When you think of historic, yet charming southern cities, picturesque Savannah, Georgia is probably the first that comes to mind.
Georgia’s oldest city has many stories behind its towering oak trees adorned with Spanish moss. The city first took root in 1733 when a ship carrying General James Oglethorpe and 120 passengers landed in the city, along what is now the Savannah River. Known as America’s first planned city, Savannah was designed by Oglethorpe through a series of grids that offered open streets, public squares, and parks under canopies of trees. Of the 24 original squares in the city, 22 still exist today, and each square offers its own unique and storied, albeit sometimes hauntingly beautiful history.
Throughout the last decade, more than 50 million visitors made their way to Savannah for its alluring green spaces and historic architecture. One of the most iconic of those spaces is Forsyth Park, named after Georgia’s 33rd governor. This 30-acre oasis is located in the heart of Savannah’s historic district and serves as a gathering place for tourists and locals alike looking for a shady spot to read, people watch, join a pick up soccer game, or enjoy an occasional concert. The park also contains a unique walled Garden of Fragrance, originally designed to be enjoyed by the blind, with Braille markers and plantings meant to be touched. Quiet and secluded, the garden includes Meyer lemon trees, winter daphne, mountain witch alder, cape jasmine, ginger lily, Florida anise, and varieties of roses, lilies, irises, violets and rhododendrons. The park’s most prominent attribute, an iconic fountain, was created in 1858 and has become one of the most photographed landmarks in the city.
THE RICH HISTORY OF SAVANNAH
Savannah’s fascinating history is further enhanced by the visionary figures that cemented the city’s future as a trading leader and the “Wall Street of the South.”
One of Savannah’s most historic residents, Eli Whitney, invented the cotton gin while working as a tutor for the children of Nathanael and Catherine Green at Mulberry Grove Plantation. His invention revolutionized agriculture and solidified Savannah as the number one cotton seaport on the Atlantic. A grand reminder of Savannah’s former dominance in the cotton trade can be found in the historic Savannah Cotton Exchange building and in the 200 year-old cobblestones used to pave River Street and construct retaining walls and other buildings along the waterfront. Originally used as ballast in ships bound for Savannah from countries such as Spain, France, Canada, Portugal, and the British Isles, the stones were deposited along the Savannah River shoreline to make room for bales of cotton and other goods. Local residents used the inexpensive and durable stones as building material along the area that came to be known as Factors Walk. Today, River Street’s former cotton warehouses are filled with delightful sweet shops, restaurants, pubs, gift shops, and other businesses—over 70 in all.
Even with the nation’s largest registered Urban Historic Landmark District, Savannah’s twenty-two green squares and sixteen-hundred plus historically and architecturally significant structures are all within a two and one-half square mile area. Guide services throughout the Historic District offer walking, carriage, and trolley tours showcasing the city’s architecture, history, hauntings, and films, but a pair of comfortable shoes is all you need to experience the sights, sounds and scenery of one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in the country.
AN ABUNDANCE OF ART
The influence of the past is undeniable in Savannah, but the city has so much more to offer than just historic tales and period architecture. The enchanting city is also home to the Savannah College of Art and Design. Founded in 1978, the private, nonprofit institution instructs 11,000 students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries at the campus in downtown Savannah.
The SCAD Museum of Art features contemporary work of both emerging and established artists from around the world through rotating exhibitions throughout the year. The permanent collection includes photography by world-renowned artists Cartier-Bresson, Mapplethorpe, Wegman and Warhol.
For those wishing to bring back a little bit of culture as a souvenir, there’s shopSCAD, a store located on Madison Square that offers student, faculty, and alumni artwork for purchase.
SCAD’s powerful influence on the city has transformed Savannah into a haven for local and international artists and gallerists. The Tiffani Taylor Gallery is one of the city’s most renowned and has caught the attention of media proprietor Oprah Winfrey and fashion designer Diane von Furstenburg among others. Taylor, an artist and SCAD graduate, founded the Savannah Art Walk, a monthly self-guided tour that allows guests to visit all 20 galleries in the surrounding area. The greatest concentration of galleries and art studios can be found in City Market, a pedestrianized area of small shops, boutiques, and restaurants. “Savannah is a rich source of creative talent,” said Taylor. “The abundance of galleries contributes to a wealth of inspiration for guests of our city, as well as locals. Savannah is the premier art destination city.”
Contemporary art lovers should make time for a tour of the Jepson Center which encompasses over 7,500 square feet of gallery space for major traveling exhibitions of contemporary art and installations. The center features works on paper by some of the most pivotal artists of the past fifty years, including Jasper Johns, Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Richard Avedon. The Center also includes ArtZeum—a unique, 3,500-square foot interactive gallery for children and families.
THE CITY FOR FOODIES
With options from hipster chic to authentic antebellum, dining in Savannah can be as memorable as sightseeing. As a fixture near the Atlantic coast, Savannah’s cuisine is a rich mix of exotic influences brought by foreign transplants and foundational Lowcountry dishes born from the blending of African staples and available local seafood and vegetables.
Take in some history while also enjoying a cocktail at Savannah’s newest addition to City Market, The American Prohibition Museum, featuring more than 20 exhibits and an authentic speakeasy.
For a thoroughly modern take on a ubiquitous Lowcountry dish, be sure to make your way to The Olde Pink House for the best shrimp and grits in town. Build in 1771, this Georgian mansion is one of the few buildings to survive the fire of 1776 which claimed many of the cities buildings. The dining spot has become a favorite among diners and ghost hunters alike.
To taste the best fried chicken in the South, you’ll have to join the line of people down Jones Street to get into Mrs. Wilkes’ Fried Chicken. The dining room serves a family-style meal for twelve at each table on a first-come-first-served basis.
The Crystal Beer Parlor, a local dining and drinking favorite, combines a storied history with it take on southern American dishes. In the early 1900s, the location operated as a grocery store, but now it offers satisfying eats such as fried green tomatoes, a fried flounder Reuben sandwich, a brown ale burger and a hamburger steak that has been a staple on the menu since 1933.
For a taste of the South with a twist, Treylor Park, a vintage chic restaurant in downtown, offers patio dining and has more going for it than just a typographic pun. The restaurant’s menu features re-invented southern dishes like PB&J chicken wings, biscuit and eggs benedict, fried collard greens over buttermilk biscuits, and shrimp and grits tacos topped with chili aioli and chimichuri.
For a multicultural dining experience, head over to Zunzi’s Conquistador Sandwich. Inspired by the proprietors’ Swiss, Italian, South African and Dutch heritage, the lunch spot’s chicken Conquistador sandwich is famous for taking top honors on an episode of “ Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America” on the Travel Channel.
For a cool treat, take a stroll to Leopold’s Ice Cream. The Leopold family has been making ice cream in Savannah since 1919, and they still use their delicious original recipes. A scoop of Honey and Almond Cream ice cream from Savannah’s oldest creamery, isn’t just a tradition—it’s a must.
IRISH HISTORY ON DISPLAY
Although Savannah makes a great getaway any time of the year, the city is most famous for its St. Patrick’s Day celebration. The event is the largest of its kind in the South and attracts 500,000 people each year. Savannah boasts a rich Irish history, with many settlers from Ireland arriving in Georgia during the 18th century. In 1824, the city first celebrated the holiday with a Catholic feast. Now, the celebration kicks off in February with the Savannah Irish Festival, where traditional Irish food is served, the grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is elected and the fountains in the city are dyed green. On March 17, the day begins with a mass at St. John the Baptist, a gothic cathedral, followed by a parade featuring several heritage groups and societies from around the U.S., including marching bands, Budweiser Clydesdales, military units and floats. A festival accompanies the celebration and offers live entertainment, interactive art, local vendors and plenty of food.
BEACHCOMBING FUN JUST MINUTES AWAY
Just 18 miles east of Savannah lies Tybee Island, a secluded and historic paradise. The small island near the mouth of the Savannah River has become a getaway for locals and tourists with its bed and breakfasts, art galleries and other cultural offerings. Much of the island is still in its natural state, which makes it a perfect place for outdoor recreation and eco-tourism. Tybee Island is less than three miles long and its scenic beach and nature trails can be biked or walked. For something more active, there are options to jet ski, kayak or paddleboard. Paddling through the nature preserve can lead to close encounters of Georgia’s coastal wildlife, some of which can’t be seen anywhere else. The island is home to more than 200 different bird species, making it a prime destination for bird watchers.
Whether you’re a history buff, a foodie, an art afficionado, or just a beach bum looking for a beautiful city to rest your feet, Savannah provides and array of experiences to match any taste.