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Sleeper Train to Savannah: I Discovered Charleston & Savannah are Not Twins


Jan 4th, 2013, 09:32 AM
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Sleeper Train to Savannah: I Discovered Charleston & Savannah are Not Twins


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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Jan 4th, 2013, 10:39 AM
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Great report, can't wait to read the rest of it. Agree that Savannah and Charleston are both alike and very different at the same time. Your descriptions are spot on. Since I have to travel north to get to Savannah, my perspective is a little different. I really don't even notice the spanish moss since it is all over my backyard.
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Jan 4th, 2013, 10:40 AM
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Question, I have considered taking a train to Savannah. How hard is it getting a cab at the train station?
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Jan 4th, 2013, 11:43 AM
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Hi gmoney,

Thanks for your kind words about the trip report so far. At the station, there were perhaps three cabs waiting at 6:45am. I shared a cab with someone else heading downtown, so I think they try to accommodate all that need. I noticed the same cabbie and about the same number of cabs when I left at around 8pm to greet the incoming southbound Palmetto and northbound Silver Meteor trains. However, I was travelling at a time of year when train volume is higher and when Savannah gets a fair number of tourists (I think taxi drivers are pretty sure to get business between Xmas-New Years) so I can't speak for say random weekends in March.

Apparently within the Historic District, cabs can be a bit unreliable or so the clerk at my inn told me. Mine apparently forgot to show up, but luckily I gave myself plenty of leeway. Just make sure to have the number of the cab company (Adam Cab and Yellow Cab are the ones that I was informed of) so you can bug them if you see that they're 10 minutes late.

Best wishes, Daniel
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Jan 4th, 2013, 12:45 PM
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Love your descriptions of the differences (and similarities) between the two cities, which always seem to go hand-in-hand (Charleston or Savannah? Or both?)
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Jan 4th, 2013, 01:46 PM
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There are earthquake bolts in Savannah.
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Jan 4th, 2013, 02:53 PM
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Daniel, your report is very interesting. I'm looking forward to reading the rest as I'm planning a trip right now to both cities. One question - I've read that the train stations in Savannah and Charleston are both in rather sketchy neighborhoods. Did you find that to be the case? Can you imagine some people feeling the area is unsafe? Thanks!
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Jan 4th, 2013, 02:57 PM
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So glad to find this, Daniel. Your take is always so interesting!
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Jan 4th, 2013, 03:05 PM
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Enjoying your report so far!
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Jan 4th, 2013, 04:02 PM
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starrs, there are earthquake bolts in Charleston also. Unless I've goofed up facts, a big one in Charleston rang bells in Boston Mass!

Enjoying this Daniel. JR and I enjoyed the edgier vibe of Savannah. When we were there, the book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" had just been published. Many tours were adjusted to include places named in the book.

Did you sleep on the train?
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Jan 4th, 2013, 04:07 PM
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*Facts Interesting To Me That I Learned During This Savannah Trip*

1. I learned what liriope grass is, whose clumps adorn some of public squares in the Historic District.

2. James L. Pierpont, composer of “Jingle Bells”, was a music director at the Unitarian Church in Savannah. According to my uncle, he wasn’t considered to be very successful during his life. I find it curious how someone “unsuccessful” created something that is better remembered some 150 years later than most of even the 19th century presidents!

3. Although the early US South is associated with slavery, I was interested to learn that James Oglethorpe founding father of Savannah and Georgia in the 1730s set up a colony where slavery was prohibited. Only a few decades later was slavery after a great clamour by the citizenry.

4. I love the story of Florence Martus (1869-1943) aka “the Waving Girl” who would greet all ships that either arrived or left the city of Savannah. What was her tale?

5. John Wesley, father of the Methodist Church, was based out of Savannah (founded 1733) during its very earliest years (1736!).

* Savannah Highlights: General Exploring*

I’m a walker and Savannah with a starting point at the 1790 Inn where I stayed was a delightful spot for doing just that what with the beautifully restored homes and public squares right at my doorstep. If I had to pick a favourite street for homes, it would be Jones Street nearby the Eliza Thompson House where my uncle & his girlfriend stayed. For public parks, my favourite very predictably would be Forsyth Park. This park seemed especially overgrown with large streamers of Spanish moss and that fountain was just too lovely with the sculpted white geese and trumpeted mermen spewing water out their mouths. There’s a bit of an itinerant element at the park but I somehow found myself still liking the overall energy. As for public transit, I found the Savannah Belles boat called Suzie Taylor King which plies between the Waving Girl statue, City Hall and Hutchinson Island to be a fun, free way to get out onto the Savannah River.

Warning: Be aware that on New Year’s Day, despite being one of the busiest tourist times of the year, a surprising number of activities are unavailable. A large number of restaurants and museums are closed, much public transportation including ferries was not operational. I mostly took long strolls only to discover closed restaurants and museums, then gave up, working out and writing postcards for the rest of that day. It felt like a bit of a bust in some ways, although frankly it’s sometimes nice just to chill like that when on vacation.

*Museums and homes*

I went to the Telfair Museum and the Jepson Center for the Arts. The Telfair had some early portraits of Savannah life that I enjoyed seeing and the Jepson Center presently is one of three cities with works on loan from the Uffizi Gallery representing Jesus’ birth and up through the crucifixion. The art from the Uffizi includes work by Titian; I found it so pleasurable to linger and admire the work of the Italian masters (with all their anachronisms) without being pressed on either side by crowds, as is the case far too often at the European museums themselves.

For $20, one got a “three-pass” to see the Jepson, Telfair and Owens-Thomas House. The Owens-Thomas House fascinated me with its artificial symmetry (false door here, false window there, just to create an impression of symmetry) as a vogue of the mid 19th century. The other thing that piqued my curiosity here was that one woman with her children apparently had ordered an early version of “photoshop” done, having her first husband painted over in a family portrait. The Isaiah Davenport house nearby was also worth the $8 tour to glimpse the 19th century living and particularly the oval staircases.

*Notable meals*

I thank all those who advised earlier on Fodor’s where one would feel comfortable eating solo in Savannah. Here's where I did end up.

J. Christopher’s: My first day given that I arrived about 7 hours before check-in, I enjoyed the cheery counter ambience at this highly locally-popular spot (my omelette was fine). However, breakfast came with my fare at the atmospheric 1790 Inn where I stayed, so I ambled down there most mornings.

Belfort’s at the City Market: Shrimp and grits were so flavourful, as were the collard greens side cooked with ham hock (?). I can see why it won an award.

Boar’s Head: My first ever bouillabaisse was to die-for. Tender boneless fish, scrumptious shrimp and scallops all in a addictive, mouthwatering saffron-infused broth.

Lady & Sons: Paula Deen’s restaurant is a bit controversial since she goes against the grain of healthy eating, cooking in a high caloric way with plenty of butter, salt and sugar. Nevertheless, since almost nothing I tried seemed to be open on New Year’s Day and the brunch at Lady & Sons seemed a do-able $15.99, I decide to go if only to see what the talk was all about. To be vaguely good, I drank water with lemon and avoided the fried stuff, going with the roast chicken, with lima beans, collard greens and sweet potatoes, with peach cobbler for desert. The hoecake and garlic cheese biscuit were mysterious sides that just appear in your dining spot. Still probably too much butter, salt and sugar. I can’t deny it was a tasty meal, although I did feel overfull after. My favorite part was the sociable conversation sitting at the counter. I attempted to compensate by going the gym on Broughton Street afterward.

* Day trip to near-Savannah attractions and Beaufort to come*
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Jan 4th, 2013, 06:17 PM
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kansasmom, sf7307-- Glad you enjoyed!

cmcfong-- Thanks and happy travels for 2013!

Tdudette-- I slept only intermittently from DC-Savannah I think because I forgot my alarm and was worried about getting in time. Savannah-NYC I slept well until I felt uncomfortably hot from the heater; once I realized the thermostat was set to 91 degrees and set it to 70, I slept again like a baby.

jv827-- The train stations for both Charleston & Savannah are situated away from the town centers in what I would call a kind of no-man's-land. Neither seemed particularly sketchy as in dangerous, but nor was either station inviting for say taking an early evening stroll around the block. Mostly amenity-less (vending machine, water fountain was it for food & drink) desolate places to wait for the train and leave at first opportunity.

starrs--Perhaps so, all I can say is that I noticed lots of earthquake bolts in Charleston and even though I was looking for them, I didn't see them in Savannah.
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Jan 5th, 2013, 07:31 AM
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*Day trips*

While I was car-less in Savannah, my uncle had come in from Beaufort SC with his girlfriend via car, staying at the nearby Eliza Thompson House on gorgeous Jones Street. So, it was thanks to them that I had two terrific day outings, one to Tybee Island/Fort Pulaski and the second to Beaufort, South Carolina and surroundings. They truly spoiled me throughout my stay, treating me to that fantastic bouillabaisse and shrimp & grits that I spoke of earlier.

*Fort Pulaski/Tybee Island*

About 10 miles outside of Savannah’s Historic District, our admission Fort Pulaski was the only thing my uncle would let me pay for the entire trip (a pittance compared to all that I was treated to). I enjoyed the history of the fort and was fascinated to learn that somewhere so far south was held largely by the Union for most of the Civil War years. The most endearing historical note to me was that the New York regiment based there set up baseball teams, a band and a even theater troupe during their Civil War stay! Truly my favorite thing about the moat-surrounded fort was its beautiful setting, with the confluence of the Savannah River and the ocean visible in the distance. *HUGE* birds of prey (eagles? buzzards? I didn’t get a close enough look) could be seen flying over the cypresses and marshlands surrounding.

Tybee Island looked like a place I wouldn’t mind doing a beach vacation one of these years, with a lighthouse and charming sometimes eccentric-looking wooden beach homes. I liked that there seemed to be a culture of cycling around the island, a culture that in Savannah proper seemed generally less prevalent than in other of my favourite North American locales.


About a 40 mile drive from Savannah through often beautiful undeveloped marshland adjacent waterways, it had been over a quarter of a century since I had set foot in Beaufort SC on Port Royal Island. So the last time my presence had graced the fair town of twelve thousand souls, I was but an insecure, indifferent teenager, more interested in who had moved up five notches on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 than paying attention to the offerings of this peaceful haven.

My uncle has lived within about five minutes walk of the waterfront and the main three block drag of Beaufort for the last 40 years; I found memories of long-ago (but somehow seemingly not) visits came flooding back as I entered his home for the first time as an adult. In Beaufort proper, the three of us sat on swinging benches overlooking the handsome waterfront and ate lunch in the town center. My favorite activity was cycling in “downtown” Beaufort with uncle & girlfriend, where I enjoyed seeing all the beautiful historic homes and docks juxtaposed with my uncle’s insider knowledge (a number of popular movies were filmed here).

The most fascinating aspect of the day was the short drive we took out to St. Helena’s Island, two islands away from Port Royal Island. Here we visited a library that my uncle has donated to and sat as a trustee on the board for its creation. At this library, there is a significant body of works relating to Gullah culture and language and I had to turn to my uncle when I was greeted here in this English-language dialect with Krio language (spoken in Sierra Leone) influences. My uncle has studied and even taught courses in the Gullah language and wrote for me that the woman had said “I gladee for to meet oonuh” (“I’m glad to meet you”). My uncle explained that it’s mostly those 40 and over who will code-switch and speak Gullah when amongst themselves. With the younger generation not picking it up so much, I fear this dialect may be soon on its way to extinction.

The other highlight was a visit to a plantation on St. Helena’s Island, one of a limited number of private plantations in the South, owned by some long-time friends of my uncle. I felt truly privileged to see the beautifully-restored home with some of the inlaid portraits the same as were owned by the Fripp family over a century and a half ago. As we observed the barn & original silo, a dock adjacent a marsh, a swinging bench overlooking a pond hung from a live oak, the rows upon rows of crape myrtles draped like spider-webs across the many acres, I had to catch my breath in somewhat disbelief that here I was, without a tourist mob like at many remaining plantations, experiencing first-hand a remnant of a bygone time. I could not help but reflect as I looked at the genius of the title of Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone With the Wind”; it was eerie but amazing to be there!

Happy New Year to you all!
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Jan 5th, 2013, 07:53 AM
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Good post.
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Jan 5th, 2013, 03:27 PM
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Hi Daniel, Beaufort was one of hub's and my favorite places to drive through. Did you see the movie "The Big Chill"? It was filmed there. So lovely.
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Jan 5th, 2013, 08:02 PM
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I love the comparissons! In live in Charlotte and find that most people here seem to have a definitive favorite which they like to argue about if you happen to disagree with their choice! I find that they are so different that its really difficult to even compare. With that being said, my personal choice is Savannah. I agree that it somehow feels more authentic and I love lingering in the squares.

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Jan 6th, 2013, 01:14 PM
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Bookmarking for later. Thanks for a great TR!
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Jan 6th, 2013, 08:57 PM
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Just a few thoughts on your wonderful trip report. I hope these help!

General James Oglethorpe originally designed an expandable plan of six squares near the Savannah waterfront. This is now known as River Street. While there is a lot of speculation as to why he designed it with blocks of neighborhood squares surrounding park areas, there's a lot of agreement that it was a stroke of genius. Some think he was influenced by the Great London Fires and thought that the addtional space divided by roads would prevent spread of fire. In fact, there are diagrams showing these green spaces as military training areas. I can't imagine that was his primary reason, though. These were always gardens. Ultimately, there were 24 squares, but three were "lost" and have been since uncovered.

My family first started visiting Savannah when I was seven. We go every year or so and I still find it a beautiful and fascinating historic city.

There are cobble stones - especially on the ramps down to River Street, where you'll find deep grooves between the old balast stones where the mortar has washed out over many years.

Earthquake bolts in Savannah:


One more thing not to miss is the Colonial Park Cemetary. Great historic events are reflected in the storied pre-civil war headstones.

I'm glad you enjoyed Savannah, Charleston's wilder sister, so much.
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Jan 7th, 2013, 06:13 AM
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palmettoprincess,musicfan-- Loved your comments!

Tdudette-- I don't think I saw "the Big Chill" or don't remember doing so. Now I'm curious after this trip to Beaufort. By the way, I forgot to write UP in my earlier message to you "..alarm and was worried about getting UP in time.."

tcreath-- I'm glad you enjoyed the comparisons. For me, I think I had a modest preference for Savannah. However, I think Charleston is pretty fantastic too and can see why someone with a different personality from my own would prefer it.

sf3707-- So my answer to the perennial question "Charleston or Savannah? Or both?" is... "With 5 days maybe four, both!" "With 3 days or less, pick one, doesn't matter which."

Continental_Drifter-- I really enjoyed your extra insight on the city. I'm glad that I got to see the Colonial Park Cemetery, although perhaps too cursory a look.

I now realize why I may have missed the earthquake bolts beyond general inattention. The ones in Savannah that you showed were in the shape of a cross, while I was looking for that disc-shape that one sees in Charleston. I had noticed the cobblestone by River Street, just not in the area of the same elevation as the public squares/Forsyth Park. I tell you, I wouldn't want to wear high heels on those; I might still be stuck in the cobblestone of Savannah!
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Jan 7th, 2013, 07:04 AM
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The cobblestones of River Street were the ballast used on empty ships coming over for cotton. Early recyclying. Ladies weren't seen on River Street and around Factor's Walk. It is a pain to walk on them nowadays. I wouldn't want to wear high heels anywhere.

Fun trip report!
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