Above: Lovely Lafayette Square boasts a beautiful fountain dedicated by the Colonial Dames of America. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, with its inspiring Gothic architecture, is on the square. Visit Savannah photo
Below: Dining al fresco in the City Market. Savannah offers a variety of outstanding restaurants.
That Big Band ditty from the prolific pen of songwriter Mercer is a good theme song for the upbeat, Southern, swinging sassiness that is Savannah. Throw in gracious, green, and genteel and you have a good start on the city’s portrait.
When Gen. James Oglethorpe waded ashore in 1733, his goal was to establish not a popular tourist attraction but what would become the state of Georgia.
He succeeded on both counts.
Its first beachhead was Savannah, a strategic river and ocean port from which the new English colony could defend itself and also serve as a buffer between the northern colonies and Spanish Florida. Oglethorpe was ahead of his time on several fronts. The charter establishing the colony forbade slavery. It also served as a haven for persecuted religious groups– including Jews and Lutheran Salzbergers–not afforded those liberties.
Almost 300 years later, Jewish monuments and synagogues still dot the town in far great numbers than in most southern American communities. The city emphasizes its diversity to this day.
Scaring up good times
A recent visit confirmed that Oglethorpe’s stamp is still at the beating heart of Savannah, perhaps most noticeably in the 22 city squares he laid out centuries ago.
Today, those squares are green, shady places of respite for townsfolk and tourists alike. Adorned with fountains, statues, benches, and massive oaks, they are the focal points of Savannah’s downtown.
It’s not hard to linger in those squares–it’s a most pleasant way to spend an afternoon, walking from one to another–and imagine pre-Colonials strolling past. At the riverfront, now a riot of tourist shops and restaurants, it’s a bit harder to conjure, but squint a little to imagine the container ship coming up the Savannah River to be an 18th-century man-o-war.
By day, the oldest part of the city is a dreamy green landscape of mossy trees, cobblestone or brick streets, museums, and elegant, one-of-a-kind homes. It keeps a soft, measured pace–exactly the rhythm expected of a historical Southern city.
Then the sun goes down.
Modern-day Savannah has been called one of America’s most haunted cities. With 280 years of history behind it, there are plenty of scalawags, alleged crime scenes, ghosts, and other bone-chilling material to give rise to a thriving ghost tour business.
Our party of three signed on with Hearse Ghost Tours for a 75-minute tour of the old city. We spent a good part of the tour in a haunted bar, enjoyed a quick beer, then clambered back aboard our eight-passenger hearse, which featured eight open-air seats behind the driver on a raised platform. Yes, we were riding a vehicle in which many had taken their last rides.
A good guide is the whole ballgame with any ghost tour, and we scored a good one that night. We saw haunted houses, got out and walked occasionally, and heard ghastly, ghostly tales. And yet, somehow, we lived to tell.
If riding in a hearse is too unsettling, there are at least a dozen other ghost tour companies willing to take visitors around Savannah by bus, trolley, horse-drawn carriage, or on foot.
Museums, a market, and a murder
For those who prefer to commune with the living, there are numerous boat, trolley, and bus tours in Savannah that do not focus on ghosts. Museums abound, including the birthplace of Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low, the three Telfair art museums, the Roundhouse Railroad Museum, the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, and the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum. Gilbert, a Civil Rights leader and Baptist minister, was president of Savannah’s NAACP chapter. He helped to start more than 40 chapters of the NAACP in Georgia in the 1940s.
For those staying in the historical area, transportation is a snap thanks to DOT, the fare-free shuttle service that loops through downtown. Try to snag a hotel near a DOT stop; we stayed at the Residence Inn Marriott, 500 W. Charlton St., with a DOT stop at the front door. Parking can be scarce and difficult on Savannah’s narrow streets. Take the DOT if you can, and don’t forget the easy-to-read street/attractions pocket map.
One of the DOT stops, City Market, advertises itself as “The Art & Soul of Savannah.” It’s a pedestrian-only area near the riverfront where visitors can find food, entertainment, and an impressive lineup of local and national artists. Don’t miss it.
This bustling marketplace, which dated to the city’s founding, had fallen on hard times, as did much of the original part of Savannah. By 1985, rehabbing the four-block area had begun, and while the locals did a valiant job of preserving many of the city’s historical buildings, others were demolished, including the original City Market building.
As the 20th century wound down, Savannah needed a shot in the arm to bring itself back to life as a tourist attraction. That shot came in 1994 with publication of the book Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. The full medicine arrived in 1997 when the story, a thriller about the 1981 murder of a male prostitute, was made into a movie starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey.
The movie was set largely in the Mercer-Williams House, built by Johnny Mercer’s great-grandfather. Later, antiques dealer Jim Williams, who was accused of the murder, would own the home. He was tried for the crime four times; two convictions were overturned, one trial ended in a hung jury and the fourth acquitted him. He died six months later.
The other signature element of the movie was the statue known as Bird Girl, which was a focal point in the garden. The original statue, which also was highlighted on the cover of the book, had to be moved into one of the Telfair museums to protect it from souvenir-seeking visitors.
Statuary is a big architectural feature of the city. Probably the second-most famous statue is that of Waving Girl, who stands today along the banks of the Savannah River, handkerchief fluttering (as much as a brass handkerchief can flutter) in hope her absent lover will see it.
The statue commemorates the devotion of Florence Martus who died in 1943 and reportedly spent every day for 44 years waving to each ship that entered the river. One legend has it that she was awaiting a man she’d met a single time in her youth.
Savannah’s renaissance over the last 20 years has sparked new shops, restaurants, and hotel restorations. Low Country cooking always was a popular cuisine, but now there is an unending gumbo of French, Cajun, American, and continental offerings. The high priestess of the Savannah food scene, Paula Deen, got her start delivering bagged lunches to Savannah office buildings under the nom de plume, The Bag Lady.
One of our favorite eateries, surprisingly, turned out to be the Crystal Beer Parlor, 301 W. Jones St., which claims the second-oldest continuous lineage in Savannah’s distinguished restaurant history. Opened in 1933, the parlor serves up beer, burgers, and other fresh-made but simple fare. It also has not-so-simple entrées, such as Greek rack of lamb. Visitors dine in Depression-era booths where they can gaze at black-and-white images of bygone Savannah. Just a five-minute walk from our hotel, we liked the place so much we returned for a second visit during our four-day stay.
Touring can be hard work, particularly on foot. Savannah has an abundance of things to see and do, it’s an easy city to walk and there is absolutely no danger of being more than a couple of minutes from food or drink.
That’s a positive any visitor can accentuate and appreciate.
Patrick Martin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.