Savannah, Georgia's oldest city, began its modern history on February 12, 1733, when General James Oglethorpe and 120 colonists arrived at Yamacraw Bluff on the Savannah River to form the last British colony in the New World. For a century and a half the city flourished as a bustling port, serving as a hub of import and export that connected Georgia to the rest of the world. The past plays an important role in Savannah. Standing in a tranquil square surrounded by historic homes, it's easy to feel as if you have stumbled through a portal into the past. Don't be fooled though, as the city offers much more than antebellum nostalgia for moonlight and magnolias. Savannah is home to several colleges and universities, including the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design. In the last decade the city has seen a surge of creative energy that has helped infuse a youthful vibe into the traditions of the Hostess City. When Oglethorpe founded Savannah, one of the original rules forbade strong drink. Temperance didn't last long, and these days Savannah is one of only a few places in the country without an open container law, meaning that you can walk around downtown with a beer or cocktail so long as it's in a plastic cup—known locally as "to-go cups." The joke among residents is that in Atlanta they ask you what you do for a living, in Macon they ask where you go to church, and in Savannah they ask you what you drink. Maybe it's the heat, but things move a little more slowly in Savannah. If you're visiting from out of town, take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy the languid pace of "Slow-vannah."
Southern cuisine is rich in tradition, but the dining scene in Savannah is more than just fried chicken and barbecue. Many of the city's restaurants have been exploring locally sourced ingredients as a way to tweak their usual homespun offerings, a change that is now attracting chefs and foodies alike.
While the farm-to-table trend was first spotted at upscale spots like the Sapphire Grill, Cha Bella or Local 11ten, more neighborhood restaurants are now getting in on the action. Places like the Green Truck Pub utilize locally raised, grass-fed beef for their burgers, and after-dinner options now even include locally roasted coffee.
The arrival of some new kids on the block doesn't mean the old standbys have ridden off into the sunset just yet. For traditional, exquisitely prepared menus, be sure to visit Elizabeth's on 37th or the Olde Pink House, both of which have been pleasing local palates for decades. Or follow the crowds to either Paula Deen's famous Lady & Sons or the ever-popular Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room (which even President Obama once visited), where you'll find all the fried chicken, collard greens, and mac 'n' cheese you can handle. Or beat the lines at locals-only places like Sisters of the New South on the city's Eastside.
If you're looking for barbecue, several spots downtown can satisfy your urge for slow-cooked meats of all kind. For lunch, check out Angel's BBQ, a hole-in-the-wall spot with some of the city's best pork or brisket, as well as fried-bologna sandwiches. Another popular spot with local meat lovers is Wiley's Championship BBQ, located on nearby Wilmington Island. This relative newcomer is now regularly named as the locals' favorite place for barbecue.
That's just a few ideas to get you started. While exploring Savannah, you're sure to find any number of other exciting options as well, whether you're craving fresh sushi or a simple sandwich.
The Hostess City opens its doors every year to millions of visitors who are drawn to its historic and vibrant downtown. Because the majority of attractions are located within the Historic District, most of the city's best hotels are located there, too. Many are within easy walking distance of the city's premier restaurants and historic sites. In terms of accommodations, Savannah is best known for its many inns and B&Bs, which have moved into the stately antebellum mansions, renovated cotton warehouses, and myriad other historic buildings stretching from the river out to the Victorian neighborhoods in the vicinity of Forsyth Park. Most are beautifully restored with the requisite high ceilings, ornate carved millwork, claw-foot tubs, and other quaint touches. Some stay in close touch with the past and do not offer televisions or telephones; others have mixed in the modern luxuries that many travelers have grown accustomed to, including flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, and upscale bath amenities. Oftentimes, Southern hospitality is served up in the form of evening wine-and-cheese socials, decadent breakfasts, and pillow-top pralines.
A flush of newer boutique hotels has shaken some of the dust out of Savannah's lodging scene and raised the bar for competing properties. Properties like the Bohemian, and the luxurious Mansion on Forsyth Park would be at home in a much larger city, but all have figured out how to introduce a sleek, cosmopolitan edge without bulldozing over Savannah's charm.
Savannah's nightlife has a lot in common with New Orleans. The humidity steams up everything, and you can take your drink outside with you, which adds a colorful quality to the street life after dark. Although Savannah's musical traditions may not run as deep as the Big Easy, there's no shortage of entertainment in the Hostess City, whether you're looking for a live band, a crowded dance floor, or any number of more laid-back options.
Congress Street and River Street have the highest concentrations of bars with live music, especially if you're looking for rock, heavy metal, or the blues. Many of the most popular dance clubs are scattered across the same area. If you're in the mood for something more sedate, there are plenty of chic enclaves known for their creative cocktails and cozy nooks that encourage intimate conversation.
As the old saying goes, "In Atlanta, they ask you what you do. In Macon, they ask what church you go to. And in Savannah, they ask you what you drink." But just because the city enjoys its liquor doesn't mean that there's nothing going on for those who'd rather not imbibe. There are coffee shops that serve up live music and film screenings, as well as arts venues offering theater, films, and comedy.
You would have to make a concerted effort to leave Savannah empty-handed. Whether you're on a quest for designer clothing or handmade candy, Savannah offers up a potent dose of shopping therapy on a silver platter.
Savannah has a wide range of colorful businesses. The rich pasts contained within antique malls and junk emporiums beckon you with their eye-catching storefronts and eclectic offerings, as do the many specialty shops and fashionable boutiques clustered along Savannah's moss-imbued streets. The secret is that while Savannah has areas with lots of stores, not all the great shopping is found in one stop.
Stroll up and down Broughton to find a mix of local boutiques and national retailers, but also follow Bull Street south from there to find more interesting shops, from bikes to high-end antiques. The area on Whitaker Street known as Savannah's design district includes home goods and fine art and clothing, among other items.
If you're staying downtown, the best place to start is at the front door of your hotel or inn; just strap on a comfortable pair of shoes, keep your eyes peeled, and take a nice walk through the bustling Historic District and its many unique and beautiful squares.
Savannah's "main street" has long served as a shopping and social hub, and so an indicator of the changing economic and demographical trends over the city's history. The first of Savannah's department stores, Adler's and Levy's, emerged on Broughton, followed by the post-WWII introduction of national chains Sears & Roebuck, JCPenney, and Kress. During the 1950s, ladies donning white gloves and heels did their shopping, while kids gathered at the soda counter or caught the matinee. Downtown's decline began in the late 1950s and continued through the '70s, during which time for-sale signs and boarded-up storefronts were the norm rather than the exception. Today, Broughton is again thriving, not only with local boutiques and world-class shops, but with theaters, restaurants, and coffeehouses. A handful of new and renovated storefronts open for business each year, as the retail thoroughfare continues to reemerge. Vogue's annual Fashion's Night Out, a grand fete for retailers that takes place in early September, began here in 2011. Broughton closes to vehicle traffic for the premier event; highlights include a series of in-street runway shows and concert performances.
Originally Savannah's farmers' market in the 1700s, City Market is a four-block, pedestrian-friendly emporium that has seen a magnificent renaissance. The area contains an eclectic and concentrated mix of artists' studios, sidewalk cafés, bars, shops, and art galleries. On weekends, the sounds of live music drift throughout the market. City Market is also ground zero for trolley and horse-carriage tours.
Downtown Design District
Renowned for its array of the city's finest antiques shops and interior design boutiques, the Downtown Design District is worth a visit. Stop in some of Savannah's trendier fashion stores housed in charming historic storefronts. Nearby are the famed Mercer-Williams House and the landmark Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room for some of the area's best family-style Southern food.
No visit to Savannah would be complete without a stroll through Riverfront/Factors Walk. These nine blocks of renovated waterfront warehouses were once the city's cotton exchange. Today, you'll discover more than 75 boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and pubs. Shop for souvenirs, specialty treats, and local art. Tired of shopping? Catch a dolphin tour or dinner boat and see River Street from a different perspective. River Street's cobblestones and Factors Walk's steep stairwells can be rough, so be sure to wear comfortable footwear!
With an eclectic array of shops, restaurants, museums, and monuments spread across the Historic District, the best way to explore downtown Savannah is by foot. Whether you plan a route ahead of time or just wander aimlessly, a leisurely stroll will always result in unique discoveries. If your feet start to ache, flag down a pedicab driver—these people-powered vehicles are a great way to get around, and the drivers usually tell a good story or two.
Fort Pulaski National Monument
Named for Casimir Pulaski, a Polish count and Revolutionary War hero, this must-see sight for Civil War buffs was designed by Napoléon's military engineer and built on Cockspur Island between 1829 and 1847. Robert E. Lee's first assignment after graduating from West Point was as an engineer here. The fort was thought to be impervious to attack, but as weapons advanced, it proved penetrable. During the Civil War, the fort fell after bombardment by newfangled rifled cannons. The restored fortification, operated by the National Park Service, has moats, drawbridges, massive ramparts, and towering walls. The park has trails and picnic areas.
Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum
Famous World War II squadron the Mighty Eighth Air Force was formed in Savannah in January 1942. Within one month, they answered the call to arms and shipped out to the United Kingdom. Flying Royal Air Force aircraft, the Mighty Eighth became the largest air force of the period. Exhibits at this museum begin with the prelude to World War II and the rise of Adolf Hitler, and continue through Desert Storm. You can see vintage aircraft, fly a simulated bombing mission with a B-17 crew, test your skills as a waist gunner, and view interviews with courageous World War II vets. The museum also has three theaters, an art gallery, a 7,000-volume library, archives, a memorial garden, a chapel, and a museum store.
Tybee is an Indian word meaning "salt." The Yamacraw Indians came to this island in the Atlantic Ocean to hunt and fish. These days, the island is chock-full of seafood restaurants, chain motels, condos, and shops—most of which sprang up during the 1950s and haven't changed much since. Fun-loving locals still host big annual parties like fall's Pirate Festival and spring's Beach Bum Parade. Tybee Island's entire expanse of taupe sand is divided into three public beach stretches: North Beach, the Pier and Pavillion, and the south end. Beach activities abound, including swimming, boating, fishing, Jet Skiing, sea kayaking, and parasailing. Newer water sports have gained popularity, including kiteboarding and stand-up paddle boarding.Tybee Island Lighthouse and Museum. Well restored and considered one of North America's most beautifully renovated lighthouses, the Tybee Light Station has been guiding Savannah River mariners for more than 270 years. This is actually the fourth lighthouse on this site; the original was built on orders of General Oglethorpe in 1732. You can walk up 178 steps for amazing views at the top. The lighthouse keeper's cottage houses a small theater showing a video about the lighthouse. The nearby museum is housed in a gun battery constructed for the Spanish-American War. Check their website for information on the monthly Friday Sunset Tours. 30 Meddin Dr., 31328. 912/786–5801. www.tybeelighthouse.org. $9. Weds.–Mon. 9–5:30, last tickets sold at 4:30.