Winding our way through the mountains of West Virginia, we hadn’t seen a major city in hours. Nothing but hills and mountains. Suddenly, the view opened up. My boys and I caught a glimpse of a golden dome. The city of Charleston, West Virginia, lay ahead of us and it was time to explore all that the state capital had to offer us.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Charleston—or even the state for that matter. I was traveling there from Washington, D.C., for a long weekend with my two boys, ages 5 and 7. As a travel writer and mother of rambunctious boys, I’m always looking for adventures and educational opportunities to recommend to families and entertain my kids. Charleston seemed to fit the bill.
As a family, we love to walk as much as possible to explore a new place. Walking gets us mingling with the locals and chances to find little alleyways, art exhibits and smaller shops that might not be on a map. And that’s exactly what happened in Charleston. We stayed at a centrally located hotel and walked almost everywhere during our stay, driving only outside of town to do some hiking in the local state park. From the very start of our weekend, we were ready to hit the town and we kicked it off with my favorite part of our family travels: the edible delights.
Our adventure began at First Watch, a local breakfast joint that everyone in the city pointed us toward. Egg specials, chocolate chip pancakes and specialty juices elevated the diner style decor. My youngest is a picky eater, but he devoured his breakfast. He gobbled up every meal he had on this trip. Once, when we needed a taco specially made (meaning no “melty” cheese), our waiter at Black Sheep Burritos & Brews didn’t blink an eye. Charleston’s restaurants know how to treat families right.
Enough about food, what about all of the fun in town? The Clay Center for Arts & Sciences was our next stop. This art and children’s museum/planetarium had a little something for each of us. My boys couldn’t get enough of the “My Town” section of the Avampato Discovery Museum. The kid-size mechanic’s shop, fire station, theater and climbing wall were the highlights. While we were there, a massive expansion was under way to add exhibits for children slightly older than my grade-school boys, including “Water Works,” “Music Studio” and “Healthy Me”!
I loved watching my boys play in the mini town. It was next to impossible to tear them away, but we had tickets to the planetarium show and the stars awaited. The planetarium presentation included a fun cartoon that told the story of Perseus and Andromeda, and how constellation names were born from Greek mythology. We wrapped up the afternoon with a stop at the Ashton Climbing Sculpture, a three-story tower within the Clay Center that kids can wind up and down for hours while parents sit and watch from below at the café.
We could have spent the entire weekend at the Clay Center, but it was Friday night in Charleston, which meant “Live on the Levee”! If you’ve never heard of it, “Live on the Levee” is a weekly free concert down in Haddad Riverfront Park. Food trucks pulled up along Kanawha Boulevard, which was temporarily closed to road traffic. A small sandbox and play area was just to the left of the stage along the river, so kids could play while their parents enjoyed the music. My boys kicked beach balls around and we danced the night away to Motown favorites and R&B tunes sung by Priscilla Price. During one of the songs, a few of the kids danced together, including one of my boys.
Our second day started out at Capitol Market, specifically Mea Cuppa, where I savored one of the best cappuccinos I’ve ever had while the boys played at the Lego station set up across the way. The market, held year-round in an old rail yard, has permanent stalls inside that sell everything from handmade chocolate truffles and wine to fried fish and sandwiches. Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream stall really hit the spot when we needed a little sugar boost before lunch.
Our afternoon wrapped up with a tour around the Capitol Complex. If you really want to learn about West Virginia, make sure you pop into the free West Virginia Culture Center and State Museum. The boys and I enjoyed walking through West Virginia’s history, from the early days of settlers meeting the American Indians and the role slaves played in agriculture to the economic importance and dangers of coal mining in the region.
On Sunday, most of the public buildings and museums shut down around the city. It was the perfect day to get out into nature. We drove past massive, old houses into the mountains to Kanawha State Park. We walked along the Spotted Salamander Trail, a wheelchair-accessible nature trail with signs pointing out various creatures and plants. We also tackled Hemlock Falls Trail. The hike up to the falls was packed with fun obstacles like a two-inch deep creek, fallen branches and winding paths. The waterfall was dried up due to the summer heat, but no matter. The trail kept the journey interesting.
As we made our way back home the next morning, I asked the boys what their favorite part of the trip was. They interrupted each other as they started to list their top moments, trying to put them in order, but never quite making up their minds. The tiny mechanic garage at The Clay Center, mint Oreo ice cream at Ellen’s, dancing at “Live on the Levee”… The list didn’t seem to end.
Needless to say, Charleston is no longer a foreign land to us. Together, we enjoyed new tastes and sounds, met colorful characters and trekked through the wilderness, making memories as a family. One of the best things about family travel is that you can let your kids be the guide and see the world at their level. I saw so much more of Charleston because I let my boys show me the city through their eyes (with a little direction from Mom, of course). Charleston reminded us that you don’t have to travel far to experience and learn something together.
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