The historic city of Charleston is a popular destination for family vacations with its mix of rich cultural heritage, unique local attractions, diverse wildlife, and beautiful beaches. Parents love how walkable the city is, and the free DASH trolley routes add even more to Charleston’s family-friendly appeal. There are so many fun activities to enjoy with kids in Charleston year-round, from exploring historic locations and visiting museums to hunting for fossils on the beach and dolphin-spotting on the harbor. Learn about some of the best kid-friendly spots in Charleston, including free and cheap activities for the whole family.
Fun activities to enjoy in Charleston with kids
1. Shop in the Charleston City Market
The historic Charleston City Market is one of the oldest public markets in the country and a cultural staple of downtown Charleston. With a mix of indoor shops and a covered open-air market, this a great family destination for a hot or rainy day. Vendors sell everything from jewelry and collectibles to folk art, home decor, toys, and kid’s gadgets. You’ll also find authentic handmade sweetgrass baskets, intricately woven by local Gullah artisans. The Charleston City Market is open daily, with additional seasonal night markets on Friday and Saturday evenings.
2. Play and imagine at Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry
Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry houses interactive play spaces that spark imagination and are great for kids ages 10 and under. Children can create crafts and artwork, join experiments in a science lab, or shop and cashier in a mini grocery store. Kids can perform and play on a theater stage or join the crew of a pirate ship on the high seas. A dedicated space is available for infants and toddlers, as well as a reading nook. The museum also hosts bimonthly events for children with autism and special needs to explore and play without crowds and over-stimulation.
3. Learn about African American history
The city of Charleston has a long, historic past, including involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Centuries of African and African American history can be explored across the city, offering learning opportunities for families with children of all ages. Charleston is home to important sites from the civil rights movement, including the Avery Institute and Mother Emanuel AME Church, where activists like Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. have spoken. Cultural locations include The Gibbes Museum of Art, the Old Slave Art Museum, and the much-anticipated International African American Museum, set to open in early 2022.
4. Find unique sea creatures at South Carolina Aquarium
At the South Carolina Aquarium, you can learn about the diverse wildlife and plant life native to South Carolina. The exhibits offer beautiful natural habitats, interesting creatures, and lots of interactive kids' activities, and they're stroller- and wheelchair friendly. The Sea Turtle Recovery Center, where you can visit injured sea turtle patients during their rehabilitation and learn about conservation efforts, is a highlight for many families. The aquarium will provide inclusive resources for visitors with autism or other sensory-processing needs, including noise-canceling headphones, weighted lap pads, and modified maps for a calmer route through exhibits.
5. Go on a Charleston Pirate Tour
Local companies like Charleston Pirate Tours offer tons of unique, kid-friendly walking tours around the city, led by knowledgeable local guides. This is a fun and engaging way for kids to learn about history. Adventures like the Pirate Tour and Children’s Treasure Tour take kids on interactive journeys to historic sites, joined by the pirate crew’s colorful parrots. Daytime and evening ghost tours explore some of the spooky locations, legends, and ghost stories from the city’s past. Classic Charleston History tours are also available, spanning centuries of colorful history from the city’s founding in 1670 through today.
6. Hunt for shark teeth with Charleston Fossil Adventures
Charleston Fossil Adventures offers family-friendly fossil hunting expeditions for all ages, led by experienced guides in paleontology. First, you’ll learn how to identify and locate different types of fossils, then go out and explore areas rich with naturally occurring fossil material. Your guide is trained to help you locate hard-to-spot fossils, and they will identify everything you find. You’re guaranteed to go home with authentic fossils and newfound knowledge on how to hunt for more on your own. Fossils are always naturally occurring, never “planted” before a trip.
7. Explore historic ships at Patriot’s Point Naval and Maritime Museum
Among the exhibits at Patriot’s Point Naval and Maritime Museum are 3 massive warships and over 20 different historic aircraft. You can climb aboard and explore historic ships like the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, the USS Laffey destroyer, and the USS Clamagore submarine. Exhibits range from Medal of Honor recipients to information on the history of the Vietnam War. Kids will find tons of unique interactive experiences and hands-on learning. Many of the exhibits are wheelchair accessible, while others, such as the USS Clamagore submarine, are only accessible by stairs.
8. Go kayaking with Charleston Outdoor Adventures
Local companies like Charleston Outdoor Adventures offer unique outdoor experiences for all ages and experience levels. Guided kayak tours will take you across diverse natural ecosystems where you’ll see local wildlife and learn about indigenous species. Beginners are welcome, and the guides will instruct you to easily navigate the water in your kayak. Tandem kayaks are available, which are perfect for families with younger children. If you’re in search of cooler temperatures during the summer months, you can book a morning or evening tour. You’ll want to pack sunscreen, shades, hats, and water for any of your outdoor adventures.
9. Experience colonial life at Charles Towne Landing
Charles Towne Landing is the historic site where English settlers first landed in 1670, establishing the birthplace of the Carolina colony. Today it offers a glimpse into the earliest colonial history of Charleston, where you can explore interactive exhibits and a replica 17th-century sailing ship. You’ll find animals like otters, bears, and bison in the park’s natural habitat zoo. Your family can stroll miles of beautiful forest trails and the peaceful alley of oak trees. On the first Saturday of each month, historic reenactments at the park include real colonial cannon fire.
Free and cheap Charleston kids activities
10. Watch sailboats at Charleston Waterfront Park
Charleston's Waterfront Park encompasses 10 acres of space for families to enjoy just off the Charleston Harbor. The park offers a mix of sunny walking paths along the water and shady interior paths under tall Palmetto trees. Park benches and grassy areas are perfect for picnics and for viewing the different boats and ships crossing the harbor. Kids especially love watching the antics of the pelicans and egrets that frequent the waterfront. A wide pier stretches into the harbor on the north side of the park, where a shady gazebo covers picnic tables and breezy porch swings.
11. Ride a DASH trolley around the city
Charleston is a very walkable city, but the Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) makes traveling even easier, especially for those with small children or mobility issues. DASH offers several free trolley routes that include stops at popular family destinations like the aquarium, Historic King Street, Broad Street Shopping District, Waterfront Park, and the Charleston Museum. These trolleys are modern, clean, air-conditioned, stroller-friendly, and wheelchair-accessible. A free DASH transit app includes route information and real-time bus tracking. Other transit routes across the city are available for a low fare or with an affordable all-day rider pass, and children under 6 ride free.
12. Play in the water at Charleston parks
There are multiple parks in Charleston where families and kids can cool off and play in the water. Waterfront Park houses multiple fountains designed for play, including Vendue Fountain and the Pineapple Fountain. The Vendue Fountain is especially popular for families, offering a larger splash pad that tends to draw in both kids and parents. In North Charleston, you’ll find a smaller splash pad at Riverfront Park that offers beautiful views of the river.
13. Take a sunset stroll along The Ravenel Bridge
The Ravenel Bridge is a famous city landmark, a massive cable-stayed bridge spanning the Cooper River and connecting downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant. A protected walking path on the bridge is separated safely from traffic and offers a great place to stroll or bike while enjoying sea breezes and sweeping views over the water. The full path is 2.5 miles in length, but many families opt to walk to the scenic halfway viewpoint and return. This is an especially beautiful stroll at sunset, with the harbor and passing ships illuminated by the setting sun.
14. See dolphins on the Charleston Water Taxi
The Charleston Water Taxi is an inexpensive way for families to sightsee, dolphin watch, and get around the city. Water taxis sail a continuous loop between multiple points around Charleston Harbor from 9 am to 6 pm, so you never have to wait long at any stop to hop on. You’ll likely see dolphins and pelicans alongside the boat as you traverse the water, and you’re welcome to stay on the boat across multiple stops to enjoy a relaxing ride around the harbor. One-way tickets and all-day passes are available, and children 3 and under ride for free.
15. Build sandcastles on a Charleston beach
You'll find lots of great beaches around Charleston, perfect for playing in the sand, strolling along the shore, and having fun in the water. Folly Beach is a popular spot for visiting families with its lively atmosphere, large pier, and close proximity to amenities. If you’re looking for a quiet spot to relax and unwind, Sullivan’s Island is a good choice, as it's one of the least commercialized beaches in the area. Although Isle of Palms Beach is a bit farther away, its beautiful beaches and nearby local hot spots make it a popular destination for families.