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Joe Riley Waterfront Park in Charleston, SC | Things to Do + Why It’s My Favorite Place

Learn about what you can do at Waterfront Park and see why it's my favorite place in Charleston.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

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Explore Charleston, SC Series

This article is part of the Charleston, South Carolina series. Click the button to read more articles, itineraries, and travel guides in the series.

The first photo I captured in Charleston was at Joe Riley Waterfront Park. It was a picture of a sandwich board sign reading, “No lifeguard on duty. Wade at your own risk.” I’ve seen signs like this at public beaches and lakes. But never beside a water fountain in a public park.

What?

My first visit to Charleston in August 2010 was short – I helped my sister move into an apartment in the West Ashley neighborhood. After spending the day lugging boxes and furniture, I headed downtown for a brief one-hour visit to the park along the Cooper River.

It was love at first sight. I’ve returned to the waterfront park dozens of times over the years. I capture a few photos of the park’s spectacular scenery and things to do each time.

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Things to Do in Waterfront Park

The 8-acre Waterfront Park is named after Joseph P. Riley, a 10-term Charleston mayor who oversaw the park’s construction from 1988 until 1990. Stretching about one-quarter of a mile along the Cooper River, it’s one of the most popular places in Charleston and home to its most iconic attraction.

In 2007, the American Society of Landscape Architects awarded the city the Landmark Award for the park’s design. One of the jurors noted, “Simple, elegant, urbane; it really works socially, is timeless, and is built to last.”

Here are a few things to do in Waterfront Park and the best time to visit.

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Go Wading in the Water Fountain

The water fountain at the park’s entrance on Vendue Range is a local favorite splash pad in the summer. Children frequently dash beneath the water streams, soaking themselves to the bone. Adults have been known to go for a splash from time to time to stave off the infamously humid summers.

I may or may not have been one of those adults.

This water fountain is where I found the humorous sandwich board sign. After visiting the park several times over the years, I learned that the sign is serious and necessary because of the frequent waders.

But I’ll never forget the first photo I captured in Charleston.

Enjoy the Views from the Pier

The Waterfront Park Pier stretches a couple hundred feet into the Cooper River. It’s a great place to enjoy the spectacular local scenery. It’s also roughly where President George Washington came ashore during his 1791 visit to Charleston.

Walk to the end of the wooden pier to a floating dock and sit on one of the square benches. From here, you can see several of Charleston’s best attractions:

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Ride the Charleston Water Taxi

The Charleston Water Taxi crosses the Cooper River between Charleston and Mount Pleasant several times daily. It’s a great way to get from downtown to Patriots Point. Or it’s a great way to enjoy scenic views from the water.

The Charleston Water Taxi docks at the Waterfront Park Pier almost a dozen times from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m., seven days a week during the peak season. The ferry goes to the South Carolina Aquarium, Patriots Point, and the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina from the waterfront park.

With a $17 All Day Pass, you can hop on the ferry as often as you want to see the sights or quickly move between attractions.

Learn About Echo Rock

Echo Rock isn’t a rock – it’s a concrete pedestal about halfway between the Vendue Range entrance and the Pineapple Fountain. But it does produce an intriguing echo.

The instructions tell visitors to climb on top of the flat pedestal, stand in the center, and shout. The design of the pedestal echoes the visitor’s voice back to them as if coming from all directions. It’s disorienting and thrilling to experience.

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

Lounge on the Grass

If you visit Marion Square, White Point Garden, or Waterfront Park, you’ll likely see locals lounging in the grassy areas with blankets, books, and pets. It’s one of the most popular things for locals to do in Charleston.

And out-of-town visitors are welcome to join them.

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Read a Book in the Shade

Blue Bicycle Books is my favorite local bookstore in Charleston. And the Preservation Society of Charleston has a fantastic collection of history books. After visiting one or both of these bookstores on King Street, go to Waterfront Park to enjoy reading the book in cozy alcoves.

A path along Waterfront Park’s western side passes beneath giant oak trees, casting a cool shade and welcoming respite on humid days. Square alcoves along the path are lined with benches, offering a chance to escape the sun and heat and enjoy an hour or two with a local book.

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Take a Selfie at the Pineapple Fountain

The Pineapple Fountain is perhaps Charleston’s most recognizable icon. The famous fountain opened just a few months after Waterfront Park in 1990. Recently, the fountain has grown in infamy as a favorite backdrop for portraits.

It’s almost too popular now. The first and last three hours of the day bring out dozens of photographers and subjects for business portraits, wedding photos, and graduation photos. Nobody can reserve the fountain specifically for a photo shoot, but it’s difficult to enjoy the fountain with a photo shoot in progress.

The best time to visit the Pineapple Fountain is in the middle of the day or after dark. During these times, nobody wants portraits in front of the fountain. It’s the perfect opportunity to snag a selfie at Charleston’s icon.

Go for a Quarter Mile Walk

The one-quarter-mile path through Waterfront Park is a delightful place to go for a walk. The crushed gravel path is gentle on the knees and passable for walkers, wheelchairs, and strollers. It’s a great place to go for a walk and enjoy the spectacular panorama views of the Cooper River.

Travel Tip | The south end of Waterfront Park, closest to North Adgers Wharf, is significantly more peaceful than the middle or north end.

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How to Get to Waterfront Park

Waterfront Park is a few blocks from East Bay Street in Charleston’s French Quarter. It’s convenient to visit by walking, driving, or riding. Here are some options for getting there.

Address | Vendue Range & Concord Street, Charleston, SC 29401

Walking

There are several places where you can enter Waterfront Park from Concord Street.

  • Vendue Range at the water fountain
  • Cordes Street and North Atlantic Wharf at the Pineapple Fountain
  • Exchange Street
  • East Elliot Street
  • Boyces Wharf
  • North Adgers Wharf at the south end

Driving

Driving to Waterfront Park is easy but not convenient. No public parking spaces are adjacent to the park – you must use one of the parking garages. However, dropping off passengers at Vendue Range and Concord Street is easy.

The Concord Cumberland Parking Garage is the closest to the park’s entrance at Vendue Range. The East Bay/Prioleau Parking Garage is the closest to the Pineapple Fountain – the entrance is one Middle Atlantic Wharf.

Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH)

The Downtown Area Shuttle is a free service with routes throughout Charleston. It’s a fast and convenient way to visit museums, retail shops, and various neighborhoods.

Route 211 – Green Line has stops at The Charleston Museum across the street from the Charleston Visitor Center and the corner of Vendue Range and Concord Street at Waterfront Park.

Charleston Water Taxi

The Charleston Water Taxi is a passenger ferry service providing quick and easy transport across the Cooper River to various Charleston and Mount Pleasant locations. It’s a great way to travel between the two sides of the river and avoid traffic congestion that frequently plagues the city during rush hours.

The Charleston Water Taxi makes stops at four locations:

  • Waterfront Park
  • South Carolina Aquarium
  • Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum
  • Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina

One way to use the Charleston Water Taxi is to park at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant in the paid lot – it’s a $5 flat rate to park a vehicle. Another option is to park at the Aquarium Parking Garage and ride the water taxi to Waterfront Park.

Bike Taxis

Charleston’s infamously narrow streets – many designed centuries before the first automobile – necessitated a new mode of transportation: bicycle taxis. The bike taxi “drivers” are typically knowledgeable tour guides filled with insights and stories about the historic city.

Three bike taxi companies operate throughout the Charleston Peninsula, serving most of the restaurants, museums, and neighborhoods in the historic areas.

A bike taxi takes about twice as long to travel a certain distance as it would to drive. The open-air taxis do not have covers to protect riders from the elements, so bring an umbrella on rainy days.

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My favorite photo of the Pineapple Fountain. After capturing this photo, I had a large 40×60 metal print made as a Christmas gift.

Why Waterfront Park is My Favorite Place in Charleston

I love anything to do with water, sunsets, and beautiful landscapes. That’s why Waterfront Park is my favorite place to go in Charleston.

The two water fountains are stubbornly photogenic, silently demanding to be photographed like a model on the catwalk. I’ve always obliged – I think I have more photos of Waterfront Park’s water fountains than any other place in Charleston.

I’ve always considered it a challenge to capture a better photo than my previous visit. My first trip to Charleston in 2010 was in the early days of my travel photography career. The photos were okay, but nothing stood out.

So, during my next visit, I took a better photo. Then, a few years later, I returned with a tripod for long-exposure photos. Finally, in 2017, I captured the photo I gave away as a Christmas gift because I loved it so much.

Waterfront Park is an endless opportunity to enjoy the Cooper River, Charleston sights, and beautiful icons. I’ve been there at dawn for sunrise photos, waited until sunset, watched massive cargo ships chugging along the river, and attempted to capture photos of lightning during one of the city’s infamous summer thunderstorms.

But it’s more than just a photographer’s paradise. It’s a peaceful park allowing visitors to escape the throngs of tourists in busy places like the City Market and King Street. It’s a place to watch time slowly trudge between occasional squawks from overhead seagulls.

Waterfront Park is my favorite place in Charleston because it’s effortlessly beautiful, profoundly serene, and the only place nobody cares how long I sit on the bench.

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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