Savannah is a city that slows you down to appreciate nature’s beauty. It is a city of gardens and squares steeped in history and literature. The people are true “southerners,” the kind that drawl prettily, take their tea sweet and are genteely kind. They genuinely love their city, with all its charms and weaknesses. The weather was lovely in April, but we were told that July and August is their “winter,” that quiet time when tourism disappears as the temperatures and humidity rise. Many residents use this time to visit the beach or travel themselves.
Savannah’s history has a fascinating and rich history, having endured the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and Civil War. Founded in 1732 by General James Oglethorpe to assist the English in protecting their providence from the Spanish pushing north from Florida, his presence is still very evident as this city richly honors its founding fathers and other historical figures. The main street into the city is still named after Oglethorpe who designed the original city as a pattern of repeated squares. This creates, even today, a beautiful and easy-to-walk city filled with beautiful gardens, public green spaces, and historical tributes.
Much is written about Savannah’s squares and deservedly, as they offer a green oasis in the middle of commercial and residential areas. The city has done a marvelous job erecting historical markers so you learn the history and meaning of the various statues and historic buildings. The streets which run so neatly parallel and perpendicular make it easy to wander without feeling lost (you always know the river is north) and you can create a route that takes you back to your start without retracing steps.
The beauty of this city is so captivating that it is said that General Sherman as he made his fiery victory march from Atlanta, got to Savannah and made a “gift” of it to President Lincoln instead of burning it. So while there are markings of some destruction by Union soldiers, the city was left largely intact. And many of the buildings, including houses, are historically marked with signs that give the year built, most of which were in the 1800’s.
Forsyth Park was established in 1840s and grew in 1850s to thirty acres at what was the southern edge, but now is more central Savannah. It remains the city’s main public park with a commanding central fountain around which many weddings are held. The park includes a large green space where dogs roam freely, an amphitheater for performances and spaces reserved for festivals, sports, and other activities.
Savannahians are respectful of history and its importance, maintaining and adding to it. Most of the original squares still survive with some special additions in tribute to heroes. In 2007, they erected a monument to the 700 free men of color from Haiti who fought in the Revolutionary War at the Siege of Savannah. This history museum includes information on the Native Americans who assisted General Oglethorpe in settling the area and the bench that Forrest Gump sat on in Chippewa Square at the beginning of the movie. And their streets come alive with the history of all Americans.
One example is Layette Square, which is named after the famous French general who assisted George Washington win our independence, and which is surrounded by the childhood home of writer Flannery O’Connor, the house where Juliette Gordon Low created Girl Scouts, and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist completed in 1896. Down the street in Madison Square (named for our fourth President), E Shaver Booksellers has set up shop in home built in 1842, the Old Sorrel-Weed House offers haunted tours of its rooms, and a statue honors William Jasper, a Revolutionary War Hero.
With the squares originally planned as “wards,” the idea was that residents lived close to the square and commercial or civic buildings surrounded them. The design was easily replicated and grew to 24 squares, giving the city a very walkable and european flavor. You can admire beautiful old residences then walk a block down to a delightful restaurant or shop.
While the trolley tours looked fun (one included reenactments from “historical” figures like James Oglethorpe and Forrest Gump), we chose to walk the squares with a The Savannah Walking Tour and Gardens booklet and an app called GPSmyCity. It was simple, cost much less and no waiting for a trolley. On another trip into the city, some friends and I attended the Hidden Gardens Tour hosted by the Garden Club of Savannah. It was again so easy to navigate along the streets to the nine residential gardens.
Knowing so many Savannah folks escape to beaches, we visited two in the area: Tybee Island and Hilton Head. Tybee is the closer to Savannah with stretches of beach, a long pier and a lighthouse surrounded by a sprawling neighborhood. Clearly the order of Savannah’s squares did not extend to Tybee Island.
Hilton Head is a beautiful and large island, made up of several regions or neighborhoods. The island is shaped like a shoe and you enter on highway 278 at the mouth of the shoe. We stayed on the island for a couple of nights at the Hilton Head RV Resort, a really nice and convenient spot, right as you enter Hilton Head. The sites here are actually owned by someone who rents it out like a condo and it was clear that many South Carolinians use it as their weekend escape. We enjoyed a sailing trip aboard the Stars and Stripes which once won the America’s Cup, a lovely art festival populated by some very talented local artists, and visiting with vacationing friends from Dallas there to golf.
Savannah has a lot to offer whether you are a history buff, foodie, or love flowers. Our preference is to take in the city as much as possible like a local and to find interesting options for photography. With that in mind, here are some of our favorites in Savannah knowing we missed a lot of tourist spots and certainly need to go back to enjoy more of this lovely city:
Most awe-inspiring: St. John the Baptist Cathedral – A beautiful church with amazing stained glass windows, it is worth a few minutes to go inside or to find a time when the organ is playing. Take note of the iron work around the front of the church and the beautifully etched confessionals featuring the palmetto that you will see all over Savannah.
And if you need a quick stop or some sustenance, there is a cute shop, Mirabelle’s, across the street, . While we did not try the delicious smelling belgian waffles and other baked goodies, we appreciated the chai and the rooibos tea pick up almost as much as the bathroom break.
It has a great selection of books about the area and the literary icons who have lived or written about the area. We got our guidebook here as well as a book about author Flannery O’Connor, one of the city’s famous prior residents. And we stopped in twice for a tea refresher at the quaint tea shop located inside.
Favorite squares: Chippewa Square includes a magnificent statue of General Oglethorpe as well as lovely trees, shade and many surrounding historic buildings and Madison which is again a lovely shaded square with lots of historical markers and several interesting nearby buildings. Runner up – Wright Square which has some interesting history and Tomochichi’s Rock, which honors the Chief who assisted Oglethorpe and which is rumored to whisper to you if you put your ear to it.
Must visit: Forsyth Park – This is a great starting point for your tour and has nearby streets with free parking (on the east side near the amphitheater or the street running parallel). Stop by on Saturday morning and a pick up breakfast or a picnic at the Farmer’s Market then wander the sidewalks, just enjoying the beautiful space and the people watching.
Most interesting store: ShopSCAD – SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) seems to own most of Savannah as the school’s classrooms, housing and administrative buildings are scattered throughout the city. After seeing them so many times, we were curious and happy to find this store off Madison Square to get a better idea of the talents of these students.
Best brunch: Collins Quarter was a busy place, but worth the wait which was spent exploring the nearby squares. The food was delicious, service excellent and my favorite, the chai, was perfect! Plus we met our neighboring table, two friendly ladies in from Athens, GA to scope out Savannah for their Garden Club trip.
Favorite Restaurant: While we did not eat out often, we can recommend Public Kitchen and Bar as a delicious stop for drinks and food. As it was off Liberty and seemed to be amidst our favorite sections of town, it was a very convenient stop with outdoor seating and a fabulous shrimp and grits.
Best tourist spot: You have to walk the historic cobblestones of River Street and see this important part of Savannah’s past when cotton was king and current shipping history. Most of the stores are geared to tourists and much the same, but I highly recommend visiting the Savannah Bee Company where you find more honey items than I knew existed.
There is also a fabulous candy store, Savannah Candy Store where you should go just for the free praline sample as you enter. We ate lunch on River Street but recommend waiting until you are back “up” in the city as these spots are tourist-minded.
Day trip: Whether for just the day or a weekend, we recommend visiting Hilton Head. This lovely island includes all the usual beach town amenities but seems different as the normal landscape is surrounded by trees and flowers. You can find plenty of spots to eat, drink and have fun. We enjoyed a sunset sail aboard the Stars and Stripes, which offered a different viewpoint on the area, and walking around Shelter Cove to visit shops and see the marina. Our favorite spot for dinner was dining al fresco at Ole Oyster Factory. Do plan your trip well here as Harbortown (site of their lighthouse and a lovely marina) are in the Sea Pines area of the island and it requires a $8 entry fee. Once there, it is an easy place to get around and ideal for bicycling.
Favorite past time: Savannah is a city that invites you to slow down and see your surroundings. There are so many beautiful and surprising plants in the squares and through the city. I had never heard of resurrection ferns but they cover the trees and offer an amazing transformation after just a little rain. The humid environment is perfect for tropical flowers and palms while the large and the large shaded areas flourish with plants. My favorite was the many old trees which give new meaning to majestic as they drip with spanish moss and stand so solidly for generations.
You can find lots more to do in Savannah no matter your taste. We walked through the popular City Market which is more restaurant and a place to pick up a to go cup (yes, Savannah allows open containers in the historical district north of Liberty – likely the reason it is a popular bachelorette party destination). We were not impressed though the Dandy Duck looked like a fun restaurant to try. We also did not make it to the long standing Leopold’s which is an ice cream institution in Savannah with a long line to prove it. It was chilly enough that standing in line for ice cream did not appeal to me.
We will definitely be back to Savannah, perhaps soon, as it had much to offer that we did not have a chance to see as well as it is a wonderful destination for fantastic photography. Let us know if you have visited and some of your favorite spots.