36 Hours in Savannah, Ga.
CERTAIN things about Savannah never change — it remains one of America's loveliest cities, organized around a grid of 21 squares, where children play, couples wed and, in the evenings, lone saxophonists deliver a jazz soundtrack. But that doesn't mean Savannah has nothing new to offer. Perhaps most notable is a budding art scene that includes the high — a major expansion of the Telfair Museum — and the low — a scene energized by students and instructors at the booming Savannah College of Art and Design. Civic boosters are even trying to reposition the region as the “Creative Coast.” And then there is change of another kind: restoration. Before iron-clad protection of the historic district was established, Savannah lost 3 of its 24 squares to developers. Now one of the oldest, Ellis Square, long dominated by a parking lot, is being restored to its antebellum glory.
1) GOOD AND EVIL
You're in the heart of the gracious South, so embrace every cliché from the frilly to the Gothic, with some eccentric characters for good measure. Begin with a tour of the splendid Mercer Williams House on Monterey Square ($12.50 tickets at the Carriage House Shop, 430 Whitaker Street, 912-236-6352; www.mercerhouse.com). It was built in the 1860s for the great-grandfather of the songwriter Johnny Mercer and restored by Jim Williams, the antiques dealer memorialized in a now-classic book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” The stern guide won't dwell on the three murder trials of Mr. Williams, who was acquitted, and guests aren't allowed on the second floor, where Mr. Williams's sister, Dorothy Kingery, still lives. But the guide will offer plenty of detail about the formal courtyard, the nap-ready veranda, the Continental rococo and the Edwardian Murano glass.
2) SHRIMP WITH COFFEE
Dress up a bit (no flip-flops) for the froufrou milieu of Elizabeth on 37th (105 East 37th Street, 912-236-5547; www.elizabethon37th.net), a Lowcountry restaurant housed in an early 20th-century mansion where the décor may be prissy but the food is anything but. The revered Elizabeth Terry is no longer the chef, but critics still run out of superlatives trying to describe the seafood-rich menu and what is arguably Savannah's quintessential dining experience. You won't go wrong with the shrimp and grits with red-eye gravy, traditionally made from leftover coffee ($13.95), Bluffton oysters served three ways, including raw with tomato-cilantro ice ($14.95), or snapper with a chewy crust of shredded potato and asiago cheese ($30.95). You'll soon forget about the flowery wallpaper, the cramped bathroom and even the nervous couples nearby, trying to impress their in-laws.
3) CREEPY COCKTAILS
The city of Savannah began peacefully enough, with a friendship between Tomochichi, the chief of the Yamacraw tribe, and Gen. James Oglethorpe, leader of the British settlers who founded the city in 1733. But then came war, yellow fever, hurricanes and fires, not to mention pirates and curses — making the city seem, at least to the builders digging around, like one big graveyard. Savannah has turned that sordid history to its advantage: about 30 ghost tours are offered in the city, including a haunted pub crawl. Only one, though, picks you up at your hotel in an open-top hearse, Hearse Tours (912-695-1578; www.hearseghosttours.com, $15; pickups are made at the Doubletree and other hotels). In addition to recounting some of Savannah's most notorious murders, suicides and deathbed tales, your joke-telling guide might share personal paranormal theories, make everyone scream in unison to spook passersby or stop for cocktails at favorite haunts. (It's legal to take your julep for a stroll.)
4) ART, BATS AND BREAD
Hard to believe, but there is more to Savannah than the historic district, like the up-and-coming area called Starland, now filled with galleries and studios. Start at desot O row Gallery (2427 De Soto Avenue, 912-220-0939; www.desotorow.com), a gallery run by current and recent art students, where a recent exhibition featured painted big-box radios and a mirrored mannequin by the local artist Ryan V. Brennan. Next, make your way up to Maldoror's (2418 De Soto Avenue, 912-443-5355; www.maldorors.com), a frame shop with the aura of a Victorian curio cabinet and a print collection to match. Rounding the corner, you'll come to Back in the Day (2403 Bull Street, 912-495-9292; www.backinthedaybakery.com), an old-fashioned bakery that inspires fervent loyalty among locals. Pick up one of the sandwiches, like the Madras curry chicken on ciabatta ($6.95), and maybe a cupcake ($2 to $3.50) for lunch.
5) PICNIC WITH THE DEAD
Few cemeteries are more stately and picnic-perfect than Bonaventure Cemetery (330 Bonaventure Road), with its 250-year-old live oaks draped with Spanish moss as if perpetually decorated for Halloween. The cemetery, where Conrad Aiken, Johnny Mercer and other notable residents are buried, looks out over the intracoastal waterway, and is a gathering spot for anglers as well as mourners.
6) OLD STREETS, NEW MUSEUM
The battle took years and matched two unlikely adversaries: the Telfair Museum of Art, the oldest art museum in the South, which wanted to expand, and the powerful Savannah Historic District Board of Review. The result, after intense haggling, was a light-filled building that is as trim as a yacht and has won accolades for its architect, Moshe Safdie. The year-old addition, the Jepson Center for the Arts (207 West York Street; www.telfair.org), preserved Savannah's cherished street grid by dividing the structure into two, and joining it with two glass bridges, while giving the museum much-needed space. The original 19th-century museum (121 Barnard Street) is home to the Bird Girl, the now-famous statue that adorns the cover of “Midnight in the Garden”; it was relocated, like a federal witness, from Bonaventure Cemetery for her protection. The museum also operates tours of the nearly 200-year-old Owens-Thomas House (124 Abercorn Street). Admission to all three is $15.
7) SCHOOL FAIR
Shopping in Savannah is increasingly sophisticated, with the latest addition an imposing Marc by Marc Jacobs store on the rapidly gentrifying Broughton Street. But the most interesting retail is at shopSCAD, a boutique that sells the creations of the students, faculty, alumni and staff of the Savannah College of Art and Design (340 Bull Street, 912-525-5180; www.shopscadonline.com). There is fine art — like Stephanie Howard's pen-and-ink drawings, with tiny obsessive patterns reminiscent of quilts ($400 to $2,100) — as well as decorative and wearable items, including hand-dyed ties by Jen Swearington ($48) and a pendant lamp by Christopher Moulder ($1,150).
8) CRAB HEAVEN
Forget about crab cakes, stuffed soft shells or crabmeat au gratin. Crab is most rewarding when it is pure and unadulterated, served in a pile on newspaper with a can of beer and a blunt instrument for whacking at the shell. That, plus some boiled potatoes and corn, is what you will find at Desposito's (1 Macceo Drive, 912-897-9963), an unadorned shack in Thunderbolt, a onetime fishing village on the outskirts of town. Dinner for two, plus $2 Budweisers, is about $40. This is not dining; this is working, but the sweet morsels are better than any payday.
9) DRINKING IN THE SCENE
Many of Savannah's finest bars close early — often when the owners feel like it — so don't wait to start on your drink-by-drink tour. Begin at the American Legion Post 135, south of Forsyth Park (1108 Bull Street, 912-233-9277; www.americanlegionpost135.com), a surprisingly shimmery, mirrored space where the clientele is a mix of age and vocation, and where the British bartender might hold forth on Savannah's Anglophile side. Proceed to the Crystal Beer Parlor (301 West Jones Street, 912-443-9200, www.crystalbeerparlor.net). On the outside, it's as anonymous as a speakeasy, which it was, but inside, its high-backed booths and Tiffany lamps are more ice cream than booze. A full menu is available. Wind up at Planters Tavern (23 Abercorn Street, 912-232-4286), a noisy, low-ceilinged bar in the basement of the high-dollar Olde Pink House, a dignified restaurant in a 1771 house. With a fireplace on either end of the room, live music and boisterous locals, it's the place to be. A warning: they don't do juleps.
10) CHURCH'S CHICKEN
Church and food go together in the South, and they do so especially well at the Masada Café (2301 West Bay Street, 912-236-9499), a buffet annex to the United House of Prayer for All People. The church has several locations in Savannah; this one is a mission of sorts, catering to the poor, but the inexpensive, revolving buffet of soul food classics like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese has gained a following among food critics and locals. Get there at 11 a.m. for the Sunday service, where the music and rhythmic handclapping surely shares some DNA with the “ring shouts” of the Gullah-Geechee people, descendants of slaves who once lived on the nearby barrier islands.
Drive five hours from Atlanta, or fly in to the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, which is served by major airlines. Airport shuttles to the city center are under $20 (www.lowcountryadventures.com). The historic district, where most restaurants and hotels are situated, is easily traversed by foot. A cab or a car may be necessary for other destinations.
Hotels are pricey, especially during the high season. For budget accommodations, the Thunderbird Inn (611 West Oglethorpe Avenue, 912-232-2661; www.thethunderbirdinn.com), a no-frills motel recently refurbished with a vintage flair (no fitness room, but no flame-retardant bedding either), is the way to go, if you can get a reservation. Rooms start at $109.
Savannah has an endless selection of bed-and-breakfasts, including several that are said to be haunted, that range between $200 and $300 a night. The Association of Historic Inns of Savannah has listings at www.historicinnsofsavannah.com.
For a splurge, check into the Mansion on Forsyth Park (700 Drayton Street, 912-238-5158; www.mansiononforsythpark.com). The exterior of the 1888 home was so faithfully restored as to be almost imperceptible. The interior, however, is another story — the décor equivalent of purple prose, with garish paintings, an antique hat collection and elevators decked out with fresh flowers. Rooms start at $229.