Nothing defines Southern charm quite like King Street. It is a bustling thoroughfare where Charleston's past and present meet. At more than 300 years old, King Street is the second most historically and architecturally significant street in downtown Charleston after Meeting Street. It was named for King Charles II of England and was the main route in the old city of Charles Towne. King Street was used predominantly as a path for coming in and out of town until the mid-1700s, King Street not originally designed to serve as commercial property. That was reserved for locations closer to the water and pier docks for port trading. In the late-18th to early-19th centuries, the newly constructed railroad terminus allowed King Street to thrive as a retail corridor and commercial center. Hosting a variety of high-end specialty shops, it surpassed every other location, including East Bay Street and the pier.
In the mid-19th century, the Civil War devastated the Charleston economy. The city fell into disrepair, bringing economic development to a halt well into the 20th century. During the 1950s, the city went through an urban revitalization with a cohesive melding of over 300 years of commercial function, putting the King Street shopping district back on the map. From 2000 to 2009, a $20.5 million, three-phase streetscape project placed power lines underground, beautified sidewalks with bluestone and granite curbs, improved communication and gas line connections, and repaired stormwater lines.
Now, a revitalized and vibrant King Street boasts some of the city's trendiest restaurants and sophisticated cocktail scenes along with hotels, art galleries, flourishing businesses, and lively nightlife - not to mention some seriously exceptional shopping. U.S. News and World Report named King Street one of the country's "Top 10 Shopping Streets." When walking through the middle of the Charleston peninsula, its wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, chic boutiques, antique shops, three-story brick and buildings, and central location make it easy to see why King Street is an unforgettable dining and shopping experience.
Of course, with so many options, where does one start? While planning your time on King Street, it is three districts: Lower King Street Antiques District, Middle King Street Fashion District, and Upper King Street Design and Dining District.
Lower King Street, the oldest yet newest neighborhood and cultural center in Charleston, was the last of three King Street sections to undergo the beautification project. Suitably named the Antique District, this stretch from Broad to Market was voted the "Best Antique Shopping in the U.S." by the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine. You can find antiques from any period from all over the world. One of the largest and oldest antique establishments in the southeast is George C. Birlant & Co. The eponymous founder, George Birlant, is one of the most highly respected antique dealers in the nation and is also a well-known auctioneer of elegant estates.
Middle King, from Market to Calhoun, is the King Street Fashion District. Accurately named for its mix of charming locally-owned fashion boutiques and well-known national brand shops, it has everything from handbags and shoes straight from the runway, European lingerie, top designer fashions and jewelry to the latest eye-wear. With some of Charleston's trendiest stores, Middle King was named one of the country's "10 Top Shopping Districts in the USA" by Forbes Traveler.
Upper King Street, from Marion Square to Spring Street, is the Design and Dining District, which houses some of the best home furnishing shopping and interior design decor in the country. It also showcases some of Charleston's best restaurants and hosts a variety of art walks year-round. It was initially named the design district thanks to beautiful brick buildings, stunning churches, art galleries, and housewares shops, but more recently, the area has become a recognizable culinary destination. Now one of the busiest business districts, Upper King, reflects a citywide trend of a growing and thriving food and beverage industry with its energetic nightlife and the city's most excellent new restaurants.
King Street hosts many events, including Marion Square's weekly Saturday Farmer's Market, Second Sundays on King Street, Charleston Fashion Week, Food + Wine Festival, Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Southeastern Wildlife Festival, and various parades. Plus, the world-famous Cooper River Bridge run also makes its way down King Street. And think - to explore this incredible cultural and retail hub, all you have to do is visit!
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