10 Best Historic Sites in Savannah: Forts, Cemeteries, Houses of Worship and More
By Amy Pine
When General Sherman made his notorious March to the Sea during the Civil War, he burned everything in his path. Everything, that is, except Savannah, which he famously gave to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift. In the 1950s, the city began making efforts to preserve and restore these historic structures, and subsequently many original buildings and homes remain intact for present-day visitors to enjoy.
Some of Savannah’s most interesting historical structures can be found at Fort Pulaski National Monument and Old Fort Jackson. You don’t have to be a military buff to enjoy the impressive ramparts, moats and beautiful river views at these two historic fortifications, both of which survived several wars.
Savannah’s historic cemeteries are a great a way to learn about the city’s early history. One of the most stunning is Bonaventure, a 160-acre cemetery that dates back to the 1800s. Colonial Park Cemetery, located in Savannah’s Historic District, was established in the mid-18th century and features more than 900 historic graves.
Several of the city’s original houses of worship remain intact and are open to the public, including First African Baptist Church, one of the nation’s oldest black churches, and Congregation Mickve Israel, the country’s third oldest Jewish synagogue.
Savannah also has numerous historic homes decorated with authentic period furnishings that are available for tours, among them the Davenport House, the Owens-Thomas House, and the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, the city’s first National Historic Landmark.
10 Pin Point Heritage Museum
This fascinating museum pays homage to the tiny community of Pin Point, a century-old African-American community on the banks of Savannah's Moon River. Pin Point, best known as the birthplace of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was founded in the 1890s by first generation freedmen, and has been a self-sustaining community ever since. The museum, located in the former home of the A.S. Varn & Son oyster and shrimp factory, explores the neighborhood's Gullah/Geechee culture through artwork, artifacts and interactive exhibits. The museum also regularly hosts live demonstrations in its outdoor covered pavilion, showing guests the art of skills such as net making. ((912) 667-9176)
9 Congregation Mickve Israel
When General James Edward Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733, he brought along 42 Jewish settlers who went on to establish Congregation Mickve Israel, the nation's third oldest Jewish synagogue. The neo-Gothic-style synagogue--the only one of its kind in America--still plays an important role in Savannah's Jewish community. Among the items on display at the synagogue are a 500-year-old torah and an 8-foot replica of the vessel carrying the original settlers. The public is welcome to attend a service and take a guided tour of the historic sanctuary and museum; tours are free, however, a $5 per person donation is requested. (912-233-1547)
8 Massie Heritage Center
The Massie Common School opened its doors in 1856 and educated Savannahians until 1974. Today the Massie Heritage Center serves as an architecture and history museum, featuring engaging, state-of-the-art exhibits. A three-dimensional model of the city's National Landmark District gives visitors a unique glimpse of the city's historic areas, while a touch screen laser show tells the story of Savannah's history. In addition to architecture exhibits, guests can tour the original school facilities and see an authentic 19th-century classroom. The Massie Heritage Center also has an exhibit dedicated to local Native American history that includes artifacts dating from pre-history. (912-395-5070)
7 Colonial Park Cemetery
Colonial Park Cemetery, located in Savannah's Historic District, is the oldest intact municipal cemetery in the city. Established in 1750, the cemetery has more than 9,000 graves and is the final resting place for many famous Georgians, including Button Gwinnett, one of the signer's of the Declaration of Independence. Colonial Park served as the city's primary public cemetery from its founding until 1853, when it became closed for interments. Many visitors have claimed ghost sightings at Colonial Park, and the cemetery is a popular stop on many of the city's ghost tours. Colonial Park is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily and regularly hosts tour groups. (912-651-6843)
6 Old Fort Jackson
Old Fort Jackson, a National Historic Landmark, is the oldest standing brick fortification in Georgia and one of only eight Second System fortifications (a series of forts built prior to the War of 1812) still standing in the United States. Located on the Savannah River, the historic fort protected the city during the War of 1812 and served as the headquarters for the Savannah River defenses during the Civil War. Today, animated guides dressed in period garb deliver riveting presentations about the life of Confederate soldiers, and cannon demonstrations thrill visitors every weekend. History buff or not, guests of all ages are awed by Fort Jackson. (912-232-3945, 912-651-6840)
5 First African Baptist Church
Lauded as one of Savannah's most inspirational sites, this wonderfully preserved church, organized in 1773 under the leadership of Reverend George Leile, is one of the first black churches in North America and was a stop on the Underground Railroad. In its later history, First African Baptist Church served as the largest gathering place for blacks and whites to meet during the time of segregation. During a church tour led by knowledgeable and engaging guides, visitors view the church's original pews and pipe organ, fascinating archive room and former hiding place for slaves, marked by ventilation holes and symbols identifying the church as a safe haven. (912-233-6597, 912-233-2244)
4 Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace
The first National Historic Landmark in Savannah, this iconic gem is the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA. Built in 1821, the English Regency-style townhouse has been elegantly restored and is furnished with many original pieces from the Gordon family. Whether you're a lifelong Scout or clueless as to the difference between a Daisy and a Brownie, you'll be captivated by the home's lavish antiques, Gordon Low's original artwork and GSUSA memorabilia, such as a Thanks Badge presented to Mrs. Woodrow Wilson in 1917. The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace welcomes more than 65,000 visitors a year, including Girl Scouts from around the country. (912-233-4501)
3 Wormsloe Plantation Historic Site
Wormsloe Plantation, a haven of natural beauty and rich history, was established in 1737 by Noble Jones, an Englishman and one of Georgia's earliest settlers. The plantation is known for its striking mile-long entryway, which is lined on both sides by majestic live oak trees draped in Spanish moss. Visitors can explore the tabby ruins of Jones' 18th-century estate, along with historic gravesites and a museum housing period artifacts. The historic site, which is maintained by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, also has walking trails that back up to the salt marsh. Wormsloe Plantation hosts several annual events, including the "Colonial Faire and Muster" in February, a festival that features 18th-century music, dancing, crafts and military drills. (912-353-3023)
2 Fort Pulaski National Monument
This 19th-century fort, which was occupied by the Confederate Army during the Civil War, is a must-see for history buffs. Only a 15-minute drive from Downtown Savannah, Fort Pulaski was designed by Napoleon's engineer, and though it fell during the Civil War, it still remains intact, with moats, drawbridges, enormous ramparts and mysterious tunnels. After learning about the Fort's fascinating history, visitors can access one of the historic site's many walking trails, which feature magnificent views of the marsh and Savannah River. Be sure to keep your eyes out for one of the Fort's 11 protected species, including bald eagles, manatees, loggerhead sea turtles and peregrine falcons. (912-786-5787)
1 Bonaventure Cemetery
This storied 150-year-old cemetery, perched on the bluff overlooking the Wilmington River, is at once beautiful and haunting. The final resting place for may famous Savannahians, among them lyricist Johnny Mercer and poet Conrad Aiken, the 160-acre cemetery features striking monuments, elaborate burial vaults and grand live oak trees. Visitors will enjoy exploring the gravesites, many of which date back to the mid-19th century, and taking in the breathtaking view of the nearby river. While visitors will have plenty to keep them occupied in the main section of the cemetery, those who want the full Bonaventure experience should also visit the cemetery's Greenwich section, which requires a drive or hike around neighboring Forest Lawn Cemetery. The journey is well worth it: among the treasures in the Greenwich section are a reflection pond that was used in several early 20th-century silent films and a scenic view of the river and marsh. (912-651-6843)
About Amy Pine
Amy's thrilled to have the opportunity to share her love of Savannah with the world. A Savannah native, Amy has more than 15 years of experience as a writer and editor, and her work has appeared in numerous local, regional and national publications. Prior to launching a freelance career, she was executive editor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she served as editor of the college’s alumni magazine. Amy received a B.A. in English and communications from the University of Pennsylvania. She's currently putting the finishing touches on her young adult novel, The Girl in a Picture Frame.
Read more about Amy Pine here.