An LGBTQ+ Travel Guide to Charleston, South Carolina


Explore Charleston

Based on its consistent record-breaking numbers of visitors per year—almost 7.43 million in 2019 with a $9.7 billion economic impact—and equally frequent appearance on best U.S. cities lists, Charleston, South Carolina's appeal is no secret. In 2019, the "Holy City" scored a solid 82 on Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index, and it brought even more LGBTQ attention in 2021: The second season of HBO's drag reality series "We're Here" includes "campy comedy queen" Patti O'Furniture, who can be seen strutting her sass regularly at Charleston drag shows and brunches.

Founded in 1670, Charleston shares quite a few similarities to another beloved, LGBTQ-friendly seaport city, Savannah, GA, and even has outposts of Savannah-born businesses like the gay-owned Chocolat by Adam Turoni, trailblazing Southern restaurant Husk, and the honey-centric Savannah Bee Company. Visiting both can make for a fabulous double destination vacation (and, later, a friendly debate about which one you like better).

Drag Storytime At Park Circle Pride

Park Circle Pride

Events & Festivals

There are currently two major Pride events in Charleston that also serve as bookends to summer. Charleston's 11-year-old annual Charleston Pride Week takes place during early fall as the weather cools down a bit, and encompasses a wide array of activities and parties, including a parade. Meanwhile, its parent organization sees events and fundraisers throughout the calendar year, which are announced via Charleston Pride's Facebook page.

June 2021 saw the successful first edition of Park Circle Pride, which benefits SC's Alliance For Full Acceptance (AFFA) and LGBTQI+ youth organization We Are Family. Its weeklong schedule includes drag brunches, drag storytime for kids, dances, entertainment, a feminist magic market, and an 18-and-under youthfest line-up.

A draw for fans of the performing arts, spring's Spoleto Festival USA was founded in 1977 by composer Gian Carlo Menotti as a counterpart to Spoleto, Italy's 64-year-old Festival of Two Worlds. It features a broad range of performing and visual arts, including productions and talks by iconic LGBTQ creators. In 2019, highlights included dances by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Oscar Wilde's "Salome," and a conversation with Jones.

The Charleston CVB's official tourism website, Explore Charleston, can be searched for additional LGBTQ+ events and intel relevant to your stay dates, and alternative weekly/online publication Charleston City Paper can be searched as well. Plenty of gay nightlife and drag brunch dates and tickets can also be found and purchased via Eventbrite.

Real Rainbow Row Tour

Anna Zlotnicki

The Best Things to Do

There are plenty of tours through which you can get acquainted with Charleston, from historic downtown to Upper King Street dining and the city's retail district—including a couple of specifically LGBTQ-themed ones.

Former New Yorker and history buff Tyler Page Wright was so smitten by Charleston and its colorful centuries' worth of stories that she founded walking tour company Walk & Talk Charleston, and offers a monthly 90-minute "Real Rainbow Row Tour" themed around the city's LGBTQ+ history. The tour is scheduled on second Sundays and during Charleston Pride Week, and its proceeds support College of Charleston's SC LGBTQ Archive. (LGBTQ history fun fact: Lesbian literary icon Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas spent one Valentine's Day here while the former toured the states to promote her writing in the 1930s!) Alternately, you can take a self-guided Real Rainbow Row tour using the College of Charleston's online map.

The International African American Museum is one of the most highly anticipated additions to Charleston's landscape, with a projected 2022 opening date. Located on Gadsen's Wharf, where around 100,000 enslaved Africans arrived to begin a life of slavery centuries back, it will spotlight African American history—including that of the region's Gullah people—and the present.

First opened in 1905, The Gibbes Museum of Art packs objects spanning four centuries in its permanent collection, including works by acclaimed contemporary local artist Jonathan Green. Green, who is both openly gay and of Gullah heritage, also welcomes visitors to his Charleston studio by appointment.

Occupying a Gothic Revival-style, 19th-century railroad passenger station, the Charleston Music Hall sees a wide variety of local and touring performing arts engagements, including plenty of LGBTQ+ highlights. If you happen to be a rockabilly music fan, local out promoter Simon Cantlon, co-founder of Park Circle Pride, organizes the annual Rockabillaque festival in November.

The Best LGBTQ Bars & Clubs

Like Savannah, Charleston currently has only one officially LGBTQ-designated bar/nightclub. Celebrating its 28th anniversary in 2022, Dudley's On Ann (just Dudley's for short!) initially was located on King Street, but in 2001 moved to its current Ann Street location. Besides dancing, mingling, and drinks, this is a premier destination for local drag entertainment from Thursday to Sunday. Admittedly, the 8 p.m. drag shows on Friday and Saturday nights are often packed to capacity with straight girls' night out and bachelorette party crowds, so LGBTQ people are stuck waiting (and fuming) in line outside until they're over. Do show up early and don't leave if you want to catch these shows!

Fortunately for drag fans, The Hive in the nearby town of Ladson bills itself an "up and coming drag bar," and peppers its weekly calendar with drag BINGO, karaoke, and weekend performances. And the national franchise Diva Royale's drag and celebrity impersonation shows take place in Charleston on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons at 12:30 p.m. at upscale nightclub Deco Lounge (21+ only, and two-drink minimum per audience member). "Texican Cantina" El Jefe hosts the weekly "Wigout Wednesday" drag show at 10 p.m. and serves up fusion cuisine like Texican Pho, a solid margarita, and mechanical bull if you're feeling adventurous. In addition to Patti O'Furniture, Charlestonian queens to look for include Venus Alexander, Crystal Juysir, Symone N. O'Bishop, and Sapphire Lefaris.

Progressive craft brewery Commonhouse Aleworks is extremely gay friendly (co-owner Pearce Fleming is a co-founder of Park Circle Pride, and their unCOMMONly GOOD Beer Series benefits a rotating roster of progressive organizations, including the LGBTQ+ AFFA and We Are Family). Charleston's many rooftop bars are regarded as LGBTQ+ friendly, notably Stars, which of course features great views as well!

Where to Eat

Californian couple Ebony and Kym Mullins left their respective military careers and West Coast behind in 2019 for Charleston, opening in 2020 Leeah's, a wine bar and shop. Located in the Old Village district of Charleston Country suburb Mount Pleasant, Leeah's features weekly tasting events, concerts, and of course, a curated rotating selection of excellent wine—both on tap and bottled. They also serve up craft beer (including a veteran brewed and owned selection), breakfast, and a light snack menu.

A gay couple, Steven Niketas and Michael Routzahn (both College of Charleston alumni), own Greek restaurant Stella's, known and loved for its sizable portions. For LGBTQ+ foodies, Husk is one of Charleston's most iconic restaurants thanks to its innovative use of strictly Southern-sourced ingredients and nouveau Lowcountry cuisine (the menu changes daily). Meanwhile, Upper King gastropub The Rarebit celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2022, and we can state with authority that it serves one of the country's best Moscow Mules. On its full breakfast and lunch/dinner menus, you'll find Southern staples (think shrimp and grits, Po Boy sandwiches, and fried catfish), plus some vegan-friendly options. Seafood fans, meanwhile, will delight in the raw bar, fry baskets, and other specialties at The Darling Oyster Bar, a fabulous brunch venue.

For a generous side of drag with brunch, the semi-annual Divas of Drag Brunch boasts a whopping 16 drag performers, while a near-weekly slate of other drag brunches can be found via Eventbrite.

Belmond Charleston Place

Explore Charleston

Where to Stay

Part of the upmarket LGBTQ-friendly Belmond portfolio, downtown's historic and centrally-located Charleston Place Hotel is the city's most iconic property. Its 434 fresh and contemporary Southern luxury rooms include two floors' worth of exclusive Club rooms and use of the Club Lounge. A complex unto itself, the CPH also boasts a swimming pool with a retractable glass roof, jacuzzi, outdoor courtyard and cafe, full-service spa, salon, shops, and excellent Charleston Grill restaurant.

Located just off the leafy Marion Square—and home to the weekly Charleston Farmers Market—the 179-room Hotel Bennett also wins plaudits for its outstanding blend of hospitality and modern Southern luxury and amenities. The latter include a full-service spa, rooftop swimming pool, private cabanas for rental (hotel guests only!), a champagne and afternoon tea lounge, rooftop bar, patisserie, and Gabrielle restaurant with an outdoor dining terrace overlooking Marion Square.

And old school Southern hospitality and stained wood reign at the nearby 91-room Market Pavilion Hotel, which features an outdoor pool and steakhouse Grill 225, where you're likely to spot carnivorous LGBTQs.

Article Sources
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  1. Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Who We Are." Retrieved on February 3, 2022.

  2. Human Rights Campaign Foundation. "Charleston, South Carolina: 2019 Municipal Equality Index Scorecard." Retrieved on February 3, 2022.