Charleston, South Carolina is a wonderful place to spend a few days with small kids. It has the perfect mix of family-friendly activities. You will love strolling the beautiful streets and parks of Charleston, eating amazing southern food and enjoying the natural beauty & wildlife of the area.
Here is how we spent two days in Charleston:
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Afternoon 1 – Historic Town Center
We arrived at our hotel around lunchtime, so we set out on foot to find some of the southern food Charleston is famous for. It wasn’t long before we found an authentic southern food restaurant on Meeting Street called Jestine’s Kitchen.
Jestine’s Kitchen is one of those simple restaurants that has become a local icon because they serve excellent food at reasonable prices. They started us off with a small dish of very tasty cucumber slices, onions and peppercorns. The kids were excited to be able to order peanut butter and banana sandwiches at a restaurant and proceeded to devour them. Celine ordered a Shrimp Po’ Boy sandwich with deep-fried okra, which ranks among the best meals she ate the whole trip! My deep fried shrimp basket was good, but I kept wishing I had a Po’ Boy too.
We finished off lunch by sharing a few slices of amazing pecan pie. This was a very good stop for lunch – kid-friendly and reasonably priced too!
After lunch we slathered on some sunscreen and headed south towards the City Market, a popular indoor/outdoor city market several blocks long. The kids had a great time looking at all the fun toys, colorful clothes & hats and souvenirs for sale.
Next we made our way to Waterfront Park via Queen Street. Waterfront Park extends for many city blocks and is filled with beautiful trees and fountains. There is a large fountain at the Queen Street entrance where kids can run and splash around in. The kids ran wild in the nearby lawn on their way to another beautiful fountain. Sadly, we had to cut our downtown visit short as our daughter’s new shoes were giving her a blister.
We caught the free and wonderfully air-conditioned DASH (Downtown Shuttle) bus from the NW corner of the park and got off a block from our hotel. We still had some time left in the afternoon, so we decided to take the kids to the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. This fun attraction is probably called a museum as there is an educational bent to it, but it’s really a super fun play place for kids.
The fun begins when the kids enter the building through a kid-sized door. The museum has five different play rooms, play areas outside, plus one additional room especially for kids aged 0-3.
The first room was a giant water play area, filled with several large water tables for the kids to play with. Some tables were little streams where kids could race boats through little obstacle courses they made. The largest water table had lots of toys and running water for the kids to play in. Our little guy especially liked this area, filling buckets here, emptying them there, repeat, repeat, repeat…
The water room was cool, but our kids really enjoyed the pirate room and the grocery store. The pirate room featured a large pirate ship with several steering wheels for the kids to spin and pretend they are the Captain. The boat itself has a cabin, lots of room to run around and play and a jail for bad little pirates to spend some ‘hard time’.
The grocery store room was also ton of fun. This is a “real” little grocery store for kids. They have small shopping carts and baskets, a well stocked ‘store’ complete with plastic fruits, vegetables, meats, breads, etc. for the kids to shop for. The store has two checkout lanes with very realistic cashier machines. As one kid unloads their shopping cart, another kid can play cashier and scan items or push buttons on the touch screen. Once the cart is empty, the shopper has a little cash machine where they ‘pay’ for the groceries! The kids had so much fun!
The museum was too big for the kids to enjoy every exhibit. I wish we had more time for them to play in the castle room or the art room. The fun continues outside as well with giant Lego pieces and a firetruck for kids to play on.
Morning 1 – South Carolina Aquarium
This morning we decided to hop on the DASH and finish the parts of downtown we missed the previous afternoon. We got off the bus at the intersection of King and Queen Streets. We turned and walked down Broad St. for a while before turning south into the residential neighborhood. This is such a pretty part of town. We both agreed that it was one of the nicest neighborhoods we have seen anywhere in the world. The beautiful houses, trees and flowers just all come together perfectly. The area south of Broad St. is definitely worth exploring. Family-friendly walking tours of this neighborhood are available.
We walked north up East Bay Street to see Rainbow Row, a strip of brightly colored homes, before turning into Waterfront Park. Today we were prepared and brought the kids’ bathing suits, so we let them splash around in the Pineapple Fountain for a while, before letting them have a nice long splash in the north fountain. The smiles and laughs were non-stop as the kids ran around this beautiful fountain. Charleston got this one right – a splash park doesn’t have to be just for kids, it can be beautiful and fun!
From here we tried to take the DASH to the South Carolina Aquarium. We needed to take two buses, the first one showed up late and the second one never showed at all. We liked using the DASH (it’s free and air-conditioned!), but found the unreliability a bit frustrating.
The kids loved the South Carolina Aquarium. It’s not a huge aquarium, but they pack a whole lot of fun into it. The kids loved the playful sea otters, the jellyfish,the seahorses, the frogs and most of all the touch pool. Our daughter was so excited to pick up starfish, sea urchins and actually get to pet a few small striped sharks.
Afternoon 2 – Magnolia Plantation
After a quick lunch back at our hotel, we hopped in the car and drove north of town to the Magnolia Plantation. We love going for outdoor family walks, so this world-famous garden felt like a good choice for us. It was a very hot and humid day, so we were happy that the majority of the walk was through tall trees, leaving us mostly in the shade.
Magnolia Plantation is a beautiful place for a walk; the trees are stately and magnificent, while the bushes and flowering plants fill in the rest so nicely. The walking tour winds through the trees, past lakes, across charming bridges and along the river. Our kids were super excited when we spotted an alligator swimming ever so slowly down the river. They also enjoyed all the birds and butterflies along the way.
The kids did great on the hour long walk, but the real treat for them was the little zoo. The zoo houses a surprising amount of animals, many of which are found naturally in the plantation but are sometimes hard to see in the wild. The kids enjoyed feeding and petting the free ranging goats and deer, and also had fun looking at the rest of the animals, such as foxes, owls, raccoons, pigs and more.
We love southern food, and we especially love ribs, so while at Jestine’s Table, we asked our server to recommend a good restaurant for ribs. She recommended the Swig & Swine. When we pulled up to the restaurant and saw their sign said, “Making America Fat Again”, we knew we were going to love this place. We ate ribs 6-7 times over the course of our month-long trip and this place had the best ribs in the south by far. We topped off our amazing meals by splitting some chocolate pecan pie and peanut butter pie. We highly recommend this place!
Morning 2 – Kayaking
This morning we headed to the coastal islands south of town to go on a 2-hour kayaking tour with Charleston Outdoor Adventures. We chose Charleston Outdoor Adventures as they had some child friendly-options for us. We each had a child at the front of a two-person tandem kayak. At first, we were afraid they might move around too much and cause the kayak to tip, but the kayaks were very stable and we didn’t have any issues. The kids did move around more than we’d have liked, but we never even came close to capsizing.
Kayaking is such a fun family activity. If you plan to kayak more as a family, look into these best life jackets for kayaking.
The tour began with some on-land training covering safety and basic techniques. It’s odd, we’ve gone kayaking all over the world and prior to now no one has ever given us basic instructions on how to do it! We were laughing halfway through the tour about how easy kayaking is with the proper technique!
The tour traveled up and down a narrow, tidal estuary. It began with a bang as a pair of dolphins swam right past us! Dolphins were what we had hoped to see and we saw them within a minute – what a great start to the tour!
Our guide was very knowledgeable about the local sea and land-based wildlife and gave us a great appreciation for how this amazing, delicate ecosystem works. In addition to the dolphins, we also were lucky enough to see a wide variety of birds including osprey, wood storks and great blue herons.
We saw hundreds of crab and thousands of oysters on-shore, while in the water we saw shrimp and a few turtles. You never know what you are going to get with wildlife, but we were very lucky on our outing!
Charleston Planning Resources
We are grateful to Explore Charleston and Charleston Outdoor Adventures for their generosity during our stay. All opinions are our own.