Notes From the Low Country
Exploring Charleston with your kids is like opening a history text book and seeing the characters from the pages leap out and race down the cobblestone streets on horseback- chased by more characters on horseback brandishing bayonets, with a couple of pirates and a Scarlet O’Hara southern belle thrown into the fray. It’s an eye-opening lesson in one of the most historically rich port cities on the East Coast.
When I found out we were making a detour to the historic city of Charleston in South Carolina on our summer road trip, I immediately asked my fellow travel bloggers what was the best thing to do in the city on limited time. Ironically, they all said the same thing: “EAT.”
We always try to sample the various local dishes on our travels- my chef-husband makes sure of that–but we were going to Charleston for 24 hours- and there is only so much you and your kids can eat during that short period of time. So we had to look for some other adventures to occupy our short family trip to the Holy City.
Family Tips: Charleston is renowned for it’s cuisine, but it comes with a price tag to match. Check out menus on-line before you go so that you won’t suffer sticker-shock and can budget accordingly. Also pack some nice clothes for you and the kids and be sure to make reservations. The good eateries book up fast!
24-Hours in Charleston
We arrived in Charleston at lunchtime- which perfectly fit into those ‘just eat’ well-intended suggestions. We checked into our hotel, the Hilton Double Tree Suites Charleston on Church Street, conveniently located in the heart of old Charleston in a rambling colonial building next to 4-block long Charleston City Market.
Dating back to the early 1800’s, the City Market, much like the French Market in New Orleans, is basically a covered flea market filled with local artisans and vendors selling everything from handwoven sweet-grass baskets to carved wood bowls, paintings to books on local lore. It’s a good place to escape a summer storm and pick up souvenirs. There are air-conditioned sections of the market which make it a good place to chill in the summer as well.
Family Tip: Charleston is a walking city. It is worth finding a centrally located hotel to save the hassle of finding parking. During our visit we noted the very active police issuing parking tickets throughout the old city.
Our first stop was the Charleston Crab House on South Market Street- to try their famous She-Crab Bisque. Charleston is famous for it’s she-crab soup, a cream based soup with crab meat, crab roe and sherry. My husband told us that even though they still call it she-crab bisque, most places no longer use only female crabs, but I guess renaming it She + He Crab Bisque would have been plain silly and just ‘crab soup’…well, dull. So She-Crab Bisque lives on- or at least in name, and ours was delicious.
We sat on the upstairs terrace of the restaurant with a view of the old Market below, fans cooling us on a hot summer’s day. We sipped sweet tea, another specialty of this southern city and compared notes on the bisque*. Then one of the waiters asked us to prank their newbie by asking for a cup of hot steam…let’s just say the new server would never fall for that one again.
*The Making of a Foodie Family: We are all foodies in our family- even the kids, and we always sample one another’s food and try different and new dishes when we are dining out. You don’t have to be a food lover to do this, but giving your child a chance to rate and describe their food helps build their essential soft skills. Compare and contrast. Have them try and break down the flavors. Does it smell good? Taste good? Why? Or why not? This also makes for vibrant family table conversation…and who knows, you may become foodies along the way 🙂
Charleston by Horse and Carriage
If you want some in depth background on Charleston, also known as the ‘Holy City’ for it’s religious tolerance, and many churches as result, take a horse and carriage tour. These tours leave from designated locations only and they aren’t like those hop-on hop-off trolleys of St. Augustine. With the carriage tours- once you are on- you stay on until the end of the tour.
There was a tour from our hotel, and also the Old South Carriage Company located right in the heart of the city and near our hotel. We stopped by their stables out of curiosity. The horse tours are shared carriage rides with a tour guide that last an hour and cover 30-blocks and centuries of history. Perfect for a city overview and for resting any weary limbs- there’s nothing like the clip clop of hooves over cobblestones to lull your little ones to sleep. The Old South Carriage Company also offers nightly ghost tours…by horse and carriage, of course- for the paranormal-minded. Reserve your space early for all tours, as they fill up fast!
What’s with all the cobblestones? The streets of old Charleston were paved by stones from the old world. When ships traveled from Europe, stones were used as ballasts, placed in the bottom of the ships to weigh them down and give them stability. Upon arrival, the stones were replaced by cargo & goods to return to the Old World.
Walking Old Charleston
We wandered the city streets without a map- sometimes that’s the best way- and found cobblestone streets leading past old churches and fenced off graveyards. Rambling roses tumbled over wrought iron gates. Stucco crumbled from walls. Green gardens hid between houses. Little alleyways sandwiched into impossible spaces.
We found Museum Mile- a mile stretch of stately homes and manors containing treasures of a bygone era, many of them were ‘view by appointment’ only. But as we were on limited time, that was fine by us, and we enjoyed the frugality of our little city hike instead.
We stumbled upon Rainbow Row- a group of brightly colored pastel townhouses found in many photographs of the Holy City- and a nod back to to the city’s Barbados-settler origins.
We spotted a policewoman doling out parking tickets on an absurdly quiet street. She directed us towards the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon, and it was there we discovered just how deep the history of this southern port town ran.
George Washington Was Here: The Old Charleston Exchange
If you’ve ever heard the American revolution mentioned, you probably would think of Boston, the Tea Party, Paul Revere, and Sam Adams (though I suspect beer has something to do with the latter)- but we found out that Charleston actually saw big action during the American revolutionary times as well, and we learned all about it during our visit to the Old Exchange.
Built back in 1771- (the history-geek in me swooned)- the Old Exchange served many purposes through the years. Parts of the US Constitution were debated and ratified here. George Washington was entertained here. Spies were given orders. Troops were dispatched. The Old Exchange was a hotbed of activity through the years.
Now the Old Exchange is a museum with glass case displays. There you can learn about Charleston history. In one display case there’s a sobering set of iron shackles that were used on the slaves, and a list of slaves to be sold at the market.
Slavery & Charleston: Charleston was one of the biggest slave ports in America. And also home to a large number of plantations that used slave labor in their time. The guides at the Exchange will even tell you that ‘Charleston was built by slaves.’ The nearby Old Slave Mart Museum can provide deeper details about the history of slavery in the city.
If the one of the local historians is on hand at the Old Exchange, as they were when we visited, they can teach you how to handle a musket and show you exactly why a bayonet was considered the Swiss-army-knife of weapons for a soldier. There’s even a copy of the Declaration of Independence waiting to be signed if you or the kids are feeling particularly patriotic.
Family Tip: Whether you home-school or not, have a peek into a history website or text book before you visit the Old Exchange to see what Charleston’s American Revolutionary history was all about.
Provost Dungeon: Beneath the Exchange
The cellars of the Exchange were made into prisons during the American Revolution, a place for political prisoners, spies, and pirates, like Charleston’s infamous ‘gentleman pirate’: Stede Bonnet, who was later hanged in Charleston’s White Point Garden.
We were able to catch the last tour of Provost Dungeon of the day, during our visit. Provost Dungeon is not big, but only available by guided tour- and included in the Old Exchange admission.
The Provost Dungeon Tour is not long, and the dungeon is not big at all, but kids and parents will enjoy hearing the colorful tales of the dungeon and its’ prisoners from the guides in period costumes.
If we wondered where everyone was on this sultry summer’s day, we soon found out when we came upon the shady Waterfront Park. Kids splashed in the water fountains. Couples held hands and strolled the paths. Business attired workers paused from their busy days to enjoy lunch on the park benches.
Waterfront Park was definitely the place to be. We relaxed in the shade near the famous Pineapple Fountain, and enjoyed a chilled gelato from the nearby street vendor and the views of Charleston Harbor.
Family Tip: Waterfront park is a good place to let your kids cool off- but you should bring a change of clothes, especially if the day is hot and your kids are young. The kids we saw there were running through the city fountains and playing in the water. There are also bench swings & free wi-fi!
From Waterfront Park, we headed back into the heart of the city in search of the Pirate’s House and found more cobblestone streets, old churches and Washington Square, a quiet garden hidden in the city.
The Charleston Pirate’s House
Steeped in pirate-lore and swashbuckling history, Charleston was a haunt for many a buccaneer, the most famous being the notorious Blackbeard. Privateers roamed the streets, rotted in the prisons- and drowned when their prison flooded with rising tidewaters. Some were even sentenced to death and hung from the oaks that now provide shade to visitors in the White Garden Park.
I’d read about the the Pirate House of Charleston years ago, and was curious about this boarding house for the buccaneers, and determined to find it on our wanderings, just out of geeky curiosity. But once a kitschy museum, the Pirate House and it’s celebrated past had become dusty and forgotten- and few people seemed to know anything about it.
Ironically, it wasn’t until after we had left Charleston and I looked up the Pirate’s House online, I discovered that we had indeed found it on our city hike- and in fact, I had even take a photo of it!
Family Tip: Before you head out on your Charleston adventure, choose some places you’d like to see (you can always take a vote)- like the Provost Dungeon, or the Pineapple Fountain. You can use a map- they are available everywhere. But if you deviate from your path, that’s okay too- the best adventures are the unexpected & spontaneous ones…cup of steam, anyone?
Grits & Ghosts in the Holy City
We tried a sampling of local delicacies at the Low Country Bistro for dinner. Shrimp & Grits, Fried Green Tomatoes, Carolina Crab Cakes, and of course She-Crab Soup (we tried that everywhere).
Later we worked off our dinner on a walking ghost tour of old Charleston. The guide took us on basically the same streets we had wandered on during that day, but regaled us with stories of drowned prisoners, lives lost in duels, pirate hangings and a pair of B&B serial killers.
Old Charleston Walking Tours offers a 90-minute ghost tour through the darker side of Charleston history. Bulldog Tours offers a ghost tour in Charleston’s Old Jail- reputed to be one of Charleston’s most haunted locations.
Where the Civil War Began: Fort Sumter
Before we left Charleston the next day, we took a 30-minute ferry trip to nearby Fort Sumter National Monument, where the first shot of the Civil War was fired on April 12 in 1861. Fort Sumter is located on a small island in Charleston Harbor and can only be reached via boat.
This low lying fort changed hands within less than 48 hours of that first shot and housed the military & families during the American Civil War. You can learn just how much of a beating the fort received in the museum, and see the original flag that was flown too.
We by-passed the official tour on offer on our arrival and took the 60 minutes we had on the island to explore the museum and brick island fort on our own.
Getting to Fort Sumter: The ferry to Fort Sumter leaves from Liberty Square in Charleston at 340 Concord St. And also from Patriots Point in nearby Mount Pleasant at 40 Patriots Point Rd. (Weather permitting). You can purchase your tickets online or at the ferry departure points. There is a toilet & a snack bar on the boat. Seating is basic. We had plastic chairs on the deck. You are on the island for an hour before the ferry leaves to return to the city.
One more cup of She-Crab Bisque and we hit the road, leaving the Low-Country for higher roads. We all agreed that our taster-trip of the Holy City was far to short, and there were many more cups of soup to try. We’ll be back!
Tips for Exploring Charleston with Kids
- Don’t plan too much. Kids aren’t entertained by the stuff adults find interesting, and being dragged in and out of stately homes can get…boring.
- Stay hydrated- it can get hot and sweaty in the summer and you won’t find shops in the residential areas.
- Make sure to add some playtime to your day. This could include a splash at Waterfront Park or playing in the Kidstory area at the Charleston Museum. For families with younger children, they may enjoy the Children’s Museum of the Low Country located near the Charleston Visitor Center.
- Downtime is important as well, whether it comes in the form of a nap (I fell asleep on the ferry to Fort Sumter!) or just chilling out with a sweet tea on the rooftop terrace.
- Relax and have fun!
Have you every visited Charleston? What was the most favorite thing you did there?
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