Today Savannah still dazzles, with its remaining 22 squares rimmed with grand mansions and live oaks, its restored civic and commercial buildings, and its old warehouses repurposed into hotels, restaurants, galleries and stores.
Story by Carolyn Males
Atlanta had gone up in flames one month earlier and Sherman’s Union troops continued on their “March to the Sea,” leaving a path of plunder and smoldering ruins in their wake. In December, as war drums echoed in the distance, the mayor of Savannah sent the citizens packing and prepared to surrender. On arrival Sherman, it is said, was so entranced by Savannah’s stately houses, wide streets, and grid of 24 leafy squares, that he spared it. Or perhaps it was that he’d recognized the value of its busy cotton port and naval supply center. Whatever the reason, the town was saved.
Today Savannah still dazzles, with its remaining 22 squares rimmed with grand mansions and live oaks, its restored civic and commercial buildings, and its old warehouses repurposed into hotels, restaurants, galleries and stores. On Telfair Square the dramatic Moshe Safdie-designed Jepson Center for the Arts stands catty-corner to its sister Telfair Academy, an 1818 Regency-style mansion. (telfair.org)
A few blocks away, an 86-foot-high steel-and-glass lantern heralds the Savannah College of Art and Design’s adaptation of an 1853 railroad depot into the SCAD Museum of Modern Art. (scadmoa.org)
The city celebrates the season in December by draping its large historic district in pine roping, holly, magnolia leaves and lights. This time of year you can peek behind the doors of inns and private residences on a self-guided Holiday Tour of Homes on Dec. 9. (dnaholidaytour.com)
But no matter what the month, walking around yields architectural delights at every turn. But if you’d rather explore with a guide, there are dozens of tours to suit any interest: history, architectural, ghost and vampire (Savannah is a favorite haunted hangout), pub crawls, cemetery, civil war, ecology, river, photography, movies, military, wildlife and more.
What to Do:
SAVANNAH AFRICAN ART MUSEUM Enter a magical world of spiritual and ceremonial art at this impressive private collection of art spanning 22 countries and 130 cultures from West and Central Africa. Masks, pottery, sculpture and ceremonial garments dating from the 19th and 20th centuries fill two stories of this light-filled mansion. Guides offer insights into symbolism, rituals, crafting and tribal customs. Thomas Square Neighborhood. Thurs-Sat. (912-421-8168 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
AMERICAN PROHIBITION MUSEUM Savannah’s winding waterways provided the perfect cover for rum running in the 1920s, so it’s fitting that the country’s only museum dedicated to Prohibition ended up here. Embark on an entertaining journey from the pre-Civil War temperance movement, through the theatrics of Billy Sunday and the hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation, then on to the result of the 18th amendment ban – moonshiners, flappers, gangsters, leading to unintended consequences – rising income tax, re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and even the roots of NASCAR. If you’ve worked up a thirst, a speakeasy at the end serves Prohibition-era cocktails. City Market area. Open daily.(americanprohibitionmuseum.com)
PIN POINT HERITAGE MUSEUM Located 12 miles from downtown Savannah, this old seafood processing plant offers a unique look into a historic Gullah-Geechee community. For more than half a century, the A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory was the economic heart of this small salt marsh village. Take a guided tour through four restored buildings to learn how shellfish were processed and to hear the voices of the folks who grew up here (including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas), telling stories about traditions, religion, and family life. Thurs-Sat. (912-355-0064 or chsgeorgia.org/phm)
Where to Eat:
THE GREY Savannah is famous for restoring old buildings and the Grey, an 1938 Art Deco former Greyhound bus station, is a perfect example with its sleek décor and local art. Chef Mashama Bailey has won kudos for her Southern Coastal cuisine with dishes like Ossabow Pork with charred cabbage and Chicken Country Captain with curry and rice. For less formal fare, The Grey’s street side Diner Bar offers a bar menu of meats and cheeses, sandwiches and sweets, along with wine and cocktails. Look for the special events held in The Yard. Historic District. (thegreyrestaurant.com)
THE VAULT KITCHEN AND MARKET Once a bank building, this hip Asian fusion spot serves up creative fare like spicy Banker’s Shrimp Tacos with kimchi, Deposit Box Duck tacos, Miso Salmon, Crying Tiger grilled steak, and Wicked Tuna sushi. Starland District. (vaultkitchen.com)
MRS. WILKES DINING ROOM This Savannah institution has been described as “Thanksgiving dinner without the turkey.” And no wonder. Steaming dishes of fried chicken, meatloaf, red rice, collards, mac and cheese, butter beans, gumbo, muffins and yams (dishes depend upon the changing menu) are served up family style to tables of 10. A not-to-be-missed experience, but do be prepared to stand in line (no reservations are taken), share a table with others, and pay cash. Historic District. (mrswilkes.com)
Where to Stay:
BOHEMIAN HOTEL Sitting atop a 46- foot bluff overlooking the Savannah River, this 75-room brick hotel was built to resemble the old cotton warehouse buildings that still line Factors Row. Taking its cue from the city’s maritime history and its current art scene, this luxury property mixes British campaign furniture, driftwood and brass along with contemporary paintings and edgy touches. Dine at the hotel’s Rocks on the River or head up to the rooftop indoor-outdoor bar, Rocks on the Roof, to sip martinis and eat tapas while watching container ships drift by. (bohemianhotelsavannah.com)
HAMILTON-TURNER INN One of the country’s most romantic inns. With seventeen charming rooms featuring custom bedding, plush furnishings and stylish baths, plus an attentive staff, this elegant inn is Savannah hospitality at its best. Historic District. (hamilton-turnerinn.com)
RIVER STREET INN In the days of King Cotton, Savannah was the world’s second largest cotton seaport. Ballast from ships provided the building material for this 200-year-old riverside building that once housed bales of cotton for sampling, grading, and export. Today the reconverted warehouse features a five-story wooden staircase in an atrium with ballast and cobblestone walls. The period-furnished rooms, some with balconies, offer city or river views at moderate prices. Member of Historic Hotels of America. (riverstreetinn.com)