Charleston, South Carolina, is famous for its churches – it is called the Holy City, after all – and its stunning gardens. The city is full of free parks and top public gardens for your enjoyment. The azaleas in spring have no rival, the roses, petunias, and impatiens of summer are gorgeous, and the mums and Knockout Roses of autumn always draw a crowd.
But in winter? Yep. This is the South, after all. We shiver and complain about it being nippy at 50 degrees; by 40, we are in long johns. But the flowers bloom on in Charleston, South Carolina. As a matter of fact, the camelias don’t even open their eyes until November, and some varieties will not show their beautiful faces until February. Other flowers and berries put on a show all winter long. Cedar and yew, wax myrtle and juniper, are all covered in berries. The native holly trees are covered in red balls that would put a Christmas tree to shame.
A bonus – the tenacious blooms that remain attract many a butterfly and insect. Until there is a hard freeze, many of the fall flowers just keep blooming. The usual time for hard freezes and frosts in Charleston is between December 10 and February 6, but many years are mild, and the gardens tucked away from the cold wind will continue to delight.
You will even find citrus trees growing in the gardens – yes, in South Carolina! The climate allows for an astonishing variety along the South Carolina coastline. Oh, and did I mention the seed pods? Those dried-up blooms will produce the lovely blossoms of summer in just a few more months. They are beautiful just as they are in winter, and birdwatchers will enjoy the feeding frenzy they can cause.
I get it—who wants to visit a southern plantation when it is cold or dreary. You feel like you won’t get your money’s worth if you arrive later and leave earlier, counting on the mid-day warmth for your visit. Well, I’m here to tell you—you don’t have to. Charleston, courtesy of the Charleston Parks Conservancy and their partnership with several agencies, has plenty of free parks and gardens for you to visit. Here are some favorites worth exploring.
Charleston’s Free Parks and Gardens
One of my favorites is Hampton Park. Hampton is one of the city’s largest parks and its most extensive garden – it even has parking and restroom facilities. Hampton Park includes an old rose collection, seasonal displays, and many trees and shrub species native to the South Carolina Lowcountry. The park is tucked between a historic neighborhood and the Citadel. You may spot cadets on the fitness trail that circles the park.
Allan Park is a historic park reimaged as a neighborhood gem, a quiet half-acre on a side street close to Hampton Park. Benches surround a beautiful fountain. Thousands of plants, trees, and shrubs line this park, planted by more than 50 volunteers. It has become a popular spot for concerts and neighborhood gatherings.
And there is the historic Colonial Lake. This lake has been a popular spot for over 150 years. Neighborhood residents take their daily walk or jog on the path that encircles the park. Since the lake is a tidal pond, you may spot anglers trying their luck—you can sit and watch them from one of the benches. In 2016, the Conservancy worked with the City of Charleston to improve the Colonial Lake area. Five million dollars later, improvements were in place, as well as more than 20,000 plants. A wire frame Christmas tree graces the lake’s center during December.
A hidden jewel is Chapel Street Fountain Park, found only one block from Meeting Street. Although only a block from busy downtown, the quiet grassy area is perfect for a picnic or just a few tranquil minutes on a shady bench. The iron fountain that dominates this park’s center is surrounded by garden plants that soothe the eyes all year round. Park volunteers from the surrounding neighborhood help with plantings and maintenance.
Just down the block from Fountain Park, you will find Tiedemann Park and Nature Center. This park has room for kids and dogs to play, but it also has a trough-like depression filled with plants that love water and help with soil loss. There is a nature center that conducts environmental education programs. They also have reptile and amphibian displays.
Another jewel is historic Wragg Square. Upon the passing of John Wragg in 1801, his estate was divided. The land for this park was donated to “the people of Charleston.” Surrounded by a historic brick wall and wrought-iron fence (plus the fact that the park is six steps up from the sidewalk) secrets the park from passersby, and many Charlestonians do not even know about this spot. Wragg Square is centered around a large Grecian urn, surrounded by benches.
White Point Garden is probably one of the best-known gardens. Although often referred to incorrectly as “Battery Park” in conversation (and in some guidebooks and web sites), the City of Charleston considers these two separate entities. This six-acre garden is in the Battery (a battery is a defensive seawall and promenade) and across the street from the High/Low Battery. White Point is bordered by historical markers, cannon, and monuments. The garden’s center holds a gazebo (I can almost hear a band tuning up) and row upon row of stately live oak trees.
High/Low Promenade (or Park) has a low, street-level part and a higher promenade. The high part is some steps up from the street level. This promenade is one of the most recognizable locations in Charleston. The walk overlooks Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney, the WWII carrier the USS Yorktown (CV-10), Fort Moultrie, and Sullivan’s Island. The term “Battery Park” is not an official designation.
Corrine Jones Park takes the idea of a neighborhood garden to a literal definition. The Conservancy has received several grants to build a new community garden. The raised beds hold vegetables, and some contain flowers. Beginning gardener classes allow new gardeners to learn to start seeds and what varieties are heat and cold tolerant. They learn how to produce the plants that shaped the Lowcountry’s history. Produce is also raised in instructional beds and then donated to local food pantries. More than a ton of produce has been donated each year since the garden’s inception.
Marion Square is 10-acres of constant activity. This busy public park is the home of a farmer’s market every week and the location for many festivals. You’ll be surrounded by locals and visitors alike, picnicking, sunbathing, reading, or just taking it easy. Over 1,500 plants have been installed, and more than 4,000 daffodil bulbs herald the coming of spring. With all these plantings, something is blooming nearly year-round. In a city where history is always present, this park’s colonial roots make it a verified national landmark. Marion Square is located on a land that was conveyed in 1758 to the colony of South Carolina, originally to be used for a defensive wall against the local Native Americans.
From 1840 until 1922 Marion Square was known as Citadel Green, and used by the military school until the school moved across town. Ownership at that time passed to the Washington Light Infantry and the Sumter Guards, who prevented the park from being turned into a parking lot, or a shopping center. Ten acres of land in downtown Charleston is premium property.
All of these beautiful gardens rate a visit anytime, but you also want to remember these spots in the summer. When you are hoofing it all over downtown Charleston, a bench in the shade by a bubbling fountain can refresh even the most travel-weary tourist.
WHEN YOU GO:
Most of these parks are open from sunrise to sunset but you can check websites to be sure.
You can easily walk to many of the parks and gardens or take the free city trolley. Just for fun, you can even call the Charleston Bike Taxi (a rickshaw). If exercise is your thing, you can rent a bike from Holy Spokes and pedal to these yourself. Of course, a carriage tour is always fun, but you can’t hop on and off when you want.
There is no shortage of things to do in Charleston. The visitor’s bureau has a website full of ideas and a book they will send you before your visit. If you aren’t completely exhausted after visiting all the gardens, here are a few of my favorite downtown things to do: Carriage Ride Tours, Ghost Tours, browsing the shops and booths at historic City Market, in operation since 1804, and watching the sweetgrass basket weaving of the ladies using Gullah techniques
Places to stay overnight in the downtown area abound. A few located within a comfortable walk of these parks are: Lodge Alley, Days Inn, the Ansonborough Inn, the Dewberry Inn, and Embassy Suites—a former Citadel Military College building now on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
Charleston has eateries on every corner and in most of the buildings in between. You can pretty much take the map and “throw a dart” on where to dine. Here are just a few that you will pass in walking the downtown streets.
Hyman’s Seafood – Yes, it is crowded and usually has a line—for a good reason. Try the Shrimp and Grits or Carolina Delight appetizer. Don’t miss the complimentary bowl of boiled peanuts.
Le Macaron French Pastries – This is just a few doors down from Hyman’s—so save some room for desert. They have other treats too, like gelato, chocolates, coffees, beignets, and other pastries. But come on – they have salted caramel macarons. Need I say more?
82 Queen – The restaurant features award-winning dining in three buildings or the adjoining garden courtyard, and is located in Charleston’s Historic French Quarter. Yes, with a history anchored in French Huguenots, Charleston may boast the country’s original French Quarter.
Magnolias Restaurant – Magnolias is conveniently located downtown. Give their southern twist on egg rolls a try. The roll is stuffed with chicken, Tasso ham, and collards. Yes, please!
Featured image – Iconic live oak / Jo Clark.
Jo Clark is a recently retired teacher who is focusing on traveling with partner Darrel Mellies. They are road tripping, photographing, and writing about beautiful places, great food, and delicious wines; their articles and photographs may be seen at Have Glass, Will Travel and Photography by Darrel.