Hilton Head vs. Savannah: Ultimate Coastal Destinations

Nestled along the captivating coastline of South Carolina and Georgia, these neighboring cities offer distinct experiences that attract tourists from across the country. In comparing Hilton Head vs. Savannah, you will find similar characteristics of Southern charm, but you will also find very different histories and overall atmospheres.

We will explore the pros and cons of both great communities to help you decide where you should visit.

Hilton Head vs. Savannah – Where Should You Visit?

Hilton Head Island features preserved marshland and pristine beaches, while Savannah is the oldest city in Georgia and boasts one of the most well-maintained riverfronts along the eastern coastline. And yet, while the two cities are very different, both cities are brimming with Southern hospitality and great food. Plus, since the cities are fairly close to each other, you can easily spend the day in one city while staying in the other.

Even so, Tybee Island is closer to Savannah and very similar to the atmosphere at Hilton Head. For those staying in Savannah, compare Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island before you head to the beach.

In comparing Hilton Head vs. Savannah, Hilton Head may be more directly similar to Tybee Island. Still, Hilton Head and Savannah are two of the most popular destinations along the East Coast.

Location and Geography: How Close Are Hilton Head and Savannah?

While Hilton Head and Savannah aren’t that far apart on a map, there aren’t any straight drives across the South Carolina marshlands between the two cities. Even so, it only takes about 45 minutes to drive from one to the other.

Hilton Head Island (HHI), South Carolina

The beautiful island is located on the southern coast of South Carolina. The Atlantic Ocean mostly surrounds the island. Of course, the Broad River (a tidal channel) borders the northern edge of the island.

One reason that I love the island is that it isn’t as overdeveloped as many beach communities. It’s a fairly big island covering 69 square miles and boasts 12 miles of beautiful beaches.

Massive oak trees cover the island. It doesn’t feel like you are on an island until you reach the beach. Still, there are plenty of palm trees and marshland too. The Hilton Head Island Trust preserves the natural habitat of the island. Its 300 acres include the Whooping Crane Pond Conservancy, Cypress Converancy, and Fort Howell.

You will see signs all across the island reminding visitors to stay away from alligators. I’ve never seen one while visiting, but they clearly thrive in the marshes. The alligator signs remind you of the island’s still natural state.

Harbour Town Lighthouse is one of the many activities to do on Hilton Head Island.

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. In considering Hilton Head vs. Savannah, it is worth noting that Hilton Head is on the ocean, while Savannah is on the river.

What is the Difference Between Hilton Head and Savannah?

Hilton Head Island is a beach community with well-preserved marshlands and pristine beaches. Savannah is a much more historic city, situated along the Savannah River rather than the Atlantic Ocean. Savannah is not far from beaches at Tybee Island and only about 45 minutes from Hilton Head Island, but Savannah is much more of a Southern town than a beach community.

Comparing Hilton Head vs. Savannah Waterfront

Hilton Head Island sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, while Savannah sits along the Savannah River. Both communities feature beautiful waterfronts, but they are very different. Savannah’s riverfront is great for boating and kayaking, while Hilton Head is better for beachgoers.

An Overview of Hilton Head’s Beaches

Perhaps its that access to the island is naturally limited by the one bridge entering the island, but the island feels more natural and untainted by humans than many beaches. Some beaches on the island, especially near the Broad River, look like you might expect them to have looked when explorers first found the island.

Marshes run near the coast such that reeds are pilled up on some of the shores, and the beaches are filled with shells.

Still, most of the beaches have the whitest sand I’ve seen anywhere along the eastern coast of the United States. I grew up in Florida going to the beaches, and Hilton Head’s beaches are much better, especially along the Atlantic.

And even so, something feels more natural than other beaches, even those in South Carolina. The last time I was there with my kids, a beautiful sting ray swam by about 5 or 6 feet away from where we waded into the ocean. Later we saw a cannonball jellyfish float on by.

I love Hilton Head Island because it feels so natural, even though thousands of beachgoers enjoy the island’s 12 miles of beaches daily. Hilton Head might have my favorite beaches in either Carolina.

The beaches at Hilton Head Island are beautiful and serene.

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.

In comparing Hilton Head vs. Savannah, you might consider the lighthouses. There is a lighthouse on Hilton Head Island, while in Savannah, you need drive 20 minutes to get to Tybee Island.

Activities: Does Hilton Head Island or Savannah Offer More To Do?

In comparing Hilton Head vs. Savannah, you will find that they offer very different types of activities. Those visiting Hilton Head often enjoy the great outdoors, from hiking and kayaking to tanning on the beach. In contrast, those visiting Savannah are more likely to explore the historic district, museums, and art galleries.

What Activities Are Available on Hilton Head Island?

Hilton Head Island is a true paradise for those seeking outdoor activities. The iconic red-and-white Harbour Town Lighthouse is a must-visit attraction that has served the island for over five decades. Visitors can climb to the top of the lighthouse for breathtaking views of the Yacht Basin and island.

For those who prefer to explore the island by land, there are over 60 miles of bike paths to explore, as well as numerous hiking trails and nature preserves.

Golf enthusiasts will find plenty to love on Hilton Head Island, which is home to over 20 championship golf courses. These courses offer a range of difficulty levels and styles, and Hilton Head was voted a Top 10 golf destination in the world. In fact, the island is home to a PGA Tour event known as the RBC Heritage.

For those who prefer to explore the island’s natural beauty from the water, kayaking is a popular activity on Hilton Head Island. Visitors can rent kayaks and explore the island’s many waterways, including Broad Creek and the Calibogue Sound. Kayaking tours are also available, offering guided trips through some of the island’s most scenic areas.

Of course, no trip to Hilton Head Island would be complete without a visit to the beach. With 12 miles of white-sand beaches, the island offers plenty of opportunities for swimming or just relaxing.

There are so many activities on Hilton Head Island that there is something for everyone. This includes the massive Adventure Playground, which is a playground for kids made to look like a pirate ship.

There is a large pirate ship playground for children at Coligny Beach on Hilton Head Island.

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 Savannah. 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?

There are many great places to stay in Hilton Head and Savannah. In Hilton Head, you are likelier to find beachfront properties, while Savannah features more traditional downtown hotels and boutique locations.

Where Should You Stay Near Hilton Head?

There are plenty of places to stay on Hilton Head Island, including luxurious resorts and beachfront rentals, so you will surely find something that fits your needs. One of the best ways to choose where to stay on Hilton Head Island is to consider the distinct neighborhood vibes.

Sea Pines is one of the island’s most well-known and picturesque neighborhoods. It’s home to the Harbour Town lighthouse, as well as a number of high-end resorts and vacation rentals. The vibe here is upscale and family-friendly, with plenty of outdoor recreation and places to relax.

Palmetto Dunes is another popular neighborhood on the island with some of the most direct exposure to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s known for its beautiful beaches, as well as its golf courses and tennis facilities. Palmetto Dunes is active and sporty but still offers plenty of access to the beautiful island beaches.

Some of the neighborhoods on the island, like Mitcheville near the airport, offer more residential neighborhood experiences. This makes it a great place to find VRBOs and AirBnBs. This is also a neighborhood with more secluded beaches that attract fewer tourists. Neighborhoods like Mitcheville are ideal for visitors looking for a more low-key experience.

We recommend considering Bluffton if you are looking for something a little different. While not on the island, the town of Bluffton is only a few miles away, and it is one of our favorite towns in all of South Carolina. Bluffton has a historic downtown area that is only a few blocks from a public dock on the nearby May River. It may be the perfect place to go boating or kayaking.

Bluffton is near Hilton Head Island, on the May River. It is an excellent place to stay if you can't find somewhere on the island.

Bluffton Public Dock

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.

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

In considering Hilton Head vs. Savannah, you will find both areas offer laid-back, Southern hospitality vibes. Still, Hilton Head has more of a flip-flops and beach town feel, whereas you might at least break out a polo shirt and shoes to go to dinner in Savannah.

Where Should You Eat and Hang Out on Hilton Head Island?

Hilton Head Island is a fun and relaxed place to hang out, with a wide variety of restaurants and places to eat. While some of these spots are high-end restaurants, I appreciate that there are also several local restaurants that are still affordable.

Coligny Plaza is one of the most popular areas to eat on the island. My family loves to stroll around Coligny Plaza in the evenings because there are plenty of low-key places to eat and shop (and eat ice cream!). And there is a massive play area for kids, including a huge pirate ship, across the street at Coligny Beach.

Another popular area for dining on Hilton Head Island is Shelter Cove Harbour and Marina. This waterfront destination is home to a number of restaurants and bars. Naturally, many of the restaurants offer outdoor seating with beautiful views of the marina.

Overall, Hilton Head Island has no shortage of dining options, from casual beachfront eateries to more high-end restaurants. Whether you’re in the mood for seafood, pizza, or something in between, you can find something to satisfy your appetite on this beautiful island.

Coligny Plaza on Hilton Head Island offers some of the best restaurants and shopping.

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. 😀😉😎

The City Market is the most popular place to hang out and grab something to eat in Savannah, Georgia.

Is Hilton Head Island or Savannah Better?

While Hilton Head and Savannah are right across the state line from each other, they offer very different experiences. Hilton Head is likely better for those looking for a true beach experience, while Savannah is better for those that like art galleries, museums, and fine dining.

Hilton Head is known for its beautiful resorts and preserved land, while Savannah is known for its history. For more options, we recommend that you compare Charleston vs. Savannah.

The Verdict: Hilton Head vs. Savannah

I recommend Hilton Head Island for anyone that prefers outdoor activities to more refined air-conditioned experiences. Hilton Head is the perfect place to go hiking, kayaking, or even fishing. Plus, the beaches are pristine, and the restaurants near the Harbour Town Lighthouse offer a nice change of pace.

In contrast, I recommend Savannah to anyone that prefers downtown strolls more than long walks along the beach. Savannah’s historic architecture is fascinating, and there are many activities within walking distance of the historic district. And if you want to sneak away to the beach, Tybee Island is only 20 minutes away.

In considering Hilton Head vs. Savannah, you will find that they are very different locations, but both are worth visiting. And since they are only 45 minutes apart, you can always visit one while taking a quick drive over to the other!

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.