A horse drawn carriage trots along the cobblestone street while a tour leader tells us about the 1886 Earthquake that leveled half the city and resulted in the popular (and photogenic) earthquake bolts on historic buildings. The carriage returns us to the City Market where we have to take the obligatory walk through, which is soon followed by the obligatory purchase of future Christmas gifts. Dinner that night is at a nice downtown restaurant with fresh seafood and Italian wine. The hotel is just a few blocks away but since we’re so full from the wonderful meal we hire a bicycle taxi to take us back. I spent $350 today. What should I do tomorrow?
Charleston doesn’t have to be an expensive place to visit. It is entirely possible to enjoy a weekend or an entire week in the Holy City on a budget and love every minute of it. It is also entirely possible to check into a swanky downtown hotel with a piano bar in the lobby, spending your days shopping and your nights eating the finest food. Either way, who doesn’t enjoy a free thing or two? Or seventeen.
You might be a young couple looking for an exciting place to escape for a week. Or you might be parents with a child at the College of Charleston looking forward to seeing them for the first time in a whole month. You could be a retired couple living within an hour’s drive just looking for a day trip to the city. Whatever your reason for traveling to Charleston, everybody likes free things! So, I compiled a list of 17 free things to do in, and around, Charleston.
Once you read this list you’ll probably spend money just to travel to Charleston to do these free things.
1. Visit the Old City Market in Charleston
In 1788, Charles Picnkney (more on him in a bit) gave the land on which the current City Market sits to the city of Charleston with one stipulation: it must always be used as a public market. For the last two hundred years, that is exactly how the land has been used.
Today, the Historic Charleston City Market (aptly located on Market Street) hosts local artisans seven days a week who sale their goods to the general public. But since this is a list of free things to do, I will instead focus on the fact it is free to visit this historic market and stroll through the vendors. Here you’ll find some amazing basket weaving that includes bowls, plates, frames, and roses. You’ll also find shops like Old World Glass Studios from local residents Lane and Cheryl Carlson who make stunning crafts from recycled wine bottles. You can also browse through artwork by famous painter Jonathon Green or check out new-age art from Paul Silva. Sure, it’s free to walk through the market and do some window shopping, but I didn’t say you couldn’t spend money.
The one-story market buildings, most of them open-air structures, were completely renovated around 2011-2013, making them a modern location with historic charm to visit. You can walk through the market, do a little window-shopping, and walk right back out the other end which takes you to…
2. U.S. Custom House in Charleston
This massive building is located at the intersections of Market Street and East Bay Street. It is one of my favorite buildings to visit in Charleston because of the beautiful architecture, impressive stature, and interesting checkerboard patio on the Easy Bay-side of the building. The building was completed in 1879, but less than one hundred years later a new building was finished that rendered the Custom House obsolete.
However, local residents, preservationists (if you don’t know, Charleston’s preservationist to non-preservationist population is about 3:1), and even U.S Customs Officials rallied to keep the building. In fact, it still functions as a customs house today! You can walk around this build for free or grab a selfie on the checkerboard patio on East Bay street.
3. Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in Mt. Pleasant
Known as the “Forgotten Founder”, this little historic site is also a bit forgotten and tucked away from many of the main attractions. It’s easy to reach, but you’d better use that GPS navigation your fancy data phone is capable of doing. I use it a little too much these days; I couldn’t tell you how I got there.
The historic site’s main (and really only) attraction is a large home featuring a gift shop, small museum, and an area with a video presentation. There is a nice trail that will take you behind the house and out into the “wild” areas of the historic site along a marsh. It’s a great place for a cool walk during the spring or fall months, but I was out there during a blistering summer day so I would not recommend that approach.
You can visit Charles Pinckney National History Site about 11 miles (30 minutes) outside Charleston near Mount Pleasant. If you take your time and enjoy everything the site has to offer you’ll spend about two hours here, so this is a great place to visit for a short break from the busier parts of the area.
4. Stroll Through Waterfront Park in Charleston
Without a single doubt, Waterfront Park is my favorite place to visit in Charleston, day or night (often day and night because I just can’t leave!). The park stretches along Charleston Harbor from Vendue Range to North Adgers Warf, paralleling East Bay Street. At the north end (Vendue Range) the park features the famous water fountain that will often be swarmed with kids in swimming clothing during the warm summer months (I’ve often thought about doing that myself). Just beyond the fountain is a long pier that provides you with a stunning view of the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point and the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge. If you happen to come by during a day one of the cruise ships is docked, you’ll find the mammoth vessel just a few hundred feet north of the pier.
As you walk along the park, feet crunching on small, fine pebbles, you’ll see three things that make Charleston such a healthy, friendly city: people laying on the grass during a lunch break, people sitting on benches admiring the views, and people riding bicycles along the paths. Near the middle of the park you’ll find the infamous Pineapple Waterfountain, probably the most-photographed icon in the entire city. This fountain lights up at night, making it something just as beautiful to see at 10PM as it is at 10AM (I’ve done that a few times, all in one day).
As you continue the walk south toward North Adgers Wharf, you’ll find another small pier. This end of the park is less-frequently visited, making it a quieter and more personal space in the public park. But as soon as you leave the park and head back toward East Bay Street, you could be adventurous and continue your walk to…
5. Take a Walk Down the Battery in Charleston
The Battery is an old sea wall that once provided fortification and protection for the City of Charleston. The top of the sea wall today is a wide concrete slab path for people to walk and jog across. As soon as you reach the beginning of The Battery and climb the first few steps, you can look off to your right to see Rainbow Row, a long row of colorful (literally) historic homes.
The Battery is a tranquil area, though it is also one of the most-visited for tours, joggers, and walkers. It wraps around the end of the peninsula and provides you with views out across Charleston Harbor toward Fort Sumter, and back along the Ashely River where you’ll find dozens of small white sails from a sailing school during the summer.
As The Battery wraps around the corner of the peninsula, you’ll find yourself at another popular free spot in Charleston…
6. Visit White Point Gardens in Charleston
White Point Gardens is a beautiful two block-sized park featuring a few historical canons, a massive gazebo that frequently plays host to weddings, and large open grassy fields for kids and dogs and kids with dogs (I wouldn’t recommend a dog with a kid for fear of the dog running after a squirrel with the kid in tow).
The gardens are an amazing place to spend some time because you have some really great views across Charleston Harbor and the Ashley River. During warmer days you’ll see dozens of tiny sailboats maneuvering around the water (they are from a local sailing school), and you can see lots of other boat traffic moving up and down the river toward all the marinas. Sunrise and sunset views here are warm and inviting, and the canopy of trees will provide a respite from the harsh mid-day summer sun.
Read More: 36 Hours in Charleston, SC
7. Marion Square in Charleston
Marion Square is a hopping center of activity throughout the year. During the warm summer months you’ll find dozens of people with picnic blankets, dogs with frisbees, kids with toys, and nerds with books (I’m one of the nerds). In the early fall and late spring you’ll find the square packed with college students from nearby College of Charleston, just up Calhoun Street.
My favorite time of year to visit the giant park is December after the city plugs in a few thousand Christmas lights. They erect an enormous tree in the center of the park that almost rivals the nearby church steeples (but not quite). It’s a peaceful place to take a walk, go on a first date, or just sit back and read a book and wait for the sun to set and the lights to come on.
8. Visit a Cemetery in Charleston
A cemetery in Charleston is not like any cemetery you have at home (unless you live in Europe, then it’s probably just like the cemetery you have at home). The cemeteries in Charleston are old, historic, with beautiful tombstones and even more beautiful decor around the fencing. Almost all the cemeteries are open to the public during the day, and none of them charge admission (actually they do, but it would kill you).
The cemeteries at St. Phillips Episcopal Church and the Circular Congregational Church adjoin one another between Church Street and Meeting Street. The St. Phillips cemetery hosts an array of historical figures, including John C. Calhoun, in a massive tomb in the middle. You can also take a little drive along Meeting Street to the north to find Magnolia Cemetery, a large and beautiful cemetery located near the waterfront.
If you really want to visit a fantastic cemetery, head out of Charleston on East Bay Street and find Magnolia Cemetery. This is one of the oldest in the country and features the graves of notable local figures, including the crew of the doomed Hunley submarine. But it’s more than just names on tombstones. The cemetery features some really amazing architecture such as a pyramidal mausoleum, wrought iron fences, a lake in the center, and towering monuments. I wouldn’t exactly recommend a picnic here, but it’s certainly a nice place to park at the front gate and take a long walk around. Be sure to cross over the lake on the wooden footbridge; you’re sure to be treated to a few egrets flying underneath.
View Photos: Charleston, South Carolina
9. The Charleston Walking Tour by Alan Hartley
Years ago I came down to Charleston for a week-long stay to shoot travel photos in the area. I always recommend any visitor’s first stop by the visitor center, and that is exactly what I did (see my next suggestion on the list). On this particular trip, I found one of my favorite walking tour guides I have ever come across: The Charleston Walking Tour by Alan Hartley. Now, I will admit you have to pay for the book, which sort of contradicts the purpose of a “List of Free Things to Do” list, but it works like this: first you pay for the book, then you return to this travel story where you give yourself a free walking tour! See how this works?
The book contains a list of 100 places to visit in Downtown Charleston, along with a fantastic map in the middle to guide you through the area. Each stop in the book includes a little information about that location such as historical facts, when the home was built, and how the building functions today. There are lots of guided tours to whisk you through Charleston, but this is the guide that keeps giving. It took me four visits to the city to finish the entire walking route myself, and I want to do it again!
By the way, the printed book cost (ruh-roh I’m sharing price information on a free list) $5.95 plus shipping, but you can immediately download an eBook to your tablet or phone for just $3.95.
10. Mount Pleasant Visitor Center & Fishing Pier
The Mount Pleasant Visitor Center & Fishing Pier is located on the old site of the Cooper River Bridge, a small drawbridge that used to be the only way for cars to cross the Cooper River. When the bridge was replaced by the larger, prettier Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, they used the old site for a pier that stretches a good ways out into the river.
The visitor center itself is a great place to pick up some brochures and guides to find other places to spend your money, but it is free to walk out onto the fishing pier (you have to pay to fish, though). From the end of the pier, which is about a 10-minute gradual walk, you can watch massive cargo ships float past on the river, or watch as that one guy who feels the need for speed whisks along in a speedboat. Several benches and tables provide a place to sit for lunch, a quiet evening meal, or just to enjoy the seagulls flying overhead.
The pier also stays open late during the summer months, giving one of the best places in the area to watch a sunset. Depending on the time of year, the sun will either set directly under the Ravenel Bridge or just off to the right.
While you’re already parked at the visitor center you can also follow the next item on the list…
11. Take a Walk on Wonders’ Way on the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge
When the engineers and designers first conceived of the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, they had no idea they would add a walking/jogging/biking path. It was not until an unfortunate event when Garret Wonders was struck and killed by a car while riding his bicycle (training for the Olympics) that a local movement got the path added.
Today, you can walk Wonders’ Way from one end of the bridge to the other (a 5-mile roundtrip hike) and enjoy breathtaking views. Once you have reached the peak of the bridge, the path will jut out a little further from the roadway to move around the two support pillars. At these points you have stunning views of the Cooper River, Downtown Charleston, the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point, and you can even see as far as Fort Sumter at the mouth of the harbor.
Wonders’ Way is a fantastic, free place to watch sunsets, marvel at cargo ships passing under the bridge, and enjoy the sensation of standing a few hundred feet above the water. Wait, are you afraid of heights? That’s OK. I’m afraid of heights, but I love walking this path.
12. Morris Island Lighthouse in Folly Beach
You can’t actually get to the Morris Island Lighthouse unless you have a boat, or a friend with a boat, or you know how to capture sea turtles and lash them together to make a raft. But you can see the light house from the north end of Folly Beach.
If you drive through Folly Beach and turn left, heading to the north end of the island, you will reach a cul-de-sac at the end with a few free parking spaces. It is a 10-20 minute walk along an abandoned paved road before you each a beach access…and a stunning view of the Morris Island Lighthouse.
This is a beautiful place to take a long walk during the day, you just have to watch out for the tides! During high tide, much of the beach to the left is inaccessible, which is my favorite part to visit. But during the night, this beach becomes an unexpected spectacle of stars mixed with deadwood trees along the beach. I have spent many nights out here watching (and photographing) the stars and it never gets old.
13. Walk Down the Edwin S. Taylor Fishing Pier in Folly Beach
If you’re just looking for a quick walk away from the hustle and bustle of the crowded beach, try the Edwin S. Taylor Fishing Pier in Folly Beach. The massive fishing pier features a covered second-story deck at the end with several benches and tables. You could conceivably spend an entire day here if you wanted (especially with good food at a restaurant on the pier, but I’m not supposed to tell you how to spend money in this story!)
The view of summer sunsets from the end of the pier is amazing; you look down the length of the pier across the hotel for warm, brilliant moments of color. My favorite time ever spent on this pier was watching a wicked summer thunderstorm approach from the west. It was a fast moving storm, so I only had about thirty minutes, but I watched as the sun finally ducked behind the darkening clouds, counting the moments between lightning bolts. I wouldn’t recommend actually being on the end of the pier during one of these storms, but it was fun to watch it approaching!
14. Visit the Angel Oak Tree in Johns Island
The first time I visited this tree, I was too late. The tree is so popular, it has it’s own hours of operation, phone number, and a website. I had been driving all day but arrived just twenty minutes late, shut out by the (sadly necessary) chain link fence. It’s one of the most cherished icons in the area, so they take a great deal of care to protect it from people. Visiting the Angel Oak Tree is a must for anyone coming to Charleston.
This massive tree is estimated to be around 500 years old and stands 66′ tall and 28′ in circumference (that makes the base of this tree bigger than a two-car garage). Besides the fact this is one of the oldest known trees in the state, it’s just really cool to visit. Literally, cool. It produces shade that covers about 17,000 square feet. The limbs are so large and long they have long since fallen to the ground and continued to grow like roots across the top soil. It is absolutely fascinating to see how this tree has sprawled and grown over the centuries.
The tree does have hours of operation each day, so you won’t be able to enjoy the sunrise or sunset here. Despite that, it’s a great place for a picnic on a table nearby or maybe you just want to stand in the shade. You can’t climb the tree, so don’t expect to see how high you can get or to capture a photo of your teen dangling upside down from a thick branch.
15. Shem Creek Park & Boardwalk in Mt. Pleasant
I stumbled upon Shem Creek Park quite by accident. Visitors driving from Charleston through Mt. Pleasant to Sullivan’s Island cross a small bridge over Shem Creek, a popular place for dinner with a few fantastic seafood restaurants. Normally, I park at the restaurants and walk the waterfront for amazing views. But I missed my turn, so I ended up across the bridge making a turn into a very small parking lot to turn around. This is how I found the park and boardwalk.
The boardwalk is long, but flat and easy to walk. I took my time heading out to the end, admiring the stunning nature views surrounded by the urban developments. To the right I could see the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge peaking out above some trees. Straight ahead I could see the church steeples of downtown Charleston. To the left was a long row of restaurants, homes, businesses, and fishing boats. It was low tide, so I could hear the popping sound of crabs coming out of their holes in the muck and scurrying across the drying marsh.
During my sightseeing I was passed by a dozen people carrying fishing equipment. An older man with his grandson, a younger couple looking to catch their own dinner, and a man with nothing more than a single rod and a small bucket. They were all heading for the end of the boardwalk to take refuge from the intense summer sun under the large covering. It was cool and pleasant under the roof, with a slight breeze coming off the ocean and feeling my nostrils with the scent of salt water.
I stood here for a good hour watching the large commercial fishing vessels returning from sea, people drifting by on paddleboards, kayakers heading out to sea or through the marsh, but that wasn’t the best view I had. Pelicans would swoop in from above and hover just inches above the surface of the calm water, weaving left and right around boats and kayakers. It was like watching a ballet of pelicans as dozens flew left and right between the open ocean and the bridge. To make this the most perfect afternoon I’d ever spent at the water, dolphins began swimming by. Their sleek bodies would poke above the water for a moment, usually two or three together, and then they would vanish. The guessing game was on as I stood ready with my telephoto lens to capture their next appearance, but then I realized sometimes it is better to enjoy the moment rather than capture a photo. I put the camera down, and didn’t pick it up again for another hour.
My favorite part of the whole day was walking back to a public boat dock about halfway along the Shem Creek Boardwalk. I tossed my flip flops to the side, stuck my feet in the cool water, and watched the pelicans dance, the dolphins swim, and the kayakers paddle. This is where I met Captain Dave Jackson. He was sitting in his small covered boat, the Agile, with his dog, listening to some music. We struck up a conversation and I learned he runs a small, one-boat tour company called Agile Harbor Tours. He will pick people up (singles, couples, or small groups, pets are welcome) and take them on tours of Charleston Harbor, the Ashley River, Morris Island Lighthouse, or swing past Fort Sumter.
Walking away from Shem Creek Park & Boardwalk felt like when I was a kid leaving Myrtle Beach after a week-long vacation. But the one advantage I have now as an adult (who still hasn’t actually grown up) is that I get to make my own choices. I will choose to return here soon! But since we’re so close to Sullivan’s Island, you can also try the next freebie…
16. Station 12 Beach Access in Sullivan’s Island
This is just about my favorite beach access on any beach in the country. The Station 12 Beach Access is located right next to Fort Moultrie and provides easy access to a narrow beach. This is a great place to come fishing, drop a kayak in the water, spend a day in the sun, or do my favorite bit: take a walk.
During low tide the beach is wide and easy to walk for about a mile heading toward the Cooper River. Once you reach the “end”, or about as far as you can safely walk, you have a fantastic view of the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge. But the most exciting part of this stretch of beach is the dolphins at sunrise and sunset! Dozens of dolphins will swim within about 100-500′ of the beach, breaking over the water and every once in awhile (I’ve only seen it once) they will shoot out of the water into the air.
17. Botany Bay Plantation in Edisto Beach
It was 5:30 a.m. The first, second, and third times the alarm went off I smacked it with an irritated grunt. I finally dragged myself out of bed at the hotel in Charleston and realized I’d slept a little too late. Ten minutes later I had showered, gotten dressed, thrown all my stuff in the car, and was heading down the dark highway toward Edisto Beach. Forty-five minutes later, at 6:35 a.m., I pulled up the open gate of Botany Bay Plantation. I quickly filled out the free parking pass and continued down the dirt road, bouncing around just a little in my small Honda car. By the time I parked the car near the beach access the sky to the east was bright (too bright for me). It was 6:45 a.m. I had just ten minutes until sunrise. I grabbed my camera bag, checked my tripod, and began running down the dirty path leading the beach. I finally arrived at the location you see above with just one minute to spare. I had never set up my gear so fast in my life.
If you’re up for a little drive, hop on Highway 17 South (Savannah Highway) toward Edisto Beach. About 45 miles south of Charleston you’ll come across Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve and Wildlife Management Area, known by the locals as just Botany Bay. This beautiful area is the site of a former plantation that now serves a self-guided driving tour and public beach access.
When I could not find a name for this beach, I decided to name it myself: Deadwood Beach. I named it thus because of the hundreds of deadwood trees standing in the waves and along the beach. While this is a beautiful beach to visit, you probably won’t be doing much swimming here: the stumps of fallen trees litter the waves, making it a bit unsafe to venture out far.
You can take a leisurely drive around the plantation and make a few stops for some stunning scenic beauty, or you can head out to the beach. It’s a 20-minute walk out to the beach, and then you can head either direction as far as you like for some peace and quiet. Just watch out for the pelicans that fly in formation overhead!
Update Oct 14, 2014: In a previous version of this travel story I listed Fort Moultrie as a freebie. As it turns out, I had been walking through this Civil War-era fort for years without knowing I should have been paying! I would always skip the museum store and gift shop at the parking lot, walk straight across the street, and spend some time exploring the fort. However, a ranger told me this is not uncommon. But please don’t do this on purpose! These parks rely on contributions to sustain the parks. Pay for admission. It’s not that much. And when I learned of my mistake (I’d probably visited the fort twenty times in three years without paying) I made a cash contribution of $75.