Editor’s note: Like Sam, I also visited Savannah and Charleston in a single trip. However, my opinions are a bit skewed since I had a beautiful day in Savannah and nothing but rain in Charleston. Regardless, both are great, and it is wonderful to have these articles back to back from Sam Spector. For more of his adventures, be sure to click here to visit his index page!
The two cities in the United States that I have most wanted to visit were Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. I have often heard them compared to each other, with some people telling me they prefer one and others saying that they are partial to the other. Regularly, both cities are ranked the top two, sometimes switching off for first place, among lists of best cities to visit and live in the United States. When I had family leave and was planning an East Coast trip, I was debating which of these two charming, historic southern cities I should visit and then saw that they were only a two hour drive from each other and decided to hit both.
As I wrote about last week, I first visited Charleston. While there, I asked locals about Savannah, and was told that it was essentially a smaller version of Charleston. However, when I arrived in Savannah, though there are similarities, I discovered a city that was unique and felt different than its South Carolinian sister. Perhaps though, I will start by sharing what the cities have in common. They are both old cities, with Charleston being founded in 1670 and Savannah, being the oldest city in Georgia, in 1733. Both cities have in the city proper about 150,000 residents, though metropolitan Charleston is larger. Both cities have a history with slave plantations, but Charleston’s is far more prominent, and both cities have two of the most historic synagogues in the United States. Finally, both Charleston and Savannah have a good college atmosphere, with Charleston being home to the liberal arts College of Charleston, with over 10,000 undergraduate students, and Savannah being home to one of the most notable art, fashion, and design schools in America, with the Savannah College of Art and Design and its 15,000 students. Finally, both towns are on the water and have a prominent suspension bridge going across it.
However, Savannah and Charleston differ in other ways that make each a distinct destination where you could have a trip just focusing on one or the other. While both are on the water, Savannah is located on a riverfront that plays very much into the feeling of the city. A must-do in Savannah is exploring River Street along the water. There are parks, fun shops, and great restaurants. Along the riverfront is the JW Marriott, built inside an old power plant building. Even if you are not staying at the hotel, it is worth walking through, as they have skeletons and fossils of prehistoric animals, and massive chrome-dipped replicas of entire dinosaur fossils, as well as many rare gems and rocks. Another popular activity to do on the riverfront is taking a tour on one of the old-timey riverboats, some of which include a buffet dinner in the evening.
The Savannah River forms much of the border between South Carolina and Georgia, and feeds out to the Atlantic Ocean, and as it does, there are numerous beach towns in the area. On the South Carolina side of the border is Hilton Head and on the Georgia side is Tybee Island. We opted to go to the slightly closer Tybee Island. While the beaches there do not compare with those on the Gulf of Mexico or in Southern California, the town on the island still has a nice beach town vibe to it. On the island there are forts dating back to the Civil and Spanish-American Wars and a beautiful lighthouse. Some people spend their entire vacations at Tybee Island or Hilton Head, but I personally found with the strong winds and choppy water that spending a few hours eating fish tacos and then collecting seashells with a walk along the beach was more than sufficient.
In Savannah proper, right up the street from River Street is a great collection of bars and restaurants in the City Market, a pedestrian street with different shops. One worthwhile non-food stop in the City Market is the Prohibition Museum. The Prohibition Museum chronicles the efforts to create a ban on alcohol in the United States, and the period of prohibition that lasted from 1920 to 1933. The museum is fun and the staff is dressed up in costumes from the Roaring 20s. The museum takes visitors on a journey which also explains how prohibition created industries of bootlegging, the Southern moonshine culture, and a rise in organized crime throughout the country. However, the best part of the museum might be the very end, where there is an actual speakeasy that you provide a password to that opens up with a full bar and festive atmosphere.
Walking through Savannah is another treat, as the city is lined with 22 charming, beautiful, and romantic squares that look like plazas that are commonly seen in Latin American villages. A popular tourist activity is taking a hop-on hop-off trolley to the various squares. However, as they are all an easy walk between each other, I picked what I had read were the top three to visit: Monterey Square, Chippewa Square, and the square formerly known as Calhoun Square. The latter is currently without a name as it was initially named for the staunch proponent of slavery, former US Vice President John C. Calhoun, but was recently stripped of this name as Calhoun’s legacy has come under increasing scrutiny. Each of these squares is a delightful place to spend a warm afternoon in the shade under the Spanish moss, and most have statues in the middle of the square of distinguished individuals that Savannah wants to honor (Chippewa Square has a statue of James Oglethorpe, the founder of Savannah). Chippewa Square is also particularly noteworthy as it was the location where the scenes of Forrest Gump sitting on the bench were filmed in the cinematic masterpiece Forrest Gump. Nearby the squares is Forsyth Park, a beautifully charming park with a famous large fountain in the middle that has been featured in many films. The park is home to large trees, nice greens, and paths for walking. It also holds many historic monuments, including controversial monuments to the Confederacy.
There are two centers of worship that you should visit as you explore Savannah. One is the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which was proclaimed to be a minor basilica. Initially, Catholics were banned from living in Savannah, but Catholicism became popular in particular with slaves who had come first through the Caribbean and it grew throughout the region. The current cathedral was built in 1876 and has spires that reach 214 feet in height, as well as 81 stained glass windows and 16 gargoyles. Inside the cathedral is a beautiful nave painted gold and blue with numerous altars and statues. Down the street from the cathedral, I saw someone point at another building and say, “Wow that is also a beautiful cathedral”; however, they were mistaken. This building is actually the synagogue Mickve Israel, which broke ground in 1876, the same year the cathedral was built, and modeled much of its design to look like that of a cathedral. The Jewish community, however, dates back to 1733 when the city was founded, and the congregation is the third oldest in the country, with its current building being the second oldest (after KKBE in Charleston) continuously used synagogue building in the nation. Take a tour given by the docents and admire the beautiful architecture, particularly of the sanctuary of this still very vibrant synagogue. Make sure you also go upstairs to the museum to see the artifacts for the synagogue and the many letters that have been sent to the congregation by American presidents including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and every president since Franklin Roosevelt.
As you can likely tell, Savannah is a great city to walk around in. While there are museums like the Telfair Museums, I opted to use my limited time outdoors, even though that meant unfortunate encounters with what locals joke is the “official bird of the South,” the mosquito. One place where you will definitely want to go and – also bring your bug spray – is Bonaventure Cemetery. Bonaventure Cemetery was a favorite spot of the naturalist philosopher John Muir and is located on the Wilmington River. The cemetery features many live oaks covered in Spanish Moss and rose to prominence due to it being a significant part of the 1994 novel and subsequent Clint Eastwood film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. As a Jewish person, it was neat to visit the Jewish section of the cemetery. While there are many guided tours of the cemetery, you can also download an app for $5 that will give you a self-guided tour of the different ornate tombs of the historically most prominent individuals in Savannah.
Finally, make sure that in Savannah you eat well. From Byrd’s cookies to the long lines (definitely worth it though) at Leopold’s Ice Cream, one of America’s most famous ice cream shops, Savannah has many great stops for sweets. Savannah is also home to one of the country’s most famous and romantic restaurants, Olde Pink House; however, if you are like me and did not make a reservation weeks in advance, there is a good alternative in Garibaldi’s Café. Garibaldi’s has the same owners, a great atmosphere, and many of the same menu items of upscale Southern cuisine.
With similarities and differences to its neighbor Charleston, Savannah is worth a visit in its own right. It is a place where you will definitely get your steps in, and the town will be a treat for your eyes, intellect, and tastebuds alike.
Like it? Pin it!