Charleston vs. Savannah: A Tale of Two Coastal Southern Cities

Charleston and Savannah are two picturesque coastal cities brimming with Southern charm. In comparing Charleston vs. Savannah, you will find that they are a lot alike, but there are subtle differences worth highlighting.

From cobblestone streets to antebellum mansions, join us as we explore the pros and cons you might experience visiting these beautiful coastal cities. Southern hospitality awaits.

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Charleston vs. Savannah: Southern Charm At Its Finest

While these two cities certainly exude Southern Charm, the vibes still differ in subtle yet noticeable ways. Charleston’s stately architecture feels sophisticated and elegant, and you will see that matches the city’s personality in a nutshell.

Yes, Charleston is a booming city with a diverse population and things to do. Still, Charleston is known for art galleries, museums, and culture that all match the architecture preserved with Old South money.

In comparing Charleston vs. Savannah, you may find that Savannah has a more laid-back vibe. The oak-lined streets and Spanish moss-draped trees are still picturesque, but the city might feel more approachable and comfortable to some than its neighbor to the north.

Both cities are fantastic places to visit, but these are some of the subtle differences worth understanding before you pick your destination.

In comparing Charleston vs. Savannah, the two downtowns are historic in very different ways.

Downtown Savannah

Location and Geography: How Close Are Charleston and Savannah

Savannah, Georgia, sits just over two hours south of Charleston, South Carolina, directly across the state line. For those of you that have heard of Tybee Island, it is a small island that is just off the coast of Savannah.

In many ways, Charleston and Savannah are the storybook Southern cities. The climate and geography are similar, but there are still nuances worth exploring.

Charleston, South Carolina

The Charleston Harbor plays a significant role in shaping the city’s most prominent features. The Cooper and Ashley rivers frame this picturesque city, meeting at the tip of the peninsula to flow into the Harbor, which in turn feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, oceanfront parks surround the city’s core.

Charleston is susceptible to hurricanes and flooding, but the city has proven resilient over the years to recover. Plus, the Port of Charleston provides stability to the region’s economy, which helps it weather economic storms that often follow physical storms.

The Port of Charleston is one of the largest ports in the country. Its strategic location near major shipping lanes makes it a crucial hub for supply chains worldwide. Charleston is majorly important to the entire region, even the state of South Carolina.

Cooper River Bridge in Charleston

Savannah, Georgia

The city is nestled along the Savannah River, which is the defining feature of the cityscape. The river not only serves as a beautiful backdrop for the city but also plays an important role in the city’s history and economy.

Savannah enjoys a coastal location, but the center city isn’t directly on the Atlantic Ocean. Still, the Savannah River, which is an important shipping channel, provides easy and direct access to the ocean.

While the Port of Charleston, a few hours north, is an even more important seaport, the Savannah Harbor is the fourth largest seaport in the nation. The historic downtown sits along the riverfront and is a popular gathering place for locals and visitors alike.

The city is very hot during the summers, but the winters are mild and enjoyable. This makes Savannah a fantastic place to visit during non-peak vacation season.

Savannah River Front.

The Difference Between Charleston and Savannah?

Geographically, Charleston and Savannah are very similar. They sit fairly close to each other along the East Coast, and both cities feature ports that are important for the regional and national economy. Most of the differences are related to the size of the cities and the local vibe.

The Beaches! Comparing Charleston vs. Savannah Oceanfront

In comparing Charleston vs. Savannah, one of your first questions is likely related to which city has better beaches. Although these coastal towns are close to the ocean, neither city features its own beaches. In both instances, you need to take a short 20 to 30-minute drive from the city’s local beach towns.

An Overview of Beaches Near Charleston

While Charleston doesn’t have beaches in the city core, there are plenty of beautiful beaches within a short drive. Folly Beach is one of the most popular nearby beach towns. It is known as the ‘Edge of America‘ and is the rare beach town that has remained mostly unchanged over the last few decades.

When my family travels down to the Charleston area, we usually go to Folly Beach. The main street has old-school shops and local seafood restaurants, and the town’s quintessential fishing pier stretches more than 1000 feet into the ocean.

Just a little further south sits Kiawah Island, which is known for its upscale beachside living. Kiawah Island boasts 10 miles of exclusive beachfront, creating the perfect atmosphere for a relaxing walk on the beach. Just how exclusive?

Well, Kiawah Island features only one public access beach. The rest of the island is split into two areas, referred to as East Beach and West Beach, and most of the private beachfront are protected by gates.

Lastly, Sullivan’s Island is a popular beach destination near Charleston. Sullivan’s Island features a unique blend of history and seaside charm. You will find the likes of Fort Moultrie and the Edgar Allan Poe Library. You will also find iconic seafood and a family-friendly atmosphere. No alcohol is allowed on the streets, boardwalks, or beaches.

So, while Charleston doesn’t feature direct access to beaches from its cobblestone streets, there are plenty of great beaches within a short drive.

Folly Beach Pier is a popular beach destination near Charleston.

Folly Beach Pier

An Overview of the Beaches Near Savannah

Even though Savannah doesn’t have any beaches itself, Tybee Island is a popular beach destination that is only 18 miles away. Tybee Island features beautiful beaches and a laid-back atmosphere, making it a favorite for family vacations. You will also find a charming beachfront town and the historic Tybee Island Light Station.

The nearby barrier islands are even more secluded, but don’t let the similar name fool you. Little Tybee Island and Wassaw Island are accessible via boat, but guided tours and private boat charters may protect access. We don’t recommend heading over before booking a proper tour.

Jekyll Island is a little further away from Savannah (45 miles), but it is one of the most popular beach destinations in all of Georgia. Similar to Tybee Island, you will find a relaxed atmosphere and a sense of serenity on Jekyll Island. One of the more popular island amenities is the bike trail. It is the perfect way to enjoy your surroundings.

Overall, the beaches near Savannah offer a very relaxed vibe. For those looking for a bustling boardwalk, go up the coast aways to Myrtle Beach. On the other hand, if you are looking for a laid-back atmosphere and a family-friendly environment, beaches like those on Tybee Island or Jekyll Island are fantastic options.

Also, remember that Hilton Head is only 45 minutes from Savannah.

In comparing the beaches between Charleston vs. Savannah, you are really comparing Folly Beach vs. Tybee Island.

Activities: Does Charleston or Savannah Offer More To Do?

In comparing Charleston vs. Savannah, Charleston is more urban and vibrant, while Savannah is more laid-back and family-friendly. Both coastal cities are worth a visit, but they offer unique atmospheres to consider.

What Activities Are Available Near Charleston?

Charleston, South Carolina, often attracts tourists who enjoy history and art. The city’s cobblestone streets speak the past while underpinning Charleston’s present-day cityscapes. In addition to the beautifully preserved homes, there are multiple forts nearby that add further depth to the region’s complicated story.

In April of 1861, the Union forces surrendered to Confederate troops at Fort Sumter, which is in Charleston Harbor. This battle marked the beginning of the civil war. Today, you can still visit multiple nearby forts, as well as beautiful plantation homes. It’s a tangled history, but one that makes Charleston even more intriguing to visit.

Charleston is also celebrated for its arts and culture scene. The city boasts multiple art galleries featuring both local and international artists. In fact, many inspiring artists attend the College of Charleston School of Arts.

Beyond arts, there are also several museums in the area. The Charleston Museum is heralded as America’s first museum. You will also find the South Carolina Historical Society, Patriot’s Point Naval & Maritime Museum, the Old Slave Mart Museum, and much more.

Needless to say, visit Charleston for a weekend full of history, art, and culture. And when you are ready for something a little lighter, the beaches are a short drive away. Charleston is also well known for shopping and dining options, so there is plenty to do.

Fort Sumter stands as a reminder of Charleston's historic roots.

Fort Sumter

What Activities Are Available Near Savannah?

You won’t find any major attractions near Savannah. There are no major forts and no local boardwalks and roller coasters. You won’t find any tourist-driven shopping centers that you might expect to see in Orlando or Las Vegas. And all this is the selling point for Savannah.

Savannah is a beautiful town with a rich history, but it’s not the type of place you want to visit if you have the need to be constantly entertained. Instead, most people spend time strolling the historic downtown and exploring the local coastal ecosystem. Places like the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge are popular.

Still, there are several art galleries and museums, such as the SCAD Museum of Art. In fact, the oldest public art museum in the South is found in Charleston. The Telfair Academy features works from renowned artists from around the world. The Telfair Academy expanded under the name of Telfair Museums and now includes the Jepson Center.

Naturally, the local beaches like Tybee Island and Jekyll Island are also very popular. Once you are done exploring the beaches and natural beauty, we recommend you explore some of the great dining and shopping options downtown. Check out the Olde Pink House Restaurant & Tavern for a local favorite.

For a more whimsical experience, go to a Savannah Bananas baseball game. They are an exhibition baseball team that describes itself as a “World Famous Baseball Circus.”

Places To Stay: Where Will You Stay?

You will likely find that Charleston and Savannah offer very similar options when it comes to lodging and accommodations. While some places predominantly have hotels (like Myrtle Beach), and others predominantly have vacation rentals (like the Outer Banks), these Southern coastal areas boast both.

Where Should You Stay Near Charleston?

When you are choosing a place to stay in Charleston, the city’s neighborhoods offer a variety of distinct experiences. For the classic Charleston experience, consider staying in the historic downtown district. There, you will find famous cobblestone streets and pastel-colored houses.

You will also be nearby famous landmarks and have plenty of dining and shopping options. The downtown is so well preserved that you might think you’ve stepped into the history books. Staying in downtown is an excellent choice for anyone interested in culture and history.

Consider the Upper King Street district if you are searching for a lively nightlife scene. This area is the center of Charleston’s entertainment scene and is packed with bars, live music venues, and a range of food options. You will also find boutique hotels nearby.

I usually seek out a more tranquil and family-friend environment, so Folly Beach is more my speed. This laid-back beach community offers countless vacation rentals, great restaurants, and a walkable main street core near the boardwalk. Folly Beach is only about 20 minutes from downtown Charleston.

Cooper River Bridge

Where Should You Stay Near Savannah?

The most popular place for tourists to stay is a stretch connecting the Savannah Historic District from the riverfront over toward the City Market. The downtown area in Savannah is brimming with Southern charm and beautiful architecture. It makes sense for most people to stay nearby so that they can walk to restaurants and explore.

A few blocks away from the riverfront, you can also find some great places to stay near the Victorian District. You might also enjoy the Spanish moss draped from the old oak trees in Ardsley Park. All of the major neighborhoods near downtown Savannah boast beautiful, historic architecture and mature, tree-lined streets.

One thing you will find is that it is very intuitive to find your way around downtown Savannah. The city’s layout was meticulously planned and designed in a grid pattern and is built around 22 picturesque squares.

Naturally, you can also choose to stay on one of the nearby beaches if you are interested in a more beach-focused getaway. There is a unique separation between Savannah and the local beaches, but spots like Tybee Island are only 20 minutes away from downtown.

Downtown Savannah, Georgia. In comparing Charleston vs. Savannah, both have dense, historic downtown areas.

Dining and Nightlife: Where Are The Best Places to Eat and Drink

Again, in comparing Charleston vs. Savannah, Charleston offers more options, but that is partly because Charleston is just bigger. In some ways, Savannah is just a smaller version of Charleston, so you will find similar places to eat.

Where Should You Eat and Hang Out In Charleston?

While we discussed this above, it is worth reiterating that downtown Charleston offers the classic experience with plenty of restaurants and small shops. If you want something low-key, I recommend checking out Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit. You will be glad you did. For other options, look at the cluster of places between E Bay St and Concord St.

For a more lively experience, venture to Upper King Street, where you will find destinations like Bourbon ‘N Bubbles, High Wire Distilling, Prohibition, and the Charleston Distilling Company. Upper King Street is just a short walk from the Battery, which is great when you need to step out for some fresh air.

Beyond the buzz for these neighborhoods, I also recommend that you check out Avondale, which is a trendy district located just west of the Ashley River. Locally it is known as a culinary hotspot.

Where Should You Eat and Hang Out In Savannah?

It all starts and ends with the Savannah City Market in historic downtown Savannah. The market has served as the city’s gathering place for decades upon decades, and that continues today.

In years gone by, you might have found local fisherman selling their daily catch in the market, but times have changed. Today, you are more likely to find shops hosted by local artisans (think hand-crafted jewelry). You will also find an entire lineup of restaurants and eateries.

The Savannah City Market has been around since the 1700s, and stands proud as a spotlight on the region’s history and a showcase for its current culture. It is eclectic and features delicious eats, so you must check it out.

Beyond the Savannah City Market, we previously mentioned that The Olde Pink House is a must-visit. But before you visit, know this: Savannah is well thought of as one of the most haunted cities in the United States, and the Old Pink House is known as a haunted restaurant.

If you are looking for a dinner tour theme while in town, consider a tour of Savannah’s top haunted restaurants. πŸ˜€πŸ˜‰πŸ˜Ž

The City Market is the most popular place to hang out and grab something to eat in Savannah, Georgia. In comparing Charleston vs. Savannah, Savannah has a more relaxed vibe.

Is Charleston or the Savannah Better?

In deciding whether to visit Charleston or Savannah, it’s helpful to understand that they are very different destinations. Charleston has a more pointed history, as well as a more refined modern culture featuring numerous art galleries and museums. In contrast, Savannah is a little more anonymous in the best of ways. Savannah is a great place to unwind, relax, and reflect.

The Verdict: Charleston vs. Savannah

So, what is the verdict in comparing Charleston vs. Savannah? In many ways, the two cities are so similar that you might look at Charleston as Savannah’s bigger sibling. The local economies are both driven by seaports and tourism, and both feature the most beautiful Victorian architecture.

And neither city has its own beaches, but both are within a short drive of beautiful beaches. Still, we recommend Charleston for a more lively atmosphere and Savannah for a laid-back getaway. At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong. Take the time to visit these historic coastal cities soon!

Jeremiah moved to the Charlotte area with his wife, Erin, back in 2013. The family has grown over the years, and they now call the Carolinas home. They enjoy hiking and adventures, road trips, backyard fire pits, and pizza night. Jeremiah loves to explore, and looks forward to sharing tips, tricks, and resources for your next trip.