WATCH:10 Free Things to Do in Charleston
Discover one of the South's best cities on a shoestring.
There's a reason the Holy City keeps landing at the top of the "Best Of" lists: The people are friendly, the streets are charming, and the ever-growing food scene is hard to beat. And while it's easy to spend a pretty penny in Charleston (hello, King Street boutiques!), there are plenty of fun ways to explore the best of this coastal South Carolina gem on the cheap. Here, we've rounded up 10 free things to do the next time you're in Charleston, South Carolina.
1. Snap an Instagram on Rainbow Row.
The colorful line of historic row houses on the riverfront portion of East Bay Street is perhaps one of the city's most recognizable photo ops. The homes, which date back to the 18th century, were once bustling stores, with living spaces above. In the years following the Civil War, though, the buildings fell into a state of disrepair, until they were rescued in the 1920s by one of Charleston's patron saints of preservation, Susan Pringle Frost. While she herself was unable to repair the six houses she'd bought, Judge Lionel Legge and his wife Dorothy stepped in to save them in the ‘30s, painting their section of houses a Caribbean-inspired pastel pink. Other owners followed suit, and "Rainbow Row" was born. Once you've got your photo, be sure to stroll down the wide, raised sidewalk of the Battery for river breezes and a view of Fort Sumter, on which the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
2. Walk the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.
The cable-stayed bridge that connects downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant has a 12-foot pedestrian-and-bike path that offers a birds' eye view of the Cooper River, the port, and the USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier. It also plays host to the annual Cooper River Bridge Run, a 10k race that takes place every April.
3. Hit the beach.
Charleston's proximity to a number of beaches makes it a dynamite summer vacation destination. For salty, surfer vibes, head about 12 miles southeast of the peninsula to Folly Beach, a groovy little town that's called the "Edge of America." Watch surfers catch a wave or two at the area's best surfing spot, which the locals call "The Washout." For classic beach cottages and a quieter scene, head 10 miles east to Sullivan's Island, which is home to stretches of tawny sand and tidal pools and marked by a mod, black-and-white color-blocked lighthouse that rose on the skyline in the early 1960s.
4. Stroll through the Charleston City Market.
While it'd be easy to splurge here (the hand-woven sweetgrass baskets are a classic Charleston souvenir), the historic city market is worth a stop. A circa-1841 Greek Revival-style building houses the Charleston City Market's Great Hall, which opened after an extensive renovation in June 2011. It houses a number of vendors, running the gamut from the Historic Charleston Foundation's Market Shop to a Christmas store, and an outpost of Callie's Hot Little Biscuit, a Charleston favorite for cheese-and-chive biscuits. Three more open-air sheds house dozens more vendors selling everything from grits to leather goods.
5. Tour the Charleston Tea Plantation.
Pack a picnic, and make the 20-some mile drive down to Wadmalaw Island. There, you'll find moss-draped oaks and the 127-acres that compose the Charleston Tea Plantation. Wander the grounds and take a free factory tour to see how the world's only brand of 100%-American-grown tea is made.
6. Swing a spell at Waterfront Park.
Home to the city's famed Pineapple Fountain (so named because, well, it's shaped like a pineapple), the eight-acre park also features tree-lined walking paths, a spray-play fountain that's popular with little ones in the hot summer months, a swing-dotted pier for sunset sitting, and uninhibited views of the Charleston Harbor and Cooper River.
7. Check out the historic churches and graveyards.
It's not called the Holy City for nothing. Among the more than 400 places of worship around the city, there are a number of historic churches and graveyards that are worth visiting. Circular Congregational Church on Meeting Street, for instance, has one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in the South, and its graveyard is likely the oldest English burial ground still in existence in Charleston (its earliest unmarked grave is dated to 1695).
8. Stop by the sites of your favorite movie scenes.
Calling all romantics and fans of The Notebook! A number of scenes from the famed Nicholas Sparks movie were filmed in and around Charleston. The idyllic campus of the College of Charleston acts as the backdrop for Allie's college scenes, and the scene of Allie and Noah's first date was shot in front of the American Theater, a 1942 movie house on King Street. The marquee of the theater, true to the romance of the film, often displays congratulatory announcements for newly married couples.
9. Go see the Angel Oak.
The 12-mile drive out to Johns Island from downtown Charleston is worth it to see this natural wonder. The Southern live oak stands more than 66 feet tall, measures about 28 feet around, and has long-reaching branches that cast shade over more than 17,000 square feet. The 400+-year-old makes for an awe-inspiring photo op, too.
10. Take in the local art scene.
The Charleston Gallery Association hosts free art walks four times per year. Stop in any of the more than 40 participating downtown galleries to check out the work of local artists (some of whom attend the art walk events) and enjoy drinks and small bites.