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Wandering through the city's famous Historic District, you would swear it is a movie set. The steeples of more than 180 churches punctuate the low skyline, and horse-drawn carriages pass centuries-old mansions, their stately salons offering a crystal-laden and parquet-floor version of Southern Comfort. Outside, magnolia-filled gardens overflow with carefully tended heirloom plants. Happily, after three centuries of epidemics, fires, and hurricanes, Charleston has prevailed and is now one of the South's best-preserved cities.

While home to Fort Sumter, where the bloodiest war in the nation's history began, Charleston is also famed for its elegant houses. These handsome mansions are showcases for the "Charleston style," a distinctive look that is reminiscent of the West Indies, and for good reason. Before coming to the Carolinas in the late 17th century, many early British colonists had first settled on Barbados and other Caribbean islands. In that warm and humid climate they had built homes with high ceilings and rooms opening onto broad "piazzas" (porches) at each level to catch welcome sea breezes. As a result, to quote the words of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, who visited in 1796, "One does not boast in Charleston of having the most beautiful house, but the coolest."

Preserved through the hard times that followed the Civil War and an array of natural disasters, many of Charleston's earliest public and private buildings still stand. Thanks to a rigorous preservation movement and strict Board of Architectural Review guidelines, the city's new structures blend in with the old. In many cases, recycling is the name of the game—antique handmade bricks literally lay the foundation for new homes. But although locals do dwell—on certain literal levels—in the past, the city is very much a town of today.

Take, for instance, the internationally heralded Spoleto Festival USA. For two weeks every summer, arts patrons from around the world come to enjoy local and international concerts, dance performances, operas, improv shows, and plays at various venues citywide. Day in and out, diners can feast at upscale Southern restaurants, shoppers can look for museum-quality paintings and antiques, and lovers of the outdoors can explore Charleston's outlying beaches, parks, and marshes. But as cosmopolitan as the city has become, it's still the South, and just beyond the city limits are farm stands cooking up boiled peanuts, the state's official snack.