. The very name sounds like a southern drawl. With its history, cobblestoned streets, old homes and beautiful gardens, Savannah, Georgia, is everything you think a southern city should be. Add a collection of glorious beaches and coastal lowlands just a short drive away—including Tybee Island, Skidaway Island, the Golden Isles and Hilton Head Island—and this is the South at its finest.
Savannah was America's first planned city, and architecture is part of its charm. Twenty-four squares lined with Federal, antebellum and Victorian houses branch out from the city's historic cotton warehouses. The long, wide verandas and intricate scrollwork of the houses recall a time when magnolias and gardenias sweetened the air, and the loudest evening sound was the clip-clop of a horse's hooves. Echoes of Savannah's past are still present as many tourists and locals enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides, historic home tours, symphonic concerts in the city's many parks and ghost tours in what is reputed to be one of the most haunted cities in the U.S.
Along River Street at twilight, however, the pace picks up in the cafes and taverns lining the Savannah River. Savannah loves to party, and River Street sets the tone.
Savannah is part of the Lowcountry, the region of flat plains and tidal salt marsh that stretches across eastern South Carolina and Georgia. Though it has always been a port city, Savannah is not directly on the ocean. Instead, it sits on the Savannah River (which forms the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina), 14 mi/23 km inland from the Atlantic.
River Street, a popular tourist destination with an abundance of bars and dining options, runs along the waterfront. The Historic District (also known as downtown) is the main area of interest to visitors—it stretches south from River Street for some 15 blocks and is bordered on the west by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and on the east by East Broad Street.
The city's most prominent shopping area is downtown along Broughton Street, where a mix of old and new, thrifty and high end mingles to create a unique shopping experience.
Several other prominent districts extend to the south of the Historic District. The Victorian District begins south of Gaston Street and continues to Victory Drive, where Midtown begins. Farther south, DeRenne Avenue forms the boundary between Midtown and the Southside, a bustling, ultramodern shopping and residential district. The Ardsley Park/Chatham Crescent Historic District, aptly named, features unusual circular parks and crescent-shaped avenues.
Between Savannah and the ocean lies a group of barrier islands, including Wilmington, Skidaway and Isle of Hope. This is generally known as the Islands area. A part of this coastal region is the town of Tybee Island, the principal beach and oceanfront community in the Savannah area.
Founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe, Savannah first served as an outpost to help defend England's North American territory from the Spanish, who had established settlements farther south, in Florida. A distinctive city plan of squares, parks and green spaces was swiftly created to provide military training grounds, markets and public gathering places—and this same layout now forms the town's Historic District. As part of Georgia, the 13th British colony, Savannah quickly became an important port city, and it remained prominent after the U.S. achieved independence in 1782.
By the early 1800s, King Cotton was contributing to the city's opulence. Many magnificent homes were constructed throughout downtown, and River Street bustled with ships loading cotton for export to Europe. But with strict blockades to sea-trade routes during the Civil War, this prosperous era came to an end. The city's most famous role in the conflict occurred in 1864 when Union Gen. William T. Sherman captured Savannah at the close of his infamous "March to the Sea." Sherman is said to have been so impressed by the hospitality and warmth of the residents that he spared the city from destruction. Instead, he sent a telegram to U.S. President Lincoln offering him the city of Savannah as a Christmas present.
The city's architecture was threatened again with destruction in the mid-1900s—this time from real-estate development plans—but preservation efforts kept most of Old Savannah intact. In 1966, a large area in the heart of town was officially designated a National Historic Landmark District, the largest in the U.S. As well, the Savannah College of Art and Design has been instrumental in renovating historic buildings in the downtown area since 1970. Today, the city's past is paying rich dividends, as tourism has become an enormous business.
The stately houses and atmospheric squares of the Historic District present a giant must-see for all Savannah visitors. Even if you're not particularly a fan of early U.S. architecture when you arrive, you almost certainly will be by the time you leave. Just strolling the streets on your own can be an education, but you'll learn more by taking a tour—preferably by walking or by horse-drawn carriage—to learn the stories behind the facades.
It's recommended you go inside the houses whenever there's an opportunity. Be sure to make time for the Owens-Thomas House and the Davenport House. Elsewhere in the district, there are two residences related to Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts: Andrew Low House and the Juliette Gordon Low House. For a look beyond the domestic side of the city's past, stop at the Georgia State Railroad Museum, a railroad repair facility from the early 1800s.
Don't let the sheer number of historic sites run you ragged, though: One of the best things to do in Savannah is nothing at all. The best place to do that is on River Street or one of the town squares (there are 24 of them). Simply have a seat on a bench and take in the view of the trees and the houses and the people passing by. You may also want to take some time to visit some of the cemeteries in the city. Savannah's haunting atmosphere is perhaps most striking there, as the monuments date back several centuries.
Savannah loves any excuse to party. With everyone from young partiers to upscale socializers taking part in the after-dark scene, there's a decent range of options for a city of Savannah's size. English- and Irish-style pubs, cutting-edge dance clubs, wine bars and nightclubs with female impersonators are all part of the mix. City Market and River Street are the two liveliest areas in town.
Most Savannah bars stay open until 3 am on Saturday but close at 1 or 2 am the rest of the week. Savannah is also known for the famous Savannah to-go cup, because city ordinances allow for open containers on the street. Most restaurants and bars provide plastic cups for patrons to take their beverages to go.
The quality of Savannah's dining options is partly because of the strict zoning laws of the Historic District: Fast-food restaurants are prohibited, which has given high-quality, family-owned restaurants the opportunity to flourish.
A number of excellent choices are clustered along West Congress Street in City Market.
Savannah's seafood establishments serve such local specialties as she-crab soup, Lowcountry boil (shrimp, potatoes, corn, onions and sausage), oyster roasts and fresh local shrimp. River Street offers an abundance of seafood restaurants, though locals will tell you that the best seafood places are often away from the tourist-oriented areas.
On Broughton Street, you'll find a host of restaurants serving Pan-Asian, Moroccan and southwestern-style cuisine.
In general, breakfast is served 7-10 am, lunch 11:30 am-3 pm and dinner (or "supper," as it's called in the South) 5:30-10 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; $$$$ = more than US$40.
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