SAVANNAH, Ga. — “This is a chick city,” our Uber driver shouted. “The ladies are everywhere. Look!”
It was our first day in Savannah and we’d shared with the driver that we were on a girlfriend getaway. He was right: groups of women were everywhere, walking the streets, gathering in front of restaurants, browsing the shops. Moments later, a Pedal Pub went by filled with hooting and hollering (and drinking) young women. “Welcome to Savannah!” they shouted. “Cheers!”
Mention Savannah and most people think of a sleepy, slow-mo city of old mansions, stately trees draped with Spanish moss, horse-drawn carriages — and a disconcerting slave trade past. There is all that — but more.
Dubbed the “Hostess City of the South,” Savannah is also Georgia’s oldest. It has the nation’s largest Urban Historic Landmark District, with more than 1,600 historic structures and monuments and 22 public gardens within 2.5 square miles. Remnants of its role in the slave trade and the Civil War are everywhere — in statues, houses, and museums. But over the past few decades, a younger, more contemporary vibe has settled in, thanks in part to the Savannah College of Art and Design, the Moshe Safdie-designed, contemporary art-focused Jepson Center, and the influx of young artists and chefs. Recently, Travel + Leisure readers named it one of their favorite cities in the country in its 2023 “World’s Best Awards.”
We checked into The Drayton Hotel, which turned out to be a great choice. The 50-room hotel is in a renovated 1890s historic building, redone in chic, contemporary style, and located smack dab in the heart of the historic district, within easy walking distance of everything we wanted to see and do. Rooms were spacious with wood floors, plush linens, and modern baths — and came with luxury toiletries, complimentary water, and nearly unheard of these days: two times daily room service. The lobby, with cushy seating areas, was a fine place to hang out, but the rooftop bar, with views of the gold-domed Capitol Building, was where we landed at the end of the day. Once settled in and unpacked, we hit the streets.
Gardens and squares
“Oglethorpe was a loudmouth with no control and a drinking problem,” Chuck Norras, our guide said. “King George II was happy to get rid of him.” He was talking about James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia. Oglethorpe landed at the site of today’s Savannah in February 1733.
We were on the Free Savannah Walking Tour, a 90-minute, narrated walk around the historic district. It was an entertaining and informative tour, walking from square to square. Savannah was originally laid out in a grid with 24 squares. Twenty-two of the original squares remain. We visited Johnson Square, the first of Savannah’s squares, designed in 1733 and named for Robert Johnson, the Royal Governor of South Carolina when Georgia was founded. It’s a beautiful, lush park with tall Southern Live Oak trees and a towering monument honoring General Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War hero. We walked to Wright Square, named for Sir James Wright, Georgia’s third and last Colonial governor. “This is where the gallows were, where the executions were held,” Norras said. He also pointed out a large boulder marking the grave of Tomochichi, the Yamacraw Indian chief who welcomed and worked with General Oglethorpe.
“We never let a cemetery get in the way of progress,” Norras said, as we made our way to Chippewa Square (also known as the Forrest Gump Square, where Gump sat on the bench eating his box of chocolates in the movie “Forrest Gump”). “Most of the historic district is built over cemeteries. Tread lightly; we’ll be walking on dead people most of this morning.”
We visited several other beautiful squares and historic buildings, including the Green-Meldrim House, which served as General Sherman’s headquarters, when he took the city in 1864.
Fried chicken and grits
We were in the South, and our taste buds knew it. We craved fried chicken (and biscuits and gravy, shrimp and grits, seafood gumbo, and more). Mrs. Wilkes delivered on many counts. This three-generational mainstay is the place to go for old-style Southern food and hospitality. The fried chicken was crispy and moist, and was just one of the many (10? 12?) dishes served family style at communal tables. The Olde Pink House in a pretty pink Colonial mansion is a wildly popular spot, but it felt a bit touristy to us. Instead, we snagged seats at their subterranean tavern, a dark, atmospheric place that was perfect for pre-dinner cocktails. We enjoyed blue crab gnocchi and blackened shrimp at St. Neo’s Brasserie, a contemporary seafood and oyster bar, and breakfast at Rhett was memorable: chicken and waffles, a grit bowl loaded with bacon and cheese, and a fried green tomato BLT. Our favorite meal was at Alligator Soul, a bustling, upscale eatery specializing in updated Southern cuisine, like alligator tempura, stone ground Georgia grits with sauteed local shrimp, and seafood gumbo topped with a crispy frog leg.
Because we love food and think it’s a great way to explore a new city, we hopped on a Savannah Taste Experience walking food tour. What a hoot! Shannon Lynch, our guide, was funny, efficient and knowledgeable. We started out with a pork belly slider from Ordinary Pub: a delicious piece of pork belly in a mini doughnut, a delightful, salty, sweet morsel! We visited the Little Crown by Pie Society, the smallest pub in Savannah, for sausage rolls; had the she-crab soup at Rhett; parmesan crusted haddock and black-eyed peas at the Moon River Brewing Company, located in one of the oldest buildings in Savannah; baked (not fried) chicken empanadas at Mint to be Mojito Bar & Bites, and ended with a honey tasting at Savannah Bee Company.
Packing it in
Running out of time, we had choices to make. On our last day, we visited the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters, providing a glimpse into the lives and relationships of the wealthy families and the enslaved people during the early 19th century, and the Prohibition Museum, a surprisingly fun and informative look at Prohibition, ending with 1920s-style cocktails in a replicated speakeasy.
We had say-goodbye-to-Savannah cocktails on the rooftop of the Marriott Plant Riverside District Hotel, a colossal property located in a former power plant (check out the lobby with life-size dinosaur skeletons, fossils, and giant gems!)
“We get a lot of girlfriend groups coming for matching tattoos,” said Brooke Autry, co-owner of Black Orchid Tattoo in Savannah. “Usually something small to commemorate their trip.” (We’d met Brooke on our food tour and had tucked the tattoo idea in the back of our minds.)
Fortunately, we had a plane to catch.
For more information, visit www.visitsavannah.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com