Photograph by Jeff Greenberg, Alamy
Don’t be fooled by appearances—although grandiose architecture and a sense of old southern aristocracy abound in Charleston, South Carolina, this city plays host to many options that won’t cost you a penny. With daytime temperatures that average 66ºF you can spend the majority of your trip outside, simply strolling along the shore and through the many parks and cemeteries. The variety of free activities is proof that southern hospitality is still alive and well.
Charleston is brimming with art galleries, many of which are open to the public free of charge (for a complete list of galleries, click here). For some local heritage, stop by the Gallery Chuma at 188 Meeting Street. Chuma specializes in the art of the Gullah people, descendants of enslaved Africans who settled on the isolated barrier islands between Jacksonville, Florida, and Wilmington, North Carolina.
If you’re on the search for classical European-style art, head to the Sylvan Gallery, located at 171 King Street in the heart of Charleston’s antique district. This gallery features paintings and sculptures and focuses on 20th- and 21st-century representational art.
Robert Lange Studios, a homey yet elegant gallery at 2 Queen Street in the French Quarter, focuses on American realist and abstract style paintings and photography. Many of the studio's shows and opening nights—which include hors d'oeuvres, wine, and live music—are also open to the public.
Enjoy refreshments and mingle with artists at the French Quarter Art Walk, held the first Fridays of March, May, October, and December, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Maps are available at participating galleries, which number around a dozen.
For a night of free classical music, catch a performance of the Youth Orchestra of the Low Country, which doesn't charge admission for many of its shows. Students in this auditioned orchestra are the best from the area. Performance locations change, so check the schedule.
At night, head over to the Pour House, which hosts free live music on its deck. The deck opens at 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The night of the free show changes, but they usually have at least one per week.
A popular destination for many visitors to Charleston is the recently renovated Old City Market in the heart of downtown. In this bustling indoor market, browse artisan wares like blown glass and sweetgrass baskets, a local tradition brought over by West African slaves. Or check out more contemporary booths with items such as movie posters and knock-off designer sunglasses. If you're in need of a treat, saltwater taffy is a popular option here.
The city’s main drag is King Street, great for window-shopping. Chains like Anthropologie and Lilly Pulitzer dominate, but there are some indie gems in the mix, like funky women’s’ clothier Worthwhile and Blue Bicycle Books, which specializes in local authors and often hosts (free) readings. A few scenes from The Notebook were filmed on King Street—most memorably, main characters Noah and Allie lie in the middle of the street after their first date. On the second Sunday of each month, the street is blocked to car traffic from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. so strollers can enjoy street performers, people-watching, and dining al fresco.
While wandering through town, stop by Charleston City Hall and the Charleston County Court House. Both are located at the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets—known locally as the "four corners of law" (the other corners being graced by the U.S. Post Office and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church)—and offer stately examples of the stunning architecture that is distinctive to historic Charleston. Both buildings are free and open to the public. Sweetgrass weavers often sell their baskets here, worth browsing whether you’re in the market for one or just want to marvel at their artistry.
For a free outing to one of Charleston’s many historical spots, visit the Charles Pinckney National Historical Site. This site features the cottage and 28-acre farm of Founding Father Charles Pinckney (he represented South Carolina at the Constitutional Convention). Visitors can view exhibits, watch a short film, and walk along the half-mile trail studded with informational signs that runs through the farm. On Saturdays in February and March, the site hosts programs that teach about the Gullah heritage and on April 24-25 the site celebrates Colonial Days.
As the sun begins to set, take a stroll in the garden at the Battery Carriage House Inn, if you dare. The property is known as “Charleston’s most haunted inn.” The public is welcome to hunt for specters around the inn’s grounds—be on the lookout for the two most common phantoms: the Gentleman Ghost and the Headless Torso.
On the College of Charleston’s beautiful campus sits the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, a public museum and gallery that highlights the history of African Americans in South Carolina's Low Country. The center houses permanent displays and installations and offers free tours of the grounds and museum (groups of five or more are asked to book in advance). The center also hosts lectures, poetry readings, art exhibitions, jazz performances, and other events throughout the year.
The Karpeles Library, the world’s largest private holding of original manuscripts and documents, has a museum in Charleston called the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, located on Spring Street. The museum has two permanent exhibits: a collection of Egyptian sandstone carvings and a photo gallery of the construction of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in North America, which crosses the Cooper River from Mount Pleasant to Charleston. The Karpeles also hosts three changing exhibits per year.
The Dock Street Theatre, originally opened in 1736, was the first building designed specifically for theatrical use in the Americas. Although performances charge admission, a stroll around the building and through its courtyard is free. If you ask nicely, the theater staff may show you inside as well.
Take a trip out to the Irvin-House Vineyards on Wadmalaw Island, a 25-minute drive from downtown Charleston, on Saturday when free tours are offered at 2 p.m. during every month but January. The growing and harvesting of the muscadine grapes—a sweet, fruity, southern favorite—and the making and bottling of five varieties of wine all occur on this 48-acre winery. Feeling extravagant? Splurge on the five-dollar wine tasting, which includes all five wines and a wrapped glass to take home.
Kids will get a kick out of the Citadel Dress Parades that take place most Fridays, when classes at this military college are in session. Rifles, swords, and music abound during the formal military parade. Bleacher seating is available; it's recommended that visitors arrive early. The parades usually take place in the afternoon, but times can vary so check the schedule. While there, make time to visit the Citadel Museum, which chronicles the life of the college and its notable graduates.
If there’s one thing you can count on in Charleston, it’s hot summers. Let the kids cool off with a frolic in the fountains at Waterfront Park. This eight-acre park offers a wonderful respite from the sizzling sun.
Once the kids have rested up, take them for a visit to the Red Barn, the beginning and end point for the Palmetto Carriage Works tours. There's no admission fee to visit the barn, which has chickens, goats, and a miniature pony named Peanut.
In the unlikely event that the weather forces you inside, take the kids to a branch of the Charleston County Public Library for story time, hosted on many weekdays. At the library's main branch on Calhoun Street, story time is on Mondays at 10 a.m. Check the schedule for times at other branches.
Charleston is best seen out in the open. Start the day with a stroll up the Battery at the tip of the Charleston peninsula, where stately antebellum mansions line the waterside at the intersection of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Note Fort Sumter out in Charleston Harbor, where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of dolphins swimming off the bulkhead. Walk across the street through live oak-shaded White Point Garden, lined with several cannons left over from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
The Charleston Farmer’s Market—open Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. April through December—in Marion Square offers a bounty of fresh regional produce and products, as well as entertainment like a kiddy bounce and pony rides. Browse the selection while listening to a bluegrass band. Local artisans also peddle their crafts here, and many merchants offer free samples of their food items—don’t miss “the pickle lady,” a favorite among local college students. A handful of stands offer breakfast and lunch, from fresh-pressed juices to one-of-a-kind flatbread sandwiches at Roti Rolls.
After you’ve provisioned your picnic, head to the College of Charleston’s Cistern Yard on George Street, a picturesque square shaded by moss-draped live oaks, to enjoy it away from the crowds.
Take a stroll down the Gateway Garden Walk, which connects the Unitarian Church to St. Phillip’s Church. The many gardens, churches, and cemeteries seen on this three-block path and throughout Charleston may make you think you’ve stepped into The Secret Garden. Keep an eye out for the cool funerary art on many of the tombstones, from the skull-and-crossbones depictions of the 1600s to “death’s heads”—angel wings in place of the crossbones.
For a cemetery steeped in Civil War history, visit the Magnolia Cemetery on the bank of the Cooper River. This 128-acre former rice plantation is the final resting place of 35,000 people; among them are 2,200 Civil War veterans, 5 governors, 3 U.S. senators, and 2 cabinet members.
While in Charleston, don’t miss the Angel Oak Tree, an estimated 1,500-year-old live oak located on John’s Island, a 25-minute drive from downtown Charleston. With giant branches that crawl along the ground, the tree has a diameter of 160 feet, a circumference of 25 feet, and a height of 65 feet.
Soak up the skyline and waterscape on a walk or jog over the graceful Ravenel Bridge, spanning 2.7 miles over the Cooper River from downtown to Mount Pleasant.
Head to the beach! With its tidal pools and low surf, Sullivan’s Island, 20 minutes northeast of downtown, is perfect for families with small tots. Parking on the side of the road is almost always available and free (the trade-off is that there are no restrooms/facilities). Surfers head further up the coast to Isle of Palms or south to Folly Beach, a hot spot for college students.
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