Savannah Georgia: A Past That's Not Even Past

Crew on Tall ship in 2014 in Savannah.
Crew on Tall ship in 2014 in Savannah. Chuck Wanager photos.

Savannah, Georgia: Lots to see and do in a relatively small area

By Chuck Wanager

WHY GO

Savannah Georgia:  Go! In this Southeastern port on the coast of Georgia,  you’ll discover, to borrow a line from Faulkner, a past that’s not even past.

Eevi Cowell and dog Cookie take in Lafayette Sq. Savannah. Georgia.
Eevi Cowell and dog Cookie take in Lafayette Sq. Savannah.

Time here reveals a luring mix of Old South DNA and specialty brewers, lodging in historic structures and a growing array of excellent shops, Florida-like climate and European charm, palm trees, and Spanish moss.

You get a massive fortress scared by a Civil War bombardment, reminders of colonial days, tales of pirates, a moonlight river cruise, dancing, and festivals, all served with a warm welcome that reflects genuine hospitality.

Many restaurants and lodgings have won high ratings on travel sites, and most attractions lie within relatively short travel distances.

Savannah's Famous Ghost Tours

Ghost and haunted tours emphasize diversity. Creepy legends surround some of the iconic squares and a brewery is supposed to be haunted by ghosts.

Artillery Demo at Ft. Pulaski, Savannah GA
Artillery Demo at Ft. Pulaski, Savannah.

Whether you see them or not, you can get growlers, howlers and crowlers, too. Those aren’t specters or obnoxious tourists or revelers, but quantities of local suds. Read about a Savannah Ghost Tour.

Yet, although this destination is much more than its history, that past continues to boost its popularity. “We’re becoming like Charleston as a tourist destination,” says Sean Bail, managing partner of Paula Deen’s The Lady & Sons and Creek House restaurants.

It pops all around, from downtown out to Bonaventure Cemetery and four venerable forts. You may be familiar with the story: founded by James Oglethorpe, site of Revolutionary and Civil War battles, a busy port, and more recently, a pop culture flash.

A drive along the extended timeline takes you down streets lined with oaks laced with that Spanish moss to squares that grace 22 intersections. Aged red brick girds many historic structures, and the collection of museums seems to grow each year.

The visitor finds replicas of horse-drawn trolleys, monuments, and statues, cemeteries and churches, classic examples of Regency-style architecture and restaurants, hotels or motels housed in places mounting plaques citing their heritage.

If visiting by car, consider the squares in your travel plans. They slow traffic but link back to the city’s founding in 1733. They have survived the centuries by offering open space, history, fountains and Old-World feel, and through dedicated support for preservation.

Booming Visitor Numbers

Downtown Savannah.
Downtown Savannah.

Booming numbers of visitors, now at 13 million a year, have contributed to an emergence from decades of shifting economic fortunes and the recent recession. The future looks bright for further economic expansion – which powers added the development of tourist attractions. Downtown renovation should help, along with other moves, including completion of a harbor upgrade expected to boost already substantial port activity.

Top Destination: Savannah

Trolley framed by oak with Spanish moss in Savannah
Trolley framed by oak with Spanish moss in Savannah

Heightened recognition as a top destination continues to build the city’s travel profile. For instance, it placed third – for the third straight year – among the top 10 domestic travel destinations as ranked by popular travel magazine Travel & Leisure.

Visitors also spread the word. Ky McKinney said she and her husband were traveling north from Florida but stopped for a meal because of one restaurant’s popularity. They were glad they did.

Quick travel between sites in this city of 136,000 is a true bonus, especially for those with small children, and particularly if walking. One of the major attractions farthest from downtown – Ft. Pulaski – looms only 14 miles away. Bonaventure Cemetery lies 13 miles out.

That allows more time to wander, and even for the returning visitor, to uncover a surprise. For instance, it might be the childhood home of beloved Southern writer Flannery O'Connor, who you might not associate with this city.

Or, it could be the Prohibition Museum, which bills itself as Savannah’s best-kept secret.

Savannah’s open container law adds appeal. You can sip your brew while strolling through. That perk is hard to keep quiet but does generate a crunch of revelers – especially during the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration – which can be a safety concern.

Children are not ignored. Games geared for varying age groups and other play-inducing pieces now hold down space once home to railroad repair shops. Giant tinker toys, a swirly slid and a regal-sized chest set are part of the Savannah Children’s Museum, housed inside the Georgia Railroad Museum.

Moon River customers at lunch in dining area of brewery. Savannah GA.
Moon River customers at lunch in dining area of brewery.

At nearby Tybee Beach and the area’s salt marshes, nature often drives the camera lens. There’s also the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which attracts thousands each year, and the annual Savannah Music Festival.

Regardless of why you come, you should keep in mind precautions to protect yourself and your belongings. Those include common-sense ones, like, always make sure you know where your money is and be extra careful in or stay away from areas heavy with celebrators.

More recognition

Savannah ranked 17th among the top 25 U.S. destinations in Travelers Choice ratings from Travel Advisor, finishing behind Nashville and in front of Boston. Recognition for excellence also has been shared by some restaurants and lodging.

Brewing up tourism

The brew scene in Savannah grows with the tourist trade. Several specialty breweries are stirring sales and loyalists across the state and region. At some you get individual drinks of the company’s products and can pick up a growler or other-size containers.

In at least one brewery, beer ferments and bubbles in large tanks behind a see-through glass wall. A brew person checks progress. Breweries include The Distillery, Coastal Empire Beer Co. and Moon River Brewing Co. Many feature citrus flavors or other non-traditional brews.

A kind of friendly competition exists, said Mike Livings, Moon River brewer. They often team up to promote their brands. More good news for the visitor: at Moon River, for instance, you can also get a meal.

When to Go

Pirate's House guide brandishes a musket

Spring, when the region puts on its greatest show with explosions of natural color. However, any time is good. Many attractions go year-round in usually mild weather, with average temperatures ranging from a January low of 39 and high of 60, to a low of 73 in July. Highs reach 92 that month.

Getting there and around

By air

Fly into Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport. It’s up-to-date and was expanded a few years ago. Several airlines service the area, including Delta, American, United, Air Canada and Jet Blue.

The airport lies 17 miles, or 22 minutes, from downtown, with US. Highway 21 and Interstate 95 direct to the city. Parking is first-come, first-served, with weekly economy rates at $1 hourly and $8 daily. Valet parking is available.

By land

Plan your travel with care. Go pre-digital and study maps. The city’s traffic grid can seem confusing, even with today’s car navigation systems.

Coming in by car: I-16 from the west, I-95 from north or south. Public transportation abounds. Taxis, including by bicycle; Uber, Lyft, tour trolleys, both motorized – on wheels, not tracks – and horse-drawn. Car rental available at the airport; many options for guided tours.

By water

Passengers disembarking from Harbour Tour

Free water taxi on the Savannah Belles Ferry and cruises on a paddle wheeler or other boats. Such trips have become a popular mainstay on historic Riverfront. Embark on sunset, narrated luncheon, dinner entertainment or Sunday moonlight cruises. Trips are from 90 minutes to two hours.

By paddle

River and salt marsh tours by board, kayak or canoe. Based at nearby Tybee Island or marinas between the island and here.

TOURS

You’re not here long before you see the trolleys. Also, slow rides by leg power for groups and individuals, walking tours and those by helicopter, a pricey choice.

There’s a tavern tour, a culinary and cultural walking tour and a haunted pubs tour, along with a haunted walking and an African-American haunted ghost tour.

BEST MAJOR ATTRACTION

Civil War-veteran Ft. Pulaski. As a measure of the port’s significance, several fortresses stood guard at various times, primarily the early years. Four remain, and for many visitors, this is the jewel. It’s a well-preserved timepiece and survivor of that watershed of our history, the Civil War. Walk inside its massive walls, which cost big money, and you get an explicit feel for that war. The moat and overall layout also reveal military thinking of that age.

Waving Girl Statue along Savannah River.
Waving Girl Statue along Savannah River.

The other three: Old Ft. Jackson, begun in 1808 and served during the War of 1812 and Civil War; Ft. McAllister, now a state park centerpiece, and Ft. Screven, veteran of the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II.

Best alternative

Bonaventure Cemetery. Some of us may have discovered this large, bucolic destination thanks to the popular book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and the movie. Although a 1990s phenomenon, the story lives for many. A stroll around yields an up-close view of the one of its statues – known as the Bird Lady – featured on the book cover, names of famous residents and many other stories and remembrances from the past.

MOST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION

Grave site of Johnny Mercer Savannah GA
Grave site of Johnny Mercer

Haunted Squares

Madison, Wright, Lafayette, Reynolds and Calhoun squares, often included in haunted tours. Other popular travel destinations may claim such tours, but only this one offers these islands of escape resurrecting local lore. Ghost stories rise from Madison, Wright and Reynolds squares, partly due to the many deaths associated with them. Madison is thought to be the location of a mass grave from the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Savannah. Said to be lurking around is a creepy vision of William Jaspers, whose statue tops a monument on the square.

Wright Square held gallows. But specters of two of Savannah’s legendary figures are believed to make appearances.

BEST FESTIVAL

The Savannah Music Festival has hosted world-class performances and musicians since 1989. Set for the 2019 is a lineup of musicians and music ranging from country to chamber music. Other events include the popular St. Patrick’s Day Parade and celebration, which attracts thousands.

Museums

Thanks to the history, these abound, covering art, learning, local past, classic cars and civil rights to the one celebrating Prohibition days, and more. Along with those already mentioned: Pin Point Heritage and Webb Military museums, Savannah Collage of Art and Design’s Museum of Art and Massie Heritage Center, among others.

Tra, left, and Ky McKinney at dinner.
Tra, left, and Ky McKinney at dinner in Savannah.

PUBS/ DANCING

Try the Alley Cat Lounge with rustic interior, PS Bar and Club Black Dream for dancing and celebrating. Following a national trend, some promote their Bloody Marys, along with other drinks. Other popular places: The Ordinary Pub, Betty Bombers, Green Truck Pub and the Crystal Beer Parlor, with excellent meals.

LODGING

Several of the plentiful hotels/motels occupy historic buildings, some in the historic district. Three of those in that district and favored in online reviews: the Marshall House, rooms beginning at $99 (prices cited are minimum posted on travel sites in December 2018), phone 800-589-6304; The DeSoto, $129, 844-257-3520, and at the airport, Homewood Suites by Hilton, $119, 1-912-450-5555.

Many more options are available, including those upscale, with accompanying prices. In addition, bed and breakfasts or inns, such as Eliza Thompson House, $152, 912-236-3620; Dresser Palmer House, $155, 1-844-232-7886, and The Presidents’ Quarters Inn, $199, 912-232-7886.

EATS

You’ll find many, some serving with a garnish of history. One of the best according to rankings and rates found online is Chrystal Beer Parlor in quarters dating to the early 1900’s. Prices start at $9.95 for a Chrystal burger and $7.75 for Savannah mudd pie, 912-349-1000.

A part of the Pirates’ House was built in 1734, $19.95, 912-233-5757, and the Old Pink House Restaurant is housed in an 18th-century mansion, $18.95. But farther down the menu at that restaurant, a dressed-up ribeye with vegetable, 45.95, 912-232-4286; The Lady & Sons, a Paula Deen restaurant in a restored brick warehouse, $16, Paula’s Southern Buffet, 912-233-2600, or Moon River Brewing Co., $9, build-your-own burger, 912-233-2600.

Patsy Holman, left, and Lynn Ring stand next to Deen cutout.
Patsy Holman, left, and Lynn Ring stand next to Deen cutout.

SAFETY

As with other travel destinations these days, be careful on walks or walking tours after dark. Lock your car and watch the steep steps to the Riverfront.

COMMUNICATIONS
Free, public Internet or wifi available in some locations in the city. Wifi available at Live Oak Public Libraries

BEST RESOURCES

VisitSavannah.com

OpenWifiSpots

TripAdvisor

GeorgiaEncyclopedia.org

GoSouthSavannah.com

OfficialSavannahGuide.com

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