The Thrifty Traveler’s Guide to Charleston

Cheapskate Your Way Through Chucktown with This Low-Cost To-Do List

Charleston, South Carolina, is a historic city that’s practically overflowing with fun stuff to do and cool things to see. And yet, while the memories may be priceless, there’s no denying that traveling can cost a pretty penny—unless, of course, you plan ahead. 

Are you looking to hit up Chucktown without suffering a devastating blow to your wallet? We found the best places to include in a budgeted tour of the city, including . . . 

  • Free and low-cost attractions 
  • Reasonably-priced restaurants 
  • Money-saving travel tips

Free and Low-Cost Attractions in Charleston

Don’t fall for expensive tourist traps—Charleston has plenty of free and low-cost attractions that you can enjoy without having to shell out a large chunk of money. 

Rainbow Row

Add a Pop of Color (and History) to Your Visit 

East Bay Street 83–107 | Downtown|
Rainbow Row is among the most photographed places in Charleston—and it’s completely free to see! Image courtesy of Pinterest

This collection of row homes is famous for boasting a variety of unconventional paint jobs. Similar to San Francisco’s “Painted Ladies,” the Rainbow Row houses are, as the name suggests, a rainbow of colors! 

Because it’s such a popular spot, Rainbow Row isn’t exactly ideal for parking. Luckily, Charleston is an extremely walkable city, and this neighborhood is right in the downtown area and a close walk from City Hall. The architecture found on Rainbow Row dates back to the pre-Civil War era. Many myths have infiltrated the backstory behind Rainbow Row, including the tale that the homes were painted with different colors so that drunken sailors could find their way back to the right house. 

“The houses on Rainbow Row are nicely up-kept and very pretty. Definitely worth a short detour to walk and take a look as you are touring Downtown Charleston.” -Jessica Y. on TripAdvisor

Sullivan’s Island

Wander in Wonder Along This Secluded Beach

Sullivan’s Island

                                                                                                      2101 Pettigrew Street |

Only around ten miles outside of the city, Sullivan’s Island is a scenic beach town that makes for the perfect day trip while in the Charleston area. Image courtesy of Sullivan’s Island

Sink your toes in the sand and explore the delightfully quaint Sullivan’s Island, a close drive from Downtown Charleston (Hint: You’ll find free street parking close to the bridge!). The island is home to the Revolutionary War’s Fort Moultrie—later used in the Civil War—as well as the Sullivan Island Lighthouse. The Sullivan Island Lighthouse, also called “Charleston Light,” is known for its modern-look and, having been built in 1960, is one of the newest lighthouses in the country.

Sullivan’s Island is a picturesque getaway for those looking for a break from the city, and while quiet in nature, the beach town has a variety of locally-owned restaurants and art galleries. Look out for sand dollars on the shoreline—you can keep the smooth, white ones but are asked to throw back the fuzzy, grey ones, which are actually still alive. 

“After dropping our bags at our hotel in Charleston, this is usually the first place we visit! Just love Sullivan's Island beach. We walk for a mile or so, and there is enough sand for everybody when the tide is out. Lots of tidal pools, which our children loved when they were young. Street parking is easy to find (head toward Ft. Moultrie), and there is no bad spot. When you are done with your walk, head over to one of the restaurants for a well deserved drink!” -Lorij on TripAdvisor. 

White Point Garden

Take a Stroll Through This Gorgeous Public Park

2 Murray Boulevard | The Battery | 
With its charming gazebo, sprawling oak trees, and Spanish moss, White Point Garden is a photographer’s dream. Grab your camera (or your iPhone) and head to this public park. Image courtesy of @cornerstone_kingstreet on Instagram

You know the city planning office has struck success when people start booking a park as their wedding venue. Situated at the southern point of the Battery, White Point Garden is one of the most beautiful spots in Charleston and perfectly free to the public. 

For all of its idyllic refinement, White Point Park—like many sites throughout the city—has a rather dark history and as a result, is even thought by some to be haunted: the grounds were once used for hangings. So, feel free to enjoy the views of the green space during the day, but beware of walking the area at night (unless you’re in the mood for a good spook!). 

“This park is beautiful to walk around. Everything was so clean—not a piece of trash anywhere. It was so quiet and peaceful. We had driven by a few times but ended up walking down from our hotel about 7pm after a storm came through. There are a few monuments in the area and also a gazebo as well. You can capture some great photos here, too!” -Jamie on TripAdvisor

The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

Get a Healthy Dose of Culture at This Free Art Gallery
161 Calhoun Street | East Side |
Discover the work of an array of visual artists at this gallery overseen by the College of Charleston. Image courtesy of Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.  

Free to enter, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is an awesome way to incorporate some art your visit to the city and admire the talents of emerging artists. With mediums ranging from painting and drawing to sculpting and photography, you’ll have access to an eclectic range of artwork that’ll impress and astound you. 

Named after the Charleston artist William Halsey, the Institute has been bringing modern art to the surrounding community since 1984. With pieces from local, regional, national, and international artists, the Institute provides visitors with diverse number of works from all over. The Institute hosts as many as seven exhibitions every year as well as a slew of events, so much sure you check to see if anything’s going on during you visit! 

“Halsey is absolutely worth a drop in when you are in downtown Charleston. The gallery features amazing work of international artists, enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff and CofC students . . . Charleston is an incredible hub of arts, and Halsey is at the center. Because of the small size of the gallery, you can have an enriching experience in under an hour..” -Pablo E.  on TripAdvisor

Reasonably-Priced Restaurants

We all know that the quickest way to a traveler’s heart is through their stomach—but does that mean you have to dine at the fanciest joints in town? Of course not! These are some of the best cheap eats to sample during your time in Charleston.

Early Bird Diner

No Worms in Sight at This Local Jewel

1644 Savannah Highway | West Ashley |
You don’t have to be an early bird to dig in at this classic American diner—it opens early and closes late! Breakfast is served from open to close, while lunch is available starting at 11 am and dinner can be order after 5 pm. Image courtesy of @earlybirddiner on Instagram

Who doesn’t love delicious diner fare at a price that makes it taste even better? The Early Bird Diner serves breakfast all day, as well as lunch and dinner. Not only can you order pancakes, steak and eggs, French toast, biscuits and cream, and grits, but you can also dig into hoagies, burgers, fried pickles, meatloaf, fried chicken, and plenty more.  

Basically everything on the menu at the Early Bird Dinner is under $20, which means you can fill up without breaking the bank. Between the food and the prices, this place is a certified Charleston favorite. 

“The front desk clerk said she never heard a bad thing about the place. I ordered the pork chop dinner, and my husband ordered the fettucini. He is not a big fan of diner food, but he thought the fettucini was one of the best he’s ever had. My pork chop covered the whole plate and was served with 2 sides. I chose the fried okra and collard greens. Fabulous! The service was quick; food was good.” -Barbara M. on TripAdvisor.

Dellz Uptown

Vegan-Friendly Restaurant with Takeout and Sit-Down Meals 

511 Rutledge Avenue | Peninsular Charleston |
While it has a bunch of vegan and gluten-free options, Dellz doesn’t skimp on the meat and carbs, either: You can get pizza, burgers, nachos, and more. Image courtesy of @groovy_mystic on Instagram

Not sure what you’re in the mood for? Head over to Dellz to browse tons of options at affordable prices. With pizza, wraps, burgers, tacos, salads, and smoothies, Dellz is a place that’s sure to satisfy any craving. You can go to Dellz for brunch, lunch, and dinner—it’s open from 11 am to 8 pm most days. 

Dellz is known for its large portions and creative but healthy dishes. Whether you dine-in or take out, you’ll quickly understand why this is a restaurant that everyone’s talking about. Plus, most of the menu items are under $20! 

“We ordered a hummus appetizer and two veggie wraps, which turned out to be so much food that we each took half of our sandwich home with us. The prices here are very reasonable; the food is excellent; the staff is friendly and courteous; and the place emits a very hip but very welcoming vibe. So, the bottom line is that try not to overlook this hidden gem right off of US-17 on Routledge Avenue in Charleston. You'll like it.” -Jim D. on TripAdvisor

Image result for City Lights Coffee logo"

City Lights Coffee

Sip Espresso at This Trendy Cafe and Coffeeshop

141 N. Market Street | Downtown |
Step into City Lights Coffee for an early-morning or midday pick-me-up. It’s right on Market Street, so you won’t have to go out of your way if you’re headed downtown! Image courtesy of @oliviajewell on Instagram

With its reasonable prices, high-quality drinks, and an inviting atmosphere, City Lights Coffee is frequented by locals and visitors alike. Satisfy your caffeine craving at this local coffee shop that has drip coffee, espresso, French press, and more. You can also enjoy pastries and biscotti if you’re in the mood for a light breakfast or lunch. 

Get an authentic taste of Charleston—and can’t-beat coffee—when you walk through the doors of City Lights Coffee. Even if you don’t get a chance to sit down, you’re sure to love the vibe of this delightful spot in a convenient location.  

“This coffee joint was a beacon in the early morning light. I was desperate for coffee and juice and picked the first coffee place I stumbled across as I began my photography mission in Charleston. This place exceeded my expectations. Great fresh coffee with the option of almond milk. Freshly-squeezed orange juice. Friendly service and way below Starbucks’ prices.” -arttourist on TripAdvisor

Cupcake DownSouth

Follow Your Sweet Tooth to This Beloved Charleston Dessert Shop

433 King Street | Upper King |
From regular cupcakes and cake pops to gluten-free, vegan, and alcohol-infused goodies, the menu at Cupcake DownSouth will leave you with tons of options. Image courtesy of @the.lindsay.adventures on Instagram

Voted the “Best Cupcakes in South Carolina,” Cupcake DownSouth is a sweet treat that—quite literally—cannot be beat! Every day of the week, this Charleston-original bakery whips up a daily menu of more than a dozen cupcake flavors. 

Prices vary on the menu, but regular cupcakes are $3.50 each. Everyday flavors include black and white, chocolate, red velvet, and vanilla bean. Special flavors range from maple sweet potato, snickerdoodle, and mint to pumpkin, salted caramel, and more. If you get a chance, try the cake shake—it’s ice cream combined with a cupcake. (You can also get regular milkshakes, if you want to be boring.)

“Cupcake DownSouth is such an adorable shop, and everything tasted amazing! . .  . We purchased 2 cake pops, in addition to the 2 cupcakes we originally went in for, and we plan on having the cake pops at my Charleston wedding next year. The girl behind the counter was incredibly friendly and quickly was able to look up the bulk order price for me. They even let you sample the icing flavors before you order!” -Alexa J. on TripAdvisor

Money-Saving Travel Tips

Headed to Charleston? Check out these money-saving travel tips!

1. If you flew into town and plan on exploring every inch of the city, rent a car to avoid the huge expenditure on cabs and driving services. 

2. Nix the hotel, and stay at a hostel. (Hotels in Charleston are notoriously expensive, but you can find cheap, clean hostels all throughout the city.) 

3. Don’t pay for a tour—it’s easy to DIY! 

Traveling on a budget doesn’t have to mean missing out! These are just a few of the budget-friendly places in Charleston—but a quick search will show you just how many others there are. After all, the prices shouldn’t the main thing that you remember from your trip!

Albion Skeldon

See All Posts >>

You Might Also Like...