Beautiful waterfront parks and piers abound throughout Charleston and its surrounding barrier islands, accessible for free via the city's many noted swing and suspension bridges. Many galleries offer free admission and participate in periodic cultural art crawl events. Low-cost public transportation is available through the city's CARTA bus system. Some attractions are free only on certain days – please check before you go.
1.The Charleston Tea Plantation
© The Charleston Tea Plantation
The Charleston Tea Plantation is North America's only tea plantation, located on Wadmalaw Island a few miles off the coast of the city of Charleston. The 127-acre plantation has been in operation since 1963, when plants were transferred to a former potato plantation area on the island from the nearby Pinehurst Tea Plantation in South Carolina. Since 2003, it has been operated by the Bigelow Tea Company, building on the success of former plantation owner William Barclay Hall, the producer of the first tea fully grown in America. The plantation is open to the public for tours seven days a week during the late morning and afternoon hours, showcasing tea growing and production equipment and detailing the tea-making process through multimedia presentations. A trolley ride tour is offered for a nominal upgrade charge, with a gift shop offering Bigelow tea products available for purchase.
6617 Maybank Hwy, Wadmalaw Island, SC 29487, Phone: 843-559-0383
2.Charleston Waterfront Park
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Charleston Waterfront Park is an eight-acre public park located along the banks of the Cooper River in downtown Charleston, spanning from Vendue Range to Adger's Wharf. Plans for the park were originally developed in the mid-1970s, with facilities opened to the public in May of 1990. In 2007, the park was the recipient of the prestigious Landmark Award, presented by the American Society of Landscape Architects. Today, the park showcases public landmarks such as Vendue Wharf, which features family-sized swings for relaxation and panoramic views of the park's shoreline, and the iconic Pineapple Fountain, located in front of the City Gallery. A 1,200-foot palmetto-lined esplanade provides access to the water's edge, while a floating dock offers unparalleled views of Fort Sumter, the USS Yorktown, and other maritime attractions.
1 Vendue Range, Charleston, SC 29401, Phone: 843-724-7321
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Angel Oak is the oldest living organism in the American Southeast, estimated to be at least 400 years old. The live oak tree is a native species to the coastal Carolinas' Lowcounty area and stands over 65 feet tall, shading a surrounding area of more than 17,000 square feet. Though the tree has been damaged in several significant hurricanes and natural disasters, including 1989's Hurricane Hugo, it has continued to grow and thrive into the 21st century. It is named in honor of its location at Charlotte's Angel Estate, owned by Justus and Martha Waight Angel, and has been featured in Emily Nelson's novel The Heart of a Child. Free parking is offered near the estate for tree visitors.
3688 Angel Oak Road, Johns Island, SC, 29455
4.Battery and White Point Gardens
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Battery and White Point Gardens is a free-admission public garden area in Charleston's historic district, offering beautiful views of nearby Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor. The gardens were originally developed in 1837 and were famously used as fortifications during the American Civil War. Historic weapons and fortifications are still standing today at the gardens, including mortars and cannons, which may be viewed during daylight hours. A Confederate monument is also showcased at the site, along with a memorial at the hanging site of infamous 18th-century pirate Stede Bonnet. The park is located at the intersections of Murray Boulevard and East Battery, with street parking available nearby.
East Battery & Murray Blvd, Charleston, SC 29401, Phone: 843-724-7327
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Folly Beach has been called "the edge of America," located 12 miles south of Charleston's downtown along the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean on Folly Island. The city is accessible from downtown Charleston via car and is home to a population of more than 2,600 residents, known as one of the top surfing locations on the American East Coast. The eclectic city is home to a wide variety of surf shops, boutiques, restaurants, and bars along its main Center Street, along with natural areas such as the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve, which offers views of the 1876 Morris Island Lighthouse. Its Folly Beach Fishing Pier stretches over 1,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, the second-longest of its kind on the East Coast. Picnic areas and a pelican rookery are also offered at Folly Beach County Park.
6.Francis Marion National Forest
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Francis Marion National Forest is located north of the city of Charleston, spanning more than 258,000 acres throughout Charleston and Berkeley Counties. The forest is named in honor of American Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion and encompasses the towns of McClellanville, Huger, Awendaw, and Jamestown, with forest headquarters located in nearby Columbia. Four officially-designated wilderness areas are offered throughout the forest, providing a wide variety of seasonal outdoor recreational opportunities for visitors. The Wild and Scenic Chattooga River, one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the American Southeast, is located within the forest, offering opportunities for world-class whitewater rafting experiences. Other popular activities include hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and boating, with campsites offered throughout the forest for overnight stay.
4931 Broad River Rd, Columbia, SC 29212, Phone: 803-561-4000
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Gateway Walk is an historic walkway in downtown Charleston, originally established in 1930 by the Garden Club of Charleston. The walkway traverses several of the city's historic streets and cemeteries, embarking at the west cemetery at Saint Philip's Episcopal Church and traveling through the grounds of the city's Circular Church, Gibbes Museum sculpture courtyard, and Unitarian Church before ending at Saint John's Lutheran Church. It is open to the public daily for travel during daylight hours, though certain sections may be closed at church and cemetery discretion at various times throughout the week. A number of beautiful historic gateways are showcased along the walk, which provides opportunities to view some of the city's most historic buildings and graveyards. Free street parking is available at a number of sites near the walkway.
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Hampton Park is a 60-acre public park located along Charleston's peninsula, named in reference to Confederate general and South Carolina Governor Wade Hampton III. The park is constructed on lands formerly encompassed as part of the Orange Grove Plantation, owned by John Gibbes, which formerly housed the Washington Race Course horse race track and a prisoner-of-war cemetery during the American Civil War. Since the 1980s, the park has been redeveloped as an outdoor recreational center, offering a one-mile jogging and cycling path that roughly follows the layout of the former race course. It showcases the most floral displays of any Charleston park, including a vintage rose collection and seasonal displays. Annual special events held at the park include the MOJA Festival and the Walk, Run, or Roll marathon.
30 Mary Murray Drive, Charleston, SC 29403
9.Charleston City Market
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Charleston City Market, also known as the Centre Market, is the city's historic downtown market complex, spanning four city blocks beginning at the National Register of Historic Places-listed Market Hall, constructed in the 1840s. The market was developed in the late 18th century as a replacement for the city's Beef Market, which burned to the ground in 1796. As one of the nation's oldest operating markets, the market is open to the public every day of the year except Christmas, showcasing more than 300 meat and produce vendors, artisans, and other merchants. Special events held throughout the year at the market include a weekend Night Market, which operates Fridays and Saturdays between April and December. Visitors checking out the market may also wish to explore its surrounding neighborhood, which is home to many restaurants, specialty boutiques, and walking and carriage tours.
188 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC 29401, Phone: 843-937-0920
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10.Charleston Farmer's Market
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Charleston Farmer's Market is a weekly farmer's market that has been ranked as one of the United States' top 10 farmer's markets by Travel and Leisure magazine. The market was originally opened in 1989 by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and is held each Saturday morning in Marion Square within the city's Historic District. Through sponsorship by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, the market is dedicated to raising the profile of Lowcountry farmers and growers, with vendors selling a wide variety of meats, produce, and pantry and home goods each weekend. A selection of juried arts and crafts are also showcased by local artisans, along with live entertainment performances by Charleston-area musicians and performers.
75 Calhoun Street, Suite 3800, Charleston, SC 29401, Phone: 843-724-7305
11.The Karpeles Manuscript Library
© The Karpeles Manuscript Library
The Karpeles Manuscript Library holds the largest private collection of original manuscripts in the world, open to the public daily with free admission for browsing and research. The library was originally opened by real estate entrepreneurs Marsha and David Karpeles in 1983, intended to facilitate community learning among visitors of all ages. Several Karpeles museums exist throughout the United States today, with items rotating on a schedule between museums. Charleston's Karpeles Library is housed within the city's 1856 St. James Chapel, known for its use as a hospital during the American Civil War. Significant documents showcased at the library include original scores by composers such as Beethoven and Mozart, scientific works such as Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and the original printing of the Gutenberg Bible's Ten Commandments.
68 Spring Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29403, Phone: 843-853-4651
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King Street is one of Charleston's most historic streets, originally established in the mid-18th century and named for England's King Charles II. The street was primarily used as a path for entrance to the city until the early 19th century, when the city's new railroad terminal facilitated the street's growth as a retail and commercial corridor. Today, it showcases some of the city's most spectacular historic architecture, with upscale boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants housed within beautiful restored 18th and 19th-century buildings. The district has been named as one of the nation's top 10 shopping districts by US News and World Report, offering pedestrian-friendly sidewalk areas, world-class antique shopping, and a mix of local and national boutique retailers. Throughout the year, the district also hosts a variety of free and paid admission public special events, including the city's weekly farmer's market, Charleston Fashion Week, and the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.
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Liberty Square is one of Charleston's most historic urban parks, serving as a launch dock for passenger ferry boats to the Fort Sumter National Monument, an historic fortress that served a key role in the American Civil War. The park is located along the Cooper River, offering several walking paths to observe the city's shoreline. It is also home to the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center, a state-of-the-art visitor center operated by the National Park Service that offers a variety of interactive interpretive exhibits related to the fort's history and the events that led to the beginning of the Civil War. The visitor center is open to the public daily during business hours, with the exception of major national holidays.
340 Concord St, Charleston, SC 29401, Phone: 843-577-0242
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Magnolia Cemetery is Charleston's oldest cemetery, originally founded in 1849 and officially dedicated the following year with an address by Charles Fraser. The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and serves as the final resting place of many of the state's most famous civic leaders, including South Carolina Governors Langdon Cheves, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Thomas Bennett, and Horace L. Hunley. It is also the interment site for hundreds of Confederate Civil War soldiers, including Generals C.H. Stevens, James Conner, Arthur Manigault, Micah Jenkins, and Roswell Ripley. The cemetery is free to visit and open to the public from 8:00am to 5:00pm seven days a week, with offices open Monday through Friday during business hours.
70 Cunnington Ave, Charleston, SC 29405, Phone: 843-722-8638
15.Pickett Bridge Recreation Area and Pitt Street Bridge
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Pickett Bridge Recreation Area and Pitt Street Bridge is a popular pedestrian greenway located in Mount Pleasant, accessible from downtown Charleston via the Ravenel Bridge. The Old Village recreation area provides visitors with incredible views of Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter, and the Intracoastal Waterway, located at the site of a former trolley bridge that was constructed in 1929 and dismantled in 1945 following the construction of the Ben Sawyer Swing Bridge. It is a popular spot for area joggers and cyclists, with a public boardwalk available for use by fishers looking to catch spot tail bass and blue crabs. Kayak launch sites to Sullivan's Island and Shem Creek are also offered, with a kayak trail map provided on site.
998 Pitt St, Mt Pleasant, SC 29464
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Rainbow Row is one of Charleston's most iconic architectural landmarks, preserving 13 historic houses that are painted in a rainbow of pastel colors. The row is the United States' longest preserved cluster of Georgian row homes, located along East Bay Street between Tradd and Elliott Streets. Many of the homes date back to the city's founding and are considered architecturally significant as some of the neighborhood's only homes that were spared in a 1778 fire. Throughout the 1920s, the homes were acquired by the Preservation Society of Charleston and painted according to a colonial Caribbean color scheme. Today, the houses are one of Charleston's most photographed landmarks, viewable to visitors on foot or in vehicles from nearby street and sidewalk vantage points.
83 E Bay St, Charleston, SC 29401, Phone: 803-528-8317
17.The Arthur J. Ravenel Bridge
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The Arthur J. Ravenel Bridge is the third-longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere, crossing the Cooper River and connecting the city's downtown and Mount Pleasant districts. The history of bridges on the Cooper RIver dates back to 1929, when the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge was constructed. By the 1960s, the bridge had begun to deteriorate, resulting in the need for a replacement by the end of the 20th century. In 2005, the new Ravenel Bridge was opened along US Route 17, designed by architect Parsons Brinckerhoff and spanning 1,546 feet over the river. Two diamond-shaped towers on the bridge stretch 575 feet into the air, with eight vehicular traffic lanes and a 12-foot Wonders Way pedestrian lane traversing the length of the bridge. Walkers and bikers can view spectacular panoramas of the Atlantic Ocean and Charleston Harbor from the bridge, which is designed to withstand the city's history of natural disasters and shipping accidents.
Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge, Charleston, SC 29403
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Shem Creek is a popular waterfront retail and dining district in Charleston's Mount Pleasant neighborhood, accessible via car from downtown Charleston via the Ravenel Bridge or for an additional ticket fare via the Charleston Water Taxi service. The district is centered around its namesake Shem Creek and is known for its fantastic local seafood restaurants and lively nightlife. Beautiful views of the creek and its surrounding wetlands are offered at Shem Creek Park, which is home to a 2,200-foot boardwalk that begins at Coleman Boulevard. On clear days, the boardwalk provides views of Castle Pinckney, Fort Sumter, and the Charleston Harbor. Several short walking trails are also offered throughout the park, with boat access provided at a number of floating docks along the boardwalk. Visitor parking is offered at parking areas on Shrimp Boat Lane.
Shrimp Boat Ln, Mt Pleasant, SC 29464, Phone: 843-884-4440
19.The Charles Pinckney National Historic Site
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The Charles Pinckney National Historic Site is a National Park Service unit that preserves the 18th-century country farm and plantation of Colonel Charles Pinckney, known as Snee Farm. The site is located approximately 10 miles outside of Charleston's city center on the Wando Neck peninsula, overlooking the Wando and Cooper Rivers, and showcases the main house, barn, caretaker's residence, and corn crib operated as part of the Snee Farm plantation and estate between 1754 and 1816. Archaeological displays, historical exhibits, and documentary films are featured at the site's Visitor Center, housed within a preserved 1828 Lowcountry cottage, with a nature trail offered for exploration of the farm's grounds. Ranger-led programming is offered periodically throughout the year, and a Junior Ranger program allows young visitors to explore areas of the site and exchange findings for participation certificates and badges.
1214 Middle Street, Sullivan's Island, SC 29482, Phone: 843-881-5516
20.Charleston Gallery Association ArtWalks
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Charleston Gallery Association ArtWalks explore more than 40 prominent art galleries throughout Charleston's downtown district, which have earned the city a reputation as a major art destination along the American East Coast. Local, regional, and national artists are showcased in permanent and rotating gallery exhibitions throughout the city, with a focus on the works of Lowcountry artists. ArtWalks are held on the 1st Friday of every month except in January and July, free to all participants and lasting approximately three hours. Walks explore the city's stunning historic French Quarter, with complimentary wine and refreshments offered at many galleries. Visitors are also welcome to take individual ArtWalks at any time throughout the year by downloading a free self-guided tour map from the Charleston Gallery Association's website.
P.O Box 1283, Charleston, SC 29402, Phone: 843-577-7344
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FAM JAM is the signature event hosted annually by the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry, held each November in Marion Square. The Children's Museum of the Lowcountry is Charleston's premiere family-friendly museum, originally established in 2003 and offering exhibits intended to engage visitors of all ages in continued learning in the arts, sciences, and civics. Its free family festival is centered around the idea of encouraging children to expand and refine their bodies and minds through fun exercise and imaginative play. Family-friendly live music performances are presented throughout the day, along with a variety of strolling entertainers. Hands-on activities create an innovative interactive playscape that aims to foster community togetherness and learning for visitors of all ages.
Marion Square, 329 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29403, Phone: 843-853-8962
22.The City of North Charleston's Harvest Festival
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The City of North Charleston's Harvest Festival is an annual fall festival held each October in the Olde Village of North Charleston, offering free admission and parking for all attendees. Live musical performances by local and regional musicians are offered throughout the day, with past performer rosters including acts such as the Spazmatics and Lindsay Holler. An artist market is also offered throughout the day, along with Halloween-themed activities such as costume contests, a pop-up pumpkin patch, and a trick-or-treat on-the-street event. A Kid's Zone also offers crafting activities, carnival games, face painting, and interactive workshops for young visitors, with family-friendly musical performances offered by local musicians and artistic groups. Food and drink specials are also available at many nearby restaurants on the day of the festival.
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Sullivan's Island is connected to Mount Pleasant via the Ben Sawyer Swing Bridge, located at the mouth of Charleston Harbor near the Isle of Palms. The 3.3-mile island was the site of significant American Revolutionary War battles and has drawn comparisons to Ellis Island as the site of most of the arrivals of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas as part of the transatlantic slave trade. Today, it is best known for its beautiful public beaches, which offer opportunities for surfing, kiteboarding, paddleboarding, and kayaking. More secluded beachfront areas showcase spectacular dune formations and provide opportunities for fishing in the waters surrounding the island. Local restaurants serve authentic seafood dishes, with quaint shops located within the island's business district.
24.The North Charleston Arts Fest
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The North Charleston Arts Fest is an annual multi-day celebration of culture and arts in Charleston, held at the beginning of May every year for over 35 years. The free-admission festival spans five days and attracts more than 30,000 attendees, presented by the City of North Charleston's Cultural Arts Department. Performances by local, regional, and national performers are presented throughout the week, spanning the fields of music, dance, theater, and multimedia arts. Visual and media arts works are also displayed throughout the week, with literature readings and other presentations offered at venues throughout the city. Attendees can peruse juried art and photography exhibitions, participate in public workshops and demonstrations, attend film screenings, and shop from a variety of arts and crafts vendors. Children's programming is also offered for young visitors.
PO Box 190016, North Charleston, SC 29419, Phone: 843-740-5854
25 Best Free Things to Do in Charleston, South Carolina Year Round
- The Charleston Tea Plantation, Photo: The Charleston Tea Plantation
- Charleston Waterfront Park, Photo: Courtesy of f11photo - Fotolia.com
- Angel Oak, Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Schultz - Fotolia.com
- Battery and White Point Gardens, Photo: Courtesy of msnider - Fotolia.com
- Folly Beach, Photo: Courtesy of aheflin - Fotolia.com
- Francis Marion National Forest, Photo: Courtesy of makasana photo - Fotolia.com
- Gateway Walk, Photo: Courtesy of Jaimie Tuchman - Fotolia.com
- Hampton Park, Photo: Courtesy of dbvirago - Fotolia.com
- Charleston City Market, Photo: Courtesy of Luis - Fotolia.com
- Charleston Farmer's Market, Photo: Courtesy of aceshot - Fotolia.com
- The Karpeles Manuscript Library, Photo: The Karpeles Manuscript Library
- King Street, Photo: Courtesy of Natalia Bratslavsky - Fotolia.com
- Liberty Square, Photo: Courtesy of Joern - Fotolia.com
- Magnolia Cemetery, Photo: Courtesy of Laura Ballard - Fotolia.com
- Pickett Bridge Recreation Area and Pitt Street Bridge, Photo: Courtesy of Valerie - Fotolia.com
- Rainbow Row, Photo: Courtesy of gb27photo - Fotolia.com
- The Arthur J. Ravenel Bridge, Photo: Courtesy of Nataliya Hora - Fotolia.com
- Shem Creek, Photo: Courtesy of digidreamgrafix - Fotolia.com
- The Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, Photo: Courtesy of ehrlif - Fotolia.com
- Charleston Gallery Association ArtWalks, Photo: Courtesy of dbvirago - Fotolia.com
- FAM JAM, Photo: Courtesy of ZoneCreative - Fotolia.com
- The City of North Charleston's Harvest Festival, Photo: Courtesy of Sonja Birkelbach - Fotolia.com
- Sullivan's Island, Photo: Courtesy of lumachina_99 - Fotolia.com
- The North Charleston Arts Fest, Photo: Courtesy of Yakov - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of f11photo - Fotolia.com