Charleston, SC Travel Guide

USA  #1 in Best Fall Vacations
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Courtesy of Sam Antonio Photography/Getty Images

Free Things To Do in Charleston, SC

If you have extra time, Isle of Palms County Park is worthwhile.
  • #1
    Things to do in Charleston, SC
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    #1 in Charleston, SC
    Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Many visitors say you can't leave Charleston without seeing this stretch along the city's southern tip, which they call beautiful and a must-visit. This row of Southern-style mansions overlooking Charleston Harbor was formerly the heart and soul of the city's maritime activity. Today, the area attracts camera-toting tourists from all over the country.

    As you explore this picturesque neighborhood, make sure to also spend some time in the nearby White Point Garden, where several Civil War relics and memorials commemorate the city's role in the battle. Start your tour of the Battery at the 12-acre Waterfront Park (home to the giant pineapple fountain featured on many Charleston postcards), then follow the walking paths on East Battery Street for the nearly mile-long stroll to White Point Garden. If you're staying at one of the hotels or bed-and-breakfasts located downtown, you can easily walk along the Battery from your digs. If you're driving to the Battery, you'll find some limited street parking, and some lots closer to Waterfront Park. Bus route No. 211 provides service to Waterfront Park and East Bay Street. Several of the city's best walking tours make stops along the Battery. If you're interested in the history of the mansions or the promenade's role in the Civil War, consider signing up for a tour.

  • #3
    Sullivan's Island
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    #3 in Charleston, SC
    Beaches, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Comprising only 3.3 square miles, Sullivan's Island may not seem like a must-see for Charleston visitors. But this beachfront town proves that good things come in small packages. Sitting at the mouth of the Charleston harbor – a little less than 10 miles east of the downtown area – Sullivan's Island boasts beaches, tasty restaurants and unique shops, plus a colorful history. Many visitors say the beach is ideal for families. You'll also find a bevy of vacation rental properties here – a worthy alternative if you want a little more seclusion than some of downtown Charleston's hotels and bed-and-breakfasts can provide.

    Even if you're not much of a beach bum, you'll still find plenty of interesting local history to make a pit stop here worthwhile. For instance, Fort Moultrie was the first fort on Sullivan's Island. Composed of soft palmetto logs, it withstood a nine-hour battle in 1776 when nine warships were advancing on Charleston. Its soft composition meant enemy cannonballs simply bounced off its cushy exterior. Aside from its triumphant ability to protect the city, Fort Moultrie also served a purpose in literary history: Edgar Allan Poe was stationed at the fort from November 1827 to December 1828. Those who have read his short story, "The Gold Bug," will recognize Sullivan's Island as the backdrop of the tale. His brief residency is celebrated at Poe's Tavern, a local watering hole situated about two blocks north of the beach. For a more formal dinner, consider The Obstinate Daughter.

  • #4
    Isle of Palms County Park
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    #4 in Charleston, SC
    Beaches, Golf, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Golf, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    If several days in Charleston proper have you longing for a do-nothing day at the beach, Isle of Palms might be just the ticket. Located just 16 miles east of the city, visitors will find about 7 miles of shoreline, ideal for swimming, sailing, windsurfing or sunbathing. If you're having trouble deciding between Charleston's two closest shorelines (don't forget about Folly Beach), your fellow beach bums might help you decide: Isle of Palms is known to attract more families than Folly Beach.

    Recent beach-goers praised the wide, clean beach and said it's a beautiful place to relax. Isle of Palms also boasts a few more beachfront vacation rentals, plus the sprawling Wild Dunes Resort and The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. What's more, you don't have to be a guest to enjoy the two Tom Fazio-designed golf courses at Wild Dunes: both courses are open to the public. However, keep in mind Isle of Palms doesn't offer as many bars or restaurants compared to Folly Beach.

  • #5
    Folly Beach
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    #5 in Charleston, SC
    Beaches, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    After a few days exploring Charleston's historic sites, take some time to kick back, relax and enjoy the Southern sun. Overlooking the Atlantic – 12 miles south of downtown Charleston – this massive stretch of coastline makes for a great daytrip away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Come here for the nature and the surfing, or head to the pier to sit and fish. Folly Beach's friendly atmosphere attracts a variety of travelers: most of the families stick to the shore, while adults traveling sans kids tend to congregate in the many bars that line the sand. If you're hoping to lay claim to some fine beach real estate, you better get here early: Past visitors said the beach can get crowded as the afternoon progresses. If you didn't bring your own beach chair, you can rent one near the beach, along with umbrellas and nonmotorized sports equipment. 

    Along with the casual beachfront bars and eateries, you'll also find a few hotels near the shore, as well as restrooms and foot showers for cleaning off sandy toes. Away from the beach sit several casual eateries, including traveler favorites like Taco Boy and Lost Dog Cafe.

  • #8
    Angel Oak Tree
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    #8 in Charleston, SC
    Natural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Natural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    Visitors will find one of Charleston's most photographed icons on Johns Island: the Angel Oak Tree. It is said to be the largest live oak east of the Mississippi. The gorgeous tree is 65 feet high, with a circumference of 25.5 feet. It's estimated that the tree is between 300 and 400 years old. Visitors in the thousands flock to the tree to pose next to its long limbs.

    Recent visitors said the tree is worth a quick stop to take a photo of the magnificent natural wonder. Others warned that there are lots of rules to be observed and noted that you'll want to make sure to keep a sharp eye on your kids, who will naturally be tempted to climb the tree.

  • #13
    Charleston City Market
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    #13 in Charleston, SC
    Shopping, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Shopping, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    While some may say that the Charleston City Market is a bit of a tourist trap, others call it a great glimpse into life in the Old South. It is often referred to as the "Slave Market" because it was here that slaves would purchase food for the plantation. Today, the market buzzes with residents and visitors alike, perusing stalls loaded with toys, clothes, leather goods and regional souvenirs. But if you plan on buying anything here, you should head straight to the "basket ladies." These women (and men) have been weaving baskets for centuries – this craft originated in West Africa and has been passed down through the generations – using local materials, such as sweetgrass and palmetto leaves.

    Although this is a great place to experience southern charm and to people-watch, recent visitors recommend that buyers beware: A few travelers said some vendors hawk overpriced trinkets. Other enjoyed the variety of unique items.

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