Charleston and Savannah are only a little more than 100 miles apart, or an easy two-hour drive — three if you abjure the main highway and follow the scenic coastal road via Beaufort — and are often visited on the same trip. Architecturally, and in atmosphere, the cities form a wonderful contrast. Charleston is a place of white neoclassical houses, surrounded by colorful gardens and often illuminated by intense light reflected from the sea. Whereas Savannah’s grand Regency mansions are built chiefly of red brick and overlook tree-lined squares that are smothered by dense foliage and laced by shady pathways.
Charleston is a wonderfully walkable city. Given its array of historic houses and plantations, plus some excellent museums, shops and other attractions, plan on a visit of at least three days.
There are dozens of beautiful historic houses to visit in Charleston, but if you have the time or interest to see only one, it should be this handsome and atmospherically shabby mansion built in 1820 by wealthy merchant John Robinson, and later vastly expanded by Governor and Mrs. William Aiken Jr. Instead of listening to a lecture from a trilling docent, download an app and visit the house and the slaves’ quarters at your own pace. With its additions and alterations, the mansion tells a fascinating story of one of the South’s most distinguished families and also offers a visual montage of evolving decorative and architectural tastes and styles. In contrast to the gleaming restorations of most heritage houses, much of the original wallpaper, curtain fixtures and paint have remained untouched since the 19th century.
48 Elizabeth Street. Tel. (843) 723-1159
To experience the quiet opulence of the lives of wealthy Charleston families during the 18th and 19th centuries, be sure to visit this elegant 1825 mansion. It is one of the few historic homes on The Battery, the grand seaside roadway at the tip of the Charleston peninsula, which is open to the public. The furniture and decorative objects are original. And the study-library is particularly evocative of the life that was once lived here.
21 East Battery. Tel. (843) 722-7171
After you’ve had your fill of historic houses, a tour of the first distillery to open in downtown Charleston after Prohibition provides a perfect contrast. Husband-and-wife co-owners Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall have drawn on their background in the baking business to create some spectacular spirits using Southern-grown heirloom grain and fresh herbs. The quality of their products has won them several James Beard nominations. The tour explains the science behind milling, mashing, heating, fermenting and distilling. It concludes with a tasting of four different High Wire spirits. The one not to miss is the superb bourbon made with Jimmy Red corn. The tours, which cost $10 are capped at 16 people, sell out quickly, so an advance phone reservation is advisable.
High Wire Distilling Co.
652 King Street. Tel. (843) 755-4664
Most of the gardens in Charleston are off-limits to visitors outside of biannual festivals and tours, but Emily Whaley’s lovely and intimate garden is open to the public most Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The best way to prepare for a visit is to read “Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden,” the book written by the late Mrs. Whaley, which became a best-seller when it was published in 1997. Now her daughter Marty Whaley Adams tends the garden along with “gentleman gardener” Paul Saylors. On arrival at a handsome wrought-iron gate, a sign invites you to slide a $10 donation through the mail slot. At the end of a long path, water pours from a fountainhead sculpted by Marty, while shade plants and roses in the Loutrel Briggs-designed garden invite a moment’s repose.
Mrs. Whaley’s Garden
58 Church Street. Tel. (919) 920-2752
Savannah’s greatest attraction is its unique design by James Oglethorpe (1696-1785), a British soldier, member of Parliament and philanthropist, as well as the founder of the colony of Georgia. It was Oglethorpe who originally designed the city on a grid pattern, punctuated by four large tree-planted and landscaped squares. As the city grew, the pattern was replicated, giving Savannah its signature squares of public greenery. Today there are 22.
No building better expresses Savannah’s ongoing emergence as a vital center of American art and design than this strikingly modern building by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Today the Jepson has become one of the most important and innovative contemporary-art museums in the United States. A highlight of the permanent collection is the Kirk Varnedoe Collection, which celebrates the legacy of Kirk Varnedoe through the presentation of works by the contemporary artists he championed. A native of Savannah, Varnedoe was chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1988 to 2001. Among the artists represented in this collection are Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Kiki Smith.
207 West York Street. Tel. (912) 790-8800
George Welshman Owens was a wealthy planter, lawyer and politician who lived in this house with his wife, six children and as many as 15 slaves, beginning in 1830. Unlike many other historic homes in Savannah, which have been gussied up for visitors, this one still feels like a private home and is a place resonant with both local and family history. Designed by English architect William Jay, who practiced in Savannah from 1817 to 1820, this is one of the finest examples of neoclassical Regency architecture in the United States. It is a simple but elegant residence, with a small pretty garden, plus slave quarters and a carriage house; its other distinction is that it had the first indoor plumbing of any home in Savannah. The guided tour is well-scripted and fascinating and is offered at 20-minute intervals daily until 4:20 p.m.
124 Abercorn Street. Tel. (912) 790-8800
The stately two-story mansion, also designed by William Jay in the Regency style and built in 1819, is just three historic squares away from the Owens-Thomas House. The Telfair Academy contains three 19th-century period rooms and houses 19th- and 20th-century American and European art, including paintings by William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam and Frederick Carl Frieseke, along with works on paper, sculpture and decorative arts.
121 Barnard Street. Tel. (912) 790-8800