19 Free or Cheap Things to Do in Charleston
A magnetic town for tourists with better prices than many other Eastern Seaboard destinations, Charleston, South Carolina, offers plenty of ways for families, couples, and singles to take a nice vacation on a modest budget. These free or cheap things to do balance historic sites and quaint streets with modern centers for education, entertainment, and outdoor recreation.
Like the Painted Ladies in San Francisco, the houses on Rainbow Row on East Bay Street between Tradd and Elliott streets are iconic symbols of Charleston. These dozen-plus Georgian homes, featuring pastel-painted facades, date to the 18th century and were restored throughout the 20th century. Legend says the colors varied so drastically to signal to intoxicated or disoriented sailors which ones were their homes.
The Citadel, aka the Military College of South Carolina, resembles a castle. Cadets have trained here since 1842. Civilian guests can roam the lovely grounds, soaking in the unique energy of a military institute and honoring the history of troops who have served and fallen -- and occasionally witnessing training events for a new generation of cadets. Citadel parades, also free, are held most Fridays during the school year.
As Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the United States, many of the guided walks offered through Free Tours By Foot hit historical sites such as Fort Sumter, St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, the French Huguenot Church, and more. Reservations-only, name-your-own-price tours are also offered for visitors more interested in the local food, architecture, or ghosts.
The Battery Carriage House Inn, an 1840s bed and breakfast, is supposedly haunted. No need to stay overnight, unless you dare (and want to pay): Visitors can roam the yards and gardens without booking a room or paying a dime. Just stroll around in designated areas and keep an eye out for the "gentleman ghost" and headless torso.
South Carolina's Battery is an underrated, gorgeous, historic lookout that's free and not to be missed. Antebellum mansions dot the shoreline, from which tourists can see the Sullivan's Island Lighthouse and Fort Sumter. Another don't-miss: White Point Garden, where visitors can look for the pirate statue among the war heroes and try to identify which Revolutionary War cannon is the fake once dragged in by pranksters.
This adorable salmon-colored structure at 17 Chalmers St. is known as "The Pink House." It was built in 1688 as a tavern for sailors home on leave. Its last public use was as an art gallery with paintings and antique photographs, but for now it can be appreciated only from the outside. The cobblestoned street is charming to see and filled with interesting places to visit, including another art gallery and Old Slave Mart, a former slave auction site from 1859 converted to a museum ($7 admission).
The Dock Street Theatre hosts productions throughout the year -- as it has since 1736. It reopened in 2010 after a $19 million renovation. Guests can walk around the grounds and theater for free to appreciate the gorgeous building and stage, famous for premiering the very first opera performance in America. Tickets to actually see a show can break the bank, but book well in advance for the fall and winter season, and prices fall as low as $27.
Charleston and the surrounding area were known as the "Cradle of Secession" during the Civil War. While in Charleston, travelers can name their price to visit landmarks associated with General Robert E. Lee, Secession Hall, old slave auction locations, and other markers of that period in the country's history.
Stroll historic King Street for the town's best décor, bookstores, stationery, clothing, chocolates, lighting, jewelry, toys, and more. There are three designated segments: Upper King Street is for dining and design, the central section is a fashion district, and the lower section specializes in antiques. The restaurants clustered in the upper district include fine dining as well as treats such as Callie's Hot Little Biscuit ($3 or $4 per savory treat), cupcakes, and gelato.
The Francis Marion National Forest sits just north of Charleston, and its flora and fauna definitely warrant a day trip. Guests can go horse riding, mountain biking, and hiking, or just explore the park after a picnic. The entire wilderness area takes visitors back to explorer days, but the big event here is canoeing through the lush swamps. There's no equipment rental, so any needed gear must be picked up in Mount Pleasant on the way in. Entrance is free.
The tree dubbed the "Angel Oak" has lived more than 1,500 years. The limbs are said to resemble the spreading wings of an angel, and the longest stretches 89 feet. The oak is 25.5 feet wide and 65 feet tall. How about a picnic in Angel Oak Park? The tree offers 17,000 square feet of shade.
A unique tour takes visitors on a walking sojourn that somehow connects George Washington, Robert E. Lee, James Hoban (architect of the White House), and U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings (who ran for the Democratic nomination in the presidential election of 1984). The name-your-own-price tour promises to delve into corruption and mystery with Old Charleston architecture as eye candy along the way.
The Charleston Plantation, the only tea plantation in North America, occupies 127 acres of Wadmalaw Island, which has perfect temperature and soil conditions for nine unique tea crops. Guests can roam the grounds and take educational factory tours at no charge. Trolley tours around the grounds are available at $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12.
The Karpeles Manuscript Library has several museums around the country, housing the largest private collection of documents in the nation. Charleston's museum is in a historic church and free to visit. Exhibits rotate among locations; until September, the featured exhibit in Charleston is about the Wright brothers and their historic flight in North Carolina in 1903.
This breathtaking bridge, which many locals know as the Cooper River Bridge, connects Charleston to Mount Pleasant along Highway 17. It's one of the largest cable-stayed bridges in the Western Hemisphere. Pedestrians and bikers can cross on designated walking and cycling paths, taking in views as impressive as the structure itself.
The Charles Pinckney House is a free National Historic Site devoted to a signer (and drafter) of the U.S. Constitution and governor of South Carolina who was influential in the political, social, and economic history of the area. This forgotten founding father's 28-acre plantation represents a rare snapshot of 18th century history and offers films, exhibits, archaeology displays, walks, photography, picnicking sites, and programs for young and old.
Folly Beach offers free seaside entertainment. Watch the waves, wander the piers, swim, and soak in the sun at this relaxed, family-friendly beach retreat. Fully half the land on the 12-square-mile barrier island is devoted to waterfront activities, surrounded by small shops and restaurants.
The weather's pleasant, the Wi-Fi's free, and the views are panoramic. Visitors can catch sight of boats maneuvering in and out of docks in the harbor, families can spread out meals on ample public picnic tables, and children can splash in fountains to stay cool. Good for a day of bird-watching, sunning, and even fishing, Waterfront Park also remains well lit in the early evening, making it a serene retreat at the end of a long day of exploring.
Just miles outside downtown Charleston sits Sullivan's Island. Visitors can check out Fort Moultrie, the site of a Revolutionary War battle, as well as the Charleston Light. The lighthouse was built in the 1960s (making it the last major one constructed in the United States) and opens to the public every May. Edgar Allan Poe spent more than a year stationed on Sullivan's Island, and several streets in the area -- such as Raven Drive and Goldbug Avenue -- refer to him and his works, at least three of which are set there. (Poe's Tavern on Middle Street does the same with burgers.)