Charleston vs. Savannah: Which Should You Visit?

Charleston and Savannah are two charming destinations in the Southeast, and they’re only two hours apart. Many people visit both cities in the same trip, but if you’re short on time, you may be looking to pick one over the other.

I’m a travel blogger who visited both Charleston and Savannah in January 2023 on a family trip (my parents, my brother, and me). Here’s my honest comparison of these two cities.

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Size

Charleston has a population of 151,612, while Savannah is home to 147,088 residents. The cities are extremely close in population, but Charleston covers a larger area at 157 square miles compared to Savannah’s 113 square miles.

Both cities are large enough to have plenty to do, but small enough to still feel manageable and charming. For size, it’s pretty much a tie between Charleston and Savannah.

Symmetric houses in Charleston
Symmetric homes in Charleston

Cost

Cost of living calculators say that Charleston is about 20% more expensive than Savannah. We found this to be true in terms of housing and restaurants.

My family of four spent $480 for 3 nights in a 2-bed apartment about 2 miles from downtown Charleston. This was one of the cheapest Airbnbs I saw, and it’s now actually over three times more expensive than when we stayed there (it could be seasonality?).

We spent around $600 for 4 nights in a 2-bed apartment about 1 mile from downtown Savannah. This apartment rental is also more expensive as of mid-Spring, so it’s looking like you can save a lot of money by going in the winter.

Pro tip: if you see something you like on Airbnb, but it’s clearly run by a hotel or agency, look up the company on Google. We saved a few hundred dollars by booking the Savannah apartment on their website instead of Airbnb. I linked the Savannah apartment rental direct website above to save you money, even though it’s not an affiliate link. If you stay there and enjoy it and want to contribute back to this site, you’re always welcome to buy me a virtual coffee.

Apartment we stayed in in Savannah

If you do plan to use VRBO or Booking.com though, it would mean a lot if you clicked through my links! Here are the top hotels in Charleston and Savannah. In particular, you may like The Present Hotel in downtown Savannah, which is run by the same company of the apartment where we stayed.

For meals, we could usually find good “mid-tier” food for $20 per person, including tax and tip. Portions felt kind of small at a couple places we went in Charleston, but it really depends on the restaurant. If you want seafood, be prepared to spend closer to $25-30 per person.

Food

Food at Crab House in Charleston
Crab House in Charleston

If you like seafood, there are more options in Charleston since it’s right by the ocean and has more beach towns in proximity. If you need a recommendation, my family ate at Charleston Crab House, and my dad enjoyed the flounder. They were one of the only seafood places to have a vegetarian option (pasta). Since my parents wanted seafood, but my brother and I wanted veggie food, we ended up here. The pasta was nice and garlicky, though it was also really buttery and salty.

If you prefer ethnic food, Savannah has higher-quality and more authentic options, in my opinion. My family tends to eat ethnic food on vacation, and we had a much better experience in Savannah. Our personal favorite was Flying Monk Noodle Bar, an Asian fusion restaurant where we actually ate twice in our four days there.

For my plant-based friends, I would also recommend Savannah over Charleston. Some memorable options were Fox & Fig, a vegan cafe, and Java Burrito, kind of like a nicer version of Chipotle.

Nachos, salad, mac and cheese, burger, and sandwich at Fox & Fig
Fox & Fig in Savannah

At Fox & Fig, make sure to get the Plant Food Picnic, which is basically a vegan charcuterie board—we didn’t get it since it was pretty expensive, but we regretted not getting it since it could’ve easily been split between two people. Java Burrito had Beyond Meat and lots of other cool toppings, like mango salsa. If you eat meat, I’d also recommend Java Burrito since they have meat and local seafood options.

Transportation/Walkability

The Charleston International Airport is about three times larger than the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, serving 4.5 million passengers annually vs. Savannah’s 1.6 million. You’re more likely to be able to find direct flights to Charleston than Savannah, and more likely to find cheaper flights.

Within the cities, Savannah wins on transportation, as they have a free bus called the DOT Shuttle, which can take you from residential Savannah to many tourist sites. The bus runs fairly frequently, though keep in mind that it stops running at 7pm on weekdays and Saturday, and 6pm on Sundays.

Rows of live oaks with Spanish moss in Forsyth Park
The shuttle runs along Forsyth Park

When my family was in Savannah, we took the DOT Shuttle several times in and out of the city, and it was super convenient.

Walkability-wise, Savannah also wins. Savannah’s major tourist attractions are more concentrated in a few major streets and squares. Charleston is still very walkable (we walked everywhere), but there’s a bit more spread.

Things to Do

To help you decide between Charleston and Savannah, here are some top things to do in each city, so you can see which better suits your tastes.

Things to Do in Charleston

Downtown Charleston is more spread out than downtown Savannah. There are pockets of the city that feel more modern, with chain retailers and taller buildings, and other sections that feel more charming and historic, with colorful houses and European-inspired architecture.

City Market—This historic market stretches four blocks blog. It features art, food, and souvenirs, including several sweetgrass basket stands, which are a local specialty.

Joe Riley Waterfront Park—Stroll through this park by the ocean. There are plenty of photo ops, including the famous pineapple fountain, swinging benches, and shaded walkways.

Pineapple fountain

Rainbow Row—This photo-worthy street is lined with pastel-colored houses from the 1700s.

Rainbow Row with colorful houses and someone biking by

The Battery—Walk on top of the seawall for views of the ocean on one side and beautiful homes on another.

View on The Battery

South Carolina Aquarium—This aquarium features the deepest tank in North America. They also have a sea turtle rehab center.

King Street—This major shopping street has three divisions: design, fashion, and antique.

Broad Street—Admire the well-preserved 18th-century architecture, grab a bite to eat, or visit the historic sites.

Colorful houses and an old church on Broad Street

Things to Do in Savannah

Savannah has more of a uniform feel than Charleston, and the city gives off a charming, small-town vibe while still having plenty to do. If you like parks and greenery, there’s plenty of that in Savannah, along with a variety of cuisines and local boutiques (for my fellow slow fashion enthusiasts, there are way more thrift/vintage shops in Savannah than Charleston).

Forsyth Park—This park is like the like the Central Park of Savannah. Take photos at the fountain, browse through artist stands, stroll under the Spanish moss-covered trees, and visit the Saturday farmer’s market.

Historic squares—Savannah is home to 22 squares peppered across the city. Many have monuments, fountains, and benches. In fact, Forrest Gump’s bench was in Chippewa Square. While the bench was just a movie prop, you can visit the monument in the background.

Chippewa Square with a statue and walkway lined with trees
Chippewa Square

Prohibition Museum—This is the first and only museum dedicated to the history of Prohibition, when alcohol was banned from 1920-1933. There are artifacts, info panels, wax figures, and more. I visited and had fun learning a lot; here’s my review.

Entrance of Prohibition museum

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist—admire this beautiful Roman Catholic cathedral.

Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist with beautiful stained glass windows

Historic River Street—You can’t miss this cobblestone street along the river. It’s lined with candy shops (including the famous pralines!) and souvenir shops.

Historic River Street with old buildings and cobblestone streets

Broughton Street—This major street is bustling with restaurants and boutiques. Try super-popular Leopold’s Ice Cream, which even has vegan options, and drop by The Paris Market for antiques and charming housewares.

The Paris Market in Savannah with a metro sign and Christmas tree in the foreground

Secondhand clothing/bookstores—maybe because of the local art students at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), Savannah feels more hipster and has more thrift shops and independent bookstores. For clothing, Avalon Exchange had the best prices and the largest selection of the handful of thrift/vintage shops I visited. For books, E Shaver Booksellers had a variety of new and classic reads, plus cute cats!

Cat on a chair at E Shaver Booksellers

Nearby Attractions

When it comes to nearby attractions, Charleston wins. There are more unique options, such as the Charleston Tea Garden and 400-year-old Angel Oak Tree. If you want to learn more about Southern history, there are also more former plantation sites near Charleston.

Things to Do Near Charleston

Charleston Tea Garden—Visit the only commercial tea garden in North America. There are free samples and a free factory tour. You can also pay for a trolley tour of the grounds. This was a fun stop, and I learned some interesting facts. For example, did you know that all tea (green, black, jasmine, etc.) is made from the same type of leaf ? The leaves are just processed differently.

Charleston Tea Garden sign
Note that Charleston Tea Garden used to be called Charleston Tea Plantation, but there were never any enslaved people working there

Angel Oak Tree—This massive tree is estimated to be 400+ years old. It’s free to visit and worth a stop on the way to the Charleston Tea Garden. There are rules in place to preserve the tree, so don’t plan to bring any tripods, blankets, or props.

Angel Oak Tree

McLeod Plantation—There are many other plantations near Charleston, but this one is best-known for focusing on the history and not doing events like weddings.

Live oaks at Mcleod Plantation with the slave cabins on the right

Folly Beach—Soak up some sun in this classic beach town. The pier is impressive, stretching longer than half a mile into the water.

Fort Sumter—This island fort is where the Civil War officially began. Tickets include the ferry ride to the island and the entry fee. Once on the island, you can explore it on your own and hear rangers tell stories about this first battle.

Things to Do Near Savannah

Hilton Head Island—About 45 minutes from Savannah, this popular summer vacation destination known for beaches, golfing, bike trails, shopping, and its forest preserve.

Wormsloe Historic Site—This former plantation is known for its 1.5-mile drive lined with live oaks. This area is more of a state park than a historic site, and there’s not much information about the people who were enslaved here. Mcleod Plantation near Charleston provides much more history, and you can see the old plantation home and cabins.

Bonaventure Cemetery—Cemeteries may not be your idea of fun, but Bonaventure is a historic cemetery from the 1800s full of impressive monuments, beautiful flowers, and Spanish moss-covered trees.

Bonaventure Cemetery statue

Tybee Island—For a more small-town beach community, visit Tybee Island, which has a lighthouse and marine science center.

Near Both Cities

In both areas, dolphin tours, fossil tours, kayaking, and paddle boarding are common activities. We went on a dolphin tour with Charleston Outdoor Adventures, and we saw several dolphins and other wildlife. For a dolphin tour near Savannah, try this highly-rated one on Tybee Island.

Make sure to pick a tour operator that keeps a distance from any wildlife and does not feed them.

Dolphin sighting by a pier
Dolphin sighting near a restaurant pier. Zoomed in a lot for this shot since we were a safe distance away.

The Bottom Line

While I preferred Savannah, I’ll admit that there’s generally more to do in and around Charleston. It feels more like a modern city in certain areas, all while still having that old time charm in other areas. You get lovely ocean views, local and chain shops, and unique attractions nearby. The historic houses in Charleston are also more impressive, if you’re interested in architecture.

On the flip side, Savannah is more walkable and has more greenery with its many squares. Since it has a large student population, you’ll also find more hipster shops, such as thrift stores, independent bookstores, and boutiques. It also had better and more affordable ethnic food, in my experience. There’s not a single restaurant I tried in Charleston that was that memorable, but there were definitely a few places in Savannah I really enjoyed.

I’m glad I had the chance to visit both cities, and I’d encourage you to try to see both in the same trip if you have four full days or more. You could spend a day in each city and two days exploring the nearby sites (and then have half or full travel days). My family’s trip was a full week including travel, and I felt that six days would’ve been ideal since it was starting to feel long.

If you don’t have enough time to see both, I’d personally recommend Savannah and would love to visit again. While I liked Charleston, it just didn’t resonate with me the same way, and I wouldn’t be that interested in going back. Of course, this all depends on personal tastes. I’d still recommend Charleston to you if it feels more aligned with what you like.

Looking for more in-depth articles of either city? Here’s my Charleston weekend itinerary and my Savannah weekend itinerary.

Feel free to leave any questions in the comments, and let us know your thoughts if you end up visiting one or the other (or both!).

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