With its cobblestone streets, antebellum architecture, and wind-blown forts, Charleston is one of the best-preserved cities in America. It’s also a place that makes learning history fun for kids.
Over the Thanksgiving break, we spent nearly a week with relatives in Charleston, S.C. This Southern town first established in 1670 is beautifully preserved and full of history. It was captured in the Civil War without much property damage, so the old part of town has buildings that are hundreds of years old. While you might think history and kids don’t mix we found that our children–ages 5 and 6–were actually quite excited about spotting a bison, stepping inside a former dungeon, and watching craftswomen weave sweetgrass baskets.
Here are 9 things to do with kids in Charleston:
1) See a family of bison. The site of the first permanent European settlement in the Carolina province, Charles Towne Landing is now a beautiful, sprawling waterfront park celebrating the birth of South Carolina. Walk a path that winds through native oak trees, past bison that once roamed the land, and by re-creations of Indian and pioneer villages. Kids will especially enjoy hopping aboard a replica of a 17th-century merchant vessel. $5 adults, $3 ages 6 to 15. Info: charlestowne.org.
2) Explore an aircraft carrier. The USS Yorktown was the 10th aircraft carrier to serve in the United States Navy, and today it’s a museum at Patriot’s Point. Kids can walk across the aircraft deck that now serves as a parking lot for retired jet fighters from World War II and Vietnam. You can also squeeze inside the cramped interior of a submarine and sit in the cockpit of an F-94 Starfire. Don’t forget to look for dolphins swimming by in the Savannah River where this carrier is anchored. $16 adults, $9 ages 6 to 11. Info: patriotspoint.org.
3) Visit a Civil War site. The first shots of the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter, which sits atop a rocky island in Charleston Harbor. Take a ferry (operated by Spirit Line Cruises) to the island where a ranger gives a 10-minute history talk before you’re free to explore the fort and an impressive display of big cannons and artillery artifacts. $16 adults, $10 ages 6 to 11. Info: click here.
4) Get spooked inside a dungeon. Built in 1771 the Old Exchange once stored British tea; now it’s a museum. Kids are most interested in the spooky Provost Dungeon downstairs where animatronics–the Deputy Collector, Mister Mate, and Tom the Stockman–tell stories of the people who were once imprisoned here. $7 adults, $3.50 ages 6 to 12. Info: click here.
5) Feast on chocolate pie. The specialty at Kaminsky’s dessert cafe, right in the heart of historic downtown, is Toll House pie, a sweet, gooey mess of chocolate chips and pecans baked in a flaky pie shell and topped with chocolate sauce and pecans served with vanilla bean ice cream. Other favorites: coconut cream cake, chocolate mousse torte, brownie sundaes, and for moms and dads only, hot toddies. Info: kaminskys.com.
6) Let a horse lead the way. It’s easy to imagine the way things were in this town when you’re sitting in a horse-drawn carriage. Look for carriages downtown; they’re everywhere. Info: classiccarriage.com or carriagetour.com.
7) Climb on a cannon. Kids love to play on the collection of Civil War-era cannons at White Point Gardens on East Battery. The grassy patch shaded by moss-laden oaks was first used as a public garden in 1837 and later became a fortification for the city after the outbreak of the Civil War. Info: discoversouthcarolina.com.
8) Shop for sweetgrass baskets. In the 1800s, locals came to the rows of covered stalls making up the City Market to buy fish, meat, and produce. Today, merchants sell handmade jewelery, warm pralines, and knickknacks. This is also the best place to see artists demonstrate how Charleston’s famous sweetgrass baskets are sewn together using palmetto fronds. They also sell sweetgrass roses that kids can buy as souvenirs for $2 or $3. Info: charlestoncity.info.
9) Tour an antebellum mansion. The Aiken-Rhett House remains unchanged since the mid-1800s. A 45-minute taped audio tour leads you through the mansion and its outbuildings such as the slaves’ quarters, work yard, kitchen house, and privies. $10 adults, $5 for 6 to 16. Info: historiccharleston.org.