Savannah's Storied Past Paves the Way to Delightful Modern-day Activities
By Michelle da Silva Richmond
Travel and Cruise Expert
Few cities in the US can match Georgia's oldest city when it comes to romance, charm and Southern hospitality. Spanish moss-draped oak trees, stately ante-bellum mansions, horse-drawn carriages and mint-juleps sipped on graceful verandas pave the way for magical memories. The storied squares in this pedestrian-friendly city add a soft touch, enveloping the statues and memorials you'll find around almost every corner in the Historic District.
Founded in 1733 by British colonists led by Gen. James Oglethorpe, more than 800 of Savannah’s celebrated buildings have been refurbished by local organizations, resulting in a "living museum" in the largest urban National Landmark District in the US.
Visitors looking for a "haunting" experience won't be disappointed in what's often referred to as "America’s most haunted city." Many historic cemeteries and B&Bs attest to frequent ghost sightings and haunted ghost tours - such as Blue Orb and Ghosts and Gravestones - take visitors "beyond," the normal tourist experience. Bonaventure Cemetery, Colonial Park Cemetery and the Mercer House are worth a visit, whether you're looking for spirits - or not.
The celebrated Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Church and Congregation Mickve Israel - the third oldest Jewish congregation in the country - are remarkable. Also of note are the museums - from the contemporary Jepson Center to the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum and the Ships of the Sea Museum - there is something for every interest.
Several historic forts offer a peek into Civil War Savannah, while nearby Tybee Island offers refreshing beach time along with eclectic shops and funky eateries.
Visitors to Savannah should explore the Savannah Riverfront, encompassing River Street, Factors Walk, Bay Street and Hutchinson Island. It's one of the city's most popular tourist destinations and offers a poignant peek into the city's past. River Street's cobblestone-and brick-lined streets and century-old buildings converted into antique shops and quaint inns are especially appealing. Also located here is Oglethorpe Landing monument, marking the spot where Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe landed in the port of Savannah in 1733, and the Steamship Savannah Marker, recognizing the SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic. Nearby Factor's Walk - a renovated 19th-century cotton exchange - is a bleak reminder of the city's slave trade past. Hutchinson Island, accessible via the city's ferry service or via the Talmadge Bridge, has fewer historical and cultural sites than the mainland but offers plenty of restaurants and shops. Primarily a resort complex, it is home to the Westin Harbor Golf Resort and Spa and the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center. ((912) 234-0295)
Savannah Foody Tour
Often, the best way to get to know a city and its traditions is by visiting local restaurants, yet deciding where to go can be daunting. Fortunately, Savannah's Foody Tour paves the way to culinary entertainment with a two-hour Historic District tour on board a climate-controlled bus, which stops at various restaurants along the way to sample some of the city's tastiest cuisine. Along the way, guests learn about the South's culinary history and how Savannah's cuisine has been influenced by flavors from around the globe. Food is included in the price of the tour and although the itinerary changes regularly, the menu typically includes a variety of decidedly southern samples. Past choices have included a tasting of shrimp, grits, fried green tomatoes, handmade gourmet chocolates, barbeque pork sliders, homemade cupcakes and more. One of the favorite stops along the way is The Lady & Sons, Paula Deen's world-famous restaurant.Tucked into the former White Hardware Building dating from 1810, the eatery draws large crowds to its renowned buffet showcasing a host of palate-pleasers. ((912) 234-3440)
A grand 19th-century mansion, a contemporary architectural masterpiece and an English Regency-style 195-year-old residence make up the Telfair Museums, three unique art venues in downtown Savannah. Founded through the bequest of prominent citizen Mary Telfair (1791--1875), and operated by the Georgia Historical Society until 1920, the museum opened in 1886 in the Telfair family's renovated Regency-style mansion, known today as the Telfair Academy. The Academy - the oldest public art museum in the South - boasts a fascinating collection of 19th and 20th-century paintings, works on paper, decorative arts and sculptures from the museum's permanent collection. Across the street is the imposing Jepson Center, a modern art museum housing a permanent collection of paintings by renowned artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. The Jepson Center also houses a 3,500-square-foot interactive gallery for children and families called ArtZeum. Several blocks east is the Owens-Thomas House, an early 19th-century house museum with an impressive decorative arts collection. Admission to the Telfair Academy/Jepson Center and the Owens-Thomas House may be purchased individually or as a package for a better deal. (912-790-8800, 912-232-1177)
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Dating back to 1799, this is oldest Catholic Church in Georgia and is the Mother Church of the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Savannah. Its current Victorian Gothic form with its imposing twin spires is the result of being rebuilt and reformed to its former glory in 1900 after a devastating fire ravaged it. The building was renovated again between 1998 and 2000. During that time, the 24 distinctive Renaissance-style murals were restored, a new altar and baptismal font crafted from Carrara marble were added, as was a new pulpit with engravings of the four evangelists. Inside, you'll also find 1904 stained-glass windows from Austria, large carved wooden Stations of the Cross (created in Munich, Germany, and installed in 1900), and a 2,081-lb Noack pipe organ. Visitors are welcome to tour the cathedral daily from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. The public may attend noon mass Monday through Saturday, however, no pictures are allowed during the service. ((912) 233-4709)
Carriage Tours of Savannah
One of the most authentic ways to touring Savannah is by indulging in a time honored tradition of the Old South and hopping on board an antique horse-drawn carriage. With the clip-clop of horses' hooves, the gentle sway of a carriage and a coachman spinning fascinating tales about the town, Carriage Tours of Savannah offers an memorable option. With its lengthy experience as Savannah's first carriage tour company, it offers fascinating 50-minute general tours of the Historic District as well as evening ghost tours - either on public or private. Each carriage can comfortably fit six adults and is drawn by two well cared-for horses. Tours depart from the gazebo in the center of City Market at Jefferson and West St. Julian streets, approximately every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. Reservations can be made ahead either online or by phone. It is recommended that when making reservations online, you allow 48 hours. If you need something sooner, or are planning a special event, call for a reservation. (912-236-6756)
For more than 150 years this beautifully haunting cemetery has captured the imagination of writers, poets, photographers and filmmakers. In 1771 John Mullryne and his son-in-law, Josiah Tattnall owned approximately 9,000 acres of land in Georgia, including 600 acres just three miles from Savannah on St. Augustine Creek. The site became the family plantation, which they named Bonaventure, Italian for "good fortune." A small family plot was established on the grounds, which was to form the nucleus of present-day Bonaventure Cemetery. Purchased as a private cemetery in 1846, it became public in 1907 and since then, the nearly 100 acres have become the final resting place of many of Savannah's prominent residents. Today, the beautiful area perched on a bluff overlooking the Wilmington River is dotted with striking monuments and elaborate burial vaults lined by ancient oak trees. In 2001 it was named to the National Registry of Historic Places. Tours of the cemetery are conducted on weekends. (912-651-6843)
Fort Pulaski National Monument
History buffs will enjoy visiting this 19th century fort, which was occupied by the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Construction began in 1827, when future Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was placed in charge of designing the first series of canals and earthworks on the island. Finished in 1847, it was eventually used as a Union prison, holding more than 500 Confederate prisoners (aka the "immortal 600") during the winter of 1864. Today, visitors can explore the pentagon-shaped fortress along with its galleries and drawbridges crossing the moat and view the shells from 1862 embedded in the walls. Exhibits of the fort's history are on display at the Visitor Center. (912-786-5787)
Tybee Island Beach
Once known as the "playground of the southeast," this quirky beach town on the Atlantic coast some 20 minutes from downtown Savannah, offers the perfect beach escape. South Beach - the busiest area - extends south from 14th St and features soft sands, mild waves and rotating lifeguards making it an ideal spot for families and light swimmers. Restaurants, shops, bars, hotels and motels are just a few steps away, providing a perfect family experience. North Beach - the closest to Savannah - presents a quieter scene. The sand here is peppered with shells may not be as soft, but the view of Tybee Lighthouse across the road is an added bonus. Access to restaurants, public restrooms and shops is easy at the beach near the Tybee Pier and Pavilion. Attractions on the island include the Tybee Marine Science Center and the Tybee Island Light Station and Museum. Several festivals throughout the year draw lively crowds, among them the Beach Bum Parade in the spring and the Pirates Fest in the fall.
This 30-acre park at the southern edge of the Historic District offers something for everyone. The magnificent two-tiered, white cast-iron fountain, made famous in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is a "must see." Built in 1858, it may be the most photographed attraction in all of Savannah. Covering 30 acres, this lush park is a hub of activity and the scene of concerts, sports, people-watching and even sunbathing - depending on where you are. On Saturdays, a farmer's market offers fresh produce and flowers. Two playgrounds offer kids a place to burn off steam, while parents relax nearby. The park café is the place for breakfast and lunch, along with an array of beverages including Starbucks coffee, beer and wine. (912-651-6610)
Savannah is peppered with fascinating history, but the soul of the city can best be found in its network of 24 squares. or lush parks shaded by canopies of live oaks, dogwoods and scented magnolias. The oldest - Johnson Square - was the first to be laid out by Gen. James Oglethorpe in 1733 and is a good place to start any tour. The main attraction here is the monument to Revolutionary War hero Gen. Nathanael Greene, who was re-interred under the obelisk in 1901. South of this - Wright Square - is the burial site of Tomochichi, a leader of the Creek nation and ally of Oglethorpe. Chippewa Square, laid out in 1815, honors Oglethorpe with a magnificent bronze equestrian statue. The most beautiful square in the city, however, is Monterey Square where a 55-foot Italian marble monument is a tribute to Gen. Count Casimir Pulaski. These beautiful squares have become a popular venue for weddings. ((912) 651-6610)
Michelle da Silva Richmond is an award-winning travel editor and member of the Society of American Travel Writers and other journalism organizations. She has written hundreds of articles for newspapers, consumer and trade magazines and in-flight publications. In addition, she has co- authored and contributed to many guide books and was a weekly travel columnist for a metropolitan Connecticut daily newspaper. Growing up abroad, combined with a colorful career as a Pan Am flight attendant fueled her wanderlust and passion for travel. She lived in Mexico City for nearly 20 years and has visited nearly 100 countries. Her bags are always packed.
Read more about Michelle da Silva Richmond here.