When hectic school days and heavy work schedules leave your family feeling frazzled, there’s nothing like an escape to Charleston, South Carolina. With its beautiful beaches, family friendly attractions, and rich history, you’ll soon find yourself sipping sweet tea on a porch swing, breathing in the salt air, while the weight of the world slips away. There’s something rejuvenating about Charleston.
Things to Do in Charleston, SC: Escape for a Week or a Weekend
Our family loves Charleston, SC. While we live three hours northwest of the city, we feel a special connection to the area. My husband and I celebrated our wedding on the beach at Isle of Palms many (many) years ago, choosing the Charleston area as a perfect destination for our out-of-town guests to enjoy. We knew they’d find many things to do in Charleston after the wedding.
Now, with our kids, we’re as likely to jump in the car and drive down for the day as we are to spend a week at the beach. After all, sometimes we just need a bit of sand between our toes and yummy seafood in our bellies to make everything right in the world.
So, when our daughter’s birthday approached, I asked her: what do you want to do for your Sweet 16? Her reply:
“I want to visit the turtle hospital at the South Carolina Aquarium.”
Sweet 16 at the South Carolina Aquarium—Really?
OK, I know what you’re thinking: what 16-year-old wants to go to an aquarium with her family for her milestone birthday? Not many. Somehow, though, my husband and I lucked into parenting an animal-obsessed, crazy-smart, kind, veterinarian wanna-be. Our 12-year-old son is exactly the same (although wanting to own a dojo, currently). We won the lottery when we became parents of our kids. No teen drama. No rebellion. And no boyfriend (except for her four-legged, furry equestrian partner, whom she loves).
I’ve probably just jinxed myself, and she’ll embark on a full blown fit of teen angst next month!
Anyway, we woke her early on her birthday, opened presents, and jumped in the car to head to Charleston for a day of adventure.
Things to Do in Charleston, SC: South Carolina Aquarium
Can I tell you a secret? When I’m retired and no longer shuttling kids to hours of activities, I intend to become a turtle lady. You’ve probably seen them, roaming the beach, searching for new turtle nests to mark and track, rescuing baby turtles and reporting hatch rates. For as long as I can remember, every summer I’d search for nests on the Carolina coast, anxiously hoping one would hatch during vacation.
Apparently, our kids inherited my husband’s and my love of animals. That’s why our travels either feature a destination filled with wildlife, like Costa Rica, or includes the area’s zoos and aquariums.
While we’ve visited aquariums all over the world, I’ll admit: I’m smitten with the South Carolina Aquarium.
Location, Location, Location: It’s Part of South Carolina Aquarium’s Appeal
From the moment we arrive, we enjoy every aspect of the aquarium. Perhaps it’s the location, offering gorgeous views overlooking the historic Charleston Harbor, where we search for dolphins. (The South Carolina aquarium does not exhibit dolphins.) Most likely, though, it’s the prospect of meeting the 5,000 animals housed within the aquarium.
The South Carolina Aquarium: Journey from the Mountains to the Sea.
While not the largest aquarium in the country, the South Carolina Aquarium offers an intimate introduction into the wildlife of the state.
From the Saltmarsh Aviary with its visitor warnings to the 6,000 gallon stingray tank to the impressive 385,000 gallon ocean tank, featuring sharks, sea turtles, rays, and schools of colorful fish, we find new things to explore each time we visit.
The aquarium’s displays showcase the animals and plants native to South Carolina. Exploring the Mountain Forest, you’ll find a rescued, injured bald eagle that permanently resides at the aquarium. The Piedmont section displays bass and crappies in a simulated river environment. In the Coastal Plains, with its alligators and rattlesnakes, you’ll even find an albino alligator. The aquarium offer a great representation of our state’s natural beauty and inhabitants.
And, naturally, our kids love the touch tanks.
South Carolina Aquarium: Lessons in Environmental Stewardship.
Of course, the highlight of our trip involved turtles!
We’d wanted to visit the turtle hospital for ages, so when our daughter placed it on her birthday wish list, I made sure it happened. Personally, I couldn’t wait to tour the facility!
While tickets to the turtle hospital are an extra expense, they’re worth it. Our knowledgeable, lovely guide Jacquie led us into the underbelly of the aquarium—a room filled with tanks the size of extra large kiddie pools. There, as she explained the mission of the turtle hospital to rescue, rehabilitate, and release the injured turtles, she shared facts about the types of turtles in our oceans. She also told us a bit about the current residents—including their names, their injuries, the status of rehabilitation efforts, and when and if they would be released. (One or two turtles could no longer survive in the wild due to their injuries, she told us.)
Coming Soon: A New and Improved Turtle Hospital and Education Center
Due to the commitment of the Zucker family, who contributed $2.5 million as a challenge grant, a new facility – the Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery Center – will open in May. The new attraction will serve not only as a rehabilitation facility but also will broaden the public’s education about sea turtles. (You KNOW I’ll be visiting and posting about it as soon as possible. I can’t wait!)
When our guide learned that our birthday girl requested the visit to the turtle hospital, she disappeared for a minute, and came back with a sweet little gift for her! Honestly, the friendly staff members that share their wealth of information and experiences with visitors makes the South Carolina Aquarium a warm, inviting attraction. Plus, they do really good environmental work.
The aquarium offers nursing rooms across from the gift shop and rents strollers for $1. It really is the perfect family-friendly destination. While we visited, “live mermaids” swimming in the tanks enthralled younger children. The aquarium constantly creates fun, interesting attractions for families.
Things to Do in Charleston, SC: Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
As a garden writer, one of my favorite places in Charleston is Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Located along the Ashley River in Charleston, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens provides the perfect example of southern charm.
Ancient oaks drip with Spanish moss and winding paths burst with blooms, transporting visitors to a pre-Civil war era.
In fact, some sections of Magnolia Gardens are more than 325 years old, making them the oldest unrestored gardens in America.
History and Horticulture? Yes, please.
Open to the public since 1870, the plantation remained in the Drayton family for three centuries. Each generation expanded the property. Today, the plantation includes many elements designed to entertain families, while sneaking in a history lesson or two.
I always test my family’s patience when we visit gardens, since I feel the need to photograph every plant. Luckily, at Magnolia Plantation, they find plenty of attractions to entertain them while I hunt down every cultivar of camellia.
Train rides, boat tours through the rice fields, an historic house and former slave cabins—all tell the history and stories of Magnolia Plantation. Of course, what does my family like best?
The petting zoo and nature center! (I told you, they’re animal crazy.)
Things to Do in Charleston, SC: Audubon Swamp Garden
Next door to Magnolia Plantation is the Audubon Swamp Garden. If your family loves nature and animals, do not miss hiking through the swamp! However, if you visit during warm weather months, slather bug spray on your body or wear long sleeves and long pants to fend off mosquitoes.
Really, the “hike” involves an easy and casual stroll through the swamp along a boardwalk. The boardwalk offers beautiful views of the thousands of plant and animal species that reside in the swamp amidst the cypress and tupelo gum trees.
I cursed myself for not having my good telephoto lens along, because the swamp is a prime nesting site for egrets, herons, and other water fowl. Learn from my mistake—take a good camera lens with you.
Of course, our favorite activity involved alligator spotting. You’ll have no trouble finding them everywhere—so keep and eye on your children.
Plan on an hour to walk through the swamp—unless you’re like my family, who wants to find every animal possible. We’re definitely planning a return trip—with my good lens!
Things to Do in Charleston, SC: Historic Charleston City Market.
There’s a common misconception about the Historic Charleston City Market. No slaves were sold into service here. That’s not to say that Charleston is exempt from an ugly history of slavery, as we all know. However, this beautiful United States National Register Landmark originated as a market for meat, vegetables, and fish.
Today, the market features three open air sheds, as well as the renovated Great Hall, originally built in 1841 and reopened in 2011. The Great Hall houses micro boutiques, while craft and food vendors occupy the sheds.
From Charleston’s famous (and famously expensive) sweetgrass baskets to t-shirts, local food, art, crafts, beauty products, and home and garden décor, the Charleston City Market is the perfect place for souvenir shopping. I added a turtle charm from the market to my travel charm bracelet as a memento of our Charleston road trip.
Our youngest son, who loves woodworking, enjoyed checking out the artists. We all admired the amazing skill of the sweetgrass vendors.
The Charleston City Market is open every day except Christmas. Plan plenty of time to wander the booths and chat with the artists and entrepreneurs here—that’s half the fun!
Things to Do in Charleston, SC: Eat the Artisanal Argentinian Gelato!
Wait a minute…isn’t gelato Italian? It’s obviously a little confusing. Argentinian gelato, known as helado, originated from two Italian immigrants who made their home in Argentina in the 1800s. Freddo Artisanal Gelato, a 45-year-old Argentinian company, opened its first U.S. shop on King Street in the heart of Charleston’s high-end shopping district.
We found the shop by accident. (Well, actually, we saw several people with ice cream cones, then headed in the direction from which they came. The birthday girl needed ice cream, right?) In a tiny shop, customers overflowed onto the street.
Yes, Argentinian gelato is that good.
I chose my go-to flavors—chocolate and strawberry—but the shop also offers smoothies and sundaes. They even created four gelato flavors just for their Charleston shop.
Go hungry. Portions are huge. And delicious.
Things to Do in Charleston, SC—Sullivan’s Island Beach
A trip to Charleston isn’t complete without beach time. While we love Isle of Palms, significant erosion issues over the years, as well as the higher volume of tourists, make the beaches feel a tad crowded.
Sullivan’s Island, though, reminds me of Dorothea Benton Frank’s novels, mostly because it’s the basis for her stories. The residential area offers a mix of older beach homes, as well as palatial “new-money” constructions. But the beach appears rustic and quiet—just the way we like it.
I’m always happy relaxing with a book on the beach, but our chilly visit found us wrapped in towels and sweaters while we walked briskly along the waterline, trying to get warm. We watched windsurfers, looked for wildlife, found a few shells, then hopped in the car to head to a different part of the beach, hoping to spot dolphins.
Not only did we see dolphins (yay), we also found a sweet couple surrounded by family and friends, getting married.
Awww…it seems like yesterday my husband and I got married on the beach.
Cold and hungry—and with the day getting late—we decided to find seafood before starting on our three-hour drive home.
Things to Do in Charleston, SC—The Boathouse.
Well, technically, The Boathouse is located just outside of Charleston, in Isle of Palms. Located on the Intercostal Waterway, the restaurant is built upon the site of an old ramshackle bait shop across the road from the historical launch of the Civil War Hunley Submarine.
Although the restaurant offers rich history, with 100-year-old row boats dangling from the ceiling and antique art hanging from walls, the real reason to visit The Boathouse is the food.
You know a restaurant is good when you wait for a table for almost an hour—in April. During tourist season, we rarely go to The Boathouse, because the line of people waiting for dinner spreads into the parking lot.
Part of the appeal is the location overlooking the water. The other is the restaurant’s locavore commitment—selecting local seafood and produce for the freshest, tastiest meals.
Cold, tired, and hungry, we all enjoyed our dinners. I went for my favorite childhood food—fried shrimp and scallops. OK, so it’s not exactly healthy, but it was delicious.
Families will love the outdoor seating options, giving kids the freedom to spot wildlife while parents can relax with a glass of wine.
Just remember—the restaurant fills quickly. The good news is you can make reservations, which I recommend.
The Sweet 16 Birthday Comes to an End.
We finally headed home at 9 p.m. from our excellent, exhausting Charleston outing.
The birthday girl? She slept the entire way home.
(So did I.)
But she said Charleston made her Sweet 16 birthday perfect.