Free Things To Do in Charleston
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Many visitors say you can't leave Charleston without seeing this stretch along the city's southern tip. 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 Gardens, 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 Gardens. 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.
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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. 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.
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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. 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.
You'll find more than 50 beach-access points dotting the shoreline. It won't cost you anything to access the beach, but you should expect to pay a small fee for parking. For more information about Isle of Palms, visit the city's website.
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After a few days exploring Charleston's historic sites, take some time to kick back, relax and enjoy the Southern sun. Overlooking the Atlantic from the West Islands – 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. And 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.
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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.
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