Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island: Which Getaway Is Right For You?

When it comes to East Coast destinations, Tybee Island and Kiawah Island are among the most exclusive. But in comparing Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island, you also comparing Savannah vs. Charleston. Tybee Island is known as “Savannah’s Beach,” while Kiawah Island is the most exclusive beach near Charleston.

Which is Better? Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island

While there are plenty of similarities between Tybee Island and Kiawah Island, there are plenty of differences too. The most obvious similarity is the pristine beaches. The differences are more nuanced, but Tybee Island is more of a traditional beach time. In contrast, Kiawah Island is an exclusive community for golfing and beachgoing.

As a result, you will find more shopping and dining options near Tybee Island. You will also find a lighthouse, a civil war-era fort, and plenty of activities. Kiawah Island features golf and biking trails, but you will have to make the slightly inconvenient trek up to Charleston to find much else.

Tybee Island Pier. In comparing Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island, the beaches on the former are much more accessible.
Tybee Island Pier

Location and Geography: How Close Are Tybee Island and Kiawah Island?

Located along the central part of the South Carolina coast, Kiawah Island is nearly 3 hours north of Tybee Island. In considering Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island, Tybee Island is more accessible to the city (Savannah), while Kiawah Island is more secluded. Comparatively, Tybee Island is about 20 minutes from Savannah, while Kiawah Island is about 45 minutes from Charleston.

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.

Marshes and waterways cover the island, 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.

Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Kiawah Island is a small barrier island situated off the coast of South Carolina. It is about 25 miles south of Charleston, which makes it a popular weekend getaway for people living in and around South Carolina’s largest city.

Most people recognize I-95 as the main interstate artery running along the Eastern United States. In many locations, I-95 is just a few miles from the beach. But Kiawah Island is a full 60 miles to the east of the interstate. One major reason for this is that the Lowcountry marshlands and the Wadmalaw River sit to the west of the island.

So, Kiawah Island isn’t that easy to get to unless you are driving down from Charleston. Since many of the island’s beaches are private beaches behind gates, the distance from major interstates only adds to the island’s exclusive feel.

Boardwalk along the beach.

The Beaches! Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island Coastline

In considering whether to visit Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island, the biggest difference is the accessibility to the beaches. Most of the beaches on Tybee Island are open for public access, while most of the beaches at Kiawah Island sit inside gated communities.

An Overview of Beaches Near Tybee Island

The riverfront in Savannah is as beautiful as it is historic, but it doesn’t offer much in terms of beachfront. Certainly, there are many water-based activities that take place along the Savannah River, but that’s not quite the same as relaxing on warm beach sand.

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.

An Overview of the Beaches on Kiawah Island

Kiawah Island is known for its beautiful beaches. And while the number of private beaches might feel like a downside, that is just what some visitors are looking to find. The Island features a unique mix of public and private beaches, which caters nicely to visitors looking for different experiences.

  1. Beachwalker Park: Located along the west side of the island, facing the mainland, this is the most popular public beach access on Kiawah Island. The beach itself feels very natural, but you will also find a scenic boardwalk and amenities such as a picnic area, restrooms, and chair rentals.
  2. Kiawah Island Golf Resort Beaches: The Kiawah Island Golf Resort covers a significant portion of the island’s coastline. As a result, resort visitors can access several miles of private, well-maintained beaches. The cleanliness and tranquility are second to known. This is the place to go when you desire peace and quiet but also want access to resort and beachside amenities.
  3. Vanderhorst Plantation Beaches: While the beaches are Kiawah Island Golf Resort are secluded, the Vanderhorst Plantation beaches are among the most secluded beaches on the East Coast. The beaches are behind two security gates and are only accessible to residents and their guests. As a result, the Vanderhorst Plantation is home to very exclusive beaches most only wish they could explore.

So, tourists looking to enjoy the beaches on Kiawah Island will likely find themselves at Beachwalker Park. On the other hand, those looking for resort-style amenities on the beach will enjoy staying at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Spots like the Vanderhorst Planation beaches are the most exclusive, but more power to you if can get in.

Aerial view of the beach.

Activities: Does Tybee Island or Kiawah Island Offer More To Do?

An interesting note in comparing Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island is that both exist in the shadows of larger, more historic cities. Aside from traditional beach activities, most of the popular things to do are in Savannah and Charleston, respectively. Still, Tybee Island is only 20 minutes from Savannah and is widely known as Savannah’s Beach.

On the other hand, Kiawah Island is more than double the drive from Charleston. Plus, some might contend that the whole point of visiting Kiawah Island is to escape busy lives. It is secluded and tranquil.

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.

Fort Pulaski off the coast of Tybee Island.
Fort Pulaski

What Activities Are Available Near Kiawah Island?

The obvious allure of Kiawah Island is the beautiful beaches and exclusive golf resorts, but there is a range of other interesting activities to consider. For instance, the island features extensive bike trails, which are great for exercising and exploration alike.

And for those that enjoy an active lifestyle, you can consider water-based activities like kayaking, paddle boarding, boating, and fishing. The island’s waterways and marshes also create a near-perfect spot to watch for dolphins. Likewise, birdwatching is a popular pastime on the island.

Even so, Kiawah Island is known for its rejuvenation, and that is the big reason that many people visit. You will find scenic views, tranquil beaches, spa-like services, and every opportunity to unplug and unwind.

For most people, this is enough, but Charleston is less than an hour away if you want to visit museums and art galleries. Charleston also offers a larger variety of dining options and more lively nightlife.

Low tide in the Lowcountry.

Places To Stay: Where Will You Stay?

If you plan on visiting Tybee Island, you could easily choose to stay in Savannah instead and drive over to the beach. You can’t easily do something similar with Kiawah Island. If you want to use the private and secluded beaches, you must stay at an exclusive vacation rental on Kiawah Island. This is a major difference in comparing Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island.

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.

In comparing Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island, the former is much closer to centralized actvities.
Historic Downtown Savannah

Where Should You Stay Near Kiawah Island?

While Kiawah Island is exclusive, there are still diverse accommodations worth considering. The East Beach area is home to the Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Here, you will find a luxurious oceanfront hotel known as The Sanctuary. Fine dining, spacious pools, and spa services are available for guests visiting the golf resort.

You can find a mix of laid-back and more lavish vacation rentals along East Beach, but none will meet the privacy and exclusivism of those found on the Vanderhorst Plantation. The upscale, gated community offers high-end private home rentals and is a renowned choice for wealthy travelers seeking tranquility.

For those who can’t find on-island accommodations, Johns Island and Charleston offer alternative accommodation options. Johns Island is just a short drive from Kiawah Island and offers a wide range of lodging options, including bed and breakfasts, historic inns, and traditional vacation rentals.

Charleston is further from Kiawah Island but offers a completely different vibe that some travelers will prefer. While Charleston is a historic city, it is also modern and offers a more urban experience, with many restaurants and shopping options nearby.

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

Tybee Island and Kiawah Island both have great places to eat. Still, neither is known for dining and nightlife. It is much more likely you will

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.

The nearby Savannah riverfront is one reason you might choose Tybee Island over Kiawah Island.
Savannah Riverfront Near Tybee Island

Where Should You Eat and Hang Out Near Kiawah Island?

Since much of Kiawah Island sits behind gated communities, you will find that many of the most popular spots are either just outside the island or on one of the resorts. For instance, popular restaurants such as The Ocean Room and Jasmine Porch are actually located at The Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

The Market at Town Center is another popular spot on the island, and it is located at East Beach Village instead of on the resort. You can eat at The Market or grab one of their ever-popular picnic bags and take it to go.

And while Freshfields Village is technically across the bridge from Kiawah Island, it is one of the most popular local destinations for shopping and dining. Freshfields Village is a unique Lowcountry destination that supports the more residential feel you get on the island itself.

Visitors will find everything from tacos to ice cream and clothing to home goods. There are a few coffee shops and bars, too, but most nightlife is up the road in Charleston.

In comparing Tybee Island vs. Kiawah island, both feature pristine beaches.

Should You Visit Tybee Island or Kiawah Island?

Aside from proximity, there are a few key nuances to consider in deciding whether to visit Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island. The biggest difference is that Tybee Island is more accessible to the public than Kiawah Island and offers the most activities (other than golf). Kiawah Island is exclusive and secluded and doesn’t feature many destination activities other than the golf resort.

The Verdict: Tybee Island vs. Kiawah Island

I recommend that most people visit Tybee Island. Savannah is nearby so you will find activities ranging from art galleries to civil war-era forts. You will also find more shopping and dining options. Plus, the beach is more accessible.

On the other hand, if you are searching for an exclusive experience, Kiawah Island might be for you. You won’t find as many activities or places to eat (outside of the resort restaurants). Still, escaping from the daily grind might be just what the doctor ordered.

Once you decide on your target experience, it should be easy enough to decide whether to visit Tybee Island or Kiawah Island. Either way, we are certain you will have a fantastic time!

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.