Spot the future of Southern culture in this mini-metropolis, where a famous historic district accommodates Confederate and cosmopolitan sensibilities alike.
1. Where to Stay
Surround yourself with decadent décor at the Mansion on Forsyth Park (from $199), a Victorian-style brick castle housing 126 rooms outfitted with onyx marble, blood-red curtains, and gold-leaf accents. Considered the city’s best hotel, this four-star/four-diamond property opened in 2005 but was painstakingly designed to blend in with the area’s historic architecture, right down to the bricks used in its façade. Request a Deluxe Forsyth room if you want a view of the park.
Get boutique-style service despite the big size at 150-room AVIA (from $239), which features a distinctly modern vibe that’s part Miami (private outdoor cabanas, bold furnishings) and part Old South (plantation shutters, crown molding). Located blocks away from popular City Market, certain rooms can be noisy on weekends; light sleepers should avoid booking rooms that overlook Ellis Square.
Feel like part of the family at the Green Palm Inn (from $129, two-night minimum on weekends), one of Savannah’s smallest and loveliest B&Bs. Housed within a classic nineteenth-century Victorian gingerbread, its four rooms are outfitted in British-Colonial palm décor. Expect first-name service and knowledgeable tips from innkeeper Diane McCray and her staff.
2. Where to Eat
Skip Paula Deen’s tourist trap and instead experience the best of the culinary scene at Elizabeth on 37th, where chef Kelly Yambor takes Southern standbys in bold new directions. Make reservations for the seven-course seasonal tasting menu ($90), which may include dishes such as Parmesan-crusted local black sea bass with South Carolina quail hash and grilled venison tenderloin with balsamic butter sauce okra and cauliflower flan.
Wait on line for old-school Southern grub at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room ($16, cash only), a Savannah institution that’s been serving family-style meals since 1943. Fried chicken is always on the set menu, while beef stew, meatloaf, and sausage make appearances throughout the week next to sides including collard greens, snap beans, okra and tomatoes, and candied yams.
Taste an international spin on comfort food at 700 Drayton, where chef Michael Semancik (formerly of Blue Ribbon) serves cashew-crusted salmon kicked up with spicy Sriracha sauce along with baby bok choy and basmati rice ($26). Fried chicken gets a twist, too, with blueberries in the crust and Gruyère red-potato gratin and pole beans served on the side ($24).
3. What to Do
Support Savannah’s growing art scene at the locally owned artist boutiques popping up throughout the historic district. Find handpicked jewelry from designers around the world at Zia Boutique, where Zia Sachedina sells a diverse selection alongside his original creations. The selection runs from delicate Brazilian gold bracelets and cuffs with bold, colorful gemstones such as amethyst and titanium druzy (from $220), to the Batik Collection’s Turkana-, Samburu-, and Maasai-inspired art from Africa ($75 to $349). At the other end of Broughton Street, find contemporary ottomans, chaises, and club chairs at 24e, where items are created both in-house and by outside designers.
Explore urban revitalization on a free nonacademic tour of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which has faithfully restored formerly abandoned buildings according to their original aesthetics, while repurposing the interiors for modern use. Opened in 1978, SCAD has effectively built a contemporary campus that’s woven into the city historic landmarks, with its 10,000-strong student body bringing a youthful edge to the city.
Purchase items made by the art and design stars of tomorrow at ShopSCAD, a gallery and boutique featuring art, jewelry, décor, and other work by both students and faculty. Kathryn Riecher’s sterling silver cowgirl star earrings are just $16, while fine art—such as alumnus Melody Postma’s mixed-media works—cost upwards of $8,000.
4. Insider’s Tip
The city’s climate and low-lying skyline would seem to invite rooftop bars, but Savannah has only a few. Unless you’re staying at the Bohemian Hotel, at the western end of the waterfront, you may never stumble upon Rocks on the Roof, safely ensconced eight floors up from the touristy foot traffic. Grab an outdoor table at day’s end and toast the sunset as South Carolina lights up across the river. When you’re ready to leave, feel free to order a drink or two for the road—to-go cups are legal here.
5. Oddball Day
Test your nerves by tempting Savannah’s many resident ghosts. Start your exploration after lunch at the Mercer Williams House ($12.50), famous not just for its connection to local hero Johnny Mercer’s great-grandfather but also for its role in the murderous events chronicled in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Next, take a short taxi ride to Bonaventure Cemetery (open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; free admission), which once housed the “Bird Girl” statue made famous on Berendt’s book cover. (It has since been relocated to the Telfair Museum of Art.) Between the ubiquitous hanging moss and misty, somber atmosphere, this 160-acre public cemetery is Southern Gothic at its finest. Notable residents include Johnny Mercer, novelist Conrad Aiken, and thousands of deceased Georgians who, for nearly 150 years, have called Bonaventure their eternal home. For dinner, ask a local for directions to Wall’s barbecue joint (515 E. York Lane, no phone; closed Sundays), a hard-to-find back-alley shack whose slow-cooked ribs and tangy slaw are legendary ($10 for one main with sides). Afterward, fill your to-go cup and join a Haunted Pub Crawl (912-604-3007; $15). The two-hour walking tour starts at 8 p.m. at Moon River Brewery, whose abandoned second floor is said to be one of Savannah’s most eerie spots. Then it’s on to nearby stops in the Historic District, including a sports bar that was formerly a slave quarters, a Scottish pub where a murder once took place, and a trendy college bar that used to be a hanging site.
Visit Savannah is operated by Savannah’s convention and visitors’ bureau and provides straightforward resources for visitors.
The Creative Coast is also supported by the city, but their blog highlights efforts and projects by Savannah’s creative entrepreneurs.
Key to Savannah includes a thorough list of hotels, restaurants, and attractions tailored to authenticity-seeking outsiders, and their blog is a good source for upcoming events.
Savannah’s alternative newsweekly, Connect Savannah, publishes comprehensive arts and culture listings.
For tickets to arts and cultural events, visit SCAD’s Savannah Box Office.