Monday, December 17, 2012

Savannah versus Charleston: Tourism

I have a good friend in Savannah.  Until September, we’d never met face-to-face, but we’d chatted via email on a nearly weekly basis for years.  Mostly about baseball, but also a bit about life and politics.

During my recent visit to Savannah, I met my friend for lunch.  After reviewing the current baseball rumors, I asked him about the can’t-miss tourist destinations in Savannah.    I figured he was my best possible resource.

And I was right.  He pointed me in a number of good directions, more than I could have possibly followed in my few days in Savannah.  As an afterthought, he then concluded with “There’s also River Street.”  In those few words, he established why he and I had connected so well on email.

River Street is to Savannah what Pier 39 is to San Francisco.  Not the worst place to visit, but fundamentally apart from the essence of the city.  It’s what the city boosters think is what required to attract and to entertain tourists.  And unfortunately, they’re closer to the truth than I’d wish.

The waterfront area of Savannah has a long and interesting history, from the initial founding of the city to the long years of cotton shipment.  Many of the historical buildings remain.  As one approaches the waterfront, the sense of history is palpable.  But the city made the decision to build a standard issue park on the land nearest to the Savannah River and to encourage t-shirts shops and boisterous taverns to occupy the buildings on the other side of River Street.

As much I dislike the design direction, it’s been successful.  River Street is often thronged with tourists doing tourist drinking and buying tourist geegaws.   I’d much prefer that tourists wander away from the river to sit in the public squares of Savannah.  But at the same time, I recognize that, if they did, the t-shirt shops would follow.  And I truly don’t want that.
A few blocks from River Street is another destination also intended for tourists, but with a somewhat higher aim.  City Market is a block of older buildings which has been converted to a pedestrian mall and is now largely occupied by casual restaurants and art galleries.  City Market doesn’t have gaucherie of River Street, but neither does it have the stately grace that marks the true Savannah places.

Oddly, the Charleston equivalent to Savannah’s City Market is also called City Market.  But it’s a more attractive destination.  It’s a quarter-mile long shed filled with local artisans.  Much of the merchandise is targeted toward tourists, but the configuration and semi-open-air structure provides an atmosphere that feels more comfortable than anything in Savannah.

I’d be tempted to compare Charleston’s City Market to either the Ferry Building in San Francisco or Pike Place Market in Seattle.  But in latter two, locals often do their daily shopping.  City Market is truly targeted for visitors.  And that’s a key difference.  I like Charleston’s City Market more than the two tourist destinations in Savannah, but it remains a place apart from the city itself.

What are the lessons for the North Bay?  At least to me, they’re discouraging.  When I travel, I like to wander in actual neighborhoods, trying to understand how life works in that particular town.  But the hordes on River Street show that I’m not normal.  It seems that many travelers prefer a little bit of Las Vegas.

The North Bay has several attractive tourist niches.  Wineries, eco-tourism, and antique shopping come to mind.  But if a broader tourism marketing strategy involves something like River Street in Savannah, I’d pass.  Perhaps I could tolerate something like Charleston’s City Market, but if a North Bay city tries to build a River Street, I’d be deeply disappointed.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Thanks for your grateful informations, am working in Tourism Portal ,
    so it will be a better information’s for me. Try to post best informations like this always.

    1. Vijay, thanks for reading. However, my blog will usually focus on urbanism, which I find of interest as a tourist, but might not be the general taste.