City Guide: Savannah, Georgia
Savannah is one of the oldest cities in the US state of Georgia, having been founded in 1733, and among the most unique. This coastal city of 150,000 possesses one of the largest historic districts in the entire country, with its 20 historic squares being the main draw for many visitors. Beyond the rich architecture and history, you’ll find a city full of some unique characters; readers of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil have a very good idea of what to expect!
Its storied history, gorgeous architecture, laissez-faire personality, and French influence have drawn multiple parallels to another famous Southern city: New Orleans. While you won’t find the insanity of Mardi Gras, you will find a charming downtown teeming with pub crawls and live music, where you are free to walk the cobblestone streets with open containers of alcohol.
Savannah is the kind of city that doesn’t throw itself at you, but calmly lets you wander down any number of paths. Whichever side of the city you wish to see, there’s a path for that.
Where to Stay
Anywhere in the Historic District (the HD) is going to be safe and fun. Airbnb lists plenty of turn-of-the-century rowhouses with easy access to the best of what Savannah has to offer. The usual advice is to stay between Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd and E. Broad St, delineating the eastern and western boundaries of the HD. However, we stayed far to the east in Avondale, where it was cheaper, and could drive to the HD in about 10 minutes.
Having said that, finding a cool place in the HD is definitely the way to go, as finding parking in the district can sometimes be a hassle. There is a lot of on-street parking that seems to be free in most cases, but the HD is a popular place for visitors and so finding a spot can be difficult. Parking garages typically go for $5/hour or $15/night.
What to Do
Like with a lot of historic districts all over the world, the simple act of wandering around downtown Savannah can be an adventure in and of itself. This is also the perfect way to orient yourself before delving into any of the more specific activities available around the city. The entire district can best be described by the word “atmospheric,” with Spanish moss draped literally everywhere. It is an absolute visual feast for architecture-lovers, and is home to the following points of interest:
- Forsyth Park, the main green space in Savannah, spanning 30 acres.
- First African Baptist Church, on Franklin Square. The church dates back to 1859, with the congregation going back to 1773. This is for sure among the three oldest Black churches in the US, and by most accounts is in fact the oldest. This church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad; those tribal designs cut into the floor by the pews served as air holes for escapees hiding under the floorboards.
- Congregation Mickve Israel, one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the US. The synagogue on Monterey Square was completed in 1878, although the congregation has been active since 1733.
V & J Duncan
V & J Duncan is actually both a bookshop and a rare map shop. The book selection is very wide, and you can find copies of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil signed by the author John Berendt. While the map prints typically start at $40 and can range well over $1,000, most of these hand-drawn prints are guaranteed to be over a century old, and they span the globe. If you like old maps, you really need to step into V. J. Duncan.
I should also point out the collection of postcards in a closet to the back and right of the shop. These postcards are interesting because you can buy them, but you can’t actually use them–they are already filled out. These are postcards that had been mailed from travelers back home to their friends and family in Savannah, from all over the world, going back to at least 1908. For those who want a more personal, day-to-day window into life in the past, these are the perfect little vignettes.
Bonaventure Cemetery is your dose of creepy graveyard. Dating back to 1846, Bonaventure occupies 160 acres on the eastern edge of Savannah. While it’s far from the oldest cemetery in the United States, it does have some incredible history. John Muir, the “Father of the National Parks,” slept among the graves here on his long sojourn from Kentucky to Florida back in 1867. You can read about his experience in “Camping in the Tombs,” from his work A Thousand Mile Walk. The “Bird Girl” tombstone statue, made famous on the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, was originally located in the graveyard, but was relocated to the Telfair Museum in 1997 out of respect to the other graves. Jack Leigh, who snapped that very famous photo, is interred here, as are writer Conrad Aiken and singer Johnny Mercer.
Pub Crawls & Bars
Pub crawls, those mobile bars where you and a bunch of your friends pedal down the street while drinking and listening to music, are popular in Savannah’s historic district. You’ll see (and hear!) many of these rolling down the street, the people on-board dancing and singing to everything from “YMCA” to the newest hits by Lizzo. Many people on the street sing right back at them. Some may call it bro-ish, but most people seem to enjoy the festive atmosphere.
There are myriad bars to choose from, and if you don’t like one, simply take your drink to go to the next one! Within the historic district, you may legally roam the streets with an open container.
I would recommend Jen’s & Friends, a cozy place that serves unique mixed drinks and features excellent service. You can get drinks garnished with peach ring candies, ones done up to look like birthday cakes, and much more. Wet Willie’s serves up a spectrum of daiquiri flavors and grub, including one of the best Philly cheesesteaks I’ve had outside of Philly. If you really want to get wasted, order a “Call a Cab,” made with both Bacardi and Everclear.
If you’re looking for a place to grab drinks and also have some more relaxed fun, try The Chromatic Dragon. On top of having one of the single coolest pub names of all time, The Chromatic Dragon supplies video games along with drafts. There are several large TV screens set up around the tavern, as well as a large projector screen. You have a wide selection of multiplayer games on Wii, PS4, and XBox One. Their signature drinks and dishes are all named after video game and pop culture characters, and I can vouch for their Philly cheesesteak and fries.
Finally, close the night out at Vice Lounge + Mojito Bar, an underground bar that slowly morphs from chill lounge to dance club as the night goes on. They have really cool lighting and several private booths for you and your people, and play a wide array of good music. Plus, drinks are pretty cheap, usually about $5.
City Market is the nightlife epicenter of Savannah, for people of all ages. It’s here that you’ll find shops like Paris Market and attractions like the Prohibition Museum, as well as a number of bars and restaurants. At night you can also find live music set up on the pedestrian-only zone. The central park located at the other end of the zone, right next to a police substation, provides plenty of room for kids to run around and play.
Savannah College of Art and Design
Savannah is also very much a college town, home to the Savannah College of Art of Design, or SCAD. The SCAD campus itself features an art gallery and performing arts center, that offers free tours and free shows every 90 minutes. These are, by the way, free.
Where to Eat
Fork & Dagger provides hearty breakfasts with incredible bacon, as well as non-alcoholic CBD ciders.
While not located in the HD, I have to recommend Geneva’s Fried Chicken. Their food, both the specialty fried chicken and the shrimp po’boys, are filling and flavorful. The corn bread is moist and tasty, as are the collard greens and the sweet potatoes. Service is friendly and efficient. As an added plus, all of their cutlery are recyclable wood.
If you’re new to Savannah and want to make some acquaintances right away, by far the best way is to dine at Mrs. Wilke’s Dining Room. Charging a $25/person flat fee, Mrs. Wilke’s has a unique set-up: it is family-style dining. You are seated with complete strangers, and share a meal like in old times.
The HD is highly walkable if you’re willing to hoof it. In fact, I would recommend walking over driving, as parking can be difficult to come by. To help you, there are Savannah city buses, as well as DOT, which are completely free shuttles that run north to south and east to west, providing free hop-on, hop-off tours.
When to Go
Any time is a good time to go, although Spring is probably the best. Winter can feature a lot of overcast skies. However, while these gray days may cast a pall over the city, that can also provide the perfect atmosphere to explore the old buildings.
What to Avoid
It deeply pains me to say this, but I wouldn’t worry about The Pirate’s House.
The Pirate’s House is the oldest structure in Savannah still standing. Built in the 1750s and expanded over the years, the Pirate’s House gets its name from the (are you ready for this?) pirates that used to meet up there back in the day. It was a real-life den of scum and villainy straight out of a video game or movie. That was then. Now, it’s an upscale restaurant & bar that sells $25-a-plate dinners and cheap trinkets for kids. Little–if any–of the original furniture remains, and instead it’s a place that has done a very poor job of connecting to its past. A small poster is all you’ll find of the tavern’s roots.
But that’s the only con I have. The rest of Savannah’s history and personality shines through at every turn. Any visitor to this gem of a city will find something to appreciate.