With activities and sights lining both the waterfront and downtown areas, Charleston is a great place for family attractions—and many of them are free. You can grab a fishing pole or a cast net and bring the kids (and their friends and grandparents) for a day of waterside fun. Or walk to Marion Square for the weekly festival that is the Saturday Farmers Market; kids can browse among the stalls at fresh-grown produce, graze on snacks from food carts, picnic and play catch on the grass, or just watch the parade of people passing by. The whole family can learn about military history—while getting fresh air and exercise—with walks on the Battery or visits to Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, The Citadel, or the U.S.S. Yorktown. Or catch a Riverdogs baseball game on one of the nights when they finish with fireworks over the Ashley River. And of course, there are always the classic Lowcountry beachside pastimes: spotting dolphins in the harbor and building sand castles.
South Carolina Aquarium
Set right along the harbor in a slick modern building, this aquarium is a great place to spend a morning or afternoon (local parents often buy memberships here and come regularly; there’s always something cool to look at). Sharks, sea turtles, wading birds, otters, and seahorses are some of the stars of the conservation-focused displays.
Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge
Ever since the bike/pedestrian lane opened with this new bridge in 2005, families made it an instant tradition to walk on the span together. You can park on either the Mount Pleasant or Charleston side, hike up to at least the center of the bridge, and snap photos in the sea breeze.
Fort Sumter Tours
Practically every school kid in South Carolina makes at least one field trip out to Fort Sumter, the site of the first battle of the American Civil War. But learning (or re-learning) about the military history here is only one reason to come; during the scenic boat ride to the fort, you can scope giant passing ships and the dorsal fins of dolphins.
My family has a special love for this harborside park. In summer, there are always kids dashing through the fountain, and whole families can fit on the wide bench swings that face the harbor. There’s a pier that offers a prime vantage point for watching sailboats and container ships, or checking out the southern flowers in bloom.
Local Scout troops often camp overnight on this massive World War II aircraft carrier, which is permanently docked on the Mount Pleasant side of the harbor. The ship is so big it can take hours to explore; there’s lots to touch and clamber around, and airplanes to see both above deck and below.