American towns don't come much more beautiful than Savannah, seventeen miles up the Savannah River from the ocean. The historic district, arranged around Spanish-moss-swathed garden squares, formed the core of the original city and boasts examples of just about every architectural style of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The cobbled waterfront on the Savannah River is edged by towering old cotton warehouses.
Savannah was founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe as the first settlement of the British colony of Georgia. His intention was to establish a haven for debtors, with no Catholics, lawyers, or hard liquor – and, above all, no slaves. However, with the arrival of North Carolina settlers in the 1750s, plantation agriculture, based on slave labor, took off. The town became a major export center at the end of important railroad lines in which cotton was funneled from far away. General Sherman arrived here in December 1864 at the end of his "March to the Sea." At Lincoln's urging he set to work apportioning land to freed slaves. This was the first recognition of the need for "reconstruction," though such concrete economic provision for slaves was rarely to occur again.
After the Civil War, the plantations floundered, cotton prices slumped, and Savannah went into decline. There was little industry beyond the port and Savannah's graceful townhouses and tree-lined boulevards fell into decay. Not until the 1960s did local citizens start to organize what has been the successful restoration of their town. In the last two decades, the private Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has injected Savannah with even more vitality, attracting young artists and regenerating downtown.
Savannah acquired notoriety in the mid-1990s thanks to its starring role in John Berendt's best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; both the book and movie detailed a delectable mix of cross-dressing, voodoo, and murder.
Savannah's enduring charm is a direct result of the city's respect for its past. Nowhere is this more evident that in the many small neighborhoods, which often seem more like pictures from a storybook than the corners of a 21st century city. With no skyscrapers, few modern-looking structures, and the shopping malls placed mercifully, inconveniently on the periphery of town, this burg of 150,000 souls keeps the soul of the Old South alive for residents and guests alike.
This two-and-half square mile district serves as the functional heart of Savannah, and the historic status is not self-decreed. Bordered by the Savannah River to the north, Montgomery Street to the west, Price Street to the east, and Forsythe Park to the south, this area represents one of the largest National Historic Landmarks in the nation. Here is where you'll find the picturesque civic squares—23 of them—that make Savannah famous as well as street after tree-lined street of ancient churches, monuments and museums, including the Telfair, which now houses the famous “Bird Girl” statue featured on the cover of John Berendt's “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
The historic district includes the festive shops and restaurants of River Street at its northern extremity, as well as the stately businesses and churches that line Bay Street on the palisade above. Here, at the terminus of Bull Street, sits the golden dome of Savannah City Hall, the site where General James Oglethorpe first set foot on Georgia clay. As you wander south, you'll pass the verdant city squares that have played host to such Hollywood notables as Forrest Gump and Kevin Spacey's Jim Williams. As you move farther south through the oldest part of the city, you'll discover more than 2300 historic buildings—about 80 percent of which have been restored—representing architectural influences that range from Federal to Italianate, Regency to Victorian. Among the notable residences are the family estates of singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer, and Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low .
The historic district is also home to many of the city's seasonal festivals, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and a good number of Savannah's most revered restaurants and inns. Favorites include the ritzy Ballastone Inn , a former bordello that dates to 1838, the distinctively Victorian Gastonian and the more reasonably-priced Mulberry Inn , the nicest Holiday Inn you are likely to find.
As suggested by the name, this area runs along the length of the Savannah River, the city's northern border. Once the nerve center of Savannah's booming cotton trade, the neighborhood began to deteriorate after the yellow fever quarantine and subsequent depression of 1818. Abandoned for over a century, the riverfront was resurrected in 1977, as the sprawling brick warehouses and merchant buildings were transformed into a parade of shops, restaurants and art galleries.
Since then, the area has developed into the most popular destination for visitors, and maintains a festive atmosphere that lasts well into the night. Such popular restaurants as Huey's , the lively Shrimp Factory and the elegant Chart House sit alongside quaint shops that peddle everything from nautical gear to kudzu soup mix. The cobblestone surface River Street also serves as ground zero for the city's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and celebration, and the monthly First Saturday Arts and Crafts Festival. If you're looking to stay in the center of the action, book a room at the extravagant Hyatt Regency at the west end of the street, or try the more historic River Street Inn a bit farther east.
Once the bustling center of Savannah culture, commerce and gossip, City Market also sits on the river, a bit north of River Street at Jefferson and West Julian. Like River Street, the brick warehouses of this small area languished in disrepair after the death of King Cotton, but have been reclaimed by the city and now host droves of tourists. Shops, restaurants and some of the Savannah's coolest clubs draw daily crowds, with frequent live music and performance artists lending a festive atmosphere to this busy corner of the city.
This 50-block neighborhood is situated just south of the historic district, between Martin Luther King Boulevard and East Broad Street. Also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this area represented the first suburb of Savannah as the city spread out in the late 1800s. Largely residential, the neighborhood features examples of many architectural styles, with an unsurprising abundance of Victorian structures.
Midtown is a large area that incorporates the Victorian District and points south as far as DeRenne Avenue. As the neighborhood progresses southward along Abercorn Street, the residences become more modern, businesses appear, and the charm of old Savannah fades rapidly. One exception, however, is the tiny town of Thunderbolt, a quaint fishing village just to the east on the Wilmington River. Midtown is home to much of Savannah's medical community, as well as Armstrong Atlantic State University and Savannah State University. Sports fans will want to visit Grayson Stadium, home to the city's minor league baseball team, the Savannah Sand Gnats.
It's hard to say where Midtown ends and Southside begins, but DeRenne Avenue is considered a fair mark. This is where the suburban sprawl of the 1950s and 1960s really hit, as evidenced by the uninspiring residential neighborhoods intermingled with countless strip malls, fast food joints, and car dealerships. Hunter Army Airfield, from whose enormous runway the US Army deploys servicemen worldwide, anchors the area.
The low country surrounding the city harbors many small islands, including the residential boom areas of Wilmington and Whitemarsh, and the touchingly quaint Isle of Hope, whose antebellum homes and verdant lawns are the stuff of Dixie dreams. Nearby, Skidaway Island is the site of golfing communities, marinas, and miles of biking and nature trails. Skidaway is also home to the Wormsloe Historic Site , a comprehensive colonial settlement restoration.
Savannah's seaside playground, however, is Tybee. Just 15 miles east of downtown past Fort Pulaski National Monument , Tybee Island features a wonderland of crab shacks, expensive condos, party hotels and cheesy gift shops, as well as the oldest lighthouse on the South Atlantic seaboard.
Savannah is an old, coastal Southern town, and its restaurants reflect this in the traditional southern cuisine and numerous seafood dishes. Local seafood specialties include crab cakes and crab stew, shrimp, and oysters. A traditional low country boil, found on many menus, consists of boiled shrimp or crawfish with smoked sausage, corn on the cob and potatoes.
Pecans, grown in Georgia, find themselves in a variety of main dishes, especially in desserts. If you have room, try a slice of pecan pie, or drop by one of the candy shops on River Street for some sugared or glazed pecans.
In the south, the phrase “iced tea” means “sweet tea” pre-sweetened with sugar. Restaurants take pride in the quality of their sweet tea; however, for a person unaccustomed to the taste, sweet tea may seem at first, too sweet. While in Savannah, try a glass. Most restaurants offer both and will clarify whether you prefer sweet or un-sweet tea.
A Taste of the South
Most Savannah restaurants express at least some southern influence in the dishes offered. A few establishments commit to providing patrons with a true southern dining experience. The Lady and Sons offers southern food for lunch or dinner on a full buffet or from a menu. People line up daily for the home-style southern food and family style dining at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room .
Places with a Past
While many of Savannah's establishments operate in historic buildings, some have particularly interesting pastas, which makes the experience all the more memorable. The famous Pirates' House was once an Inn that hosted seamen from ships docked at the nearby River Street port. Fifteen unique dining rooms preserve the old port tavern atmosphere. The Boar's Head Tavern & Grill , is the oldest restaurant on River Street, established in 1962 when the city began giving a facelift to the old cotton warehouses along the river. The Moon River Brewing Company , Savannah's only microbrewery, operates in what was once the City Hotel, which operated until the end of the Civil War. The Olde Pink House Restaurant , a romantic Savannah favorite on Reynolds Square, is located in a mansion, circa 1796, which served as the headquarters for General York, after General Sherman and Union troops took the city.
Any coastal town guarantees restaurants offering pleasant views, and Savannah is no different. The variety of waterfront views makes Savannah special. Establishments along River Street provide views of the Savannah River. Here you can watch the huge ships and barges pass by on their way to Savannah's international port. Savannah allows restaurants to sell alcoholic drinks in plastic cups that patrons may take with them. River Street is a perfect place to grab a drink or an ice cream cone and sit to watch the activity on the water. If you want to get even closer to the river while you dine, the Savannah River Queen offers lunch and dinner cruises in addition to tours.
The Tybee Island area offers restaurants with views of the expansive salt marshes and rivers that wind through them. The Crab Shack , a dockside restaurant and bar, sits on Chimney Creek. Every table on the deck or the screened porch gets a great view of the marsh. On Tybee Island beach, The Dolphin Reef Oceanfront Restaurant at the Ocean Plaza Beach Resort and the North Beach Grill , near the Tybee Island Lighthouse , provide excellent beach and ocean views.
Dining in Savannah is not limited to southern cooking and seafood dishes, though you may find that most restaurants offer fresh seafood. For something a little different, browse the restaurants on Broughton Street. The area is home to traditional Italian fare at II Pasticcio , and Japanese food and sushi at Sakura. Also on Broughton Street is the Casbah Morroccan Restaurant , offering authentic Mediterranean food and belly dancing entertainment nightly.
Olympia on River Street serves Greek cuisine. A local favorite Italian restaurant, Garibaldi's , offers nightly specials in a Victorian-style dining room. Jalapeno's Mexican Restaurant in the Southside area is only a short drive from the historic district, and well worth it for those in the mood for Mexican food.
Relatively new to Savannah, the Sapphire Grill developed quickly into a local favorite. For an interesting, casual atmosphere and superb pizza, drop by Vinnie Van Go Go's in City Market. Sit outside on the patio and watch the passers by as they roam through City Market, once the heart of commerce in Savannah. The Cafe at City Market offers a more upscale dining experience, and has patio seating as well.
Bars, Pubs, and Taverns
Most bars in Savannah serve meals as well, and many serve food well into the evening hours for revelers with an appetite. Bernie's on River Street offers, among other things, seafood, and serves its signature Blood Mary drinks in mason jars topped with pickled okra. Kevin Barry's , a large Irish pub on River Street, has a full menu and serves food into the wee hours. Live Irish music plays downstairs, and upstairs is a cigar bar. A sign at the Warehouse Bar and Grill boasts the coldest, cheapest beer in town. The Warehouse has a large bar and pool tables and opens up onto River Street.
Truly, the only way to get a taste of all that Savannah has to offer, you must either stay for a few days, or be sure to return soon for more.
A Walk Through Time
One of the magical aspects of Savannah is that no matter where you are, you're just a short walk from something spectacular. The easy grid pattern and tree-canopied streets make this a great town for strolling, and no neighborhood is better for a stroll than the Historic District.
One caveat, though. Savannah is firmly set in a semi-tropical clime, and the city can get very warm even in the spring and fall. So if you're hitting the streets on foot, it's a good idea to head out in the early morning or early evening, and avoid the steaming heat of midday and the afternoon. Walk slowly, nodding to your fellow sidewalk travelers, and bring along a water bottle or even a parasol—you'll fit right in.
A good place to start your tour is at City Hall at Broad and Meeting Streets. This is the site of the first settlement of Savannah, and it's where founding father James Oglethorpe first put ashore in 1733. From City Hall, cross the picturesque Washington Square, and pause among the low-draping Spanish moss to look for Forrest Gump's bench.
When you reach the other side, pick up Houston Street for a block, cross Bay Street and enter the deep shade of Emmet Park. Cross the verdant lawn to the small thoroughfare on the other side known as Factor's Walk. Named for the officials who graded and set the price for cotton during the city's glory days, this three-block stretch between Bay and River Streets is now home to a wonderful array of quaint shops. From here on the palisade, you can look down over the Savannah River and the busy tourists of River Street as they move between restaurants, pubs and antique stores that have been carved out of the mammoth brick cotton warehouses of the 1800s. If you're hungry, this is a good time to descend the precarious stone steps and immerse yourself in the center of Savannah's feeding and nightlife district.
The stones used to pave the narrow alleys and stairs that lead down to the river are not technically cobblestones, as any local will gladly tell you. Rather, they're rubble of various compositions that crossed the ocean in frigates, serving as ballast in holds that would return bearing cotton, the venerated “white gold.”
If you're not hungry yet, continue along the bluff on Factor's Walk until you hit the Savannah Cotton Exchange. This 1887 structure was once the capital of the cotton world, but today is home to a lodge of Freemasons. Turn left on Drayton Street and wander two blocks to Congress before turning left toward green Johnson Square. Pause to examine the intricate ironwork and gingerbread trim on the commercial buildings and residences, many of which pre-date the Civil War by a good many years.
Another two blocks will land you at Ellis Square, named for Sir Henry Ellis, Georgia's second governor under the crown. You've now entered City Market, a roughly four-square-block neighborhood that's been restored to reflect the Savannah of the glorious cotton days. Browse the many antique and local craft shops, stop for a cold drink at one of the sidewalk cafes, or simply admire the artwork that lines the streets.
When you've taken your fill, return to Ellis Square, smile at the royal governor, and head left down Barnard for two blocks to Telfair Square. The majestic manor facing the square on the right was the home of old Governor Ellis until the Revolution ended badly for his team. It now houses the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, the oldest art museum in the South. Treat yourself to an air-conditioned spell amid these stately walls, handsomely adorned with a fine collection of American and European oils. End your journey with a visit to the “Bird Girl,” the cherubic sculpture whose appearance on the cover of John Berendt's “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” caused such heavy tourist traffic at Bonaventure Cemetery that she was moved to the Telfair out of respect for the graveyard's not-so-famous.
A Walk Through the Sand
When it's time to shake the cobwebs of the past from your vacation, you'll find plenty of sun and sand to take their place at Tybee Island. The playground of Savannah's ocean-loving denizens for over a century, this small coastal island lies a mere fifteen miles directly east of the city. Simply get yourself on Highway 80 and drive. When you sight the hulking battlements of Fort Pulaski National Monument , bear left. If you drive into the Atlantic, you've gone too far.
A quick history fix can be had at the fort, and a chuckle as well. Completed in 1847, the structure was very soon bombarded into obsolescence when Union forces on Tybee introduced rifled artillery shells to its thick walls in 1862. After thirty hours, Pulaski was out of commission, and Savannah was out of the war.
Another few miles will land you in the heart of Tybee. In recent days, much of the commercial district at the far tip of the island has been given over to loud beachside bars, kitsch shops and cheap restaurants, but the outlying areas have retained much of their low country flavor. In town, be sure to visit the time-honored MacElwee's seafood restaurant, where generations of faithful flock summer after summer. If you plan to stay the night, you'll have your pick of a virtual armada of upscale hotels, gritty motels, condominiums and beach houses.
For a bird's eye view, head for the Tybee Island Lighthouse . Dating to 1742, this is the third oldest lighthouse in America, and a short climb to the top of the 154-foot structure yields a remarkable panorama of the low country, marshlands and ocean. On the way back to town, stop by the Tybee Island Museum located nearby to satisfy your appetite for island history, or satisfy your more visceral appetites, don't miss the Crab Shack just off Highway 80 as you leave the island. This rustic joint piles the shellfish high in a ramshackle, open-air shanty right on the marsh. Happy crackin'.