Charleston’s historic sites and beautiful beaches make it an ideal place for a family vacation. Whether you are showing the youngsters what life was like for Great-Grandpa on a World War II aircraft carrier at Patriots Point or getting an up-close look at marine life at the South Carolina Aquarium, there is never a shortage of things to do.
The aquarium, historic sites and museums
The South Carolina Aquarium tells the story of all aquatic life across the Palmetto State, not just the coast. The touch tank, with its hermit crabs and sea urchins, is a hit with kids of all ages, and the two-story, 385,000-gallon Great Ocean Tank makes you feel like you're part of the underwater action as sharks and loggerhead sea turtles glide by. You can really feel the action in the 4-D movie theater and get a look behind the scenes at the aquarium’s most important work, rescuing sick and injured sea turtles.
First and foremost, Charleston is a historic town, full of learning opportunities for all ages. The city’s recorded history begins in 1670, so why not take the kids to where it all started? The Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site offers hands-on exhibits and knowledgeable staff. You can take a self-guided audio tour and step aboard the Adventure, a replica of a 17th-century sailing ship. There are 80 acres of gardens and an animal forest where you can see wildlife in a natural habitat zoo.
Just down the road in time and geography is the Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site that offers a peek into what life was like in the trading town of Dorchester, which archaeologists are still uncovering. The park’s monthly hands-on history events are great for children 6-12 years old.
For Revolutionary War history, take the young ones to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, just north of the city. The fort gets its name from its first commander, Col. William Moultrie, who led a small force of Patriots at the then-unfinished palmetto-log fortress. Now part of the Fort Sumter National Monument, Fort Moultrie played a role in America's defense through World War II. You can take a self-guided tour or call ahead to see if a ranger tour is available. This is a great place for a picnic and a way to sneak in some history during a day at the beach. Don't miss the "Bench by the Road," installed by the Toni Morrison Society to mark important places in African-American history.
Fort Sumter is accessible only by boat, but the ride out is half the adventure. Tour boats depart from downtown Charleston and Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant for the fort in the middle of Charleston Harbor, which is where the Civil War began. Tours here are self-guided as well, with an introduction by a ranger upon arrival.
One of the newest Civil War stops is the Hunley submarine, which is being preserved on the grounds of the former Charleston Navy Base. You can see the actual submarine, which was the first in history to sink an enemy ship in wartime, and the kids can enjoy a replica onsite that was built for a television movie about the sub.
Another family-friendly site from the Revolutionary period is the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, which was built by the British in 1771, and later became a prison for captured Patriots and pirates during the Revolutionary War.
One of the best ways to keep the youngsters entertained for an hour or so is a carriage tour. Several companies offer these guided horse-drawn carriage tours through the historic district. The guides on these tours – part historians, part storytellers – are what make the trips so entertaining. You can pick your provider, but you cannot pick the exact locations you will see on your tour. That is the luck of the draw when your carriage gets to the departure point. (Don’t worry, all tour routes are excellent. The lottery system is in place to keep traffic – car, horse and pedestrian – from getting clogged.) A few good options are: Palmetto Carriage, Old South Carriage Co. and Classic Carriage Works.
For more recent history, check out Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, which includes the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown and a newer exhibit on the Vietnam War. And the Children’s Lowcountry Museum next to the Visitors Center caters to children 10 and younger, with hands-on exhibits, including a pirate ship and fire truck. Nearby is the Best Friend of Charleston Museum, which is a free museum celebrating the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Co.’s original engine that brought train travel – and commerce – to Charleston.
Parks, beaches and outdoors
Folly Beach, the Isle of Palms and Kiawah Island all have parks with public beach access, restrooms, changing areas and outdoor showers. All are operated by the Charleston County Recreation Commission. Sullivan's Island has public parking available for beach walking but no facilities.
James Island County Park is a great place for the whole family, including Fido. You can camp here, play in the water park, climb a wall, play disc golf, rent a bicycle, paddleboat, kayak, or let your dog run free in the dog park that includes a beach area and water.
On the list of free family fun is Charleston’s famed Battery and White Point Garden. The kids love the cannon on display, and the views of Charleston Harbor from here simply cannot be beaten. It's also where dozens of pirates were hung in the 1700s. Make sure the kids find the marker in the park's northeast corner.
For a one-of-a-kind stop, check out the Angel Oak on Johns Island. A surreal 1,400-year-old tree that provides an extraordinary 1,700 square feet of shade.
For older kids, rent kayaks out of Shem Creek, and tour either Charleston Harbor or the rivers that surround Charleston. Nature Adventures Outfitters have wonderful guides and offer a wide range of two- and three-hour tours, as well as half-day and overnight excursions.
A trip to Blackbeard’s Cove Family Fun Park also is fun -- go-karts, miniature golf, inflatable bounce house, climbing wall, an indoor arcade and more. And for Mom and Dad, there is beer and wine available, along with pizza and other food in the galley.