“Look mom, this one says 1820!” called my 11 year-old, pointing to a sign on the building we strolled by in downtown Charleston. “You think it looked exactly the same back then?” We’d intentionally gotten lost on a side street just to see what we might find. This South Carolina city begs visitors to take your time. Walking its cobblestoned streets of palm tree-framed houses, you can learn more about the people who shaped our country – while creating family memories.
Surrounded by water on three sides, downtown Charleston is relatively compact. You can park in one location – versus feeding the meter all day – and visit many places on foot. That’s what our family did, leaving the car near the maritime center, right near some tour-ferry gates and aquarium.
Heading south, we encountered seaside parks and playgrounds along with historical markers seemingly around every corner.
Follow Meeting Street and you’re on Charleston’s Museum Mile. Be sure to hit the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon. Here, kids learn about Revolutionary and Civil war history. And pirates! That’s right: Blackbeard once skulked these streets, too ($10/adults, $5/ages 7-12, free/6 and under)
Save time to go through the city market, also, where vendors sell everything from food to souvenirs.
Sail to Fort Sumter
The site of the start of the American Civil War, this spot now offers three activities for one ticket. Begin at the National Park Service Visitor Education Center to see displays on the fort’s history. Then, take the 30-minute ferry ride to the fort, which is located farther out in the harbor – you’ll see the city’s skyline and kids may even spot a dolphin or two (get in the ferry line early for the best seats).
At Sumter, walk by the rock-lined walls and take pictures next to the cannons. An indoor museum catalogues the April day in 1861 when Confederate soldiers fired on the Union-held fort. The tour, including ride, is about two-and-a-half hours ($19/adults, $12/ages 4-11, free/3 and under).
Back near the dock, at Liberty Square, visit the South Carolina Aquarium for an up-close peek at alligators, sea turtles and, come spring, shark exhibit ($24.95/adults, $17.95/ages 3-12, free/under 3).
There are several plantations to visit. We chose Boone Hall for its emphasis on African-American history. You could easily spend a day here, going on tours and exploring. A standout is the Gullah Culture talk (gullah is a term for descendents of slaves in this region). A period-dressed educator talks about the lives of the slaves who once worked here and their traditions ($20/adults, $10/ages 6-12, free/5 and under).
In nearby Patriots Point, explore the USS Yorktown, a massive naval carrier that’s now a floating World War II memorial. Kids will love seeing aircraft like Tomcats, Hornets and Skyhawks on the flight deck ($20/adults, $12/ages 6-11, free/under 6).
Start – or end – your days walking Charleston’s beaches. We heard raves about the Isle of Palms but headed to Sullivan’s Island (near Patriots Point) and Folly Beach. Most residents seemed to steer clear of the beach in the cooler weather, but for Midwesterners like us, the mid-60s temps were just right!
Six family-friendly places to eat
Part of what makes a trip to Charleston memorable is the food. These affordable eateries will keep your kids full and primed for their next adventure.
- Kitchen 208. For breakfast or brunch along King Street, order the buttermilk-fried chicken with gravy or a waffle sandwich – both are big enough to share!
- Brown Dog Deli. For a quick lunch, choose a table outside at this creative salad, sandwich and wrap shop.
- Fire Street Food. Your kids can get a bowl of noodles while you opt for sushi rolls at this casual downtown restaurant.
- Swig & Swine. For lip-smacking Southern barbecue, try their smoked pork belly, brisket, pulled pork and collard greens.
- Page’s Okra Grill. Fried-green tomatoes, shrimp and grits – you’ll find some of the best here. Arrive early for dinner to avoid long lines.
- King Street Cookies. With trays of tempting cookies, it can be hard to choose just a few. Our favorite? George Washington’s Revenge, loaded with dried cherries and dark chocolate chunks.