Savannah or Charleston: Which Southern Gem Should You Visit?

Steve Cummings

Charleston, SC

If you're planning a trip to the American South, you might wonder which city to visit: Savannah or Charleston. Savannah and Charleston are beautiful cities in the Southeastern United States that have attracted visitors for over two hundred years. Both cities have antebellum architecture, cobblestone streets, beautiful historic districts, and delicious cuisine. But if you only have time to visit one destination, which should you choose? We're here to help you decide! In this article, we'll compare Savannah and Charleston side-by-side, including their history, culture, food, and top attractions. 

So, who will come out on top in the battle of Savannah vs Charleston? Read on to learn!

Distance and Transportation Between Savannah and Charleston

Leesburg. Virginia USA. photo march 20 2021. 1967 Buick Gran Sport GS convertible. Collectible working car.
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Savannah and Charleston are about 107 miles (172 km) apart. Both cities are easily accessible by several means of transportation. 

If you're coming from out of the state, the most convenient way to get to Savannah or Charleston is by taking a flight. Savannah is served by Savannah/Hilton International Airport, located about 17 minutes from the city center. If you're traveling to Charleston, it has Charleston International Airport, about 20 minutes from downtown. Both airports are served by major airlines and offer multiple daily flights to several cities across the state. 

Another way to travel between these two destinations is by train. Amtrak's Palmetto route serves both cities. The route runs between New York and Savannah, with stops in Charleston, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland.

If you're driving, several main highways connect Savannah and Charleston. The most direct route is via Hwy 17 N, which takes approximately two hours to drive.

When is the Best Time to Visit Savannah and Charleston?

Forsyth Park in Savannah
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The best time to visit these destinations is in the Spring and Fall when the weather is mild and perfect for sightseeing. The weather is quite similar in both cities, so it doesn't matter much if you're trying to pick between them. Summers in the South can be hotter and crowded, so it is better to avoid the peak season. If you want to visit local beaches, late April to June or September to October would be the best. Although winter is generally reliable for sightseeing, good weather is not guaranteed. So, plan your trip accordingly and enjoy exploring these beautiful cities.

Overview and Background of Savannah and Charleston

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History of Savannah

Savannah is a historic city in the state of Georgia. It was founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe, a member of the British Parliament. The city served as the capital of the British colony of Georgia and then the first state capital. Savannah played a crucial role in the American Revolution and the Civil War. Savannah is famous for its city layout, which was designed by General James Oglethorpe and is known as the Oglethorpe Plan. It features a grid of blocks with small greenspaces, called squares, that create walkable neighborhoods. 

Savannah is home to 22 squares, which are popular tourist attractions. Stepping into Savannah feels like stepping back in time, with its cobblestone streets, moss-draped oaks, manicured parks, and well-preserved antebellum architecture.

History of Charleston

Charleston, also known as the Holy City, was established in 1670 by English colonists. It is the main city in Charleston County and the oldest and largest city in South Carolina. Originally, it was situated on the west side of the Ashley River, known as Albemarle Point. But, later, around 1680, the city moved to its current spot on Oyster Point. 

The city was named Charles Town to honor King Charles II of England. But in 1783, it changed to Charleston. Charleston sits on Charleston Harbor, where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers meet before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. During the colonial period, Charleston was a major center for trade and commerce and played an essential role in the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Today, the city is a popular tourist destination. The main attraction is its antebellum architecture, with many homes and buildings from the pre-Civil War era still standing. Here, you'll find colorful, narrow houses all in a row. Palm trees stand along the cobblestone streets, moving gently in the breeze from the sea. And if you peek through fancy iron fences, you might spot little gardens with fountains tucked away.

If you're planning a trip to either city, you must consider the history of slavery and its impact on these Southern cities. However, both Savannah and Charleston offer a unique and dynamic cultural experience worth exploring. 

Best Things to Do in Savannah and Charleston

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Savannah and Charleston have plenty of attractions and activities to keep visitors entertained. Here are some popular things you can add to your itinerary!

Best Things to Do in Savannah

Savannah Georgia
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Here are some of the best things to do in Savannah!

Take a Trolley Tour

A trolley tour is a great way to see the city and learn about its history. Old Town Trolley Tours is a popular choice among visitors. These tours let you hop on and off as you please, making it super easy to learn about Savannah's history and see all the sights like Davenport House, River Street, Forsyth Park, and more. It is the best way to get around town for the day while hearing interesting stories about the city. The whole route takes about an hour, but if you plan to hop on and off, you should plan for a longer tour.

Book a Savannah Hop-on Hop-off Trolley Tour

Visit the Tybee Island

Tybee Island, located just 20 minutes from downtown Savannah, is one of the best beach towns in the South. The island is a great way to relax and unwind. Once you arrive, you'll be greeted with beach town vibes and charming little shops. Climb the Tybee Island Lighthouse to enjoy the stunning views of the coast. Don't forget to check out Sea Wolf, where you can enjoy strong drinks and delicious hot dogs. 

Book a Dolphin Cruise from Savannah to Tybee Island

Visit Forsyth Park

This beautiful park is a must-visit spot in Savannah and is probably one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. It has gorgeous live oak trees with Spanish moss hanging from their branches. At the center of Forsyth Park is the iconic fountain, a well-known symbol of Savannah and a lovely centerpiece for the park. If you're visiting on a Saturday morning, be sure to check out the Forsyth Farmers Market that takes place in the park. 

Explore River Street 

A walk along River Street is a must-do activity in Savannah. The street is paved with cobblestones, which legend says were brought to the port city as ballast for large ships. Today, these cobblestones add to the charm of the road along the harbor. River Street is lined with various restaurants, bars, and shops. While there, you can also take a ride on a riverboat and enjoy the beautiful views of the river.

Take a Walk through Bonaventure Cemetery

Bonaventure Cemetery, famous for its appearance in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” is a popular spot for visitors and locals alike. Even if you haven't read the book or seen the movie, the cemetery is fascinating. The Spanish moss that drapes over the cemetery is a beautiful sight to behold, and the tumbling headstones give the cemetery a sense of intrigue. To reach Bonaventure Cemetery, take a guided tour or drive there yourself. The cemetery is located just outside the ride away.

Book a 1-hour Bonaventure Cemetery Golf Cart Guided Tour in Savannah.

Other must-visit attractions in Savannah include Telfair Museums, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah Historic Square, and much more. 

Find the Best Sightseeing Tours in Savannah

Best Things to Do in Charleston

Charleston, SC
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Charleston offers many attractions and activities for visitors. Plan to spend at least 3-4 days in Charleston to make the most of your trip. Here are some top things to do in Charleston!

Take a Stroll along Waterfront Par and The Battery

A delightful way to spend an afternoon in Charleston is taking a leisurely stroll along Waterfront Park and The Battery. Start your walk at Joe Riley Waterfront Park, where you can admire the stunning Pineapple Fountain. From there, enjoy a scenic walk along the water before going to Rainbow Row, a charming stretch of Georgian-style row homes painted in bright colors. Continue your walk down East Bay, and you'll soon find yourself on East Battery, another beautiful street with views of the harbor and historic homes.

Book Charleston Historic Guided Walking Tour

Take a Ghost Tour

Charleston is famous for its haunted history, and many people believe it to be one of the most haunted cities in the US. If you want to experience the city's paranormal side, you can take a guided ghost tour. This nighttime walking tour includes special access to the Unitarian Church Graveyard, a well-known haunted location. During the tour, a talented storyteller brings Charleston's spooky history to life as you explore some of the city's eeriest spots. 

Check Out the Best Ghost Tours in Charleston

Take a Horse-drawn Carriage Tour

Charleston has a 300-year history full of interesting stories. One great way to learn about its past is by taking a horse-drawn carriage tour with The Old South Carriage Company. As you ride through 30 blocks of historic Charleston, a knowledgeable guide will share stories about the city's past. The carriages are pulled by large draft horses, just like the ones that worked on American farms in the 19th century. It is a fun and authentic way to see Charleston's iconic homes and landmarks.

Visit the Charleston City Market

Charleston City Market is a lively and historic market that has been around for a long time. It's a great place to experience Charleston's culture and try its food. The market is open all year round during the day and hosts night markets every week. Over 300 vendors sell various things, like handmade crafts, food, and souvenirs. You can easily spend a whole day at the market, talking to locals, trying different foods, and shopping for souvenirs. 

Visit the Gibbes Museum of Art

The Gibbes Museum of Art is a wonderful place to visit if you like art and want to learn about Charleston's cultural history. The museum is in a beautiful Beaux Arts-style building with over 10,000 art pieces in its permanent collection. You can see works by famous artists like Merton Simpson, George LaGrange Cook, and Henrietta Johnston. You can also discover new contemporary artists who live and work in Charleston. The museum is open daily. You can visit to appreciate the amazing art and learn more about the region's history.

Check Out the Best Gibbes Museum of Art Tours

Other popular attractions in Charleston are Fort Summer, the South Carolina Aquarium, Rhett-Aiken House, Nathaniel Russell House, Rainbow Row, and Charleston historic plantations.  

Find the Best Sightseeing Tours in Charleston

Best Restaurants in Savannah and Charleston

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When it comes to food, both Savannah and Charleston are popular for their culinary scenes. From high-end restaurants to casual cafes and sweet treats, there is no shortage of amazing places to eat. 

Best Restaurants in Savannah

Savannah Riverfront
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Savannah is famous for its mouthwatering Southern Classics, including creamy grits, light and fluffy biscuits, crispy fried chicken, and many creamy dishes. Some of the best restaurants in Savannah include:

  • Husk Savannah:  No trip to Savannah is complete without eating at Husk. This restaurant is located in a historic mansion and focuses on using fresh, local ingredients to create delicious Southern dishes. Some must-try dishes are rainbow trout with confit leeks and smoked pork loin with horseradish and satsuma. No matter what's on the menu, they always have oysters and seafood.
  • The Grey: This restaurant is housed in a renovated Greyhound bus station and serves unique Southern dishes with a modern twist. You can try ham-and-potato croquettes and shrimp hushpuppies at the dinner bar with a fizzy Daisy de Santiago drink.
  • The Olde Pink House: This beautiful restaurant is set in a historic mansion and serves Southern classics like shrimp, grits, and fried chicken. It is one of the top places for a luxury romantic dinner. Couples can have a romantic candlelit meal or drink in the Tavern while listening to live piano music.
  • Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room: Mrs. Wilkes is one of the oldest restaurants in Savannah, famous for its Southern hospitality and food. You can enjoy black-eyed peas, fried chicken, cornbread dressing, and other classic Southern dishes while chatting and making friends with the other diners.
  • Cotton and Rye: The people who started Cotton and Rye got their experience in South Florida; you can see it in the fresh, modern look and tasty food at this place. Their must-try dishes include a cheese board and homemade sausage with a bourbon cocktail. And if they have the crab-stuffed Carolina trout, try it.

No matter where you choose to eat in Savannah, you will surely find delicious food and a friendly atmosphere.!

Best Restaurants in Charleston

Charleston is famous for its unique Low Country Cuisine, a Cajun-inspired cuisine exclusive to this part of South Carolina. In addition to this distinctive cuisine, Charleston is also known for serving up mouthwatering Southern favorites. Here are some of the best restaurants in Charleston:

  • Lewis BBQ: This restaurant is a must-try spot for BBQ lovers. It serves Texas-style smoked meats in a cool industrial space. There is a lively bar and lots of outdoor tables. Dining here feels like you're in Austin, Texas, because the pit master learned from the famous Aaron Franklin there. Then, he worked at La Barbecue, a big competitor to Franklin BBQ.
  • Chez Nous: It is a cute little house turned into a restaurant. They only have six different dishes each night, but every single one is amazing. You'll love sitting outside on their charming patio, and the handwritten menus they have every day are just fantastic. 
  • Leon's Oyster Shop: Leon's is a popular spot for locals, with a pleasant outdoor and indoor area. People love it for the tasty fried chicken, fresh oysters, yummy cocktails, and cozy patio.
  • Xiao Bao Biscuit: This Asian fusion restaurant serves dishes inspired by Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese cuisine. The menu includes noodle dishes, dumplings, and bao buns. You'll love their okonomiyaki cabbage pancakes.

Where to Stay in Savannah and Charleston

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Visitors to Savannah and Charleston have many options for lodging, including luxury hotels, B&Bs, and boutique inns. 

Note that accommodation rates in Charleston are slightly higher than those in Savannah. If you want an affordable stay in Charleston, you can stay outside of Charleston downtown, in nearby Mount Pleasant. Savannah offers riverfront accommodations at affordable rates. Here are some properties in Savannah and Charleston that you can choose from.

Where to Stay in Savannah

Things to do in Savannah, Georgia
  • The Perry Lane Hotel: This modern, luxurious hotel is located in trendy Historic Downtown Savannah near River Street. It features a rooftop terrace, bars, a pool, a coffee shop, and a fitness center. Guests can enjoy the on-site restaurant Emporium Kitchen & Wine for a meal. 
  • The Gastonian: This historic upscale B&B is located near Forsyth Park. Their world-class amenities include free cooked-to-order breakfast, WiFi, and parking. Whether you're on a family trip or a romantic getaway, the hotel offers a range of rooms and suites equipped with modern comforts.
  • Forsyth Park West Mansion: This beautiful vacation home is within walking distance of Forsyth Park and just a 17-minute drive from the airport. It features six bedrooms, a private yard, and free WiFi. 

Where to Stay in Charleston

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  • The Belmond Charleston Place: This luxury spa hotel is located in the heart of Charleston, about a 19-minute drive from Charleston airport. The hotel features luxurious rooms and suites, a spa, a hot tub, and a rooftop pool with panoramic city views.
  • The Planters Inn: This historic hotel is located in a former mansion and features charming rooms and a beautiful courtyard. The hotel is only 20 minutes from the airport and a short walk from Charleston City Market. 
  • The Dewberry: This modern hotel is located in a former federal building and features stylish rooms, a rooftop bar, and a restaurant. The hotel is located near Marion Square and Charleston Gaillard Center. You can pamper yourself with treatments like massages, manicures, or body scrubs at the on-site spa, The Dewberry Spa. Their on-site restaurant, Henrietta's, serves French food for brunch and light meals.
  • The Vendue: This art-centric hotel boasts modern-design accommodations, a rooftop bar, and an extensive collection of original works by local artists. It is located in Charleston's historic French Quarter near Waterfront Park.

Should You Visit Both Savannah and Charleston?

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Yes, you should definitely visit both Charleston and Savannah! These two cities are located close to each other, only 170 miles apart. They're great for road trips from Atlanta and nearby cities, and you can easily visit both in one trip. You can travel by car between them in less than 2 hours. It is best to spend 1-2 full days in each city to enjoy your visit fully. You can plan a 5-day road trip from Savannah to Charleston (or vice versa), a great way to explore the South. You can also stop in Beaufort, SC, or Hilton Head, SC, between the two cities to add to your experience. 

Charleston or Savannah: Which City Should You Visit?

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Charleston and Savannah are two of the most charming and historic cities in the United States. Both cities have a lot to offer and are great destinations for those who enjoy history, culture, and food. 

In the end, the choice between Savannah and Charleston comes down to your preferences and interests. If you like visiting small cities and towns and prefer walkability, Savannah is a perfect place to visit. Also, if you're interested in visiting a haunted city, taking ghost tours, and seeing unique and quirky history, Savannah might be the place for you. Charleston might be the better option if you prefer visiting larger towns and are interested in taking longer trips and doing high-end shopping.

But honestly, I think you should visit both Savannah and Charleston. They are similar in some ways, but their unique features make them worth visiting! Happy travels!

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