Sometimes referred to as “Hospitality City,” Savannah is oozing with Southern charm. From the stunning antebellum and colonial mansions to the cobblestone streets and tiny park squares dripping with Spanish moss, the romantic vibe is intoxicating. Without a doubt, the Savannah historic district is the heartbeat of the city. Be prepared… the slow-paced Southern city is preserved and unchanged, and you will have an uncanny sensation that you’ve been transported back to the deep south of days gone by.
Getting Around Savannah
The Savannah historic district is quite small compared to many other popular cities. Because it was planned on a grid system around 22 small parks or squares, it’s very easy – and preferable – to explore on foot, and thus has been dubbed as one of the best walking cities in the United States.
The brilliant vision for the city was laid out in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe. His plan was to create a grid system that would be easy to expand as needed, i.e. four open squares, each surrounded by four residential blocks and four civic blocks.
It’s also enjoyable to explore Savannah on bike, or if limited on time, by trolley or a horse-drawn carriage tour. I’d advise leaving the car at your hotel, though… not only will you miss out on being enveloped in the prettiest city in the US, but the streets are generally one way only and can be a bit of a hassle when driving.
You can book one of several walking tours in which your guide will regale you with the city’s history. But if you have already done your research or don’t really care too much about detailed history but want to explore on your own, it’s really easy. You can get a map of the Savannah historic district from either your hotel concierge or the conveniently located visitor’s center. The map contains tourist attractions, historical monuments, 22 small park squares, notable buildings, parks, museums, and other points of interest.
On my latest weekend getaway, I zig-zagged around the historic district, hitting all the sites that interest me – then River Street for dinner and nightlife; half-day trips to Tybee Beach and Wormsloe Plantation.
Savannah at a Glance
- Claim to Fame: Named the most haunted city in America
- Population: 145,862
- Location: On the Savannah River, 20 miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean
- Climate: humid subtropical with long tropical summers and short, mild winters
- Established: 1733 by General James Oglethorpe when the ship Anne landed on a bluff along the Savannah River. This 13th and final American colony, Georgia, was named after England’s King George II. It’s the oldest city in the state of Georgia and was a strategic port in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
- Fame: Setting for John Berendt’s popular book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The Southern Gothic book is based on true events surrounding antique dealer Jim Williams and the murder of Danny Hansford. The infamous trials and eventual acquittal changed the once quiet city, leaving an imprint on its legacy and boost to tourism.
- Alcohol: Savannah has an “open container” policy, i.e., anyone of legal drinking age can walk around the city with an alcoholic beverage in hand.
Without further ado, here are the 10 best things to do in the Savannah historic district.
1 Jones Street
Jones Street is my favorite part of Savannah. I could literally stroll along this spectacular street for hours.
It’s been voted “the most beautiful street in America,” and I’m inclined to agree. Jones Street is a prime example of the “deep southern charm” that people romanticize about when they think of old cities like Savannah.
Centuries-old antebellum and colonial mansions line the street, each one a different style and pastel color than any of the others. Flowering courtyards, lush foliage and wrought iron balconies adorn the homes on the street lined with giant oaks dripping with Spanish moss. The beauty is remarkable; pictures just don’t do it justice because the camera lens just can’t take in the entire panorama that your eyes see. It simply must be admired in person.
2 Forsyth Park
Encompassing 30 historic acres, Forsyth Park is the geographic, photogenic, and cultural heart of Savannah. Sitting on a bench under the oak canopy is the perfect resting spot during a long day of sightseeing. Missing Forsyth Park while in Savannah would be like missing the Colosseum while in Rome.
On Saturday morning the park hosts a farmer’s market where visitors can purchase locally-sourced produce, street food, and enjoy live music.
3 Famous Squares
Sprinkled throughout the Savannah historic district are the 22 enchanting squares. Most were named in memory of a notable person or historical event and some host a towering monument or fountain in the center and/or plaques revealing the significance of the location. Visiting as many of them as you can is a common tourist goal and the benches provide a welcome respite.
River Street is Savannah’s popular tourist spot along the Savannah River. The views of the river, pier, and across to the lovely Talmadge Memorial (suspension) Bridge are exquisite, especially at sunrise and sunset.
During the day, the cobbled streets along the lower level of the former cotton warehouses are generally packed with visitors looking into the shops or having a bite in one of the cafes. River Street Market Place is a fun, open-air market for handmade jewelry and other souvenirs.
At night, River Street is teeming with nightlife, with live music wafting out of the pubs, bars, and nightclubs. Try the Warehouse Bar & Grill which reputedly offers the cheapest drinks in town. Because of Savannah’s open container policy, you don’t have to go to a bar for a cocktail – you can bring or purchase what you want and watch the magnificent sunset from the pier.
Note: Pay attention to where you step, especially at night. The cobbles are uneven in shape and height, and it would be quite easy to lose your balance and fall.
5 City Market
In existence since the 1700s, open-air City Market offers visitors four lively pedestrian-only blocks (between Ellis and Franklin Squares) of boutique shopping, art galleries, ice cream shops, casual outdoor eateries, and fine dining. There are often live bands playing and here you can book a horse-drawn carriage or a “peddle pub” – a trolley-looking vehicle with no engine, but is powered by the legs of the passengers who sit around a center bar facing each other.
6 Historic Architecture
Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the first planned city in America, head to the stunning Owens-Thomas mansion, built by George Owens who was a politician and a slave owner. Dating to 1819, the estate encompasses the elegant Regency-style mansion, expansive gardens, carriage house, and separate slave quarters. Touring the compound gives insight into what life was like during that period of history for both the enslaved and the free.
Mercer Williams Mansions
The Mercer Williams home is the scene of the crime in the book/movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and thus is a major tourist attraction and part of walking, trolley, and carriage tours. Once owned by relatives of musician Johnny Mercer, the mansion was subsequently purchased and renovated by Williams. You can do a stand-alone tour of the inside of the Mercer Williams House, but you won’t be provided with any salacious commentary on Williams’ sexual orientation, the murder, or the book.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Standing magnificently in the middle of the historic district, the towering twin spires of Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is an architectural masterpiece and one of the most recognizable symbols of Savannah.
Founded in 1846, the 100-acre cemetery is home to many of Savannah’s most notable former residents such as silent film actress Edythe Chapman and novelist Conrad Aiken. Along with the intricate tombstones and mausoleums, you’ll find the ubiquitous mesmerizing trees covered in that glorious Spanish moss.
However, rural Bonaventure Cemetery, just outside the city limits, is most known for its part in the aforementioned novel/film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The bench at Conrad Aiken’s grave is where characters gathered for drinks at night. Character Johnny Mercer is buried here.
Unfortunately, the famous “Bird Girl” statue that graced the cover of the book is no longer in Bonaventure Cemetery. It became a target after the book’s fame and was relocated to the Telfair Academy art museum in the historic district.
In keeping with many other historic cemeteries, ghost tours are a big tourist attraction, including one that indulges macabre tales, bootleggers, murders, root doctors, and ill-fated lovers. The grounds offer guided tours for a fee, where you can learn about the history behind the famous landmark, but you can also tour the cemetery for free on your own…hopefully during the day.
There’s a reason why Savannah has a distinct artsy vibe. Because of the Savannah College of Arts and Design in downtown, there’s a large and fun student atmosphere. If you’re looking for a unique souvenir, the students create some incredible jewelry and artwork which you can purchase in the college store.
9 Wormsloe Plantation
When you see the iconic storybook Savannah photo of the 1.5-mile avenue of old, tall oaks forming a dreamy canopy of Spanish moss, chances are you are looking at a photo taken at the Wormsloe Historic Site.
Just a short drive from downtown Savannah, the 822-acre plantation was once the home of Noble Jones, an English colonist who arrived at the Georgia colony with James Oglethorpe in 1733. On the premises are the ruins of the tabby house, a museum, and interpretive reenactments of daily colonial life.
10 Tybee Island
If you’re longing for a beach reprieve from Savannah’s heat and humidity, fret not. Just a 20-minute drive from the Savannah historic district, Tybee Island, nicknamed “Savannah’s Beach,” offers enough to do for a couple of hours to a whole day of sun, sand, and beach-town fun.
The quintessential little beach town has a pier, small street lined with shops and restaurants, and even a lighthouse a few miles from the beach. For a fee, visitors can climb to the top of the historic lighthouse for a birds-eye view of the coastline.
While strolling around downtown Savannah, you might also want to include a visit to:
- Birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low (founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA)
- Georgia Historical Society (the oldest continually operating historical society in the South)
- Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences (one of the South’s first public museums)
- First African Baptist Church (one of the oldest African-American Baptist congregations in the United States)
- Temple Mickve Israel (the third-oldest synagogue in the U.S.)
Where to Eat in Savannah
The Old Pink House
This iconic pink landmark in the Savannah historic was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1966. Due to the history, location, and delicious upscale southern cuisine, reservations are generally needed.
The rustic restaurant known as Pirate’s House was once an inn for pirates and sailors. Allegedly, the place carries a shady legend with a tunnel from the cellar to the river. Seamen were supplied with strong alcohol and when they passed out they were carried to ships waiting in the harbor. Imagine their surprise to awake and find themselves at sea on a strange ship bound for some faraway port!
Pirate’s House was an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson as he wrote Treasure Island. The book actually mentions Savannah Georgia as the place where Captain Flint’s map is hidden.
The Cotton Exchange
Repurposed from an old cotton warehouse, diners can watch the ships on the River Street harbor side while dining on fresh-caught seafood, steaks, oysters, and colossal salads.
The Wilkes House
Dining at one of the all-you-can-eat communal table-for-ten at the former 1943 boardinghouse is a bit like enjoying a family-style home-cooked meal from your Grandma. Pass the platter, please!
The Lady and Sons
Hailing from Savannah, celebrity chef Paula Deen and her two sons offer a reservations-only variety (buffet or menu) of delectable Southern dishes.
Yet another venue made famous from “the book.” Once a former drugstore, Clary’s Cafe is where the book’s locals gossiped about what was going on in town. Nowadays it’s an especially popular breakfast place. Clary’s sells memorabilia from the book/movie and the author himself purportedly has been spotted there from time to time.
Leopold’s Ice Cream
Escape the heat at this popular 100-year-old ice cream parlor with a marble soda fountain and homemade ice cream.
What to Eat in Savannah
Now that we’ve told you where to eat, there are some staples of down-south country cooking that you simply must try while you are here.
- Shrimp and Grits
- Buttermilk Fried Chicken
- Fried Catfish
- Low Country Boil
- Chicken Fried Steak
- Glazed Country Ham
- Fried Green Tomatoes
- Pimento Cheese
- Shoefly or Pecan Pie
- Peach Cobbler
- Cornbread and Biscuits
- Collard Greens or Okra
- Boiled Peanuts
- Sweet Tea
Savannah is a delightful Southern destination where art, architecture, mouth-watering cuisine, and ghost stories are fused together under a blanket of magical moss.
But Savannah also has a dark past. Centuries ago, it was one of the busiest slave ports in America, and slave labor built much of the wealth and glamour of the gorgeous city.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.