Warm, charming, and packed with history, Charleston, South Carolina, regularly tops the lists of America’s most visit-worthy cities, and it’s easy to see why. Beautiful beaches and waterways, leafy streets and parks, gorgeous architecture, and a thriving cultural scene mean there’s always something to see and do. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Charleston is one of the best food cities in the country.
Best of all, Charleston is especially fun to visit with kids. It’s easy to get around, the weather is almost always nice (even though the summer months can be sticky and humid), and the overall vibe is incredibly welcoming to families. Our family has been vacationing in Charleston and the neighboring barrier islands for over a decade: Here are the things we love to do, the places we love to eat or stay at, and—just as important—what we’d recommend skipping with children in tow.
The Charleston Museum is worth a visit even if it's a beautiful day outside. Photo courtesy of the museum
Charleston Museums and Family Attractions
1. The Charleston Museum
360 Meeting Street
Even if it’s a beautiful day outside—as it so often is in Charleston—the city’s museum of art and culture is well worth a visit for its natural history gallery (featuring a megalodon jawbone), its family programs just for toddlers, and best of all, its permanent Kidstory exhibit delving into Charleston history, including hands-on art projects and a kid-sized replica of a historic Charleston home.
Get ready to be mesmerized by the two-story, 385,000-gallon ocean tank at the local aquarium. Photo courtesy of the aquarium
2. South Carolina Aquarium
100 Aquarium Wharf
Need a break from a hot and sunny (or windy and rainy) day? The South Carolina Aquarium, located on the Cooper River waterfront near the landmark Arthur Ravenel Bridge, is well worth diving into. With a touch tank, exhibits celebrating Charleston’s local waterways and marine habitats, and kid-friendly displays like Lego Alive, which recreates some of Charleston’s best-loved aquatic residents in little bricks, kids won’t want to leave. Budget enough time in your visit to be properly mesmerized by the two-story, 385,000-gallon ocean tank, with sea turtles, sharks, and daily dive shows.
Imaginative play, outdoor options, and art and maker fun await at the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry. Photo courtesy of the museum
3. Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry
25 Ann Street
This adorable children’s museum is a must-visit if your kids love imaginative play: There’s a castle to explore and a pirate ship to captain, plus a huge water lab and art studio, and a small outdoor play space. At just $10, it’s hard to beat the admission price, but since the museum participates in the Association of Children’s Museums Reciprocal Network, your membership at a participating children’s museum gets you in FREE. There’s also a military family discount, and you can bring your own food.
4. Charleston Riverdogs
Come cheer for the hometown A-ball team, the Riverdogs. The 'Dogs play several home games each week from April to September in their appealing, compact stadium (affectionately known as The Joe) near the Citadel, and host numerous events and promotions for kids and families throughout the season, including giveaways and fireworks. If the game gets slow, head out back for a beautiful view overlooking the marshland—you might see turtles, fish, even long-legged cranes. Kids get to run the bases after the game every Saturday.
5. Dock Street Theater
135 Church Street
The oldest running theater in the United States, the historic Dock Street theater in Charleston’s French Quarter is a beautifully restored piece of Charleston’s colonial history. Award-winning theater company Charleston Stage mounts productions throughout the year including lots of kid-friendly shows and matinees, like Beauty and the Beast and The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley.
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Ride the ferry out to Fort Sumter for a look at where the Civil War began. Photo courtesy of Meet Charleston
6. Fort Sumter National Monument
(Ferries depart from the Fort Sumter Visitor Center at 340 Concord Street and Patriots Point at 40 Patriots Point Boulevard, Mount Pleasant.)
A tour of Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, is surprisingly fun and definitely worth doing with kids ages 5 and up. A 30-minute boat ride from the Charleston peninsula brings you to the island fort, where there are giant cannons to check out (and poke your head inside), cool historic structures to explore, and a battlement to walk.
7. Charleston Farmers Market
329 Meeting Street
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t actually recommend hitting the famed Charleston City Market with little kids. It’s crowded, and full of stuff kids are just going to want to grab and break (or beg for). By contrast, the Saturday farmers market in Marion Square, which runs from April through November, is a manageable treat, with delicious food stalls and live music and special kids’ events on holidays. There's also a lot of green space where little ones can run around.
See historic naval ships at Patriots Point. Photo courtesy of meet Charleston
8. Patriots Point
40 Patriots Point Boulevard, Mount Pleasant
Across Charleston Harbor at the base of the Ravenel Bridge, kids can explore retired historic naval warships, including the U.S.S. Yorktown, a huge aircraft carrier that played a role in WWII and Vietnam and also recovered the Apollo 8 astronauts. Climb into fighter planes, take a tour to see what life on board was like in wartime, and experience a flight simulator. Kids under 6 are FREE.
9. Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
122 E. Bay Street
I’m going to try really hard not to make a joke about how even the best moms sometimes wish they could throw their kids into a dungeon…OK, I failed. Kids of all ages are welcome (and kids under 6 are FREE) to roam the storied halls of the Old Exchange building in Charleston’s historic downtown, including the dungeon where pirates and Revolutionary War prisoners were held.
10. North Charleston Fire Museum
4975 Centre Pointe Drive, North Charleston
Got a firetruck-obsessed toddler? Take the short drive to North Charleston for the Fire Truck Museum, a hands-on educational museum that houses an impressive collection of vintage firefighting trucks and wagons, as well as an indoor firehouse-themed play space and a number of interactive exhibits.
11. Piccolo Spoleto
If you’re lucky enough to visit Charleston in late spring, you might get swept up in the excitement that is the annual Spoleto Festival, an interdisciplinary, international arts festival that brings music, dance, film, and art to Charleston. The family-friendly offshoot of Spoleto, Piccolo Spoleto, is just as action-packed and fun, with a dizzying variety of family concerts and films, arts and craft shows, and kid-lit readings and events, most of them FREE. Check the calendar of events and reserve spots in advance for performances to make sure you don’t miss out.
The barrier islands surrounding Charleston are pristine and truly breathtaking. Photo courtesy of Meet Charleston
Nature and the Outdoors
The barrier islands surrounding Charleston are blessed with some of the loveliest and cleanest beaches you’ll ever see, and they're worth visiting any time of year. The closest public beaches are on the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, both about a 20-minute drive from downtown. Isle of Palms is an easy day trip, with clean public restrooms and changing facilities as well as a variety of tasty options for lunch and ice cream (we like Acme Lowcountry Kitchen and Sea Biscuit Café). Sullivan’s Island has a more relaxed vibe, and what it may lack in public facilities it more than makes up for in natural beauty and small-town charm. Kiawah Island, about 30 minutes away, also offers unspoiled beaches and luxury resort options.
13. Schooner and Pirate Cruises
The Schooner Pride, a tall three-masted ship docked next door to the aquarium, offers two-hour afternoon and sunset sails around the harbor. The knowledgeable crew can tell kids how the infamous pirate Blackbeard held the harbor hostage in 1718. For a more interactive sail into Charleston’s piratical history, take a short drive south from Charleston to picturesque John’s Island for a 1½ hour Pirates of Charleston cruise up the North Edisto River, complete with face-painting, sea chanties, and plenty of “arrrrrrrghs.”
Visit the massive, 1,500-year-old tree in Angel Oak Tree Park. Photo courtesy of Charleston Parks Conservancy
14. Angel Oak Tree Park
3688 Angel Oak Road
While you’re on St. John’s Island, make a point of visiting the oldest tree in the state, and one of the oldest in the United States. The graceful, historic Angel Oak Tree is part of a lovely park with a massive garden, a plantation, a preserve with nature trails, and a big open green space for running around and picnicking. Kids will love the wildlife pond with turtles, ducks, and geese, too. Local families tend to advise visitors against attempting plantation tours with little kids—this park makes an excellent, kid-friendly alternative.
15. Nature and Wildlife Boat Tours
The very best way to explore the Charleston area is on a boat. Miles of waterways, creeks, inlets, and rivers thread through the harbor, home to oyster beds, wading birds, turtles, and wild bottlenose dolphins who live in the waters around Charleston year-round. Numerous private tour companies operate in the area, including a number of highly-rated tours that leave from the Charleston Maritime Center downtown. On a recent visit, our family took a wonderful sunset wildlife cruise that sailed from the marina on nearby Isle of Palms to explore uninhabited Capers Island, with a naturalist on board delivering a fun interactive talk—even scooping up a few crabs from the water to show the kids.
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Enjoy green spaces along the water and throughout the city. Photo courtesy of meet Charleston
16. Waterfront Park
A walk along the Cooper River with stops at the lovely parks and green spaces (ideally with ice cream) is a must for any Charleston visit with kids. Start at the end of Vendue Range, and enjoy the views and breezes from the pier while you relax on giant porch swings, or cool off at the massive splash pad. Continue along the path to the famous Pineapple Fountain, and finish up at the Hazel Parker Playground near Rainbow Row.
Where to Stay in Charleston with Kids
There are plenty of hotel options in Charleston, as well as beach resort or condo and VRBO-type of rental options. Here are a few recommendations to get started.
Planters Inn is famous for its family-pleasing amenities and spacious guest rooms. Photo courtesy of Planters Inn
17. Planters Inn
112 N Market Street
It's hard to beat the location for this luxurious, welcoming hotel, set in a restored building right on Market Street in the center of Charleston's historic downtown. But the Planters Inn is also famous for its family-pleasing amenities, like complimentary afternoon snacks and iced tea in the lush courtyard, plus macarons and a teddy bear delivered with the nightly turndown service.
18. Hyatt Place Charleston Historic District
560 King Street
This new hotel in the trendy Upper King neighborhood offers free breakfast, an indoor pool, and rooms that all include a sitting area with a sleeper sofa, making it a great choice for families traveling with younger kids. It's a short walk from the shopping and restaurants on King Street, and just blocks from the Children's Museum and the Charleston Museum.
Wild Dunes Resort offers a family-friendly beach setting just outside of Charleston. Photo courtesy of the resort
19. Wild Dunes Resort
5757 Palm Blvd, Isle of Palms
Our family has stayed at this lovely, kid-friendly resort several times over the years, and it never disappoints. Pools, biking, gobs of kids' club activities, and of course wide, sparkling beaches are some of the main draws, although the resort is a 30-minute drive from downtown Charleston, so it's best suited for families seeking a beach week. Accommodations range from standard hotel rooms at the Boardwalk Inn to roomy, fully-stocked vacation condos overlooking the ocean.
Where to Eat in Charleston with Kids
20. Hominy Grill
207 Rutledge Ave
Locals, tourists—everybody's headed to the Hominy Grill, Charleston's justly-beloved homebase for southern and Lowcountry cuisine. Located in a sweet historic house with a comfortable, shady patio for outdoor eating, the vibe here is comfortably elegant but still very kid-friendly. Whether you get the "nasty biscuit," the pimento cheese Benedict, or the catfish and grits, you literally cannot order the wrong thing.
21. Jestine’s Kitchen
251 Meeting Street
Most of the touristy places to eat in Charleston are located along the same few blocks as this spot, one of our family's longtime favorites. Jestine's stands out for its delicious old-school Southern menu and its friendly, laid-back feel. The fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, cornbread, and pecan-crusted fish are particularly tasty.
Dive into local eats at Butcher & Bee downtown. Photo by Andrew Cebulka for Butcher and Bee
22. Butcher & Bee
1085 Morrison Drive
A short drive north of Charleston's main drag, Butcher & Bee serves up tasty, sophisticated dishes in an unfussy, bright space. If your preschooler's in the mood for breakfast and you're starving for lunch while your partner only wants something snack-ish, this is the perfect spot. Hearty sandwiches, small plates, fresh baked goods, and a fun "choose-your-own-adventure" option make this one of the most versatile, family-friendly menus in town.
1503 King Street
Charleston's first food hall is a trendy destination for local foodies, with a rotating cast of vendors and options that mean even picky eaters will find something to nosh. The huge bathroom with changing tables is also a huge plus for parents traveling with little ones.
24. Leon’s Oyster Shop
698 King Street
Relaxed, delicious, ridiculously charming, Leon's was one of the highlights of our family's most recent trip to Charleston. The outdoor patio with colored lights and 1950s garden chairs made for fun people-watching, but the interior, converted from a former garage, is so appealing and welcoming we just had to come back. It didn't hurt that we were also looking for an excuse to eat more of the fried chicken and hush puppies.
Classic flavors shine at the Republic Ice Cream shop. Photo courtesy of the shop
25. Republic Ice Cream
431 King Street, Charleston
2120 Middle Street, Sullivan's Island
Hometown gourmet ice cream shop Republic is known for its rich, classic, no-frills flavors—there's no bubblegum-passion-fruit-chocolate-chip here—but there is perhaps the best butter pecan you've ever tasted. The King Street location is just a block from the Charleston Museum, too.
26. The Boathouse at Breach Inlet
101 Palm Blvd, Isle of Palms
Part of me selfishly doesn't want a million tourists to know about this waterfront place on IOP, another longtime family favorite of ours. But the nicer part of me would like to tell you that if you go, you'll be treated to excellent seafood, simply prepared, with some of the tastiest collard greens and red-beans-and-rice anywhere. It's all brought to your table by the friendliest servers in a town that's known for going out of its way to be charming. Watch for dolphins from the windows of the screened-in porch.