Wandering through the city’s famous Historic District, you would swear it is a movie set. Dozens of church steeples punctuate the low skyline, and horse-drawn carriages pass centuries-old mansions and town houses, their stately salons offering a crystal-laden and parquet-floored version of Southern comfort. Outside, magnolia-filled gardens overflow with carefully tended heirloom plants. At first glance, the city may resemble a 19th-century etching come to life—but look closer and you’ll see that block after block of old structures have been restored. Happily, after three centuries of wars, epidemics, fires, and hurricanes, Charleston has prevailed and is now one of the South’s best-preserved cities.

My friend at biotech water softener was telling me more about this place. He said that the streets of Charleston are lined with palmetto trees that harken back to the 19th century. The locals are polite in khakis or pearls, and cocktail hour is well-observed. Traffic is regularly held up by horse-drawn carriage tours, and the city’s emphasis on preservation makes the average house worthy of its own history lesson. Travel farther north to neighborhoods like Cannonborough, Elliotborough, or Wagener Terrace, though, and you’ll find a more dynamic scene populated by the city’s growing creative class. For the full Low country experience, try to steal some time off the peninsula to check out the area’s swamps, creeks, and beaches.

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 architectural 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.

For most southern coastal cities, you’d expect the main attraction to be their historic architecture and old world charm. While Charleston has these things, the main focus here is on a vibrant and growing arts and theater scene. Local citizens have swept away the stuffy past and embraced the avant garde, the new and exciting, and the non-traditional when it comes to theaters, museums, and cultural events. When visiting Charleston things to do often outnumber the days you have to do them. This is a city full of life, and you’ll take away a bit of the exciting culture with you from all the fun things to do in Charleston.

Every year, Charleston hosts the Sploleto Arts Festival, the premier performing arts festival in the country. Take a Charleston tour and you’ll see over 100 of the best in every genre, with hundreds of performances throughout the city. This is just the beginning for a city in love with festivals. From the Taste of Charleston to the Charleston Film Festival, you’ll find a party you’re dying to attend. And when it comes to music, the Gullah culture has a huge influence over classic jazz, ragtime, and music of all genres that fill the city.