Having spent the majority of my first decade growing up in and around the Charleston area, it’s still one of my favorite places to visit. My husband and I got married there in 2017, and we try to visit often as it’s an easy four-hour drive from Hickory south to the unique historic town.
When friends mentioned their expensive trip to Charleston, it made me think of all the tips I could share on how to see Charleston on a budget. Visits in early spring and late fall are the best times to take advantage of lower prices while enjoying pleasant weather.
Staying in downtown Charleston is a wonderful experience, and it’s very convenient to step out of your hotel to enjoy local restaurants or enter the city market, but you pay a lot for this convenience. The easiest way to save money on your trip is to avoid staying downtown. Downtown hotels average hundreds of dollars more per night than hotels elsewhere.
Highly recommend staying in the Mount Pleasant area. Accommodations just over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, just a mile or two from downtown, will save you a lot. Mount Pleasant is a beautiful area in itself, with a host of fantastic restaurants and lively bars often offering free weekend entertainment.
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Red’s Ice House is our favorite restaurant in Mount Pleasant. Located on historic Shem Creek, they describe themselves as a “lively, no-frills joint with a large patio overlooking the water, serving seafood and pub fare.” Ample doesn’t even begin to describe their huge patio, which is enclosed and heated during the off-season months so you can enjoy the food and the view year-round. It’s a great place to take in the scenic Charleston sunset or view Lowcountry wildlife. Get there early for your best shot at their free parking, as a spot in the parking lot costs $5 an hour.
Food prices at Red’s are significantly lower than downtown restaurants. You can try their small plate of shrimp and chips served with house fries and pineapple salad for just $9. My favorite is the scallops and fries plate, which is delicious and only $11. It’s about half of what you would pay for a small plate of prawns at the famous Hyman’s Seafood on Meeting Street. Hyman’s is a great restaurant, sure, but Red’s is a better budget choice.
While in Mount Pleasant, you’ll want to set aside time to stroll through Pitt Street Bridge Park. The park is a free hidden gem mostly used by locals and long time visitors to the area. My family started going there in the 1970s when it was still known as the “Burnt Bridge” and there was no official park. It was and is a great place to fish, crab and kayak, but it’s even better now that they’ve added benches and a long, easy path for jogging, biking, walking your dog or simply admire the incredible view. You can see Charleston Harbor for miles from Fort Sumter all the way to Sullivan’s Island. Sunrise or sunset is a particularly peaceful time to enjoy the birds and wildlife of the marsh fringed by South Carolina’s famous palm trees.
Speaking of Charleston Harbor views, another popular free activity is to walk the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which spans the Cooper River and connects Charleston to Mount Pleasant. The third longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere, the Ravenel Bridge is an incredible testament to modern design and features a 12-foot-wide shared bicycle and pedestrian path called Wonders’ Way. It offers walkers and cyclists an incredible bird’s eye view (186 feet high at the bridge deck) of the city’s river and shoreline.
After all that walking, you’ll have worked up an appetite. Across the bridge to Charleston on Huger Street is our favorite Charleston restaurant, Taco Boy. My husband and I love it so much we held our wedding reception on their patio. They have free on-site parking, making it easy to eat lunch or dinner indoors or outdoors seven days a week. The only hard thing will be narrowing down your order of tacos from a long list. including carne asada, firecracker shrimp, Baja fried fish, buttermilk fried chicken, avocado tempura and many more. Single tacos start at $5, or get the two-taco platter with rice and beans for just $14. I highly recommend their starter trio of salsa, guacamole, and queso, which are all made with the freshest ingredients.
Even if you’re not staying downtown, you’ll want to take advantage of all the free sights to see in this very walkable historic city. You could really walk for days around the town and not see all the pre-war houses and the wonderful harbor views. Not only are the views great from the battery, parking is free along the battery wall.
In early spring and late fall, you might even see dolphins frolicking in the harbor as their migration takes them through the area. Just across the street be sure to take advantage of White Point Gardens, commonly known as Battery Park. My husband and I got married in the amazing gazebo, which is a popular spot for weddings and events. The park is also a great place to enjoy the shade if it’s hot during your visit. From the battery it is less than a half mile walk north to the famous Rainbow Row on East Bay Street.
Other popular sites you’ll want to see downtown include the Citadel, the Four Corners of Law, and the historic Charleston City Market. I recommend the city parking garage at 1 Cumberland Street for low cost parking ($1 per ½ hour) and it’s only a 2 minute walk to the market. You’ll probably want to buy some souvenirs at the market, but it doesn’t cost anything to browse, and some vendors even hand out samples of their wares.
If you find yourself at the market or on King Street between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., do yourself a favor and wait in the long line at either Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit location. Order the special, three cookies for $6. Black peppercorn bacon, cinnamon, and buttermilk make great variety for your three cookies, but country ham is also excellent. You can thank me later.
Charleston’s scenery, history and hospitality are like nowhere else I have been. To me, Charleston is truly a little slice of heaven, but the cost doesn’t have to be out of this world. I invite everyone to visit my original hometown and enjoy its priceless beauty. I think you will find him as warm and welcoming as I am.
Cami Hepler is a lifelong animal lover, year-round sports fan, and part-time Hickory freelance writer.