It’s always seemed to me that when many friends and acquaintances unfamiliar with the region speak of doing a trip to what they perceive as the charming “Old South”, that the cities of Charleston and Savannah are uttered practically in the same breath as places to visit, with an idea that they would be getting the same general sort of thing for both. (Or perhaps I was just projecting some of my own imaginings of the two towns?) Anyway, in December 2011 I went to Charleston for the first time and this year around New Year’s to Savannah for the first time ever for a 5 day trip. As the title suggests, I discovered that the two are actually remarkably different in character, more like estranged cousins than twins.
For a Southern US city, Savannah is actually better served by train than most with 3 trains coming from the North daily and 3 trains coming from the South. (Much larger Atlanta in comparison has only 1 train daily from the North, Nashville and Montgomery no trains period.) One could take the Palmetto train during the day to Savannah to see some southern scenery but I opted for the comfort of the Silver Meteor sleeper car from DC/NY, which has an expected arrival time of 6:45am. Given that this train is often an hour or more late, I thought I might get to sleep in a little bit more. Just my luck though, the train pulled into Savannah right on time, which also meant that I lost out on my complimentary breakfast. The cab from the 6-mile-away train station to the walk-able historic district cost me $12 plus tip.
*General Thoughts on Savannah*
In my mind, Savannah’s founding fathers were masterful planners when creating the heart of their fair city. The sheer genius of the layout of the Historic District (called “Downtown” by locals) is an ideal setup in my opinion for urban living! For those of you who have never been, imagine the layout as follows. Imagine a checkerboard where a tiddlywinks circle is placed in alternating squares, so that each circle is surrounded by eight empty squares. If the checkerboard were historic Savannah, each circle would present a public square. Public squares in Savannah terms are a lovely area of greenery and benches, typically with trees such as live oaks or magnolias upon which Spanish moss is draping and quite often with fountains, monuments, statuary and plaques describing the history. I truly have never seen any city plan like this anywhere in all my many travels and found the layout quite brilliant frankly for the denizens both old and young of a city center. How considerate the early folks of government were to all residents by allowing for all to have a beautiful park within an easy amble of their home! My hope is that the downtown will retain this residential character & eminent liveability and not go down the road entirely to become a museum-like tourist attraction only, a process I fear has already more than begun.
*Savannah, Why Different from Charleston?*
If you’ll excuse my anthropomorphizing a town, Historic Charleston generally resembled a very prim & proper beautiful lady to me, with an extremely ordered and perfectionist bent, almost to the point of being square or uptight (although can have fun). The clean lines, right angles and presence of some immaculately white buildings with columns in front exude a certain 18th and 19th century patrician grandeur and stateliness. While I was very charmed, there’s a certain colonial museum-like quality about Charleston.
Like Charleston, Savannah has certainly many elegant homes that evoke the Old South but there’s something that to my eyes appeared more “real” about Savannah. If you’ll bear with my analogy, Savannah would be Charleston’s free-spirited and laid-back yet equally beautiful cousin. Savannah, due in large part to the ubiquitous Spanish moss draping hither and thither, feels in a semi-tropical way overgrown by vegetation that leaves an impression that the wilderness is encroaching in on the civilization. (This is part of its charm, so I’m not recommending changing it!) This is not to say that Charleston does not have some beautiful semi-tropical vegetation; it most certainly does. I’m not sure if it’s the greater proximity of Charleston to the ocean and the accompanying saltier air, but the Spanish moss is truly not as prevalent in the South Carolina town.
As a point of comparison, I think of the free CARTA bus that ran from the City Market up to the Visitor Information Center in Charleston, which appeared to get use by mostly tourists and a few locals. Then, I compare it to the free DOT bus in Savannah which went from the Riverfront up to Forsyth Park. I think I was the only out-of-towner on board, the rest being mostly Savannah’s very-poor. The DOT bus was good fun in a way, quite the experience, with one black guy who appeared to be singing in his sleep. Sample conversation from my fellow passengers: “Where you goin’?” one overtanned lady missing a few teeth asks her friend; “nowhere”, the guy replies.
*Other differences between Savannah and Charleston:
•Charleston is located essentially right on the ocean, Savannah is about 10 miles inland.
•The City Market in Savannah is a pedestrian-only zone of restaurants and entertainment. I can’t think of an equivalent zone in Charleston.
•Narrow cobblestone or red-brick streets are present in Historic Charleston; didn’t see that in the residential part of the Historic District of Savannah especially.
•Charleston awards beautifully restored old homes with the prestigious-sounding Carolopolis Award. I didn’t notice an equivalent in Savannah.
•The curved benches called “joggling boards” found in Charleston popular with amorous couples are absent in Savannah. Also absent are the earthquake bolts.
•The Charleston Ashley & Cooper River outlooks are more scenic in the Historic District than Savannah’s riverfront. Charleston has swinging benches to admire the marshes and nearby islands, while Savannah’s vista is of a mega-hotel and is more industrial.
•While Charleston has some lovely parks, Savannah is unique with its checkerboard of parks described above.
*Coming Up: Activities in Savannah. Day Trip to Tybee Island/Fort Pulaski. Day Trip to Beaufort SC.
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Sleeper Train to Savannah: I Discovered Charleston & Savannah are Not Twins