Photograph by Charles Register, Alamy
Don’t be fooled by appearances—although grandiose architecture and the sense of old Southern aristocracy abound in Charleston, South Carolina, this little city plays host to many options that won’t cost you a penny. With beautiful weather most of the year, you can spend the majority of your trip outside, simply strolling along the shore and through the many parks and cemeteries in this old Southern town. Charleston is brimming with history, so be sure to visit some of the many historical attractions throughout the city. 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 located at 43 John Street. Chuma specializes in the art of the Gullah people. The Gullah are descendents 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 RLS’s shows and opening nights, which include hors d'oeuvres, wine, and live music, are also open to the public.
For a night of free classical music, catch a performance of the Youth Orchestra of the Lowcountry, which does not charge admission for the majority of their shows. Students in this auditioned orchestra are the best from the area. Performance locations change, so check their schedule.
At night, head over to the Pour House where they host free live music on the deck. The deck opens at 5 pm Monday through Thursday and at 4 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. The night of the free show changes, but they usually have at least one per week.
A “must-see” destination for many visitors to Charleston is the Old City Market in the heart of downtown. In this bustling indoor market, browse artisans’ wares such as blown glass and sweetgrass baskets, a local tradition that dates back to West African slaves. Or check out more contemporary booths with items such as movie posters and knock-off designer sunglasses. Salt-water taffy is another popular treat here.
Looking for more contemporary shopping? Head down King Street to do some window shopping and people watching. Charleston’s main drag, King Street is home to many well-known stores and restaurants as well as a variety of locally owned shops. Some of the jewelry stores are virtually art galleries themselves. A few scenes from The Notebook were filmed on King Street–most memorably, when Noah and Allie lie in the middle of the street at night.
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 and offer stately examples of the stunning architecture that is distinctive to historic Charleston. Both buildings are free and open to the public.
For a free visit to one of Charleston’s many historical sites, 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 walk through 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 the Lowcountry area. 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 spread over ten locations, has a museum in Charleston, 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 Mt. Pleasant to Charleston. The Karpeles also hosts three changing exhibits per year. 2010 will feature "Milestones in Modern Medicine" (January-April), "Darwin" (May-August), and "Freud" (September-December).
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. (Note: Dock Street Theatre is currently in the process of being renovated. It is expected to re-open in the spring of 2010).
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 $2.50 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 in this formal military parade. Bleacher seating is available, and it is 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 military academy and 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 to 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 is no admission to visit the barn, which has chickens, goats, and a brand-new miniature pony named Peanut.
In the unlikely event that the weather forces you inside, take the kids over to the Charleston Public Library, which hosts story time on many weekdays, usually mid-morning. The schedules vary, so check the library’s website for exact times.
Charleston is best seen out in the open. With beautiful weather the majority of the year, there’s no need to stay cooped up inside. Start the day with a stroll up the Battery, where historical homes line the waterside at the intersection of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of dolphins swimming off the bulkhead. Continue following Bay Street and you will see a section of the road (house numbers 83-107) the locals call Rainbow Row, a beautiful collection of multi-colored old, restored homes. Then take a walk through Battery Park. The park has many statues and monuments, as well as old cannons and cannon balls that kids love to play on.
The Charleston Farmer’s Market, open Saturdays 8 a.m.-2 p.m. April through December, in Marion Square offers a bounty of fresh local produce, flowers, and herbs. Browse the selection while listening to a variety of live entertainment. 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.
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 path and throughout Charleston may make you think you’ve stepped into The Secret Garden.
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. (For a map, click here.)
While in Charleston, don’t miss the Angel Oak Tree, an estimated 1,500-year-old live oak tree located on John’s Island, a 20-minute drive from downtown Charleston. This tree—with giant prehistoric branches that crawl along the ground creating a diameter of 160 feet—stands 65 feet high and has a circumference of 25 feet. During the spring and summer many art and music events take place under or near this historical tree.
Free Downloadable Maps
Charleston Calendars of Events
Subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!