Every summer we take a trip to the East Coast for our annual family trip to the West Virginia mountains (about 90 minutes from DC). We always head out a week early to explore – for years we spent the entire week in DC visiting friends and seeing the sites. While we love DC, we decided to visit some other areas as well.
In 2018, we planned to spend a few days in Charleston, South Carolina before visiting my dad on Lake Keowee in the western part of the state and then continuing to DC. My dad had a last-minute emergency and we ended up spending a full week in Charleston instead. We worried a week would be too long….turns out, a week wasn’t enough!
Getting To Charleston
There is no direct flight from San Francisco (SFO) to Charleston (CHS). We flew United via Chicago O’Hare because that’s where we have all our status. It would have been more direct to go through Charlotte or Atlanta, but that wasn’t a route offered by United. Our plan was then to rent a car and drive to Lake Keowee (about a 4 hour drive), fly from Greenville/Spartanburg to DC, and then direct DC to SFO on our way back home. Instead, we changed our flights and flew from Charleston to DC and then home from DC.
Getting Around Charleston
Charleston is a very walkable city. We took a taxi to/from the airport and then relied on public transportation & walking for the rest of our trip. In fact, aside from taking the ferry to Fort Sumter & Patriot’s Point, we walked everywhere. We visited in August when it was hot & humid so it can be done! We considered renting a car for a day to venture farther from the city, but never did.
Rainbow Row – Walking Around the Battery
One of the first things we did after swimming in our hotel pool, was to get lost walking around the city. We knew we wanted to head to the Battery and then to White Point Garden via Rainbow Row, but on our way back we just headed in the general direction and wandered down streets that looked cute. It was a great way to get our bearings and find places we wanted to revisit later in the week.
There are lots of parks & open spaces in Charleston. It was great for our kids. We did a lot of walking and learning so when the kids needed a break we just let them run around, climb, or relax at a park.
Stately homes along the Battery!
Fort Sumter National Monument
I don’t think a trip to Charleston would be complete without a trip to Fort Sumter – where the first shots of the Civil War were fired!
The only way to get to Fort Sumter is through Fort Sumter Tours. There are two pickup spots: Liberty Square and Patriot’s Point. The ferries run on a very strict schedule and time at Fort Sumter is limited due to limited capacity at the fort. The ferry ride each way is approximately 30 minutes and then we had an hour to explore the fort.
There were docent tours available and we followed one for about 20 minutes to learn about the history and understand how the fort was used to protect Charleston Harbor.
When we arrived at the top of the fort, the flag raising ceremony was going on. They asked for a lot of volunteers to help hold the flag off the ground as they prepared to raise it. Our daughter was quick to jump in and help.
The time at the fort went by really quickly for us. Younger kids may just want to run around and play, others may want to follow the tour and read all the signs. If you fall into the latter group it makes sense to have a plan before you get there so you don’t waste time!
As of February 2021, the cost for adults is $30, Kids (4-11) $18, 3 and under FREE, and Seniors/Active Military $28.
I would definitely not call us “foodies”, but we do love to eat! Food tours are one of our favorite things to do when we travel. Our first experience was a Street Food Tour in Bangkok and we were sold! We signed up for a walking food tour with Bulldog Tours and loved it! We ate at 3 different restaurants, stopped at the Spice & Tea Exchange, and sampled desserts at Market Street Sweets.
During the tour, we learned about the 4 culinary influences in Charleston: English (lots of mushy boiled food as they were afraid of food coming out of the ground so they boiled it), French (spices, cheese, one pot cooking), Indian (corn/grits, beans & squash) & African (spices, oils/deep fried food, watermelon, sweet potato).
Our first stop was Another Broken Egg where we sampled Grits with cheddar, bacon & onion, and Fried Green Tomato. I don’t know why grits have always had a bad connotation in my mind, but these were delicious! And it was fun to learn that fried green tomatoes were actually made famous by the movie and then everyone starting serving them!
Our second stop was Lowcountry Bistro (which looks like it may now be permanently closed!). Here we were served She Crab Soup, a signature dish in Charleston, and Jambalaya. She Crab Soup is a thick cross between bisque and chowder made with Atlantic blue crab meat, heavy cream, fish stock, sherry and plenty of seasonings. We learned the dish was invented in Charleston when then-President Taft came to visit the Mayor of Charleston, R. Goodwyn Rhett in 1909. Knowing Taft was a foodie, Rhett asked his chef to spice up the pale crab soup they usually served. The chef added orange-hued roe to give the soup its color and add to the flavor. Taft loved the soup so much, he had it added to the White House menu!
We also stopped at the Spice & Tea Exchange where we got to sample moonpies, dips, tea, rubs, salts, sugars & spices! I went a little crazy here. Good thing they have shipping available right in the store. By the time we got home all of our purchases were waiting for us!
Our favorite stop was Poogan’s Smokehouse where we ate barbecue, cornbread and pimento fritters. We were told barbecue is always pork. And while we use the term BBQ in California to refer to cooking out on a grill, in the south, that is called a “cookout” and barbecue is reserved for the dish. We loved this place so much we came back another day for lunch.
Our last stop was Market Street Sweets where they had a sampling of their world-famous pralines, bear claws, candy, ice cream, and more. They have a sister store in Savannah (River Street Sweets) which we have also been to. Our guide told us that after Hurricane Hugo hit, Market Street Sweets was one of the first businesses to rebuild and revitalize the neighborhood – so they are loyal to them.
We took the Savor the Flavors of Charleston tour. The cost is currently $75 for adults. I can’t remember if we received a discount for our kids. I don’t think we did as they received the exact same portions as the adults. Kids are definitely welcome on this tour though we had a toddler in our group and I do remember our guide getting a little frustrated when he wanted to get up and walk around. The entire tour took about 3 hours and while we walked from place to place, it’s a lot of sitting and listening to the stories behind the food. And eating too! Our kids were 7, 10 and 12 at the time.
Kid-Friendly Walking Tour
Charleston is such a walkable city and there is so much history to learn. There are so many walking tours to choose from that range from Pirate-led walks for young kids to tours for the History buff. I was really happy to find a Kid Friendly Stroll Through History with Skip Evans at Walking Charleston. He only offers this tour during the summer and we were the only family on the tour. We met early before it got too hot which I appreciated and he was happy to rest when the kids slowed down. He led us all around Charleston showing us the highlights and presenting information in a way that engaged the kids. He talked about the history of pirates in Charleston from Blackbeard to the Gentleman Pirate, Stede Bonnet. He also talked a lot about what it would have been like to be a kid growing up in Old Charleston and some amazing inventions to come from kids, like indigo, invented by Elizabeth Pickney. He told us that he often runs his material & stories by his toughest critics: his grandchildren! If they like the story then he goes with it!
We learned why there are 3 red dots on the outside of a liquor store. This phenomenon started in 1935 when liquor sales became legal again after Prohibition. There was a liquor advertising battle between diehard Prohibitionists and those in support of liquor sales. In 1938, authorities deemed that advertising must be limited to discreet letters only a few inches high. It was under these circumstances, that a Charleston liquor owner painted a red dot around his lettering beginning the “red dot” trend.
We learned that a lot of the kitchens were built off the back of homes due to frequent kitchen fires (this was learned the hard way). It was much easier to rebuild a kitchen than an entire home!
The entire city just oozes charm.
At the Poinsett Tavern we learned about the history of the Poinsettia. John Roberts Poinsett was a one-time Ambassador to Mexico (appointed by US President John Quincy Adams to whom my mom tells me we can trace our lineage). In any case, Poinsett had a keen interest in botany and would wander the country looking for new species to bring back home. He found an interesting red shrub on the side of the road, took some clippings, and brought it back home to grow in his greenhouse in Charleston. Although he was a dutiful Congressman and Ambassador, he is most famously remembered for introducing the Poinsettia to the US.
The tour lasted a couple of hours and was an extremely reasonable price: $25/adult; $15 kids 7-18; 6 & under FREE. Along the way, Skip would point out activities & places we might like to come back to, like City Hall to see the old underground prison, the Old Slave Mart Museum, and some places to eat. He even sat down with us at the end of tour to help us plan out the rest of our day and provided us with a bunch of maps he marked up for us. Skip also offers tours geared towards adults which our kids may be old enough for next time we visit. Its clear Skip loves his job and his hometown. Highly recommend!
The Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon
Skip recommended we visit The Old Exchange & Provost on our own. The building was completed in 1771 and has been a commercial exchange, a custom house, post office, city hall, military headquarters, and now a museum. It was a great stop for the kids! There is a self-guided tour of the top two floors of the building where the kids got to sign the Declaration of Independence. What our kids found most fascinating was the 25 minute guided tour of the bottom floor – an old military prison, know as the Provost Dungeon!
We spent about an hour and a half at The Old Exchange. Tickets were reasonable at $10/adult, $5/kids 6-12, and under 6 is free.
Old Slave Mart Museum
Visiting the Old Slave Mart Museum was the most powerful stop on our trip. This building is the only known building still in existence in South Carolina that was used as a slave auction site. It was once part of a larger complex of buildings surrounding a central courtyard. At one point during slavery, as many as 40% of slaves entered the United States through Charleston.
The bottom floor of the museum is dedicated to informative posters which detail much of the history and require a lot of reading. There are also interviews with slaves that are fascinating to listen to. Upstairs there are some artifacts and pictures, but not a ton. I wouldn’t recommend this museum for young kids who can’t (or aren’t interested in) reading. We spend about an hour here and our kids were engaged and interested. The museum is incredibly moving and we all learned a lot, and most importantly it prompted a lot of important conversations about human rights.
There was a fee to enter the museum, but I can’t remember (or find) that info. I believe it was around $7-12/person.
Patriots Point is a naval & maritime museum in Mt. Pleasant, SC – just across the river from Charleston. We caught the Charleston Water Taxi from Waterfront Park in the Historic District to Patriots Point.
The big draw of Patriots Point is the WWII USS Yorktown Aircraft Carrier. First we toured the USS Laffey destroyer, the most decorated WWII US Destroyer still in existence. It’s known as “the ship that would not die”. There were films playing which we would stop and watch and then we explored the ship.
The USS Yorktown was incredibly impressive. There were different sections of the ship to self-tour and it was easy to find our way around this massive ship. There were also scavenger hunts for the kids (and adults) to get us looking for certain things for example: how many pounds of chocolate chips were needed in the Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe to serve 10,000? Answer 112 pounds of chocolate chips!
I could have spent all day here learning about the history of the ships. Our older two kids were interested and our 8-year-old did not like it at all. He thought some of the exhibits were scary and in general, does not like thinking about war. He did not enjoy the tight quarters and refused to go on the submarine. And despite our best efforts to convince him otherwise, he was really afraid that these military vessels might be a target of a foreign attack and was afraid we were in danger. We wanted to respect his feelings, so we moved quickly through the ships and skipped the submarine. Later that year, we visited Pearl Harbor where he felt safer because we were just visiting Memorials, not actual ships, but he still refused to go onto the USS Bowfin submarine.
On the other hand, our older two seemed right in their element.
The cost of the Charleston Water Taxi was $12/person for an All Day Pass. We bought single day admission tickets which gave us access to the USS Laffey Destroyer, USS Yorktown Aircraft Carrier, USS Clamagore Submarine, the Vietnam Experience, the Medal of Honor Museum, and 28 historic aircraft. We only visited the USS Laffey & USS Yorktown. Tickets were $24/ adult (over 12 years) and $16/ 6-12 years. They are available to purchase online here though we purchased them as walk-ups.
The South Carolina Aquarium is located at Liberty Square where we caught the ferry to Fort Sumter. You could easily combine these two things in one day, but we did not. This is one of those things that I was planning to skip. Living near the world class Monterey Bay Aquarium has set the bar high for other aquariums. But the kids insisted we go and I was impressed.
What I loved most about this aquarium was it’s interactive & unique exhibits. We spent a lot of time at the sea turtle care center learning about all the turtles in their care, what had brought them there, and watching them through glass windows. We watched some rescue videos too.
There were lots of interactive exhibits like measuring how big you are compared to an eagle or a sea turtle, trying to fit into an eagle’s nest, a touch pool, and more. It was definitely worth a stop and a nice way to get out of the heat for a bit!
The cost of admission to the aquarium is $29.95/adult 13+, $22.95/child (3-12), 2 and under free.
I fought doing this Escape Room all week and finally gave in. My argument was that we can do this anywhere and I’d rather spend our time when we travel doing things unique to that place. But here’s the thing – Escape in 60 is located on S Market Street and we would walk by daily. Each time we walked by the kids begged to do it. They need to be able to make some decisions when we travel to keep them engaged AND it was so hot we all were all looking forward to a couple of hours in air conditioning.
Admittedly, it was really fun. None of us had ever done one before and we had a bit of a learning curve, but eventually got on a roll. I don’t think any of us realized how many clues there were to solve. We kept thinking we were on the last clue and then there were more! So we ALMOST escaped. If we had another 5-10 minutes we would have been good. No one was disappointed though!
You can book online, but we just walked up and were able to get a spot about an hour later. I believe we did the Prison Escape Room. The room is suited for up to 8 people at once. It costs $28/person and the only way to guarantee you have the room to yourself is to buy out all 8 spots. We didn’t do this, but lucked out and got the room to ourselves. **NOTE this rule may be different now during COVID.
Shopping on King Street
Honestly, we didn’t do a lot of shopping as we just didn’t have time. But every time we had a guide who asked if we had any questions, without fail our daughter would ask if there were any pet stores around. Usually they would think she meant she wanted to buy an animal, but what she wanted was a store that sold pet accessories. And she hit the jackpot at Woof Gang Bakery on King Street. She went to town picking out dog treats that looked good enough to eat and gifts for our dog as well as friends’ dogs.
King Street is full of great shopping with lots of boutiques as well as chain stores like Vineyard Vines, Sephora, and Lululemon.
Where to Eat
Our hotel had a daily complimentary breakfast so we typically ate there each morning. But we had to check out Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit located at the Charleston City Market. We just walked up to the counter to order and then sat down at a nearby table. We all ordered biscuit sandwiches and it was everything I had hoped for! Perfection. I’m glad we waited to eat here until the end of our stay or I would have eaten here every day.
Lunch & Dinner
Our favorite restaurants were Poogan’s Smokehouse, SNOB (Slightly North of Broad), and 5 Church. Poogan’s was super casual barbeque we discovered on our food tour. 5 Church is located in an old church and the setting is just stunning: stained glass window and arched roof which has the entire text of The Art of War painted on it. Not only did we love the ambiance, but it was the best meal of the week.
We also ate at Poogan’s Porch (sister restaurant to Poogan’s Smokehouse) – we liked the Smokehouse much better, Peninsula Grill which felt a little too fancy for us, but they seated us outside on the patio under lights which was perfect for us,
We made a few special trips for dessert. One night we walked about a mile to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream on King Street. There was a long line that moved quickly, but probably still took about 20 minutes to get through. I loved it, but the kids weren’t as impressed. They didn’t love all the unique flavors like Everything Bagel and Lavender and so felt their options were limited. I loved it and thought it was worth the walk & wait! We also ate at Carmella’s Cafe & Dessert Bar where the desserts were like art! So many cakes, tarts, brownies, cookies, and gelato dishes to choose from.
Where to Stay
Charleston Place, A Belmond Hotel
We love Inspirato and have been members for years. One of their properties is Charleston Place so we decided to stay there! It has a great location right in the heart of the Historic District. This made walking around to all the sites so convenient. We got 2 rooms on their Club level with access to breakfast, all-day snacks, appetizers, and cocktails. It was great! They also have a pool, gym, spa, and a rooftop restaurant where we had lunch the first day we arrived. We went to the pool every afternoon. It was a great way to cool off and relax before heading out to dinner.
Some other places I’d like to stay are Wentworth Mansion and Zero George.
What We Didn’t Do
Like I mentioned, we thought a week in Charleston would be too much , but in reality it just wasn’t enough! On this trip, I had come up with a list of things to do and let the kids vote on their top choices which we made sure to do. Here are some things we didn’t get to:
- Beaches: Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island & Isle of Palms were all on our short list. None are far from Charleston, but required us to rent a car for a day. Our trips are typically a mix of city & culture plus beach & adventure. This trip didn’t have the latter and we all missed that. Renting a car just ended up just sounding like too much work when we had so much we could walk to.
- Plantation Tours – I did a lot of research into plantations before we left and picked a few I thought would be educational and engaging for the kids. Here are a few that made my short list: Magnolia Plantation, Boone Hall & Middleton Place. I know we would have enjoyed visiting, but again…no car!
- River Dogs game. We thought the boys especially would love going to a minor league River Dogs game. Our local baseball league uses minor league team names in one of their divisions and so we had all heard of the River Dogs! I always think that attending a local sporting event is a great way to get to know a city. Next time.
- What else have you done? What should we be sure to do the next time we visit?