Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Charleston, SC

  • Published 2022/12/03

As the largest city in its state, Charleston is a melting pot of various attractions catering to guests of all ages and tourists of all interests.

The city is the county seat of Charleston County and lies just south of the state’s coastline.

Of course, Charleston is not ruled by a monarchy today, but did you know that the city was named after Charles II of England?

Charleston has not always been called Charleston; it was first called “Charles Town” in 1670 in honor of King Charles II.

Here are some free things to do in Charleston, South Carolina!

Take a Walk along the Historic King Street

Road of the Historic King Street

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Full of cozy homes with iconic Southern architecture charm and pretty window boxes of thriving colors, King Street is the quaint and buzzing historic district street in Charleston.

King Street has existed for as long as Charleston did, over 350 years, spanning Calhoun Street to Broad Street.

Buildings along the Historic King Street

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The street is divided into three sections, each having a distinct personality that makes up King Street.

To have a well-rounded Charleston experience, explore King Street.

It’s the embodiment of Charleston’s past and present.

A shop at the Historic King Street

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Spend the Day at the Battery

Houses at The Battery

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The Battery is an iconic historical landmark along the southern tip of Charleston.

As a rare scenic spot, the Battery is a fortified coastal defensive seawall overlooking Charleston Harbor.

The Battery’s waterfront promenade stretches throughout the lower shores of the Charleston peninsula, where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet.

The history of the Battery’s name traces back to the Civil War.

The seawall was named after the civil war fort and artillery, “Broughton’s Battery.”

Trail at The Battery

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This was later known as “Fort Wilkins,” which was built on the spot where The Battery now stands.

What was previously a place designed to defend the city through a battery of cannons, the Battery has now become a peaceful park where people can stroll and relax at the view of the ocean.

At the center stands an exquisite gazebo commonly used for ceremonies, but the Battery’s centerpiece is the White Point Garden.

The walkways of White Point Garden also feature oyster shell paths which lead visitors to memorial statues and cannon exhibits.

These statues, cannon displays, and panel exhibits are dispersed throughout the seawall and within White Point Garden.

These displays and exhibits tell the history of the Battery and its role as an artillery fort during the Civil War.

Civil war mortar sculpture at The Battery

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Meet Spirited Horses and Mules at the Big Red Barn

Exterior of The Big Red Barn

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The Big Red Barn is the snug home of Palmetto Carriage Works’ fleet of carriage horses.

The oldest carriage company in Charleston, Palmetto Carriage Works, grew its popularity and started through the Big Red Barn.

The barn houses 35 mules, 20 horses, two goats, and six chickens.

Guests can freely visit the barn and see the working horses, the stars of Palmetto Carriage Works.

Petting the barn animals might be challenging, though, as each animal has a distinct personality.

You must always ask the staff before touching any horses or mules.

Spend a Quiet Afternoon under the Angel Oak Tree

Daytime view of Angel Oak Tree

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The Angel Oak Tree is a prominent live oak tree in the eastern section of the Mississippi River.

Angel Oak Tree proudly stands out in Angel Oak Park.

The park is on Johns Island, where you can find “A Lowcountry Treasure.”

The Angel Oak Tree is a protected historical site that has survived numerous hurricanes, devastating floods, and even destructive earthquakes.

The tree was almost destroyed in 1989 during the onslaught of Hurricane Hugo, but Angel Oak Tree survived and is now thriving.

Close view of Angel Oak Tree's thick branches

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It’s estimated to be between 300 and 400 years old and remains one of the oldest oak trees in Charleston.

Chilling under the shade of an Angel Oak Tree will make you feel peaceful and nostalgic, given that Angel Oak Tree existed before the foundation of America!

Indeed, it is a whole historical experience for anyone who visits.

Plus, you can always take pictures as a souvenir and, of course, a chance to update your Instagram feed!

Your visit will be an ode to the still-standing Angel Oak Tree.

Angel Oak Tree's branches on the ground

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Pose along Rainbow Row for Artsy Photos

Colorful houses along Rainbow Row

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As the name suggests, Rainbow Row lines up gorgeous Georgian-style homes in fun colors, like a rainbow!

The row refers to the collection of 13 aesthetic row houses of pastel-colored homes on East Bay Street.

Rainbow Row became famous for its bright colors when the homes were restored and repainted with pastel colors in the 1930s and 1940s.

Sidewalk of Rainbow Row

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Rainbow Row is one of the most photographed parts of Charleston.

So, don’t be surprised to see droves of couples and bloggers taking photographs of these beautiful homes along the lanes of Rainbow Row.

The homes were built in the 1800s, surviving some of the country’s worst times, even the Civil War and WWII.

Unlike most historical houses, Rainbow Row homes attract visitors for more than their fascinating history but for their added aesthetic charm.

Daytime view of Rainbow Row

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Check Out the Pineapple Water Fountain at Joe Riley Waterfront Park

Scenic view of the Joe Riley Waterfront Park's pineapple fountain

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As a hotspot for romantic date nights, Joe Riley Waterfront Park is not just another park for couples!

Bring your friends and family to spend the day relaxing in the healing presence of the rivers fronting Joe Riley Waterfront Park.

The waterfront park boasts beautiful spots overlooking Charleston Harbor!

Thanks to the park’s layout, you will feel significantly closer than ever to the calming effect of the river waters.

The park is intricately designed into divisions of distinct sections that intertwine the riverfront and walking paths near the water.

People enjoying the waters of Joe Riley Waterfront Park's pineapple fountain

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So, a few platforms of the park are situated right near the riverbanks of the Cooper River!

Joe Riley Waterfront Park is also known for its exciting water fountain looks.

You must never miss the infamous fountain of Joe Riley Waterfront Park, which the touring public calls “Pineapple Fountain.”

Why pineapple? Only because this specific water fountain looks like a pineapple!

Its shooting water fountains and architectural design combine to create a water fountain that looks like your typical pineapple.

A trail at Joe Riley Waterfront Park

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Stroll the Secret Path of Gateway Walk

The Gateway Walk lined with plants

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Enter your very own secret garden at Gateway Walk!

Established in April 1930, the Gateway Walk opened on the same date as the founding of Charleston to celebrate the city’s 250th anniversary.

The secluded Gateway Walk will make you feel like you are walking on a secret path away from the trivialities and busyness of life.

The walk is also not strenuous, allowing visitors to stroll at leisure.

The Gateway Walk stretches for about half a mile as it traverses small gardens of beautiful flowers and churchyards between Archdale Street and Church Street.

The walk ends at St. Philip’s Church and starts at Archdale street.

Begin the trip at the humble churchyard of St. John’s Lutheran Church, where you will see a gate, your entrance to Gateway Walk.

See the Dinosaurs at Mace Brown Museum of Natural History

Skull and shell fossil in Mace Brown Museum of Natural History

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Witness over three billion years of evolution at Mace Brown Museum of Natural History.

Housing over 15,000 fossils, Mace Brown Museum showcases well-curated and world-class exhibits of both extinct and extant species.

The Paleontology Museum of Mace Brown Museum exhibits a variety of fossils ranging from dinosaur bones, fossil prints, and fossil plants to ocean life, such as dolphins and whales.

Of course, some exhibits are encased within glass, available only for display and viewing.

Mace Brown Museum also features “touch me” interactive displays for visitors. Just make sure not to break anything!

Exhibit in Mace Brown Museum of Natural History

Akrasia25, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While there, don’t miss the reconstructed jaw of the extinct massive Megalodon.

The Megalodon reconstruction will leave you in awe as it displays Megalodon’s real teeth!

Admission is free, but guests can also freely donate.

All donations support the College of Charleston’s first crowdfunded scholarship for students, the Paleontology Scholarship.

Take a Walk at the Historic Colonial Lake Park

Daytime view of the Historic Colonial Lake Park

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Known for its historic tidal pond, Colonial Lake Park has existed for more than 150 years, making it one of the most popular parks for gathering and relaxation in Charleston.

Since the park was founded, Colonial Lake Park has always attracted locals and tourists because of its well-tended landscape and calming views.

It’s the go-to park for walkers and joggers and is famous for its spacious open green spaces and wide walkways.

Numerous benches are also available.

There’s even a seating wall along Rutledge Avenue where you can sit and relax while fronting the serene waters of Colonial Lake.

If that’s not enough, the park features botanical gardens of beautiful flowers like lilies and sunflowers.

Benches overlooking the waters of the Historic Colonial Lake Park

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Colonial Lake Park is also a dog-friendly park.

You can bring your dogs to Colonial Lake Park to wind down, meditate, bike around, sit, daydream, or even fish!

For sure, the park is famous for a lot of things, but the park’s highlight is the iconic Colonial Lake.

Unlike other parks, Colonial Lake gives guests a breath of fresh air as Colonial Lake is the focal point of the park, which the park surrounds and loops.

Whichever makes you relax, Colonial Lake Park is the perfect place to clear your head at the end of the day!

Pathway at the Historic Colonial Lake Park

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Marvel at the Iconic Tower of St. Philip’s Church

Exterior of St. Philip’s Church

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This church is not just a National Historic Landmark but was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

St. Philip’s Church is famous for its imposing high-brick tower in the architectural design of the Wren-Gibbs tradition.

Named after St. Philip, one of the 12 Apostles, St. Philip’s Church was founded in 1681, making it Charleston’s oldest congregation.

However, its church was only built a decade and a half later, in 1838.

Inside the church is the All Saints Window, a stained-glass window covering the entire church wall, glorifying the altar of St. Philip’s Church.

View of the iconic tower of St. Philip’s Church

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In its churchyard rest prominent patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

While St. Philip’s Church’s tower and All Saints Window add a flair of sophistication to St. Philip’s Church, its authentic charm comes from its centuries of history.

View of St. Philip’s Church at night

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Smell the Sweet Flowers at Hampton Park

Trail lined with pretty flowers at Hampton Park

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One of the largest parks in the entire city of Charleston is Hampton Park, which spans over 60 acres.

Hampton Park boasts extensive displays of flowers, trees, and shrubs compared to any park in Charleston.

Locals and tourists visit Hampton Park for its famous rose collection and seasonal floral displays that natively grow in the Lowcountry.

Beyond the pretty displays, Hampton Park prides itself on its spacious and open space.

Bridge over Hampton Park's pond

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The vast open space of Hampton Park will give you a feeling of privacy.

The park has bridges interconnecting walkways and fields over the park’s lagoon, where you can peacefully watch birds and ducks in nature.

Hampton Park also has a gazebo, a fountain, benches, baseball fields, and even a modest-sized playground for kids.

A gazebo at Hampton Park

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Watch Cadets in Uniform at the Parade of the Citadel

Cadets at the Parade of The Citadel

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The Citadel is a traditional senior military college campus situated on the banks of the Ashley River of Charleston.

As a military school, the Citadel is more than just a typical college.

During the school year, the college holds a regular parade, an iconic free show in Charleston, and a parade you don’t see in everyday life, the Parade of the Citadel.

Every Friday afternoon, student cadets gear up, line up, and parade in uniforms for the weekly Parade of the Citadel.

Cadets marching at the Parade of The Citadel

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To foster esprit de corps and cultivate the college culture, the parades are also avenues to present awards and recognize notable students of the campus.

The best thing about the Citadel is you can watch a free parade and sport game events!

Other attractions of the campus are its athletic sports events, some of which you can watch for free.

Sports with no admission fees include golf, soccer, track and field, volleyball, tennis, and even wrestling.

Remember History at the Seven Generals Tribute Tombstones of Magnolia Cemetery

A statue at Magnolia Cemetery

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Magnolia Cemetery is the final resting place for seven Confederate generals who served and fought for the nation.

A few of the brigade generals honored through the tribute include Brig. Gen. Edward Porter Alexander and Maj. Gen. Ambrose Ranson Wright.

As “the best-kept secret in Charleston,” the whole history of Charleston is in Magnolia Cemetery.

Every Charleston citizen from the last 150 years, from workers and laborers to politicians and leaders, is buried in Magnolia Cemetery.

Headstones at Magnolia Cemetery

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However, visiting tombs and historic monuments is not the only thing you can do at Magnolia Cemetery.

Designed like a park, walking through the cemetery will not make you feel like walking through burial grounds.

The cemetery highlights its green-scaped paths, fields, ponds, and trees.

You can embark on a self-guided tour or picnic while visiting with loved ones.

Burial ground at Magnolia Cemetery

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Cross the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge

Night lights of Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge

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Enjoy a scenic tour of Charleston Harbor at Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge!

Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, more commonly known as Ravenel Bridge, is a cable-stayed bridge that hangs over the Cooper River.

With a span of about 1,546 feet, Ravenel Bridge is one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in North America.

The bridge connects downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant.

Pathway of Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge

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You can directly view the river through Wonders’ Way of Ravenel Bridge.

The bike and pedestrian path span 2.7 miles with a 12’ wide path.

It was named after Garrett Wonders, who died in a bicycle-vehicle accident while training for the 2004 Olympic Trials.

Joggers and cyclists frequent Wonders’ Way for its scenic views of Cooper River, downtown Charleston, Folly Beach, and Isle of Palms.

Aerial view of Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge

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Other Free Things to Do Nearby

Although you can do numerous places and activities within Charleston, some areas outside the city are also must-visit destinations!

Whether you’re commuting or traveling by car, these are some places to see nearby Charleston.

Learn to Make Tea at Charleston Tea Garden

Plantation at the Charleston Tea Garden

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Located just a short 30-minute drive from Charleston, the Charleston Tea Garden is the only tea plantation of its kind in North America.

The tea plant grounds of Charleston Tea Garden feature 127 acres of Camellia Sinensis tea plants.

When you visit the tea garden itself, you will see thousands of tea bushes acre after acre as far as your eye can see.

You will see nothing but the calming color of green, and this is just the garden!

Trolley tour at the Charleston Tea Garden

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You can also learn more about how tea is made in their factory tour.

The factory tour is free and a sure treat for tea lovers.

Another treat from Charleston Tea Garden is the complimentary tea that the plantation serves to visitors throughout the tour.

You can find the tea garden on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina.

Gift shop at the Charleston Tea Garden

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Learn about Charles Pinckney at Historic Snee Farm

Daytime view of the Historic Snee Farm

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This place was once the primary rice plantation that fed Charleston.

Located in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, the historic Snee Farm is what remains of Charles Pinckney’s Snee Farm, spanning 28 acres.

Charles Pinckney National Historic Site preserves the farm as one of the last standing plantation properties of Charles Pinckney.

Just a short 20-minute drive from Charleston, Snee Farm is home to an 1828 Lowcountry coastal cottage of Charles Pinckney.

House at the Historic Snee Farm

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The cottage now serves as a museum and visitor center of Snee Farm.

Visitors can view archaeology displays at the site and walk the grounds of Snee farms to enjoy ornamental gardens.

You can also relax under the cool shade of towering live oak and Spanish moss trees.

The park also presents films and exhibits to tell the legacy, life story, and contributions of Charles Pinckney as an author and signer of the United States Constitution.

Final Thoughts

Charleston has something for everyone, whether you’re an adventure-seeker or someone who prefers to stay in their comfort zone.

From parks, trails, lakes, museums, and historical sites, you will find something to love here in Charleston!

Take note of these free things to do in Charleston, South Carolina, and visit them all on your next vacation.

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