The best things in life are free.
And if they’re not free, then at least cheap.
And that’s the case with Hampton Park in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.
While officially not in the historic downtown Charleston district, Hampton Park is still on the peninsula. There’s no question Hampton Park is high on my list of the best free things to do in Charleston, South Carolina.
The park sits between 3 neighborhoods and the Citadel Military College:
- Hampton Park Terrace
- Wagener Terrace
- North Central
Welcome to Hampton Park of Charleston, SC
This is by far my favorite park in Charleston. At 60 square acres, it’s the largest park on the peninsula. It’s not the largest in the city of Charleston, an honor that goes to West Ashley Park out past I-526. Still, it’s nice to have a park within walking distance on peninsular Charleston. Best of all, you can go to the middle of it and not see any accoutrements of city living. The major exception is the power lines that cross the middle of the park, but you can just ignore those.
A Little Hampton Park History
Hampton Park has a pretty long history in Charleston. It was first part of a plantation owned by John Gibbes. It was known to locals as the “Orange Grove Plantation” or just “The Grove”. After the Revolutionary War, locals called the area the town of Washington.
When this Charleston plantation was subdivided into lots in the 1800s, the South Carolina Jockey Club purchased a large tract. They used the land to create a race track for racing fanatics of the 1800s to watch the horses. The track is still traceable today. Circular Mary Murray Boulevard traces the outline of the track around the perimeter of Hampton Park.
During the Civil War, the racetrack turned into a camp for Union Prisoners of War. Hundreds of these men died of exposure and disease. They were buried in a mass grave under the park. As soon as the War ended, former slaves built a fence around the grave and held the first Memorial Day parade. By 1871, the cemetery fell into neglect, and the bodies were moved to Beaufort and Florence cemeteries.
Hampton Park in the Early 20th Century
After the South Carolina Jockey Club disbanded, the racetrack passed to the Charleston Library Society. Hampton Park was then the site of a Trade Exposition in the 1920s. The Expo lasted only 7 months despite a visit from President Theodore Roosevelt. Two buildings survive from the financial disaster that was the Exposition:
- the grandstand
- a former tea room that is now the City Parks Department offices
After the Exposition, the city of Charleston gave the park the name Hampton Park. The name comes from Confederate General Wade Hampton III, who was Governor of South Carolina after the War. The city also engaged John Charles Olmsted, adopted son of Frederick Law Olmsted. Frederick Law Olmsted was the famous designer of municipal parks in America, including Central Park in New York City.
John Charles Olmsted designed a spectacular garden that would have stretched all the way to the Ashley River. That part of the plan foundered when the city sold 200 acres of waterfront property to the Citadel. The Citadel Military College used it to expand away from its old property by Marion Square.
Hampton Park in the Late 20th Century
In the mid-20th Century, Hampton Park was beautiful and even included a city zoo and aviary. Most of the animals were from the area (including a lion). The zoo fell into decline in the 1960s and the remaining animals were relocated to Charles Towne Landing in 1975.
The 1970s and early 80s were a low point for the park, though the city began devoting more resources to Hampton Park around that time. The city replanted the garden beds, made efforts to reduce crime, and returned the park to its former glory.
Hampton Park Today
Today, Hampton Park is again gorgeous. Beautiful old trees and rich plantings line the various alleys, walkways, and avenues of the park. Visitors can walk along the perimeter road of Mary Murray Boulevard. Mary Murray Boulevard is almost exactly a mile around, making it a perfect running trail. There are two parking lots along the track: one by Moultrie Street, one closer to the Citadel.
But head deeper into the park to find different exercise stations, as well as the McMahon playground and playing fields. My favorite attraction at the park is the sweeping lawn on the western end of the park. The middle of the park includes a big pond with an impressive fountain, bridge across the pond, and a lot of ducks. Hampton Park used to be the location of the Piccolo Spoleto Finale. That event grew too big for the park and has since moved to Middleton Place.
The Beauty of Living Near Hampton Park
There are plenty of opportunities to get lost in the well-planted nooks and crannies of Hampton Park. This off the regular tourist path Charleston attraction is worth checking out while you’re visiting downtown. Even just bringing a hammock or lounging in the grass is a splendid way to spend the afternoon.
The Benefits of Hampton Park Real Estate
Hampton Park neighborhoods are more lived-in than some neighborhoods further down the peninsula. Many of those are over-run with either the super wealthy or college kids (and sometimes both).
Even this far up the peninsula, houses are stupid expensive. But Hampton Park neighborhood rentals are still reasonable.
Restaurants and Bars Near Hampton Park
Some cool places to check out nearby include Hampton Park’s own tavern, Moe’s Crosstown. Moe’s Crosstown Tavern is in my humble opinion one of the best bars in Charleston, SC. A Tuesday afternoon spent in Hampton Park followed by a hamburger on Half-Priced Burger night at Moe’s would be an amazing Tuesday indeed. Walk up another block to visit the Park Cafe,.
You can also check-out Harold’s Cabin, the newest addition to the list of casual restaurants in Charleston. Harold’s Cabin just opened a few blocks down from Hampton Park at the corner of President and Congress Streets.
Hotels and Places to Stay Near Hampton Park in Downtown Charleston, SC
Part of the beauty of the Hampton Park neighborhoods is how not touristy they are. As such, there aren’t any hotels within a short walk.
That said, there are places within a 20-minute walk or so. The chain hotels near Brittlebank Park on Lockwood Avenue. Other chain hotels on Upper King Street are likely the next best options. While chain hotels, they are some of the best places to stay in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.
How to Plan a Romantic Hampton Park Wedding
An evening stroll is one of the most fun things to do in Charleston, SC, at night. But in reality, walking around Hampton Park anytime is a fun and free thing to do for couples.
Fitting for a romantic locale, Hampton Park is also ideal for a Charleston wedding. Getting married in Charleston parks is relatively inexpensive. The big bonus with this park is that it’s not as touristy. Hopefully there won’t be as many dudes wearing fanny packs under their guts to match their socks and sandals ruining every photo of your wedding. As a bigger venue, Hampton Park also allows more people. Weddings are limited to just 30 people (including the bride and groom) at White Point Gardens. By comparison, weddings as large as 100 people are held at Hampton Park. A permit to hold your Charleston wedding at Hampton Park requires an event permit of $400 from the city of Charleston.
All of the Best Things to Do in Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina
There’s a lot to do here:
- wander around
- feed the ducks
- get married
- eat nearby
Or just chill out on the grass while you’re exploring all the fun things to do in Charleston, SC.