Kristin Luna, an AFAR Ambassador and proud Southerner, shares how families can get great value out of a trip to America’s most charming city. Add her recommendations to your itinerary.
With ample green space and museums galore, Charleston is an ideal destination for family vacations. Start your adventures with crepes for the kids and iced coffees for the parents at the bustling Charleston Farmers Market, held every Saturday from April to November on Marion Square. A five-minute walk from the market will bring you to the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry, an interactive institution great for all ages. Kids can exercise their legs—and their imaginations—by dressing up as a dragon in the Medieval Creativity Castle, walking the plank of a giant pirate ship, honing their horticultural skills in the Kids’ Garden beds, exploring the giant antique 1939 fire truck, or playing with the assorted toys and games in the toddler room.
Head east to the harborside South Carolina Aquarium, where visitors ogle the stingrays, baby alligators, snakes, and tortoises. Keep an eye out for Caretta, a giant loggerhead turtle who is nearly 30 years old and lives in the 385,000-gallon Great Ocean Tank. Young conservationists will especially enjoy the daily tours of the Sea Turtle Hospital, and the chance to see some of these majestic animals being nursed back to health. They will also learn about the aquarium’s efforts to assure the survival of the species.
On the opposite side of the Charleston peninsula, across the Ashley River, Charles Towne Landing is the site of the first settlement in South Carolina. It was established in 1670, but after regular attacks from France, Spain, pirates, and Native Americans, the residents moved to the Charleston peninsula. It’s now a state park with historic ruins and winding pathways. Its Animal Forest includes an otter exhibit as well as puma, bear, buffalo, and other creatures. While you’re there, board a replica of a 17th-century cargo vessel, the Adventure, and check out an early colonial-era home. You can get even for backseat-of-the-car quarreling by sentencing any churlish youngsters to a spell in the stocks, even if it’s only long enough to snap some photos.
Between the Aquarium and Charles Town Landing are two hotels that should be on the radar of any families looking for a moderately priced place to stay: the Courtyard Marriott Charleston Waterfront and the Hilton Garden Inn Charleston Waterfront. Both offer outdoor pools and shuttle service to the historic district. SpringHill Suites Charleston Mount Pleasant is another family favorite, located on the Ashley River just minutes from the historic district.
For a different perspective on Charleston, take to the water for an adventure aboard Callinectes, a 40-foot covered pontoon boat operated by Barrier Island Eco Tours. The ship departs from the Isle of Palms Marina and travels to Capers Island, one of the area’s few remaining undeveloped barrier islands. You’ll cruise through tidal creeks past bottlenose dolphins, ospreys, pelicans, bald eagles, herons, and egrets. Guides net crabs and other critters for a close-up with rarely seen marine creatures. Collect shells on the island’s pristine Boneyard Beach with its silvery bleached trees and driftwood shaped into sculptural forms by the erosive effects of saltwater and wind.
Another way to explore Charleston’s wild side is to book an outing with one of Charleston's professional anglers. The Reel Deal Charters has years of experience guiding all kinds of charters. The company’s captains are all experts at instructing and encouraging first-time fishermen. Whether you want to go crabbing, fly fishing, shark fishing, or dophin watching, Reel Deal can arrange a charter around your interests. If the whole family isn’t into fishing, it’s a good opportunity to split up and let others use the time for, say, a plantation tour or browsing one-of-a-kind boutiques. At the end of the day, regroup to reward yourselves at Market Street Sweets, with locations on both Market Street as well as King Street, for samples of Charleston’s signature sugary pralines. You’ll likely want to pick up a box to take home too.
For an evening of spooky fun, check out the Old City Jail or some of Charleston’s many graveyards on a ghost tour. Guides will lead you down dark alleyways and into cemeteries while recounting infamous tales of lost souls, murders, and executions. Bulldog Tours has a number of different ghoulish programs that explore the dark side of Charleston’s colorful history. The tales of ghosts and pirates are scary fun, and with its glimpses into Charleston’s past, it’s one history lesson all kids will enjoy.