By Jim Morekis
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- Explore the cities: Navigate by neighborhood or by activity with color-coded maps of both Charleston and Savannah
- See the sights: Browse the museums on Savannah's historic River Street, take a carriage ride through Charleston's French Quarter, or check out the wares at the Old City Market. Visit Civil War battlefields, check out the First African Baptist Church, and learn about the area's important African American history
- Get a taste of the South: Sample classic shrimp and grits, juicy barbecue, or seafood straight off the boat. Savor innovative cuisine at James Beard Award-winning restaurants, and discover up-and-coming spots focusing on local, sustainable ingredients
- Bars, entertainment, and nightlife: Watch the sunset from a rooftop bar, see what's on tap at a craft brewery, or mingle with the locals at a French Quarter dive. Catch a live gig from the next big indie band, sip swanky artisan cocktails, or indulge in Savannah's to-go cup tradition on a stroll through the Historic District
- Honest advice: Jim Morekis was born and raised in Savannah and shares his local insight into these beautiful cities
- Itineraries and day trips: Follow itineraries designed for families, beach lovers, history buffs, foodies, and more, and get outside the city with full chapters on Hilton Head and the Lowcountry and the Golden Isles
- Helpful resources on COVID-19 and traveling to Charleston and Savannah
- Full-color photos and detailed maps
- Handy tools: Background information on the area's landscape, history, and culture, tips on getting there and getting around, and advice for travelers with disabilities, families with children, seniors, and LGBTQ+ travelers
Hitting the road? Try Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip or Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
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DISCOVER Charleston & Savannah
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
The Best of Charleston and Savannah
SOUTHERN COOKING: HIGH STYLE AND HOMESTYLE
Celebrate Black Heritage
COASTAL CRUISING ON U.S. 17
LIFE’S A BEACH
No doubt about it: The travel spotlight is shifting South. Taking their place alongside old favorites like Paris, New York, and San Francisco are the smaller but just as delectable destinations of Charleston and Savannah.
As more and more people discover the charms of these two Southern gems, the inevitable comparisons begin. Stereotypes abound, such as the famous adage, “In Charleston they ask what your mother’s maiden name is, and in Savannah they ask what you’re drinking.” But the truth is that Savannah can be just as obsessed with arcane genealogy, and anyone who’s ever spent a weekend night in downtown Charleston knows that city is no stranger to a carousing good time.
The key difference between the two is mostly physical. Charleston’s charms are more serendipitous, its architecture more Caribbean. The compact, winding downtown means a new surprise awaits you around every corner. That’s the magic of Charleston.
Savannah, with its more spacious downtown, has more room to breathe, to walk, and to stretch out. And there are those incomparable tidy squares, still studied as marvels of urban design. Savannah’s classically Anglophilic architecture tends more toward the stately. While both cities love a good time, Charleston—with its vast selection of nationally renowned restaurants—is definitely more of a foodie’s paradise. Savannah, on the other hand, loves nothing more than a boisterous party.
Perhaps we should be talking instead about the things that tie the two together. The region’s Black communities, including the coastal Gullah people, continue to shape the local character and culture. Regional institutions both major and minor are finally beginning to share more inclusive narratives of the struggles of slavery.
The area also has in common a rare natural beauty, with the South Carolina Lowcountry and the Georgia coast together composing the largest contiguous salt marsh in the world and one of the planet’s unique ecosystems. Kayakers are at home paddling in the blackwater of the ACE Basin or the vast Okefenokee Swamp. Beachgoers are amazed at the underrated quality of the area’s serene strands.
It’s not just the fabled Southern hospitality that you’ll find here; it’s a joie de vivre born of great weather and proximity to the ever-invigorating rivers, marshes, and ocean. Folks down here love a good story, a good conversation, and a good laugh. It’s the people that make a visit here truly memorable.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Strollable Scenery: The historic downtown areas of Charleston and Savannah are best experienced on foot, especially with the expertise of a local tour guide.
2 Festival Fever: From St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah to Spoleto in Charleston, these cities love their cultural events—and know how to have a good time at them.
3 Southern Cuisine: Some of America’s finest award-winning chefs ply their trade in these southern cities, serving up dishes both homestyle and high style.
4 Cemetery Scenery: For intriguing history and scenic beauty, check out Bonaventure Cemetery (pictured;), Laurel Grove Cemetery, and Colonial Cemetery in Savannah, as well as Magnolia Cemetery and Unitarian Church Cemetery in Charleston.
5 Black Heritage: Charleston’s history is Black history, from the somber remembrances of the Old Slave Mart Museum to the vivid legacies of the Emanuel AME Church and Cabbage Row.
6 Historic House Tours: Some of the nation’s finest house museums are here, including the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters in Savannah (pictured;) and Drayton Hall in Charleston. These sites also sensitively address the reality of the enslaved people who lived and worked here.
7 Kayak Adventures: Paddle to your heart’s content through the marsh and waterways, from Hilton Head’s Broad Creek or past Skidaway Island State Park.
8 To-Go Cup Revelry: Savannah is one of the few cities in the United States where you can stroll the streets enjoying an adult beverage—legally!
9 Golf on Hilton Head Island: Experience one of the world’s greatest golf centers by attending the annual RBC Heritage—or by teeing up yourself at one of over 20 courses on the island.
10 Beach Time: From family-friendly beaches on Hilton Head Island to romantic solitude on Cumberland Island, there’s a beach here for everyone.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
One of America’s oldest cities and an early national center of arts and culture, Charleston’s legendary taste for the high life is matched by its forward-thinking outlook. The birthplace of the Civil War is not just a city of museums resting on its historic laurels. Situated on a hallowed spit of land known as “the peninsula,” the Holy City is now a vibrant, creative hub of the New South.
Hilton Head and the Lowcountry
The Lowcountry’s mossy, laid-back pace belies its former status as the heart of American plantation culture and the original cradle of secession. Today it is a mix of history (Beaufort and Bluffton), natural beauty (the ACE Basin), resort development (Hilton Head), military bases (Parris Island), and relaxed beaches (Edisto and Hunting Islands).
Surprisingly cosmopolitan for a Deep South city, Savannah’s quirky hedonism permeates any visit. The brainchild of General James Oglethorpe, the city’s layout is studied even today as a masterpiece of urban design. Whether you’re meandering through the downtown squares or enjoying the sea breeze and a cocktail out on Tybee Island, a sense of fun imbues all parts of life here.
The Golden Isles
Georgia’s Golden Isles are home to one-third of the East Coast’s salt marsh, and their natural beauty is a testament to the Gilded Age millionaires who kept the area largely undeveloped over the years. Even today, this region evokes a timeless mystique redolent of Spanish missions, Native American shell ring ceremonies, insular but friendly shrimping communities, and lonely colonial English outposts.
Know Before You Go
High and Low Seasons
Springtime is for lovers, and it’s no coincidence that spring is when most love affairs with the region begin. Unless you have severe pollen allergies—not a trivial concern given the explosion of plant life at this time—you should try to experience this area at its peak of natural beauty during the magical period from mid-March to mid-May. Not surprisingly, lodging is the most expensive and most difficult to secure at that time.
The hardest time to get a room in Charleston is during Spoleto from Memorial Day through mid-June. Hilton Head’s busiest time is during the RBC Heritage golf tournament in mid-April. Savannah’s tricky time of year is the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, a multiday event clustering around March 17. While last-minute cancellations are always possible, the only real guarantee is to secure reservations as far in advance as possible (a full year in advance is not unusual for these peak times).
Activity here slows down noticeably in July and August. But overall, summertime in the South gets a bad rap and is often not appreciably worse than summers north of the Mason-Dixon Line—though it’s certainly more humid.
My favorite time of year on the southeastern coast is the middle of November, when the tourist crush noticeably subsides. Not only are the days delightful and the nights crisp (but not frigid), you can get a room at a good price.
What to Pack
Unless you’re coming in the winter to take advantage of lower rates or to enjoy the copious seasonal cheer, there’s not much need for a heavy jacket. A sweater or windbreaker will do fine for chillier days. Also note that the ocean and the larger rivers can generate some surprisingly crisp breezes, even on what otherwise might be a warm day.
Because of the area’s temperate climate, perspiration is likely to be a constant travel companion; pack accordingly. Whatever you wear, stay with natural fabrics such as cotton. The humidity and generally warm weather combine for a miserable experience with polyester and other synthetic fabrics.
Biting insects, such as mosquitos and sand gnats, are frequent unwelcome companions in this part of the country. Plan a trip to the drugstore or supermarket to buy some bug spray or Skin So Soft, an Avon product that keeps away the gnats.
The Best of Charleston and Savannah
Both cities share an abiding respect for social manners and mores, for history, for making money, and for good food and strong drink. They differ in outlook: Charleston has one well-shod foot firmly in the global future, whereas Savannah tends to be more insular. The difference is also one of scale: Savannah’s downtown is bigger and has more room to breathe and stretch out, whereas Charleston’s charms are more compact and serendipitous. This “Best of” tour will allow you to come to your own conclusions.
Begin your journey in Charleston, the Holy City, named not for its piety but for the steeples in its skyline. First, feel the pulse of the city by going to its bustling heart, Marion Square. Maybe do a little shopping on King Street and at Old City Market afterward. Take a sunset stroll around The Battery and admire Rainbow Row before diving right into a great meal at one of the city’s fine restaurants.
Today you put your historian’s hat on and visit one of Charleston’s great house museums, such as the Aiken-Rhett House or the Edmondston-Alston House. Have a hearty Southern-style lunch, and then take an afternoon trip to Fort Sumter National Monument. After another fantastic Charleston dinner, take a stroll or carriage ride through the French Quarter to close the evening.
CHARLESTON TO BEAUFORT
After a hearty breakfast, make the 20-minute drive over the Ashley River to gorgeous Middleton Place, where you’ll tour the gardens. Then stop at adjacent Drayton Hall to see one of the oldest and best-preserved plantation homes in the nation and learn about the enslaved people forced to work here. Make the hour-long drive into Beaufort and spend the afternoon walking around the beautifully preserved historic district. If you have time, go over the bridge to St. Helena Island and visit historic Penn Center.
HILTON HEAD TO SAVANNAH
From Beaufort, drive to Hilton Head Island, where you can spend a few hours sunning or biking on the family-friendly beach, shop, or visit the free and informative Coastal Discovery Museum. A half hour away, make a late afternoon stop in Old Town Bluffton to shop for art, see the beautiful Church of the Cross on the May River, and have a light dinner. Another half hour’s drive puts you into a cute B&B in Savannah to relax for the night, maybe stopping in a pub for a pint or two.
Hit downtown Savannah hard today, starting with a walk down River Street. Then enjoy the aesthetic charms of the two adjacent museums, one traditional and one modern, composing the Telfair Museums. Tour the deeply informative Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters and then take a walk through the squares, visiting the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Lafayette Square and the Mercer-Williams House Museum on Monterey Square.
On your way out to Tybee Island, stop for a walk through the amazing Bonaventure Cemetery—about 15 minutes outside downtown—and pay your respects to native son Johnny Mercer. A half-hour drive takes you to scenic and historically important Fort Pulaski National Monument. Scoot on into Tybee another 10 minutes and climb to the top of the lighthouse at the Tybee Island Light Station and Museum before dinner.
THE GOLDEN ISLES
Drive down scenic U.S. 17 through the Altamaha River estuary, about an hour and a half south of Savannah, and wander down Newcastle Street in the Brunswick Historic District. Make the five-minute trip over the causeway and enjoy the afternoon at The Village on St. Simons Island, with a visit to historic Fort Frederica National Monument.
This morning, a 20-minute drive takes you into the Jekyll Island Historic District. Tour the grounds and have lunch at any of the great restaurants on-site. Rent a bike and pedal up to the Horton House tabby ruins. Ride on the sand to Driftwood Beach and relax awhile.
This morning, drive an hour south to St. Marys and have a walk around the cute little downtown area before heading out on the ferry to Cumberland Island National Seashore. The 45-minute ferry ride takes you to a full day of biking or hiking the many trails among the ruins and dunes.
Make the half-hour drive into Folkston and the Suwanee Canal Recreation Area at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Take a guided tour up and down the blackwater canal or walk the trails out to the swamp’s prairie vistas and drink in this unique natural beauty.
Celebrate Black Heritage
The cities and Sea Islands of the Lowcountry and Georgia coast are integral to a full understanding of the experience of African Americans in the South. More than that, they are living legacies, with a thriving culture—called Gullah in South Carolina and Geechee in Georgia—whose roots can be traced directly back to West Africa.
Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street is the oldest African Methodist Episcopalian church in the South and has been at the heart of Charleston’s Black community since 1817. A block away, visit the wrought-iron garden of the noted Black Charleston artisan Philip Simmons. Take a guided tour with Gullah Tours to learn more about local Gullah-Geechee culture and history.
Take the ferry out to Fort Sumter National Monument, where the Civil War began. From the fort you can see nearby undeveloped Morris Island, scene of the 1863 Battle of Battery Wagner. That battle included the first all-Black regiment in the U.S. Army, the 54th Massachusetts, whose tale was recounted in the film Glory.
Shop in City Market. During its heyday, it was home to a number of African American entrepreneurs and vendors. Visit the Old Slave Mart Museum and learn more about the Middle Passage and how Charleston’s Black population overcame slavery. Farther south, walk by Cabbage Row, inspiration for Catfish Row in the opera Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin.
For some of the best soul food in the area, head to the Black-owned Bertha’s Kitchen in North Charleston. Head west across the Ashley River to visit Drayton Hall; take the guided tour and pay respects at the African American cemetery.
On Sullivan’s Island, visit the grounds of Fort Moultrie to see the Toni Morrison-inspired Bench by the Road, which overlooks the route that so many slave ships took into Charleston Harbor.
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- On Sale
- Mar 1, 2022
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Moon Travel