Charleston Is the Best Small City in the U.S.

Sandra L. Pouncy

Maybe it’s the cobblestone streets. Or the friendly locals. Or the incredible food, charming hotels, and endless water views. Whatever the reason, our readers continue to be utterly charmed by Charleston, South Carolina. In fact, it was just voted the best small city in the United States in our 2022 Readers’ Choice Awards.

Now in its 35th year, our annual Readers’ Choice Awards continues to capture the travel experiences our readers love best, from hotels and airlines to cruises and islands. The numbers prove what we already knew: Enthusiasm for travel has never been higher, as demonstrated by the nearly quarter of a million of you who filled out this year’s survey. The best cities in the world (large and small) are a testament to the staying power of perennial favorites, through thick and thin—with some newcomers to consider. 

Charleston is no stranger to accolades. Our readers named it the best small city for an incredible 10 consecutive years until it was edged out by Aspen in 2021—not surprising, with most travelers seeking out wide open spaces during the pandemic. But the Holy City took back its crown this year, and everything feels relatively normal once again.

While there are clearly many reasons to love this Southern city, you really can’t talk about the destination without immediately calling out its dining scene. “Excellent restaurants” and “delicious food” were mentioned in countless survey responses, with particular attention paid to seafood, sweet tea, and hearty breakfasts.

Wine and Spanish groceries at Malagón Mercado y Tapería

Photo by Olivia Rae James

Fried grouper cheeks at The Glass Onion

Photo by Jonathan Boncek

The city excels at Southern cuisine, of course, but don’t sleep on Charleston’s more diverse dining options. Be sure to try the escargot at Maison, the tender agnolotti and veal scallopini at Wild Olive, the gazpacho at Malagón Mercado y Tapería, and the fried smelt with garlic skordalia sauce at Stella’s. We wouldn’t dare tell you to skip the Southern classics, though: If you’re lucky enough to find an empty parking spot at The Glass Onion, break any mild traffic laws to get it. The shrimp po’boys, fried grouper cheeks, and lemon meringue pie are the stuff of legends.

Luckily for any calorie counters out there, Charleston also boasts an extremely walkable downtown area and a plethora of outdoor activities. You can hop onboard one of the famous horse-drawn carriages (“carriage rides both day and evening are a must,” writes one reader), or take a self-guided walking tour past Waterfront Park, the live oaks at White Point Gardens, Legare’s gorgeous homes, and more.

There are many great beaches to choose from in the spring and summer, with “water as warm as a bath,” but we’re particular fans of the stretches of sand on Sullivan’s Island. These beaches are wide enough to fit the crowds, have gentle waves, and are surrounded by natural walking paths through lush vegetation. Get out on the water with a kayaking tour—one of Charleston’s trademark outdoor activities—and you might even spot a pair of surfacing dolphins or an elusive summer manatee.

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