My family visits Charleston, South Carolina every other year. We start our trip at Edisto Island, where we camp by the beach. Then, we spoil ourselves with all the wonderful things that Charleston has to offer. Over the years, Charleston has become one of my favorite places to visit with my family.
For me, a great family destination requires a few essentials. First of all, it needs to be family friendly. And Charleston does Southern hospitality right. Whether dining at many of the great restaurants, checking into our hotel, walking the streets and museums, or attending a historical church, the citizens of Charleston always made our New York family feel at home.
Another essential for our family is the food. I need a place that has great food. And after dining out at Jestine’s Kitchen and Lowcountry Bistro, among others, and tasting the sweet treats at King Street Cookies, Charleston has a lot to offer the inner foodie inside us all. Jestine’s Kitchen and Lowcountry Bistro both serve traditional South Carolinian food, affectionately called “Lowcountry cuisine.” I can best describe it as traditional southern food combined with African and Caribbean influences. And if you are visiting Charleston, a trip to a lowcountry restaurant must be on your list of things to do. To explain lowcountry food, my mouth is salivating as I type.
As I said before, we always visit Charleston after camping, which means I am in desperate need for a comfortable and relaxing environment that accommodates a large family. On our most recent trip, we stayed in the Historical District at the Embassy Suites. The hotel is a piece of historic architecture itself. The once old Citadel Military College has been changed into a beautiful hotel with a lot to offer traveling families like mine. A delicious breakfast is included for all guests and is among the best I’ve had at a hotel (made-to-order omelets anyone?). There is also a free Happy Hour in the evenings that includes drinks and appetizers. The appetizers are a great way to tide kids over until an evening meal, or even as a meal itself for the little ones. And also, if you are like me, you want the kids to be worn out before bedtime and a dip in the hotel pool ensures that. The outdoor pool is open late and is a great way to wind down as the day comes to an end.
A plethora of family friendly activities are also needed for a complete family vacation. The South Carolina Aquarium is one of the nicest aquariums that I have visited and provides kids and their parents with many ways to be entertained for a few hours. In fact, I could stare at the humongous Great Ocean Tank for hours and watch the sharks, rays, turtles, and many other sea life swim about. There is even a question and answer session with a diver that takes place daily within the tank. Other fun things to do at the aquarium include feeding stingrays, observing alligators, learning by hands on experience at the touch tank and shark tank (yes, you can touch the sharks), and visiting examples of life from Madagascar.
The Charleston Museum is another great destination for the whole family. The museum is said to be the oldest one in the United States and as the name of the museum suggests, covers Charleston’s past. If you make this your first stop in Charleston, kids can get an understanding of the city and its historical significance as you tour the city. There is also a great play room for younger kids where they can learn about pirates, local nature, and early colonial life.
Having read about Charleston’s history, families can experience it firsthand by walking the city streets. My family is a bunch of budding historians, at least I hope they are, and we love to tour a city’s historical landmarks and buildings. Charleston has one of the largest and best-preserved historical quarters in the United States and the city is rich in historical significance, including key roles in both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. The city is full of monuments and the graves of those who fought or stood up for what they believe in, despite how flawed some of those ideas were.
Anyone who loves history and wants to experience it firsthand must visit Fort Sumter, the place where the Civil War began when Confederate troops fired upon the fort and seized it for their cause. Since it is an island, the only way to get there is by ferry. Entrance to the Fort is free, but there is a charge to ride the ferry. It is advised to buy your tickets in advance. Since the fort is a national park, kids can participate in the Junior Park Ranger program and receive a badge at the end of the tour. Also close by is Fort Moultrie on Sullivan Island, which is actually my favorite of the two forts because the fort covers history from the Revolutionary War to World War II . There is a small fee for Fort Moultrie ($3 for adults and kids 15 and under are free).
Charleston was also the center of the slave trade in the United States and the echoes of slavery still reverberate here. The Old Slave Mart brings visitors face to face with this horrible part of the United States’ past. You can listen to recordings from former slaves about their experiences and read the tales of their suffering. The images of a child’s shackles from the slave boat will forever be burned into my brain. I brought all of my children to the museum. My 3 year old obviously could not grasp what he was seeing, but my 9 year old and 11 year old were strongly impacted by what they saw.
A visit to a plantation is a good way to see how life was lived before the abolishment of slavery. There are many plantations to visit while in Charleston, including Magnolia Plantation, Boone Hall Plantation, Drayton Hall, and many others. On our most recent trip, we stopped by the Charles Pinkney Historical Site, run by the National Park Service. This isn’t a working plantation and the house is modest and unfurnished, but it does a good job of explaining the times through one man – Charles Pickney, a statesman and signer of the Constitution. As with the other National Parks, kids can pick up a Junior Park Ranger book and, after learning about Pinkney and his home, earn a badge.
We usually shy away from organized tours, but Charleston has some fine tours that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. We first went on a carriage ride with the Old South Carriage Company. Our tour guide was unfazed by my 3 year old’s comments and related to all the riders in humorous ways as he discussed the architecture and history of the city. The carriage driver was one of my kids’ favorite parts of the trip.
We also enjoyed a family friendly ghost tour by Bulldog Tours that took us around Charleston and into the old dungeons. Stories about pirates and their hauntings were told in graphic detail on this tour, causing my 9 year old to be a little squeamish and frightened at times. My 11 year old, who is a skeptic, peppered the tour guide with questions. And did we see any ghosts? No, but my 3 year old did say as we were leaving the dungeon, “He asked me what I was looking for.” And nobody was talking to him. Take that for what it is.
The loveliness of the people and the unlimited amount of things is what continues to pull me back to this great city and what makes it a top notch family destination. I’m already looking forward to visit all of the other great museums and parks that I’ve missed.
Disclaimer: Many of my tours were provided by the Charleston Area and Convention & Visitors Bureau. The words within this post are my own.