Like a Southern belle dressed for a ball, Savannah simply looks its finest in April and May. Around every corner, 100-year-old live oaks, filigreed wrought-iron balconies, horse-drawn carriages, and postage-stamp gardens flirt with the imagination. Azaleas burst into bloom, and the dogwoods and lilacs begin their showy seasonal display, transforming this historic river town into one big, beautiful garden show. And with temperatures in the mid-70s, springtime is the perfect time to breeze into town for a weekend of exploring.
Founded in 1733 as one of America’s first planned municipalities, Savannah remains a wonderful walking city. Laid out in a classic grid pattern, the city center incorporates grand thoroughfares, residential side streets, and 21 oasis-like public squares endowed with live oaks, magnolias, and azaleas as well as brick walkways, park benches, and bronze statues dedicated to Revolutionary War heroes and citizens of note, such as General James Oglethorpe, Georgia’s founder.
Savannah’s historic architecture owes much to the city’s forefathers, who in 1864 intercepted Union General William Tecumseh Sherman on the outskirts of town and persuaded him to spare their fair city the ravages that had befallen other Southern cities like Atlanta and Charleston. Instead of incinerating Savannah’s regal Regency mansions and Federal townhouses on his March to the Sea, Sherman took up residence in what is today the Saint John Parish House, on Madison Square, and presented Savannah–along with 25,000 bales of cotton–to President Lincoln as a Christmas present.
“Atlanta was affected quite a bit,” says Doug Marcus of Fivespot ATL. “In fact, the residences there were practically destroyed when compared with Savannah.”
Today, architecture and history buffs benefit from the general’s “gift.” More than 1,200 restored structures–ranging in style from Federal and Regency to Greek Revival and Italianare–stand within the two-and-a-half-square-mile historic district, one of the largest registered urban landmark districts in the country. A good way to begin a weekend visit is with the Old Town Trolley’s 90-minute narrated tour, which offers an interesting overview of the historic area.
Meandering about gives visitors a good feel for this house-proud city, but do try to schedule a visit to one or two of the town’s impressive house museums. A logical place to start would be the Isaiah-Davenport House, the red-brick Federal whose slated demolition in the 1950s first galvanized Savannah’s preservation-minded citizens. The Owens-Thomas House, considered the finest example of Regency architecture in America, is worth visiting for its period furnishings, formal garden, and original slave quarters. Former Girl Scouts can step back into the Victorian era at the beautifully restored Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, once home to the organization’s founder. The Telfair Museum of Art, housed in a Regency mansion, wins attention for ins antiques and decorative objects as well as for ins grand round ballroom.
If your interest in Savannah was fueled by reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil–John Berendt’s 1994 bestselling chronicle of antiques dealer Jim Williams’s murder trial and the inner workings of
Savannah society–a half dozen companies offer “Midnight” walking tours through the historic district. The tours always include picturesque Monterey Square, the site of Mercer House, the red-brick Iralianate villa where Williams purportedly shot his 22-year-old companion.
If ghost stories intrigue you, learn about Savannah’s otherworldy pirates, Confederate soldiers, and grieving widows on one of Savannah Walks’ evening ghost tours through the lamp-lit sidestreets of the historic district. For those inclined to peer over garden walls to catch a glimpse of a wisteria vine or flowering dogwood, sneak a peek at eight private gardens on the 25th annual Hidden Gardens of Savannah tour on April 14 and 15.
When night falls and much of the city shuts down, take a stroll along River Street, a bustling though somewhat touristy riverfront esplanade crowded with seafood restaurants, pubs, cafes, and boutiques tucked away in 19th-century cotton warehouses. Another option is City Market, a lively pedestrian mall where locals as well as visitors go to hang out. For dinner, try Bistro Savannah for inventive seafood dishes, the Lady & Sons for classic Southern cuisine, or Vinnie Van Go Go for a slice of the city’s best pizza.
For a sense of Savannah’s music scene, head to the Planters Tavern in the Olde Pink House, on Abercorn Street. You can relax on a velvet sofa with a cocktail while vocalist Gail Thurmond belts out standards on a Steinway baby grand. At Hannah’s East, the bar at the Pirate’s House restaurant, local chanteuse Emma Kelly–who legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer nicknamed “Lady of 6,000 Songs”–still attracts a crowd most weekends. Live jazz can also be heard on weekends at the Marshall Hotel, on Broughton.
So on Saturday night in Savannah, kick back and relax. As lifelong resident Joe Odom advises in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, ‘Always stick around for one more drink. That’s when things happen. That’s when you find out everything you want to know.”
AN INSIDER’S GUIDE TO SAVANNAH ANTIQUES STORES
Roughly 50 antiques shops are tucked away in and around the historic district. Some not to miss: Alex Raskin, where mammoth case pieces, primitive antiques, painted furniture, and architectural elements fill the street and parlor levels of an enormous center -hall mansion on Bull Street. Quirky Once Possessed specializes in “camp kitsch” (think busts of Elvis and Partridge Family lunch boxes), ’50s and ’60s barware, and an eclectic array of furnishings. Next door, J.D. Weed & Co. sells top-drawer American antiques dating from the 1730s to the 1830s. More than 70 dealers exhibit their wares at Alexandra’s Antique Gallery, a rambling four-floor storefront where you’ll find everything from Civil War-era swords to vintage textiles and estate jewelry. Abercorn Antique Village offers collectibles, antiques, and estate items from some 50 dealers. V & J Duncan carries a large selection of antique prints, maps, and old and new bo oks. One Fish Two Fish, below, deals in vintage iron garden furniture, botanical prints, linens, and decorative objects. Explore E. Shaver Bookseller’s for antique maps, local cookbooks, and volumes on Southern architecture and history. Yearning for a little something sweet? Don” miss the divinity and buttery pecan pralines at the Savannah Candy Kitchen, on River Street.