It’s hard to find two more beautiful cities in the USA than Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.
The proximity – roughly two hours apart by car – and similar historic character of these popular Southern gems have led to many comparisons, so in a friendly spirit of competition, let's see how the two cities stack up.
Best city for food, drinks and nightlife
The food scene in Charleston is clearly at the top of its game, but don’t sleep on Savannah, especially if you like to drink outside.
Charleston is one of the best cities in the South for dining
Charleston is rightly known as one of the top food destinations in the country, and a recent influx of new residents has cultivated a more cosmopolitan flair that pairs well with traditional South Carolina Lowcountry cooking. Many of the city’s top restaurants are located inside historic homes and structures, including the highly acclaimed Husk, which has been frequented by a number of celebrities including the late chef and travel writer Anthony Bourdain and Charleston local Bill Murray. For al fresco dining in a romantic historic courtyard, 82 Queen is a must-stop. Its award-winning She Crab soup recipe dates back to the 1700s.
After dinner, grab a drink inside a beautiful repurposed church at 5Church and, lest you think all of Charleston is high-end dining, venture off the beaten path to the friendly dive bar Recovery Room for cheap beer and a laid-back attitude. Meanwhile, Charleston’s newly bustling Upper King Design District is the place to be for a hip collegiate and young professional scene. The area is packed with cool restaurants and bars, including the dark and seductive Cocktail Club. In North Charleston, newly opened Beyond Distilling is making headlines by mixing top-shelf spirits with job opportunities for adults with disabilities.
Savannah's food scene is no slouch, but its drinks and nightlife can't be beat
While lesser known than its northern neighbor's, Savannah’s food scene has also turned up the heat in recent years, thanks in part to the 2014 opening of The Grey inside a former Greyhound bus station. This perennially buzzing restaurant serves globally inspired modern Southern dishes alongside some of the finest drinks in the city – which, in Savannah, is certainly saying something. The city is a drinker’s paradise thanks to its high concentration of downtown bars and the fact that you can legally drink in the street in the downtown historic district, à la New Orleans. These relaxed rules contribute to a festive party atmosphere year round, particularly in the River Street area near the Savannah River, which is reminiscent of New Orlean's Bourbon Street. With a large number of Irish residents and Irish bars, Savannah hosts one of the largest and most vibrant St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the country.
For a city of its size, Savannah boasts an excellent live music scene, which truly comes to life during the annual Savannah Stopover Music Festival in spring. It's a smaller-scale South by Southwest-style festival, with indie bands taking over local venues, such as intimate late-night haunt The Jinx and the beautiful open-air stage at Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. But don’t think it’s all loud music and partying here: Savannah also offers plenty of opportunities for quieter meals at romantic eateries dripping with Southern hospitality. Try Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room and the Olde Pink House, inside an elegant 18th-century mansion. Visit either and you’ll see why Savannah’s nickname of "The Hostess City of the South" is well deserved.
The winner: Charleston for food, Savannah for drinks and nightlife.
Best city for architecture, attractions and history
Two of the most visually stunning cities in the USA, Charleston and Savannah are also magnets for history lovers, each offering some of the most well-preserved and storied districts in the country.
Charleston's history runs deep
Established in 1670, Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the USA, and history is everywhere you look. The downtown Charleston Historic District is blessed with a gorgeous assembly of significant sites and homes, most notably in the district’s colorful French Quarter and along its Instagrammable Rainbow Row, a stretch of 13 brightly painted homes. A visit to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, a basement prison used during the Revolutionary War, is worth your time, and the Old Slave Mart Museum, where white landowners bought enslaved Black people at auction, is a harrowing look into the city's past. Opening in the spring of 2022, the International African American Museum, located on Gadsden's Wharf where millions of enslaved Africans first landed after being brought across the Atlantic, is certain to add to that story.
Continue your understanding of the history of Charleston at The Battery, a fortified seawall lined with picturesque homes on one side and the scenic Cooper River on the other. Charleston is nicknamed "The Holy City" because of its large number of churches, with the 18th-century, seemingly airbrushed St. Michael’s Church being one of its most visually arresting. In North Charleston, the Hunley Museum has reopened with a new multimedia presentation depicting the creation and disappearance of the HL Hunley, a Confederate submarine that was found off North Carolina's coast in 1995.
No historic excursion in Charleston is complete without taking a 30-minute ferry ride to Fort Sumter National Monument, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Today you can wander through the brick rubble and old cannons of the fort, and National Park Service employees give informative talks on the site's history.
14 best free things to do in Charleston
Savannah's neighborhoods and architecture are Gothic eye candy
One of the country's largest historic neighborhoods, downtown Savannah's Historic District is a stunning sight to behold. What makes this area so unique is the presence of 22 gorgeous park-like public squares, which are laid out on an organized grid across the district. An easy 20-minute walk along one of Savannah’s main pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares from north to south, such as Bull Street, will take you through the heart of several of these squares, many of which are anchored by a statue or historical monument and surrounded by shady oak trees. Have a seat on a bench to admire the surroundings and to listen to birdsong and local street performers.
Most squares also sit adjacent to a church and a number of historic homes, many of which are open for visitors to tour, such as the opulent Green-Meldrim House, General Sherman’s headquarters during the Civil War. Chippewa Square is where Tom Hanks famously waited for the bus in the movie Forrest Gump, and the square is adjacent to the iconic Savannah Theatre, one of the USA's oldest theaters still in operation. Although horse-drawn carriages and tourist trolleys regularly wind their way around the squares, these streets are best explored on your own two feet. Snap a photo of the massive Cathedral of St. John the Baptist or explore the above-ground tombs of Colonial Park Cemetery, established in 1750 and housing more than 9000 graves.
The winner: Savannah for architecture, Charleston for attractions and history.
Best city for parks, beaches and islands
While Savannah and Charleston are both packed with gorgeous public parks, explore further afield to discover the two cities' under-the-radar beaches and islands.
Charleston's proximity to the ocean make it a beach-lover's dream
The palmetto trees and sandy beaches near Charleston mean that parts of the city cultivate a beach-resort feel, especially in areas near the Charleston Harbor. Here you’ll find the scenic Waterfront Park and its popular pineapple fountain photo-op along with wide-open views across the Cooper River. White Point Garden at the southern end of the Charleston peninsula near the Battery is the city’s most beautiful park, but beaches are where Charleston really shines.
The city's most popular is Folly Beach, where you can sip drinks on the pier or wander down the mostly empty beach to "The Edge of America" on the eastern tip of Folly Island. Sullivan’s Island is a more residential stretch of beach, while Bowen Island is an out-of-the-way marshland home to the iconic no-frills fish shack Bowens Island Restaurant, where the views are almost as good as the fried shrimp platter.
Savannah's parks are loaded with shady spots and wildlife
Dripping with Spanish moss to help conjure that classic Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil aesthetic for which the city has traditionally been known, Savannah’s parks are nothing short of jaw-dropping. In addition to the city's public squares, Forsyth Park on the southern end of the historic district is a picture-perfect, 30-acre wonderland ideal for sitting on a shady bench and taking in the scenery after a leisurely stroll though the squares.
Alligators, manatees and bald eagles can be found north of town in the sprawling Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, while about 30 minutes to the east by car is the community of Tybee Beach on laid-back Tybee Island, with its historic lighthouse and public pier. If you’re looking for something more remote, venture over the South Carolina border by boat to Daufuskie Island to learn about the Gullah, the descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to the island and forced to work on cotton, indigo and rice plantations.
The winner: Charleston for beaches and islands, Savannah for parks.
Best city for accommodations, value and walkability
You’ll find plenty of comfort and all types of accommodations in both Charleston and Savannah, but you’ll need to factor in value and walkability when choosing which city is best for you.
Charleston has great upscale options but you might need a car
There’s no shortage of upscale accommodations in Charleston. The Belmond Charleston Place is centrally located and wonderfully chic, with a rooftop pool and bar offering a bird’s-eye view of the action along the main drag of King Street. A more affordable and excellent alternative offering comfortable waterfront views and a small private beach is Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina, located across the river on a quiet patch of land near Patriot's Point Naval and Maritime Museum, about 15 minutes by car from downtown.
Downtown Charleston is very walkable, and many visitors never leave the historic district. But to get a fuller sense of the city and to explore the hip Upper King Design District or the nearby beaches and islands, transport is necessary. Taxis and Uber operate in Charleston, so it's not necessary to rent a car.
Savannah's best accommodation is very walkable
The ultra-cool Perry Lane Hotel has been one of the hottest spots in Savannah since it opened in 2018. It caters to an upscale, hip crowd with its swanky rooftop pool and bar. Equally fashionable and more affordable is the Andaz Savannah, which is centrally located, across the street from the happening Ellis Square. The public square is where you’ll encounter free live music and revelers with "to-go cups" packing the outdoor bars and restaurants most weekends. One of Savannah’s main assets is its walkability, as everything most travelers need – aside from a day trip to Tybee Beach – is located within the downtown historic district, making a car unnecessary.
The winner: Savannah for value and walkability, Charleston for accommodations.
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Jay Gentile traveled to Charleston and Savannah with assistance from Explore Charleston and Visit Savannah. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.