For my daughter’s second-grade state report, she chose South Carolina. She enjoyed learning about the state so much that she decided we should go there for one of our family vacations. I loved the idea of heading to Charleston with kids and timing it over spring break worked out perfectly.
Since this was her trip, she got to set the itinerary. She was excited to see Charleston, which we were on board with given its status as one of the South’s most charming destinations, and she also wanted to have some beach/pool time and selected Hilton Head Island for that. I booked four nights in Charleston and three on Hilton Head and off we went.
Is Charleston Family-Friendly?
Was Charleston family-friendly? It was for our kids – they love good food and really liked a lot of things that we did (list below). If your kids can appreciate history, architecture, food, and shopping, absolutely, bring them to Charleston. If they prefer beaches and pools as their go-to Charleston attractions, it’s probably not for them yet.
Was Hilton Head Island kid-friendly? Not so much, at least the week we went. There was a PGA Tour event taking place near our hotel, which affected what we could do, the hotel had no kid-oriented activities (the Sonesta Kids Club is only open seasonally), and the weather was cold and rainy. We escaped to Savannah, Georgia for a day, and spent some time at the beach despite the weather, but otherwise Hilton Head was a bust for us. Will we go back? Probably not. But for a warm-weather trip during peak season for families that just want to relax at the beach and pool, it could work out well.
I had everyone in the family rate each of our activities. Below are our top ten things to do in and around Charleston with kids (all in Charleston unless otherwise noted):
1) The Kapla Block Store (Tom’s Toys)
Sadly Tom’s Toys has gone out of business. We loved the large central play area where you could play to your heart’s content…for free! We went there three times for at least an hour each and the kids had a great time building. We ended up buying a 1000-block Kapla Block set and we still play with it years later.
2) Dining in Charleston with Kids
I have a foodie wife and we have foodie kids. Our meals were extraordinary. We had one bad lunch in Hilton Head, but otherwise, we had seven great dinners and five great lunches. It appears that it’s hard to go wrong dining in South Carolina. The restaurants that we would highly, highly recommend are Monza in Charleston, Amen Street in Charleston, High Cotton in Charleston, Jim n’ Nick’s BBQ in Charleston, Burwell’s in Charleston, the Lucky Rooster in Hilton Head, It’s Greek to Me in Hilton Head and Collins Quarter in Savannah. To say it was crazy good food is an understatement, and I love that our kids loved the food as well (no kid menus for them)!
3) Bike Riding on the Beach (Hilton Head)
This was only my nine-year-old daughter and me, and it was the only redeeming element to Hilton Head as far as we were concerned, but it was really fun. I’m used to beaches in California and Hawaii with deep, soft sand. The sand in Hilton Head was hard and perfect for long bike rides up and down the beach.
4) White Point Garden
The kids loved running around under the oak trees draped with Spanish moss, playing on the cannons and piles of cannon balls, chasing squirrels and picking up fallen azaleas. The walk from our hotel down Church Street to the park was utterly charming as well.
5) Magnolia Plantation
Historical stops are plentiful in Charleston, and Magnolia is the most-visited plantation near Charleston. But wasn’t crowded when we went on a Wednesday morning. The petting zoo was the kids’ favorite thing, but we also all enjoyed walking around the gardens and going through the maze. www.magnoliaplantation.com
6) King Street Shopping
Sure there are some stores that you can find everywhere, but there are also antique stores, clothing stores with Southern styles that we just don’t see in California (like seersucker and smocking) and unique places like Callie’s Hot Biscuits.
7) The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry
We spent a good four hours at the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, which I think is a record for us. The craft section is great, the mock grocery store is the best we’ve seen (sorry Louisiana Children’s Museum) and there are a lot of fun water and golf ball activities. My kids highly recommend putting this museum on your list of Charleston attractions.
8) Historic Charleston City Market
There’s a market that stretches several blocks down the middle of Market Street with souvenirs, crafts, kid’s things and, our favorite, puzzles. There’s a puzzle stand that the kids spent more than an hour at over several days, just playing with (and getting frustrated with) the various puzzles. This stop is totally free and a frugal stop while exploring Charleston with kids – unless you buy something.
9) Culinary Tour
This was a distant ninth of our favorite Charleston attractions. My five-year-old especially didn’t enjoy three hours of walking, dining and learning about the history and food of Charleston, but the rest of us had fun. We stopped at a couple of places that weren’t open yet for private tastings (Dixie Supply Bakery and A.W. Shucks Seafood) as well as other places like candy stores and the Spice and Tea Exchange where anyone can walk in and try things just the same. Our guide was excellent, even if my New Orleans-born wife disagreed with him on some food preparations and pronunciations! If you have foodie kids, they’ll appreciate this stop. Seven is probably a good minimum age. www.culinarytoursofcharleston.com
10) Savannah (day trip)
We had been told that you can see Savannah in a day. We did it in half a day. The kids didn’t appreciate the history, and the shopping wasn’t as good as in Charleston (despite the very cool Paris Market). But the day was a success because of our amazing lunch at Collins Quarter. And now at least we can cross Savannah off our list.
Hotel in Charleston
We stayed at the French Quarter Inn during our vacation in Charleston with kids. Even though it’s not an obviously kid-friendly hotel, the location is excellent and our kids loved a lot of the elements: the endless M&Ms and Jelly Bellys; the cheese, salami, and bread in the evenings; and the cookies and milk before bedtime. I appreciated that they let all five of us stay in one room (the Double Queen Suite was better than the King Suite). And best of all, there was a dimmer in the bathroom. It’s such a small thing, but most hotel bathrooms are either dark or extremely bright. I liked that if one of the kid got up in the middle of the night, he/she could turn on the light just a tiny bit. Really nice attention to detail overall. Highly recommended.
Hotel on Hilton Head Island
The Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island was ok. The beach there is great and our kids had fun with the hammocks, corn hole games and blocks scattered around. But the Kids Club was closed and we had a ridiculously long walk from the parking lot to our room, which was pretty much the farthest room from the lobby. The pool was very kid-friendly with a gentle slope, but it was cold. And sleep quality was bad – we were awakened both by loudly talking neighbors and by very amorous neighbors (not awkward at all with young kids!). I wouldn’t go out of my way to stay there again.