There’s a reason Charleston, South Carolina, tops numerous bucket lists -- it’s totally enchanting. From its stunning architecture and storied history to its rich Low Country cuisine and lively nightlife, this Southern city hits all the right notes. But, as all travelers know, visiting a popular destination can be hard on the wallet. Luckily, there are plenty of free activities available for both locals and visitors alike.
Here are some of the best things to do in Charleston without spending a dime.
1. Hit The Beach
With its lovely coastal location and balmy weather, Charleston is a great spot to enjoy the beach. Laid-back Folly Beach is a free option located just 20 minutes away from the city limits. To see a cool old lighthouse that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, walk 30 minutes north to the Morris Island Lighthouse.
For additional pretty lighthouse views and fun on the beach, head to Sullivan’s Island, which is about 20 minutes away by car. Please keep in mind that parking options at both beaches will likely cost money, but there is sometimes free parking available as well. For the best luck, arrive early, especially if you’re visiting on a weekend, since it can get quite crowded.
The Isle of Palms is yet another beach option, but it’s slightly farther away, about a 30-minute drive from Charleston. Paid parking is available near the beach, but occasionally free spots open up. Even when the temperature is too cold for swimming, a beachside picnic or simple stroll can still be enjoyable.
2. Learn About Military History
Charleston was a hot spot for anti-Union activity both before and during the Civil War. The city was even nicknamed the Cradle of Secession for its prominent role in the formation of the Confederacy.
Most visitors know that the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, but not everyone knows that this historic landmark can be visited free of charge.
Please note that while the national historical park that houses Fort Sumter is free to access, it’s on an island only accessible via boat. The boat ride costs a small fee and departs from both Mount Pleasant and downtown Charleston. The full boat schedule can be found here. Be aware that private boats are not an option for this activity.
3. Cross The Arthur Ravenel Bridge
Another iconic Charleston sight is the cabled Arthur Ravenel Bridge that traverses the Cooper River. With two striking metal diamond shapes adorning the gateway, the structure is both beautiful and strong. It offers easy access to nearby Mount Pleasant and can be crossed on foot for amazing harbor and skyline views. Bikes are available throughout the city for a small fee and are another option for crossing the bridge.
Those seeking more exercise should consider a walk to Mount Pleasant’s cute Shem Creek area; it’s full of restaurants, offers pretty water views and a lovely boardwalk, and is less than an hour’s walk from the bridge.
4. Tour A Tea Plantation
Did you know that the Charleston area is home to North America’s only tea plantation? That’s right! On nearby Wadmalaw Island is the Charleston Tea Plantation. While there are multiple tour options, the basic factory tours are completely free. The on-site parking is also free, but be prepared to drive about 30 minutes to reach the plantation from central Charleston.
5. People-Watch On King Street
King Street in downtown Charleston is the main artery of the city’s entertainment district. It’s chock-full of restaurants, bars, and shops to enjoy. Browse the colorful merchandise during a walk through the city and watch the lively crowds go by. To keep this activity free, visitors should take advantage of the city’s walkability and walk to King Street from their accommodations.
6. See The Sights
After some fun on King Street, travelers should consider walking to some of Charleston’s most famous sights and photo ops.
The Battery, a defensive seawall and promenade on the southern tip of the city, provides unreal views of the harbor. The free and scenic White Point Garden, which is located at the southernmost tip of the Battery, boasts almost 6 stunning acres full of dreamy Spanish moss.
To see the famous Pineapple Fountain, head to another downtown-area park, Waterfront Park. This 8-acre oasis is located on the banks of the Cooper River.
Gorgeous antebellum architecture and cobblestone streets can be found all around town. One very pretty such area of Charleston is Rainbow Row. These colorful row houses were constructed in the Georgian style and painted in pastel tones. Conveniently, this attraction is a short walk from the previously mentioned Pineapple Fountain.
7. Take A Photo With The Angel Oak
The Angel Oak, a 400- to 500-year-old tree, is another thing you can see for free in Charleston. With its numerous heavy limbs on the ground, the tree makes a cool photo backdrop. It also provides tons of shade, so it would be a great place to spend some time with the family on a hot summer day. This otherworldly plant can be found on Johns Island, which is about 20 minutes away from the city proper by car. Free parking is available on the island.
8. Appreciate Contemporary Art
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is a modern gallery exhibition space located on the College of Charleston campus. Not only is admission always free, but free guided group tours are available on-site as well. Visitors can expect diverse works showcasing all sorts of themes and inspiration. The museum is one of Charleston's true hidden gems. Please note that the gallery is closed every Sunday, so plan accordingly.
9. Fall For Fossils
The College of Charleston is also home to another museum that’s free for visitors: the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History. Run by geology students, this paleontology-focused outfit is home to more than 1,000 fossils. To find it, head to the School of Sciences and Mathematics, and then go to the second floor. You’ll see dinosaur bones, crinoids, Oligocene mammals of North America, mosasaurs, cave bears, Pleistocene mammals of the Carolinas, and fossilized plants. A popular exhibit features the reconstructed jaw of a giant extinct shark. Please note that the museum is closed every Wednesday. Also, while admission is free, donations are accepted.
10. Get To Know A Founding Father
Charles Pinckney was a South Carolina governor, a Founding Father, and a signatory of the United States Constitution. The remnants of his plantation are now under the stewardship of the National Park Service as the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site and are free to visit. This could be a fun addition to a walk across the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, since the historic site is in Mount Pleasant at the other end. The grounds are about a 2-hour walk from the middle of the bridge. If you’d prefer not to walk, the site is less than 20 minutes by car from downtown Charleston.
11. Stop And Smell The Roses
While the aforementioned Waterfront Park and White Point Garden tend to be full of tourists, you can enjoy some peace and quiet in another of the city's green spaces: Hampton Park. This more-than-60-acre local favorite sits north of Charleston, close to The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina. It’s actually the largest park on the entire peninsula. There are gorgeous floral displays as well as a gazebo, playground, picnic area, and more. Free parking (with some time limits) can be found close to the park.
12. Participate In The Local Art Walk
One final free activity in Charleston can be experienced within the city’s French Quarter, one of the area's many arts districts. Every Friday evening, about 30 galleries in the area open their doors for the French Quarter Art Walk. Travelers can browse the offerings and chat with local artists free of charge during this event. Some galleries even offer free beverages and small bites.
Though Charleston can be an upscale city experience, there is plenty for more frugal travelers to enjoy as well. From a slice of history to a welcoming fountain to a heavenly tree, the Holy City offers many things to do that cost nothing at all.
Is Charleston on your itinerary? Check out our ultimate guide to the beautiful Southern city, and consider staying in one of the area's most charming hotels, rentals, or bed and breakfasts.
Have even more time to spend in town? Eat your way through Charleston with our guide to the city’s best waterfront restaurants, or take a day trip from the city to Beaufort, Hilton Head, or Kiawah Island. For even more Southern fun, head to the equally stunning and historic city of Savannah, Georgia, just a couple of hours from Charleston.