By BRUCE SMITH
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Charleston is awash in history and Southern charm and becoming widely known as a culinary town. Each year it hosts major events ranging from the Spoleto Festival USA to the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition and the Family Circle Cup Tennis Tournament. But there are a lot of free things to do for visitors drawn to the city founded in 1670. Here are some suggestions:
THE HISTORIC DISTRICT
The Historic District is the main reason most folks visit Charleston and you don’t have to pay a dime to wander through. Start first by visiting the Charleston Visitor Reception and Transportation Center built in an old railroad warehouse a few blocks north of the Historic District. There you can see multimedia displays that provide an orientation to the city. Then you can catch a free shuttle bus from the visitor center that will take you downtown into the heart of the district that encompasses 4,800 historic structures. But Charleston is not a museum city. People live in the homes comprising the district which encompasses the city’s social and civil life. There are numerous guide books available for a price, but they are not absolutely necessary as many of the buildings in the district have small wall signs telling visitors a bit about the building’s history. Don’t forget to peer past wrought iron gates and into Charleston’s beautifully kept private gardens.
Also be sure to wander through the peaceful church graveyards where many leaders who helped write the early chapters of American history are buried.
Walking to the end of the Historic District down either of the main north-south streets — King or Meeting — takes you to White Point Garden, simply known as The Battery to locals. Here you’ll find gnarled oaks, park benches, and a gazebo where you might catch a free concert by local groups or see a bride getting photographed. Across a street called South Battery are some of the most opulent historic mansions in the city. There are historic guns near the seawall and a monument to the Confederate defenders of Charleston.
From the seawall one can gaze out to the harbor and Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
THE CITY MARKET
The City Market on the east side of the Historic District sells everything from pricey glassware to T-shirts. But there’s no cost to window shop, or perhaps stall shop would be a better phrase. Three of the market buildings have roofs but no walls; here vendors arrive each day to lay out their wares ranging from art work and home-made confections to jewelry and post cards in a complex that has been used as a market since the early 1880s. It’s a great place to people-watch, especially if one of the cruise ships which visit the city every few days has docked just down the way at the passenger terminal. The market is one of the most popular attractions in the city and is visited by millions each year. There is a shuttle stop at the market.
THE WATERFRONT PARK
The Waterfront Park on the Cooper River is a gem from the recent past that Charleston. The eight-acre park features a broad open grassy expanse perfectly designed for picnics as well as smaller, more private areas. The pier allows visitors to walk out by the river and watch mammoth cargo ships head to the nearby port terminals. There are also covered bench swings where one can pass a sultry afternoon cooled by the harbor breeze. The highlight for kids is a splash fountain at the park entrance — just the thing for cooling off, for free, on a hot Southern summer afternoon.
THE RAVENEL BRIDGE
The $632 million Ravenel Bridge linking Charleston and Mount Pleasant across the Cooper River is stunning to look at and more stunning to look off. The bridge, since it opened almost eight years ago, has become a new Charleston area landmark with its two soaring diamond-shaped supports. There’s a pedestrian walkway along the harbor side of the bridge offering stunning views of Charleston Harbor, the city, Fort Sumter and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. It’s a 2.7 mile walk, but on Saturdays and Sundays the bridge carries a steady stream of walkers, joggers and bicyclists across the river. The easiest place to park for free is on the Mount Pleasant side.