City Guide: Savannah, Georgia on a Budget (Updated June 2020)
I want to start by saying that I urge everyone to exercise caution when traveling in the time of COVID-19. Please wear masks as often as possible, use hand sanitizer liberally, and do your best to keep a safe distance. We’re not out of this just yet.
Savannah is one of the oldest cities in the US state of Georgia, having been founded in 1733, and among the most unique in the entire country. This coastal city of 150,000 possesses one of the largest historic districts in the entire country, with its 20 historic squares being the main draw for many visitors. Beyond the rich architecture and history, you’ll find a city full of some unique characters; readers of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil have a very good idea of what to expect!
Its storied history, gorgeous architecture, laissez-faire personality, and French influence have drawn parallels to other famous Southern cities like New Orleans and Charleston. While you won’t find the insanity of Mardi Gras, you will find a charming downtown teeming with pub crawls and live music, where you are free to walk the cobblestone streets with open containers of alcohol.
Savannah is the kind of city that doesn’t throw itself at you, but calmly lets you wander down any number of paths. Whichever side of the city you wish to see, there’s a path for that.
Anywhere in the Historic District (HD) is going to be safe and fun. Airbnb lists plenty of turn-of-the-century rowhouses with easy access to the best of what Savannah has to offer. The usual advice is to stay between Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd to the east and E. Broad St to the west. On our first trip to Savannah, we stayed far to the east in Avondale, where it was cheaper, and could drive to the HD in about 10 minutes. However, our most recent lodgings were just a mile and a half to the south of the HD, in a massive AirBnB built in the 1900s, and host Stephanie and her pets were wonderful.
If your budget has any kind of wiggle room, finding a cool place in the HD is definitely the way to go. Unfortunately, there are no hostels in Savannah as of June 2020.
I would just like to point out that all of the following establishments are currently open during COVID-19, either for dining in or for pick-up.
If you’re new to Savannah and want to make some acquaintances right away, by far the best way is to dine at Mrs. Wilke’s Dining Room. Charging a $25/person flat fee, Mrs. Wilke’s has a unique set-up: it is family-style dining. You are seated with complete strangers, so it may not be for everyone, but it’s a pretty interesting experience.
For breakfast, I’d encourage you to stop by J. Christopher’s. Even though they’re a chain, their pancakes and shrimp & grits are as good as any mom & pop.
Savannah Smokehouse: If you asked me what the best restaurant was that we personally have eaten at in Savannah, we’d both say Savannah Smokehouse. This barbecue joint serves delicious pulled pork and ribs (try their in-house Sweet Georgia Peach sauce), and collard greens that Kristen claimed were–and I quote–“almost as good as my granny’s.” It’s some of the best barbecue I’ve had outside of Austin or Kansas City.
Savannah Seafood Shack: The Low Country Boil comes in a plastic steam bag and has crab legs, potatoes, and shrimp. Their Cajun fries are pretty awesome.
Fork & Dagger: provides hearty breakfasts with incredible bacon, as well as non-alcoholic CBD ciders. Service may take a minute, but it’s worth it.
Geneva’s Fried Chicken: If you’re willing to make the drive, Geneva’s is 100% worth it. Their chicken and po’boys are great. The cornbread is moist and tasty, as are the collard greens and the sweet potatoes. For dessert, try their “mistake cake,” which is a pound cake topped with a sour cream icing (sounds weird, but try it).
The HD is highly walkable if you’re willing to hoof it. In fact, I would recommend walking over driving, as parking can be difficult to come by. To help you, there are Savannah city buses, as well as DOT, which are completely free shuttles that run north to south and east to west, providing free hop-on, hop-off tours.
If you are traveling during the late Spring or Summer, Lyft might be better as the humidity might deter those not willing to sweat through their clothes.
Things to See and Do
Like with a lot of historic districts all over the world, the simple act of wandering around downtown Savannah can be an adventure in and of itself. This is also the perfect way to orient yourself before delving into any of the more specific activities available around the city. The entire district can best be described by the word “atmospheric,” with Spanish moss draped literally everywhere. Spanning from the river on south, the HD’s defining characterics are its 22 squares scattered around. Each one features some kind of historical statue or other focal point.
It is an absolute visual feast for architecture-lovers, and is home to the following points of interest:
Forsyth Park: The main green space in Savannah, spanning 30 acres.
First African Baptist Church: The church dates back to 1859, with the congregation going back to 1773. This is among the three oldest Black churches in the US, by most accounts the oldest. This church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad; those tribal designs cut into the floor by the pews served as air holes for escapees hiding under the floorboards.
Congregation Mickve Israel: One of the oldest Jewish congregations in the US. The synagogue on Monterey Square was completed in 1878, although the congregation has been active since 1733.
V & J Duncan: Both a bookshop and a rare map shop. The book selection is very wide, and you can find copies of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil signed by the author John Berendt. While the map prints typically start at $40 and can range well over $1,000, most of these hand-drawn prints are guaranteed to be over a century old, and they span the globe. In a side room in the back are postcards that had been mailed from travelers all over the world back home to their friends and family in Savannah.
Savannah is very much a college town, home to the Savannah College of Art of Design, or SCAD. The SCAD campus itself features an art gallery and performing arts center, that offers free tours and free shows every 90 minutes. These are, by the way, free.
City Market, located within the HD, is the entertainment epicenter of Savannah. It’s here that you’ll find shops like Paris Market and attractions like the Prohibition Museum, as well as a number of bars and restaurants. At night you can also find live music set up on the pedestrian-only zone. Ellis Square provides plenty of room for kids to run around and play.
The historic street that runs right along the, well, river. You can find a number of upscale hotels, shops, restaurants, and bars all along these cobblestone sidewalk. If you like candy and sweets, there’s an oddly high concentration of those along here. Also be sure to check out the various sculptures and art installations, including a monument to Savannahians who died in World War II (it’s the giant globe split in half) and the famous “Waving Girl” statue.
A 30-minute drive from Downtown Savannah is Tybee Island, an upscale beach bum community with some very nice beaches. If you need a reprieve from the commonly overcast skies cloaking the historic district, Mid Beach is the place to go.
Bonaventure Cemetery is your dose of creepy graveyard. Dating back to 1846, Bonaventure occupies 160 acres on the eastern edge of Savannah. While it’s far from the oldest cemetery in the United States, it does have some incredible history. John Muir, the “Father of the National Parks,” slept among the graves here on his long sojourn from Kentucky to Florida back in 1867. You can read about his experience in “Camping in the Tombs,” from his work A Thousand Mile Walk. The “Bird Girl” tombstone statue, made famous on the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, was originally located in the graveyard, but was relocated to the Telfair Museum in 1997 out of respect to the other graves. Jack Leigh, who snapped that very famous photo, is interred here, as are writer Conrad Aiken and singer Johnny Mercer.
There are myriad bars to choose from, and if you don’t like one, simply take your drink to go to the next one! Within the historic district, you may legally roam the streets with an open container.
Pub crawlers, those mobile bars where you and a bunch of your friends pedal down the street while drinking and listening to music, are popular in Savannah’s historic district. You’ll see and hear many of these rolling down the street, the people on-board dancing and singing to everything from “YMCA” to the newest hits by Lizzo.
Savannah Taphouse features upstairs, downstairs, and outdoor seating, and I recommend you get their Lemonade Mojito and the Texas Berry Mule, both incredible cocktails. On Tuesday nights they have pub trivia starting at 7:30 pm, where you can win Taphouse gift certificates worth up to $50. Editor’s Note: Kristen and I won third place.
If you like live music, Tree House next to City Market features a number of good live bands, who usually play funk and old school/2000s rock. Their rooftop patio overlooks City Market.
I would recommend Jen’s & Friends, a cozy place that serves unique mixed drinks and features excellent service. You can get drinks garnished with peach ring candies, ones done up to look like birthday cakes, and much more.
Wet Willie’s, while not specific to Savannah, features a number of locations around the city, including one next to Tree House and one on River Street. They serve up a spectrum of daiquiri flavors and grub, including one of the best Philly cheesesteaks I’ve had outside of Philly. If you really want to get wasted, order a “Call a Cab,” made with Bacardi and Everclear. But seriously, this one is strong!
If you’re looking for a place to grab drinks and also have some more relaxed fun, try The Chromatic Dragon. On top of having one of the single coolest pub names of all time, The Chromatic Dragon supplies video games along with drafts. There are several large TV screens set up around the tavern, as well as a large projector screen. You have a wide selection of multiplayer games on Wii, PS4, and XBox One. Their signature drinks and dishes are all named after video game and pop culture characters, and I can vouch for their Philly cheesesteak and fries.
Finally, close the night out at Vice Lounge + Mojito Bar, an underground bar that slowly morphs from chill lounge to dance club as the night goes on. They have really cool lighting and several private booths for you and your people, and play a wide array of good music. Plus, drinks are pretty cheap, usually about $5.
When to Go
Any time is a good time to go, although Spring is probably the best. Winter can feature a lot of overcast skies. However, while these gray days may cast a pall over the city, that can also provide the perfect atmosphere to explore the old buildings.
Summer brings more sunshine but also an extreme amount of humidity.
What to Avoid
It deeply pains me to say this, but I wouldn’t worry about The Pirate’s House.
The Pirate’s House is the oldest structure in Savannah still standing. Built in the 1750s and expanded over the years, the Pirate’s House gets its name from the (are you ready for this?) pirates that used to meet up there back in the day. It was a real-life den of scum and villainy. Emphasis on was. Now, it’s an upscale restaurant & bar that sells $25-a-plate dinners and cheap trinkets for kids. Little–if any–of the original furniture remains, and instead it’s a place that has done a very poor job of connecting to its past. A small poster is all you’ll find of the tavern’s roots.
While The Pirate’s House was a let-down, the rest of Savannah’s history and personality shines through at every turn. Any visitor to this gem of a city will find something to appreciate.
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