4 Charleston

PopulationMetro: 728,271
The Holy City continues to draw pilgrims from all over the world, propelled by global travel media and the promise of legendary Southern hospitality from another time.

Charleston is at once an easy yet kinetic seaside American treasure, punctuated by European elegance and macaroon-colored antebellum mansions by day and all kinds of revelry after sunset.

It’s the kind of place where a strong connection to the past lives in the hearts of locals—it graces the facades of homes, it is apparent in regional traditions, it punctuates the vernacular and seasons the food. Here is a city that remains defiantly indifferent to fashions, fads or trends—confident that the rest of the world will eventually catch up.

The city owes its reputation as an icon of Southern architecture and general intoxicating sense of place partly to the centuries-old virtue that buildings don’t have to be tall to make a bold statement. They can be grandiose or candy colored or oddly shaped and still add to the area’s charm—neatly beneath the church steeples. For the past 80 years, Charleston’s zoning rules and its Board of Architectural Review helped formalize and preserve the principle of holding new buildings to the standards set by their historic predecessors.

Place 77
Product 73
Programming 55
People 43
Prosperity 57
Promotion 73

Unsurprisingly, the Holy City ranks #2 in our Place category, which tracks a city’s Crime Rate, Air Quality, Weather, Neighborhoods & Landmarks, and Parks & Outdoor Activities.

A beguiling fusion of the built environment and coastal transition landscapes—golden islands, channels and swamps—Charleston is one of North America’s most architecturally significant destinations. Wander the streets and you’ll catch glimpses of another time: flickering copper gas carriage lanterns, ornate hand-wrought ironwork, and hitching posts used by horse-drawn carriages.

An excellent example of intelligent urban planning, the early city was laid out on a grid at a time when other cities meandered from one expansion to the next, which allows flaneurs to efficiently navigate this pedestrian gem. In fact, the entire Charleston peninsula is best experienced on foot, taking in the manicured public parks and hints of private gardens where the gentle perfume of tea olive trees and Carolina Jasmine vines cavort amid the sea breezes. From every corner of the city, the ringing of church bells oscillates with the murmur of the city—and your gratitude.