Best things to do with kids in one of the friendliest cities in the USA
Charleston is such a great city to play in, and these days everyone seems to know it! It's regularly named one of the best and friendliest city in the USA. Because the secret is definitely out, some of the tourist attractions are on the pricey end, but you can take in so much of the history and natural beauty for free with a stroll around the historic downtown.
Photo courtesy: Charlestowne Landing
1/South Carolina Aquarium
100 Aquarium Wharf
Located right on the Charleston harbor, the South Carolina Aquarium is a must-see. 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 show stopper is the Ocean Tank with thousands of fish, sea turtles, and sharks; kids will enjoy the touch tanks, too. Cost: Youth (3-12) $17.95; Adult $24.95.
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: All-day pass $10; 3 and under free.
Charleston is rich in military history; the big ships, fighter jets, and forts are a hit with kids of all ages. Fort Moultrie is situated beachfront on Sullivan’s Island. Learn about its Revolutionary and Civil War history. Fort Sumter is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. This tour includes a boat ride to the fort with a great audio tour. The H.L. Hunley (1250 Supply St.) is a Civil War submarine being restored in a lab. The bravery and trust that it must have taken to work on a sub in the 1800s itself is astounding! 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. 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 bunks and to the top flight deck, where there are lots of planes and helicopters. There's also a submarine and destroyer to explore, as well as the Medal of Honor Museum and the Vietnam Experience.
KidTripster Tip: I regularly take my kids to forts and military museums. They love looking at the big old ships and cool weapons. I love that they’re experiencing history up close and personal; I think the history 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: All (1 and up) $12.
Carriage tours are my favorite way to show off Charleston to visitors. If you’re only going to do one touristy thing, make it a carriage tour. There are several companies that operate the tours; they’re all great, and the tour guides are amazing. Most depart near the historic city market. There are four routes around the historic downtown, and they’re chosen at random; the tour lasts about one hour. Cost: Youth $15 (4-11); Adult $25.
Photo courtesy: Palmetto Carriage Tours
1500 Old Towne Rd.
Across the Ashley River Bridge in an area of Charleston called West Ashley is the site of the first permanent European settlement in South Carolina. Dating back to 1670, Charlestowne Landing 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 third Saturday of the month, there are living history presentations and cannon firings. Charlestowne Landing also has 80 acres of gardens and seven miles of trails; my kids love just exploring. You can even rent bikes from the park ($5/person/hour or $15/day). Cost: Youth (6-16) $6; Adult $10.
The Charleston area has some great parks that you should check out. Mt. Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park (99 Harry M. Hallman Jr. Blvd.) is the place to park, so you can walk on 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 the three Charleston County water parks. At Christmas time, it’s the site of the Festival of Lights.
KidTripster Tip: While you’re on James Island, drive to nearby John’s Island and go see the Angel Oak; this is a must-do in Charleston. This Live Oak tree is estimated to be between 300 and 1500 years old! Its size and beauty have to be experienced; it’s a great place for pictures, 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. 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 kayak tour with Coastal Expeditions. Ferry cost: Youth $20 (1-12); Adult $40. Kayak tour cost: Youth (12 & under) $55; Adult $85.
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 unforgettable. 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. 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. 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 not for everyone, but it may be my favorite. Probably the most popular plantation is Middleton Plantation (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.
Stephanie Hughes Pratt is a former television reporter and mom to two kids, living outside Charleston, South Carolina. She is married to a fellow journalist, and the family has lived all over the USA.. 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.