Photo by: Shutterstock/Dave Allen Photography
Experiencing the Southern hospitality and charm of historic Charleston has been on my personal bucket list for years. I pictured myself single, strolling south of Broad Street under expansive oak trees laced with Spanish moss and sitting, legs crossed, at a café slowly sipping sweet tea. However, that was not to be — I brought my kids with me to Charleston. Instead, we twirled around with ice cream cone in hand through the cobblestone alleyways of the historic city. We gobbled up some very tasty tacos as quickly as possible so that we could get back to splashing in the fountains at Waterfront Park. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine all the fun activities that I was able to experience during our three days in Charleston with kids.
Take a Carriage Ride
Starting your family’s day with a one hour carriage tour is the best way to get a feel for the walkable area of Historic Charleston. I decided years ago that when I finally had the opportunity to visit Charleston, I would take a carriage tour. I told my five-year-old son and six-year-old daughter about my plans the day before we arrived, so by 9 AM on our first full day in Charleston, they were as excited as I was to go on a tour. Despite the fact that their excitement wore off about halfway through the tour, I am so glad that we spent the first hour of our day hearing stories about the city’s history and getting oriented with the landmarks in the historic area of town.
Go On a Boat
From the USS Yorktown, a naval aircraft carrier permanently moored in the Charleston Harbor, to Magnolia Plantation’s boat tour of the canals where slaves cultivated the famous Carolina Gold Rice over 150 years ago, getting out on the water is an essential part of experiencing Charleston.
For most families visiting Charleston, a boat ride out to Fort Sumter is a top priority; the two-hour tours leave from either Patriots Point, home of the USS Yorktown, or Liberty Square adjacent to the South Carolina Aquarium. Visitors spend about an hour on the island walking through the ruins of the fort. Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot to do at the fort; however, I found the opportunity to teach my children a history lesson about the Civil War at the location where the war began as invaluable. My daughter and I counted the stars on the flags flying both over the fort and inside the museum which spurred a discussion of how some states broke away from the Union. Due to its historic significance, Fort Sumter is a place that any family who is visiting the region for more than a day should fit into their itinerary.
At Patriots Point, the disembarkation point for some Fort Sumter Tours, visitors can leave the Civil War history behind and cross a bridge lined with flags to board one of the most impressive naval vessels in the country, the USS Yorktown. Those interested in military history and airplanes will definitely want to take their time going through each of the self-guided tours available on board the ship. The highlight of our family’s visit to Patriots Point was following the yellow arrows up to the flight deck for a spectacular view of Charleston and the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge; the kids loved sitting in the captain’s chair and pretending that they were in charge of the ship.
For a different look at the region’s antebellum history, take a boat tour at Magnolia Plantation. The 30-minute tour highlights both the nature and history of the plantation. Visitors are likely to see alligators, great blue heron, and anhinga birds, also called “snake birds,” due to their long, thin heads and necks that stick out of the water as they swim. As everyone keeps watch for the next gator sighting, the tour guide tells the stories of the slaves who worked in the rice paddy letting in the fresh water from the nearby Ashley River into the canals as the tides changed in order to cultivate the fields.
Learn About Local Sea Life
Despite fielding various recommendations in the months prior to our trip, a day at the beach was not in our plans during our visit to Charleston. Instead, we took a Saturday morning nature tour out to Morris Island with Sandlapper Cruises. My kids waded in the Atlantic, discovered hermit crabs scampering along the shore, and even collected a perfect sand dollar during our hour on the island. Later on our way back to the Charleston Maritime Center, we watched a family of dolphins as they played in the harbor, and our tour guide picked up the boat’s crab pot which had trapped two blue crabs for us to observe. A nature tour is a great way to let the kids explore at their own pace and take a break from the ever-present history lessons found when touring Charleston.
The South Carolina Aquarium also came highly recommended to us as the best place to escape the afternoon heat with kids under the age of ten. We escaped a heat index over 105 on the afternoon of our aquarium visit; watching the fish swim round and round in the largest tank was certainly relaxing after a morning exploring the city. For the younger kids and tots, there are several play areas, some complete with dress up clothes and toys, found on both floors of the aquarium. At the entrance, the new sharks and rays touch tank and the second floor touch tank with invertebrates like starfish and horseshoe crab give older children a way to connect with the animals in the aquarium.
Step Back in Time
Over a dozen historic sites are within walking distance of Market Street, the site of the Historic Charleston City Market and the launching point for most of Charleston’s horse drawn carriage tours. Taking a walk down Church street to the Edmonston- Altson House or the Nathaniel Russell House is a great way to step back in time to 1861, the year that the Civil War began.
Based on a recommendation from a tour guide, I chose to tour the Edmondston-Alston House with my son and daughter. As our tour began, the guide gave both my children a simple scavenger hunt; it worked like a charm to keep their hands busy and their minds focused during the 30-minute tour. Standing on the piazza and looking out over the harbor to Fort Sumter, it’s possible to picture General P. T. Beauregard as he watched the first battle of the Civil War from the very same spot.
Walking through this neighborhood with gas-lit lanterns can certainly bring one back in time 200 years ago, especially if you can ignore all the cars on the road. However, touring a historic home provides a much fuller picture of what life might have been like for antebellum Charleston families. We also enjoyed a tour at the Nathaniel Russell House, famous for its extravagant free-flying spiral staircase; our tour guide was enthusiastic to pass down her knowledge of the area’s history to the next generation of historians.
It’s not difficult to capture a fantastic picture in Charleston from the bridges of Magnolia Plantation to the stately, antebellum houses lining the Charleston Harbor on The Battery. All my favorite moments in Charleston were spent outdoors. Don’t forget to leave plenty of time in your Charleston itinerary to enjoy the gardens, play in the parks, and walk along the streets of the historic city. Even the kids enjoy a stroll when you play “I Spy” or put an ice cream cone in their hand.
Where to Eat
Everything that my kids and I ate in Charleston was absolutely amazing from breakfast at Another Broken Egg to lunch, recommended by our carriage tour guide, at Low Country Bistro. This California girl even found the tacos at Minero very tasty.
Looking for more recommendations on places to eat, stay, and play in Charleston? Check out my list: Kid-Friendly Charleston, South Carolina.
Disclosure: The author was provided with complimentary attraction passes by the Charleston Area CVB. All opinions are her own.