On One Tank: Savannah
Author: Janice Shay
It seems to be human nature to think that the further a destination is from home, the more cachet it holds as a vacation getaway. Too much shared geography, culture, and history can’t always compete with the thrill of visiting an exotic locale. A mere hour’s drive from Hilton Head Island, Savannah is sometimes overlooked as a getaway for these reasons; but a closer look at what this historic city has to offer will have you running for your travel bags.
Savannah is a 300-year-old city steeped in history that encompasses the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, with the largest National Landmark Historic District, one of the oldest and most successful ports in America, the first museum in Georgia, and (currently) the largest art school in the country—to name just a few of its vacation assets. The residential street plan of the Historic District, designed by General Oglethorpe who founded the city, is easily navigated on foot and abounds with shopping, dining, art and entertainment possibilities for the weekend visitor.
But first, there are three simple rules I always tell visitors to remember about navigating Savannah streets:
1) Savannah is a walking city. You won’t need a car unless you decide to drive to Tybee beach. Park your car at your hotel and save on gasoline for the weekend; 2) Bring good walking shoes. The sidewalks are, for the most part, made of brick, tabby or cobblestones; they can be uneven and can trip visitors of any age. When friends ask about your trip, you’ll want to tell them about the fun you had, not explain the bruises you suffered from a fall; 3) Ignore any directions from local Savannahians. Depend on your phone GPS, your friends or your concierge instead. Locals remember directions based on landmarks from past history such as “turn right at Drayton where Harris Bakery used to be” or referring to MLK Boulevard by its former name, West Broad Street. Forgive us; it can be confusing. Savannahians don’t mean to be unhelpful, we just live in the past and assume that others do, too.
Where to stay
Savannah offers a large choice of Historic District hotels, inns and holiday rental homes to meet your travel needs. These are a few of my favorites:
• The Bohemian Hotel at Bay and Whitaker streets is a multi-story hotel overlooking the river and River Street. Built as part of Richard Kessler’s boutique hotel chain, the quirky elegance of the interior design adds to the fun of staying here. A nautical pirate theme extends to the rooms and the restaurant, where chandeliers and room decor are crafted from driftwood, metal and leather to achieve the feel of the 18th century port settlement. The rooftop bar has the best sunset view of the river and the city, so share a cocktail and get your bearings here before you head out to scout the city.
• The Andaz is a relatively new boutique hotel overlooking Ellis Square, with a fashionably clean, contemporary look and a wonderful bar and restaurant. They offer valet parking in the underground garage beneath Ellis Square.
• The Marshall House, the oldest hotel in Savannah, meticulously renovated, is located on Broughton Street, the main street of downtown. Second floor rooms face the street and open to porches with rockers—a wonderful viewpoint to enjoy the street scene downtown. The hotel’s Bistro 45 is a good place to dine, and the bar is a popular meeting place and watering hole for locals and business people.
• Savannah Villas offers Historic District rental homes with multiple bedrooms as well as individual rooms at one of their inns should you need something more than hotel accommodations. You’ll be able to experience beautiful historic architecture firsthand in these homes.
• Ballastone Inn on Oglethorpe Avenue is a romantic bed and breakfast steeped in its own colorful history. Decorated throughout with Victorian antiques, guests are invited to enjoy daily tea, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the parlor or the elegant courtyard garden. The 16-room inn also serves a lavish breakfast, complete with a silver service that would make any Southern matron proud.
Yes, it’s a walking town, but there are other enjoyable means of downtown travel besides your car. Carriage rides are available at Ellis Square and Trustees Garden (at East Broad and Bay Street), and pedicabs can be hailed almost anywhere in the downtown area. These bicycle rickshaws are a fun and cheap way to see the city or just get from point A to point B quickly. The rates are $25 per half hour; if you ride less than that time, you pay them what you choose to pay. What a concept!
Circa 1875 is a bar and bistro with a French theme so convincing that you’ll think you’re in Paris. The bistro food is simple and good, with a laudable Steak Frites on the menu. As at any restaurant in Savannah, casual dress is acceptable.
The Olde Pink House, built in 1789, is arguably the prettiest restaurant in the Historic District. The interior is a warren of lovely dining rooms, with one below-ground bar and a new side bar that opens to tables on the street in good weather. Ask to be seated in the large newly decorated upstairs dining room exquisitely replete with period antiques and chandeliers. Oh, and the seafood is great, too!
The Lady & Sons —Paula Deen’s famous eatery at the corner of Whitaker and St. Julian Street. The sign is small, but you can recognize it by the lines waiting to get in. Don’t let that deter you. If you want to enjoy her famous Southern food, put your name on the list for dinner—the wait isn’t as long as for lunch.
City Market is a veritable groaning board of good places to eat, so cruise the pedestrian street and choose from pizza and burgers to award-winning fine dining. At night, City Market rocks with music and outdoor entertainment. Savannah boasts five colleges and 8,000 art students, so City Market draws a youthful crowd after the sun goes down.
Shopping and tours
Ten years ago, the city made a concerted effort to improve Broughton Street and attract new businesses; since then, scores of interesting shops and boutiques have sprung up.
Walking west on Broughton from Drayton Street, you will pass 24e., a large contemporary furniture store in an old, two-story space with the best window designs in downtown; Gaucho, an upscale women’s clothing boutique; Levy Jewelers, in their new expanded location, features many contemporary designers; The Paris Market & Brocante is an incredibly beautiful store with a wide range of products, from soap to chandeliers, furniture and books; Savannah Bee Company offers a range of award-winning local bee products that also make great gifts; and Zia Boutique, a contemporary international costume jewelry store.
Beyond Broughton, walk south along Bull Street, the spine of the Historic District that begins at City Hall on Bay Street and ends at Forsyth Park. You will see architecture, restaurants, galleries, theaters and shops that are too many to mention here, but make for an enjoyable Saturday saunter.
Make one of your first stops at E. Shaver Booksellers, on Madison Square. The owner stocks a huge array of local guidebooks and Savannah history books if you want to read a bit more about the many things you’ll see on your trip or just experience a more guided tour of the Historic District.
This square is also home to the Green-Meldrim House, a museum house that was the 1864 headquarters of General Sherman during his stay in Savannah. Tours are available at a number of museum houses, including this one.
A good place to discover the wide variety of art that Savannah has to offer—the city was named one of the top Art 25 Destinations by American Style magazine—is ShopSCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design’s store, featuring art, fashion, jewelry, and product design by students, faculty and alumni. The store is housed in Poetter Hall, which was the first SCAD classroom building, renovated in 1979. It is also home to Poetter Gallery, one of many SCAD galleries around the city. Show information can be found online at scad.edu.
If you like antiquing, you will find much to browse along these squares. (Actually, you can find lots of great antique stores anywhere in the Historic District.) On the next square south on Bull Street, Monterey Square, you’ll find the Mercer House, made internationally famous in the bestselling book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Behind the Mercer house is their Carriage House shop of antiques. Alex Raskin Antiques, a pirate’s trove of treasures, is two doors away at the corner of Bull and Gordon. This house was featured in the Julia Roberts film, Something to Talk About.
Beyond Monterey Square lies Forsyth Park, a good place to pause on your walking tour to enjoy a drink and a great view of the floral display in the park. Choose from the newly renovated Fort on Forsyth Park which offers sandwiches, beer and wine, or Casimir’s Lounge, the bar at the Mansion on Forsyth Park Hotel across Whitaker Street, overlooking the park.
For something a little out of the ordinary, try an evening of dinner, live entertainment, and an unforgettable tour of Savannah on a Riverboat cruise. Tours can be booked online or call (800)-786-6404 for assistance with reservations, group tour bookings, and private charters. Experience refreshing river breezes on a sightseeing harbor tour, deliciouslocal southern flavors, cultural entertainment, fun-filled dinner, magical moonlight, and lavish brunches. Have a special occasion, wedding, or reunion; let our Event planners are available to help with special occasions or weddings. A unique tour and cruise attraction that should be put on the itinerary.
We have a saying: Remember the old adage about Savannah? In Atlanta, your host will ask, “What’s your business?”; in Charleston they will ask, “Who’s your family?”; in Savannah we ask what you’d like to drink. That’s just one of the reasons Savannah is called the Hostess City. Enjoy!
• Bohemian Hotel, 102 W. Bay Street, bohemiansavannah.com
• Andaz Savannah, 14 Barnard Street, savannah.andaz.hyatt.com
• Marshall House, 123 E. Broughton Street, marshallhouse.com
• Savannah Villas, 511 E. Broughton Street, savannahvillas.com
• Olde Pink House, 23 Abercorn Street, (912) 232-4286
• Savannah Pedicab, www.savannahpedicab.com, (912) 232-7900
• Circa 1875, 48 Whitaker Street, www.circa1875.com, (912) 443-1875
• The Lady and Sons Restaurant, 102 W. Congress, ladyandsons.com, (912) 233-2600
• E. Shavers Booksellers, 326 Bull Street, eshaverbooks.com
• The Green-Meldrim House, 14 W. Macon Street, (912) 233-3845
• The Mercer House, 429 Bull Street, and Carriage House Shop, 430 Whitaker Street, mercerhouse.com, (912) 236-6352
• Fort on Forsyth Park, 621 Drayton Street, (912) 233-7871
• Casimir’s Lounge, at the Mansion on Forsyth Park, 700 Drayton Street, mansiononforsythpark.com
• Alex Raskin Antiques, 441 Bull Street, alexraskinantiques.com
• Savannah River Boat Cruises, 9 East River St., Savannahriverboat.com
Janice Shay is co-author of Walking Tours of Old Savannah, available at local bookstores and online at amazon.com.