Both the largest and oldest city in South Carolina, Charleston has a remarkable history for visitors to delve into. Founded in 1670 at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, it has lots of charming cobbled streets and centuries-old landmarks for you to check out.
Conjuring up romantic images of the Old South, its large historic downtown with all its antebellum-era architecture is a treat to explore and completely free, too. While its plantations usually charge a fee and lie quite far from the city center, there are enough free things to do in Charleston itself to keep you entertained for days.
15. Mace Brown Museum of Natural History
A fascinating place to visit, the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History boasts a huge collection of fossils, skulls, and skeletons. Free for everyone to enjoy, its enthralling exhibits on evolution and the Oligocene epoch can be found on the College of Charleston campus.
Only opened in 2010, its extensive holdings now number more than 30,000 specimens in total with informative plaques accompanying all its fantastic finds. Next to the well-preserved fossils of plants and invertebrates you can see those of amazing ice age mammals, early whales, and even dinosaurs.
Highlights include a cast of the largest T-Rex skull discovered and the fossils of massive mammoths and mastodons that once roamed about South Carolina. Well off the tourist trail, the paleontological museum is run by students who are only too happy to answer any questions you may have.
14. Walk the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge
A hugely impressive feat of engineering, the enormous Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge spans the Cooper River, connecting downtown to Mount Pleasant. Aside from snapping photos of its striking design, walkers and cyclists can bask in splendid views of the harbor and the Atlantic from its pedestrian lane.
The third-longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere, it was built in 2005 to replace an earlier one that was deemed too old and dangerous. Stretching 13,200 feet in length, its eight lanes of traffic are held up by over a hundred cables strung from its two sturdy diamond-shaped towers.
When viewed from afar or even on the bridge, these make for a magnificent sight, particularly when lit up at night. Besides its astounding architecture and views, the Wonder’s Way bike and pedestrian path is also a convenient way to get from one side of the river to the other.
13. The Citadel
While The Citadel’s scenic campus is open year-round to the public, you do need to book ahead for a free guided tour of its grounds. These teach you all about the prestigious military college’s history and the numerous monuments and memorials scattered around the site.
Founded in 1842, its lush lawns and marvelous Spanish Moorish-style schools are set alongside the Ashley River. The centerpiece of the campus is undoubtedly the beautiful Padgett-Thomas Barracks which surrounds its colourful Checkerboard Quadrangle. Other landmarks include the large Howie Bell Tower and lovely Summerall Chapel which is lined by lots of fine stained-glass windows.
Most Fridays during the school year, a full dress parade featuring a regimental band and pipes takes place. Make sure to check The Citadel’s online calendar to see when its next rousing performance is scheduled for free.
12. St. Michael’s Church
Instantly recognizable from its blindingly bright white steeple, St. Michael’s Church certainly makes for a stunning sight. Situated just to the south of the center, the important historic landmark is open to tourists on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday with services being held on Sunday.
The oldest surviving religious structure in the city, it was built between 1751 and 1761 with a pretty portico lying beneath its 186 foot steeple. Inside is just as attractive as terrific Tiffany windows and an ornate eighteenth-century organ decorate its walls.
The church is particularly known for the cedar pews at which President George Washington worshipped when he visited Charleston in 1791. In its immaculate churchyard outside, you can also see the weathered graves of various famous figures, including two signers of the U.S. Constitution.
11. Charleston Visitor Center
Before heading off to see all the city’s sites, it is well worthwhile checking out the Charleston Visitor Center. As well as providing useful maps and more info on what there is to see and do, their friendly and knowledgeable staff can help book tours and tickets to any attraction in town.
Although located in a delightful old brick building that used to be a railroad freight depot, the center has a very modern interior. Interesting exhibits and photos on Charleston’s storied past and exciting present line its walls while stands with brochures and maps are also dotted about.
As all three of the city’s free DASH trolley routes pass by here, you can also make use of its waiting area and public restrooms before continuing on your way.
10. Charleston City Market
Loads of fun to peruse, the loud and lively Charleston City Market lies right in the historic heart of town. Since the 1790s, locals have flocked here to purchase fresh fruit, vegetables, and cuts of meat with plenty of stalls now also selling souvenirs and clothes.
Spread out over a number of blocks, the massive open-air market is centered around its grand Greek Revival-style Market Hall which dates to 1841. In total, roughly three hundred stands and stalls are now crammed into its light and airy interior and the bustling streets about it.
Besides sampling some local delicacies or stopping off for a coffee, you can always pick up one of its highly-prized traditional baskets made out of sweetgrass. Each evening, it transforms into a night market where artists sell their carefully crafted artworks.
9. College of Charleston
Boasting one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation, the College of Charleston sprawls across a large part of the city center. While you can wander around its gorgeous grounds and centuries-old historic buildings at any time, it is well worth arranging a free campus tour to gain more insight into life at the prestigious school.
One of the oldest institutes of higher learning in the States, it was established back in 1770 by future signers of both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Lining its leafy walkways are dozens of historic houses and residence halls which showcase some attractive old architecture.
After touring its central Cistern Yard and snapping some pictures of Randolph Hall’s fabulous facade, guests can also visit the Mace Brown Museum. The university’s sizable student population lends Charleston’s historic streets a dynamic, youthful feel with sporting events, concerts, and shows often taking place on campus.
8. Magnolia Cemetery
A very atmospheric place to amble around, the Magnolia Cemetery and all its majestic mausoleums lie towards the northern outskirts of town. Set on the site of a former rice plantation, its picturesque grounds are home to hundreds of Civil War-era graves and countless impressive crypts.
As it was designed in 1850 during the rural cemetery movement, loads of lovingly landscaped paths and ponds lie amongst its quiet groves of trees and green open spaces. Its endless rows of old graves really act as a ‘who’s who’ of Charleston and South Carolina’s history as everyone from planters and politicians to bootleggers and brothel owners are buried here.
At its front office, you can pick up a free walking map that explains a bit more about the cemetery’s past and the important figures interred in its many mausoleums.
7. Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist
Exhibiting some absolutely exquisite architecture is the colossal Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist at the southern end of downtown. Rising up dramatically above the buildings about it, its ginormous belltower, brownstone facade, and buttresses now make for some fantastic photos and viewing.
Actually built atop an earlier cathedral that burnt down, the Gothic Revival-style church and its four charming chapels were completed in 1907. Adorning its sturdy walls are some sublime stained-glass windows, while striking stone columns and a star-studded ceiling decorate its interior.
Here too you can find an elegant organ and high altar with rows of graceful oak carved pews lining its nave. Only adding to the serene scene are the bright beams of light that pour through its windows and bathe the brownstone cathedral in a soothing light.
6. Charleston Farmers Market
Another delightful place to head if you want to pick up some fresh produce and experience local life is the vibrant Charleston Farmers Market. Held each Saturday morning from early April through to the end of November, its scores of stands and stalls sell almost everything under the sun.
Since being founded in 1989, both locals and tourists alike have descended on the market at Marion Square for its excellent artisanal products and appealing ambience. While some stalls are piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables, others display homemade jams, cheeses, and delicious baked goods.
Dozens of artists also sell their handcrafted jewellery, pottery, paintings, and prints for passersby to pick out and take home. With live music and tasty food stands also featuring, exploring the farmers market is definitely a great way to start your weekend.
5. Folly Beach
After having spent days touring around the center’s historic streets and landmarks, the nearby Folly Beach makes for a nice change of scenery. Along its almost endless stretch of sun-kissed sands, you can sunbathe, swim, and surf with plenty of beachfront bars and restaurants also being on offer.
Set just twenty minutes’ drive south of Charleston, the ‘edge of America’ lies alongside the Atlantic on the pristine barrier isle of the same name. Once a major staging area for Union forces during the Civil War, it now instead attracts Charlestonians and tourists, who come to enjoy its broad beach.
The tranquil town also has lots of seafood restaurants and souvenir shops for visitors to stop by with wild, untouched areas lying at each end of the isle. Other than topping up your tan and enjoying one of the East Coast’s top surfing destinations, you can bask in lovely views of the lonely Morris Island Lighthouse far off in the distance.
4. Rainbow Row
While the city is home to a wealth of fine antebellum-era architecture, one of its most photographed streets is the colourful Rainbow Row. So named due to their pretty pastel hues, the series of thirteen historic houses can be found towards the southern end of East Bay Street.
Now painted in bright pinks, purples, yellows, and greens, the Georgian-style townhouses were built between 1748 and 1845. After the Civil War, this part of Charleston devolved into almost slum-like conditions with the row of houses only being renovated and painted in pastel colors in the 1940s.
Their cheery colors now attract crowds of tourists who take pictures and pose for selfies before the brightly-painted buildings. Afterward, you can carry on your sightseeing and stroll to the wonderful Riley Waterfront Park just a couple of blocks away.
3. Angel Oak
Yet another of Charleston’s must-see attractions is the absolutely incredible Angel Oak. One of the oldest and largest living organisms east of the Mississippi, its tall trunk and tangled mess of twisting branches lie half an hour’s drive southwest of the center.
Although the ancient oak ‘only’ reaches 66.5 feet in height, some of its longest branches remarkably extend over 180 feet in all directions. Most estimates put its age at around 4-500 years which makes it much older than America.
Due to its startling size and scale, it is certainly well worth making the trip out to see the gnarled old tree’s gigantic green canopy. Amidst all its massive limbs, you can take some amazing photos with a gift shop also located near the foot of the free attraction.
2. Battery and White Point Gardens
Occupying the southernmost tip of the peninsula are the Battery and White Point Gardens. A treat to amble around, the waterfront park and promenade offer up some simply stunning panoramas of the harbor and ocean before them.
Bordered by a long row of Southern-style mansions, the public gardens and their protective seawall were reinforced and turned into a battery during the Civil War. Some of its historic old cannons and fortifications still remain today with access to the park being open to all during daytime hours.
Asides from taking in all its commanding views, you can also examine its magnificent monuments and memorials, many of which have a military theme. Leafy paths and well-maintained flower beds also make it a very pleasant spot to spend some time.
1. Riley Waterfront Park
Just a short walk up the Cooper River from the Battery is one of the coastal city’s most popular and picturesque outdoor areas. At the Riley Waterfront Park, you can relax, unwind, and enjoy its lovely landscape architecture while gazing out over the gently lapping waters before you.
Thanks to its delightful design and layout, the riverside area has won numerous awards since being transformed into a park in 1990. What were once old wharves and abandoned shipping terminals are now instead an attractive esplanade and gardens enjoyed by all.
Its main highlight though is undoubtedly the eye-catching Pineapple Fountain which is so magically lit up at night. With fetching flowerbeds and towering palms also planted here and there, the park is the perfect place to catch your breath and take a break from all the sightseeing.