While these two coastal destinations probably don’t qualify as exotic island getaways, they are both overflowing with Southern charm and relaxed vibes. And they are both islands. In comparing Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island, you will find quite a few similarities, but there are nuances worth noting.
We’ll compare the two to help you decide which island destination is worth visiting.
Which Is Better? Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island
In considering Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island, you will find that Hilton Head is much more of a destination unto itself. In comparison, Tybee Island is much smaller, and many visitors target things to do and places to eat in nearby Savannah.
Savannah is beautiful and historic. It’s a wonderful place to visit, but it boasts riverfront instead of beachfront and is about 20 minutes away from Tybee Island.
Location and Geography: How Close Are Hilton Head and Tybee Island?
The Savannah River separates South Carolina from Georgia near the Atlantic Ocean. And Tybee Island sits near the mouth of the river, so that gives you some insight into how close the island is to its South Carolina neighbors.
Still, roads across the Lowcountry marshlands are limited, so it takes 45 minutes to drive from Hilton Head to Savannah. Tybee Island is more than an hour away from Hilton Head.
If they look much closer on a map, that’s because they are. The straight line distance between the two islands is less than 15 miles from beach to beach, but the driving distance is nearly 60 miles.
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.
Tybee Island, Georgia
Tybee Island is a small island that sits on Georgia’s Atlantic coast, but while it is an island, it isn’t far from the mainland. The Savannah River forms the northern border, while the Bull River and Tybee Creek form the western and southern borders.
The area is covered in marshes and waterways, creating a natural and dynamic environment. In fact, while Tybee Island covers more than 5 square miles, 30% of the area is covered by water.
Since Tybee Island is much smaller than nearby Hilton Head Island, it is a great place to ride your bikes through town. It is a very bike-friendly community with a small beach town feel.
Here is a fun fact: Aside from its beautiful beaches, Tybee Island is also known because a B-47 bomber jettisoned a nuclear bomb near Tybee Island in 1958. There were several unsuccessful searches for the bomb, but it is now presumed lost somewhere in the Wassaw Sound near Tybee Island. Today, the missing nuke is referred to as the “Tybee Bomb.“
What is the Difference Between Hilton Head and Tybee Island?
In considering Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island, both are fantastic destinations along the United State’s southern coastline. Hilton Head Island is more self-contained, featuring more restaurants and resort-like amenities, including golf and tennis. Tybee Island offers a more walkable and bikeable community but is also close to Savannah when you want additional dining and entertainment options.
The Beaches! Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island Coastline
One thing is for sure: the beaches along Hilton Head and Tybee Island are pristine and inviting. The biggest difference is that the beaches along Tybee Island are 20 minutes or so from Savannah, whereas the beaches on Hilton Head are much closer to any activities and dining happening on the island.
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.
An Overview of the Beaches on Tybee Island
Tybee Island is often referred to as “Savannah’s Beach.” It features five miles of public beaches that are generally well-maintained and clean and feature mostly gentle waves.
The most popular spot for tourists is South Beach, which is near the Tybee Island Pier and Pavilion. It is a great spot to catch some rays, and nearby to the commercial district, where you will find shops and eateries. This is also where you will find the Tybee Island Marine Science Center.
Mid Beach and North Beach are located closer to residential areas and generally less busy because of the limited access. Most tourists don’t venture to this section of the island for the beaches, but if you do, you will find more natural-looking beaches and a serene atmosphere.
Outdoor enthusiasts also will enjoy the Back River Beach and Savannah River Beach areas, which are popular for kayaking, paddle boarding, boating, and fishing. Back River Beach is often referred to as the island’s secret beach. Near the Savannah River, you can also watch the large container ships as they navigate toward the Port of Savannah.
Each beach is a little different, but all are well worth your visit.
Activities: Does Hilton Head Island or Tybee Island Offer More To Do?
In considering whether to visit Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island, lighthouses lead the list of similarities. Still, it’s hard to talk about activities on Tybee Island without also considering activities in nearby Savannah.
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.
What Activities Are Available Near Tybee Island?
Tybee Island is lesser known and smaller than some coastal destinations, such as Hilton Head Island, but you will still find plenty of activities.
The iconic Tybee Island Light Station and Museum lead the list of things to do. Originally built in the 1700s and standing 145 feet tall, the Tybee Island Lighthouse is both the oldest and tallest lighthouse in the state of Georgia. You will also find three keeper’s cottages and a museum full of archaeological finds.
Fort Pulaski National Monument is another popular local attraction. The fort is located on Cockspur Island, situated between Tybee Island and Savannah, but easily accessible. The Confederate army used Fort Pulaski to defend against the Union during the Civil War and is best known as the site where the Union Army forced a surrender.
Beyond these top attractions, Tybee Island visitors are likely to spend time at the Pier and Pavillion and explore nearby shops and eateries. Outdoor activities, including kayaking, paddle boarding, boating, and fishing, are also popular on the island.
In fact, Tybee Island’s diverse ecosystem makes it great for birdwatching. The surrounding area is part of the Colonial Coast Birding Trail. The diverse ecosystem invites a range of marine life, too, so tourists often spot bottlenose dolphins just off the coast.
And while Savannah is 20 minutes away from Tybee Island, it is hard to talk about one without the other. You can stay in your preferred location and still access contrasting activities. Where Tybee Island is a great beach experience, Savannah offers museums and fine dining. The proximity gives you endless options for your visit.
Places To Stay: Where Will You Stay?
Whereas Hilton Head is so well-preserved that it offers more vacation rentals than hotels, Tybee Island offers a nice mix of both. Of course, in comparing Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island, the big differentiator is that visitors of Tybee Island can also choose to stay in Savannah.
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 Public Dock
Where Should You Stay Near Tybee Island?
There is an extent to which lodging options are just what you might expect on Tybee Island. There are a few hotels and lots of vacation rentals. At the same time, you will find quaint bed-and-breakfast locations like the Georgianne Inn. Plus, the Hotel Tybee is known for its unique design and location near the Tybee Island Pier and Pavilion.
The South Beach area of Tybee Island is where you will find the most activity and the most walkable experience. Those staying near South Beach can easily walk around to local restaurants or hang out near the pier.
The rest of the island is full of more residential-type vacation rentals, so you will find no shortage of unique options on Tybee Island. And still, some people prefer to stay in Savannah and drive over to the beach. It all depends on your favored experience. Stay on the island for a laid-back vibe where you can walk around in flip-flops and t-shirts.
Dining and Nightlife: Where Are The Best Places to Eat and Drink
Comparing the dining and nightlife options between Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island is an interesting task because you have to consider Savannah here as well. Still, in this instance, Hilton Head is much larger than Tybee Island and offers more dining and nightlife options near the beach.
Where Should You Eat and Hang Out on Hilton Head Island?
Hilton Head Island is known as 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.
Where Should You Eat and Hang Out Near Tybee Island?
Dining and nighttime activities are clustered in a few primary spots on Tybee Island. The most obvious is the cluster of restaurants and eateries near the Tybee Island Pier and Pavilion. There are several walkable blocks along the coast near the pier that is full of fun restaurants and stores.
Pier 16 might be the most popular restaurant, but it is far from the only option. There are multiple seafood spots, and you will find pizza and other common pier food too.
A few streets across the island, you will find AJ’s Dockside Restaurant along the Back River Beach. This is a favorite spot for locals and boating enthusiasts because you can dock your boat right at the restaurant!
Aside from these spots, many tourists drive to Savannah for at least a few meals while they are in the area. We recommend checking out the various restaurants inside the City Market in Savannah.
Should You Visit Hilton Head or Tybee Island?
The good news is that you can’t go wrong in comparing Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island. Both destinations feature beautiful beaches, walkable neighborhoods with shops and restaurants, and access to a plethora of outdoor activities. Still, access to Savannah does provide an added dimension when considering Tybee Island.
Even so, the locations have more similarities than differences. My family prefers Hilton Head because it is easier to get to when road-tripping, and it is more of a self-contained destination. Everything you might need is right there on the island, partially because Hilton Head Island is much bigger than Tybee Island.
The Verdict: Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island
Hilton Head Island may be the better choice for those looking for a beach resort destination. The island boasts nearly endless resort options for golf, tennis, and more. Plus, the island is bigger, which means there are more beaches, restaurants, and places to explore.
Hilton Head’s atmosphere is very laid-back and is great for families seeking out bonding time away from city-like distractions.
On the other hand, Tybee Island is better for those that want access to city life (or city nights). While much smaller than Hilton Head, Tybee Island itself has a very similar vibe. Even so, you can’t talk about Tybee Island without talking about Savannah, where you will find museums, art galleries, and fine dining options.
In deciding between Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island, nuance is key. You have to understand your own preferences before making a decision. With that said, these are two great beach destinations that we are sure you will enjoy. ☀️😎