Shop for kids? “Go check out Pink Chicken on King St. They just recently opened in the past couple of years and have the cutest things!”

4. Shop for yourself? “Always Madewell on King St. because it’s basically my uniform, but make sure to also check out Hampden Clothing and Candy Shop Vintage for some truly special gems! Make sure to stop by Mac & Murphy, too, for the most incredible paper goods! Every time I go in, I want to buy everything in the store.”

5. Play with your child?The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is one of [my daughter] Farris’ favorite places on earth. I can’t even begin to tell you how often she begs me to take her there. If you need to occupy your kids for a solid couple of hours, this is your spot. I would also encourage you to check out the Aquarium, another one of my kids’ favorite destinations.”

6. Play with your adult friends? “If you are looking for a good bar to go to, we love the bar at The Ordinary. They have a great location and cocktails, and the service is spectacular. If you want a little bite, while you’re there, get the fish pâté and the crab toast. Nothing I can say will do either of them justice. If you want more of a group activity, I would suggest paying a visit to The Alley. It’s a great bowling alley/ bar with a fun, retro feel and great food. Their loaded tots are one of my favorite things in this world.”

7. Get out in nature?Botany Bay! Botany Bay is a 3,363-acre wildlife preserve located on Edisto Island. When you are there, make sure to plan to spend a big hunk of your time at Boneyard Beach. Beach erosion has left behind a ‘boneyard’ of dead trees along the shore line, and it is truly one of the most magical sights. My kids love to go climb on the trees and collect conch shells. I have never seen so many conch shells in my life. Unfortunately, you can’t keep them, but they are so fun to find, and many people decorate the trees with them. It’s a bit of a hike to get out there, but it is such a special place.”

8. Any good flea markets/thrift shops? “There really aren’t many amazing flea markets that I know of. There is a pretty cool traveling thrift shop that I have been dying to try out called Thrifters and Drifters. If you follow them on Instagram, they announce where they will be popping up next. It’s definitely on my list of things to check out soon, and looks pretty cool. If you are looking for an antique mall, however, we have that covered. There is practically one on every corner. I love making the short drive to Walterboro, South Carolina for antiquing. The entire downtown is lined with antique shopping, and I always come home with something good.”

9. Any good museums/art installations? “The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and The Gibbes Museum of Art are both great for contemporary art. The best historic house museum in Charleston is the Aiken-Rhett House, which is basically frozen in time from the mid-1800s. I’m not saying there are ghosts there, but there are ghosts there.”

10. Where do you take out-of-town visitors? “I like to start with a walk through the Historic District: Start at White Point Gardens and walk north along The Battery up to Rainbow Row. Charleston is an incredibly walkable city, and there are fantastic bars and restaurants on every corner!”

11. Any tourist-y places that are worth it to visit? “Drayton Hall is a little bit of a drive, but if you’re going to visit an Ashley River plantation, that is the place to go. Magnolia Gardens, just down from Drayton Hall, is great for kids. They have a nature train and petting zoo!”

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