Many people, when visiting the Southern seaboard, will take side trips to both Savannah and Charleston, often at the same time, since they’re only about two hours apart. Both are justifiably recommended as great tourist destinations. But if you can only visit one, which should it be?
I’ve never lived in either city. That said, I’ve traveled to Savannah extensively and am on my third trip through Charleston as I speak, so I at least have a good tourist-level perspective of the relative charms of these Southern beauties. So for what it’s worth (which may not be much), here’s my take:
Eye Candy: Both have it in spades. Charleston has better mansions, especially on the waterfront, but Savannah has the moss-draped oaks and pretty parks that Charleston mostly lacks. Charleston has the architecturally unique single houses, while Savannah has a gold-domed city hall. Both cities have nicely developed waterfronts and (reportedly haunted) cemeteries. Charleston has the French wrought iron influence, while Savannah has Doric columns. So it’s a close call, but Savannah has the statues and monuments in its shady public squares that Charleston is missing.
Food: Charleston is justifiably famous for its creative foodie scene, while Savannah has many old favorites that have been there for generations. Savannah has good Southern cookin’ (and a whole lot more), while Charleston offers up avant grade fusion dishes. Both cities can be truly proud of the cuisine they offer, especially considering their size, but based on sheer volume, innovation, fame, and variety, if you want to eat, and eat well, go to Charleston.
Entertainment: Savannah has a noteworthy jazz music scene, while Charleston is a favorite of wedding planners for a reason. Savannah has a fantastic St Patrick’s Day, while Charleston has a party college near downtown (sorry SCAD, you take your art way too seriously). Savannah offers symphonies in Forsyth Park, while Charleston offers party boat harbor tours. But only Savannah offers up a riverfront pub crawl.
History: Wow, tough one. Both cities are very old by US standards, and both had Declaration signers. Charleston can brag about Fort Sumter while Savannah can say Sherman stayed there. Both were major trading ports at one time (and both still are). Both were intimately involved in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Verdict: too close to call.
Intangibles: Both cities are easy to navigate because they’re laid out on a grid. Charleston is even easier because it’s squeezed onto that narrow peninsula. Yet that tiny footprint also means Charleston is basically one main street with a few side streets, while Savannah is more of a rectangle with parks dotted around. There’s a reason Savannah has been the locale of choice for Hollywood’s movies, after all…it is truly atmospheric in a quirky, even bizarre way. Plus, Savannah is famous for the charm and hospitality of its residents, while Charleston is a bit more…insular, shall we say, like a gateless country club.
Bottom line, if you are coming to the Low Country or the Georgia coast and can only pick one city to visit as a first-time tourist, go with Savannah: it has everything you’d expect from an Old South town, including the strange characters and places that have made it such a draw for artists, playwrights, and musicians alike, without any of the stuffiness of a plantation debutante ball. But if you want the upper crust exclusivity of an old boy’s club, pick Charleston. You really can’t go wrong either way. But then, I’m expecting the Charlestonians will disagree with me…:)