Charleston boasts so many American “firsts” that it’s almost a cliché to point them out: first museum, first theater, first public library, first municipal college, first golf club, first historic preservation ordinance, and the list goes on and on.
But for the majority of visitors, the most important Charleston first is its perennial ranking at the top of the late Marjabelle Young Stewart’s annual list for “Most Mannerly City in America.” (Charleston has won the award so many times that Stewart’s successor at the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette, Cindy Grosso, has retired the city from the competition.) This is a city that takes civic harmony so seriously that it boasts the country’s only “Livability Court,” a binding legal proceeding which meets regularly to enforce local quality-of-life ordinances.
Everyone who spends time in Charleston comes away with a story to tell about the locals’ courtesy and hospitality. Mine came while walking through the French Quarter  admiring a handsome old single house on Church Street, one of the few that survived the fire of 1775. To my surprise, the lady chatting with a friend nearby turned out to be the homeowner. Noticing my interest, she invited me, a total stranger, inside to check out the progress of her renovation.
To some eyes, Charleston’s hospitable nature has bordered on licentiousness. From its earliest days, the city gained a reputation for vice. (The city’s nickname, “The Holy City,” derives from the skyline’s abundance of church steeples rather than any excess of piety among its citizens.) The old drinking clubs are gone, and the yearly bacchanal of Race Week—in which personal fortunes were won or lost in seconds—is but a distant memory. But that hedonistic legacy is alive and well today in Charleston; the city is full of lovers of strong drink and serious foodies, with every weekend night finding downtown packed with partiers, diners, and show-goers.
Some of the nation’s most progressive urban activity is going on in Charleston, from the renovation of the old Navy Yard  in North Charleston, to impressive green start-ups, to any number of sustainable residential developments. Charleston’s a leader in conservation as well, with groups like the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and the Coastal Conservation League setting an example for the entire Southeast in how to bring environmental organizations and the business community together to preserve the area’s beauty and ecosystem.
While many visitors come to see the Charleston of Rhett Butler and Pat Conroy—finding it and then some, of course—they leave impressed by the diversity of Charlestonian life. It’s a surprisingly cosmopolitan mix of students, professionals, and longtime inhabitants—who discuss the finer points of Civil War history as if it were last year, party on Saturday night like there’s no tomorrow, and go to church on Sunday morning dressed in their finest.
But don’t be deceived by these history-minded people. Under the carefully honed tradition and the ever-present ancestor worship, Charleston possesses a vitality of vision that is irrepressibly practical and forward-looking.