There are few cities in the USA that are as beautiful as Savannah. When most people think of the South, they think of moonlight and magnolias – but in this gorgeously preserved city, the trope approaches something like the truth. It’s difficult to walk amidst the elegant rowhouses, spacious avenues and green public squares of Savannah and not feel something stir deep in your being.
Before you arrive, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with historic Savannah’s iconic layout, first drawn up in 1733, known as the Oglethorpe Plan. Effectively, Savannah was built around public squares, themselves bracketed by four residential blocks – for homes – and four ‘trust’ blocks for churches, schools, and other civic institutions. Taken together, the public square and surrounding blocks form the city’s original wards.
The line between trust and residential has been porous for centuries, and some of the city’s most iconic homes occupy ‘trust’ space. Wards have been added to Savannah over the years, and newer parts of the city did away with the Oglethorpe Plan entirely, but the parts of the city most frequented by tourists adhere to this layout.
Iconic oak trees in Forsyth Park © Jena Ardell / Getty
The result is a town that feels simultaneously walkable and cozy, yet airy and open; you don’t have to walk far to encounter a green space, all of which become impromptu parks for their surrounding wards. At night, many of Savannah’s squares seem to have become, of late, photo backdrops for social media models looking to expand their influence via the city’s lovely backdrop of heritage architecture. Forysth Park, a 30-acre park anchored by an enormous fountain, is a large rectangle that, while not technically a component of the ward system, is still well worth a wander.
Beyond Savannah’s iconic squares, you’ll also want to make time to explore River St, where old warehouses and annexes have been converted into smart boutique hotels that overlook the lazy, languid flow of the Savannah River.
A sculpture in Bonaventure Cemetery © Daniela Duncan / Getty
For all of downtown Savannah’s aesthetic charms, consider beginning exploring this lively city in a necropolis built for its dead residents. Located on bluffs overlooking the Wilmington river, Bonaventure formed a major set piece in the movie and book Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil. The 100-acre plot is filled with generations of Savannahians, their graves shadowed by great oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. On the right humid evening, Bonaventure feels like the apotheosis of Southern Gothic, a space that is peaceful, nostalgic, and in the right light, a little spooky.
Wormsloe Historic Site
Large plantations have become controversial tourist attractions in the South, and with fair reason, but Wormsloe is still worth your time. That’s partly because the ‘big house’ that is so often the focus of plantation sites is not the main attraction; rather, it plays second fiddle to colonial ruins, living history interpretive exhibits, and a series of nature trails through dark, lush woods. Past all of that, the entrance to the historic site is one of the grandest ‘driveways’ in the country: a 1.5 mile Avenue of the Oaks, framed by 400 stately trees and trailing clouds of Spanish moss. The Avenue is one of the most photographed destinations in the city, but photos really don’t do this thoroughfare justice.
Telfair Academy Museum © Stephen Barnes / Getty
Savannah does not lack for museums. The main theme of the day is art: this is a city that has always nurtured a strong creative streak, as exemplified by the presence of the mammoth Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), one of the nation’s premier art schools. SCAD boasts its own museum of art, a striking assemblage of glass, steel and concrete. The interior space exhibit the work of SCAD students and alumni.
Nearby, the Jepson Center for the Arts makes the case that SCAD doesn’t have a monopoly on either modern art or iconic architecture (and to be fair, we’re pretty sure there’s a bit of personnel bleedover between SCAD and the Jepson). The Jepson’s exterior was designed by the brilliant Moshe Safdi, and inside, you’ll find a wonderful collection of 20th and 21st century art.
Want to take more of an aesthetic step back in time? Head to the Telfair Academy, housed in a honey colored mansion in historic Savannah. Wander around and soak up a lovely collection of mainly 19th century art sourced from both Europe and North America.
History in the making
As a city, Savannah sort of feels like a living history museum, but there are some actual great history museums here as well. The small Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum details the African American fight for civil rights in Savannah, a city that did not lack for vicious reactionary politics during the darkest days of Jim Crow. If you’re a maritime buff, you shouldn't miss the excellent Ships of the Sea Museum, which is packed with memorabilia from the naval age of sail and steam, as well as some gorgeous model boats. Finally, the odd duck American Prohibition Museum is the only institution of its kind solely dedicated to telling the story of the country’s experiment with going teetotaller.