Charleston, South Carolina is a charming, historical city with amazing food, rich American history with stories of pirates and Revolutionary War, vibrant houses, and wonderful surroundings steeped in Spanish moss and stories. I spent a few days there with my two young kids and these are our favorite family-friendly things to see, eat, and do for a first-timer in Charleston, South Carolina.
If you are here for the recipes, I totally understand and you might want to have a look at some of our favorite Southern recipes like this homemade banana pudding, smothered pork chops, sweet potato casserole, or pecan pie instead of scrolling through this post. Because I’m about to share way too many of my favorite trip photos from our recent visit to the Palmetto State.
After spending some time visiting Savannah, Georgia with my college roommate and her family, my husband had to fly back home to California for work, but I decided to venture a little further to Charleston, South Carolina with our girls and go explore as long as we were all the way out there. I’m so glad I did because we had a wonderful time and saw so many interesting things!
We stayed at The Mills House in the heart of historic Charleston, which I loved because it meant that a lot of what we wanted to see was within walking distance for me and my two little travel companions.
Truthfully, Charleston is just so charming and beautiful that my favorite activity of all was just strolling around the streets of the city, admiring the beautiful window boxes, looking at restaurant menus, and letting the girls take their time enjoying the waterfront parks.
I’m sharing my favorite, including recommendations from readers who told me about some of their favorite Charleston ideas as well.
Best Things to See in Charleston, South Carolina
This waterfront collection of brightly-colored homes on Charleston’s Easy Bay Street are a draw to anybody looking to capture an Instagram worthy photograph. The buildings are from the 1700’s and were once used by merchants, then fell into disuse and were considered something of a slum until they were revitalized in the early 1900’s. This article has even more fascinating information about Rainbow Row, including specifics about some of the homes.
Pineapple Fountain at Waterfront Park
Pineapples are a common motif seen around Charleston, if you look. Historically they have been a sign of hospitality, and the large Pineapple Fountain in Charleston’s Waterfront Park has become a symbol of the Holy City that makes for a lovely resting spot. Apparently during the summer months people will splash in the fountain to cool off!
The girls really liked swinging on the bench swings that are installed along the covered pier and running along the boardwalk overlooking the marshes and Cooper’s River.
Visit a Plantation
There are a number of plantations in the area surrounding Charleston, but we only had time to visit one. We ended up going to Boone Hall Plantation, partly because it’s known for being extremely photogenic, but mostly because Boone Hall offers the best insight into Gullah and slave history out of Charleston-area plantations with special storytelling sessions with an explanation of Gullah traditions, language, stories, dress, and music. It was beautiful and fascinating.
Other options that I would definitely consider are Magnolia Plantation, Drayton Hall, Middleton Place. Drayton Hall and Magnolia Plantation are supposed to be close enough together that you could do both of them in the same day.
I was surprised by the heaviness I felt visiting Boone Hall. I mean, I know about our country’s history with slavery and plantations, but being there and seeing the land where the people lived, both slaves and slaveowners, was a unique and overwhelming experience for me.
Despite the beauty of the Spanish moss, low-hanging live oaks, and cypress trees, there is a dark reality to seeing some of the remaining brick structures that were built by slaves to house some of the mansion slaves just steps from the larger buildings occupied by the landowners. Other field slaves lived in even less desirable structures.
Cash crops like rice and indigo brought a lot of wealth to Charleston, but one of the main products created at Boone Hall were bricks that ended up being shipped all over the U.S. to build buildings. It was such an interesting place to visit.
The girls enjoyed touring both the slave homes and Boone Hall itself, although the actual structure was built long past the heyday of Boone Hall operating as the kind of plantation we think of today. There were also beautiful gardens to walk through, a plantation tractor tour, and some other outbuildings to see.
Angel Oak on John’s Island
This gorgeous old live oak is a bit of a drive from the center of Charleston, but it’s definitely worth it. The Angel Oak Tree is estimated to be 400-500 years old and live oaks have been known to live twice that long. It’s free to go see the Angel Oak Tree, which is one of the oldest living organisms in the United States.
It’s massive branches and enormous trunk are quite something to see and you are allowed to walk around and under it as long as you don’t climb on the tree itself.
We also enjoyed the display of beautiful sweet grass baskets that were on display by a Gullah descendant there. You will see these beautifully woven baskets all around Charleston, but they are very expensive and most of the weavers don’t want you taking photos of them. After buying a couple of small baskets for the girls, the weaver told me I could take photos, which I was grateful for.
Charleston City Market
The Charleston City Market is made up of a number of buildings housing local vendors and artists who bring their crafts and goods to sell. You will see lots of sweetgrass baskets for sale here, along with other merchandise. Most people visit the City Market because this is where the carriage tours leave from. There are also a number of restaurants and sweet shops in the area.
I was really hoping we would get to go out to Fort Sumter while we were in Charleston, but the day we planned to go we ended up with bad weather and high winds, so the ferries to the island were suspended. Instead, we just wandered through the visitor’s center for a bit, but we didn’t last long because my girls aren’t quite old enough to stay engaged long in that kind of a setting.
But I definitely recommend going if you are there and have the chance. Then let me know in the comments what you think and if it’s worth it!
Best Things to Do
Horse Drawn Carriage Ride
Okay, I thought this was going to be super hokey, but the girls and I ended up loving the horse-drawn carriage ride through the city. We went with Old South Carriage tours and our beautiful, big horse looked well-cared for, unlike some of the horses we noticed on the street from other carriage operators.
Because it was chilly and had been sprinkling off and on, there were blankets for sharing and we had a nice, leisurely tour through the city, happy to be warm and dry under a covered carriage.
Each carriage, once it is loaded up, approaches a booth and a route is randomnly selected to help keep traffic congestion down since the size of the roads and the speed of the horse-drawn carriages could cause problems otherwise. Which means you never know exactly what tour you will get when doing a carriage-ride in Charleston.
Our guide was very knowledgeable about the city though and explained a lot of the questions I had thought of while wandering around the city for a couple of days. Like he explained the reason for the flower boxes were to perfume the houses back when horses were the main mode of transportation and the streets just outside the homes didn’t smell so great. Or how there are all these open porches on the sides of the houses there, which was a place for the occupants of the house to strip down out of their big, heavy clothing and get a little air outside with at least some degree of privacy.
I would definitely recommend this activity for anybody!
Charleston has it’s ghost tours, just like Savannah, but given it’s history with pirates, including Blackbeard himself and the Gentleman Pirate, Stede Bonnet, I thought it would be fun and interesting to do a pirate tour. I love pirate movies from Pirates of the Caribbean to Hook to Goonies, and our girls seem to find the idea of pirates and piracy fascinating as well, so I was glad to find a children’s tour with Charleston Pirate Tours that was perfect for them.
Rose was a little intimidated going into it and kept asking me if our guide was a “real pirate”.
They each made their own pirate flag, were given a pirate name (Clara was called Captain Coral Leggings for the pink pants she had on and Rose was called Captain Rainbow for her rainbow dress – they were both thrilled and still randomly remind us of their pirate names), signed their name into the captain’s log to become official pirates, and learned some sword moves using foam swords that they got to keep.
Then they were each given a treasure map and we made our way around a park, finding landmarks like stacks of cannonballs and a marker denoting where 49 men were hanged in 1718 for piracy. Our pirate guide would tell us pirate history as we walked between markers and clearly knew a lot about the famous pirates of that region.
At the end they found the treasure and were able to choose prizes from the booty. If you have kids, I totally recommend this fun activity.
Where to Eat in Charleston
I went with a list of places to eat in Charleston, but the city has so much to choose from that we were only able to hit a few of our top picks while we were there.
Hominy Grill: I’m officially obsessed with Hominy Grill. So much so that even though we knew we only had a few days in Charleston we chose to eat here twice so we could sample some of the menu offerings we weren’t able to try the first time around. The building used to be a barbershop and it’s super cute inside with butcher paper over the tables so the kids could color. But sadly, they decided to close after 24 years in business to pursue other projects. The silver lining is that they had a small paperback cookbook for sale at the restaurant with some of their most popular recipes and I purchased one. So hopefully I can recreate some of my favorites and share them on here.
Hominy Grill’s shrimp & grits was hands down the best I’ve ever had. It was like an ah-ha moment where I finally realized why Southerners love grits. And their hummingbird cake was beyond delicious and will definitely be making an appearance on the blog when I get to South Carolina Week for my American Eats series. We also enjoyed the Charleston Nasty (basically fried chicken on a biscuit with gravy), the sweet potato waffle with coconut pecan glaze (I wanted more!) and their signature Hominy Grill jam and buttermilk biscuits. I’m sad I didn’t get to try their she-crab soup and bread pudding french toast!
Virginia’s On King: Our other favorite restaurant in Charleston, Virginia’s On King which specializes in upscale low-country cuisine. They are on the pricier side, but their Frogmore Stew (made with local shrimp, smoked sausage, crab, corn, potatoes, tomato, and lemon) was to-die-for. And Clara loved their chicken & dumplings, which is one of her favorite meals anywhere. If Paul had been with us I know he would have ordered the fried chicken. Virginia’s On King also had my favorite cornbread of anyplace we ate it, and I’m trying to figure out how to recreate it at home because it was so good and different from my favorite cornbread! Be sure to get a reservation because otherwise the wait is really long otherwise.
Jestine’s Kitchen: Good food, but I don’t think Jestine’s Kitchen comes close to the culinary excellence of Hominy Grill or Virginia’s On King for me. I will say that I tried fried green tomatoes for probably the fourth time here and realized that while they were cooked well, I guess they just aren’t my thing because they left me feeling let down.
We didn’t get to try Charleston Grill or Husk, but both were on our shortlist. In fact, I thought I had a reservation for Husk one night, but it turns out I had booked it for the Savannah location instead of Charleston. Oops. It looks amazing though, and was my top choice going in to Charleston for a place I wanted to eat. Next time, I guess.
Seafood is really popular in Charleston, given that it’s right on the water, and Charleston Crab House and Hyman’s for Seafood are both known for their seafood, although you can get seafood options at lots of other lowcountry restaurants, even ones that aren’t dedicated to seafood specifically.
So tell me – have you been to Savannah? Share your favorite things and recommendations in the comments below so I know what to add to my list for our next trip!