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People often think of Charleston and Savannah when they think of historic Southern cities. They are close in proximity (90 miles away) and similar in attractions. So how do you decide which one to visit? My pick would be to do both! However if time and money doesn’t allow for that, here is information to allow you to make a great choice.
Charleston feels like a little slice of the Caribbean in the United States. Brightly colored single room wide homes a lined up in an orderly fashion. Palm trees line the cobblestone streets and gently sway in the sea breeze. Small side gardens with fountains can be seen through elaborate wrought iron fences.
Savannah is what I imagined the south to be. Huge Live Oaks provide a protective canopy over their city and Spanish Moss hangs from the branches creating a genteel and slightly haunted feel. 22 manicured parks run through the town causing locals and tourists alike to linger on park benches.
Although both cities are different, tourists flock to both for the same reasons. They are two of the best preserved Southern port towns in the United States. Both played major roles in the founding of our country. Both were large and affluent towns during the antebellum period. Both have a chequered past in regard to their role in slavery. Both cities are figuring out how to preserve the past while staying a modern city.
Attractions in Charleston
Horse and Buggy Tour
My favorite tour in Charleston is the Palmetto Buggy Tour. Several tours companies use horses and buggy to do tours, but Palmetto consistently has the best reviews. The interesting thing about the horse and buggy tours in Charleston is that you never know where you will tour until the tour begins. The city has strict regulations about how many horses can be out in the city at a time, so the tour begins when the tour guide is given a number at the control booth. You then will be given a tour in a certain area of town. I have been on 2 different tours and both were spectacular! The knowledge these tour guides have is unparalleled by almost any other guides ever.
This is not your average house tour! This antebellum mansion was badly damaged from years of neglect and Hurricane Hugo. Instead of restoring it, the Charleston council? decided to preserve it, capturing the home in its current state. It is hauntingly beautiful. It is strange that it is as impactful as it is, but I think it was my favorite tour in Charleston.
There is a self guided tour that talks about the inhabitants of the house as well as the enslaved. You can visit the slave quarters in the yard before entering the house. I loved hearing these often forgotten stories.
Plan on an hour and a half
Nathaniel Russell House
This beautifully restored home is a more traditional house tour compared to the Rhett-Aiken house. It was the home of a wealthy shipping merchant and has been lavishly restored. The centerpiece of the house is its spiral staircase which is truly spectacular. It is a nice counter point to the Rhett-Aiken house and tickets can be bought to both at a discount.
Plan on an hour and a half
The houses in Historic Charleston are built with efficiency in mind. The style of house in Charleston has a very narrow front facing the street and a long side with an open air porch. They were built to bring in the breeze during the long hot summers. The rest of the lot are long narrow gardens.
I loved these side gardens! These tiny slivers of greenery pack a punch. Most have water features, boxwood shrubs and perennial plantings. Most have cast iron fences or gates.
My favorite place to see these gardens is near Church ad Meeting Streets. I love to peer through the gates and catch a glimpse of a secret garden!
Tips: Many of these homes are private residences so please be respectful.
This outdoor market takes up 4 city blocks and features art and handicrafts by local artisans. The City Market has been in this location since the mid 1800s when it was the city’s food market. Today you can find intricate Sweetgrass baskets. These baskets are hand woven and a dying art.
Plan on 30 minutes to an hour
This is the location of the 1st battle of the Civil War. It is located about 30 minutes away by ferry from Charleston. The tour of Fort Sumter is a must for anyone who loves military history. The actual fort is free as it is a National park, but the ferry ride over costs money. However, the ferry ride is narrated with lots of great information about the Battle of Fort Sumter and Charleston in general.
Tip: In the busy summer months you will need to make ferry reservations in advance.
Plan on 3 hours
The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Charleston has the nickname “The Holy City” because of the large number of churches located in its historic district. Charleston was a supporter of religious freedom and churches of many denominations flourished.
This Catholic Cathedral was completed in 1907 and was without a spire until 2010! It is one of the landmarks of Downtown Charleston and is worth a look. The exterior is dark brown and feels very heavy and rigid, while the inside is all graceful curves and light colors. It also has beautiful stained glass windows.
Donations are requested but not required.
Plan on 20-30 minutes.
Although there are buggy tours in Savannah, the most popular tours are trolley tours. We took Old Town Trolley and really enjoyed it. The trolley tours are a get around town because in addition to a tour they offer a hop on and off option at 15 spots in Savannah. The trolley driver is your tour guide, and they have lots of great information, but because it is always the same tour, it feels a little bit canned.
Tip: I recommend riding the trolley for an entire loop at first so you have a good idea of the city and places you want to take some time visiting.
Plan on an hour to ride the whole route and longer to do the hop on and off.
If you have seen pictures of Savannah, odds are you have seen pictures of Forsyth Park. It is a large park in the midst of historic Savannah. The large sidewalks are lined with live oak trees with Spanish moss dangling from their branches and lead to the centerpiece of Forsyth Park, the fountain. The fountain is a well known symbol of Savannah and makes a lovely centerpiece for the park.
Tip: There is a Farmer’s Market in the park on Saturday mornings.
Plan on an hour.
This cemetery was made famous in the book and movie, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” but is worth visiting even if you haven’t read the book. The statuary alone, makes for a fascinating visit, but the location adds a sense of mystery. The Spanish moss in the cemetery make a huge statement, and tumbling headstones lend a feeling of mystery.
This requires a tour or car to get to it, but its a short ride from downtown.
Plan on an hour
Savannah historic squares
My very favorite part of Savannah are the historic squares that are little parks in the middle of the city.22 of the original 24 squares remain and are beloved by tourists and locals alike. Each square is different from the others in terms of landscaping, but they all serve the purpose of having a park in the middle of a city. We enjoyed visiting each one.
Plan on an hour
The Davenport House
This historic home was the home of Isaiah Davenport a wealthy builder in Savannah. The guided tour focused on the life of the family of 12. It was one of many historic home tours in Savannah, but I enjoyed it the most. It was the first home to be saved by a group of 7 women who founded the Historic Savannah Foundation. This foundation has now restored houses all over Savannah.
Walk along River Street
River street is paved in cobblestones, which legend says, were brought to this port city as ballast for large ships. Today, the cobblestones add to the charm of this road along the harbor. The road was historically important as the site of shipping cotton and was the backbone of commerce in Georgia. Lots of restaurants and tourist type shops line River Street today.
While we were walking River Street we saw a film crew filming a new movie with Mira Sorvino and Richard Dreyfuss. Apparently they film along River street quite often.
Plan on an hour or two
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
In case you think this a typo, both Savannah and Charleston have a Cathedral of St. John the Baptist! Both are my favorite churches in each respective city. Savannah may not have quite as many churches as Charleston, they make up for it in the quality of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. It was built in the mid 1800s in a French Gothic style. The stained glass windows and intricate ceiling details make this a must see.
Donations are requested but not required.
Plan on 20-30 minutes.
Slightly North of Broad
This well known restaurant celebrated Low Country cuisine in all of their dishes. Low Country cuisine is similar in style to Cajun cuisine. The use of seafood and the traces of Caribbean and French styles of cooking make it stand out from traditional Southern cuisine. The shrimp and grits are so good here, I found a recipe and started making them at home.
A fabulous Southern Breakfast spot. Lot of traditional breakfast favorites made beautifully.I had the most amazing biscuits and gravy here.
If you aren’t tired of the cupcake trend yet, you will want to check out this gem of a bakery. The daily cupcakes rotate so you will find something new every time you visit. It was voted the best cupcake in South Carolina!
Cotton and Rye
This restaurant is newer than most of the top rated restaurants in Savannah, but the newcomer is getting fabulous reviews. The menu isn’t extensive but the offerings are spectacular. This was my favorite meal in Savannah. Try the fried chicken with spicy honey or the market fish.
Back in the Day Bakery
This is a great breakfast stop with fabulous biscuits. My husband couldn’t resist a biscuit sandwich and he eats very low carb! I also enjoyed a homemade pop tart with peach preserves.
Leopold’s Ice Cream
If you have followed us at all you know we love really great ice cream. Leopold’s has been around for 100 years in Savannah and they know how to make great ice cream. The lines are long but they move quickly and it is worth the wait. Try the lemon custard!
Charleston vs. Savannah which one wins?
So which city is the best to visit? It depends on what you are looking for.
In my opinion:
Savannah wins for atmosphere.
Savannah’s town squares are so beautiful that I could stroll in them for hours. The Live Oaks are so unusual and make Savannah uniquely beautiful.
Charleston wins for food.
The low country cuisine with its bold flavors is more to my liking. I really enjoy the use of seafood in almost every dish.
Charleston wins for tours.
Although I couldn’t make a head to head comparison, the Charleston horse and buggy tour was so good. I found the tour guide to be so much more interesting and natural than the trolley guide.
Savannah wins for house tours.
This was a close one, but the sheer volume of homes to tour in Savannah made it win. You could tour historic homes for 2 days straight and not be done. I also noticed that all the homes in Savannah had a guided tour with well informed docents, while many in Charleston were self guided.
Charleston wins for historical significance.
Charleston is a much older city which definitely help it win this category. Charleston played a significant role in the push for American independence and was the site of the first battle of the Civil War.
At the end of the day I couldn’t pick which one was my favorite! I think families will find Charleston more entertaining for their kids (if your kids are like mine and find historic homes the worst thing ever). I think vacationing couples will be enchanted with Savannah. I think everyone should visit both. They have noticeable similarities but their differences are what makes it worth the trip to see each one.
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