A typical evening stroll through downtown Charleston means eating cupcakes, more cannon hopping for our kids, and the ogling of the city's many churches for my wife and me. To us, Charleston's cathedrals can hold their own against those of most European towns. But the best way to delve into Charleston's past is through a pirate walking tour, where the history is as vibrant as a Saturday morning cartoon.
The town is full of paradoxes like this. Charleston is South Carolina's oldest city but also its most progressive. It's part edgy beach town, part southern belle preservation society, with history that hits kid-friendly high notes (helicopters! scurvy!) and food that's adventurous but grounded in down-home roots. And of course, the cannons double as playgrounds.
What to do:
Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum: "Museum" doesn't do Patriots Point justice. This harbor has a submarine, a gunship, and the massive USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, all lovingly restored and open for exploration. The 888-foot-long flight deck of the carrier, packed with helicopters and jets, is a highlight. Fun fact: in 1968 the ship recovered the Apollo 8 capsule, which you can see in the hangar bay. $18 ages 12 and up, $11 ages 6 to 11, free for kids 5 and under; patriotspoint.org
South Carolina Aquarium:
Charleston's aquarium may not be as massive as Atlanta's, for instance, but its offerings are totally worth the price of admission. In an hour, my kids saw a pile of lemurs snuggling in a tiny hammock, petted way too many reptiles, and watched divers clean the reef in the deep sea shark tank, a job that my son noted is "dangerous, dangerous, dangerous." $24.95 adults, $14.95 kids, free for kids 3 and under; scaquarium.org
Folly Beach: A handful of kitschy souvenir and surf shops line the main street of this funky beach town 20 minutes south of downtown Charleston. Grab a snack from the lobby of the Tides Folly Beach Hotel and walk 1,000 feet out into the Atlantic on the Folly Beach Fishing Pier. Charleston SUP Safaris will drop off rental stand-up paddleboards at the beach or guide your family on a two-hour tour of the island's inner channels to see bottlenose dolphins. Rentals: $40 for a half day; guided tours: $45 adults, $35 ages 14 and under; charlestonsupsafaris.com