Top 10 Free Things to Do in Charleston, SC
Winning the accolade of the world’s best city by Travel + Leisure only spread the word on what everyone in the South already knew.
Charleston, South Carolina, is not only a fantastic place to visit, but a great place to live, as well.
But experiencing the Crown Jewel of the South isn’t cheap.
Between the restaurants, the high-end shopping on King Street, and the high admission to classic Charleston tourist attractions like the plantations, a visit or living here can add up quickly.
But just like anywhere else, you just need to know a local to find the best free and cheap things to do around the Lowcountry.
Here’s a list of the top ten free things to do in Charleston.
Top 10 Free Things to Do in Charleston
The list of free Charlestonian activities is long (my list is up to 60 of the most fun and free things to do in Charleston, South Carolina). A list that long can be a little overwhelming, and not something to do in a single weekend. A quick list of the top 10 free things to do is:
- Waterfront Park
- Charleston Beaches
- Angel Oak
- Ravenel Bridge
- Live Music at the Pour House
- Charleston City Market
- Hampton Park
- Magnolia Cemetery
- Stroll Around Historic Downtown Charleston
- King Street
But if you have more time, read on for what to do at each free Charleston attraction.
1. Waterfront Park
Right on the Cooper River side of the historic downtown Charleston peninsula, Waterfront Park has beautiful sweeping views of the Charleston harbor, including the Ravenel Bridge. On hot summer days (of which there are many in Charleston), the splash pad and famous pineapple fountain are full of kids. On a hot day, those fountains are definitely one of the best free things to do in Charleston, SC, with kids, . But there are plenty of romantic spots for couples to wander, too. The palmetto-lined promenade or the swinging benches lining the pier make for a great stop on an inexpensive date.
2) The Beautiful Beaches Near Charleston
Charleston is, without question, a beach town. While downtown is known for its elegance and refinement, the sandy beaches that line the Lowcountry coast are just as much of a draw here. And there are plenty of options, depending on your tastes. Isle of Palms is more for families, while Sullivan’s Island is one of the quieter beaches preferred by locals. Folly Beach is lively and has a funky beach town vibe. Edisto Beach is about an hour’s drive from downtown Charleston, but its distance makes it much quieter and even less touristy.
3) The Angel Oak
Named after the original owners of the property (even though the tree was there long before them), the Angel Oak on John’s Island is estimated to be 500 years old. Charleston tradition holds that the Angel Oak is the oldest tree east of the Mississippi. In reality, there are many bald cypress trees throughout the South that are older. Either way, this live oak tree is an impressive sight to see. Bring a picnic to enjoy at the picnic tables while you’re out on John’s Island.
4) Ravenel Bridge
The Ravenel Bridge replaced a scary old bridge that crossed the Cooper River to connect Charleston to Mount Pleasant. Today, the Ravenel Bridge is easily seen from a huge chunk of the Lowcountry. But the best part about this Charleston icon is walking or biking along the path on the southern side of the bridge. From there, visitors can enjoy a bird’s eye view of downtown Charleston. The bridge also offers a panoramic view of Mount Pleasant, Charleston harbor, and the surrounding barrier islands.
5) Live Music at the Pour House
The Pour House is a quirky dive bar on James Island. It’s close to downtown Charleston and on the way to the Angel Oak on John’s Island. While the Pour House offers a Sunday farmers market (for free) and great bar food, it also features two stages for concerts. The main stage is normally a paid affair, though the outdoor stage usually offers a free performance. All you need to pay for is the libation of your choice, or not. A free concert at the Pour House is definitely one of the best ways to end an evening in Charleston.
6) Historic Charleston City Market
No list of free Charleston attractions would be complete without the Historic Charleston City Market. The front entrance and Confederate museum is iconic. It’s also well known as the place to get some of the most famous items unique to Charleston, including sweetgrass baskets and the cookbook all self-respecting Charlestonians own, Charleston Receipts. But even for those not looking to buy a thing, it’s still a fun place to browse. Keep your eyes open for free samples, especially pralines from the sweets shops along Market Street.
7) Hampton Park
While not as far from the touristy part of downtown Charleston as the Angel Oak or the beaches, visitors usually seem to ignore Hampton Park. But perhaps that’s part of its charm. Despite being the largest park on the peninsula (and designed by a protege of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park), its distance from the tourist attractions further downtown make this park more of a place for locals. Stroll around the paths and hang out with the ducks in the central pond without spending a cent.
8) Magnolia Cemetery
Another free tourist attraction further up the peninsula from the typical visitors’ stomping grounds, Magnolia Cemetery deserves a visit. The expansive, park-like grounds house the remains of most of Charleston’s influential and non-influential members of society. Be on the look-out for the area devoted to those who died in the Civil War, including the men who drowned aboard the H. L. Hunley.
9) Walking Around Historic Downtown Charleston
Of all the free things to do in Charleston, this is likely my favorite. Regardless of the time of year or where on the peninsula you are, there are beautiful historic homes and gorgeous parks to see and explore. Depending on the time of year, the air is heavy with the fragrance of jasmine and other flowers. Exploring the streets of downtown Charleston at night is one of the best free romantic things to do in Charleston, South Carolina. Some of my favorite historic downtown Charleston neighborhoods to wander around on a beautiful Sunday afternoon include: South of Broad, Ansonborough, and Harleston Village. Anson Street is one of my favorite streets in Charleston, especially in the evening when homes have their gas lanterns lit.
10) King Street
Even though King Street is the place to be for shopping in Charleston, it is also fantastic to window shop or just people watch. Check out the Charleston Farmers Market on Marion Square on Saturday mornings and browse through the stands of goods and produce. You can also visit King Street for Second Sunday throughout the year. On Second Sunday, King Street closes to cars below Calhoun Street. Restaurants will put tables out on the street while street performers put on free shows up and down King Street. Second Sunday is the time to see and be seen in downtown Charleston.
10 Free Things to Do in Charleston, SC, This Weekend
And there you have it, an entire weekend worth of free things to do in Charleston, South Carolina. Now all you have to do is cough up enough money for restaurants and hotels. But avoid visiting Charleston too much if you don’t want to wind up moving here.
Don’t see your favorite free Charleston attraction or activity on the list? Tell me about it in the comments below!
Bio: Colin Pearson writes for the Best of Hipster Charleston, a blog devoted to the hipster living in Charleston, South Carolina. When not writing, Colin enjoys traveling, exploring historic downtown Charleston, and the fantastic beaches near Charleston. Download a free checklist of the 60 best activities in Charleston, split-up by neighborhood.