August in Charleston. The perfect time to unload a moving truck, unpack tons of boxes, play Tetris with your furniture, and figure out just how much more you will have to buy to make your new place feel like a home. That is if you are a fan of 100 degree weather and extreme humidity. Unfortunately, this is the time that leases start for the school year. As a new grad student, it can be a challenge to not only determine which house or apartment to rent, but in what area to rent the house or apartment. It can be seen as either a blessing or a curse to have so many options in the area. Finding time to search for a place can also be a challenge, especially if you are coming from out of state. Coming from North Carolina, I was able to drive the 5 hours and spend an entire weekend searching for places. I was determined to live downtown, and I was lucky enough to find the perfect place that really feels like a home for me and my roommate. (I should also mention that I saw some really terrible places.)
However, if you are not in the position to visit Charleston for your search, here is a breakdown of areas in the Lowcountry to help with your decision. This breakdown is not exactly from a scientific study. However, sometimes opinions can be more helpful than statistics and studies. Aside from downtown, there are several cities/towns that surround Charleston that have a reasonable commute. They are: West Ashley, James Island, Mount Pleasant, Johns Island, North Charleston and Summerville. So, here it goes:
The shops on King Street
One-bedroom rental- ~$950
Two-bedroom rental– ~$1300
Things to do:
Downtown Charleston is rich with history, shopping, and food. You’ll find a unique blend of tourists, business professionals and college students traversing the streets. Marion Square is home to the downtown Farmer’s Market every Saturday during the summer, and King Street offers a wide array of restaurants, art galleries and boutiques. Downtown is most certainly one of the most walkable areas in all of the Lowcountry and probably one of my favorites. Living downtown is extremely convenient for getting to campus quickly and for going to dinner at a variety of restaurants and out to a variety of bars. It is also relatively close to all of the beaches in the area and to the neighboring towns. However, you may just find yourself resisting the urge to ever leave the peninsula!
Two bedroom rental: ~$1050
Things to do:
West Ashley is a popular area for our graduate students. While it doesn’t have nearly the same amount of shops and restaurants that downtown offers, it does have a sweet charm about it. Especially around the Avondale/Savannah Highway area where you’ll find a few boutiques, coffee shops and Genes Haufbrau, a bar that offers more than a few darts and pool cues – anyone up for a vicious game of Connect Four? Another popular bar and restaurant is Triangle, which I have heard from several people has the best brunch in town.
West Ashley is also home to the Citadel Mall, which aside from the outlets near the airport and the Towne Centre in Mt. Pleasant, is the best place for shopping, especially since it has a Target! The area between West Ashley and Summerville is where you will find several plantations and gardens including Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, and Charles Towne Landing. Sidewalks are far and few in between, so I wouldn’t advise taking a walking tour of West Ashley. All in all, West Ashley has significantly less tourists than downtown, plenty of restaurants and bars, easy access to downtown, closer proximity to Folly Beach, and cheaper rent. If you don’t mind driving about 20 minutes or riding the CARTA bus to class, this could be a good location for you.
James Island County Park
Two bedroom rental: ~$1100
Things to do:
If you want to head out to the “Edge of America” (AKA Folly Beach), you have to go through James Island, and that’s not a bad thing. JI has its own little culture of local restaurants and townies. You won’t find strip malls, but you will find Fort Johnson (which is home to our Grice Marine Lab), the James Island County Park, plenty of wildlife, and a great venue for music. The Pour House, located on Maybank Highway, is home to heated trivia on Friday nights, live music on the porch throughout the week, and concerts you have to pay for inside. This is a great place to hear the talented local bands from Charleston and surrounding regions.
Folly Beach is incredibly popular, especially in the summer. Since there is only one road connecting Folly to James Island, you should definitely plan to head out to the beach early on the weekends. Otherwise, you’ll spend a good bit of time in traffic starting around 11:30. Once you’re out there, you can turn left and head towards the Washout to watch the surfers, go straight to walk on the second longest pier on the east coast, or go right for a little more room in the sand. This is the only beach that you can (legally) bring adult beverages to, so the area is no stranger to fun.
One of the restaurants on Shem Creek
Two bedroom rental: ~$1150
Things to do:
According to Wikipedia, Mt. Pleasant is “the fifth largest municipality in South Carolina, and for several years it was one of the state’s fastest growing areas, literally doubling in population size between 1990 and 2000.” It is home to Patriot’s Point and the Yorktown, Boone Hall Plantation, awesome seafood dinners, and is probably the one of the most family-friendly areas around Charleston. Shem Creek, an area of fun restaurants and bars, is a great place to eat or to kayak and to look for dolphins! You may find yourself spending happy hour at Reds before heading over to Water’s Edge or Vickery’s for dinner, or you may spend the whole night at Reds hanging out on its dog-friendly, outdoor atmosphere. Mt. Pleasant is also home to Towne Centre, the best shopping in the area, aside from the Citadel Mall or the outlets. Additionally, many downtown restaurants have a second location in Mt. Pleasant, such as Basil, Juanita Greenberg’s, Five Loaves, and King Street Grille.
The Ravenal Bridge that connects Mt. Pleasant to downtown, is an amazing architectural structure. For those of us who have had ties to Charleston for more than the six years that the new bridge has been open, it is a blessing. The old rickety Cooper River Bridge was, to say the least, an experience to cross. Not only is this new bridge vital to our safety, it has also provided a great place for walkers, runners, and bikers to exercise year round. Nothing, however, can compare to the amount of exercisers on the bridge in early April. Each year, thousands of avid walkers and runners line up at the starting line in Mount Pleasant for the annual Cooper River Bridge Run which finishes in downtown Charleston.
Together, the Ravenal Bridge and Highway 17 experience a lot of traffic in the morning as people try to get downtown for work and during rush hour as people to try get back home in Mount Pleasant. However, this town has a great blend of young professional and older residents. You can also easily hit the beaches of Sullivan’s Island or Isle of Palms, go strawberry picking or to the Oyster Roast Festival at Boone Hall Plantation, check out some great live music at the Windjammer on Isle of Palms, or rent a kayak or a jet ski!
The Angel Oak
Two bedroom rental: ~$800
Things to do:
Johns Island is the fourth largest island on the east coast and is “predominantly rural in nature.” I am not entirely familiar with John’s Island, but whenever I drive through it, I am always amazed by the beauty of its nature. Trees line the two lane roads and seemingly create a canopy. A great attraction on John’s Island is the Angel Oak. This Live Oak is the oldest thing (both natural and man-made) east of the Rockies, and is definitely something you want to see in person. The pictures never strike the same awe you get when you’re standing beneath its massive canopy.
John’s Island is also home to the Tomato Shed Café, which was chosen by the Post and Courier as Charleston’s lunch counter of the year. This small café, located in the Stono Market on Main Road, is part of the Ambrose Farm. Throughout the week, you will most likely find people picking up their weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, shopping for produce in the market, or eating at the café. The “side dish” menu is definitely their claim to fame. It changes daily and is focused on the vegetables in season and being harvested on the farm. With so many choices, it is a good thing you can order a vegetable plate. My favorites (I should mention that every side dish I have ordered is now a favorite) include squash casserole, tomato pie, creamy cucumber and dill salad, Italian pasta salad, Hawaiian pasta salad, zucchini, squash and onion sauté…to name a few. Can you tell I go there often? Ok enough of my rant. There are also other amazing restaurants on the Island, including Fat Hen and Wild Olive.
The Greater Park Circle Film Society
Two bedroom rental: ~$730
Things to do:
North Charleston is a growing city and is gaining a lot of attention. According to Mayor Summey, “the June 2009 edition of Men’s Journal named the historic Park Circle neighborhood as one of the nation’s ‘Coolest Neighborhoods.’ This honor follows Cottage Living’s ‘Top Ten’ for the Noisette Community in 2008, along with Green Builder Magazine’s naming of Oak Terrace Preserve as one of the nation’s leading green neighborhoods.”
If you take the train or fly into Charleston, you will begin your visit in North Charleston. And you really won’t have to leave the area. Many of Charleston’s hotels are based in the north area, as are the Coliseum, the Charleston Convention Center, the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, and the outlet mall. While it’s a little bit of a hike for me to get to the outlet mall, it is most certainly a trip worth taking. I am the biggest bargain hunter I know, and this is the perfect place to feel like you are getting literally everything on sale. North Charleston is now also home to the new Boeing facility, which will play a crucial role in building the 787 Dreamliner, the revolutionary new plane making aerospace history. This new facility is essentially thrusting South Carolina onto the world stage of aircraft manufacturing.
While North Charleston has its own charm and attraction, not too many grad students live there. It is not as convenient or appealing as other locations. But, if you are on a tight budget, you may be able to find something that suits you.
Two bedroom rental: ~$980
Things to do:
If you’re looking for southern hospitality at its finest, Summerville might be the best area for you to unpack your bags – you certainly won’t be the first. In the last 10 years, Summerville has grown by nearly 16,000 new residents. This is due in part to its “Main Street Approach” redevelopment efforts. Summerville is also home to the annual Flowertown Festival, which was named by the Southeast Tourism Society as one of the Top 20 Events in the Southeast. The Summerville Family YMCA Flowertown Festival is a 3 day event celebrated every spring since 1972 that celebrates the ushering in of warm weather and the passing of the cold. Held in Azalea Park, the festival is the largest in South Carolina and features food vendors, a tour of local historic homes and gardens, arts and crafts, live entertainment, and a tennis classic.
The downfall of Summerville is the commute. The approximate 20 miles distance can take anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour, depending on traffic. When you get into the groove of school and are busy 24/7, this may not be the wisest way to spend your time.
Each community has its own distinct personality and culture. If you’re curious about any of them, just let me know and I’ll be more than happy to help. Or, if you live in any of these areas and want to contribute, please type away. Wherever you decide to live for the next year or so during grad school, be sure to visit each of these areas, as they are all unique and worthy of a little tour!