Charleston, South Carolina is one of my favorite cities in the world, but admittedly, not cheap. From February through May, the city’s top events keep every hotel in town booked: the Southeastern Wildlife Expo, Charleston Fashion Week, Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston Wine + Food Festival and the Cooper River Bridge Run. There are a few ways to keep your visit to the Holy City on a budget, as I’ve listed below.
City parks are a great way to see the city. Marion Square is the hub of Charleston, hosting events, the weekly farmer’s market and tanning co-eds. Hampton Park, further north towards The Citadel, is a large park ideal for a run or to walk your dog. Waterfront Park has fountains to splash in and swings overlooking the harbor. Mount Pleasant has its own waterfront park located under the majestic Ravenel Bridge.
And of course, Charleston is known for its beaches. Folly Beach is the more bohemian of the beaches with plenty of bars and restaurants on the main drag. Drinking on the beach is allowed in non-glass containers, which makes it more of a party and student beach. Sullivan’s Island is more family friendly and has a few local watering holes. Isle of Palms has more high-end hotels and vacation rentals.
If you don’t plan on buying, the area markets are a great and free spot for people watching. The City Market has been around for hundreds of years, starting as a food market but now sells all sorts of souvenirs and local wares. The Mount Pleasant and Downtown farmer’s markets sell fresh local produce as well as prepared foods and crafts.
Some sights can be seen without even paying an admission fee. Rainbow Row and The Battery are some of the most recognizable sights. You can also see filming locations from movies like The Notebook, including the College of Charleston campus and the American theater. The iconic Ravenel Bridge is another free landmark that you can walk across to Mount Pleasant. Monthly art walks also offer culture on the cheap. Read the Charleston City Paper‘s Weekend Scene section for more free local events.
Sights and Activities
Charleston’s Museum Mile offers admission into both the Charleston Museum and the Gibbes Museum of Art, as well as historic homes, houses of worship and points of interest along the way. The South Carolina Aquarium and Edisto Island Serpentarium let guests get up close and personal with the state’s wildlife. Charleston’s historic houses and plantations are slightly higher in cost, but certainly worth visiting.
Walking tours, ghost tours and pub crawls are cheap ways to see the city, but if you want to avoid looking like a tourist, I would say to stay away from horse carriage tours at all costs. I recommend kayaking in Shem Creek or James Island. Don’t forget improv for $5 at Theatre 99.
Local sports are another source of cheap entertainment. The Charleston Riverdogs minor league baseball team hosts Thirsty Thursdays, with discounted food and beer. The Charleston Battery soccer team, the Charleston Stingrays hockey and Lowcountry Highrollers roller derby are also fun.
Camping is a cheap way to sleep, but it will keep you further out of town. There are KOA campgrounds in Ladson and Mt. pleasant. As the only true budget accommodation in town, Charleston’s NotSo Hostel has the market covered with two downtown locations. While CouchSurfing is technically considered free, I wouldn’t stay at anyone’s house without at least bringing a hostess gift or offering to cook a meal. Then of course, there are budget hotels, which you can find through discount websites. Vacation rentals are another way to stay, especially if you are splitting the cost between many people.
Walking is the best and cheapest way to get around Charleston. It’s possible to get from one side of King Street to the other within 45 minutes. The DASH Trolley goes from the Aquarium down King Street, free for visitors. The other CARTA buses are also cheap and can take you to Folly Beach, West Ashley, Mount Pleasant and the airport. Bike rentals are another great option, as Charleston is a bike-friendly city.
Eating and Drinking
While fine dining is the most noted, there is a plethora of affordable alternatives. Bowen’s Island Restaurant is my absolute favorite and is a cheap seafood joint on James Island. Poe’s Tavern is another option, located on Sullivan’s Island. I am certainly biased as a former employee, but the downtown and West Ashley locations of The Taco Spot offer fresh, cheap and delicious tacos and sides. And of course, the farmer’s market allows you to pick a number of food options to try.
For cheap drinks catch the many happy hour specials throughout town. Or get free samples at the Firefly Distillery on Wadmalaw Island or beer samples from Westbrook in Mount Pleasant.