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Even if you’re a first-time visitor to Savannah, you might have a sense of deja vu here, thanks to all the writers and filmmakers who have featured this city in their books and movies. But in Savannah, the real thing is even more genteel, quirky and captivating than its fictional counterpoints.
The city was founded in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe, who laid out its streets on a grid pattern with wide streets and 24 public squares. His elegant design made Savannah one of the first planned cities in America. Twenty-two of those original squares remain today, havens of green filled with public art and surrounded by historic buildings. It’s said that the city was spared during the Civil War because Union Gen. William Sherman thought it so beautiful he couldn’t destroy it.
The best way to savor Savannah’s charms is on foot. A stroll along Bull Street will take you through the heart of the city’s historic district, which has a cornucopia of 18th- and 19th-century architectural styles. When you need a break, find a bench to sit and people-watch, following the example of Forrest Gump in the movie-of-the-same-name that was partially filmed here (his bench is on display at the Savannah History Museum). End your stroll at Forsyth Park, a 30-acre oasis with a picturesque fountain, towering live oaks and a fragrance garden filled with aromatic plants and flowers.
The Savannah College of Art and Design, one of the country’s top art schools, gets partial credit for Savannah’s beauty. Founded in 1978, it has helped preserve the city’s architectural heritage by restoring more than 60 buildings that now house its operations. You also can see the creativity of the school’s faculty, students and alumni in the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art and in galleries around the city.
Some of the city’s most beautiful art can be enjoyed in Bonaventure Cemetery, which gained international fame for its role in the book and film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Lined with live oaks draped with Spanish moss and filled with Victorian statuary and monuments, the graveyard — one of the loveliest in the world — is a top Savannah tourist attraction.
While you can walk through Bonaventure on your own, a guided tour provides a fascinating window into local history and culture. Located three miles from downtown Savannah on the Wilmington River, the property was originally part of a plantation founded in 1762. Among the famous Savannah natives buried here are Grammy Award-winning musician Johnny Mercer, poet Conrad Aiken, and Little Gracie, a girl who died of pneumonia at the age of 6 in 1889. Little Gracie’s monument, a poignant likeness of the girl in marble, has touched the hearts of visitors for more than a century.
“You can’t say you’ve seen Savannah without visiting Bonaventure Cemetery,” said Dawn Martin, a guide with Bonaventure Cemetery Tours. “In addition to beautiful markers, it’s filled with stories of the people who’ve shaped the city.”
You can learn more about Savannah’s unique character at several downtown museums, including the Savannah History Museum, which is located in a former railroad station, and the Massie Heritage Center, which focuses on the city’s educational history and architecture. The Mercer Williams House is a must-do for anyone fascinated by “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” a book based on a murder that occurred there in 1981. The Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, part of which is housed in an 1819 Regency-style mansion, is the oldest public art museum in the South.
For shopping and restaurants, head to River Street, a historic area with cobblestone streets that overlooks the Savannah River. A few blocks away is City Market, a bustling arts and entertainment district. Don’t miss the life-size statue of Johnny Mercer, who strikes a jaunty pose amid the strolling pedestrians.
One of the best ways to experience the city is on a food tour with Savannah Taste Experience. Its First Squares tour includes stops for alligator sliders at B&D Burgers, British-style sausage rolls at Little Crown by Pie Society, and honey-flavored treats at the Savannah Bee Co.
“Savannah’s food scene has classic Southern dishes like grits and sweet potatoes interpreted in innovative ways,” said Deshawn Mason, a guide with the Savannah Taste Experience. “And because we’re a coastal city, we have access to the freshest and best seafood.”
Top restaurants in Savannah include The Grey, a hipster eatery housed in a former Greyhound Bus terminal; the Olde Pink House, which is known for its classic Southern dishes; and Husk, which serves seasonal, locally sourced dishes. For breakfast, try Back in the Day Bakery or Clary’s Cafe. And in the City Market, the Georgia Tasting Room offers samples of locally produced wines, spirits and craft beers.
Finally, end your time in Savannah with a ghost tour. The city is said to be one of the most haunted in America, and local companies offer a variety of ways to sample its supernatural side, from twilight walks to ghost tours conducted by hearse.
“Given our long and colorful history, it’s not surprising we have so many ghost stories in Savannah,” said Lady Ravenwood, a tour guide with 6th Sense World. “It’s such a wonderful city that people want to stick around even after they’re dead.”
Savannah’s Beach: Tybee Island
After touring Savannah, take a scenic, 20-minute drive to Tybee Island, a resort community with rolling surf and a laid-back vibe. In addition to hanging out on its 3-mile beach, recreation options include kayaking in salt marsh estuaries, dolphin cruises, ecology tours and deep-sea fishing.
You also can visit the Tybee Island Light Station, Georgia’s oldest and tallest lighthouse. Commissioned in 1732 by Savannah founder James Oglethorpe, it guided ships into the Savannah River for almost 300 years. It now houses a museum and gift shop. And to learn about the ecology of the region, tour the exhibits and meet the animals at the new Tybee Island Marine Science Center. Located adjacent to the beach, it also offers guided nature walks. For more information: VisitTybee.com
Old Savannah Tours: Offers narrated trolley tours with guest appearances by re-enactors dressed in period clothing, oldsavannahtours.com
Savannah Taste Experience: Leads culinary tours, savannahtasteexperience.com
6th Sense World: Offers both Bonaventure Cemetery tours and ghost walks, 6thsenseworld.com
For more information: visitsavannah.com