When celebrities and other well-heeled travelers fell in love with Charleston, S.C., drawn by its air of 19th century elegance and its palm-fringed seacoast setting, the $400-a-night hotel room and the $100 dinner entree inevitably followed. But this progressive and mystically lovely city, surrounded by water and wilderness, can still be a destination for the budget-conscious, too.
Many of the area’s most captivating historic attractions are essentially free. Beaches and an outstanding farmers’ market are open to all, and the sweet tea and fabulous food can be found in off-the-beaten-path restaurants well known to the locals. With some careful shopping in advance, even a hotel room or condo can be affordable.
In summer or early fall, Charleston’s renowned bed-and-breakfasts are pricey and may be booked solid. But there are hidden gems. The Cottage Room at Palmer’s Pinckney Inn, just off East Bay Street near the old market, can be had for $150 a night on weekends and $135 midweek.
For an additional $5, you can have a hot breakfast at the majestic Palmer Home Bed and Breakfast and access to its pool and its broad porch overlooking Charleston Harbor.
The NotSoHostel is a basic but homey little compound of 19th century homes and valuable parking spaces off busy Spring Street. Private rooms with shared baths start at $60 a night, and if you don’t mind risking snoring neighbors, you can bed down in a bunk room for $21 a night. The hostel offers bike rentals (highly recommended for exploring downtown nooks and crannies), linens, Wi-Fi and full kitchen with a cook-your-own waffle breakfast.
You might also book a vacation property directly from its owner through VRBO.com. Listed amid expensive Isle of Palms beach houses you’ll find condos for $100 to $150 a night in the charming, walkable and often overlooked Old Village section of Mount Pleasant — near Sullivan’s Island beaches and Charleston’s stunning walkable and bikable Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.
If you’re in for a weekend, your first Saturday stop should be the Farmers Market at Marion Square Park. It runs from April into December and features the wares of local food growers and juried local artisans, along with pony rides and regional musical acts from gospel to bluegrass.
Stop among the stroller-pushing couples and skateboard-toting students from the College of Charleston for heirloom tomatoes, otherworldy peaches or some mesclun from growers like Rita’s Roots. A graduate of the College of Charleston, Rita Bachmann, 26, worked organic farms in central California and New York State before returning to the South Carolina Lowcountry. From a plot on nearby Wadmalaw Island, she has become a local hero of Charleston’s slow food and community-supported agriculture movements.
Among the vendors of prepared food who are supplied by Bachmann are Angie and Traci Colyer of Savory Catering. Turn a brunch appetite toward a bowl of their local shrimp and grits ($6) or a slice of vine-ripe tomato pie ($5) filled with fresh basil and herb cream sauce and topped with puff pastry.
Roam on among the artisans and tourists, and when the summer heat gets to you, recharge in the shaded courtyard or the air-conditioned indoors at Kudu Coffee, an African-themed gallery and coffeehouse that has become a gathering place for musicians, students and professionals. After a blended frappe of Zimbabwe espresso (worth every penny of $4.95), you’ll be ready for a walk through the emerging Upper King design district.
As the lower reaches of King Street have attracted national chain stores, the palmetto-lined row of century-old retail spaces north of Marion Square has become a magnet for new restaurants, boutiques and home design businesses.
WHERE TO STAY
Palmer’s Pinckney Inn, 19 Pinckney St.; (843) 722-1733; www.pinckneyinn.com.
NotSoHostel, 156 Spring St.; (843) 722-8383; www.notsohostel.com.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK/p>
Kudu Coffee, 4 Vanderhorst St.; (843) 853-7186; www.iheartkudu.com.
Monza, 451 King St.; (843) 720-8787; www.monzapizza.com.
Raval, 453 King St.; (843) 853-8466; www.ravalwinebar.com.
Folly’s Lost Dog Cafe, 106 W. Huron St., Folly Beach; (843) 588-9669; www.follybeach.com/lostdogcafemenu.php.
JB’s Smokeshack, 3406 Maybank Highway, Johns Island; (843) 557-0426; www.jbssmokeshack.com.
Mustard Seed on Maybank, 1978 Maybank Highway; (843) 762-0072.
Market Pavilion hotel, 225 East Bay Street; (843) 723-0500; www.marketpavilion.com.
WHAT TO SEE
Farmers Market at Marion Square Park; www.charlestoncity.info/dept/content.aspx?nid(EQUAL)553.
Redux Contemporary Art Studios, 136 St. Philip St.; (843) 722-0697; www.reduxstudios.org.
St. Philip’s Church, 142 Church St.; (843) 722-7734; www.stphilipschurchsc.org.
Berle Shopping Center murals, 1409 Folly Road, James Island; www.webmaster.ccpblogs.com/2008/06/05/photos-the-sickest-murals-in-c harleston.
Angel Oak, 3688 Angel Oak Drive, Johns Island; (843) 559-3496; www.charlestoncity.info/dept/content.aspx?nid(EQUAL)1027.
Terrace Theater, 1956D Maybank Highway; (843) 762-4247; www.terracetheater.com.
Pour House, 1977 Maybank Highway; (843) 571-4343; www.charlestonpourhouse.com.
WHERE TO SHOP
B’zar, 541 King St.; (843) 579-2889; www.shopbzar.com.
Wonderland, 511 King St.; (843) 577-0079; www.wonderlandlove.com.
Global Awakening, 499 King St.; (843) 577-8579; www.globalawakeningmarket.com.
Attic Treasures, 2024 Wappoo Drive; 843-762-0418.
Terrace Oaks Antique Mall, 2037 Maybank Highway; (843) 795-9689; www.terraceoaksantiques.com.