Charming Charleston makes you feel like you stepped back in time with its striking architecture and easy-going rhythm. But this modern city's incredible cuisine reflects the diversity of its population, as does its cultural scene.

This historic port has incredible beaches, markets and historical sites on offer and plenty of them are free to visit. Our round up of the best free things to do in Charleston will make sure your next vacation doesn't bust your budget.

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Angel Oak on John's Island near Charleston, South Carolina, USA.  At 1500 years old, it is believed to be the oldest living tree east of the Rockies.
Angel Oak on John's Island is South Carolina's oldest resident © Glenn Ross / Getty Images

1. Angel Oak Tree

One of Charleston’s most popular attractions is also one of its most unique. Located on Johns Island, around 11 miles outside of the city, this southern live oak tree is said to be 1500 years old (others say it's only 400 to 500 years old). 

Whatever the truth, it's one of the oldest living organisms east of the Mississippi, standing 66.5ft tall and measuring 28ft around. Its thick branches shoot off in all directions, in many cases twisting to the ground and back up again. There’s no admission for Angel Oak Tree. There’s no climbing allowed either.

People queue to get into the historic Charleston City Market in Charleston, South Carolina.
The historic Charleston City Market gives visitors a flavor of the city © f11photo / Shutterstock

2. Charleston City Market

Attracting browsers and buyers since 1804, Charleston City Market bustles with more than 300 vendors hawking everything from sweetgrass baskets to piping-hot biscuits. Running for four blocks, this vibrant, open-air market is one of the oldest in the USA and is a great way to get a feel for the city.

Some travelers may feel it's a bit schlocky, but there are interesting finds and locally-made products here. Look out for items marked with a 'Certified Authentic Handmade in Charleston' seal. The night market is held in the same space and displays the wares of more than 100 local artists and craftspeople.

Silhouette of a solitary male photographer waiting for the sun to rise over the ocean at Folly Beach near Charleston.
Just outside Charleston, Folly Beach is a fab, free all-rounder © Cvandyke / Shutterstock

3. Folly Beach

There are a dozen islands within an hour's drive of Charleston, nearly of which have great beaches. Day-trippers will usually opt for Sullivan's Island or the Isle of Palms, whilst families head for Edisto Island. But Folly Beach, a motorway of white sand and gnarly waves just nine miles from the city, that is the ideal all-rounder for beach lovers.

Rainbow Row, a run of several brightly coloured houses in Charleston in South Carolina.
Cameras at the ready for Rainbow Row © Gordon Bell / Shutterstock

4. Rainbow Row

With its 13 candy-colored houses, this stretch of Georgian row houses on lower E Bay St is one of the most photographed areas in Charleston. The structures date back to 1730, when they served as merchant stores on the wharf, a sketchy part of town at the time. Starting in the 1920s the buildings were restored and painted over in pastels. People dug it, and soon much of the rest of Charleston was getting a similar makeover.

Overgrown headstone at a graveyard in Charleston
The Gateway Walk can reveal a lot of little secrets © Andrew Montgomery / Lonely Planet

5. Gateway Walk

Created in 1930 to celebrate Charleston’s 250th anniversary, the Gateway Walk is a loose, natural path that winds through several church grounds and overgrown graveyards between St John's Lutheran Church and St Philip's Church. Best visited in spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom, this much-loved local route will make you feel like you’ve stumbled on a secret all year round.

An old man wanders through the tea fields at the Charleston Tea Garden
A tourist inspects the bushes at Charleston Tea Garden © David S. Holloway / Getty Images

6. Charleston Tea Garden

A 35-minute drive out of the city on Wadmalaw Island, Charleston Tea Garden is America's only large-scale tea plantation. No enslaved people were ever held or forced to work here. Instead it was William Barclay Hall, a third-generation tea taster trained in London, who managed to turn this farm into a commercial operation.

Established in 1963, the owners were the first to create a tea made from 100% American-grown leaves. Today the Garden has free factory tours and tastings. Trolley tours, however, are charged.

Nightfall over Charleston harbor with the schooner Spirit of South Carolina at dock and the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge in the background.
The Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge as seen from Charleston Harbor © Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson / Getty Images

7. Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge

With its two sail-like concrete towers, this 471m-long cable-stayed bridge across the Cooper River is arguably the city’s most impressive construction. Named after the Republican politician who ran for the state Senate in 1996 just to get it built, Charleston’s much-loved suspension bridge cost an eye-watering US$531 million.

The drive across it is spectacular, but the best way to appreciate it is by walking or cycling via its pedestrian walkway – though probably not in April when the annual Cooper River Bridge Run sees 40,000 people legging it over too.

Randolph Hall, the main academic building on the College of Charleston campus, sits behind the shade of trees on the lawn.
Randolph Hall, the main building on the College of Charleston campus © Leamus / Getty Images

8. College of Charleston

With lush landscaping, which includes live oaks draped in Spanish moss, as well as its historic mansions and homes, it’s little wonder the College of Charleston campus has been called America's most beautiful. Spread over a few city blocks at the center of Charleston's downtown, travelers can visit South Carolina’s oldest university for free. Both self-guided and student-led tours are free. 

9. The Battery and White Point Garden

For a walk steeped in history head to The Battery and White Point Garden at the southern tip of the Charleston Peninsula. Buffered by a seawall, it takes its name from the fortifications that used to line the seafront here and the mounds of oyster shells that once piled over the point. 

Stroll past cannons and statues of military heroes in the gardens, then walk south along Charleston Harbor (the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers will be at your left) and look for Fort Sumter, whose bombardment by the South Carolina militia started the American Civil War.

A seller sells his wares at the Charleston Saturday Farmers Market in historic Charleston South Carolina
Charleston Farmers Market is a great way to meet the locals. ©Jeramey Lende/Shutterstock

10. Farmers Market

Each Saturday, Charleston's terrific farmers market sells local produce, including homemade food and drinks. For budget travelers, it’s the art and free entertainment that's worth checking out.

11. ArtWalk 

On the first Friday of every month, more than 40 galleries in Downtown Charleston open their doors for free and host events, activities and special programs. There’s often a variety of styles on show, from both regional and national artists, and the Charleston Gallery Association has a map on its website which allows travelers to enjoy the ArtWalk by themselves all year round.

The pineapple fountain at the Waterfront Park in Charleston in South Carolina, USA.
One of Charleston's most photographed sights is found at Waterfront Park © Avalon/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

12. Waterfront Park

This lovely, eight-acre park on the Cooper River is notable for its landscape architecture and the eye-catching Pineapple Fountain which you’ll see across the city on everything from postcards to tourism brochures. If it’s hot, make like the locals and wade into one of pools that dot Waterfront Park.

13. Palmetto Trail

A short drive from Charleston, the Palmetto Trail is a boon for outdoor enthusiasts. When completed, this mountain-to-sea route will ribbon 500 miles from Walhalla in Oconee County to Awendaw in Charleston County, cutting through acres of Palmetto forests, the palm tree that features on South Carolina’s state flag.

There are two good routes that begin close to Charleston: the 7.1-mile Awendaw Passage, which offers wonderful vistas of Lowcountry salt marsh, and the Swamp Fox Passage, which at 47.6 miles is the longest stretch of the trail, but can be completed in small chunks. 

14. Sullivan’s Island

Only ten minutes by car from Charleston itself, Sullivan's Island is where life comes to slow right down. At 3.3 miles long, this barrier island of wispy dunes and white sand beaches is ideal for doing very little at all. Fishing, maybe. Cycling through the marshes, if you fancy it. Photography, if you can muster the energy. Beach walks, however, are almost mandatory. 

This article was originally published on March 4, 2021.

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This Black history museum in Charleston could change how the USA sees its past 
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How to road trip the Southeastern US on a budget

This article was first published March 2021 and updated September 2021

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