Free admission and free parking are not the only draws at the outdoor North Charleston Arts Festival (5000 Coliseum Dr., www.northcharleston.org ), but let’s face it, that’s important. Held beside North Charleston ’s Performing Arts Center & Convention Center, the Festival features music, dance, theater, multicultural performers, and storytellers. There are a lot of kids’ events as well.
Held over three days at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church up towards the Neck, the Charleston Greek Festival (30 Race St., 843/577-2063, www.greekorthodoxchs.org , $3) offers a plethora of live entertainment, dancing, Greek wares, and of course fantastic Greek cuisine cooked by the congregation. Parking is not a problem, and there’s even a shuttle to the church from the lot.
One of Charleston ’s newest annual events is the Charleston International Film Festival (various venues and prices, 843/817-1617, www.charlestonIFF.com ). Despite being a relative latecomer to the film festival circuit, the event is pulled off with Charleston ’s usual aplomb.
The free, weekend-long, outdoor Charleston Harbor Fest (www.charlestonharborfest.org , free) at the Maritime Center on the waterfront is without a doubt one of the coolest events in town for the whole family. You can see and tour working tall ships, and watch master boatwrights at work building new ones. There are free sailboat rides into the harbor and the U.S. Navy provides displays. As if all that weren’t enough, you get to witness the start of the 777-mile annual Charleston-to-Bermuda race , or C2B.
Indisputably Charleston  ’s single biggest and most important event, Spoleto Festival USA (843/579-3100, www.spoletousa.org , varied admission) has come a long way since it was a sparkle in the eye of the late Gian Carlo Menotti three decades ago. Though Spoleto long ago broke ties with its founder, his vision remains indelibly stamped on the event from start to finish.
There’s plenty of music, to be sure, in genres from orchestral to opera to jazz to avant-garde, but you’ll find something in every other performing art here, from dance to drama to spoken word, in traditions from Western to African to Southeast Asian.
For 17 days from Memorial Day weekend through early June, Charleston hops and hums nearly 24 hours a day to the energy of this vibrant, cutting-edge yet accessible artistic celebration, which dominates everything and every conversation for those three weeks. Events happen in historic venues and churches all over downtown and as far as Middleton Place , which hosts the grand finale under the stars.
If you want to come to Charleston during Spoleto—and everyone should at least once—book your accommodations and your tickets far in advance. Tickets usually go on sale in early January for that summer’s festival.
As if all the hubbub around Spoleto didn’t give you enough to do, there’s also Piccolo Spoleto (843/724-7305, www.piccolospoleto.com , various venues and admission), literally “little Spoleto,” running concurrently. The intent of Piccolo Spoleto—begun just a couple of years after the larger festival came to town and run by the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs—is to give local and regional performers a time to shine, sharing some of that larger spotlight on the national and international performers at the main event.
Of particular interest to visiting families will be Piccolo’s children’s events, a good counter to some of the decidedly more adult fare at Spoleto USA.