By Kemba Banton
Savannah is called “the hostess of the South” for a reason. It’s the kind of city where strangers stop to chat, share news and flash warm smiles. It has a friendliness that is alluring and contagious. This coastal city is also one of the oldest cities in America; a proud and furious past lives on in the present. There’s a complexity to its beauty. And while you’ll also find an eclectic mix of personalities here, Savannah’s southern character is unmistakable.
A Quick Timeline
Savannah’s history is ripe with contradictions – from the charming to the grotesque. It was touched and profoundly marked by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that boosted the city’s economy and turned it into a prominent port. This city, graced by the design of artful buildings, has been altered by fires, epidemics, natural disaster and war. It is a city of ancient oaks, towering giants above the story of the soil. Today’s very modern Savannah is a place where different values interact – the fussy attitudes of the classic Southerners, the pioneering and visionary youth, the discerning taste of hipsters and artists, the proud African-American strongholds – all mixed with equal parts eccentricity.
Savannah’s Historic District is one of the largest National Historic Landmarks in the United States. As you browse through the city’s fantastic structures, you’ll notice almost every architectural style that was prominent in the 18th and 19th centuries, ranging from elaborate Medieval-style cathedrals and stately mansions to charming Colonial or Victorian homes. In the spring, the Tour of Homes & Gardens offers an excellent opportunity to explore private homes in the district. And when you need rest, 22 idyllic public squares, shaded by massive oaks, are like small sanctuaries – pockets of respite from the buzz of the surrounding city.
Another way to experience the district is to visit historic home museums. For instance, if you were ever a Girl Scout (or always wanted to be one), visit the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, the historic home of Girl Scouts founder and pioneer. The home is run today by the Girl Scouts of the USA.
A Word on Spanish Moss
One of the things you’ll notice right away when you get to Savannah is its Spanish Moss. This silvery-green epiphyte is everywhere. A common sight in the southeastern states, it drapes hauntingly from large trees like Southern Live Oaks and Bald Cypresses. It’s a defining trait of Savannah’s overall ambience and adds a definite spookiness at historic sites like the colonial estate of The Wormsloe State Historic Site.
City Spooks & Bonaventure
Ghost stories and accounts of strange sightings are the norm in Savannah, which also bears the title of America’s most haunted city. It’s at least great for tourism – there are dozens of ghost tours that guide you through the night to experience the tales surrounding haunted mansions, old homes, and battlefields, along with the fascinating – and sometimes equally spooky – historical facts. Not surprisingly, cemetery tours are popular. They also manage to throw in a dash of Hollywood.
Savannah tourists often visit the Bonaventure Cemetery to reimagine scenes from what is proudly known in Savannah as, “The Book” – John Berendt’s New York Times bestselling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, turned Clint Eastwood movie by the same name. The book and film chronicle true events of a murder trial in Savannah in the 1970s and 80s. The cemetery may owe its world fame to the book and film, but its 160 acres of scenic beauty and tranquility, tree-lined roads, lush gardens, haunting cemetery sculpture and the famous people buried there give it an otherworldly character all its own.
The experience of the African Americans who struggled, resisted, worked, prayed and triumphed in Savannah is a profound lens through which to view the city. Important stops include the three-story Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum that tells the story of Savannah’s Civil Rights Movement. The First African Baptist Church is a treasure beyond words. Built by slaves in the 1770s who worked on construction at night, the structure was added to by succeeding pastors. The church is also the oldest African Baptist church in the U.S. Its modest exterior betrays the beauty inside. You’ll be moved by its stained glass, awe-inspiring symbols and history of its secret underground floor – the church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The Pin Point Heritage Museum, which sits at the site of a historic Gullah-Geechee fishing village, is a must visit. This museum and its peaceful environs bring to life the culture and heritage of the Gullah-Geechee people, who retained a distinct African-based creole and culture on America’s Sea Island coast. It is a vibrant and storied piece of the African-American experience and not to be missed.
One of Savannah’s blessings is its abundant natural sites: the beaches, Sea Islands, marshlands, rivers and canals, which you can experience in plenty of ways. Go kayaking in the Savannah marshlands, or take to Savannah’s public beach on Tybee Island to watch the ocean waves roll in and perhaps catch a glimpse of bottlenose dolphins.
Your culinary adventures will surely be salivation inducing. All types of food can be found here, but Savannah’s position in the South and proximity to the sea and coastal estuaries helped it form a unique culinary identity. Expect to explore a New Orleans-like exoticness, with seafood themes and influences from the Gullah-Geechee, French, Moravians, and more. It’s also legal to drink in public here. Ask for a “go cup,” or what locals call a “traveler.”
Ulysses Davis & the Arts
Your journey to Savannah wouldn’t be complete without paying some form of homage to renowned folk artist, Ulysses Davis. His prolific, diverse, and highly-refined carvings, wooden figures, reliefs and furniture are considered underexposed, but are highly-regarded in folk art circles. Visit the King Tisdell Cottage and Beach Institute to see collections of his work.
Savannah’s art scene, in general, is vibrant. The Coastal Jazz Association puts on a concert each month. The famous Savannah College of Art and Design hosts many events throughout the year. The Lucas Theatre, an important local venue, features diverse acts from doo wop to Italian opera. The Telfair Museums are treasure troves that house all types of work from the classical to the vernacular.
Where to Stay: You will find the familiar Holiday Inn and Marriot Hotel, but for a bit more character you’ll want to explore staying at one of Savannah’s many distinct lodgings, from “haunted” inns like The Foley House (if you dare) to luxurious, ornamental, Colonial-style hotel mansions like Azalea Inn.