A walkabout in a historic Georgia city.
Georgia was the last of the original Thirteen Colonies— and Savannah was its first city. The colony of Georgia had been created in 1732 as a “buffer state” to protect South Carolina from the Spanish in Florida.
It’s believed the city, founded by James Oglethorpe, was so named after the river. The Savannah River runs to the north-northeast of Savannah, while the Little Black River just northeast of that comprises the border with South Carolina.
Like New Orleans, Charleston and other southern coastal towns, Savannah has been swamped by the waters more than once. Today, five canals and several pumping stations keep the city from flooding. Fortunately, due to its location in the Georgia Bight, it’s at a lower risk of hurricanes than other cities on the Atlantic.
It’s humid in Savannah, and though it rains a fair amount from June to September, it rarely snows—and in recent history, even freezing temperatures are rare. Overall, the temperatures tend to be cooler and more moderate than inland areas of Georgia.
Pilots will find good treatment at a few of the GA airports just over the border in South Carolina. (See “Lowcountry Alternates” by Michael Leighton on page 57. —Ed.) Regardless of how you arrive, a trip to Savannah is a trip worth taking.
I was surprised to find that the population of the city proper is just 145,000. For such a modestly-sized town, it has a lot to offer visitors. Savannah is old, beautiful, and in my experience, lives up to the hype.
Architecture and the arts
James Oglethorpe designed Savannah in a grid system. Shady public squares were interspersed at regular intervals between blocks, and of the original 24 squares in the layout, 22 greenspaces remain intact today.
Many significant buildings remain intact, too. As a result of the efforts begun by the Savannah Historic Foundation in the 1950s, Savannah’s Historic District is one of the largest in the United States.
With so much ornate architecture and ironwork, iconic fountains and statues, cobblestone and Spanish moss, it’s little wonder that Savannah was voted one of the 10 Most Beautiful Places in America by USA Weekend.
Though Savannah escaped destruction during Gen. Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” it suffered through two major fires in 1796 and 1820, the rise and fall of the cotton industry, and the Great Depression. With such a long and arduous history, Savannah is reputed to be America’s most haunted city.
Capitalizing on this, various companies offer ghost tours, nighttime ghost “walks” and cemetery tours. Organized tours to view the architecture and historic buildings in the daylight hours abound, and are available via trolley or on foot.
I took a walking tour of Savannah’s Historic District that focused on some of the major landmarks and various architectural styles. Our guide had a master’s degree in architecture from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and loved his adopted city.
Some know Savannah best through “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt. This novel still holds the record for the longest best-selling book on the New York Times’ list (216 weeks). Anyone who recalls this story, or the 1997 movie of the same name, might recall the iconic “Bird Girl” statue.
After the book became so popular, this privately-owned grave monument was relocated from Bonaventure Cemetery to the Telfair Museum of Art, and later to the nearby Jepson Center for the Arts.
As you’ve probably gathered, the arts are pretty big in Savannah. Savannah College of Art and Design has over 40 programs in both contemporary (branded entertainment, design for sustainability) and traditional disciplines (art history, sculpture).
The Culinary Institute of Savannah at Savannah Technical College also has a large presence in the city, and is one of the top culinary programs in the nation. In addition to three teaching kitchens, Chef Jean Vendeville and his students created Bistro Savoir—a nonprofit that offers seasonal sales of pastries and breads. Proceeds from the sales help to fund a scholarship/exchange program in France.
Museums, shopping and more
Some things I enjoyed in Savannah included a brief visit to the River Street Market Place, an open-air shopping area with various flea market-type sellers and food vendors. The market opens every day at 10 a.m., and even if you don’t purchase anything, it’s nice to stroll along the river and watch the activity at the market as well as on the water in this port city.
Strolling is something I did a lot of while in Savannah. The city is set up to wander around in, so treks to City Market’s boutiques, antique shops, galleries and gift shops can be easily accomplished if you make sure to take time to get off your feet here and there. With so many sun-dappled squares full of benches, building in rest time is a breeze.
One must for any newcomer is a visit to Savannah’s Candy Kitchen. This old-fashioned confectionery has the world’s most delicious pecan pralines (truly) as well as divinity, saltwater taffy, gophers (a.k.a. turtles), fudge, caramels and truffles. I visited. Daily. (I also tried to bring a box of pralines home to Wisconsin, but my husband and I ate them all by the time we got to Louisville, Ky.)
Military history buffs have no shortage of learning opportunities anywhere in the South. Savannah-area attractions include Fort Pulaski and Old Fort Jackson. The Webb Military Museum, a newer museum featuring a single private collection, gets great reviews online.
Another must is the Pin Point Heritage Museum. This museum is inside a former oyster and crab packing house. The self-sustained Gullah/Geechee community on the marsh near the Moon River was isolated for nearly 100 years; this museum’s mission is to preserve the creole language, farming and fishing traditions of this unique African-American Lowcountry culture.
There are so many options for good food in Savannah. Here are a few of my recommendations.
For a casual meal, I’d try Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room for fried chicken, sweet potato soufflé and other Southern specialties—provided you can get a seat. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, doesn’t take credit cards and is usually very busy.
Debi’s Restaurant’s is another down-home place—and it’s the diner where Jenny worked in “Forrest Gump.” This no-frills family restaurant serves good sandwiches and breakfast all day. It’s only open 7:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., though, so don’t plan to eat here for dinner.
There are several choices for fine dining in Savannah. One of these, 700 Drayton, is located at the Mansion on Forsyth Park. This upscale restaurant has some eclectic choices, but you can get breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner along with a nice selection of wines. The main dining area is beautifully decorated.
The menu at Sapphire Grill is set to showcase local seafood, but also offers fowl (duck and chicken), lamb, pork and beef. This multi-story establishment is located on Congress Street—quite near a little place you might have heard of: The Lady and Sons. (You’ll know you’re close when you see the line waiting to get in the door for Paula Deen’s Southern Buffet.)
Savannah has all major hotel chains, along with vacation rentals, inns, boutique hotels and more. I recommend you begin your search for lodging at VisitSavannah.com. The site is nicely arranged so you can narrow your search by “pet friendly,” “family friendly”—and yes, even “haunted.”
We stayed at the East Bay Inn, located on the corner of E. Bay Street and Lincoln. It’s a smaller hotel (28 rooms) in a nice location—a short walk across Emmet Park brought us to River Street and the many waterfront sights, shops and eateries. A walk in the other direction takes you into the central part of the city and on down to the Victorian District.
Current rates at the East Bay Inn are quite reasonable on weekdays ($129 to $161), but weekend rates are significantly higher ($259 to $279). During peak times (late March through June, and again from September through November), rates average $188 on weekdays and $299 on weekends.
A trip to Savannah really isn’t complete until you take the drive east to Tybee Island. From downtown Savannah, it’s a simple 20- to 30-minute drive east on the Islands Expressway/I-80, past Cockspur Island and Fort Pulaski to Tybee Island.
This island has been a retreat for the people of Savannah (called “Savannahians,” in case you were wondering) since the Civil War. In many ways, Tybee is a typical seaside village, with ramshackle seaside shops, a large public beach, a couple of larger hotels, and some quirky year-round residents.
Though there are some very good eateries on Tybee—like A.J.’s Dockside—in our experience the shrimp po’boy sandwiches from out-of-the-way roadside stands were even better. Fresh seafood and public fishing are both in abundance here.
Besides surfing, sunbathing and swimming, families might enjoy a trek through Fort Pulaski National Monument. This “Third System” military fort cost around $1 million when it was constructed in 1847. With 11-foot-thick walls, Fort Pulaski was supposedly impregnable—but it fell in 1862 under bombardment from James rifled cannons.
There are at least a dozen hotels, inns and cottage complexes on Tybee Island—enough options to suit anyone who wants to spend some serious “Tybee time.” In my experience, though, accommodations can be a little hit-and-miss. If you plan to stay here, I suggest that you visit the location in person before committing.
Savannah and the entire Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina are rich with stories, and my time in the area felt too short. I’d love to go back. Til then, I guess I’ll have my pralines shipped from River Street straight to my door.
Heather Skumatz is managing editor for Piper Flyer. Send questions or comments to .
Tours, museums and monuments
Shopping and gifts