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Savannah’s Southern Charm and Modern Marvels

Learn about this fine U.S. colonial city’s beautiful historical sites as well as its cutting-edge contemporary attractions.

 

There used to be two reasons to visit Savannah, Georgia’s first city, founded in 1733. One was its historic beauty. The town’s visionary layout—a street grid punctuated by shady public squares—is still studied by urban planners. Those streets, lined with beautifully kept old buildings, are a preservationist’s dream.

The other reason for a Savannah vacation was the city’s almost caricatured Southernness. The place was famous for its snootily eccentric aristocrats and dreamily moss-draped live oaks.

History and Southern charm still abound, but now Savannah has an additional dimension: It has become a vibrant center for contemporary art and design. The city has a great dining scene, too. Add the subtropical climate and the pristine nearby coastline, and you’ve got a holiday heaven.

An Explosion of Art

Art is everywhere in Savannah these days, largely because of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), founded in 1978. Instead of a campus, SCAD has restored and adapted dozens of buildings throughout the historic district, resulting in new activity and youthful energy all over town. Cool shops and restaurants followed.

Many SCAD buildings have public galleries showing the work of both students and established artists. And many former SCAD students have settled in Savannah, further enriching the scene.

SCAD Museum of Art, 227 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Tel. 912-525-7191. Admission: Free, donations accepted. Hours: Mon. to Fri. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; after Sept. 1, open Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. www.scad.edu

Savannah’s museums also bridge the old and new. The Coastal Heritage Society operates the Savannah History Museum, the Roundhouse Railroad Museum and several battlefields from the Revolutionary War, as well as the War of 1812. Many grand old townhouses are now house museums, with period furnishings and decorations.

Coastal Heritage Society. 303 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Tel. 912-651-6840. www.chsgeorgia.org. Savannah History Museum. Located at the same address as the Coastal Heritage Society. Tel. 912-651-6825. Admission: Adults, $5; seniors, students and military, $4.50; children under 6, free. www.chsgeorgia.org/shm.
Roundhouse Railroad Museum. 601 West Harris St. Tel. 912-651-6823. Admission: Adults, $10; seniors, students and military, $9; children under 6, $4. www.chsgeorgia.org/roundhouse

The Beach Institute, built as a school for freed slaves in 1867, now houses the collection of amazing folk carvings by the late Savannah barber Ulysses Davis, plus exhibitions by contemporary African-American artists. And the Telfair Museum of Art has several facilities. One, a splendid 1819 classically styled mansion, shows historic works. But another, a glassy modern structure (opened in 2006), is dedicated to contemporary art.

Beach Institute. 502 E. Harris St. Tel. 912-234-8000. Admission: Fees for exhibitions vary, call for prices. www.kingtisdell.org 
Telfair Museum of Art, 121 Barnard St. Tel. 912-790-8800. Admission: Adults, $15; students kindergarten through college, $5; children under 5, free. www.telfair.org

[Read more in our Savannah Art & Architecture article.]

Exploring, by Foot and Otherwise

With its handsome streets and parks, Savannah is a delightful place to wander. Along the waterfront, historic warehouses that once held cotton and slaves have been converted to shops, restaurants and inns. The old downtown commercial strip of Broughton Street, formerly moribund, is alive again with cafés, and fashion and interior design boutiques. Almost everywhere you go there are SCAD buildings.

Even when those buildings do not have galleries to visit, the ebb and flow of art students outside them make for great people watching. Throughout the historic district, big old trees provide welcome shade, even in the heat of a Georgia summer. And the public squares, with their monuments, gardens and benches, offer frequent spots for rest.

[Read more in our Savannah Walking Tours article.]

Midnight, in Savannah

Just as SCAD was having its energizing effect on what had become a rather sleepy backwater, in 1994 came “The Book.” The Book, as every Savannahian can explain, was John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

It was a novelistic portrayal of the city’s bohemian culture, complete with voodoo and cotillions, drag queens and a murder. The story was a runaway success, spawning not only a Hollywood film but also a huge tourism boom. There are still numerous “Midnight-themed” tours you can take, or stroll the sites on your own, including the famous Bonaventure Cemetery.

Dining and Deen

Savannah’s big draw today is way more wholesome, in the form of Paula Deen, the celebrity restaurateur and television personality. With multiple cooking shows and cookbooks, she’s a one-woman industry. Actually, she has lots of help, as is implied by the name of her Savannah restaurant, The Lady & Sons.

102 W. Congress St. Tel. 912-233-2600. Hours: Mon. to Sat. lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner begins at 5 p.m. Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. ladyandsons.com

The Lady & Sons may be the most famous of Savannah eateries turning out unfussy, traditional Southern fare. But don’t get stuck in the past when you’re hungry. The city also boasts City Market, as well as a growing collection of fine-dining and contemporary restaurants. Many of these make a point of updating Southern ingredients and recipes, often with ingenious results.

[Read more about Savannah’s restaurants.]

Rapid and Alternative Transit

You can easily explore on your own, but that doesn’t mean just walking. The free Chatham Area Transit Shuttle (or CAT Shuttle) runs on a loop throughout the historic district. Bikes and scooters are available for rent. Pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages can be hired as well. There are also dozens of guided tours to choose among, by foot or bus, each with its own theme. Plan your approach by stopping at one of the visitors’ centers, located at the airport, on the waterfront and in the historic district. Visit the Savannah Visitors Center online or SavannahVisit.com.

Historic and Seaside Savannah

Savannah is also a base for intriguing day trips. Nearby historic sites include Fort Pulaski, constructed beginning in 1829 and the site of Civil War battles, now a national monument.

The Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, a rice plantation dating from the early 1800s, is now a state park. It offers guided house tours, a museum, a nature trail and picnic areas.

The Georgia coast is a wonderland of barrier islands, salt marshes and tidal creeks, as natural as Savannah is urbane. [Read more about Savannah Side Trips to the Sea.]


Destinations: Georgia, Savannah

Themes: Art and Museums, Historical Vacations

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums, Sightseeing


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