Located on Georgia’s east coast, Savannah has gained popularity as a tourist destination since Forrest Gump and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and may well be one of the most charming and mysterious cities to visit in the US. Drive down Abercorn Street and you’re likely to feel like you’ve stumbled upon a movie set for a children’s fantasy novel. On the sidewalk side, old oak trees reach and weave their twisted, moss draped arms across the road creating a canopy of lush green and brown, while palm trees punctuate the meridian. The trees are reason alone to visit Savannah, but there’s plenty more to see and do around town. Although you my not want to leave so quickly, you can see most of the city in a single day. Here’s how.
1. Where to Stay
You’ll find many big name hotels in the heart of Historic Savannah, but you might find that you have a better experience staying somewhere just outside of the city. I’d recommend Quality Inn at Midtown on 7100 Abercorn. In April, I paid just $65 a night, a price that rivaled even the hostel in town, plus I didn’t have to worry about parking fees. Summer season prices are slightly higher, although you’ll save with advanced booking. Enjoy the continental breakfast including a make-your-own waffle station, then catch the local bus in front of the neighboring tire shop. For $1.50 you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the view as you ride along Abercorn and chat with locals who are sure to strike up conversation while you wait at the bus stops. The #14 bus will bring you all the way to the river or to any number of stops along the way.
2. Where to Start
Historic Savannah is flanked on either side by the Savannah River Front and Forsyth Park. I’d suggest starting at one end or the other. Take a walk down River Street in the early morning and you’ll see local bars and businesses gearing up for the nighttime crowd. One tour guide aptly named River Street the tourist trap of the city. You’ll find plenty of stores filled with souvenirs and, on the east end, outdoor riverfront shopping including jewelry and hand-made gifts. You can walk along the river and visit the Waving Girl statue at the far end.
If you’re into the bar scene, start your day at Forsyth Park and make your way to the river to enjoy Savannah night life. If you prefer spending quiet time in nature and steering clear of crowds, begin your morning at the river– most shops open around 10 am– and finish your evening at Forsyth Park. You’ll find clean restrooms, maps, and pamphlets at the visitor center by the west end of the river.
3. What to See
Seeing at least some of Savannah’s twenty-one squares is a non-negotiable part of your trip. Walk no further than two blocks on any street and you’ll find yourself in an oasis of trees, shrubs, flowers, benches, and monuments. The squares offer a quiet reprieve from foot traffic and shops. Main roads loop around each square, slowing cars to slightly more than a crawl, which can be a much appreciated change if you’re accustomed to the jam-packed streets, blazing horns, and bumper-to-bumper traffic that characterize most major cities. Centrally located Chippewa Square, one of the most beautiful squares, boasts a monument for James Oglethorp and was the former site of Forrest Gump’s famous bench. Photo-snapping tourists eager to pose where Forrest sat caused traffic to back up across the city and so the bench was relocated to the Savannah History Museum.
Not far from Chippewa Square, the Colonial Park Cemetery feels more like a park than a place for the dead. Relax on a bench and listen to birds chirp and children playing and you’ll forget you’re in a cemetery. Take a ghost tour at night and you’re likely to have a different experience.
You’ll also find plenty of opportunities to get inside and out of the sun or rain at museums and historic houses including the infamous Mercer House, Flannery O’Conner’s childhood home, the Telfair Mansion and Art Museum, and the Owens-Thomas House. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about spending money to tour a house, especially on a perfect 75 degree day, but in the rain these could become welcome opportunities.
As if the city’s squares were not enough, beautiful Forsyth Park stretches across the south side of Historic Savannah. Bring a book, picnic blanket, photographer, musical instrument, Frisbee, or wedding party or join one of the endless soccer games, tennis matches, or groups on the basketball courts. You might be lucky enough to witness a local school music night or jazz festival on the permanent stage. Visit the off-the-main-path flower garden and sit in the shade. A cafe and restrooms are conveniently located behind the stage, so you could literally spend the whole day in the park.
Although not clearly marked on the free maps provided at the visitor center, I was happy to have stumbled upon the Savannah Vietnam Memorial by the river off East Bay Street. The path to arrive at the memorial is bordered by beautiful, over-hanging trees and worth the short walk from the river. The memorial itself is a quiet statue of boots, helmet, rifle, and dog tags– the battle cross used to honor fallen soldiers.
Be sure to take a walk down Bull Street where you’ll find shops filled with souvenirs, antiques, home decor, and handiwork from world artisans. You’ll find some of the most well-kept houses along brick-lined Jones Street. You’ll admire potted plants and backyard gardens through beautiful wrought iron fences and railings that wrap around every porch. Folklore has it that the expression “keeping up with the Jones” originated on Jones Street.
4. Eating Vegan
Search for places to eat in Savannah, or anywhere in the south for that matter, and you’ll get thousands of suggestions for southern cuisine filled with fried chicken, melted butter, barbequed pork, and smoked ribs. Delightful for meat feasts, but not so much if you’re vegetarian or vegan. Luckily, Savannah has several hidden gems that cater to the earthy crunchy crowd.
Enjoy lunch in the Mellow Mushroom, a pizza place on Liberty Street just before Madison Square. You’ll enjoy the dreadlock-rocking waiters and waitresses, Alice-in-Wonderland-eqsue murals on the walls, sweet tea, and menu items like the Magical Mystery Tour Pizza. Vegans accustomed to ordering cheese-less pizza will be satisfied to substitute Daiya vegan “cheese” for the traditional mozzarella on any of the pizza varieties. Outdoor seating is available as well, although you may find you have to wait to be seated on beautiful days.
I visited the Sentient Bean every night that I stayed in Savannah and would make it a regular hang-out if I ever return and stay long-term. At “The Bean” you’ll be entertained by local open mic nights on select Tuesdays when performers alternate between poetry reading/ recitations and original music performances from 8-10 pm. Watch a reasonably rare movie at a Psychotronic Film Night or drop in on another art or music showcase. Check their website for a calendar of events. Stop in for delicious, freshly made and neatly wrapped baked goods or full dishes for breakfast, lunch, or dinner all with vegan or vegetarian options and complemented by a variety of beverages including coffee both exotic and simple, herbal teas, and freshly blended smoothies.
The Sentient Bean is a popular hangout for local musicians, college students, and just overall enjoyable people. My second-to-last night in Savannah I met Ron, a cowboy-boot wearing local and Bean regular who has lived in both Nashville and Texas. He offered to teach me to play the guitar my last night in Savannah and I excitedly obliged We sat on the sidewalk chairs for hours as locals of all ages stopped by to “jam” for a song or ten. It was nearly impossible to leave that last night knowing that cold and aloof Boston waited for me back home.
5. Savannah Short and Simple
With its moss-draped trees forming archways along sidewalks and across streets, southern hospitality, ornate iron-work, brick and cobble-stone lined streets, blue-tinged river (unless you happen to visit on St. Patrick’s Day when it’s dyed green), twenty-one squares, cafes, restaurants, and bars, ghost tours and historical sites, Savannah has something for everyone. This southern city makes for the perfect weekend getaway or lazy extended stay. Want to know more? Just comment or question below.