If Charleston doesn't make your list of top American party cities, then you've never visited during the Spoleto Festival USA. For decades, the historic South Carolina port has staged a 17-day celebration of international music, dance, and theater, effectively transforming itself into an early summer cultural hub. A spin-off of the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy, the U.S. version has presented 100 international premieres and nearly as many American ones, including plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
Past attendees have caught early career performances by Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, and Joshua Bell; Book of Longing, Philip Glass's concert work based on Leonard Cohen's poetry collection of the same name; Swan Lake, courtesy of Nina Ananiashvili's State Ballet of Georgia (that's the one in Eurasia); and Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1930s satirical opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. In addition, jazz fans are typically treated to a lineup that reads like a who's who of the genre, as well as modern performance perfection such as Blessing the Boats, poet and playwright Sekou Sundiata's blend of video projection, storytelling, and blues, jazz, and Afro-Caribbean percussion. What (Else) To Do Piccolo Spoleto (Little Spoleto), a spotlight for regional talent, runs concurrently with its parent festival. Low-cost or free events include an outdoor concert by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, a reggae block party, and a smattering of children's activities.
Wander the 19th-century brick buildings of the City Market, which has withstood hurricanes, earthquakes, and Civil War bombardment and now offers everything from antique silver to local spices. Visit the “basket ladies,” masters in the Low Country craft of sweetgrass weaving.
Where To Eat Break for lunch at Jestine's Kitchen. Start with a plate of fried green tomatoes, end with a slice of Coca-Cola cake, and in between pick anything on the menu. It's all delicious, and as Southern as a drawl.
Dine at FIG, from Zagat-heralded chef Mike Lata. The menu changes seasonally, but if they have it, go for the braised lamb shoulder with ricotta gnocci, or the ultrafresh local red snapper with braised artichokes (eatatfig.com).
Where To Stay The French Quarter Inn, with its magnificent marble lobby and wrought iron staircase, has classic old-fashioned European charm, including silver service breakfast delivered to your room (fqicharleston.com).
A converted circa-1901 warehouse with 18-foot ceilings and massive heart-of-pine beams, the Ansonborough Inn is a warm, inviting place to call it a night (ansonboroughinn.com).