Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Charleston, WV

  • Published 2023/01/07

Charleston, the capital city of West Virginia and the county seat of Kanawha County, is ideally located with the Kanawha River meeting the Elk River on one side and undulating hills that provide a natural and scenic playground on the other.

Charleston is also considered the business, cultural, and leisure center of the Appalachian Mountains.

The city’s distinct and small-scale communities and districts make it an easy place to bike or walk around.

With many areas to explore, such as gardens and parks, Charleston will make you want to go outside and enjoy nature.

The city is also a gateway to larger outdoor adventures in the region, including rock climbing, skiing, and whitewater rafting.

Art programs and festivals throughout the year make Charleston a fun city to congregate in.

Starting with the free things to do in Charleston, West Virginia, come explore this contemporary, historic, and family-friendly destination!

Tour the West Virginia State Capitol

Exterior of the West Virginia State Capitol

Jon Bilous /

The present West Virginia State Capitol, dedicated in 1932, serves as West Virginia’s seat of government and is home to both the Governor’s office and the West Virginia Legislature.

The building faces the Kanawha River, and the grounds have two huge fountains, as well as several statues, including those of Abraham Lincoln and state native Stonewall Jakson.

Renowned architect Cass Gilbert created this magnificent structure–the tallest state capitol dome in the country.

Senate chamber in the West Virginia State Capitol

Nagel Photography /

It’s part of the West Virginia Capitol Complex, a district included in the National Register of Historic Places, and the West Virginia Executive Mansion.

The West Virginia State Capitol, with its opulent interior details such as a magnificent crystal chandelier and marble walls, is open for public tours.

Visit the West Virginia Culture Center to arrange tours of the West Virginia State Capitol.

Interior of the West Virginia State Capitol

Nagel Photography /

Participate in the Downtown Charleston ArtWalk Tour

Take a free self-guided walking tour around Downtown Charleston’s art galleries, boutiques, and businesses through the Downtown Charleston ArtWalk, featuring local arts and crafts, antiques, fashion, performances, and more.

Held every third Thursday of every month, the streets of Downtown Charleston offer music, photography, sculptures, and paintings that are free to explore.

Participating stores, particularly shops along Capitol, Hale, Lee, Quarrier, and Summer streets, extend their opening hours for browsing, socializing, and shopping.

Visitors can take it easy walking around, stopping in and out of the stores, or stopping for a bite at a restaurant.

This popular family-friendly activity attracts art lovers and those who just want to go out and explore Downtown Charleston.

Watch a Free Concert at Haddad Riverfront Park

Haddad Riverfront Park is the host of Live on the Levee, Charleston’s popular free concert series.

It is situated on Kanawha Boulevard, East Charleston, with sweeping views of the Kanawha River.

Haddad Riverfront Park also hosts special yearly concerts and public events, as well as occasional private ones.

The park also features a dock where boaters can watch park activities from the waters.

The park’s amphitheater holds up to 2,500 guests with spectacular views of Downtown Charleston and the river.

Visit the West Virginia Governor’s Mansion

West Virginia Governor’s Mansion is a historic home and the official residence of the State Governor situated near the Kanawha River in Charleston.

This Colonial/Georgian Revival structure, designed by architect Walter F. Martens is part of the West Virginia Capitol Complex, which includes the State Capitol.

The building features a red brick facade with a columned portico at the entryway, and the foyer with dual staircases and black and white marble floors was inspired by the White House.

The ballroom, drawing room, library, sitting room, and state dining room are located on the first floor of the mansion; the governor’s quarters and those of his family are located on the second floor; and more bedrooms are located on the third floor.

The mansion has a total of 30 rooms, and there’s also a separate garage, servant quarters, and walled gardens.

This 1925-built residence has hosted dignitaries worldwide, ambassadors, government officials, and business executives.

Reservations are required for free tours of the West Virginia Governor’s Mansion.

Unwind at Magic Island Park

Magic Island Park is a five-acre island now linked to the mainland near the confluence of the Kanawha River and the Elk River.

It’s a public park with grassy areas, a playground, a splash pad, and walking paths.

The island’s name was inspired by the Kanawha River’s level of water rising and falling, which led the island to submerge seemingly by “magic.”

Many local parkgoers refer to the sandy area near the park’s easternmost tip as Rockaway Beach.

The park holds several events such as WV Games, SportsFEST, family movie nights, and more.

Despite being more popular during the summer months, Magic Island is available throughout the year.

Explore the West Virginia State Museum

Exterior of the West Virginia State Museum

Daniel J. Macy /

The West Virginia State Museum represents West Virginia’s industry, land, and people from the fields of history, art, culture, archeology, and geology.

The museum’s collections began with the West Virginia Historical and Antiquarian Society, an organization founded in 1890.

Inaugurated in 1894, the West Virginia State Museum was housed in Charleston’s second Capitol building, built in 1885.

The museum, which had undergone renovation, reopened in June 2009 with exhibits and artwork that were updated with contemporary conservation mounting and architectural design features that would help protect the collections for future generations.

The West Virginia State Museum offers both free guided and self-guided exploration.

See the Ruffner Cabin at Daniel Boone Park

Daniel Boone Park is a roadside park with access to the Kanawha River and offers a tranquil spot to enjoy a picnic, feed the ducks, or just take in the view of the river.

Daniel Boone Park is popular for having some of the most rugged terrains on the west side of the Appalachian Mountains and also for being the home of the Ruffner Cabin.

Ruffner Cabin was said to have been constructed in 1803 for Joseph Ruffner and was renovated and developed into a clapboard house for Joel Ruffner in 1827.

At the time, the property was known as Rosedale.

The house, whose original location was on Kanawha Boulevard, is believed to be the oldest existing house in Kanawha County.

Play in the Shooting Range of Kanawha State Forest

Lush greenery at Kanawha State Forest

Jay Wiberg /

The Kanawha State Forest is a favorite destination for adventure seekers, situated seven miles from Charleston.

The park spans 9,300 acres of forest with diverse bird and wildflower populations enjoyed by naturalists.

Some amenities include playgrounds, picnic sites, and camping areas; hunting with a valid license is allowed in season and in specific areas only.

The park’s covered shooting range is accessible to the public for free using only paper targets; note that the range is closed every first Monday of the month for upkeep.

In 1993, the Kanawha State Forest Historic District was included in the National Register of Historic Places.

Pay Tribute at the West Virginia Veterans Memorial

The West Virginia Veterans Memorial, a two-story oval-shaped memorial, honors over 10,000 West Virginians who gave their lives defending the country during the wars of the 20th century.

The structure is made up of four limestone monoliths that are encircled by a reflecting pool, with names of men and women engraved in polished black granite on the interior walls.

Located as part of the West Virginia Capitol Complex, the West Virginia Veterans Memorial was designed by P. Joseph Mullins.

The Veterans Memorial Commission, which began as a privately funded project, led these initiatives as it began collecting the names to be commemorated on the Memorial.

Ten years after the first West Virginia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission was established, the Memorial and the sculpture of a World War II sailor were dedicated on Veterans Day in 1995.

Cool Off at Coonskin Park

Waters at Coonskin Park

Malachi Jacobs /

Coonskin Park, located only 10 minutes from downtown, has more than a thousand acres of wooded areas, trails for biking and hiking, an 18-hole par-three golf course, picnic shelters, an Olympic-sized pool, tennis and sand volleyball courts, a playground, as well as rentals for bikes and pedal boats.

It also features a modern amphitheater, a soccer stadium with 2000 seats, and a wedding garden.

Numerous golf tournaments, sporting events, kid’s programs, nature activities, concerts, and a holiday light show are among the many programs available throughout the year.

Sports field at Coonskin Park

Jonathan Brier, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While some amenities charge fees, the Coonskin pool is free for the public to enjoy every Thursday and Friday.

This free offer is in cooperation with the Kanawha County Commission and the Kanawha County Parks and Recreation to benefit the community by protecting people from extreme temperatures.

Tackle the Sunrise Carriage Trail

Sunrise Carriage Trail is a beautiful 0.65-mile trail that meanders its way up slowly through a lovely forest above Charleston.

It’s an excellent training track with stunning architecture, craftsmanship, history, and masonry in a pleasantly forested setting near the city’s center.

Governor William A. MacCorkle first created the trail in 1905 to move construction materials to the top of the hill, where they would be used to build the Governor’s Mansion.

On one of several switchbacks is a small shrine built by the governor to remember his daughter, who died in an automobile accident.

The Sunrise Carriage Trail ends above the hill at the Sunrise Mansion.

Volunteer at the Wallace Hartman Nature Preserve

Fifty-two acres of the natural area make up the Wallace Hartman Nature Preserve, located about 10 minutes from downtown Charleston.

The recreation activities visitors can enjoy are public trails for hiking and bird watching.

The West Virginia Land Trust (WVLT) owns and maintains it for scenic enjoyment, habitat preservation, and educational and recreational opportunities.

Whether you have a small or big group or are alone and interested in being a part of a project, the West Virginia Land Trust will find a task for you and contribute to their efforts for land conservation.

Volunteer projects at the Wallace Hartman Preserve include removing invasive species, maintaining and protecting existing trails, expanding networks of trails, installing interpretive signs, improving accessibility and parking, and conducting research.

Stop by the Craik-Patton House

Exterior of the Craik-Patton House

Upstateherd, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Craik – Patton House, a magnificent Greek Revival architecture, is registered on the National Register of Historic Places.

Known then as “Elm Grove,” the Craik-Patton House was constructed in 1834 by James Craik, the grandson of Dr. James Craik, who was the personal physician and a good friend to President George Washington.

Later, George and Susan Patton, the grandparents of World War II General George S. Patton, purchased the house.

Originally situated on Virginia Street in Charleston, it was moved to its present site next to Daniel Boone Park in 1973 to prevent demolition.

The extended center roof is supported by four enormous columns, and pilasters are positioned above the front facade.

The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in West Virginia carefully renovated and preserved it for the general public, and it is accessible for tours all year round.

Play Golf at Cato Park

The lovely 90+ acre Cato Park is situated on Baker Lane in the hills of the West Side neighborhood of Charleston.

Charleston resident Attorney Henry S. Cato founded the “Cato Park Foundation” in 1970 to build a people’s park.

Cato Park offers various leisure and recreational facilities.

A few things to enjoy in the park are the picnic areas, a playground, a seasonal pool, and more.

Also within Cato Park is a nine-hole three-par golf course which is believed to be one of West Virginia’s oldest golf courses.

Window Shop at the Charleston Town Center

Interior of Charleston Town Center

Analogue Kid, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

If you have free time on your trip to Charleston, stop by Charleston Town Center and spend some time browsing through the mall’s stores and restaurants.

It’s one of the country’s biggest enclosed malls in a downtown shopping district, with over 130 retailers on two levels and a food court on a third level.

Opened in 1983, Charleston Town Center originally had four anchor stores— Kaufmann’s, Sears, JCPenney, and Montgomery Ward—with only JCPenney remaining today.

Due to empty spaces several years later, some of the stalls were turned into offices.

A few ways to enjoy the mall without spending money include strolling indoors and window shopping.

Final Thoughts

Charleston is perfectly balanced with access to both rivers and hills, contributing to a plethora of outdoor spaces to explore.

The city not only boasts parks and historic charm, but it also offers plenty of shopping and dining opportunities!

However, if you want to keep your spending to a minimum without compromising fun, you can enjoy these free things to do in Charleston, West Virginia, and discover what makes this hip and historic city a true gem.

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