Budget Friendly Charleston
Updated: October 25, 2023
Charleston’s historical sites, public art and parks are among the cheap things to see during your trip to the historic South Carolina city, which luckily can be easy to navigate by foot or bicycle. The city's art scene is particularly noteworthy, with numerous galleries, stunning architecture and the ever-photogenic Rainbow Row. Artful events include art walks and the annual Piccolo-Spoleto Festival.
Charleston also offers a number of free sightseeing options, including Charleston City Market, The Battery and Fort Sumter National Monument. The Best Friend of Charleston Museum, meanwhile, will thrill both kids and train enthusiasts. For those looking to spend time outdoors, Charleston has several fun parks worth exploring, notably Charleston Waterfront Park and Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park under the Arthur J. Ravenel Bridge in nearby Mount Pleasant.
No matter what your interests are, the area has something to offer everyone. Though there are many free things to do, expect to pay more for transportation, food, souvenirs or hotels in Charleston. Read on for ideas on what to see and do on a budget, so you can save for those precious memory-making necessities.
Sightseeing Tip No. 1: Art in Charleston
Charleston is nicknamed “The Holy City” for its numerous religious congregations and is considered one of the best foodie destinations in the country, but the various art events and festivals reinforce its “Art Destination” reputation and attract creatives. With the weeks-long Piccolo-Spoleto Festival, you get a host of options for visual and performing arts (often ticketed). However, many painters also pitch exhibit tents in Marion Square during this time, offering a conveniently free browsing experience. There's also the complimentary City Gallery at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Waterfront Park (34 Prioleau St.), which displays contemporary and innovative artwork meant to encourage dialogue; for schedule or information phone (843) 958-6484. To see a variety of art, join the Charleston Gallery Association ArtWalks from 5-8 on the first Friday of the month. Not only do more than 30 galleries participate, but the tour is also a fun thing for couples to do since all it takes is an online map and a willingness to explore.
Sightseeing Tip No. 2: Arthur J. Ravenel Bridge and Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park
An architectural marvel seen for miles around, this cable-stayed, towering bridge connects Charleston with Mount Pleasant over the Cooper River and contains a 2.7-mile lane for bicyclists and pedestrians. It starts at Bay Street and ends at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. With observation spots, this is where to go for a run in Charleston, especially if you like a challenge. (The annual Cooper River Bridge Run, a 10K occurring in early April, starts from Simmons and Coleman boulevards on the Mount Pleasant side; registration is required.) Families will want to visit Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park, conveniently under the Arthur J. Ravenel Bridge, which features a playground and scenic pier with a gift shop and café.
Sightseeing Tip No 3: The Battery
Generally 40-44 East Bay St. and the intersection of Murray Boulevard and King Street
Walk along the waterfront at this well-known seawall and promenade, a defensive Civil War remnant at the meeting place of both the Cooper and Ashley rivers. Now the area is a popular place to go to spot historic homes, and on clear days, and the USS Yorktown, a historic World War II aircraft carrier at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant. Adjacent to Murray and East Bay boulevards is White Point Gardens, which served as an early public garden in 1837 before becoming a coastal fortification. A number of antebellum homes, cannons, memorials and a bandstand are in this moss-draped destination.
Sightseeing Tip No. 4: Best Friend of Charleston Museum
23 Ann St.
Admire a steam-powered railroad locomotive, reminiscent of the short-lived one built circa 1830 in Charleston, reputedly the first fully constructed locomotive built in the United States. This 1928 replica went on display in New York City, Chattanooga and Atlanta before its return to historic Charleston in 2013. Though the museum is small, stop in for a (free) glimpse of history in its convenient downtown location. It’s adjacent to the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Visitor Center, the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry and some of the best restaurants in Charleston.
Courtesy of Fort Sumter
Sightseeing Tip No. 5: Fort Sumter National Monument
Depart from 360 Concord St. or Patriots Point Naval Museum in Mount Pleasant
The opening salvo of the Civil War started with Confederates bombarding the brick fortification for 34 hours before its surrender. Start at the complimentary visitor center at Freedom Square, learn about the events that led up to the Civil War, and then, if you don’t mind spending a little extra, take the boat to the fort. Once there, you can appreciate artifacts in the museum, see places in the wall with embedded projectiles and learn about history from a National Park Service ranger. Note: Admission to the visitor center and fort are free, but there’s a fee for boat tours; phone ahead.
Sightseeing Tip No. 6: Rainbow Row
A baker’s dozen of vibrantly painted houses line East Bay Street, not far from The Battery. Stories about why they’re painted are just as colorful. Did the shade help merchants distinguish their wares, help drunken sailors find their way or keep houses cool? Or was it only a beautification effort by a local resident that inspired her neighbors to follow suit? Whatever you believe, this stretch is among the most scenic places in Charleston, and you’ll find everyone from Instagram influencers to families striking a pose. (These historic homes are still occupied, so try to be a responsible traveler by not trespassing or blocking driveways.)
Sightseeing Tip No. 7: Waterfront Park
1 Vendue Range
Pack your bathing suit if you’re looking for fun things to do with kids in summer because this 8-acre park, aka Joe Riley Waterfront Park, features a splash pad and one of the most iconic things to see in Charleston — the pineapple fountain — where you can stick your feet in and cool off. Also on-site are riverside paths and a pier with swinging benches, where you can sit and take in some views of the Arthur J. Ravenel Bridge and ships on the Cooper River. If you plan to make a day of it, buy a snack from nearby Charleston City Market or get the lunch special to go from Fleet Landing, only a 5-minute walk north off Concord Street.
Start Your Next Vacation with AAA
AAA Travel provides peace of mind when you travel—before, during and after your vacation! Members enjoy the advantages of membership including exclusive benefits, savings, map routing and travel planning, plus additional travel needs such as AAA Travel Guides, TourBook® guides, passport photos, International Driving Permits and travel insurance. Your next vacation starts with AAA—your complete travel solution. Visit AAA.com/Travel.
Sherry is an experienced #AAAEditor and former journalist who enjoys writing informative travel articles and reviews. Her commitment to making meaningful connections with people and places fuels her work for AAA. Sherry's favorite activities range from skiing to backpacking abroad and taking ghost tours.