Charleston on a Budget: Free Things to Do + Three Things Worth Every Penny

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Charleston is definitely a city where you can shop till you drop and eat every hour, but you can simultaneously kiss your savings goodbye! There are a lot of free attractions if you are on a tight budget and a lot of paid attractions, so I’m going to sift through them for you! Definitely do the freebies, but don’t miss the three paid attractions that are worth every penny!

FREE Things to do

Angel Oak Tree – Estimated to be 400+ years old, this tree is a fun stop! Grab some photos and give this old tree some love! It’s an easy stop right on your way if you are headed to the Charleston Tea Plantation or the Deep Water Vineyard.

Angel Oak Tree
Angel Oak Tree

Folly Beach – This is the beach where it’s happening in Charleston. If you want good food and drinks, live music, and an energetic but family-friendly vibe, this is a cool place to hang. Food is a little pricey, but it’s a fun touristy town! The boardwalk is beautiful and FREE (so don’t buy tickets online!) and a great place to watch for sharks or dolphins. Parking is a little bit of an issue but if you stay on Ashley Ave. (past third street), you should be able to find FREE street parking and then walk to the beach!

Dinner at Snapper Jack's, Folly Beach
Dinner at Snapper Jack’s by Folly Beach
Sunset from the pier on Folly Beach
Sunset from the pier on Folly Beach

Kiawah Island Beachwalker Park – This island feels a little more like a resort community with well-manicured lawns and bike trails. It would be a fun place to stay the day and ride bikes around the neighborhoods and forests. Parking at the only public beach is $10, but the facilities are very nice so it’s worth it! You’ll have showers, bathrooms, and changing rooms once you are finished playing in the sand! The currents are pretty strong here, but there is a lifeguard on duty. We enjoyed walking down to where the ocean feeds the river and even found a few jellyfish on the way. On your way out of Beachwalker Park, stop at the Fresh Fields Village and enjoy their open-air market and dining. It’s a charming area to eat, shop, have ice cream or just walk around.

Isle of Palms Beach – This island feels even more like a resort community with nice hotels and restaurants facing the beach. Street parking is free (just get all four wheels off the road), but fills up quickly. We went here to watch the sunrise and the water creates a beautiful mirror-effect on the sand. It’s very easy to find parking at 6:30 a.m. It’s also a great place to jog or collect shells!

Waiting for the sunrise as the beach turns to a mirror.

Sullivan’s Island Beach – This was our least favorite beach, but the water is very calm, so if you don’t care for waves or currents, this is probably your best bet. You can just go out and float in the calm water. The water right off the beach is also swarming with fish. You can’t see them, but you can definitely feel them swimming around your legs. The sand is packed really hard and there’s not much scenery to enjoy, but parking is free! There’s also NO shade so we couldn’t stay long. While on Sullivan’s Island, you might as well visit Fort Moultrie. Admission is $7/person and we found it more interesting than Fort Sumter.

Sullivan's Island Beach
Sullivan’s Island Beach

Shem Creek Park – Watch Dolphins, Crab fishers, and Shrimpers – This was kind of a hidden gem! It’s a cool boardwalk along the water with lots of restaurants. You’re almost guaranteed to see some dolphins and crabs, and it’s a great place to chat it up with local fishermen or shrimpers and admire all the boats. I felt like this was the real Charleston: waterfront views, good seafood, and fewer tourists.

Historic Charleston City Market – Anything and everything that you might want as a souvenir can be purchased here. It’s not all overpriced either, but it is huge! If you want to walk the whole thing, be prepared for sweltering heat and lots of warm bodies. Part of it is air-conditioned, but not most of it.

Rainbow Row and the Battery – Use the houses and colorful walls as amazing backdrops! – This is my favorite little freebie in downtown Charleston. The houses are gorgeous and so colorful! You might want to walk around in the morning as you get some breakfast and again in the evening to catch the perfect photography lighting! If you are not sure where to start, the battery rainbow row, or the waterfront park are great places!

Houses in downtown Charleston
So many lovely mansions

Things to do in Charleston That are Worth Every Penny

Patriot’s Point / Maritime Museum – WOW! This is a museum like none other! You don’t just get to explore one, but three marine engineering marvels – a destroyer, a carrier, and a submarine! How often do you get to go into a submarine in the water? I recommend exploring the destroyer (USS Laffey) and the submarine first because the carrier (USS Yorktown) is huge and exhausting! Visit the carrier last (USS Yorktown) so you won’t be too exhausted to appreciate the other vessels!

The destroyer is super interactive with fun simulators, audio guides, and challenges you can complete together. The submarine is just a walk-through. The carrier, USS Yorktown, has five total self-guided tours; the first three being the most essential! And you’ll want to climb into the Apollo 8 capsule (on USS Yorktown). The flight deck can get miserably hot and sunny, so do it early (Tour #3). I also highly recommend that you follow the arrows religiously or you are going to get lost and skip huge portions of the ship’s cool interior.

This museum gave me such an appreciation for the Navy and especially the men and women who sacrificed their lives and all their comforts to call a ship home and while they fought for their country. It’s worth the $24/person entrance fee and the $5 parking! I would give yourself at least three hours to really appreciate the museums.

Charleston Tea Plantation – This place is charming! You’ll want to grow old sipping iced tea in the rocking chairs on the porch! They have a free video tour of the tea processing factory with an all-you-can-drink free tea bar. The trolley tour of the plantation and tea fields is $14 / person, but absolutely worth it! It is super informative in a comfortable trolley and interactive with beautiful views of the fields. You might just fall in love with tea!

Deep Water Vineyard – You won’t need a lot of time for the vineyard, but it’s very close to the Charleston Tea Plantation and Angel Oak, so you might as well stop. It’s a small vineyard that you can roam for as long as you like and give a little love to Ida Claire (the cow). The wine-tasting is $7/ person and you get an etched wine glass to take home. Whether you are a wine connoisseur or not, it’s fun to sample the wide range of flavors and get a glass to remember the vineyard.

If you are heading to Charleston soon, live in Charleston, or would like to visit this city soon, pin this article to your Pinterest board and be done planning!

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