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10 Hidden Gems & Unusual Things in Charleston SC

Hidden gems and unusual things await those who go looking for them!

Charleston was founded over 350 years ago in 1670. When a city is that old, it’s bound to witness a great deal. Charleston has a rich history with plenty of stories and traditions (not to mention a few ghosts!).

Here’s my list of 10 hidden gems and unusual things to see as you explore Charleston.

Joggling Boards

I have to admit, I’d never heard of joggling boards until I visited Charleston! They are however fairly popular and once you see one, you keep spotting others! That said, I found them both unusual and one of Charleston’s hidden gems!

A joggling board is a long, pliable board supported by a stand at either end. They are springy and if you sit on one you can bounce up and down. They are traditionally painted Charleston green.

Local historians believe they came to the Lowcountry from Scotland in the early 1800s. They were used as courting boards whereby young couples would sit one on either end and as they rocked and bounced they moved closer to the middle and therefore to another. It was often said that if you had a joggling board on your front porch, you’d never have an unwed daughter!

Visitors to the Nathaniel-Russell House Museum will see a lovely example of a joggling board in the yard.

Haint Blue Porch Ceilings

Once again, I was not familiar with haint blue ceilings until I visited Charleston so they definitely make it onto my list of hidden gems and unusual things!

The word “haint” is an alternative spelling for the word “haunt”. It is thought that the haint blue originated with the Gullah people who believed it would ward off haints, or ghosts, from the home. The blue mimics the sky, tricking ghosts into passing through, or the water, which ghosts cannot cross, therefore offering protection.

Today, it’s also thought to ward off other scary things…spiders and wasps!

It is very common to see haint blue porch ceilings in the Charleston area and in Savannah, Georgia.

Image showing a haint blue painted ceiling in Charleston. One of the city's hidden gems and unusual things.
Haint blue porch ceiling

Philadelphia Alley

Philadelphia Alley is a picturesque, brick paved alley that has been appearing on maps of Charleston since the 18th century. Now, alleys aren’t in themselves unusual, not in cities of Charleston’s age. However, in the case of Philadelphia Alley its link to dueling makes it unusual.

Legend has it that the alley was a popular place for duels, where gentlemen settled their differences with pistols at 21 paces. One such duel said to have taken place there was between Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd and Ralph Isaacs in 1786. Dr. Brown did not survive and it’s said that he can sometimes be heard whistling as you walk along Philadelphia Alley.

I did walk along Philadelphia Alley but did not see or hear any ghostly apparitions (thank goodness, I’m not brave!). Whether you will remains to be seen….!

Philadelphia Alley is located between Queen Street and Cumberland Street. Not only is the alley regarded as a one of the city’s hidden secrets, it’s also one of the secret places to take photos in Charleston sc! 

Image of Philadelphia Alley in Charleston. Thought to be a place where duels were fought making it one of Charleston's hidden gems and unusual things!
Philadelphia Alley

Hand Prints Of Enslaved Children

The production of bricks was once an important source of income for Lowcountry plantations. Much of the labour used to make the bricks was from enslaved men, women and children who sometimes left their hand and fingerprints in their work.

As you wander around Charleston, take time to look out for them.

Earthquake Bolts

Charleston experienced a big earthquake in 1886 (estimated magnitude of 6.9-7.3) and in the wake of that, iron rods were inserted into walls of buildings throughout the city and tightened with bolts to add support to the structure.

As you walk around Charleston you can see these bolts on the outside of buildings, now covered and appearing as crosses, circles or stars (there may well be other shapes/designs but I didn’t see them!).

A Time Capsule

Washington Square, in Charleston’s historic district, has a long history and is home to a number of interesting statues. In the centre is a memorial to the Washington Light Infantry which was unveiled in 1891 (it looks like a miniature version of the Washington Memorial in Washington DC) and near the Meeting Street entrance is a statue of President George Washington.

What I set out to find however was the Fort Sumter Centennial Time Capsule! Buried on 12 April 1961, 100 years after the first shots in the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, the time capsule is due to be opened on 12 April 2061.

There is a stone tablet marking the location of the time capsule close to the Washington Light Infantry Memorial. If this isn’t one of Charleston’s hidden gems and unusual things then I don’t know what is!

If you are considering visiting Fort Sumter itself, then read my guide on How to Visit Fort Sumter for travel tips and advice.

Catfish Row

Originally known as Cabbage Row, Catfish Row is the inspiration for George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess.

Catfish Row comprises a 3 storied row of houses dating back to the Revolutionary War era. In the wake of the Civil War and an earthquake it fell into disrepair and by 1888, the building began operating as a bordello for sailors.

It comprises a pair of houses connected by a central arcade. In the 1900s it became a tenement and would have housed up to 10 families. Inhabited mainly by the families of freed slaves, it was these folks who sold cabbages from their windows hence the name.

Catfish Row is located on Church Street, Charleston.

Fire Marks

Some of the buildings in Charleston display an insurance plaque, known as a fire mark. Issued from the 1750s by some American insurance companies, these signified that a property was insured.

Local myth has it that a fire company would not put out a fire at any property that did not have such a mark. Historians however have found no evidence of this. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Charleston mandated citizens to assist in the fighting of any fire from as early as 1785. Charleston had, after all, been severally damaged by fire at different times in its history that every fire was a risk to all. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a good story!

Image showing an insurance mark on a building in Charleston. One of the city's hidden gems and unusual things.

Pineapples

Whilst pineapples may not be unusual, seeing one in the form of a fountain is!

The pineapple fountain located in Charleston’s Waterfront Park was opened in 1990. Pineapples aren’t grown in Charleston but they are seen all over the city. They came to Charleston from the Caribbean at a time when Charleston was a very busy, wealthy port city. They were exotic and expensive and became a status symbol synonymous with wealth and hospitality. 

It’s thought that the artistic display of pineapples around Charleston has its roots in sailors returning home and displaying a pineapple either on the front door or on a stake in their yard. This was seen as an invitation to friends and neighbours to join the returned sailors. When a gathering was coming to an end, the pineapple was cut up and that was a sign for guests to leave.

Look out for pineapples as you walk around Charleston!

Robert Smalls Memorial

Whilst memorials per se aren’t unusual, the story behind this one is.

Robert Smalls was born into slavery and at age 23 was a crewman on the steamer Planter, a Confederate ship. On 13 May 1862, Smalls and a crew of other enslaved men, piloted the Planter, picked up his family and then sailed it into the hands of Union soldiers. His act of bravery contributed to the Union war effort and made him a hero. He went on to serve terms in both the South Carolina Legislature and the US House of Representatives.

This memorial is located close to the Pineapple Fountain in Charleston’s Waterfront Park.

Image showing the memorial to Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who aided the Union army during the Civil War. The memorial is one of Charleston's hidden gems and unusual things.

Final Thoughts

Heading off the beaten path can often yield results and that’s certainly the case with Charleston. Look for the hidden gems, the quirky things and the unusual sights and your visit to this historic city will definitely be enhanced.

In planning your trip to Charleston, do read my posts 12 of the Best Things to Do in Charleston, 6 Excellent Reasons Why You Should Visit Boone Hall Plantation and my guide on How to Visit Fort Sumter for more ideas, tips and inspiration for your visit!

Disclaimer – Visitor information was correct at the time of writing but do check before visiting.

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