Discover Charleston's Offbeat Underbelly at These Dives and Backwoods Boogie Spots

Get funky in the Holy City.

Photo by John Apsey Photography
Photo by John Apsey Photography

Charleston is a city known for its manners—it often tops lists of the "most friendly" and "most polite" places in the US. But that doesn't mean it's all Sunday morning and seersucker. Steamy summer nights in this coastal metropolis are an invitation to embrace the eclectic, from up-and-coming bands playing tucked-away downtown patio bars to lively beach hangouts at Folly Beach (known for no geographical reason as the Edge of America). So this summer, discover a side of Charleston off the regular tourist circuit by diving into these off-kilter experiences. 

Shop a curated flea market 

Billed as a "funkadelic flea market," the Pickers Hullabaloo brings together vintage clothing boutiques, antique sellers, and pure nostalgia for a shopping experience that feels like stumbling on one of those unique small-town barns full of beautiful clutter. If you're here to score a treasure, pay the $10 for early admission. Otherwise, come enjoy the finds and kick back to enjoy local music and chow on a bite from the on-site food trucks.

Photo by Megan Hill & Elizabeth Money

Pair raw oysters with a pineapple hot dog

Chef Alex Lira garnered a James Beard Award nom for his short-lived Broad Street pop-up, Bar Normandy, and then struck gold again with Bar George, his homage to his great uncle George, once known as the Hot Dog King of Norfolk, Virginia. Order a tumbler of salted watermelon sangria to wash down a dog (bun length and with the perfect snap) covered in cilantro aioli, jalapenos, and pineapple. Peruvian rotisserie chicken and donuts round out the menu, along with raw oysters (which can also be enjoyed at home via their Car George service, featuring shucked local salties served from the bed of a Ford Ranchero).

Photo by Jenn Cady Photography

Boogie in the forest

Awendaw Green's Barn Jam still exists much as it began in 2008—as a low-key spot for local bands to showcase original material for a built-in audience. Each Wednesday evening, four acts (now including many national touring groups) take the humble stage at the Sewee Outpost, where you can also load up on shrimp salad sandwiches and the city's best selection of outdoor gear and apparel. Show up early to play the 18-hole disc golf course that wraps up at the stage, where the bands kick off around 6 pm.

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Photo by Ann Firkins/Flickr

Sit with ghosts in a graveyard

The Unitarian Church in Charleston is the city's second oldest church building. Founded in 1774 by dissenters from the Church of England, the graveyard—tucked behind a wall along King Street—is perpetually overgrown, due to the parishioners' tradition of not disturbing the deceased. Centuries-old gravestones and a jungle of vines and foliage make this a spectacularly haunting site. Look for the grave of Anna Ravenel, a love interest of Edgar Allen Poe and the assumed inspiration of his final poem, "Annabel Lee."

Photos by Adam Chandler

Stretch Saturday night into Sunday morning

On James Island, the Charleston Pour House is known as the city's home base for live music. Not too long after the stage is packed up from Saturday night, vendors arrive for the Sunday Brunch Farmers Market, which kicks off at the very reasonable hour of 11 am. The collection of artists, growers, and culinary artisans is arguably the finest at any Charleston market, as are the musical bookings. Stick around for a meal at Kwei Fei, the venue's super spicy take on Sichuan cuisine. 

Photo courtesy of Torres Superette

Grab a loaded convenience store burrito

You won't find the Torres Superette on any lists of the "hottest restaurants in Charleston," but swing by at lunch time and you'll see white collar workers mingling with the neon-vest-and-hardhat crowd as they await flavor-heavy burritos, tacos, and sopes loaded with lengua, carne asada, and carnitas. Hampton Park is just around the corner if you're in the mood for an easy grab-and-go picnic. 

Photo by Andrew Cebulka

Mash up your Monday

Inside the renovated Cigar Factory, Bar Mash comes to life on Monday nights, when the city's most talented funk, soul, and jazz musicians take a break from their regular weekly gigs to come together for improvisational jam sessions. Order from the top shelf whiskey selection and sit back to watch the magic come together, or scoot out onto the dance floor when the feeling moves you. 


Bring home a toothy souvenir 

At the north end of Folly Beach, the iconic striped Morris Island Lighthouse rises from the surf. But it wasn't always a beacon emerging directly from the ocean—its namesake island has eroded to a sliver of its former self, a process that continues today, constantly revealing long-buried layers of sand and the treasures within them. Hitch a ride to Morris Island with Flipper Finders, a fun-loving operation helmed by local legend Captain "Dickey" Brendel. Walk the beach in the shadow of the lighthouse, combing the shore for the scores of shiny black teeth deposited here. 

Catch a pancake at a concert

Charleston electronic act Sexbruise? got their start by building an overseas "audience" of Facebook likes, which they still insist are all real. They've successfully parlayed that online attention into the hottest underground act in Charleston, hosting concerts that feel more like secret dance parties at venues like downtown's outdoor Tobin's Market. One band member, "DJ Desktop," takes breaks from beating on an old computer with drumsticks to cook pancakes on stage and flip snacks out to the crowd. They perform at the Charleston Pour House on August 6.

Photo by Andy Lassiter

Bar crawl on Folly Beach

Of Charleston's three primary beach islands, Folly is the least fancy, but arguably the best for worthwhile eats and drinks. Start your circuit at Lowlife, a coastal outpost from the owners of New York dive bar Mother's Ruin. Grab an Erik Estrada frozen pina colada and a basket of shrimp nachos at the open air bar that wraps around the building. Swing by Chico Feo, a bustling backyard outpost with an outdoor stage that fills up with happy imbibers on sunny afternoons. On your way off the island, stop by The Barrel, where the artificial-turf-and-gravel grounds double as an afternoon dog park. It's also home to the Folly Boat, a roadside landmark that gets repainted daily by locals with a message to send or story to tell.