Planning a trip to Charleston, South Carolina? Charleston is rich in history and is known for it’s walkable historic downtown, it’s southern cuisine and Atlantic beaches. For several years, it has been voted “Top Small City in the United States” by Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards.
Charleston is called the Holy City because it’s skyline’s abundance of church steeples. The steeples are prominent in the skyline because no building is allowed to be taller than the tallest church steeple. (Currently that is Saint Matthew’s Lutheran Church which was built in 1872.)
Because Charleston is still a relatively small city, it is very manageable for tourists. It is also extremely kid friendly with lots of parks and indoor play areas for children as well as tourist attractions geared for people of all ages.
WHAT TO DO
Most travelers to Charleston spend their time downtown or at the beaches, but there is a lot to see and do in the surrounding areas.
*Carriage ride downtown – The carriage rides aren’t your typical city rides that just provide transportation. The carriage rides in downtown Charleston are by knowledgeable guides that tell you about the history and trivia of the city as you slowly meander down the cobblestone streets.
*Pineapple Fountain at waterfront park
*Walk down Waterfront Park to the Battery.
*Sample hot pralines (A must! If someone in a store offers you a hot praline sample, take it!)
*Charleston Historic City Market
King Street Shopping
The Gibbes Museum
Ferry to Fort Sumter
Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum
Dock Street theater
The Battery and White Point Garden – The tip of the Charleston peninsula has a view of the harbor where the Ashley River meets the Cooper River.
The Schooner Pride offers daily sails that set sail near the South Carolina Aquarium downtown.
The Palmetto Breeze leaves from Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant. It is a fun sunset sail. I do not recommend doing this with small children as there open sides on some parts of the catamaran and it is known as a party drinking sail.
*Paddleboard down Shem creek. Often dolphins are swimming in the creek. It’s an easy paddle, but if you want more more of a challenge, paddle out into the harbor, you can hug the coast or paddle around bird island. In the morning the water and wind is the calmest, but the dolphins usually come in around noon. And you can check the tide schedule or ask when renting a paddle board when the water will be going in and out of Shem creek. There are a few outfits that rent paddle boards nearby – Coastal Expeditions, Nature Expeditions, Half Moon outfitters, Odyssey Board Shop and Kayak Charleston.
Charleston Tea Plantation – About an hour outside of Charleston. Although the tour facility is small, the grounds are beautiful and there is a trolley to take you around.
Boone Hall Plantation – Seasonal strawberry picking is a fun treat. They also have seasonal events such as a halloween hayride and Christmas hayride.
Charleston Harbour Tour (To Island)
Charles Towne Landing – great for children and adults, they have shuttles on property, but plan for lots of walking.
Catch a Walterboro Polo game
Kiawah – Charming island town
Fresh Fields Village – John’s Island
*Sullivan’s Island or Isle of Palms for the beach.
Folly Beach is good, too. More crowded with a Spring Break vibe during busy seasons.
*In my opinion the ones with the asterisk are a must if you are a first time visitor of Charleston.
Charleston has loads of events year-round from Spoleto to the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition to the Charleston Food and Wine Festival. For a small town, it has events year-round. Check out Charleston City Paper to see the latest goings on during the time you plan to visit.
TO DO WITH KIDS
Charleston is a great city to visit with children, in addition to lots of kid-friendly restaurants, it is packed with activities for children and loads of parks with playgrounds, and places that offer camps and daycare.
The above recommendations are very kid-friendly, but the below are specifically for children.
Charleston Aquarium – The South Carolina Aquarium is in downtown Charleston right on the harbor. It is a well done modern aquarium with lots of play areas for small children to get out energy.
Children’s Museum – The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is downtown. Indoor play area with a different theme in every room and an enclosed outdoor space.
Pirates of Charleston – fun-filled boat tour leaves from Johns Island
Charleston County Parks – All three waterparks are open every summer (May to August). Parks and playgrounds are open year-round.
The Little Gym – Multiple locations in Charleston for kids classes and camps.
Sky Zone – Mt. Pleasant indoor jumping arena for adults and kids.
Kids Play Garden on Coleman Blvd. in Mt. Pleasant offers babysitting by the hour or day.
Bee City Zoo – Cottageville, South Carolina
Parks in Charleston for children
- Waterfront park (downtown) is a great green space, walk south to Hazel Parker Playground.
- Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park is a large park under the Ravanel Bridge on the Mt. Pleasant side, and has parking right beside the playground (also a great area for adults to run).
- Alhambra Hall is a hidden gem in Mt. Pleasant with a playground and ample parking and a water view. From here you can walk or drive to:
- “Ocean Walk” down Pitt Street Pier to Pickett Park. Locals simply refer to this as Pitt Street Pier.
- Pard Park on Sullivan’s Island has green space and playground equipment, and ice-cream nearby at BeardCat’s Sweet Shop under Obstinate Daughter restaurant.
WHERE TO STAY
The Restoration – Great coffee downstairs
The Spectator Hotel
Hotel Bella Grace
Charleston Harbor Resort – The best of both worlds, close to downtown, with a view of downtown, but on the water, a short drive to Sullivan’s Island.
Hilton Garden Inn – Mt. Pleasant
Hotel Indigo Mt. Pleasant
ISLE OF PALMS
Wild Dunes Resort on Isle of Palms – beach resort feel, a bit of a drive to downtown.
If you’re looking for an Airbnb, look downtown, south of the Ravenel Bridge, or in Mt. Pleasant, on the side closest to downtown between Ravanel Bridge and Sullivan’s Island (near Patriot’s Point or Old Village), or on Sullivan’s Island or Isle of Palms. Sullivan’s Island is charming old South Carolina island that still doesn’t have hotels.
There are other areas of Charleston that are safe and fine to stay, but these areas listed above will put you closest to the activities you will most likely be visiting to really experience Charleston – downtown and the beaches.
WHERE TO EAT
Charleston doesn’t have a lot of variety in terms of international cuisines, but what they do, they do well, which is Southern food, and Southern fusion restaurants.
Fleet Landing – Seafood restaurant right on water downtown. Great views and good food.
Slightly North of Broad (SNOBs) is excellent fine dining. Go for lunch, it’s reasonably priced. Reservations recommended.
More downtown eats: Indaco, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, O-Ku, Blossom, Basil Thai, The Ordinary, Minero, and Taco Boy.
Long Point Grill
Charleston is oppressively hot in July and August. I do not recommend traveling there during this time of the year, but any other time of the year is manageable temperatures. Charleston is surrounded by water and swamp, so the mosquitos get so bad in the summer that everyone stays indoors.
If you are only in Charleston for a weekend or a short trip, I recommend staying downtown so you can see the most things with the least amount of driving.
Sullivan’s Island has public beaches, but they don’t really want the public on the island. That is why they don’t have hotels and the beaches are not well marked. During busy times, it is hard to find street parking, and there is only street parking. Because of this, if you can get to their beaches, there aren’t as many people as IOP or Folly Beach. Map to one of the ‘stations’ for beach access. I recommend starting with “station 23” then going to “station 24” etc. Basically there is no road that runs along the water, but several roads that dead end at the beach.
Isle of Palms has easy beach access. You can pay to park at the Isle of Palms County Park where they have showers and bathrooms. Or you can park in a public spot near Coconut Joe’s or Ben and Jerry’s. Parking is usually free during off season.