When it comes to the quintessential American Atlantic Coast island experiences, Tybee Island in Georgia, and Hilton Head Island in South Carolina reign on top. With their stunning beaches, abundance of fresh seafood, and infectious local charm, Tybee Island and Hilton Head Island never fail to capture the hearts of visitors from the moment they set foot onto their sandy shores.

If you plan on visiting either Tybee Island or Hilton Head for your next vacation, then congratulations — you have excellent taste!

But now comes the tough question. Which should you choose — Tybee Island or Hilton Head?

Thankfully we know both of these destinations well. And while they share certain similarities, they are quite different from each other in a variety of ways.

In this article, we provide an in-depth comparison of Tybee Island and Hilton Head to help you determine which is a better fit for you.

Below we compare the beaches in both, the vibe, which has the better nightlife, compare the activities you can do in each and even more.

By the end, you’ll be one step closer to that dream vacation.

A Quick Overview: Tybee Island vs Hilton Head

Tybee Island

Tybee is one of Georgia’s 14 barrier islands. It got its start as a popular beach destination over a century ago. Since then it has become a cherished vacation spot for both Georgia locals and out of state visitors looking to experience the unique charm of a small Atlantic beach town.

This place is a laid-back, quirky small-town community, where nature, history and culture takes centre stage.

Hilton Head

Hilton Head, the larger and more developed between the two, is located in South Carolina’s low country region. The island is famous for its sprawling golf courses, shopping, endless options of world-class restaurants, and of course, its stunning seaside beauty.

Hilton Head officials have crowned the island “America’s Favorite Island” and several high-profile travel publications like Travel and Leisure, Forbes, and Conde Nast Traveler agree. They regularly feature Hilton Head on their lists of top beach destinations in the USA.

If your idea of vacation is synonymous with luxury then Hilton Head and its resorts may be the best choice for you.

Beaches Overview: Tybee Island vs Hilton Head

Before comparing the beaches in each destination in more detail, here’s a quick overview of the coastline in each:

Tybee Island

Tybee Island has five official beaches. Together they make up a total of 5 miles of public beach front access. Though that may not seem like a lot, it’s an impressive number considering the miniscule size of the island which measures a total of 8.2km2.

North Beach, Mid Beach, and South Beach are perhaps the most visited beaches in Tybee Island.

Each beach offers a variety of adventurous water activities to keep thrill seekers on their toes, including water skiing, jet skiing, sea kayaking, deep sea fishing, and surfing.

Hilton Head

Hilton Head is almost 21 times the size of Tybee Island, at 179km2 and has more than 12 miles of sandy Atlantic beaches for visitors to explore!

On Hilton Head, visitors can partake in similar water activities as Tybee Island plus a few additional activities including beach cycling.

Due to a stream of new resort developments, many Hilton Head beach fronts have a grandiose and developed air about them. That’s in stark contrast from the predominantly open and laid-back feel of Tybee Island beaches.

While technically, all beaches in Hilton Head are public, access to some beaches is restricted to resort residents only, so only eight beaches on the island are truly public. That’s worth factoring in to your decision.

Standout beaches include Coligny Beach, Folley Field Beach, Driessen Beach, and Mitchelville Beach.

Beaches In-Depth: Tybee Island vs Hilton Head

Tybee Island

North Beach is the quietest of Tybee’s three main beaches. It also has the least amenities. At low tide, sandbars re-surface on the beach and attract flocks of birds making for great bird watching.

In addition, dolphins are often seen gliding close to the shore so North Beach is the perfect retreat for animal lovers who want to spend the day beachcombing and spotting wildlife between dips in the water. Tybee is a fantastic nature spot.

Though Mid Beach is relatively quiet compared to the other Tybee beaches. It’s a long trek down the boardwalk to the beach, and public restrooms are located half a block from the beach. That being said, visitors who give Mid Beach a chance will find themselves spoiled with choice for places to lay down their beach towels. 

South Beach, Tybee Island’s most popular beach, is home to the bustling Tybrisa Street which houses a plethora of shops, restaurants, and vacation rentals. The fine sand, calm waters, and high-density of lifeguards make South Beach a great option for groups with less confident swimmers and young children.

Finally, Tybee Island has two in-river beaches called Back River Beach and Savannah River Beach. While they don’t overlook the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, the river beaches have wide stretches of sand and easy waves. Back River in particular is known for its magical sunsets.

Hilton Head

Located near Hilton Head’s southern end, Coligny Beach is one of the liveliest on the island. With an abundance of lounge rentals, souvenir shops, full-service restrooms, and food stands, Coligny Beach has everything you would need for a successful beach outing.

Folley Field is an equally enticing but quieter alternative to Coligny. Located on the northern end of the island, Folley Field Beach doesn’t have much in terms of amenities. But what it lacks in amenities, it makes up for in clear waters, soft sand, and natural beauty.

Further south is Driessen Beach. This beautiful sandy beach lies off a long boardwalk that overlooks a stunning bird filled saltmarsh. Like Folley Field, it has limited amenities, but grill stands, and picnic tables are available.

Finally, Mitchelville is natural, uncrowded, and surrounded by gorgeous trees that inch close to the sandy shoreline. The beach is perfect for explorers who want to collect shells, play with driftwood, and spot deer tracks in the sand.

Main Differences

Both Tybee Island and Hilton Head have gorgeous public beaches, but Hilton Head has a wider variety.

On top of that, Hilton Head has an impressive selection of private resort beaches. These exclusive beaches provide an added touch of luxury and convenience.

While Tybee Island has beachfront vacation rentals and hotels as well, the options are fewer than in Hilton Head and may not necessarily have convenient access to the best parts of the beach.

Beaches on Hilton Head Island have free parking sometimes too. A welcome advantage over Tybee Island where parking is metered without exception.

Attractions: Tybee Island vs Hilton Head

Tybee Island

On Tybee Island, there are several landmarks that commemorate the rich history of the small island community, many of which have grown to become popular tourist attractions.

Tybee Lighthouse, Georgia’s oldest and tallest lighthouse provides unmatched panoramic views of the island while the Tybee Island Museum showcases over four centuries of Tybee history.

There are plenty of opportunities to shop on Tybee Island. The island’s premier shopping center, The Shoppes at 1207, is stocked with local boutiques where visitors can pick up anything and everything from locally made perfumes and mermaid shaped candles to custom stitched sarongs and Tybee’s famous ‘Breeze Sweet, Beach Heat’ sauce. It is also a great way to chat with some Tybee locals.

Hilton Head

In contrast, Hilton Head’s main attractions are modern in nature, including tennis clubs, upscale shopping centers and boutiques, luxury ocean cruises, kids adventure parks, and go-karting.

In addition, there’s over 24 state-of-the-art golf courses, making Hilton Head a golfer’s paradise. Avid golfers can choose from a variety of appealing local golf and accommodation packages.

Home to the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, Hilton Head has a vibrant art scene. Art lovers can spend a relaxing afternoon exploring local galleries and marveling at the eclectic pieces, many of which were inspired by the island’s natural scenery.

Shopping on Hilton Head tends to be a little more upscale than on Tybee Island. Harbor Town, one of Hilton Head Island’s elite shopping centers, features an impressive selection of luxury clothing and decor boutiques, gift shops, and art galleries.

Like Tybee Island, Hilton Head also has a lighthouse — the picturesque Harbor Town Lighthouse. Though the Harbor Town Lighthouse is not as historic as Tybee’s, it provides gorgeous views of Hilton Head marina.

Nightlife and Food: Tybee Island vs Hilton Head Island

Tybee Island

When it comes to nightlife, Hilton Head can be a little flashier than Tybee Island. The bulk of Tybee Island nightlife revolves around its several quirky and creative local bars and restaurants. (Recommended: Exceptional Restaurants in Tybee Island To Try).

Tybrisa Street is a nightlife hotspot and home to iconic establishments like Wet Willies that serves up delicious adult slushies, Coco Sunset Grill where guests can dine al-fresco overlooking the swaying grasses of salt marshes below, Sting Ray’s Seafood which serves up icy beers and fresh seafood platters in addition to providing foot-tapping live music, and Rock House, a boisterous karaoke bar.

If you want to dine like a true Tybee local, then don’t miss out on the Low Country Boil— a no-frills, mouthwatering mix of perfectly seasoned crab, shrimp, sausage, and more.

If you prefer to spend the evening strolling around the island to people watch and take in all the sights, you can make it a boozy stroll, thanks to Tybee Island’s liberal open container law.

Tybee Island is a mere 30-minute drive from the historic southern city of Savannah, Georgia, making it very easy to combine your island tour with a trip to the city.

Hilton Head

While Hilton Head is not famous for concocting alcoholic slushies, it has an impressive collection of breweries, distilleries, and wineries that serve up refreshing varieties of vintage and contemporary brews, crisp wines, and sharp island spirits. Several Hilton Head bars host live music and comedy nights. (Recommended: A Local’s Guide to Hilton Head Nightlife).

With over 250 restaurants, you will never tire of food options on Hilton Head. Options range from laid-back seafood joints like The Sea Shack or popular Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks which serve up dishes like traditional crab cakes and scrumptious fish fry’s.

And there’s many high-end fine dining establishments like the top-rated Nunzio Restaurant and Bar which serves Italian fare with a traditional low country twist, paired with some of South Carolina’s finest wines.

Hilton Head is about an hour drive from Savannah, Georgia. Although further than Tybee Island, Hilton Head is still close enough to Savannah to combine your island tour with a trip to the city.

Tybee Island vs Hilton Head: Events

Tybee Island

Depending on what time of year you visit, you may have the unique opportunity to join Tybee Island locals for some beloved parades!

The Irish Heritage Parade sees the island decked out in green. The annual May Home Tours provide visitors an exclusive look into what it’s like to reside in one of Tybee’s quaint cottages.

The ceremonial release of sea turtles back into the ocean at the Tybee Turtle Trot festival is not to be missed either.

Hilton Head

If you plan on visiting Hilton Head in February-March, you will be just in time for three of the island’s most popular festivals.

The Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival is a quintessential southern celebration of low country food. The Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration celebrates the rich cultural heritage of the island’s Gullah ethnic group, the most distinctive African lineage in the United States.

And the Hilton Head Island Wine & Food Festival showcases world-class wines and celebrates Hilton Heads thriving culinary scene.

Tybee Island vs Hilton Head: Accommodation

Tybee Island

This island is known for its unique and personable accommodation choices from historic beachfront hotels like Sea and Breeze Beach Hotel and Tybrisa at the Beach, to cozy seaside inns and bed and breakfasts like the romantic and friendly Georgianne Inn.

Hilton Head

While Hilton Head Island also has its fair share of laid-back lodging options, it is the king of resorts.

Visitors can choose from an impressive selection of world-class luxury resorts and spas, such as the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort, making Hilton Head an excellent option if your main goal is pampering and ultimate relaxation.

Both islands’ also have rustic campgrounds for families who want a little more adventure at a cheap price.

In terms of prices, accommodation in Tybee Island is more affordable with prices rarely exceeding USD 400 per night. Whereas luxury resorts in Hilton Head can exceed USD 1000 per night during peak season.

The Verdict: Tybee Island vs Hilton Head

The real difference between Tybee and Hilton Head comes down to the vibe of each island. If you enjoy immersing yourself in quirky small-town communities, then Tybee Island should appeal to you.

On the other hand, if your idea of vacation is synonymous with luxury then a Hilton Head resort may be more your speed.

Money may play a part too. If you are limited to a day trip, you should consider the fact that Tybee Island beaches don’t have free parking. If you are doing an overnight trip, you may consider the fact that accommodation on Hilton Head tends to be a bit more expensive.

At the end of the day, both Tybee Island and Hilton Head have outstanding public beaches, guaranteeing you a good time in the water at either island.