Best things to do with kids in one of the most beautiful cities in the USA
Besides being one of the USA’s most beautiful cities, Charleston is an ideal destination for exploring American history dating back to 1670. It’s also played an important part in American military history - both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars - and still plays a role today. Much of the city’s history can be seen for free. And there’s certainly no charge for strolling Charleston’s picturesque and historic downtown.
Photo courtesy: Charles Towne Landing
1/South Carolina Aquarium
100 Aquarium Wharf
Located right on the Charleston harbor, the South Carolina Aquarium is a must-see attraction. The aquarium is broken up into the different regions of South Carolina from the mountains to the coastal Lowcountry and showcases animals from each area. The showstopper is the Ocean Tank with thousands of fish, sea turtles, and sharks; kids will enjoy the touch tanks, too. Cost: Youth (2 and under) Free; Youth (3-12) $22.95; Adult $29.95.
2/Charleston Water Taxi
One of the best ways to see Charleston is by water, and the cheapest way to do it is the Charleston Water Taxi. The water taxi links Mt. Pleasant (Patriots Point or Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina) and historic downtown Charleston (Waterfront Park or Aquarium Wharf). It runs every hour from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. It takes about 30 minutes to cross the harbor. Use it as transportation or just a cheap way to see the shoreline. You’ll get gorgeous views of Charleston and Mt. Pleasant’s Patriots Point and the Ravenel Bridge. You’ll definitely see pelicans and will probably see at least one dolphin. Cost: Youth (3 and under) Free; All-day pass $12.
Fort Moultrie National Monument is situated along the beach on Sullivan’s Island. Here your family can learn about its role from the Revolutionary War through World War II. You can catch a daily guided tour at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. or simply take a self-guided tour. Cost: Youth (15 and under) Free; Adult $3; Family (Up to four adults) $5.
Fort Sumter National Monument is where the first shots of the Civil War rang out. It’s free to visit, but you will have to buy tickets from an authorized concession-operated ferry, as the fort is only accessible by boat as part of a 2-1/2-hour tour. Kids can complete the scavenger hunt and discover hidden mysteries as part of the Junior Ranger program. Boat cost: Youth (under 3) Free; Youth $14; Adult $22. Make sure to book online in advance.
The H.L. Hunley (1250 Supply St.) is a Civil War submarine that’s currently being restored in a lab. You can visit on Saturdays and Sundays; the rest of the week, scientists continue to preserve the world’s first combat submarine. After taking the guided tour, you’ll appreciate the bravery that it must have taken to work on a sub in the 1800s. Online ticket cost: Youth (Under 5) Free; Youth (6-17) $8; Adult $16, plus service charge. Walk-up tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Citadel (171 Moultrie St.) is the military college of South Carolina. Free dress parades are held on most Friday afternoons. Kids will love to watch the cadets marching with swords and riffles to the sounds of drums, bagpipes, and a marching band. Cannons are fired at the end. Check the schedule here; keep in mind, there are no parades during school breaks or during the summer.
Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum (40 Patriots Point Rd., Mt Pleasant) offers the mac daddy of military tours in Charleston. The centerpiece of this naval museum complex is the U.S.S. Yorktown aircraft carrier. Kids and adults can explore all over the ship from the kitchen to the bunk rooms to the top flight deck where there are lots of planes and helicopters. See the submarine and destroyer, as well as the Medal of Honor Museum and the Vietnam Experience. Online ticket cost: Youth (under 6) Free; Youth (6-11) $16; Adult $24.
KidTripster Tip: I regularly take my kids to forts and military museums. They enjoy looking at the big ships and cool weapons. I love that they’re experiencing history up close; I think the lessons sink in better.
Photo courtesy: Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum
4/Children's Museum of the Lowcountry
25 Ann St.
Perfect for kids ages 10 and under, the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry offers nine hands-on exhibits, including a two-story medieval castle, pirate ship, and dedicated art room. This is a great place to let the kids just play! Cost: Non-South Carolina residents (1 and up) $12.
If you’re only going to do one touristy thing while in Charleston, make it a carriage tour. There are several companies that operate tours; all do an excellent job and employ incredibly knowledgable guides. Most depart near Charleston’s Historic City Market. There are four routes around historic downtown, and they’re chosen at random. Tours typically last about an hour. Cost: Youth starts around $16 ; Adult starts around $26.
KidTripster Tip: While you’re near Charleston’s Historic City Market, stop in for an ice cream cone at Kilwins (59 S. Market St.). Just follow the scent of waffle cones! And be sure to try some some pecan pralines. Just ask for a sample.
Photo courtesy: Palmetto Carriage Works
6/Charles Towne Landing
1500 Old Towne Rd.
Across the Ashley River Bridge in an area of Charleston called West Ashley, you’ll find the site of the first permanent European settlement in South Carolina. Dating back to 1670, Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site (1500 Old Towne Rd.) has a museum, self-guided history trail, and a 17th-century replica ship called the Adventure that you can tour. There’s also the Animal Forest, which is home to animals that lived in this area back in 1670, like bison, black bear, puma, elk, and others. On the weekends, there are living history presentations and cannon firings. Charles Towne Landing also has 80 acres of gardens and seven miles of trails. You can rent bikes to explore the park. Admission cost: Youth (5 and under) Free; Youth (6-15) $6.50; Adult $10. Bike rental: $5/person/hour or $15/person/day.
Photo courtesy: Charles Towne Landing
The Charleston area has some great parks that you should check out. At Mt. Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park (99 Harry M. Hallman Jr. Blvd.) you can walk onto the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, the gorgeous cable bridge that connects Charleston to Mt. Pleasant. There’s a fantastic, nautical-themed playground here and a fishing pier. James Island County Park (871 Riverland Dr.) has a climbing wall, paved trails, campground, and in the summer, it’s one of three Charleston County water parks. At Christmas time, it’s the site of the Festival of Lights.
While you’re on James Island, drive to nearby John’s Island to see the Angel Oak. This is a must-do in Charleston. This Live Oak tree is thought to be at least 400 years old, but some contend it’s 1,500 years old! Its size and beauty have to be experienced. From tip to tip, its longest branch is around 187 feet in length. It’s a great place for photos but no climbing.
8/Bulls Island Ferry
498 Bulls Island Rd., Awendaw
The Bulls Island Ferry operated by Coastal Expeditions takes you to the undeveloped barrier island that it’s named for, part of the magical Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge. Your naturalist captain will give you a fascinating lesson on this precious ecosystem during your 30-minute ferry ride. Once you arrive, walk down Alligator Alley (there are an estimated 800 alligators on the island!) and make sure you get to Boneyard Beach, a 1-1/2-mile stretch of skeletonized oaks and cedars that have been stranded in the surf due to natural erosion. Ferries depart on various days at 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and return at noon and 4 p.m. Take the early ferry, so you can stay all day. Ferry cost: Youth $20; Adult $40.
KidTripster Tip: Don’t forget to wear good walking shoes and pack water, food, sunscreen, and bug spray.
If you have tweens or teens, you may want to opt for a paddleboard or kayaking tour with Coastal Expeditions. Paddleboard tour cost: Youth $40; Adult $52. Kayak tour cost: Youth $45; Adult $65.
Charleston is just 15 minutes from three beautiful beaches. To the east areIsle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island and to the west is Folly Beach. The county parks at IOP and Folly are probably the easiest for out-of-towners. Both have parking, bathrooms, lifeguards, playgrounds, and fishing piers. Parking cost: $8-10.
Photo courtesy: Visit Folly Beach
Plantations, and yes slavery, were a way of life in the pre-Civil War South. There are four plantations that you can visit in the Charleston area to learn about the history, both good and bad.
Boone Hall Plantation (1235 Long Point Rd.) in Mt. Pleasant is the oldest operating plantation in the area. Get your cameras ready; its Avenue of Oaks is Instagram-worthy. The house tour can be hard for wiggly kids, but the nine original slave quarters with the self-guided Black History in America exhibit are not to be missed. Cost: Youth (5 and under) Free; Youth (6-12) $12; Adult $24.
The other three plantations in the area are all located along the same road in West Ashley. Magnolia Plantation (3550 Ashley River Rd.) is a great place to walk and explore nature. There’s an on-site zoo, multiple gardens, rice field boat tour, and plantation train tour that leads you through the marsh, lakes, and forests on the property. Cost: Youth (5 and under) Free; Youth (6-12) $10; Adult $20. Drayton Hall (3380 Ashley River Rd.) is very different from all of the other plantations. It’s the oldest plantation home in America. The main feature here is the empty house and its gorgeous architecture. It’s my favorite, though admittedly, it’s not for everyone. Cost: Youth (7 and under) Free; Youth (8-14) $25; Adult $32. Probably the most popular plantation is Middleton Place (4300 Ashley River Rd.). The house here isn’t as old as Drayton Hall, but it’s more authentic than the other two plantations. It has formal landscaped gardens, and the Plantation Stableyards feature costumed interpreters, describing life in the 1800s. Cost: Youth (5 and under) Free; Youth (6-13) $10; Youth (14+ with ID) $15; Adult $29.
Stephanie Hughes Pratt is a former television reporter and mom to two kids, living outside Charleston, South Carolina. She suffers from a severe case of wanderlust and is always looking for the next great adventure.
This writer received some complimentary activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.