United States A Tale of Two Southern Cities
Old rivalries die hard. New York vs. Boston, Cambridge vs. Oxford—the impassioned debates are legendary. For two hundred years, the sibling cities of Charleston and Savannah have been engaged in a heated rivalry of their own. Only 100 miles apart, these two Southern belles have many things in common—lovingly preserved historic districts, enchanting gardens, delightful waterfronts and no shortage of Southern charm—but for all their similarities, they have distinct personalities that make them worthwhile destinations.
While locals argue over which city is the friendliest or the most charming, visitors reap the benefits of a centuries-old game of one-upmanship. Both cities are vibrant and culturally rich, overflowing with historic sites and museums, bars and restaurants, designer boutiques and luxury hotels. And while visitors might initially be drawn by the cities’ noteworthy histories (both played important roles in the American Revolution and Civil War) and the genteel-air of the antebellum architecture, they return for the long lazy lunches served at the Belmond Charleston Place and the perfectly pulled flat whites at The Collins Corner in Savannah.
If there is one word that summarizes Charleston, it’s genteel. Charleston residents have a long history of living well, and the city is endowed with an innate sense of refined elegance. From the stately architecture to the requisite Southern hospitality, this storied city’s seductive ambiance makes it one of the South’s most beloved destinations. Seersucker suits and day drinking never went out of fashion here, and the languid atmosphere is contagious. For all its history and tradition, in recent years Charleston has also become what could only be described as hip, with an impressive tech boom bringing a newfound creative energy to this once staid city.
Set on a peninsula bordered by three picturesque rivers, Charleston is a compact city perfect for exploration by foot or bike. The smell of tea olive trees and jasmine paired with gentle sea breezes and the sound of church bells only serve to amplify this quintessential Southern experience. Antique shops and galleries abound, as do a surprising number of avant-garde clothing boutiques. Anglin Smith Fine Art, Hampden and Worthwhile being particular favorites.
The Gibbes Museum of Art has a fabulous miniature portrait collection dating from the days before photography, and the Magnolia Plantation & Gardens is considered one of the most beautiful gardens in the country.
“Ditch the car and hit the pavement. There is no better way to explore the Holy City than by foot. Some of the most amazing historical homes, lush gardens and beautiful ironwork can be discovered while wandering the winding alleys and streets. When you stay at Belmond Charleston Place, you are in the heart of the historical district and walking distance to some of the best restaurants, historical landmarks and the coveted City Market.”
– Paul Stracey, Belmond Charleston Place
Savannah possesses a certain indisputable charm, a quiet confidence that comes from being comfortable with the cards one was dealt. Of course, this small Southern town was dealt a pretty good hand. Not only does it occupy a prime position on the Atlantic seaboard, but it’s surrounded by fertile land, filled to this day with the farms that both scarred its history and engendered the refined society that gave rise to this enchantingly beautiful city. Savannah is nothing if not an inherently romantic city, and the downtown historic district is as rich in history as it is in picture-perfect cobblestone streets lined with charming Greek Revival row houses and grand Federalist mansions.
Savannah is a walker’s paradise, and it would be hard to exaggerate the pleasure of strolling through the city’s twenty-two squares. Known as the jewels of Savannah, this is where knobby old oak trees draped in Spanish moss line the streets and sweet-smelling camellias grow through wrought-iron fences. Bonaventure Cemetery and Forsyth Park, focal points of the city’s unique ambiance, invite visitors to stay a while, as do the charming cafes and boutiques. If you must venture inside, head to the Savannah College of Art and Design’s SCAD Museum of Art, a world-class contemporary art museum well worth a visit, as is the Telfair Academy for its fine collection of American Impressionism.
Farm-to-table isn’t a passing trend in this part of the country; it’s a way of life. Both Charleston and Savannah have been blessed with moderate climates, an abundance of good farmland and fertile fishing grounds. Luring top chefs across the Mason-Dixon Line, this plentiful bounty has inspired some truly excellent restaurants, and in both cities, you’ll find menus overflowing with freshly caught shrimp, local farmer’s cheese and picked-that-morning runner beans and beets.
WHERE TO EAT: CHARLESTON
Charleston is internationally known as an exceptional food town, a place where the crustaceans are fresh and grits are a staple. And while the grand seafood halls FIG and The Ordinary serve raw oysters in elegant dining rooms, other eateries such as Xiao Bao Biscuit and Hominy Grill offer refreshing combinations of local ingredients in more casual atmospheres. Housed in a former gas station, Xiao Bao Biscuit is particularly lauded for its Asian staples such as Thai-style chili shrimp, while Hominy Grill is the place to dive into a big bowl of steaming grits topped with roasted mushrooms.
WHERE TO EAT: SAVANNAH
Savannah’s restaurants are admired as much as for their seasonal, locally sourced food as for their gorgeous dining rooms. The Grey serves Southern classics in a Greyhound bus depot fabulously restored with Art Deco flair, while Local 11ten, and its popular rooftop bar Perch, is housed in an elegant midcentury bank with large windows overlooking a bustling historic block. The Aussie-inspired The Collins Quarter is another not-to-miss spot, popular for its crave-worthy fish and chips served in a light-filled dining room reminiscent of Sydney’s best.