A “pretty woman with a dirty face” — this is how British Lady Nancy Astor described Savannah in 1946. When her countryman, Founder James Oglethorpe, landed on a bluff high along the Savannah River in 1733, he planned the new settlement in a series of orderly grids with wide-open streets intertwined with 24 neat public squares and parks. And so the community slowly grew to become the very first city in the new southeastern state of Georgia, one of the 13 original colonies of the United States.
But by the mid-1940s, the original glory had faded. Savannah’s green islands in the city were sadly neglected. Once impressive antebellum houses had fallen into disrepair and were demolished to make way for ugly urban development. Cobblestoned River Street had long changed from a popular port for exporting cotton and lumber, into a ratty wharf.
Out of these ashes has risen one of the best examples of historic preservation. During a great reawakening in the 50s, this sleeping beauty received a makeover. Savannah’s stately homes have been carefully restored since then. Live oaks dripping with Spanish moss stand tall once again in her shady squares. Here, azaleas burst forth with colorful blossoms.
Twenty-one of Savannah’s original squares remain today and have been revived as town meeting places. Horse-drawn carriages once again roll through her tranquil streets, flanked by elegant old mansions adorned with pristine cast-iron stair railings, Medieval-influenced graceful churches and eclectic galleries.
More than 40 percent of the 2,500 buildings inventoried in Savannah have some architectural or historical significance. Examples of most of the nation’s 18th and 19th century architectural styles — from simple Colonial, Italianate and Regency to gingerbread Victorian — can be found here.
Tourism got another boost in 1994, when author John Berendt published “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” — a mostly true tale of a local sex-and-murder scandal, with voodoo and drag queens, which sold more than 1.25 million copies in America, (Clint Eastwood directed the movie version in 1997).
Thousands of visitors come to see the sites from the book: Mercer House (429 Bull Street), where the late antique-dealer Jim Williams shot his lover Danny Hansford, being the most popular location. Today, guided tours even point out the sites in the thriving historic district.
“Georgia’s First City” has become once again one of the most beautiful cities in the country. Visitors can’t help but be charmed by this lovely Southern Belle.
There’s no question that the heart of the historic district is the most unique area to stay. Many of the historic homes have been turned into Bed & Breakfasts. Try the Hamilton-Turner Inn (330 Abercorn Street, 888-448-8849), known as the “Grand Victorian Lady.”
It was built in 1873 by wealthy jeweler Samuel Hamilton and was the first house in all of Savannah to have electricity. It is said that people at the time gathered outside every evening to see the elegant mansion light up miraculously at dusk.
Before it recently changed hands, the stylish residence belonged to “Mandy” from Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” It was authentically restored in 1998 and its 17 individually decorated rooms are furnished with Empire, Eastlake and Renaissance Revival Antiques. The stately beds are so high you will actually need the little pedestals provided to climb into bed. The Hamilton-Turner Inn represents one of the finest examples of Second French Empire in the United States.
Houseguests are served wine and home-made hors d’oeuvres in the afternoon. For your gourmet breakfast you can choose from something sweet, like strawberry cream cheese-stuffed French toast or something hearty, like a spinach-Swiss cheese omelet. Room prices range from US$ 175-350 per night.
You might want to start exploring Savannah by hopping aboard one of the many trolley, bus or carriage tours, which you can conveniently join all over town. Ladies are handed little paper fans to make them feel like true Southern Belles.
This is the perfect way to get an overview of the city. Savannah is easily accessible by foot. A tour will get you comfortably acquainted with most of its attractions. And you can always walk back later for a second and more intensive visit.
Have lunch at City Market, the social and economic center of early Savannah. History is still alive in the four blocks of restored grain warehouses at Jefferson and West St. Julian Street. Outside dining is very popular here year-round. Restaurants serve an eclectic mix to please every palate — from Low Country Cuisine and pizza to fresh seafood. Save room for dessert at Café Gelatohhh!!! (202 West St. Julian Street, 912-234-2344). Their blueberry ice cream is fabulous.
The Market is also a great spot for shopping. You will find unique gifts, souvenirs, original artwork and a wide selection of Savannah-made products here, such as freshly-made candy. It is a pedestrian area with outside benches under shady trees — a charming place for a stroll or relaxing.
While you are in the mood, continue your exploration of Savannah’s beautiful squares. Remember, this is your first day in the city and you might want to take it slowly like the locals do. Southern watches work refreshingly different. Leave the hustle and bustle of your everyday life behind. Try to absorb Savannah’s irresistible charm. Take your time to observe its fun-loving and eccentric inhabitants.
Where else do you see someone carting their dog around in a children’s stroller? Or would you know another city that provides water fountains for its canine population?
You’ve probably kept your city map provided by most tour companies. Pull it out and plan your route. Why don’t you take Bull Street south starting from City Hall?
You’ll pass: enchanting Johnson Square, the first of Savannah’s 24 original squares; then Wright Square, with the large boulder marking the grave of Indian Chief Tomochichi who welcomed the first colonists; Chippewa, where Forrest Gump’s fake fiberglass bench stood during filming of the 1994 movie; and Madison Square. Then you’ll finally reach Forsyth Park. Its beautiful cast iron fountain, which was erected in 1858 and designed to resemble the water fountain of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, is one of the most photographed monuments by visitors to Savannah.
You must be hungry by now. “The Lady & Sons Restaurant” (102 West Congress Street, 912-233-2600) serves authentic Southern cooking like delicious chicken pot pie or crab-stuffed shrimp. TV-personality Paula Deen, host of the food network show “Paula’s Home Cooking,” owns this enormously popular restaurant. Reservations are recommended. Lines usually start to form early before seating, but at least you’ll get to sample their famous cheese biscuits while you wait.
If you’re still up for some nighttime entertainment after this long day, check out the “Jukebox Journey” playing at the Savannah Theatre (222 Bull Street, 912-233-7764), a two-hour time travel back to the greatest musical hits from jazz to disco. Or, why not take a moonlight cruise on the mighty Savannah River (River Street Riverboat Company, 800-786-6404)?
Savannah has more than 45 historical and cultural attractions. Dedicate the morning to exploring some of Savannah’s famous museums und historic homes.
Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts Movement in 1912. Her birthplace (10 East Oglethorpe Avenue, 912-233-4501), fully furnished and with original photographs and artwork by Gordon Low, is a mecca for little Brownies from all over the country.
The Telfair Museum of Art (121 Barnard Street, 912-232-1177) is the oldest art museum in the South. Its permanent collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative art include works by American Impressionists Childe Hassam, Frederick Frieseke, and Gari Melchers as well as paintings by European artists. The museum is housed in a neoclassical Regency-style mansion built by William Jay from 1818 to 1819.
The Owens-Thomas House Museum (124 Abercorn Street, 912-233-9743) served as an elegant boarding house for Revolutionary War Hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, in 1825. He supposedly delivered two addresses to thousands of cheering citizens from the ornate cast iron balcony. Its outbuildings feature one of the few intact slave quarters in America.
The Davenport House Museum (324 East State Street, 912-236-8097), furnished as it would have been in the 1820s, offers a glimpse into daily life in the cosmopolitan seaport of 19th century Savannah. It is the first historic building that has been saved from demolition by a determined group of seven Savannah women, prompting the establishment of the Historic Savannah Foundation. This was the starting point for Savannah’s architectural renaissance.
Have lunch at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room (107 West Jones Street, 912-232-5997) and you are treated like family. The late Mrs. Wilkes started to feed permanent boarders in 1943 in the garden level basement of her home. The boarders are long gone, but today her granddaughter, Marcia Thompson, welcomes lunch guests for a set menu of Southern specialties. You will be seated at tables for ten. Bowls of steaming turnips, collard greens, chicken dumplings and beef stew over rice with gravy are placed before you. Strawberry shortcakes or banana pudding is served for dessert. Eat as much as you like for US$ 13.
From here you can make your way to the Savannah History Museum (303 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, 912-238-1779), housed in the old passenger train shed. Memorabilia from every era of Savannah’s history are on display.
If you still have not had enough of historic Savannah, you might enjoy a visit to the Pirates’ House (20 East Broad Street , 912-233-5757). It first opened in 1753 as an inn for seafarers, but quickly became a meeting point for thirsty sailors from all Seven Seas. In her early days, the city used to be somewhat of a day spa for buccaneers.
The rogues didn’t plunder Savannah, but took a break here from their exhausting business. The population welcomed the pirates, for they smuggled prohibited goods like liquor into town, which was outlawed by founder Oglethorpe. Today the Pirates’ House is a restaurant, but you can still see the entrance to tunnels that started inside and ran to the river.
Try dinner here or walk the short distance to cobblestone-paved River Street, a nine block brick concourse of one-time cotton warehouses which is now home to galleries, artist’s studios, shops and a wide variety of restaurants.
Should you still have loads of energy, you could take a Nightly Ghost Walk next. According to Christine Troxell of Savannah Walking Tours (800-563-3896), 80 percent of all homes in the historic district supposedly house ghosts — including her own. Savannah is one of the most haunted destinations in the U.S. The “Olde Pink House” (23 Abercorn Street, 912-232-4286), an 18th century mansion turned elegant dining restaurant, is one of its hot spots. It is haunted by “ladies man” John Habersham Junior. Other than pinching unsuspecting female guests on their behinds, he seems to be obsessed with bathrooms, explains Christine, “Locking doors, flushing toilets and even pulling down panties.”
Take a day trip to Tybee Island, just half an hour from Savannah’s downtown area. Here you can be sure to enjoy the cool sea breeze or even take a swim in the refreshing blue waters. Build a sandcastle or just relax on the beach.
You could also take a dolphin tour or try kayaking. Have a seafood lunch at one of the picturesque beachside restaurants. Before you head back into town, don’t forget to climb Tybee Lighthouse (Off U.S. 80 at Fort Screven, 912-786-5801), Georgia’s oldest and tallest (154 ft. or 47 m).
For your last dinner in Savannah, why not learn a little bit of delicious Savannah cooking first-hand? Sign up for a Lecture and Demonstration Class at Chef Joe Randall’s Cooking School (5409 Waters Avenue, 912-303-0409), which includes a scrumptious three-course meal. “I want visitors to leave with a little South in your mouth,” says Randall. And you will still remember the taste long after you have returned home.
If You Go
Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
101 East Bay Street
Savannah , Georgia 31404