My first experience with the Spoleto arts festival was way back in 1990 when one performance included dancers swinging on trapezes over the audience at the Garden Theatre on King Street (since converted to an Urban Outfitters—step inside and you can still see the ornate, circa-1918 vaulted ceilings). Offbeat venues add to what’s infinitely cool about this largest and longest of Charleston festivals. Over a couple of weeks, there might be an art installation at the Old City Jail, chamber music in the cypress-paneled Dock Street Theatre, or ballet under the massive Angel Oak. High seasons for Charleston-area festivals are in the fall, and again from February to May culminating with Spoleto and the summer’s start, when temps go up and the social scene chills. The fests celebrate what Charleston loves best—wine, food (grits included), fashion, arts and culture, flowers and farms, new tech, the sporting life, and more.
Spoleto Festival USA
Parties fill Charleston gardens and music flows from piazzas and open windows during the late-May and early-June weeks of the Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto arts festivals. I always go for long walks downtown to see what’s happening. Italian opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti founded the big event in 1977, and every year there’s a buzz about a world premiere or experimental production, including the occasional nude dance troupe.
Charleston Wine + Food Festival
This three-James-Beard-Award-winning-chef-town knows how to cook up a festival. This one has wine tastings and gourmet feasts, star chefs doing demo’, and down-home booziness, too—count on plenty of barbecue and bourbon. But make sure to get tickets early, somehow I slipped in(!), but even hometown movie star Bill Murray couldn’t get into one of the festival parties a few years ago when he wasn’t on the guest list.
Baker Motor Company Charleston Fashion Week
I remember talk that this was a wacky idea when it was founded in 2007 by editors of the local Charleston magazine, but the fest was an instant hit, and now attracts Southern designers and fashion big-shots for a week-long party with nightly sold-out shows. NYC isn’t the only one with tents and runways anymore.
Dig South Interactive Festival
Okay hipsters and social media fans, this is the newbie festival that’s locked in the moniker “Silicon Harbor” for historic Charleston’s techie, creative side. Software/app competitions, new business pitches, and inspiring TED-like talks are part of the fair, but I think the coolest events are the live music shows from Americana to disco. Everybody who goes, digs it.
Second Sunday on King Street
This monthly pedestrian takeover of King Street from Queen to Calhoun is officially a hit. You feel so free not worrying about cars, and it’s like one big street fair of food, shopping, and people watching. Toward Calhoun you’ll see bigger crowds and plenty of college students, but I like to head south on King through the antiques district where it feels a little quieter with street musicians and cafe tables.