Georgia’s oldest city, not to mention the first capital, was established on the Savannah River in 1733 and, for nearly 300 years, has beckoned visitors to the Spanish moss-lined trees and charming homes. It’s one of the nation’s biggest ports, and its hospitable locals helped earn the nickname the “Hostess City.”

Savannah is best explored on foot and is warm throughout much of the year. There’s a packed calendar of annual events, including the wild St Patrick’s Day festivities (one of the largest celebrations in the country), New Year’s Eve, the SCAD Savannah Film Festival and the Savannah Jazz Festival.

Whether it’s your first or fiftieth visit, you’re sure to enjoy these quintessential Savannah experiences.

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1. Explore the Historic District’s most famous addresses

Touring Savannah’s grand house museums is one of the most popular draws for visitors, but it might not have been possible if it weren’t for a group of women in the 1950s who founded the Historic Savannah Foundation – they fought to save many of the treasured residences from demolition. To date, the organization has saved over 400 structures, including its first save, the Davenport House.

Each house has something different to offer and a history that it’s known for. The Juliette Gordon Low House is the former residence of the founder of the Girl Scouts of America, and the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home is where the writer grew up (and was saved by Hollywood director Jerry Bruckheimer!).

The Mercer-Williams House is best known as the site of the real-life events of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a book by John Berendt about a murder involving a member of the city’s high society. Some of the homes can be visited using combination tickets.

Savannah Waterfront
Savannah's Waterfront is a popular location for the ctiy's yearly festivals © Denis Tangney Jr Getty Images

2. See where Savannah celebrates on the Riverfront

A unique feature of the city is that its waterfront is located not on the ocean but rather on the Savannah River. The nearly one-mile stretch of cobblestone was once the warehouse district, with its five-story brick buildings, but is now popular for its bars, restaurants and shops. It’s also an open container district, meaning you can walk around with your drink without getting in trouble. But it must be in a 16-ounce plastic cup, and you can’t go outside the confines of the historic district.

The wildest time to be here is during St Patrick’s Day – by far Savannah’s biggest annual event, when the river is dyed green and revelers wear every shade of the color. During the rest of the year, you’re almost certain to see massive container ships passing through on their way to the ocean. It is one of the nation’s busiest ports, after all. If you want to see the river for yourself, take the old-fashioned paddle boat docked here for a cruise.

Detour: There’s also been a great deal of expansion on both sides of the riverfront, especially in the Plant Riverside District, a converted power plant turned sprawling complex with multiple restaurants, the JW Marriott hotel (with a museum-worthy collection of fossils and minerals), and shopping. On the opposite side, the Thompson Savannah is the first of the brand’s offerings in the Peach State. Both hotels have rooftop bars to catch Savannah’s legendary sunsets.

3. Dine on the unique fare of Coastal Georgia

Like nearly every other Southern city, Savannah is known for its food. You’ll find all of the usual suspects, like fried chicken and barbecue, but this city’s cuisine has additional influences from its coastal locale and the people that inhabit it, namely the Gullah and Geechee – descendants of formerly enslaved people brought to the US from Africa.

Popular dishes often include seafood and local vegetables. If it’s your first time, be sure to try two signature rice-based dishes: Savannah red rice and country captain. Savannah red rice features pork and rice cooked with chicken broth and the “holy trinity” of celery, onion and pepper. Country captain is similar to a chicken curry. If you want the local drink experience, it has to be the Chatham Artillery Punch, a booze-heavy drink of cognac, rum, champagne, and bourbon said to have been invented here.

Planning tip: Some of the best places to enjoy these dishes and others are restaurants like Sisters of the New South, The Grey – often cited as the best restaurant in Savannah – and 2 Chefs Gullah Geechee Soul Food. Make reservations where available.

Cemetery Tombstones
Peek into the past on a cemetery tour in Savannah © Marje / Getty Images

4. Experience the city’s spooky side

A city as old as Savannah is bound to have its fair share of ghost stories, which can be best experienced on one of the ghost tours that run through the historic district most evenings. The experiences vary, with some appropriate for kids while others are best for adults only, and they focus on the macabre history and tales of spooky sightings. There’s even a tour that transports curious travelers via hearse!

You’ll also find an abundance of cemeteries, but perhaps the most famous is Bonaventure, located a short drive outside of downtown. It’s been a burial ground since 1846, when it was created on the site of a plantation. The over-100-acre Victorian cemetery resembles a garden and is best known for the plots of songwriter Johnny Mercer and Poet Laureate Conrad Aiken, plus the graves of soldiers from the Civil and Spanish-American wars. Just remember that it’s still a functioning cemetery, so visit respectfully.

Colonial Park Cemetery is another must-see, established in 1750 with over 9000 graves. It closed to burials the following decade and later became a city park. Here you can hunt for the plots of several early notable locals like Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and painter Edward Malbone.

And if you’re not squeamish, check out the Graveface Museum on Factors Walk, overlooking River Street. It has a vast collection of artifacts from sideshows, cult leaders, serial killers and medical oddities. The same admission ticket also gets you into the museum’s arcade, filled with vintage pinball and video games.

5. Relive your favorite movies and television shows

The stunning scenery of Savannah has been featured repeatedly on the big and small screen, and you can re-enact your favorites if you know where to look. Visitors often go looking for the Forrest Gump bench in Chippewa Square where the famous storytelling scenes were filmed, but you’ll actually find it in the Savannah History Museum.

The famous “Bird Girl” statue graced the cover of the book (and movie) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and tourists enjoyed visiting her so much she has since been moved to the Telfair Academy.

The Civil War epic Glory transformed River Street into antebellum Boston and used the Georgia Railroad Museum as army barracks. Tybee Island has been used for filming repeatedly, including for the films The Last Song and Baywatch.

Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia
Forsyth Park is one of the most photogenic destinations in Savannah © Sean Pavone Photo Getty Images/iStockphoto

6. Sit amongst the oaks in the public squares and parks

Something that sets Savannah apart from other cities is that it was designed on a grid system with public squares scattered amongst the blocks. There are 22 of these parks in total, each with its own history and features. For example, Franklin Square is named for statesman Benjamin Franklin and once held the city’s water tower. Johnson Square holds a monument to Revolutionary War general and local Nathanael Greene. Wright Square has a monument to Yamacraw chief Tomochichi.

Planning tip: No matter which square you find yourself in, it’s a great spot to enjoy a picnic or settle in with a good book, perhaps one by a local author. Forsyth Park has a weekly farmers market where you can pick up pastries and coffee. During the rest of the week, Zunzi’s, Collins Quarter, and “Fancy Parker’s,” a nickname for the upscale gas station downtown known for its fried chicken, are all great options for to-go fare.

7. Shop for special souvenirs at the city’s boutiques

Broughton Street is the best spot to indulge in retail therapy, but you’ll find great locally owned shops all over the city. At Chocolat by Adam Turoni, you can purchase artfully prepared sweets, and The Paris Market sells incredible European antiques and gift items, with an in-house cafe for a much-needed caffeine boost.

Pick up a copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (or wherever your interests lie) at local bookstores The Book Lady and E. Shaver Booksellers, two of the city’s longtime shops. At the City Market, you’ll discover a wide range of items like bath products, jewelry, art and sweetgrass baskets. And at Starland Strange and Bazaar, browse the sticker bar and clothing before cooling off with an ice cream from the counter.

8. Visit the barrier islands and coastal locales

Get out of town for the day to explore the area’s coastline. Tybee Island is a popular spot for travelers looking to hit the beach, with three miles of shoreline and plentiful public access points. The island is also known for its iconic lighthouse, art galleries and funky eateries, including The Crab Shack, a seafood restaurant tucked into the trees.

Fort Pulaski National Monument on Cockspur Island was a coastal fortification built after the War of 1812. Even if you’re not a history buff, the over 200-acre site is also great for hiking and wildlife spotting. You can also see the Cockspur Island Lighthouse, now surrounded by water, from here.

The dramatic Avenue of Oaks at Wormsloe Historic Site on the Isle of Hope is one feature that attracts visitors, but the site itself has plenty more to see. There’s an onsite museum and trails where you can see the ruins of the former plantation home, built from tabby, a material made from crushed shells.

Detour: A good follow-up is a stop by the Pin Point Heritage Museum, which tells the history of the local Gullah-Geechee community in a former oyster processing plant. Many of the formerly enslaved residents that founded Pin Point earned a living in the seafood industry.

This article was first published Jul 23, 2021 and updated Aug 2, 2023.

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