This gem of the South, nestled along the Southeastern coast, is truly a unique city. Also known as the Lowcountry, Charleston draws visitors from all over the world. From the southern cuisine and charm to pastel colored homes and beaches, we love every minute we spend in this city. Charleston was recently named “Top City in the United States” in the Conde Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards. You go, Charleston! Grab a glass of ice cold sweet tea, and you’ll fit right in!
The queer community in Charleston, while small, is on the rise. The city has a mix of hipster/artsy folks, Southern belles, and northern transplants. While Charleston might not compare to larger, more queer established cities such as NYC or San Francisco, we have our own community here that feels like home to us.
Jennifer Stevens – I’ve lived in the Charleston area for the last 14 years. I earned my BA from the University of South Carolina and recently finished my MBA at The Citadel. My interests include drinking tea, writing, traveling, brunch, and playing tourist in Charleston. On a Friday night, you’ll typically find me sipping on a PBR outside of The Recovery Room.
Paige Anderson – Raised overseas in Singapore and Beijing, I moved to Charleston to go to college at the College of Charleston. Moving to the South was definitely a culture shock, especially since I’d been living in Asia for the last 18 years, but it grew on me and soon enough I was saying y’all with the rest of the locals. Charleston isn’t the easiest place to live for a gay lady, but after 5 years I’ve managed to make a home out this beautiful city. I’m usually found cuddling with my cat Mao, but when I’m not being a crazy cat lady I’m hanging out with friends, discussing the finer things in life.
Beck Schillizzi – I’m a southern raised femmey transboy who makes his money as a boirista and his well being as an organizer of Girls Rock Charleston and Southerners on New Ground. In my spare time, I like to draw, pick flowers, and cut queer hair.
Nightlife/Dating – After Hours
Like any coastal city, Charleston is a hub for tourists, especially during the summer months when the beaches and warm weather draw the crowds. There are three main areas of downtown Charleston when it comes to eating and drinking. King Street, one of the best shopping streets in the country, is also where you’ll find a majority of the locals and college students after the sun goes down. Market Street is full of sorority girls and tourists and we would recommend avoiding the area at night… unless you’re into that sort of thing! East Bay has some upscale bars and restaurants, and draws a mixed crowd.
Upper Deck Tavern (353 King Street)
In the 2012 Charleston City Paper “Best Of” issue, Upper Deck was named the bar where you’re most likely to see two women making out. While the bar has attempted to incorporate a lesbian night on Mondays, you can find members of the queer community there any night of the week. Enjoy bingo night on Wednesdays or karaoke on Sundays.
The Recovery Room (685 King Street)
Located on upper King Street, The Recovery Room, known simply as “Rec Room,” is one of the most popular dive bars in the area. Grab a PBR and take a seat at a table out front. If outdoor people watching isn’t your thing, hang out inside and enjoy the jukebox, pool table, or the pinball machines. Rec Room attracts a high concentration of hipsters. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
De’Ja Vu II (4628 Spruill Ave)
Located in the more racially diverse North Charleston, this club is where you’re more likely to find the queer POC sweeties. With beautiful queens, hot dykes, and outrageously attractive lesbian “DJ Romeo,” this club has everything you need to make you swoon. This bar is currently the only lesbian owned gay bar in the Charleston area, although unfortunately not POC owned.
Pantheon (28 Ann Street)
The Pantheon is Charleston’s only “gay club” and so if you’re looking for somewhere to dance while being assaulted by gay men and sorority girls alike then this is the club for you! Pantheon can be a whole lot of fun and while it is the only gay club in town it is mostly frequented by the male population. Catch the midnight drag show on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
Dudley’s, which is owned by the same people who own Pantheon and located right up the street from it, is the only “gay bar” in Charleston. Like the Pantheon, Dudley’s is mostly filled with gay men so it’s rare to spot your local lesbian in this establishment. However, if you want to go to a bar where you can grope and make out with your lady freely and without stares of horror then Dudley’s is the place to do it.
Closed for Business (453 King Street)
More upscale than the other bars mentioned in this guide, Closed for Business is a great place for the grown-up “mature” hipster. In addition to serving a large selection of craft beer on tap, CFB has some of the most delicious bar food you’ll find in Charleston. Crispy green beans, anyone?
Big Gun Burger Shop (137 Calhoun Street)
Big Gun has been around the Charleston area for a few years now. By day, the restaurant serves up some of the most unique burgers in town. Make sure you make happy hour, Monday through Friday, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. for half priced burgers. Wash everything down with a tall boy PBR. After hours, Big Gun becomes a popular stop for college students and hipsters alike. Monday night is karaoke night, while Wednesday night is open mic night for anyone wanting to demonstrate their stand up skills. Big Gun also hosts local bands, typically on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Rarebit (474 King Street)
A new addition to upper King Street, The Rarebit has a retro diner atmosphere. Don’t let the term “retro diner,” fool you. The bar serves some phenomenal cocktails (and breakfast all day). Try their Moscow Mule, a refreshing gingery beverage served out of a copper mug.
College Life – Holler at a Scholar
While Charleston isn’t considered a “college” town, there are a handful of colleges and universities in the area. Downtown Charleston is home to the College of Charleston, The Citadel, and MUSC – the Medical University of South Carolina. Beyond the Peninsula you can find Charleston Southern University and Trident Technical College.
College of Charleston is public liberal arts college located right in the middle of the city, so it’s pretty hard to avoid the 10,000 students that attend the school from August to May. Although it’s a southern university, CofC has a very liberal student body and is fairly accepting of its LGBTQ students. The “Cougars” who attend the school are given a choice of 53 majors and 73 minors to pursue. In 2006/2007 the faculty and students tried to establish a LGBTQ minor, but the public school system in Charleston is very conservative and so the whole project fell through. As a result, a lot of the College’s LGBTQ community have found an outlet in the Women’s and Gender Studies department, which offers numerous opportunities for queer studies. Even better, in 2010 the Women’s and Gender Studies department officially became a major at the College of Charleston!
The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, has a rich history rooted in Charleston. While the institution started as an all male military college in 1842, preparing men for war, the school has since become a leading liberal arts college in the Southeast. The first women entered the Corps of Cadets in 1996. The Citadel also has a graduate college, offering 27 degree programs.
Not located in the downtown area, Charleston Southern University was voted one of America’s best Christian Colleges. But more importantly, it was voted one of Charleston’s most homophobic colleges by our queer Charleston friends. While religion and queerness are not mutually exclusive, CSU is not a conducive environment for out members of the community. For those of you visiting Charleston, we recommend avoiding this stop on your tour.
The Medical University of South Carolina is also located in Downtown Charleston. Not only one of the best medical universities in the South, MUSC is nationally known and in 2012 was named one of America’s best hospitals. The school also has a really kick-ass Gay Straight Alliance and like CofC is very queer friendly.
Located in North Charleston, Trident is a technical college that offers a variety of programs like nursing, culinary arts, and journalism. Trident does have a Gay Straight Alliance on campus, so we can only guess that it also offers some safe spaces for the queer community.
Sports – Let’s Get Physical
Any lesbian/queer sports section would not be complete without mentioning the local roller derby league. Formed in 2008, the Low Country High Rollers are Charleston’s local derby team, but that’s not all. The league consists of two travel teams, a junior league, a recreational league AND three home teams: The Swamp Foxes, The Ashley Riverdolls and the Holy City Heartbreakers. The games are super queer friendly and surprisingly family friendly if you’re into that. Bouts are held at the Citadel, so if you have time, make your way over and check out some kick-ass derby girls doing their thing on the track!
Charleston Hurricanes – Women’s Rugby Club
They practice every Tuesday from 7:00 to 8:30 and they’re always looking for new members. No experience is required! And they even have their own sexy calendar that features all the players. How perfect!
There is also a rugby team at the College of Charleston and the Citadel and many of the girls on those teams move on to join the Hurricanes after graduating. Unfortunately the college team doesn’t have their own calendar.
Charleston Sports and Social Club
You can find anything from Softball to Kickball (and even Dodgeball). If you’re looking for athletics and you’re over 21 you should definitely look into joining one of the many leagues the CSSC has to offer! You do have the option to create your own team, which is a fantastic opportunity to get get a group of all your queer sports-playing friends together and form Team Homo-Normative! (Or Team Unicorn)
Restaurants/Cafes – Eating Out
While there are no “queer” restaurants or cafes, Charleston is home to some excellent establishments. The coffee shops in the area are some of the best places to relax and potentially meet some nice girls.
Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer (4 Vanderhorst Street)
This is one of our favorite coffee shops in the area. Kudu features some of the best lattes (and latte art) in Charleston. If you’re in the mood for a drink, grab a local brew on tap and take a seat inside or in their private courtyard.
Black Tap Coffee (70 ½ Beaufain Street)
With every cup brewed to order, Black Tap is the place to go for some of the freshest coffee you will ever have. Tea is served by the cup or pot, and the large glass windows provide some excellent natural lighting.
Brown’s Court Bakery (199 St. Philip Street)
A newer shop in Charleston, Brown’s Court features coffee and tea in addition to some amazing baked goods – from cookies and scones to baguettes and pretzel rolls. Get there early if you want to grab some fresh bread to bring home!
Sugar Bakeshop (59 ½ Cannon Street)
Sugar Bakeshop serves some of the most delicious cupcakes you will find in Charleston (or anywhere else, for that matter). They also bake tarts and cookies. The almond cupcakes are stellar! Bonus: the shop is owned by a lovely gay couple.
Five Loaves Cafe (43 Cannon Street)
Looking for a good place to take your lady friend out for a first date? Look no further than Five Loaves Café. The restaurant is dedicated to serving healthy, fresh, and vegetarian-friendly foods. With a focus on sustainable and locally grown foods, Five Loaves offers delicious sandwiches, soups, pasta dishes, etc. Enjoy half price bottles of wine every Wednesday and Saturday night. Don’t be afraid to try their gluten-free bread or flight of soups!
Dell’z Deli (1A Cannon Street)
For all of you vegans and vegetarians, Dell’z Deli will be your jam. Wraps on wraps on wraps. Try The Hummer, a black bean hummus wrap with cilantro, salsa, tomatoes, sprouts, and other greens, or try a Bean & Rice Bowl. If you want something refreshing to drink, head around the corner to Dell’z Vibes, a smoothie and juice bar also owned by Dell! Dell also recently opened Dell’z Uptown, a completely vegan/vegetarian restaurant!
Saffron (333 East Bay Street)
Saffron is a combination of a cafe, bakery and Middle-Eastern/Southern restaurant, aka the best cluster fuck ever. According to Beck they have the BEST vegan chocolate cake ever. Like better then normal cake, which is a serious feat for vegans everywhere (call in advance for the cake, as it runs out quick!). Saffron is a very queer friendly space and our local Girls Rock Camp has held 3 annual fundraising benefits there. So if you’re craving lamb, friend chicken or vegan chocolate cake then head on over to Saffron, this is your place!
Since you’re in the South, it’s only fitting that you enjoy some true Southern cuisine. For deliciously rich foods, we recommend Hominy Grill, Poogan’s Porch, and 82 Queen. If you’re looking for a little ethnic flair, try Xiao Bao Biscuit (Chinese), Basil (Thai), Co (Vietnamese), or O-Ku (Japanese). For cuisine South of the border, try Taco Boy or Santi’s.
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I haven’t read this entire thing but this is a pleasant surprise. The queer community isn’t represented very well but it’s nice to see somewhere familiar get some love. I’m from town about an hour away from Charleston.
I’m from around Charleston and downtown is very hipster/college students/fancy rich folk type of place. Make sure you dress to the 9’s because that’s how everyone who isn’t a tourist dresses. If you’re a hipster, you must be super hipster. If you’re high class, you must be super high class. And if you’re a tourist, you are a super tourist. :D But ya everything is accurate, not much of a queer scene and when there is one it’s more for gay men. The city keeps getting voted highly on the attractive people scale as well, top city for TIME. http://newsfeed.time.com/2010/11/10/where-do-americas-most-attractive-people-live/
I’ve found myself in Charleston a few times in the last year (and I’m hoping a few more times in the next year as well), so I’m super excited to see some things in here that I can put on my to-do list for next time. Thanks!
SO HAPPY THIS EXISTS EVEN THO MY TIME IN CHUCK IS RUNNING OUTOMG I WILL MISS YOOOOUUUUU
ALSO: Which Doctor on James Island has the best Southern/Vietnamese fusion food literally ever. Ever. Worth the trip off the peninsula. Going tonight with my queer fam actually!
So proud of my city!
Visited Charleston on a spring break vacation back in the 90’s. Had an awesome sunset cruise on the Schooner Pride, and a lovely dinner at Queen 82 (among many other fun activities). Good times. I try not to revisit places when there are so many new ones yet to see, but it wouldn’t take much to convince me to break my rule for Charleston.
Charleston! Yay! But how could you leave out King Dusko? The best coffeeshop/bar/venue/art gallery/place to scout cuties?
For real though.
We wrote this almost a year ago! If we could write it now, we would have included King Dusko (and some other places, too!).
Well, dang, I was just there last week. Next time…
So excited about this article! It is wonderful to see how much progress Charleston has made (and continues to make). So much love to my Charleston!
Oh, Charleston will always retain a place in my queer Midwestern heart because that’s the trip that took my 15-year-old self far enough away from home to clear my head and finally come to terms with the truth: I was one gay lady.
I can be glib about it now, but 12 years ago that was one terrifying and alienating discovery.
I don’t think we visited any of these places, though. When I wasn’t silently wrestling with questions of attraction and Biblical morality, I vaguely remember streets of old mansions and a pier on which I caught a pigeon.
Hmmm…I think a redeeming road trip is in store. I know just where to look for an itinerary! :)
this is great! my parents moved to charleston a couple years ago, and i’ve been wishing there was a queer girl city guide for the area.
i think this list will help me feel more eager to explore when i go visit them
Oooh, thank you for this! I’m planning a trip across the south starting from Austin TX on the 23rd and ending in Durham NC on the 28th… looking for some tips! Is this info still in date and should I make sunny seaside Charleston my last stop before Durham? (I won’t take much convincing!)
Also – anyone have any recommendations for places to stay?
Im so excited about visiting Charleston in July and possibly moving if i like it!##
Yes yes yes. Great list. Downtown Charleston is definitely the place to be if you’re queer. Also James Island and Avondale have some hot spots.
My partner and I are moving to Charleston this year. I was born there and moved away when I was 11. So much has changed since then. I’m hoping to meet some interesting/liberal/queer people when we move.
This is a great write up! it really helped me and my wife as we moved to the area. I’m a financial advisor here in Charleston and need to help our LGBTQ community. Seeking help with LGBTQ business owners and folks looking to provide financial comfort for their loved ones. Please feel free to message me. This article was so helpful. Please take a notice for some great eats in Charleston. Southern and Seafood are the best! Thanks again for writing this article!