Image: Charleston
Mary Ann Chastain  /  AP
A carriage filled with visitors makes it's way towards St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
updated 7/9/2009 2:54:37 PM ET 2009-07-09T18:54:37

In colonial times, Charleston was America's wealthiest city. Three centuries later it still has an upscale cachet with houses on its historic Battery fetching eight figures and shopping and restaurants rivaling much larger cities.

But you don't need deep pockets to enjoy this town of pastel buildings, narrow alleys and quaint, secluded gardens. Indeed, you can experience much of Charleston, which has a reputation for being the nation's most polite city, for a pittance.

Where to start: It's hard to see Charleston from your car because you'll likely get confused in a tangle of one-way streets. Most folks arrive by car and your first stop should be the Visitor Center on Meeting Street, which is built in an old railroad warehouse and open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. For basic information, visit www.charlestoncity.info or www.charlestoncvb.com.

Here a high-tech video floor offers multimedia displays of attractions. You can also get brochures, maps and make lodging reservations.

With map in hand, you have two options for getting around. You can drive and find a parking garage farther down the peninsula — the city lies between the Ashley and the Cooper rivers which locals like to say form the Atlantic Ocean. Look for directional signs because the garages are sometimes hard to see from the street. Charleston has won awards for designing its garages using shutters and architectural elements making them blend with the streetscape.

Your other, and perhaps best option, is to park by the Visitor Center and board a green DASH trolley bus there. For $5 you can ride all day, and children younger than 6 ride free. There are four routes through the peninsula and you can change buses, making it easy to get to most places of interest.

Touring the town: The best way to get to know, and love Charleston, is walking. There are any number of fine walking tour guides. You can order "Charleston: A Historic Walking Tour" published by Images of America at Amazon.com at a discount before you arrive and get acquainted early. "Seeing Charleston" by Ron Anton Rocz and published by the local Joggling Board Press provides the perspective of a photographer. Spend time wandering historic streets and alleys.

If your budget doesn't permit a guidebook, many homes and buildings have historical markers. Be sure to wander through the oak-shrouded campus of the College of Charleston and stroll the antiques district on lower King Street to do some window shopping.

At the end of the peninsula is White Point Garden, also known as The Battery, with its mossy oaks, monuments and cannon. It's one of the best places to catch the sea breeze on sultry days.

Free faves: After visiting the Battery, wander back up East Bay Street to the city's picturesque Waterfront Park on the Cooper River. Here markers explain the growth of the city and there is a pier where you can pass some time swinging in porch swings. The park has grassy areas for picnics, shaded nooks for reading and a large fountain where youngsters can cool off on hot days for free. Be sure to pack bathing suits for the kids. The park is especially lovely in the evening, with the moon rising over the river and harbor beyond.

Slideshow: Southern comforts From the park, it's just a short walk to the popular open air City Market, where you can see, and if budget permits, buy, everything from Charleston refrigerator magnets to paintings by local artists and jewelry (former President Bill Clinton was seen buying turquoise jewelry from a stand after a campaign stop two Christmases ago).

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Here you also see black artisans weaving sweetgrass baskets, the same baskets their ancestors crafted for centuries on South Carolina's sea island. Watching the weaving is free. Buying the smaller baskets runs $20 to $30 with larger, more ornate baskets, costing well over $100. But that may not seem too expensive considering the long hours the weavers put into their creations.

If you feel like more walking and want a magnificent view, one of the new attractions for visitors and locals alike is the $632 million Ravenel Bridge linking Charleston with Mount Pleasant. The cable-stayed bridge supported by graceful diamond towers has been an attraction in itself since opening four years ago. Most days from sunrise to after dark dozens of people can be seen walking the bridge. Bikes and pedestrians can cross in a pedestrian lane and, at the top, there is a gorgeous view of the harbor, looking out to Fort Sumter, the Sullivans Island lighthouse and the Atlantic beyond. The grade isn't steep, but it is a bit of a hike and the pedestrian lane is 2.7 miles from Charleston to Mount Pleasant. Skateboards, motorized bicycles and inline skates are prohibited.

If by now you haven't seen and walked enough, there are a number of other free attractions in Charleston. The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston offers exhibits through the year as well as permanent displays about sea island life and about Charleston master blacksmith Phillip Simmons, who died in June.

During the school year, the Friday afternoon dress parade at The Citadel, South Carolina's military college, is free. While on the picturesque campus, stop by the Citadel Museum which explores the history of the college.

Eating and snoozing: There are about 275 restaurants on the Charleston peninsula, many of which will put a dent in your monthly paycheck. For those on a budget, there are also street vendors who will sell you a chili dog and a Coke for $5.

If you are wandering through the Market during the morning, $7.50 at the Market Street Bakery & Cafe will get you an iced latte and one of their trademark chocolate eclairs. A few blocks away on King Street, you can get a melt-in-your-mouth Reuben and large iced tea at Ye Old Fashioned Ice Cream & Sandwich Cafe for $8.00. Ben and Jerry's along Market Street is generally crowded on hot summer evenings and you can also cool off insider a few doors down at Kaminsky's Most Excellent Cafe where the smooth milkshakes are $3.95 and cheesecakes, desserts and other confections are offered too.

Lodging is more expensive on the Charleston peninsula and those on a budget will want to check North Charleston, Mount Pleasant and the surrounding areas served by a number of national motel chains. At Charleston's Notso Hostel on the peninsula you can get a room in a dorm and breakfast the next morning for $21 a night.

Travel tips: The best, and most popular, times to visit Charleston are in the spring and the fall. The hottest month is July when temperatures average 82 degrees and with the seaside humidity, can feel much hotter. Dress for warm weather in summer and pack a poncho. Even when the day starts clear, thundershowers tend to roll in many afternoons.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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