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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 or sitting at a café slowly sipping sweet tea. However, that was not to be — I brought my young children with me to Charleston. Instead, I needed to find fun things to do in Charleston, SC with kids.
My kids and I had so much fun! My daughter twirled around with ice cream cone in hand through the cobblestone alleyways of the historic city. Together we gobbled up some yummy 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 fantastic things to do in Charleston for kids.
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Best Things to Do in Charleston, SC with Kids
Take a Carriage Ride in Historic Downtown Charleston, SC
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. By 9 AM on our first full day in Charleston, they were as excited as I was to go on a tour. Their excitement did wear off about halfway through the tour. However, 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 historic downtown Charleston SC.
Go On a Boat – Attractions in Charleston
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 with kids.
Visit Fort Sumter
For most families visiting Charleston with kids, 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 invaluable. My daughter and I counted the stars on the flags flying both over the fort and inside the museum. This activity 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 will definitely want to take their time going through each of the self-guided tours available. The highlight of our family’s visit to Patriots Point was following the yellow arrows up to the flight deck for a view of Charleston. My kids loved sitting in the captain’s chair and pretending that they were in charge of the ship.
Boat Tours at Magnolia Plantation
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. These birds are 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
Unfortunately, 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 found a perfect sand dollar 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. Then 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. It also allows kids to take a break from the ever-present history lessons found when touring Charleston with kids.
Visit the Aquarium
The South Carolina Aquarium also came highly recommended to us as the best place to escape the afternoon heat. We agree that the aquarium is one of the best things to do in Charleston with kids. Watching the fish swim round and round in the largest tank was certainly relaxing after a morning exploring the city. For the younger kids, there are several play areas on both floors of the aquarium. The sharks and rays touch tank and the second-floor touch tank with invertebrates give older children a way to connect with the animals in the aquarium.
Step Back in Time in Downtown Charleston
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 when the Civil War began. Even with younger children, a tour of a historic home is one of the best things to do in Charleston, SC with kids.
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. However, touring a historic home provides a fuller picture of what life was 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.
Get Outdoors in Charleston, SC with Kids
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 things to do in Charleston, SC with kids were found outdoors. Don’t forget to leave plenty of time in your Charleston itinerary to enjoy the gardens. Kids love to 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.
Want to make Charleston part of your family’s Southern road trip itinerary? Check out Family-Friendly Road Trip Charleston, SC to Savannah, GA.
Best Restaurants in Downtown Charleston, SC with Kids
Looking for more recommendations on places to eat, stay, and play in Charleston? Check out my guide of things to do in Charleston for kids: Kid-Friendly Charleston, South Carolina.
Disclosure: The author was provided with complimentary attraction passes by the Charleston Area CVB. All opinions are her own.