Charleston is world renowned for its friendly and hospitable people. Combine that with gorgeous beaches, a rich history and some of the yummiest food ever and you’ve got yourself a perfect family vacation destination. Here are my top ten things to do in Charleston with kids …
1. South Carolina Aquarium. Located directly on the beautiful Charleston harbor, the aquarium is educational in mission and style, a total must see. There are examples of marine life and ecosystems from the upstate of SC to the shore and beyond. The biggest exhibit includes a great ocean tank housing thousands of different species of fish as well as sharks and a loggerhead sea turtle. While the aquarium does not actually keep Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins inside, generally all you need to do is walk out onto their terrace and you can watch them in their natural habitat, which is even better if you ask me. Check out their website for special offerings, and if you have the time, you can also take a behind the scenes tour of the Sea Turtle Hospital, which helps rehabilitate and release sea turtles from all over the east coast.
2. The Charleston Water Taxi. While this particular business is co-owned by my brother in law, I would still recommend it even if that were not the case. Even though Charleston is super walkable, sometimes you just need to take a load off. The Taxi is cheap (10 dollars – ride all day!) and is a great way to see the Holy City from a different perspective. Again, the dolphins are everywhere, it only takes about 30 minutes to get across and if you park on the Mt. Pleasant side of the harbor, parking is ample and free, both of which are rarities in our lovely city by the sea.
3. Also conveniently located on the Charleston Harbor is Patriot’s Point. The crown jewel in this naval museum complex is the USS Yorktown, a heralded aircraft carrier turned war memorial. Your kids will love this one, I promise. Not only is the ship gigantic, there is so much to see. Not much of it is off limits, so you really do get to check out all the good stuff, plus there are aircraft, a flight simulator and other touch stations that bring the experience alive. (Note: If it is August or September when you visit, be warned – there is no climate control and it’s hotter than seven hells.)
4. The Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge, locally known as the Cooper River Bridge, is a beautiful and very pedestrian friendly bridge that is suitable for almost anyone to walk on. I’d say four to five year olds and up could swing it at a leisurely pace. It’s free, it’s gorgeous and it provides an amazing view. You can see for several miles out into the ocean and beyond. There is always a breeze up there and it’s perfectly safe – the guard rail is very high and there is a thick and tall cement barricade between auto and foot traffic. There is also a wonderful park complete with playground and pier near the base of the bridge on the Mt. Pleasant side, perfect for spending an afternoon doing something fun and free!
5. Plantations – I’m going to string these all together because there are several all located near each other in the West Ashley area of Charleston. Drayton Hall, Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens are each outstanding examples of plantation life and each boasts it’s own particular claim to historic fame. All have beautiful grounds and gardens, educational activities that provide hands on learning as well as the museum house itself. Located in a line down the Ashley River, these plantations are a must. In the East Cooper area of town is Boone Hall, which was recently made famous (again) by being the location for the nuptials of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds. Boone Hall has a world famous avenue of oaks (major photo op) and also has tons of hands on activities perfect for engaging kids. There is tons of gorgeous space, perfect for picnicking with your children, or just letting them run off some steam.
6. The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. Located on the Meeting Street “Museum Mile,” the children’s museum is perfect for taking a breather from all that walking around Charleston with kids in tow. There is an enormous art room, a medieval “castle” for pretending, puppets and dress up. There’s a water room (plastic aprons provided), a grocery store, a fishing boat replica and many other stations for kids to play. There are always lots of kids at the museum, so your child will basically have instant friends to hang out with. The staff is super friendly and helpful, making this stop a must, especially if you have kids under ten.
7. And here’s the biggest draw of all in my opinion…the BEACH! Charleston is fronted by several barrier islands and therefore we have some spectacular beaches. There are county parks located at Kiawah and the Isle of Palms and I’m a huge fan of them – I buy a county park pass every year solely for beaching it. Parking, restrooms, showers and snack bars make the county parks an amazing resource for visiting families. There are several other awesome public beaches as well, including Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach and Edisto Beach. Edisto is typically the least crowded but it’s also the furthest away from Charleston. Long story short, you can’t go wrong with any of these because of the built in entertainment and the affordability. During the summer, we usually go at least 3-4 times a month.
8. Vickery’s– located on Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant, Vickery’s has good food, reasonable prices and is totally low-key and casual. The view is amazing – shrimp trawlers come and go all day long, you can walk the docks where they pull in to sell the seafood, there are almost always dolphins to watch and they have the best Bloody Marys in town.
9. Poe’s Tavern. At one point, Sullivan’s Island was home to author Edgar Allen Poe, who apparently was known not only for his gift of dark storytelling, but also for his love of good food and drink as well. Taking a cue from the writer, Poe’s is located about a block from the beach and has amazing food. The vibe is casual and relaxed, the food is delicious and the location is awesome.
10. Hominy Grill, The Kickin’ Chicken and Mellow Mushroom. I have these lumped together because they are all casual, all yummy, all reasonable, all located on the Charleston peninsula, all “local”. Kickin’ Chicken has great sports watching without being somewhere you wouldn’t take your kids and super delicious wings. Mellow Mushroom has great pizza and a laid back vibe and head to Hominy Grill for amazing local/regional food including world famous shrimp and grits. Yum.
Notes: The Charleston peninsula is where the historic district is in all its fabulous glory. It is extremely walkable but has horrendous parking, what with being four hundred years old and all, and the parking enforcement people do not play. Do yourself a favor and leave your car in a parking garage and get out on foot. Wear comfortable shoes and sunscreen. If you come in the summer, it is extremely hot – stay hydrated!
Got any tips of your own for navigating Charleston with kids? Leave them in the comments!