Charleston any time of year is wonderful but Charleston in October is particularly lovely. The weather is perfect – still warm but with less humidity. If you’re planning a fall getaway to Charleston, you definitely need to add a trip to Fort Sumter to your itinerary!
Fort Sumter is best known as the place where the Civil War began. On April 12, 1861, the Confederate forces in Charleston opened fire on the U.S. forces that were stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The citizens of Charleston crowded the rooftops and watched the fireworks light up the night sky as the fort was fired upon for 34 hours. After the Union army evacuated on April 14th, the Confederate forces took over the fort, and it remained in their hands until they evacuated in February of 1865. In a poignant note, the U.S. Commander of the fort in 1861, Major Robert Anderson, visited on April 14, 1865 to raise the American flag over the fort once again, exactly 4 years after he had to evacuate.
Fort Sumter sits in the middle of Charleston Harbor and is only accessible by boats from Fort Sumter Tours. Boats leave from two locations, the National Park Service Visitor Center in historic Charleston or the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum area in Mount Pleasant. Depending on your hotel location, both locations are convenient and have multiple departure times each day. The Visitor Center location is near the historic area of Charleston and there are many other nearby attractions to see, including the South Carolina Aquarium next door. The Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum has lots of fun activities nearby, including tours of the USS Yorktown Aircraft Carrier. It really just comes down to convenience for which location you choose!
You will want to purchase your tickets in advance to ensure that you get the tour departure location and time that you want. There are several additional tours that you can add to your tickets through Fort Sumter Tours so be sure to explore all of the options.
The tour boats leave at the designated time so you will want to give yourself plenty of time to find parking and get to the departure point. Both locations have an extensive gift shop with lots of kid-friendly books and souvenir items so you can always shop while you are waiting for your tour to begin! The Visitor Center departure point in Charleston also contains a museum with exhibits about the Civil War, including Major Anderson’s 1861 Garrison flag. The Patriots Point departure area is mostly outside but you can wait inside the store.
Once it is time to board the boat, try to sit on the upper deck if possible. This will give you and your children a great vantage point to see Charleston by water and hopefully a few dolphins! The boat ride out to the fort is the highlight of the trip for most children and adults. My sons loved the boat ride, even though our last tour was on a particularly windy and cool day. There is a large inside portion of the boat for days that it’s too cold to brave the upper decks.
The boat ride itself takes about 30-45 minutes (although it took us an extra 30 minutes to dock because of the wind!). The boat captain will provide a narrated trip to the island, going into more detail about its role in the Civil War and how the war affected Charleston. The views of beautiful Charleston from the boat are breathtaking. You can just imagine what it was like for the residents who could see and hear the bombardment of the fort from their porches. Ask you kids which house is their favorite – always a fun game!
Once you dock and make your way onto the fort, you will have about an hour to explore before you take the boat back. A NPS ranger will meet your boat and explain the island and its history to you. Depending on the weather, there is plenty of outdoor space for your children to run around. Kids love being on an island in the middle of the harbor! Just hold tight to little ones’ hands as there are some drop offs and treacherous stairs to navigate. I don’t recommend bringing strollers to the fort due to the uneven terrain and stairs.
While the exterior of the fort remains similar to its appearance in 1861, the interior has changed dramatically. The Battery Huger (the large black structure that now houses a museum) was added in 1899 during the Spanish-American War. However kids will still love to explore the grounds. There are cannons to see and parapets to conquer – just note that the NPS asks that no one climb on the cannons or brickwork. The casemates (gunrooms) are fun to explore, and climbing to the top of the Huger Battery provides excellent 360 degree views of Charleston and its harbor.
It tends to be quite windy at the top so be sure to hold on the guardrails!
There is a small museum in the fort, and you don’t want to miss it. It contains an excellent description about the fort and its importance in the Civil War. There are pictures to see and maps to ponder. Kids will likely go quickly through the museum but it is also a great place to linger if the weather outside prevents much exploration. Don’t miss the small gift shop located on the top of the museum.
Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to board the boat. You don’t want to miss your designated departure time! 1 hour is plenty to see the fort and museum, and you can always head back to the boat (and its snack bar!) if the kids get restless or bored. Enjoy the beautiful and relaxing boat trip back to your departure point!
In a city full of history, Fort Sumter is a must-see historical destination while visiting Charleston. Seeing where the Civil War began and learning more about its history is important for adults and children to experience. Your kids will love the boat ride and won’t even realize that they are also learning history!
- Cost: $23/adults; $15/children 4-11; free/under 4 (still need a ticket)
- Recommended: all ages
- Total tour time is 2.5 hours (including boat ride)
- Gift shops are located on the fort and at both departure points
- Transportation: Both departure points are accessible by car, with ample paid parking available. The Visitor Center site is also accessible by the Charleston DASH trolley.
- Dining options: The tour boat contains a snack bar.
- The Visitor Center site is located near many of Charleston’s best restaurants (see my review of Charleston family-friendly restaurants here). The SC Aquarium next door also hosts food trucks in Liberty Square.
- The Patriot Point site has vending machines onsite and a small cafe located nearby. For more options, you will have to leave the Patriots Point area and head into Mount Pleasant. The Shem Creek area is close and has many great options, including Tavern and Table.
- Hotels nearby: I recommend looking at the Charleston Visitor Center site to explore all of the many options for lodging in Charleston.
- Near the Fort Sumter Visitor Center, I recommend the Embassy Suites, located in the historic original citadel.
- Near the Patriots Point site, there is one hotel onsite, the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina. I have also heard amazing things about The Cottages on Charleston Harbor, which are very close to Patriots Point.
- Attractions nearby:
- The Fort Sumter Visitor Center is close to: South Carolina Aquarium, Charleston Visitor Center, and The Charleston Museum
- The Patriots Point departure location is close to: Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum (has several different ships, airplanes, submarines, and museums to explore), Fort Moultrie, and Boone Hall Plantation and Garden
- Be sure to check out my post on traveling tips to help you plan a visit to Charleston!
Books to read:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- The Split History of the Battle of Fort Sumter: A Perspectives Flip Book
- The Mystery at Fort Sumter: First Shot Fired in the Civil War!
- Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!
- The Story of the H. L. Hunley and Queenie’s Coin
- Great Battles for Boys: Civil War (Volume 4)
- The Civil War for Kids: A History with 21 Activities
- DK Eyewitness Books: Civil War
- Top Secret Files: The Civil War: Spies, Secret Missions, and Hidden Facts from the Civil War
- 6 and up:
Have you visited Fort Sumter? Comment below!