Nick Cave, Call and Response: Africa to America, 2010. Image courtesy of Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.
If you know where to look, you can find very cool, absolutely free things to do in Charleston.
Visiting Charleston doesn’t have to break the bank—you can get a great sense of the city while saving your vacation budget to spend on fried chicken, she-crab soup, and craft cocktails.
Charleston, South Carolina, is revered for its food scene, its starring role in much of early U.S. history, its live oaks and Spanish moss, and its stunning harbor, but it is almost never remembered fondly for its affordability. We say save your money for a platter of oysters and a local beer or spend it on a swanky hotel room; you can explore the city and experience many of its myriad charms without opening your wallet.
Every Saturday morning between mid-April and Christmas, local farmers, food trucks, and makers set up in Marion Square to sell their goods and the whole town seems to turn out. They listen to homegrown music, parade their dogs, and let their kids partake in the bouncy castle and inflatable slides set up in the park. Going to the weekly market gives visitors an opportunity to talk to the locals and to meet the Charleston makers of jewelry, salt, fragrances, wooden bowls, sweetgrass baskets, jams, and more. Don’t miss the chance to mingle, ask questions, taste samples, admire dogs and babies, and get a strong sense of what this city’s all about. (Check the schedule at Charleston Farmers’ Market website.)
The art department at the College of Charleston devotes a generous portion of its ground floor on Calhoun Street to gallery space. Rotating exhibits of art and film are mounted here, as are free lectures. Recent exhibits included a wide-ranging photography show about all aspects of life in the South. This is serious art curation—many of the Halsey’s exhibits go on to tour galleries around the country. (See what’s on right now by checking Halsey’s website.)
The telegraphic snippets of info on historic markers hinting at Charleston’s centuries of intrigue can hook the most skeptical visitor. You can’t help but want to fill in the blanks of the abbreviated stories. A short walk from City Market, at 35 Wentworth Street, you can read that the house was built around 1840 by a free woman of color, Hannah McBeth, and that she resided there with six other women, two of whom were enslaved. (Hollywood screenwriters: Take up this story, please.)
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Or walk down to the South of Broad neighborhood to the John Fullerton House (15 Legare Street), where a plaque blithely notes that the house is haunted by two ghosts. One occasionally appears in an upper-story window to shoot a dueling pistol at the balcony of a house across the street, and the other is an “Indian who peers through the first floor window attracted by the sound of spinet.” While you’re South of Broad, looking for ghosts, don’t miss reading the markers of the colorful houses along Rainbow Row. (If you need more structure to your wandering, the Charleston Historic Society released a free app in October 2018 with several self-guided walking tours.)
At 3:45 p.m. almost every Friday during the school year, the cadets of the Citadel Military College parade on Summerall Field at the center of campus. It’s an impressive show with military orders bellowed, cadets chanting as they march, a regimental band in kilts, and lots of fine posture and tidy uniforms. Come a bit early to find parking and get a good spot to watch the parade.
Reading the stories etched on these centuries-old stones can give dusty history a vivid immediacy. Decoding the words on the listing and moss-eroded stones at Magnolia Cemetery, the oldest public boneyard in the state, reveals much about the fates of the Charleston families buried here, as well as the story of the crewman lost on the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine. If gravestone reading is not temptation enough, Magnolia and many of the churchyards in town also provide a quiet, shady, and somewhat eerie place to wander.
If you’re based downtown, stroll Waterfront Park (swing on the swings, sit on a shady promenade bench, enjoy the fountains and sculpture, and watch the harbor), or head all the way to the tip of the peninsula to see the Battery and pretty White Point Garden. The parks provide shade and green and let you absorb city history and geography without really trying.
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Up on the west side, Hampton Park is a favorite with locals; you won’t see a lot of other tourists there, but you will find an elegant park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (who designed New York’s Central Park), full of gardens and picnic spots, and (since history never takes a holiday here) a statue of Denmark Vesey, a freed man who was allegedly the mastermind behind a foiled slave uprising.
The walking tours of the College of Charleston run by the Office of Admissions are limited to prospective students and their families, but anyone can enter through the open passageways of Porter’s Lodge to admire the buildings surrounding Cistern Yard—elegant Randolph Hall is one of the oldest college buildings in the United States still in use. Time your sojourn in this peaceful and green quad so it coincides with one of the official tours (daily scheduled tours start at 9:30 and 11:30 and should arrive in the Cistern about twenty minutes after that), and discreetly eavesdrop on a tour guide’s presentation about buildings here. Visitors can also tour the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History on the campus, open to the public every day except Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Download a campus map for more info.)
On slower days, some of the carriage stables along Anson Street conduct free tours of their facilities so visitors can meet the animals and see behind the scenes. The tours are an obvious ploy to lure you into taking a carriage ride, so be prepared either to sign up for a paid ride or to be firm in saying no (and get ready for some pushback).
This glass-front building at Waterfront Park is a not-for-profit exhibition space operated by the city, so visitors are always welcome. City Gallery hosts six to eight exhibitions a year; the subjects range from local and regional artists and photographers to international group shows curated around a theme. Check the exhibition schedule on the website.
Get some perspective on the city by walking, running, or biking across the Cooper River Bridge to Mount Pleasant. A wide paved path across the span, separated and protected from car traffic, allows visitors (and commuters) to make their way over the bridge while enjoying views of the harbor, the river, and the shore. You’ll cool off in the steady breeze while getting a clear picture about why this city’s position on the coast has made it important to maritime history and commerce.
>>Next: Plan your trip with AFAR’s Travel Guide to Charleston
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