Updated May 2020.
You can take the girl out of the South, but she will go back as often as possible! When my sweet husband had a quick business trip pop up, I stumbled upon a great airfare to Charleston and took advantage of the situation. I’ve been to Charleston a couple of times, but I haven’t written much about it. That’s currently changing, however, including this post with my top picks for totally FREE things to do in Charleston, South Carolina!
These activities are separated by location; you can plan to do all of the things in one category together so you’re not zig-zagging all over Charleston!
Battery Park Waterfront
Battery Park and White Point Gardens
You should start your day at Battery Park and White Point Gardens. It’s beautiful in the morning as the sun comes up. It’s a large green space right on the water, with a beautiful, historic home backdrop, and there are plenty of benches to rest and enjoy the views.
Rainbow Row is right on East Bay Street, and it’s prime for photo-ops. The homes are truly a rainbow of pastel colors, and the palmetto trees add to their coastal appearance. Get here early to get a shot with no people in it! They are also some of the oldest homes in the city, and people still live in them!
Waterfront Park and Pineapple Fountain
Waterfront Park is open all hours of every day, and it’s a lovely place to walk or run in the mornings! You can wade in the Pineapple Fountain, especially on hot days! It’s also a beautiful spot to sit and enjoy a few minutes of rest while you’ve been walking around!
More here: What to Know Before You Visit Charleston
City Gallery at Waterfront Park
Unfortunately for me, the exhibit was changing and so the gallery was closed the whole time I was there! But you can typically visit the City Gallery to see a variety of artwork absolutely free!
Open Tuesday-Friday 11:00am-6:00pm; Saturday and Sunday Noon-5:00pm; closed Monday.
Fort Sumter National Monument Visitor Center
You will have to pay for the ferry to Fort Sumter, but you can visit the Fort Sumter National Visitor Center for free! There are impressive displays and exhibits, as well as information about Fort Sumter’s history.
Open daily 8:30am-5:00pm.
Gateway Walk and Historic French Quarter
The Gateway Walk
Charleston’s Gateway Walk is a three-block walking path that takes you through some beautiful greenery in the heart of the city. It is totally free, though the gates are locked at night. You will also encounter several FREE stops along the way!
- St. John’s Lutheran Church
- Charleston Unitarian Church
- Charleston Library Society
- Lenhardt Garden at Gibbes Museum of Art
- Circular Congregational Church
- St. Philip’s Church
Hours are Sunday-Saturday 8:30am-5:00pm.
Details here: Your Guide to Charleston’s Gateway Walk
The next few are technically not on the Gateway Walk, but they are nearby. They’re also free, so you should definitely pay them a visit!
French Huguenot Church
This is the only French Huguenot Church in the country! There was a large French Huguenot population here in Charleston as they were driven out of France in the late 1600s. Most of them settled in what is still known as the French Quarter.
Open for tours in spring and fall; Monday-Thursday 10:00am-4:00pm; Friday 10:00am-1:00pm. Also open for services.
Dock Street Theatre
This is the first theatre in America! The Dock Street Theatre is a beautiful building dating from 1809, but the theatre has been around since 1736 (the first play was a comedy called The Recruiting Officer). It burned in a great fire in 1740, like much of Charleston. A fancy hotel called the Planter opened on the site in 1809, but it became a theatre again in 1937! Check out their shows while you’re in town, as ticket prices are quite affordable when compared to other major cities!
FYI, they have the city’s cleanest public restrooms inside! Open Monday-Friday Noon-5:00pm.
The Pink House
The Pink House is one of the oldest structures still standing in Charleston. It was built in the 1690s and can be found at 17 Chalmers Street in the French Quarter. It’s currently a private residence, but through the years it has worn many “hats,” if you will, as a brothel, law office, art gallery, and more!
Keep reading: Solo Travel in Charleston
I don’t know about you, but I love a picturesque, historic alleyway. You’ll find Philadelphia Alley between Church and State Streets, running one block from Queen to Cumberland Streets. It’s a popular spot for photos, tour groups, and the like, and it’s totally free.
Four Corners of Law
Charleston County Courthouse
You will not want to miss this beautifully preserved courthouse. James Hoban, the architect of the White House, also designed this building as well! The original 1753 structure was built to be the Statehouse for the British Royal Government. There are some interesting paintings to be seen inside, but make sure you peek into the courtroom on the left side as you go up the beautiful staircase!
Hours not listed; open to the public during normal office hours.
Charleston City Hall
Charleston City Hall has been around since 1801, but it hasn’t always been City Hall! The site was a Colonial-era marketplace, and the building was originally a grand bank. You will go through security, but then you will be directed to the second floor to see the beautiful gallery upstairs. There you’ll see one of the best portraits of Goeorge Washington!
Open Monday-Friday 8:30am-1:00pm; 2:00pm-5:00pm.
St. Michael’s Church
St. Michael’s Church was completed in 1761, but people have been worshipping here much longer than that. Feel free to step in and have a look. It’s also very photogenic, espeically on a day with blue skies!
Open for services; also open during the week Monday-Thursday 9:00am-4:00pm; Friday 9:00am-12:30pm.
U.S. Post Office Museum
This small museum inside this grand post office is worth a stop, especially if you love history! This museum is all about the history of the post office in Charleston, and there are many artifacts on display.
Open Monday-Friday 11:30am-3:30pm.
Touring is tiring work when it’s all on foot! Lucky for you, Washington Square is a little respite in the middle of it all. Also, the obelisk is a replica of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.! This park is remarkably shady on hot Charleston afternoons, so if you need a break from the sun, this is your spot!
City Market to Visitor Center
Charleston City Market
Okay, so shopping is inherently not free, but window shopping is! Sometimes it’s fun to walk around to see what’s available and marvel at the Charleston City Market‘s historic architecture. Visiting on a Friday or Saturday night? The Market takes on a whole new personality with live music and different vendors!
More here: What to Eat in Charleston
Marion Square right downtown boasts a seasonal farmers’ market (April to November) and notable memorials. Don’t forget to read the plaques so you know what you’re seeing! Also don’t miss the Old Citadel…
The Old Citadel
While the current Citadel campus is farther afield, you can still see the South Carolina State Arsenal (also called the Old Citadel) right at Marion Square! It’s currently an Embassy Suites, so you can even stay here if you like.
Replica of the H.L. Hunley
The actual H.L. Hunley is available to see, but it’s in North Charleston, quite far from downtown Charleston! You’d have to take an Uber or rental car there, which is not free. However, you can see the replica right outside the Charleston Museum, across the street from the Visitor Center! Great for photo-ops, and you can learn a little bit about the real thing from the signage in front.
Charleston Visitor Center
Not sure where to start? The Visitor Center is always the best place! They will have tour suggestions, food recommendations, and I’m sure they even know some FREE things to do that aren’t on this list!
The Best Friend of Charleston Train Museum
Got a train lover on your trip? Don’t skip the cute Best Friend of Charleston Train Museum, right next to the Visitor Center. You can see a replica of the original (the original’s boiler exploded in 1830), and learn about this small steam engine, which was the first to be built entirely in the USA!
This one isn’t too far afield, but it’s in a newer area of downtown and so a little farther away from the historic sites. If you need a little respite from the hustle and bustle of the historic area, or perhaps you need a well-lit place to run in the mornings, seek out Colonial Lake! It’s quite beautiful, peaceful, and still within walking distance from downtown.
Take the FREE Area Shuttles
Yes! There are three FREE area shuttle routes. They are DASH buses, and the schedules for all three are available here. You can hop on and hop off as much as you like, and that makes getting to the following sites a little easier!
Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum
This is a fascinating museum! There are 14 Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums around the country, all in beautiful, historic properties. Dr. Karpeles has the largest private collection of original historic manuscripts and documents in the world, and a variety of exhibits make their way around to each museum, meaning you can visit every few months to see something new! When I visited, the exhibit on display was all about the Stamp Act of 1765—very appropriate for Charleston!
Hampton Park is the largest park in Charleston at 60 acres, and it’s a beautiful place to get out and enjoy the outdoors in Charleston. It’s near the Citadel and is popular with walkers, runners, and picnickers alike!
While you’re in the area, why not pop over to explore the grounds of the Citadel? It’s a military college, and my favorite part is that it looks like a castle! It’s open year-round to visitors, and on Fridays you might even catch the military parade at 3:45pm. Check the schedule here.
Arthur Ravenel Bridge
You really can’t miss the Ravenel Bridge that crosses the Cooper River. There is a pedestrian sidewalk that’s popular with walkers and runners, so if that’s your thing, you should give it a go. There are also open yoga sessions on occasion, so be on the lookout for those as well!
Are you ready for a trip to Charming Charleston? Comment below! And start planning on my United States Page, too!
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