Charleston versus Savannah? Which one? Both? How much time for each? During my years away from home, this was a question posed by so many different people in so many different contexts, and it always results in a good discussion with locals, visitors, and prospective travelers alike. While some people always passionately defend their hometown, I am not so black-and-white. Depending on the topic at hand, the mood in the air, the company in the room, and the drinks being served, there are tons of different angles to consider. Best city to live? To visit? To raise kids? To dine? To party? To explore? To relax? To make art? To consume art? To get around?
As a kid growing up in Charleston, I really didn’t know much about Savannah. It’s amazing what a silly state boundary does. I knew Savannah was similar to Charleston in size, geography, and historical significance, but I was so much more familiar with other cities and towns in South Carolina. We are indeed products of our home state, and that alone made Savannah seem much farther away.
I did have a few opportunities to visit Savannah when I was young, but it was not until I studied city planning that I became familiar with this fascinating place that is, in fact, quite different from Charleston. While they are both old and well preserved, Savannah is considered America’s first planned city, and the ordered structure of its historic district results in some striking public spaces. Charleston grew more organically, and the lack of structure seems to result in more unexpected urban surprises. Charleston is all about its spectacular harbor, a city surrounded by water and, at times (if you’ve been following the news), under it. Savannah, which is a few miles further inland, is a river city through and through. I remember visiting as a kid and being so excited about the bona fide hill that sloped from the top of the bluff down to the river. In Charleston, bridges and parking garages are the closest we get to terrain.
Finally (and most interesting to me), where are these cities headed? Both are real-world metropolitan centers, both are experiencing tremendous growth, and the New South has undoubtedly gained a foothold in an environment where history reigns supreme. How do they embrace these changes? How do they handle the constant threat to their old-school ways-of-life, while retaining the hospitality that makes them famous and attractive to the rest of the world?
This debate isn’t new. Fellow geography nerds may be familiar with a beautiful two-part map of Charleston and Savannah, illustrated by Joseph Hutchins Colton and published in 1855. Drawn at the same scale and presented together for comparison, the maps immediately highlight some significant differences in these two cities that have so much in common.
From now on, whenever I hear the question: “Charleston or Savannah?”, my reply is “Both.” You gotta find room for both. If you seek out the differences, chances are you’ll appreciate their respective qualities that much more.