Things to Do in Charleston SC with Kids
American cities are not always known for outdoor fun; in some states crossing a highway can make the heart pump faster than running a marathon. But Charleston, South Carolina is a hospitable, walkable city with dozens of family friendly activities. I recently visited some of its best attractions, parks, restaurants and museums, and in this post, sponsored by the tourist board, I profile a glorious 30 things to do in Charleston SC with kids…
Charleston is a woman. Hey what?
“There’s a saying that Charleston is a woman when she first comes to an American town. Whereas Savannah is what she looks like when she’s been there ten years.” laughs a friend when I mention I’m going to visit the South Carolina city. He’s the first person I know that has visited. Maybe that’s not surprising; it’s not exactly New York or Orlando on the bucket list of Brexit-confused Brits. But all this could be about to change with the introduction of a new British Airways direct flight from Heathrow to the city. Michael Bennett, the owner of Hotel Bennett the city’s newest luxury hotel (more about that later) tells me it’s the smallest destination the flight carrier has ever served that isn’t an island community.
If Charleston is a woman she took on a different appearance after Hurricane Hugo. “Our pride changed in how we looked,” says Doug Warner, Director of Media Relations for Explore Charleston, explaining how the city was revamped in the hurricane’s wake. And the look of Charleston is an important part of her character. There’s an appealing mix of colours, attractive low lying architecture and water in the city. King Street, with its eclectic shops and restaurants, is a fashionable draw. And the horses and carts take the pace down when you are wandering around. But it’s not all about looks – Charleston’s personality is as warm and friendly as the sun that shines all the time on my visit. I walk everywhere, in the old town and elsewhere; down back streets that are not polished up for tourists, and find friendly faces and interesting attractions. Here’s some of my highlights; you can also check out the tourist board website for more info on Charleston SC for kids…
1 Visit Middleton House – the ‘best garden in America’
In 1941 the Garden Club of America declared Middleton Place ‘the most interesting and important garden in America. The landscaped gardens are also believed to be the oldest in the USA. If you have geometry loving kids they will enjoy the pure maths of this huge former rice plantation. Get this: the diagonal axis of the gardens passes though the sundial and the octagonal sunken garden is one of three gardens laid out on the hypoteneuse of the 45-45-90 degree triangle central to the plan! Also the terraces are divided into rooms, sometimes a mirror image of each other. Walks are straight, triangulated and cut into the woods. Trees and shrubs appear as green walls. What’s not to love about all that?
There’s other maths involved in tour of one of the remaining houses; the shocking figure that Henry Middleton owned up to 800 enslaved people on his properties. For anyone studying American history, the house is important in the evolution of South Carolina and the colonial settlement of Charleston; be sure to take the tour to get the full story. It’s also an insight into the rice plantations; apparently they were one of the most important cash crops of the US in the 18th and 19th centuries. Meanwhile little kids will enjoy petting the domestic farm animals and viewing the twin lakes shape like butterflies. I loved the Reflection Pool with its solid lines of magnolias. Oh and here’s a not so friendly crocodile hanging around – beware!
2 Take a sneak peak of Charleston homes and gardens
Think your kids won’t like poking around people’s homes? Think again! Visiting classic houses like the famous Charleston singles is not a dry, dusty activity for old folks, but a peek into the secret passages and staircases of Southern America. In a single morning we discovered hidden wells and tucked away stables, had a go on elegant porch swings and wondered at a Magnolia that was almost two centuries old. We also met some wonderful characters. If you come in March or April you can enjoy a festival celebrating Charleston’s most beautiful private and public spaces, while at other times of the year you can do open house and garden tours with a guide. Check out my post on the Festival of Homes and Gardens and the fun people we met.
3 Pick up a bicycle and ride the city
You can find Holy Spokes bicycles scattered around the city centre. The name plays on Charleston’s reputation as a holy city. You can rent them with a credit card and drop them back at the nearest hub.
4 Head out to the beach, or the Beach Club
There are five beaches surrounding Charleston and three of them are just 20 minutes drive away. But there are lots of other waterways for exploring. On the peninsular you can go boating and fishing and Shem Creek is great for stand up paddle boarding. Mount Pleasant is a must if you are in the city for more than a couple of days. A good place to base yourself to explore this area is The Beach Club at Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina. (More about this at the end) Shannon Hartman, Director of Sales and Marketing from the Beach Club Resort suggests a bike ride around the Peninsula. “Sullivan’s Island is six and a half miles from here and if you are up for that you can ride out from here. We have a bag with your towel and sunscreen and different things you may need for a day at the beach. Mount Pleasant is not as busy as a lot of the other areas. You pass Shem Creek and then veer into the old village, The houses are very reflective of the architecture in Charleston. Those neighborhoods have been there forever. They still have the old pharmacy where you can go to the counter and order your lunch like the old style pharmacies.”
You don’t have to bike to get the children to unplug; the hotel has a mini mariners’ kids club where they are taken off to do scavenger huts and trap crabs. “If you go for a walk you will probably see a dolphin and when the weather gets a little cooler we have fire pits and smores packages.” says Sharon. The hotel also has a cinema which shows mindful movies on Mondays. “We have tried the mindful movies on the kids too. They’re not all that mindful,” she laughs. The Beach Club is buzzing in Charleston Race Week where yacht owners congregate for beach parties and cocktails.
5 Consider a horse and carriage ride
I hesitate to recommend a horse and carriage ride as I can’t guarantee how the horses are treated but as this tradition is so integral to street life in Charleston it deserves a mention in a list of things to do in Charleston with kids. I’m told by colleagues at The British Guild of Travel Writers that the Old South Carriage Company uses dray horses only. The horses are given 30 minutes rest between journeys and are rotated on a month on, month off basis.
6 Take in a Charleston Sunset
The Charleston sunset we took in a Lownes Point plantation was one of the highlights of our stay. A jetty conveniently led directly to the gold for sunset selfies. A stand up paddle boarder even generously floated by on demand. Over at Patriot’s Point we also saw a dramatic hijack of the dwindling light by an enormous cargo ship sailing by. Alternatively you could add some sunset sparkle to your dinner by booking a table at Fleet’s Landing, a family friendly restaurant where dolphin spotting is pretty much guaranteed. Or catch the last rays going down over a spire of steeple. Charleston has tons of these. “Charleston is a very churchy city. It’s very European in a way with its churches, steeples and historic areas.” laughs local Karl Von Ramm when I remark on their frequency.
7 Do a DIY photography tour
8 Sail to Fort Sumpter
Fort Sumter is located on an artificial island in Charleston Harbour. “It makes for a tremendous excursion, particularly for history buffs,” says Stuart Forster who blogs at Go Eat Do. “The opening shots of the American Civil War were fired towards the fort on 12 April 1861. The first casualty of that long and bloody war was inflicted by an accidental shot after the garrison had surrendered, while the Stars and Stripes was being lowered late the following day. Members of the National Park Service seek volunteers, particularly from among youngsters and former military personnel, to participate in the fort’s flag raising and lowering ceremonies. They talk about the meaning of liberty, a powerful concept given that enslaved people laboured during the historic site’s construction and while undertaking wartime repairs at the behest of the Confederacy.
Children can touch cannons and even a cannonball still embedded in one of the battle-damaged walls. The fort’s small museum conveys the history of the conflict and displays artefacts including flags. Fort Sumter is only reachable by boat. The scenic journey back and forth, from the departure points at Liberty Square and Patriots Point, bring opportunities to view dolphins, low flying pelicans and the spires that rise behind the elegant houses along the waterfront to form Charleston’s skyline.”
9 Book a walking tour of the downtown area
I always try and take a walking tour or open top bus tour as soon as I get to a city to orient myself to its geography. I found the Bulldog Tours heavy on facts and dates but a comprehensive way to see the main sites quickly and work out where to revisit later. You also learn which facts you have heard about Charleston are true and which are false. For example, contrary to the popular story Rainbow Row did not come about because sailors were so drunk they couldn’t tell which house they were staying in without a pretty colour to guide them home at night. I decide not to ask whether Charleston is in fact a woman. I don’t want to spoil the story!
10 Channel your inner unicorn at Millers All Day
Take younger kids to this brightly lit former pharmacy for one reason; unicorn grits for breakfast. Nope, no one grinds up unicorn bones to make the rich recipe at Millers All Day; they are made from the Jimmy Red Corn. The breakfast, or brunch if you get up late, is a children’s dream menu; I have biscuit (a kind of usweetened scone rather than a Hob Nob if you are unfamiliar,) served with southern fried chicken, and the sweetest of mustards. And of course a bowl of unicorn. “Unicorn grits use purple corn, and when they mill it it comes out that colour. We add some white cheddar to it to make cheesy grits so it doesn’t affect the colour,” explains Meredith who serves me.
11 Have an art infused lunch at Tradds
At Tradds you can admire the artistry of the chefs on your plate, or the creativity of fine art on the walls. This light and airy restaurant is perfect for lunch, ask for a seat in front of the mural of the dancers for the best selfie.
12 Sup on oysters and soft shell crab at The Ordinary
If you have older kids with adventurous taste buds you should take them out for oysters. And if you are going for oysters and want to make it a special night out you should visit The Ordinary. I do have to point out this restaurant is nothing like its name. One of Charleston’s best oyster bars is a smart conversion of a former bank, built in 1927. It’s dark; you may need glasses to read the menu but your efforts will be rewarded. We have soft shell crab famous for its short season, and local sword fish and vermilion snapper. Our starter is a rich platter of sea food. “These are Single Lady oysters from Lady’s Island, South Carolina, cultivated by Frank Roberts who has one of the only seeding areas. These are from the East Basin, he has a pretty specific plot, so these are rather brackish but have that famous nuttiness that we’re known for in this area.” says our waitress. “The other six are Mayflowers from Cape Cod. We also have local clams from a twenty minute boat ride north of us, Clammer Dave is our friend who brings us those clams. And there are razor clams too, one of our chefs signature dishes. These are coming from Massachusettes.”
13 Take a hot biscuit out of Callies
On a sunny day, grab breakfast from Callies Hot Little Biscuit and eat it in the park. The menu is simple; a biscuit with a filling. And grits on the side if you want them. Sausage and gravy are popular accompaniments. It’s possibly the cheapest way to breakfast in the city.
14 Eat unbeatable fried chicken at Husk
Husk founder Sean Brock was for many years Charleston’s celebrity chef and he is credited with reinventing food in the city. But for most families the main reason to visit will be the signature fried chicken which comes with a divine slaw. I also recommend the Geechie Boy shrimp and grits. And the corn bread. And well, everything, The food here really is that good and our bill wasn’t excessive.
15 Enjoy an iced treat at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream
There’s a long queue outside Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream in King Street the first time I pass. “I was on last night and it was crazy!” agrees one of the staff the following day as she races around the long line of tubs in the chiller. Part of the popularity is the natural flavours, she explains, but the other reason people come is the choice. Goats cheese with red berries sits happily next to Texas sheet cake, cold brew coconut cream and the famous butter almond brittle. At five dollars for two half scoops you really can’t go wrong.
16 Have a seat at the cookie bar
Byrd’s Cookie Company has a dedicated bar for you to sit and do your own pick and mix. The scotch oatmeal cookies have been baked in the shops’s sister bar in Savannah for 95 years and the stores are on their fifth generation of family owners. The key lime cooler and the Georgia peach are the two best sellers. But obviously your cookie monsters will want to decide for themselves which is their favourite.
17 Carry home the ultimate coconut cake
One of the South’s most well known deserts is a coconut cake. But before you imagine something the consistency of a Bounty bar, let me put you right. The Ultimate Coconut Cake is a brainchild of Peninsula Grill. It comes in twelve layers and weighs around twelve pounds. You can have a slice in house, or do what we did and take a miniature version home. Mine survived a flight to the UK and a train journey to The Lakes. I took it to a dinner party where guests who declared they did not like coconut then declared it the best cake they had ever had.
18 Drink the sweet stuff
Kids will love the range of craft sodas in local restaurants. My favourite was the Cannonborough craft soda in raspberry mint. Meanwhile the adults in the family may like to go on a quick taster ‘flight’ at the mead bar at Savannah Bee Co on King Street. You get to try six different types of mead for ten dollars.
19 Grab a backpack at the all new Gibbes Museum
After a refit, the Gibbes Museum of art is a centre of culture in the city where little ones can borrow a free backpack loaded up with drawing pad, pencils and a book. “They can take it upstairs and sketch. Kids really do like it here.” says our guide. The museum does a monthly story time session a for toddlers and works with Charleston Library to run an adult book group.
20 Meet an author at Blue Bicycle books
Blue Bicycle Book store is a gem that’s been in the city for 24 years. It’s one of the best places to buy books of local interest. Owner Jonathon Sanchez creates a relaxed and friendly environment. “It’s a place to go, it’s an experience, a place of discovery. I like people to sit and read, we don’t do collectibles behind glass cases.” The shop welcomes around 200 authors a year to speak and sign, and runs a popular young adults book festival every November. There’s a great YA section for fiction hungry teens.
21 Control the harbour at the Children’s Museum
The Children’s Museum isn’t new or flashy; in fact it looks a little tired and worn next to the sophisticated Gibbes and Charleston Museums. But it’s the kind of place my toddlers could have easily lost whole days in. For a start there’s a pirate ship as soon as you cross the gangplank…sorry front door. There’s also a model water zone of Charleston complete with bridge and traffic.
Getting back to the past
22 Explore aircraft carrier USS Yorktown
“The aircraft carrier USS Yorktown is the centrepiece of Patriots Point and probably should come with a parental warning – you may lose your kids. She’s huge!” says Alastair McKenzie who runs Mech Traveller for mechanically mind people. “There are self-guiding and guided tours through her innards, a large exhibition of aircraft and other items in her hanger, and more aircraft on her huge flight deck. But USS Yorktown is not the only exhibit. The USS Laffey is a destroyer that saw action at D-Day, off Okinawa, and in Korea. She has some very realistic simulations of what it was like to be in action in her aft gun turret, and her combat information centre. Some younger children might be upset by the realism.
Not just kids. On shore there is a recreation of a US military base in the Vietnam War, including a simulation with ground-shaking explosions that recreates the experience of marines when their bases came under attack during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Visits to the Vietnam experience are now part of a medical programme de-sensitising traumatised military veterans. Needless to say, older kids will love it!”
23 Visit the mysterious Hunley
Teens will also enjoy figuring out the deep mystery of a submarine, says Alastair. “While During the American Civil War, Charleston was being blockaded by ships of the Union navy. In Feb 1864, a Confederate submarine, the H.L. Hunley (named after its designer) made a night attack on one of the blockading ships, the USS Housatonic, and became the world’s first submarine to sink a ship in combat. The Hunley was not seen again until she was located on the seabed in 1995, but the mystery of what happened to her and her eight man crew found onboard, is still not completely answered.
Since she was raised in 2000 she has been undergoing preservation in a large tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, where visitors can see her on weekends. (Check out the website run by Friends of The Hunley for details.) There is now a large exhibition area with images and artifacts explaining her history and conservation. It includes a set of facially reconstructed figures representing the crew, a simulator where you can see what it was like to hand-crank the propeller bent over in a small tube, and the skipper’s lucky gold coin found on his remains.” You can read more about this intriguing story in Alastair’s post on the mystery of the Hunley.
24 Explore Charleston’s railroad history
If you fancy a quick diversion from the Children’s Museum pop into the Best Friend Train Museum just opposite. It gives an interesting history of how South Carolina’s first railroad was constructed, with tracks built from cut down pine trees, and how Charleston businessmen, suffering 1820’s recession, came up with the idea. The annual report of the Board of Directors in 1832 definitely saw the project through rose tinted spectacles when it reported; “On the whole line the greatest energy and activity continue to prevail, and the dreary forests along the route have been roused by the sounds of the axe and hammer, and enlivened by the cheerful shouts of useful labor.” But younger kids will love this simple attraction.
25 Fire trucks to the ready
What kid doesn’t like a fire engine? If yours really love them then head out to the North Charleston Fire Museum and Educational Center which houses the largest collection of professionally restored American LaFrance fire equipment in the country. You can admire more than 20 vehicles dating back to the 1780’s, all of them still fit for service. If you don’t want to head out that far then pop down to the Charleston Central Fire Station on King Street for a glimpse of equally polished machines. There is no one around on our sneak peek, but their Facebook Page is full of praise and thanks to fire staff for showing visitors around so you might be luckier.
26 Grit yourself for Market Shopping
Head down to Charleston’s City Market to pick up food and crafts from local artisans. There’s a night market and a day market and you can sometimes catch live music.
27 Build your own Charleston at the Kapla Store
The Kapla store in Charleston is the only store wholly dedicated to the toy in the world. “Anyone can come in and build on the carpet,” staff at the shop tell me. It’s worth popping in to see what other people have put together. On my visit they are trying to build a Charleston lighthouse in the front window.
28 Feel the beat and dance
The best way to get to know a city is through its musicians. We encounter a gospel choir, jazz on King Street, a selection of drummers in parks and a great bluegrass band in the excellent Hire Wire Distillery. Several of our group have a dance lesson. (Shag not Charleston). Ask at a tourist information for how to go dancing in the city.
29 Climb aboard something unusual
There are many cool and diverse ways of getting around the city. Like this vintage bus. Don’t just Uber it, keep your eyes out for some more unusual options. Human powered transport is also available.
30 Take a stroll and meet a local
Charleston traffic felt light compared to many US cities I’ve visited, and walking is a pleasure. “If you hear someone honking their horn it’s probably not a Charlestonian” grins Bulldog Tour Guide John Hodgson, although he does add that some see red lights as an invitation to cruise through. John tells me kindness is ‘part of their DNA.’ “They are the nicest people you will ever meet in your life. If you are waiting sitting for a light to change with a map someone will ask if they can help; its just how people are.” And I feel the warmth. In the early morning sunlight people say hello as they walk to work. Maybe it’s Charleston’s geography that gives it the laid back vibe- the Old Town is grounded by water – the city used to be a creek till the 1700’s. Anyway be sure to take a stroll y’all and find out what makes a southerner tick.
We flew to Charleston with British Airways who now run a direct Dreamliner flight to and from London Heathrow. We stayed at Hotel Bennett, slightly north of the historic old town. It has a rooftop pool, a spa, a delightful French patisserie cafe and this ever so subtle champagne bar! Rooms come in King, Queen and Club size and my bathroom was nothing short of luxurious.
If you fancy a two centre break then I also recommend a couple of nights at The Beach Club at Charleston Harbour Resort. There are 92 guestrooms, and aside from a handful all have a bay view. There’ a neat maritime theme that extends to all the bedrooms with some funky local art (check out the fish handles on the doors). The pool area is extensive, with private cabanas available and a cocktail bar to refresh you after splashing around with the kids. There’s also a private beach. It’s handy for a water taxi too so you can pop in to the theatre or downtown.
Our British Guild of Travel Writers trip was hosted by the Charleston Tourist Board. All fried chicken eating, dolphin watching and downtown wandering was all my own, as are the words and images, except where otherwise stated.