24 of the Best Things to Do in Charleston, SC, with Kids
There is no more effective birth control in the world than traveling with kids (except babysitting).
Family-friendly vacations often don’t seem too friendly to all family members. Rigid schedules, finding places to eat with chicken nuggets, and fears of them screaming in public make it difficult. But traveling to Charleston can be pretty breezy with tykes in tow. Lucky for you there are plenty of fun things to do in Charleston, SC, with kids. Here’s a list of this writer’s favorite fun things for kids to do in Charleston, South Carolina, after having dragged young kids around myself.
If you’re in a hurry, my top ten things to do with kids in Charleston are:
- Middleton Place
- Folly Beach State Park
- South Carolina Aquarium
- Charleston City Market
- Waterfront Park
- Fort Sumter
- Charles Towne Landing
- Magnolia Plantation
- Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry
- Patriot’s Point
But there’s obviously a lot more on this list than those top 10. Bookmark and come back when you’ve got more time. Or when the kids stop crying.
What Are the Best Kid-Friendly Hotels in Charleston, SC?
Finding a hotel for the family is pretty important, so this itinerary starts with the best places to stay in Charleston, SC, that are kid-friendly. As far as family hotels go, my favorite is the Town & Country Inn and Suites in West Ashley. It’s a new construction with a decent-sized pool and plenty of parking for the minivan you’ll need to get everybody around. It’s a bit further away from historic downtown Charleston than many other hotels. The rooms are big, the walls are thick, and the staff is friendly (no matter how annoying your kids may be). It’s also a lot less expensive than any of the hotels on the Charleston peninsula or in Mount Pleasant.
You could also look for a vacation rental that would accommodate you, but that depends on how destructive your kids are. After all, not getting your damage deposit back after your Charleston family vacation would be a major bummer.
4 Free Things to Do in Charleston with Kids
Once you’ve got your homebase established, it’s time to get out to explore. After spending a chunk of change on the hotel in Charleston, there will likely be a strong urge to find free things to do in Charleston, SC, with kids. Free is great but free and entertaining is amazing, especially when accompanying wee ones with short attention spans. Two big hits in downtown Charleston are the Charleston City Market and Waterfront Park. These two free Charleston attractions are close to each other and provide some decent amusement. They’re walkable, even for toddlers and babies if you’ve got a stroller.
1. Charleston City Market
The Charleston City Market is free to stroll through (and has public restrooms). It’s four city blocks full of a wide array of vendors. You can find anything from sweetgrass baskets to jewelry to toys to any sort of knickknacks related to Charleston you can think of. While the stuff at the Old City Market can be pricey, looking is free, just try to keep the kids’ hands to themselves as much as possible.
2. Waterfront Park
After strolling through the Charleston City Market, head down East Bay Street. Turn left onto the Vendue Range and head straight towards the Charleston Waterfront Park. There’s a public restroom to the right before you hit the park in the Charleston city parking garage on the right-hand side. Waterfront Park has great views for older visitors. There are plenty of free activities there for kids too: the splash pad, the Pineapple fountain, the swings, and the wharf. On a hot Charleston summer day (or a warm day if you’re visiting from colder climes), kids can spend hours running around in the splashpad. Same for the Pineapple fountain: children are welcome to wade in the shallow water with a sweeping view of the Charleston harbor behind them. Make sure you take them to other stuff you want to see first. Once they’ve seen the splashpad, it’s all they’ll want to do for the rest of their visit to Charleston. After splashing around, toddlers and kids will get a kick out of watching boats and dolphins pass in the Charleston harbor from the wharf railing or the swinging benches.
3. Hampton Park
Further up the peninsula and north of the Crosstown is my favorite park in Charleston: Hampton Park. This old racetrack, parade ground and prisoner of war camp during the Civil War next to the Citadel Military College is a big expanse of greenery. It’s the largest park in downtown Charleston, and has plenty of room for the kids to run around. Some of the things you can’t miss include the gazebo, the playground, the avenues lined with live oaks or Crape Myrtle trees, and pond with fountains and ducks.
4. The Angel Oak
Outside of Charleston on the quieter island of Johns Island is the largest tree east of the Mississippi: the Angel Oak Tree. The Angel Oak Tree is a massive live oak that makes up for not being too old (only about 600 years) by being big and graceful. The branches seem to spread out from the tree for a wide expanse, requiring wires and supports in many parts. While a tree like this would be a children’s dream play area, scrambling, climbing and rough-play around the tree is verboten. For fear of damaging the tree’s delicate life-balance, people have to be pretty calm and quiet around the tree. That said, there’s an area with picnic benches for the kids to run around. The Angel Oak Tree is a pretty awesome (and free) site to see during your visit to Charleston.
5 Things to Do in Charleston This Weekend With Kids
Speaking of things to do outside of the city, there are plenty of things to do in Charleston, SC, this weekend with your kids. To not pick favorites, in no particular order for kid-friendly weekend activities in Charleston, read on:
1. Fort Sumter
Taking a Fort Sumter tour is pretty fun, more for the ride out to Fort Sumter. This is a great opportunity to cruise the harbor and see the city from a different perspective. Famed Charlestonian writer Pat Conroy described the city as a jewel perched on the harbor, and it’s easier to get that picture from the water. You also get to spot dolphins and ships as the guide points-out other Charleston harbor attractions. The tour on Fort Sumter takes about an hour, and the kids can scramble on the rocks there as long as the guides aren’t looking.
2. Patriots Point
One of the other attractions on the harbor you’ll see on the Fort Sumter tour is Patriots Point. Located in Mount Pleasant, across the harbor from downtown Charleston, Patriots Point has two impressive ships and a submarine for visitors to explore: USS Laffey, USS Yorktown, and USS Clamagore. A visit to Patriots Point will likely take you all afternoon or longer, depending on how interested in war your kids (and you) are. There’s also a Vietnam exhibition I admit I haven’t seen, though a Vietnam Veteran that recently visited thought it was realistic.
The trip over to Patriot’s Point can easier, more fun, and more relaxed for you (no traffic), if you skip the car and take the Charleston water taxi. Downtown departure points are from the marina at the South Carolina Aquarium, and from the pier at Waterfront Park.
3. Charleston Plantations
If military history isn’t your thing (or not the kids’ thing), you can take them all to one of the fantastic Charleston plantations. All are fantastic: Drayton Hall, Boone Hall Plantation, Middleton Place, or Magnolia Plantation. Of this group, the ones most interesting to children are Boone Hall, Magnolia Plantation, or Middleton Place. These offer more of the “plantation experience”. That means, they have re-enactors, animals, and other things that keep younger visitors entertained. The least expensive of the group would be Boone Hall Plantation. Admission costs $20 for adults, $12 for kids 6–12, and is free for younger children.
4. Charles Towne Landing
If the cost of a real Charleston plantation is too much for you to afford taking the whole family, there are several other kid-friendly weekend activities. One of my favorites is Charles Towne Landing. This is the location of the first European settlement in the Charleston area. The colonists abandoned the settlement and moved to the peninsula, leaving only earthen mounts used as defenses. They established the walled city between what is now the Charleston City Market and the Battery and White Point Gardens. That said, the parks system added replica homes, a replica ship, and a zoo of animals that lived here when the Europeans first arrived. It’s got some of the lamer stuff like turkeys, deer, a skunk, and farm animals, but the Charles Towne Landing zoo also has a black bear, vultures, mountain lions, bison, a bobcat, red wolves, and otters.
5. Blackbeard’s Cove, AKA Charleston Fun Park
As far as I know, the only place to play mini golf or putt putt in the Charleston area is Charleston Fun Park. This place, formerly named Blackbeard’s Cove, is one of those tacky places that will keep kids entertained for a good, long while. Activities include two 18-hole miniature golf courses, a go-cart track, and indoor games and activities. Regardless of the weather, the whole family will enjoy it. I’ve only played miniature golf here (more than I should admit), but it seems the hordes of kids in the indoor gaming area are enjoying themselves any time I’m there. This may be a good activity to lump-in with a visit to Patriots Point or Boone Hall Plantation.
7 Indoor Activities for Kids in Charleston, South Carolina
Speaking of kid-friendly indoor activities in Charleston, SC, there are plenty. I’m more comfortable with what’s available in my neck of the woods, downtown Charleston.
1. Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
What little boy or girl doesn’t find ghosts and pirates fascinating? Your family will find a little of both at the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Located where Broad Street ends at East Bay Street (close to Rainbow Row), the Old Exchange and Provost building has professional storytellers to share the stories of those who passed through the historic building’s walls. It also has a creepy dungeon where your kids may just see (or feel) a ghost or two.
2. Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry
The most obvious choice for rainy day things to do in Charleston, SC, with kids would be the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. This place is a dead giveaway for being a fun place to take kids (it’s got Children in the name, for god sakes) and is located in downtown Charleston. Children aged 3 to 10 are welcome to explore the hands-on exhibitions at the museum. Exhibits include a two-story Medieval castle, dedicated art room, and pirate ship. The goal of the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is to help children explore the sciences, arts, and humanities through playing. Kids are sometimes successful at spreading lice here. Beware the dress-up area of the museum.
3. Best Friend of Charleston Train Museum
Just a short walk away from the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is the Best Friend of Charleston Train Museum. This small exhibition features a replica of the Best Friend, the first steam-powered locomotive train built in the United States for revenue service. The first train was built in the West Point Foundry in 1830, and was first used to connect Charleston to inland markets via rail. The boiler of the Best Friend of Charleston exploded six months after it went into use, though other trains replaced it on the growing system. The train marked the start of the revitalization of Charleston in the early 1800s as trade returned back to the port city. Visitors are welcome to check-out the train for free.
4. Charleston Museum
Down the street from the Best Friend of Charleston Train Museum and the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is the Charleston Museum. It started as a museum of antiquities collected by the College of Charleston, then spun-off on its own. Today, it features a fascinating collection of Egyptian antiquities, stuffed animals, and older artifacts you’d expect to find in a 1930s museum or an Indiana Jones movie. But it also has a treasure trove of Charleston history, including a pharmacy storefront. All this for $10 a pop, though you can combine it with entrance to two Charleston house tours: the Joseph Manigault House or Heyward-Washington House for $16.
5. South Carolina Aquarium
Head down Meeting Street towards Marion Square, turn left on Calhoun Street and walk towards the Mother Emanuel AME Church. Continue straight until you reach Liberty Square and the South Carolina Aquarium. Some of the favorite exhibits for kids include the two-story fish tank, stingray and shark touch tanks, river otters (I admit I like otters), the bald eagle, sea turtles of the fish tank and at the Sea Turtle Hospital, and the lemurs. But there are plenty of other things to distract and educate the smallest visitors to Charleston for hours.
6. North Charleston Fire Museum
Close to the Tanger Outlets in North Charleston is the North Charleston Fire Museum, sometimes referred to as the “Fire Truck Museum”. The Fire Museum of North Charleston features antique firefighting vehicles and teaches the history of firefighting. This was important to Charleston, which seemed to disappear under a blanket of fire every few decades if you read enough history books. You’ll still see traces around town of this extended period of history: little decals marking which for-profit fire-fighting company protected individual historic homes and towers constructed to help watchers notice fires before they spread too far. There are also hands-on exhibits intended to teach kids how to get out of burning buildings and the like. Tickets for adults are $10, while admission for children under 12 is free.
7. Frankie’s Fun Park
This is another kids attraction park filled with tacky stuff kids go crazy for (and some adults, I admit):
- Mini golf
- Go-cart tracks
- Batting cage
- Arcade games
- Bumper boats
- Rock wall
Among other activities. Check out their full list of kids activities on their website. I personally prefer Blackbeard’s Cove, as it’s in Mount Pleasant (to avoid North Charleston traffic). Also, Frankie’s Fun Park is a chain. And you know how hipsters feel about chains.
3 Things to Do in Charleston, SC, with Teenagers
Spoken from the experience of being a teenager, traveling with kids has its positive moments, but traveling with teenagers can be the worst. They can be moody or just remind you how not cool you are. Or whatever they say these days.
Usually the best way out of traveling with teenagers is to not to do it. If that’s not an option, Charleston’s got you covered with a few pretty cool things to take them to do while on vacation. Most teenagers do enjoy a day outside. You just have to get them out there in the first place. Check out our list of the most fun outdoor things to do in Charleston, SC, and use a couple ideas to coax your visiting teenagers off the couch.
1. Charleston Beaches
First, the beaches. Teenagers love beaches, for no good reason. Kids enjoy them too, but teenagers get to see and be seen by other teenagers there. And pretend they have no interest in doing anything fun there, like swimming, playing in the sand, throw a ball around, or anything else their younger siblings want to do on a beach day. Luckily, there are some fantastic beaches near Charleston, SC, to explore: Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, and Folly Beach are the closest. Isle of Palms is perfect for young families, Sullivan’s Island is a more relaxed location for families looking to keep their teenagers out of trouble, while Folly Beach is college-aged kids central. It’s fun and quirky, but also full of discreet underage drinking.
2. Free Events in Charleston: Second Sunday
Some fun things for teenagers to do in downtown Charleston include checking out Second Sunday and a concert or two at Music Farm. Second Sunday on King Street happens on the second Sunday of each month (hence the name) when the city of Charleston blocks King Street from Calhoun Street to Queen Street from vehicular traffic. King Street becomes a walking mall with restaurants spilling out onto the street as well as street vendors and street performers. If your teenager has been particularly unbearable, you can force him or her to perform an instrument on King Street. That is the only logical reason in my head why I often see teenagers playing during Second Sunday with a parent watching them off to the side.
3. Music Farm
Music Farm is a concert venue downtown between the Charleston Visitors Center and King Street. Some big names perform here, though I wouldn’t recommend leaving teenagers unattended here. Many an alumnus has fond memories of concerts held here through their college years. That is part of the reason for not leaving teenagers alone here.
Cheap and Free Things to Do in Charleston, SC, at Night
As far as free fun things to do in Charleston, SC, at night with teenagers, you can take them to the Pour House on James Island. The open-air sitting area in back will often have live performers at no charge. Performances indoors usually have cover fees, but nothing too bad.
1. A Baseball Game at “the Joe”
Another activity that will entertain all afternoon and evening depending on the day is a Riverdogs baseball at the Joseph P Riley, Jr. park. While the baseball is never fantastic, the food is great, there’s lots of extra entertainment to keep spectators of all ages interested. Best of all, there’s cheap beer to keep adults in a good mood around their horde. Evening games through the summer often end with fireworks. What’s not to love?
2. Charleston Ghost Tours
Another personal evening favorite of mine is taking one of the best ghost tours in Charleston. Bulldog Tours from Anson Street near the Charleston City Market is a top tour provider in Charleston. Their Graveyard Tours or Old City Jail Tours are worth the time and money to get to spook your kids a bit.
3. Kid-Friendly Charleston Pirate Tours
Charleston Pirate Tours also offers a tour just for young kids. The Children’s Treasure Hunt Tour guides kids around White Point Gardens and the pirate history of Charleston Harbor. There’s an arts and crafts portion where kids get to make their own pirate flags, and everybody gets a free foam pirate sword and balloon parrot. This is perfect for toddlers and kids. Or teenagers if you have gotten tired of their complaining and want to embarrass the heck out of them.
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The Best Restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, for Kids
Once the little ones (or bigger ones) are feeling hunger pangs from running all over Charleston, it’s time to find one of the best restaurants in Charleston, SC, to feed them all. That is, unless you got a vacation rental, in which case you should save yourself some money and just cook at home. But at least one meal here is necessary, as the food is fantastic.
Casual Restaurants for Kids in Charleston
Keep in mind that I have no interest in taking kids to high-end restaurants in Charleston, SC. I prefer casual restaurants in Charleston with less-expensive options for the kids. Remember they don’t exactly have the most refined palates, at least in my experience. Most restaurants can whip-up something simple for children (and the vast majority have children’s menus), but I feel more comfortable at casual restaurants, to avoid an awkward scene of food spattered on a woman in a fancy dress. As such, a few of my favorite kid-friendly restaurants in Charleston include:
- Five Loaves Cafe has a restaurant in downtown Charleston on Cannon Street as well as Mount Pleasant. Its farm-to-table focus of its dishes still permits it to have child-friendly dining options. And the staff is pretty laid-back about messes (though don’t encourage them, of course).
- Fuel is another casual restaurant on Spring Street in downtown Charleston with outdoor seating. The menu is Caribbean-inspired at this former gas station, but there are some great choices for kids.
- Brown Dog Deli is down on Broad Street in downtown Charleston. Especially with the closure of the Blind Tiger Pub, this place is a little out of the way from other eating establishments, but its outer seating is nice when paired with their simple but delicious fare. It’s still got Fast & French down the street, anyway.
- Fast and French, or Gaulart et Maliclet, is another casual eatery that’s somewhat hidden away from everything on Broad Street, closer to King Street than Brown Dog Deli. This is a casual French restaurant inside of a former historic Charleston home on Broad Street. The menu includes a wide array of French food, including an amazing daily lunch and dinner special. As one recent visitor to Charleston commented, Fast and French feels as if you’ve left Charleston for a neighborhood bistro in Paris.
- Home Team is a barbecue joint with a restaurant in West Ashley as well as Sullivan’s Island. After Swig & Swine, this is the best barbecue in Charleston in my humble opinion, and this one is much friendlier to kids, with picnic tables outside for kids (or pets) to make a serious mess with an easy hose-down to clean-up afterwards. The prices are reasonable, though make sure your children like barbecue before you buy them a platter and discover they’re not fans.
- Some call Hominy Grill a “tourist trap” in downtown Charleston on Cannon Street, but I still like it. The Sunday brunch is awesome, and they’re welcoming to visitors of any age that stop by. Don’t miss the grits, which according to a massive mural on the side of their establishment is good for you. Not sold on that, but they’re still spectacular.
- Tattooed Moose is the ultimate in Charleston dive bars, but they serve some amazing food. And kids are welcome as long as it’s a reasonable (ie: eating) time of day. They even have those food items that will make you reminisce from your childhood: corn dogs being one of the big ones. That will make you order some of these foods and try to force your kids to love them too. They won’t, but on the plus side you’ll get to eat them instead.
- The Early Bird Diner is a must-visit for any foodie of any age to Charleston. The Food Network hirlighted the chicken and waffles, but the rest of the menu is great, too.
- Fleet Landing has waterfront casual dining just north of Waterfront Park and Vendue Range. The big draw to this downtown Charleston seafood restaurant is not the fried seafood. The views of the Charleston harbor are amazing, that said.
- Butcher and Bee is likely more for families with more cosmopolitan or at least adventurous kids, but you’ll be glad you convinced your kids to enjoy something on the menu when you bite into one of their sandwiches. They’re awesome. They even bake the bread there. Early morning walks by the restaurant definitely smell wonderful.
- D’Allesandro’s is a classic pizzeria on St. Philip Street in downtown Charleston, close to Upper King Street. It’s friendly staff serve-up fantastic Philly-style pizza with a ton of various toppings and sauces to go with them. It’s the best pizza in Charleston, SC, in this writer’s opinion.
A Few Romantic Things to Do in Charleston, SC
Now that you’ve got an entire visit to Charleston planned for your family, what if you’ve got a quiet night to yourself with your significant other? Well, there are of course plenty of romantic things to do in Charleston, SC, with fun things to do for couples all over the city. Some big draws include any of the romantic restaurants throughout the area like Poogan’s Porch, Slightly North of Broad, or Fast and French; a Palmetto Carriage ride, or see a show at the Dock Street Theatre.
3 Great Things to Do in Charlotte, NC, with Kids
And for those looking to go farther afield, there are more child-friendly attractions throughout the Carolinas. Some things to do in Charlotte, NC, with kids include the Carolinas Aviation Museum, the Green of Charlotte, and the Discovery Place Museum. If you’re planning on hitting both places up on a visit to the Carolinas and are driving through, stop into the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina’s only official zoo (the Charles Towne Landing one doesn’t count).
And there you have it, the ultimate guide to planning a kid-friendly vacation in Charleston, South Carolina. For even more recommendations on things to do in Charleston (many great for kids, some not), be sure to explore the rest of the Best of Hipster Charleston.