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Folks, if Savannah, Georgia isn’t already on your bucket list, it should be! Savannah is a lovely Southern town on the Georgia coast that is chock-full of beautiful sights, delicious food, and interesting stories. These are the best things to see, eat, and do for a first-timer in Savannah, Georgia.
If you are just here for the food, I totally get it and you might want to have a look at this homemade banana pudding or hoe cakes instead of scrolling through this post. Because I’m about to bombard you with a whole horde of trip photos from our recent visit to this charming southern city.
We’ve been meaning to visit Georgia for years now, ever since my childhood best friend and college roommate moved to Atlanta. I’m so glad we were finally able to go! We spent our weekend in Savannah with them playing tour guide for us since they have been to Savannah multiple times.
I’m sharing my favorite things, including recommendations from readers who told me about some of their favorite Savannah ideas as well.
Best Things to See in Savannah
Stroll through Forsyth Park
New York has it’s famed Central Park, San Francisco has Golden Gate Park, and Savannah has Forsyth Park. In terms of scale and city-size, I think it’s a pretty fair comparison, especially having visited all three urban parks.
Forsyth Park is an absolutely stunning place, especially if you happen to be visiting Savannah in the springtime, which is when we were there.
The magnolia trees don’t start blooming until late spring or early summer, but in March and April the dogwoods and azaleas are at their most beautiful.
Spanish moss hangs everywhere from gnarled old live oaks, which are evergreen and keep their leaves even through winter. The live oak is the state tree of Georgia and can live to be over 800 years old.
Forsyth Park was created in the 1850’s as a cool respite for wealthy Savannah residents who would go there to walk under the shade of the trees.
Even the beautiful fountain in in the center of the park, Savannah’s most recognized landmark, is from this period.
I love all the little details too though – green wrought iron drinking fountains, the lampposts that were straight out of Chronicles of Narnia, and the old park benches.
We chose to stay close to Forysth Park and were very glad we did. It’s within easy walking distance of most everything we wanted to do in Savannah, and the surrounding streets are just filled with picturesque examples of historic late-19th century architecture.
I happened to be up early on Saturday morning and walked over to the park by myself to take pictures and enjoy the gorgeous spring weather.
A handful of locals were out walking their dogs or doing yoga under the live oaks and the light was filtering through swaths of Spanish moss that trailed from the tree branches. It’s one of my favorite memories of the trip.
We went back later in the day and the park was much more crowded.
Savannah’s Historic District Streets and Squares
Savannah’s squares in its historic district are one of the most beautiful parts of the city. When Savannah was first founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe, he conceived of a city laid out with a system of wards with squares spaced every few blocks to be used for gathering.
Over time, more and more squares were added until there were 24 squares in total, with 22 still surviving today. Each of the squares is unique with its own character, landscaping, and monuments, and there are signs in many locations that you can stop and read to learn some of the history.
Five of Savannah’s squares are on Bull Street, which runs all the way from City Hall to Forsyth Park, and we walked that route more than once each day while we were there going to and from the townhouse we were renting near the park.
Many of the squares have been featured in movies like Forrest Gump, Glory, and dozens, if not hundreds more. It’s easy to see why since each of the squares are incredibly picturesque.
Monterey Square is famously known for being the site of the Mercer-Williams House, if you have ever read Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil. This red brick building below is the Mercer-Williams House and it’s the setting of the murder that occurs in the widely-read true crime book set in 1980’s Savannah. It’s an interesting nonfiction read, although the content is pretty mature and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.
I was particularly struck though by the beauty of the wrought iron that abounds in Savannah. They were all so different and interesting, and I loved the juxtaposition of the hard, structural elements of wrought iron and brick against the natural elements of flowers, leaves, and vines that abound.
I literally could have spent days just walking up and down the streets, exploring each of the 22 squares, taking pictures, and soaking up the beauty, without ever getting bored. Different parts of the historic city have different personalities and styles, depending on who was living there and when the time when the buildings were being constructed.
There were large, ornate mansions, less imposing but no less impressive brick homes, and smaller, vibrantly painted structures with gingerbread trim depending on the street we were on.
Since we were with five kids ages 1, 5, 7 (two of them), and 11, between us and our friends, exploring all of the streets and squares was out of the question this time around. But I ended up with an obscene number of photographs anyway.
I would love to go back someday with just me and Paul for a couple’s trip though to try to see more of Savannah’s homes.
River Street and City Market Shopping
River Street was definitely the most touristy place we saw in Savannah. It’s right along the waterfront of the Savannah River and was historically the center of Savannah’s shipping and commerce.
We saw a number of huge container ships making their way up or down the river and the kids (and adults too!) were happy to watch the giants go by, guided by tugboats.
There is a ferry that you can ride for free across the Savannah River to Hutchinson Island or from one end of River Street to the other. It’s a short ride, but the kids enjoyed it and you get a fun, free perspective from the water, especially if you can find a spot to stand on the outside deck of the boat.
There is even a riverboat company that operates cruises and tours of the Savannah River and harbor if you have time. We didn’t do this, but it sounds like fun and I remember doing something similar along the Missouri River when I was a kid and loving it.
As soon as you walk in the door you are offered samples (oftentimes warm ones!) of fresh pecan pralines. Maybe even chocolate pecan pralines if you are lucky. You can watch salt water taffy, pralines, and bear claws being made, along with other sweets. Some of the equipment, like the taffy machine, is over 100 years old!
Another fun store I highly recommend checking out is the Savannah Bee Company. It was my favorite shop, with honey tasting of probably a dozen different honey flavors, a pour your own honey station, and even an area for the kids to play while the grown-ups browsed.
The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
We love visiting cathedrals when we travel. Last year we spent two weeks driving through parts of Europe and our girls fell in love with the cathedrals there. So they were excited when we stumbled upon the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah.
Its 200-foot twin spires tower over Lafayette Square and it’s an easily recognizable feature in Savannah’s skyline. You can go inside and view the beautiful stained glass windows and murals for a small donation, or just admire the architecture from the street.
Wormsloe Live Oak Avenue and Ruins
A short 15-minute drive outside of Savannah will take you to Wormsloe Historic Site, which has a beautiful live oak avenue that is a mile long drive with arching live oaks swathed in Spanish moss.
Savannah doesn’t have any restored plantation mansions to visit like neighboring Charleston. But Wormsloe has an interesting history as one of the oldest plantations that was built during the colonial-era of U.S. history by the earliest settlers of Georgia.
It’s worth the drive just for the spectacular live oak avenue just inside the entrance to the site. The trees themselves weren’t actually planted until the 1890’s and the arched gate at the entrance of the property wasn’t built until 1913, but they seem much older.
You can pay a small fee to go into the estate itself where there is a small museum with a film about the founding of Georgia by General James Oglethorpe. There are also nature trails, historical ruins built by Noble Jones, one of the settlers who came to this area with General Oglethorpe, and a small colonial village that sometimes has costumed guides explaining what life was like during the colonial period in Georgia.
A small fee will get you into this majestic estate, where you’ll find several photos stops and activities. Inside the museum, you can learn about the beginnings of Georgia and watch a 13-minute film about its founding by General Oglethorpe. It’s here that you’ll grab a map and choose whether or not you want to follow a costumed guide on the nature trails.
The former plantation also offers some of the oldest European-built ruins in Georgia, miles of nature trails, a small museum and colonial village, and historical interpretation and tours.
I thought the tabby ruins of Fort Wymberly were particularly fascinating as they were built out of oyster shells and lime and are still intact in places.
The fort was built strategically looking over the salt marshes of the Skidaway Narrows. This was to help protect the settlers from the Spanish coming up from Florida territory.
There was an overabundance of Spanish moss on the trees in this area. It’s such an interesting, unusual looking plant!
Near the ruins by the marsh there was a crazy contraption where you could hand-crank a gear and charge a box enough to play a recorded explanation of four of the features in the vicinity. The big kids took turns cranking the gear for us so we could learn about some of the history around us.
Long before Europeans came to Georgia, Native Americans lived here and over the centuries created large piles of oyster shells, which were used to create the building material known as “tabby”. You can still see where there are piles of oyster shells that were never used.
When the tide is high, the marshes fill with water and can be navigated by boats, and when the tides are low, oyster beds are exposed. We didn’t see any sharks, dolphins, or alligators, but they sometimes can be spotted here. Dolphins will work together to corral fish in the shallow waters of the marsh.
The kids did find crabs in the mud though, since the tide was low. They had a blast hunting them and catching them to show each other.
It might seem strange to include a cemetery on a list of “must see” places on your Georgia vacation, but the hauntingly beautiful Bonaventure Cemetery is definitely worth a visit.
I first heard about Bonaventure on The Moth podcast, which has recorded a number of moth events from there. Bonaventure also figures prominently in the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”.
Bonaventure has a number of famous residents, including Johnny Mercer who was a prolific songwriter with hits such as “Too Marvelous for Words”, “Moon River”, “Summer Wind”, and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”. You can take a self-guided tour or go with a group if you like.
But it’s the gothic gravestones, draping Spanish moss, and blooming wisteria and azaleas that I found most intriguing.
We worried that the kids might get bored here, but I was inspired to challenge them to find their names and birth dates on the tombstones and they all really enjoyed that game.
One last thing that we didn’t do but that I would have loved is a ghost tour of historic Savannah. I know this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I love all things spooky and mysterious and kept wanting to tag along with one of the walking ghost tours we saw ambling around Savannah’s historic mansions after dark.
There are quite a few tour options, including ones where you actually ride around in a hearse and hear all about the city’s haunted hotspots. That one looked a little cheesy to me, but maybe it’s right up your alley. Visitsavannah.com has helpful info on a number of different ghost tour options if you are feeling brave and interested in learning more about this activity.
Where to Stay in Savannah
We stayed in an absolute gorgeous 3 bedroom home on Tattnall Street that we found on www.vrbo.com. It was just a couple blocks from Forsyth Park, which is a location I would highly recommend out of personal preference over River Street. There are dozens of other equally attractive looking options on the site though.
Since we were a large group of 9, it just made sense to go with a larger place with a kitchen so that we could do breakfasts before heading out in the morning.
Basically, I’m in love with all of the Savannah options and pretty much recommend staying in someplace like a home rental rather than a large chain hotel.
But if a hotel is what you are looking for, one particularly stunning looking option though is the Hamilton Turner Inn. If it was just me and Paul visiting without the kids, this is probably the kind of accommodations we would go for. It’s especially perfect if all you are looking for is a room to stay in without additional facilities like a kitchen.
I know these recommendations are on the pricier side, but I think for a short weekend trip, it’s worth the splurge.
Where to Eat in Savannah
There are SO many amazing-sounding places to eat in Savannah that we were hardly able to scratch the surface of what the city has to offer while we were there.
The Lady and Sons: The one place we knew we wanted to eat at though was Paula Deen’s restaurant, The Lady and Sons. It’s such a fun option since they have a buffet of southern favorites that changes each day. Plus, downstairs they have a cute store with all sorts of things for the food enthusiast to look at. Make sure you book a reservation in advance if possible. It’s a good-size restaurant with two floors, but it still gets busy.
We just missed the chance to meet Paula by a day since she had been there the day before we went, which was awfully sad for me since I love her recipes and her style of cooking. The meatloaf was my favorite on the day we went.
The Olde Pink House: When a restaurant is so well-known it’s on trinkets in souvenir stores, you know you probably ought to make a reservation and go there. Known for its low-country Unfortunately, the 18th-century Olde Pink House on Reynolds Square had a fire recently and wasn’t open for us to try while we were visiting. But it’s already open again, so definitely add this to your list of places to eat!
Mrs. Wilkes House: This is another Savannah institution that we didn’t make it to even though it was on our list. Guests sit at shared tables with strangers at Mrs. Wilkes House and from what I hear, there is always a line queued up when the doors open at 11:00 a.m. I think the menu at Mrs. Wilkes House is likely very similar to what you will get at The Lady and Sons, so you might want to choose between one or the other.
Leopolds: My friend Jade from Jonesin’ for Taste lived in Savannah for 3 years and Leopold’s Ice Cream was one of her top recommendations. And it did not disappoint! The line was crazy long, wrapping out the door and halfway down the block, but it was worth it. And it moved pretty fast actually. I got the “Savannah Socialite” which was a mix of milk and dark chocolate ice cream with a bourbon caramel swirl and roasted Georgia pecans. It was every bit as delicious as it sounds.
Savannah Seafood: If you want to enjoy good low country boil for decent prices, Savannah Seafood has great food in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Our friends told us that “boil” is pronounced “bowl” rather than “boy-ull” in Georgia, and we had fits of giggles every time we tried to pronounce boil the southern way.
We sampled it all here, including the shrimp po’ boy (my favorite) and the calamari cone (Paul loved it but calamari has never really been my thing).
So tell me – have you been to Savannah? Share your favorite things and recommendations in the comments below so I know what to add to my list for our next trip!