How to do Spoleto, Charleston
If you’ve never been to Charleston, South Carolina, bless your heart. As one of the oldest cities in the continental United States, Charleston is pulsing with history, music, and culture. The Spoleto Festival USA is a three week-long festival that takes place in late May and early June. Piccolo Spoleto is an accompanying festival that coincides with the main Spoleto Festival. Piccolo acts are typically less expensive and less exclusive than the major events hosted by Spoleto.
What can you expect from Spoleto Festival and Piccolo Spoleto? Everything from poetry readings, to jazz bands, to bluegrass tunes and Havana Cuban dance to one man plays and concerts by legends like Freddy Cole. Spoleto also hosts an art show in Marion Square and various walking tours. The schedule changes every year!
With so many offerings – there are as many as 20 shows a day to choose from! – you need to have a plan to maximize your time. You’ll have an excellent experience no matter which shows you see, but follow my simple advice and take full advantage of this marvelous festival! Here’s everything you need to know about Spoleto Festival in Charleston:
Everything you need to know about Spoleto Festival in Charleston
1. Obtain a Schedule ASAP
The Spoleto Festival calendar is usually determined as early as OCTOBER….yes, for a May festival. Go to the Spoleto website and sign up for email notifications and the written catalogue. The Spoleto magazine usually arrives right with my Christmas catalogues.
2. Book Your Accommodations
Again, the best (read: closest) hotels will book really fast. Go ahead and get your rooms booked as they will ALL sell out. Normally I am a huge fan of Air BNB and similar websites, but in this case, play it safe and get a hotel. If your owner cancels at the last minute, you will have a very difficult time finding back up accommodations. You want to stay in the city of Charleston, and anywhere near the historic district is a good bet. The Vendue and the Francis Marion are some of the best and are in close proximity to the events.
3. Get A Map App
Charleston is an old city, with numerous winding alleys, one way streets, and weirdly intersecting roads. The app Waze will really save your life (way better than Google Maps!).
4. Choose Your “Priority” Shows
There will always be the one show you want to see. Highlight it on your list. Figure out when and where it is playing. You will want to schedule all your other activities around the priority show.
5. Determine Your Other Shows
Look at the Spoleto Festival and Piccolo Spoleto schedules. Highlight everything you want to see. I recommend one color for each show. For instance, I highlighted “Bluegrass on the Hill” in blue (I know, clever), which allowed me to quickly see that it was playing at 7pm on Thursday, 12pm on Saturday, and 4pm on Sunday. Do this with all your choices.
6. Determine Where the Shows are Playing
Charleston has several theaters and the different performances are scheduled at various venues throughout the city. Make sure you know 1) how many the theater seats and 2) where the theater is located. The Gaillard Center is a major compound and seats several hundred people. The Lightfoot Players Theater on Queen Street is tiny, and seats 200 tops. If the theater has a limited number of seats, book those tickets first. They will likely sell out.
You need to be aware of where the theaters are located in order to maximize your time. Getting from Calhoun to Queen is pretty easy; getting from Queen to Gaillard takes a bit more planning.
I recommend attending shows at different theaters, if possible. Adding variety to your venues allows you to explore the city, and each offers something different. Pair a show at the College of Charleston with a stroll through the historic campus, check out a show at the Charleston Music Hall after a scrumptious meal at Rue de Jean, or really feel like a local while taking in a smaller show at the Lightfoot Players Theater, which is tucked away on Queen street.
7. A Note on Booking
To ensure that your favorite shows don’t sell out, go ahead and book your tickets. Usually you can purchase tickets once you get to town, but nothing is more disappointing than getting excited for the Freddy Cole Quartet and having the show sell out. Also, since you’re trying to piece together your schedule, it helps if availability isn’t an issue. Usually, if you make a selection and you change your mind, you can trade in your tickets and get credit towards another show. Of course, you can and should check Craig’s List and StubHub if you have trouble getting tickets, but you didn’t hear that from me. Most times, tickets are cheaper from the Spoleto office.
8. Be Early
Many of the shows do not have assigned seating, and some will over sell by accident. It is to your advantage to arrive 20 minutes early so you can get a good seat and sit with your party.
9. Be Comfortable!
In case you didn’t know, CHARLESTON IS HOT! And humid! This is not the time to make a fashion statement. Wear shorts or pants that are comfortable for walking, a blousy long-sleeved shirt to protect you from the sun, and good walking shoes. Charleston has lots of cobblestone roads which is very charming, but pretty tough on your Jimmy Choos (or wedges!). Most of the performances are casual and the fanciest they get are white pants and a linen shirt.
10. Do Not Over Plan
One of the best things you can do in a city like Charleston is wander. Read the signs, pop in for a drink, stroll the Market. Remember that you will likely get sick of sitting if you book more than two shows a day. I recommend an afternoon and an evening performance with additional activities scattered throughout the day.
11. So…What Other Activities?
Check out your Spoleto Festival Guide to see what is available. I went on a wonderful walking tour that focused on Charleston’s literary history that was sponsored by the library. The art show in Marion Square is a must. Different artists showcase their paintings and photography for several days. The prices are friendly and so are the featured artists! Finally, the Farmers’ Market on Saturday is a veritable smorgasbord of culinary Southern delights ranging from local coffee and honey to fried shrimp and oysters right off the dock.
12. Second Sunday
This one gets its own number. Second Sunday is a big deal, y’all. Sections of King Street (Charleston’s main downtown thoroughfare) are shut down and local culinary favorites are shared in community-style seating. I highly recommend attending Second Sunday. You do not need to be a foodie as the fare is usually simple, Southern, and delicious. Shops are open, drinks are flowing, and music is playing. There is no better place to be.
13. FOOD – My Favorites
In the South, it’s no secret we like to eat. My absolute favorite place to eat in Charleston is Blossom, which is a small casual bistro on E. Bay Street. Just down the street is the sister restaurant, Magnolia’s. Rue de Jean is a French-inspired culinary destination – I recommend splitting as many plates as possible so you can taste everything. Hall’s is a classic steakhouse, and it is delicious. Husk and Poogan’s Porch are my best brunch spots. You will need a reservation for these two. The Fleet Restaurant is a rustic-meets-casual-glam spot right on the water. I highly recommend this “go-to” for a breezy casual night out with a great view. Bring your second stomach.
14. A Note on Sweet Grass Baskets
One of the most bespoke Charleston wares is the sweet grass basket. You will see ladies (and some gentlemen) weaving them on the side of the road and in the Market. Sweet grass weaving is an African tradition handed down generation to generation. As these talented artisans are being replaced by cheap replicas from overseas, the art form is dying and will one day be extinct. **Please note: the baskets are expensive, yet they are priced on the rate of about one dollar an hour. If you feel the price is too high, please just move on. Most of the artists haggle, and one lady even gave me a little freebie when she heard I was a newlywed. Know that if you buy a sweet grass basket, you are purchasing a piece of history. But if you can’t say something, nice, do like mamma taught you and don’t say anything at all.
15. Non-Spoleto Festival Activities
You’re in Charleston, one of the most culturally stocked and romantic cities in the country!
- Take a carriage tour through the Historic District.
- Go on a moonlit ghost tour, or better yet, go on a food tour! Yes, that is actually a thing. I think the best way to soak up the history is through the ghost stories, because human narrative is so much more spellbinding than dry dates and facts.
- Take a stroll on the Battery and see Charleston’s prime real estate while taking in views of Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
- Patriot’s Point is a wonderful hands-on museum of Naval and Maritime military history that is fun for all ages. Touring an actual battleship, the USS Yorktown, is like a hands-on history lesson.
- The Market is a bit touristy but is really the center of the city. Vendors sell everything from homemade cookies to clothing to artwork. Please note: many people think the market was a slave market but this is not the case. The land was donated by the Pinckney family on the condition that human souls never be bought or sold on the grounds. The actual former slave market is off of E. Bay on what used to be waterfront property.
- Peek in St. Philip Church and the graveyard.
- Go outside the city limits and tour Boone Hall Plantation.
- Eat on Sullivan’s Island or Shem Creek
- Stroll King Street, the main drag, and explore Charleston’s unique shops, some of which have been in business for four generations.
One of the most classic means of Charleston transportation is the pedi-cab. The driver is on a bike, and can carry up to three passengers. Try this at least once. Charleston has Uber and everything is so close your fares will be under $10.
I hope you have found this handy guide useful. My final piece of advice is to vary the performances. Being a port town, Charleston has one of the most diverse populations in American history. The city has been home to Native Americans, people of African and Gullah descent, rich society belles, pirates, and some of the most influential American politicians and artists our country has produced. And, of course, who could forget Rhett Butler? I encourage you to breathe deep, embrace the humidity, the smells, and the pulse of the city.
You can find a great deal on a Charleston hotel and book online here.
Had you heard of the Spoleto Festival? Would you like to go?
This guest post is penned by Meredith Bryant Snapp. Meredith is a champagne enthusiast who enjoys long walks on the beach and jamming out to Whitney Houston. She resides in Atlanta with her husband, Wes, and her cherished Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Pawley Wog.
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which mean that if you choose to book through it I earn a small commission at no cost to you. I appreciate your support to keep this site up and running! You can read FWTG’s full Disclosure Policy here. CC photo credits from Flickr: Kepler by Aasimah Naviakhi; Sottile, Charleston SC by Anthony; Rehearsal for “Charleston, A Love Letter” by Joshua Breeden; Good morning from #Charleston by Charleston Area CVB; King Street VI by Rex Brown
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