First, I wanted to thank the folks here who answered my questions as I planned out trip to Charleston. You guys were great. I also wanted to list a few things we did and put my thoughts behind them in an effort to help others. I traveled with my sister and 14 year old daughter.
We stayed three nights at the Doubletree and one night at the Marriott Residence Inn. The location of the Doubletree is impossible to beat. As we were on a girls weekend, it was perfect because we weren't walking out to the middle of nowhere late at night. I would recommend this hotel over the Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn because it will save you a ton of needless hiking over the period of a few days. Warning: parking is a killer $19 per day. When people say you do not need a car in Charleston -- believe it. We never moved our car for three days. The exception was our last two days when we went to a plantation and to Patriots Point.
The Residence Inn is about a ten minute drive to downtown and over one of the bridges and much less expensive than the Doubletree. They had a great free breakfast and a free managers reception that could easily serve as dinner. These places can save you lots of money if you're traveling with a family. They also offer a free evening shuttle that was easy to use and so you won't even need to park downtown. I would recommend them too.
Fall Tour Homes -- unexpectedly neat. Some of the houses were out of this world. The prices seemed high at $45 pp, but it is a fund raising event. Not sure I'd do it again but I would recommend it to those who really like architecture. Okay for older teens, I wouldn't take anyone younger as I think they'd be bored.
Ed Grimball's Walking Tour -- great tour. Worth the $16. I would do this early in your trip as the info he provides is a wonderful foundation for everything else. He spoke loudly and slowly so all could understand and included a bathroom break in his tour (something I wish more groups did). The tour is scheduled for 2 hours but ours took closer to 3, so give yourself some extra time. Also - he kept my daughter's attention the entire visit. I would recommend this as a great "orientation" to Charleston.
Gullah Tours -- interesting and a fair value for the money ($18, I believe). This is a bus tour that highlights Charleston's african american heritage. The driver was very fun but unlike Ed, and because you're being exposed to the Gullah language, it was hard to understand some of what was said. The tour also focused heavily on a local iron gate maker, so if that's not your thing you might reconsider. Also, the bus goes into some areas of down that are downright scary. Over all, a good two hours. I wouldn't recommend this one for kids, however as iron works is hard to pep up.
Bull Dog Tour - Dark Side of Charleston Tour -- Don't waste your time or money. It was like having a frat boy walk you around town and say dirty words and tell dirty jokes to get you to laugh. This could have been an interesting tour and it just wasn't. The is an adult only tour. Bleck. Our guide did note that he'd been "called in" for the job. Maybe he wasn't the usual guide?
Haunted Charleston Tour - Black Cat Tours - I'd rate this as a bit above average and call this a thinking man's ghost tour. Rebel was our tour guide and did a fine job. Pacing was good and we went to some suitably spooky spots. Rebel sort of spaced out at the last stop and she seemed to be reciting from a script. Otherwise, a fun tour. My daughter loved it.
Charleston Museum - Located right across from the visitors center. This was totally worth the $10 admission and had the best Civil War collection I've seen. Skip the natural history exhibits which are painfully outdated and go into the wedding clothing exhibit which was great fun. My daughter loved the entire museum.
Haunted Charleston Tour - Fried Green Tours. The tour guide is April and she was terrific. This tour rated super high for us all. April also takes you to a few spots in town the other tours don't hit - so this one is something different. If you're only going to do one ghost tour - this would be my recommendation. $16. Appropriate for any age.
Middleton Planation - This one is hard to review. First, the price for all inclusive was crazy high at about $45. With that you get to visit the gardens (fabulous even in the autumn) the house tour (no big deal, not the original planation home, and very rushed) an african american tour which was good but focused almost solely on rice production, visit some out building with craftsmen ( one was on duty while we were there,), and a carriage tour where the guide stretched 8 minutes of info into 30 minutes of jabbering. All that sounds a little negative but we still did have a nice day. I would pick a different planation in the future. Over all, something neat to see, but overpriced. At a minimum skip the house and carriage tours. Small kids, I think, would be very bored. The highlight here is the garden and its a rare kid that is a garden freak.
Ft. Sumner - there are two pick up points for this boat ride to the island. If you're staying downtown use the liberty square pick up. That is where a nice park museum is located. It's fun to visit and about a 15 minute walk from the market. For $16 you get a narrated boat ride to and from the island. HIgh priced for the only way to see a National Park which would be free on its own. But the park doesn't run the ferry itself. The ride was smooth and very nice. The island has a tiny museum, some plaques with info and a ranger who gives a 15 minute talk that lasted 30 minutes. You get a total of an hour on the island then must return on the same ferry. We had fun on this tour and would recommend it. Good for kids too. The only negative is the ranger at the park repeats everything that was said by in the narrative on the boat tour. They need to coordinate that a bit better. If traveling with kids, absolutely participate in the Junior Ranger Program. This is a MUST DO activity. My kids love it at all the parks.
Patriots Point - this is located across the huge bridge you'll see from multiple locations in town. So a car is good -- though there may be a public transportation option. For $16 you get admission on the York Town and a real submarine. The York Town was great and you could do multiple self-guided tours. This was truly something I won't forget. The sub was fascinating as well. This is another MUST SEE. Give yourselves at least half a day to do these things if not a bit more. This stop was an unexpected highlight of our visit to Charleston.
At a minimum visit King's Street and the Market and allow a 1/2 and up (my sister could have kept going for days ... 1/2 was fine for me).
Food: Hyman's -- good seafood for $15-$25pp. The Buccaneer - a fun pirate museum but bad food $15 dinner. Joseph's - good Po Boys $10 lunch. Juanita Greenberg's - great nachos $8 lunch. Five Guys - awesome burgers and fries - $6 lunch.
I'm sure I left a ton of stuff out... Charleston was a great time. I'm already looking forward to coming back.