“I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”
Closing out his infamous March to the Sea, W.T. Sherman galloped into Savannah as winter fell and found her too beautiful to burn. A day after his 1864 arrival the General decided to spare the city and make a gift of Savannah to President Lincoln. Sherman would spend a month among her storybook mansions and cobblestone streets before marching on to take the Carolinas and hasten the end of the Civil War.
It’s impossible to visit Savannah without slipping into this city’s rich history. Beneath stately live oaks and cemeteries adorned in Spanish moss lie several centuries of intriguing citizens: Yamacraw Chief Tomochichi (who served as an invaluable and impartial mediator between Native Americans and English settlers) and his best friend General James Oglethorpe (who established Savannah as America’s first planned city around 24 town squares and four prohibitions: no rum, no state religion, no slavery, no lawyers), as well as Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low, Flannery O’Connor, Justice Clarence Thomas, Johnny Mercer, Gregg Allman, and Big Boi, among others.
Here, every sprawling veranda, walled garden, marked grave and unmarked door has a story to tell, begging you to sit down with a mint julep and figure out the fracture point between fact and fiction. Quiet morning strolls, afternoon trolley tours, vibrant museums, bohemian boutiques, delectable dinners, midnight ghost walks, and raucous speakeasies await in a place that’s earned its reputation in earnest as “The Hostess City of the South.”
When to go
The weather’s fairly temperate year-round. Temperatures peak in July when everything south of the Fall Line is left sopping with sweat and a deep longing for the sweet chill of fall. Festivals happen nearly every weekend and celebrate everything from seafood, craft beer, wine, jazz, and art; to Oktoberfest, Pride, Jewish food (Shalom Y’all!, as it’s called) and pirates (Tybee Island Pirate Festival). Savannah College of Art and Design hosts a major fashion show each May and a film festival in late October, and every March the fountains run green as 300,000 people descend upon River Street for St. Patrick’s Day.
Getting there + around
Drive or fly into town, then grab a bike or just walk around. Ride-sharing apps and taxis abound, most trolley tours offer hop-on-hop-off all day access, and there’s a public bus system — Chatham Area Transit — that offers many free routes within the historic district.
Where to stay
Book a room in the historic quarter — it’s at the heart of Savannah and puts you in the perfect position for a car-free weekend. Aim to stay in one of the city’s historic homes by finding an inn through Google or Trip Advisor. A few blocks from the Savannah River, Green Palm Inn is a quiet and affordable bed and breakfast that we enjoyed during our last visit. Innkeeper Diane McCray shared sightseeing ideas and the city’s history over farm-to-table breakfasts, and even lent us an old key that got us into an unmarked speakeasy off Factors Walk (more on that in a minute).
Wherever you decide to stay, try to book early. While there are also plenty of well-appointed hotels and cozy Airbnbs in the historic district, reasonably priced rooms tend to go quickly throughout the year — especially so around St. Patrick’s Day, spring’s Savannah Music Festival, and the River Street Seafood Festival each fall.
For more availability and a relaxed vibe, head to Airbnb or VRBO to book a beach cottage, condo, or hotel on Tybee or Skidaway — both islands are just a half hour’s drive from downtown Savannah. North of Tybee over the South Carolina line there’s also Daufuskie Island. Since there’s no bridge to the island and no room for cars on the ferry over, most Daufuskie rentals include a golf cart or Jeep.
What to do
After you’ve checked in and dropped off luggage, lavender waffle cones and rose petal cream sundaes await at Leopold’s ice cream on East Broughton. There’s usually a line and it’s always worth the wait — the century-old parlor regularly appears on lists of best ice cream shops in the world.
Around the corner from Leopold’s is Lucas Theatre For the Arts, a non-profit that hosts live theater, concerts, and ballet alongside classic cinema screenings, movie marathons, and film festivals. Drop by the box office to see what’s showing and scoop up tickets in advance.
Down West Broughton you’ll find The Paris Market & Brocante, a two-story Marché aux Puces and après café complete with lattes, macarons, and champagne. Brimming with objects new and old, local and exotic, provincial and baroque, the market hosts an apothecary, book shop, and jewelry counter, along with shelves of antiques, candles, stationery, dry goods, kitchen implements, leather totes, and the odd English refracting telescope and gilded rosewood slipper chair. Local makers are featured alongside an in-house brand and finds from around the world. I can never resist their lavender sachets, signature candles, and four-inch stick matches. Equal parts market and museum, it’s the perfect spot for a little lèche-vitrine — that’s French for “glass-licking” — colloquially known stateside as window-shopping).
Close by and also worth a visit: Savannah Bee Company, The Salt Table, open-air City Market, American Prohibition Museum, Owens-Thomas House Museum, Davenport House Museum, Webb Military Museum, Girl Scout First Headquarters, Jepson Center for the Arts, and Telfair Academy, the oldest public art museum in the South.
Scattered beyond Broughton are sundry dollops of history and culture to explore: SCAD Museum of Art, guided trolley tours, ghost tours, churches and squares, The Waving Girl, Bonaventure Cemetery (featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), and Forsyth Park (featured in Forrest Gump), perennially rated as one of the best parks in the country.
I’d be remiss not to include the Flannery O’Connor First Childhood Home on this list, although my husband wondered if I should mention to you the meticulously arranged depression-era baby clothes and toys and hairbrushes and intro film. Not unlike the Southern Gothic literature Flannery penned, this place is obsessive, a little dark, and pretty funny. It’s more than you’ll ever need to know about the woman who taught chickens to walk backwards and once declared, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.”
Where to eat and drink
Ask a local for a dinner recommendation and they’re likely to share some excellent old-school fine dining options with you: Alligator Soul, Local 11ten, a.Lure, 17 Hundred 90, Elizabeth On Thirty Seventh, The Olde Pink House, Circa 1875, Noble Fare, 39 Rue de Jean, The Vault, and The Grey.
Vic’s on the River is my forever favorite for lowcountry-centric seafood and classic Southern fare whenever I’m in Savannah. Like the other restaurants on this list, you’ll want a reservation. Ask for a table that looks out over the Savannah River, over by the wall where Union soldiers drew a map of Sherman’s March that was unearthed and preserved during a 1901 renovation of the building.
If you can’t seem to find a dinner reservation but still have a hankering to try one of Savannah’s classic restaurants, call in a reservation for brunch or lunch — both are often less busy and less expensive times to visit.
You can also get around having a reservation altogether by asking to order dinner at the bar. On a busy weekend this past spring we took a late night walk to Chive Seabar & Lounge, put our name in with the host, grabbed a couple of drinks while we waited, and were seated at the bar within half an hour — months later I’m still thinking about their lobster and edamame risotto and elderflower martinis.
With the motto “home is where you park it,” Treylor Park and sister restaurant Hitch are two local favorites for a laid back dinner and drinks, sans reservations. Entrées include avocado fries, Bloody Mary mussels, chicken and grits tacos, low country pizza, PB&J wings, fried oyster burritos, cinnamon sugar egg rolls, and, of course: fried bologna sandwiches.
Tucked away behind plain doors down dark alleys, speakeasies are an open secret in Savannah. Mata Hari is probably the most well-known, requiring a physical key or password from your inn or hotel (or perhaps a bit of money to the doorman) for entry. On weekends there’s live music and burlesque, along with an absinthe-heavy classic cocktail menu. It’s a relatively small spectacle that’s often overrun with bachelor and bachelorette parties, but the performances can be a fun departure from the quotidian.
If you’re after a speakeasy with amazing cocktails, head instead to Congress Street Up, run by the American Prohibition Museum, or try industry favorite AlleyCat Lounge. Wherever the night takes you, remember that you can probably ask for a to-go cup — the entire Historic District is open container-friendly.
Day trips along the coast
Along with Tybee, Little Tybee, and Skidaway, Savannah is an easy drive to the rest of Georgia’s beautiful barrier islands. North to south are Wassaw (30 minute drive plus a boat hire), Ossabaw, privately owned St. Catherines, Sapelo/Blackbeard; the tony “Golden Isles” of St. Simons/Sea Island/Little St. Simons/Jekyll; privately owned Little Cumberland and Cumberland Island National Seashore (1.5 hour drive plus a ferry).
Whether you’re interested in beach camping and coastal hiking, shopping and sunshine, historical villages and forts, sailing, swimming, sea kayaking, or shorelines speckled with wild horses and loggerhead sea turtles, each island offers a different facet of the state’s coast.
Tybee, Skidaway, St. Simons, Sea Island, and Jekyll are the only developed barrier islands and are each accessible by car. Most of the others can be visited by ferry or private boat charter, but the privately owned ones are technically open by invitation only. Explore Georgia has a detailed interactive map that walks you through highlights of the region, and hosts the trip planning site Visit Coastal Georgia. The Secrets of the Georgia Coast issue of Atlanta Magazine is another great resource.
On our last visit we spent one afternoon on the banks of the Little Ogeechee River for Georgia Conservancy’s Oyster Roast, followed by another exploring marshes festooned in Spanish moss within primordial Skidaway Island State Park.
Next trip, we’re aiming to pair a couple of days in Savannah with a Georgia Conservancy service weekend, Jekyll Island paddle and camp, or maybe book a couple nights at this surreal Cumberland island all-inclusive inn.
What I wore
- Everlane Men’s Slim Fit Oxford
- Everlane Chunky Knit Cotton Crew
- Cuyana Baby Alpaca Infinity Scarf
- Ray-Ban 58mm polarized aviators
- Paige Hoxton Transcend High-Waist Jeans
- Sevilla Smith Sandy D’Orsay Ballet Flats
- Filson Cover Cloth Mile Marker Trench and hood
- Saint Laurent ‘Y Ligne’ Crossbody (sold out; thrift it on The Real Real or Tradesy)
- size info and everything else in my closet right here