Do you find yourself in one of those places where spring never seems to happen until long after the calendar says so? Easy fix – plan a trip to Charleston, where it's all about to go down – daffodils, chirping birds, warmer days, the works. One problem: Everybody likes Charleston, particularly in the springtime – this can drive the cost of a visit far higher than it ought to be, even if it is one of North America's most charming small cities. Don’t get sucked into spending the college fund: The truth about Charleston is that the best thing is just being there – the details aren't so crucial. Here's a handy guide that should help you keep costs down.
Affordable hotels in Charleston? That's a laugh. (Well, sort of.)
Charleston's best hotels win all sorts of awards for good reason – they're wonderful and charming and often quite luxurious. It's best, however, to think of the city as Manhattan in miniature – here too, it's mostly about demand. If you're pricing out a weekend in, say, April and are impressed by the number of options going for $400, $500 a night – it's not that these are the world's most opulent and amazing hotels, it's just that everyone else wants to go too. You can fight to find a budget bed in the historic district, but unless it's the depths of low season, when everything's on sale, apart from a couple of less than thrilling options (the dated Days Inn comes to mind), you're going to get a lot more for your money across the Ashley River. This brings you to a part of Charleston that's not quite so famous, one with a ton of affordable hotels, quite literally minutes from the action. Here, recognizable chain properties, some offering rates of less than $99 a night at certain times of the year, mix it up with great indies like the Town & Country Inn & Suites, starting around $150, even on some very busy weekends. And there's no need to cross the river every time you want to eat – this part of Charleston has its fair share of good restaurants, too. (Try Swig & Swine for BBQ and beers, Early Bird Diner for great regional breakfasts, Boxcar Betty for famous fried chicken sandwiches.) Value hunters will have similar luck on the other side of the historic district in Mount Pleasant, an upscale suburb with great access to the beach; in the historic part of town, the charming Old Village Post House Inn is a great find, with starting rates of $99. If price is the only concern, look no further than the area of North Charleston surrounding the airport – here, smart chains like Aloft and Hyatt Place can be booked quite cheaply for much of the year. From all of these areas, the historic core is between 10-20 minutes by car, tops. Bonus: Charleston has Uber, so those flying in don't have to feel pressured to rent wheels to get around – you can get downtown from the airport and most places in the 'burbs for about $15. (More on that below.)
See the city without spending a penny.
The great pleasure of Charleston is to explore a place that probably looks nothing like where you come from – if you've never been, the main thing to do is to see as much of it as you can on foot. (For sure, bring comfortable walking shoes.) From the historic City Market to the nearly-ancient architecture that surrounds it, the famous pineapple fountain at Waterfront Park and the miles of seawall wrapping around the city's historic core, there's a lot to take in without going very far. Then there are the terrific shopping areas along the likes of King Street, which deserve to be walked end to end – stop at Marion Square, a hub of local social life and home to both Thursday night movies (Apr-May) and a great Saturday morning market in season (Apr-Nov). One of the most impressive pieces of local architecture is one of the newest – the stunning Ravenel Bridge soars above and over the Cooper River, connecting Charleston to suburban Mount Pleasant. It's not just for cars, either – a path at the top of Bay Street takes you up and over for a thrilling if lengthy round-trip, offering views for days. Temperatures rising? Charleston is surrounded by water – make like a local and hit the beaches, which are everywhere. (Not to play favorites, but laid-back Sullivan's Island is kind of the best.) At the very least, head near water – at the Mount Pleasant end of the big bridge, you have two excellent open spaces – Memorial Waterfront Park, which includes the remnants of the old bridge, and Shem Creek Park with its boardwalk offering views of both the natural surroundings and Charleston's handsome little skyline.
Cheap eats, Charleston style.
Charleston is one of those towns where food is almost as important as politics and maybe even a little more important than religion. It can also be quite expensive. From the first meal to day's end, it really does pay to watch your wallet when eating out. Skip the better-known breakfast spots – some of them are absurdly overpriced anyway – and instead drop by the Marina Variety Store, looking out to the Ashley River; in the restaurant, a breakfast combo special starts at only $5.99. For lunch, newer hotspots spots like Two Boroughs Larder make it easy to pop in and out without overspending – a noodle bowl option allows you to assemble your own ramen lunch from about $12 per bowl, while the popular Artisan Meat Share butchery sells excellent sandwiches priced between $7 and $12 (try the hot fried chicken and biscuit, or their tasty take on the banh mi), plus great sides like macaroni and cheese and bean salad for a couple of bucks each. Need a drink? Tank up at some excellent happy hours – stop in for a couple of $4 craft beers at Parlor Deluxe, a popular new soda fountain and hot dog shop known for their beer floats, every weekday from 4-7pm. At the so-hot-right-now northern end of town, everything on the happy hour menu – including tasty snacks – is $4 at Edmund's Oast, a top beer bar. And while top dinner spot The Ordinary is far from on the budget, would it hurt to stop in for their oyster happy hour ($1.50/each, Tues-Fri, 5-6:30pm)? No. No it wouldn't. Sit-down evening meals don't have to break the bank – celeb chef Sean Brock's known for the high-end Husk; skip that and instead try Minero, his curious Lowcountry-influenced Mexican joint that gets raves for its catfish taco (no, really!), served with green tomato tartar and crisp cabbage, a good deal at $4 each. (There's also a glammed-up burrito for $10.) Way, way up King Street, the fun and informal Spero is open for dinner as well as lunch – drop in for some local clams, an order of mussels, inventive steamed buns and a great barbecued lamb sandwich, all at refreshingly accessible prices. Not trying to turn your evening into a whole thing? The divey and much-liked Griffon, a relaxed pub near most popular downtown hotels, does a good fish and chips for $9.99 – try the soups, too.
To car or not to car?
Unless you've got designs on a Lowcountry road trip (those who have the time really ought to twin a Charleston visit with some time in Savannah, the other historic gem in the region), Charleston's a very small town, not to mention a relatively safe and walkable one. With Uber making it easy to navigate the bridges after a fun night out and a handful of Zipcars available downtown should you feel the beaches calling your name, there's really no need to burden yourself with a car here, at all. For those staying in the city, what you'll save on hotel overnight parking charges alone makes this a smart move. If you're stuck with wheels and can't get rid of them, the city maintains a series of parking structures with a daily maximum of $16 – some, such as the garage located next to Marion Square, are manned 24/7.