Only an hour and a half north of the Georgia-Florida state line, Savannah's exit signs get little more than a passing glance. The historic city is sadly ignored by millions of travelers as they rush-rush-rush along I-95, hoping to reach their destinations as quickly as possible.
Maybe it’s an American thing. We often focus on the goal so much that we forget to take the time to enjoy the journey. But let's be honest: Too many of our deadlines are self-imposed.
Case in point: Our recent trip to Charlotte, North Carolina to celebrate a holiday with friends. Our plan was to drive straight home after lunch the next day. We always share the driving, so 9-hour drives are no big deal to us.
But then we thought about it. What’s the rush? Would the world really end if we were to take an extra day to get home?
We recalled all those times over the years that we had said “We should visit Savannah” as we sped along the interstate. When, if not now? Is Savannah worth a day trip, or not?
Here’s what we found out.
Savannah, Georgia is a charming, Southern, Colonial American town
Exit off of the speeding interstate and you’ll find that Savannah is the antithesis of rush. This colonial Grande Dame is a slow, Southern drawl of a city, with canopies of tree branches shading its streets as they drip miles of lacy Spanish moss from their branches.
Its historic district is renowned for its beauty, peppered every few blocks with a lush miniature park that just begs visitors to “set a spell.” Indeed, no one, local or visitor, seems to hurry from place to place here.
Each of the city’s squares (22 to be exact) is different, named for a notable person and surrounded with historic homes that are just as unique and just as enchanting. Some of the squares have fountains, others have statues, but they all have benches.
Plenty of people accept the benches’ unspoken invitation every day, enjoying the cool shade and watching frolicking children, as birds chirp overhead and horses clop-clop around the square. We were no exception and you won’t be either.
This is a long read, but Savannah is worth it. I’ll be your virtual tour guide on this Savannah walking tour itinerary and show you why.
How to visit Savannah in a day
It's pretty obvious that the best place to get accurate information is at its tourist center. Besides plenty of brochures and tips, a map of the main attractions is nearly always available, free of charge.
The Savannah Visitor Center is really easy to get to from the interstate. We arrived at 10:30 on a Sunday morning – later than we had planned – and left our car in the parking lot. Then we went inside to get our map and use the rest room before setting out.
Tip: Visit Savannah on a weekend for less traffic and free parking.
The first and biggest question is, what's the best way to tour Savannah's historic district? For such a compact (1 mile-by-1 mile) area, I was quite surprised at the number of options we had to choose from:
- Orientation trolley tours (one ride around town to see the sights, takes about an hour and a half)
- Hop-on/hop-off trolley tours (tickets good all day)
- Horse-drawn carriage tours
- Bicycle taxi – not really a tour but they’ll take you wherever you want and tell you what they know
- Segway tours
- Walking tours
- Self-guided walking tour
Savannah is full of historical sites, and probably most of them are worth touring. However, with such a limited time we agreed that it would be wiser to spend it in exploring on foot and just soaking up the city's ambiance. Anyway, besides enjoying ourselves in a someday-we-have-to-go-there place, our main goal was to give you, dear readers, some options so you can enjoy yourselves too.
Yeah. We rarely go anywhere without this website in mind. We want everyone to catch our travel bug.
With $5 invested in a walking tour book at the Visitor Center's gift shop, we set out on a tour that promised to take us through half of the Historic District in an hour and a half. In reality, it took longer because Dan had his camera, and Savannah is chock full of beautiful things.
By reader request, here is an Amazon link to the book we used for this walking tour. The author has done her research and shares far more information than you will read in our article. Her book includes other Savannah walking tours as well.
Looking back, the biggest mistake we made in trying to see Savannah in one day was in not reading up on all the Savannah attractions beforehand. It would have made our walking tour that much easier.
- For one thing, we would have had our route mentally mapped out and not had to backtrack as much as we did, and
- for another, it would have helped us avoid stopping all the time to read about what we were seeing.
Walking tour through Savannah
As a city, Savannah is one-of-a-kind. It was laid out in 1733 by General Oglethorpe. His basic idea was to set up an easily expandable grid system: four open squares, each surrounded by four residential blocks and four civic blocks.
Anyone who walks through the historic district will agree that the original plan (now known as the Oglethorpe Plan) was absolutely brilliant.
History oozes from every block of this city. Most of Savannah's squares are named in honor or in memory of a person, persons or historical event, and many contain monuments, memorials, statues, plaques and other historical mementos. Read on and you'll see what I mean.
Tip: Maintaining these sites is costly, thus the historic sites and museums charge admission fees. Budget roughly $10 per ticket. If you want to visit a few of Savannah's homes or museums, ask about combination tickets; they can offer considerable savings. Be warned, though: photography inside these buildings is often not permitted.
Only a few short blocks away was our first stop: Orleans Square. It was laid out in 1815 and commemorates General Andrew Jackson's victory in the Battle of New Orleans that year. The fountain in the center of the square honors early German immigrants to Savannah.
With four two-story-tall Corinthian columns in front, the Harper Fowlkes House (aka Cincinnati House) is hard to miss. Its dramatic portico was copied from the Temple of the Winds in Athens, Greece, which I’d guess is why many people consider it to be one of the most unusual homes in the city. It is now open to the public.
Chippewa Square was named for the Battle of Chippewa in the War of 1812. In the corner of the square is a monument to James Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia in 1735 with the following rules: No hard liquor. No slaves. No Catholics. No lawyers. As you may have guessed, none of the rules stuck. A shame, particularly that last one, haha.
The square is known for its nightlife and entertainment, partly because of the Historic Savannah Theatre. The Savannah Theatre is the oldest theatre in the United States and still produces shows nightly. Nearby is the First Baptist Church, the oldest church building in Savannah, which welcomed troops from both sides of the conflict during and after the Civil War.
For some people though, Chippewa Square’s biggest claim to fame is that this is where Forrest Gump sat while eating his box of chocolates and telling his life story to anyone who would listen. (The bench was located on the north edge of Chippewa Square Park, at the corner of Hull and Bull Streets.) While the scene was being filmed, they rerouted the normally counterclockwise traffic so that passengers could step off in front of the bench. Sorry, guys, but there’s no bench there now.
Tip: If you want to see the actual bench from the movie, you’ll find it in the Savannah History Museum. It was actually just a film prop.
From Chippewa Square, we walked down Bull Street past Juliette Gordon Low’s birthplace. The house was one of the first house museums in Savannah. We didn’t stop in but having been there before I can say that if you’re interested in historic homes, it is well worth your time. Also, if you were a Girl Scout, you should also visit the Andrew Low House, which is where she later lived.
Tip: If you have the time and interest, consider buying a Pioneers in Preservation Pass, a multi-site ticket which includes admission to the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, Davenport House and Andrew Low House. Pioneers in Preservation Pass is available at any one of the three museums for $21.
We quickly arrived at Wright Square, the square where the courthouse has always stood. A simple granite memorial stands in one corner as a tribute to Tomochichi, chief of the Yamacraw tribe, who became a good friend of General Oglethorpe and offered peace and cooperation with the settlers. This was his original grave site, but sadly, his bones were removed in order to erect a statue to William W. Gordon.
You can see the statue in the center of the square. Gordon brought immense wealth to Savannah by constructing a railroad which brought cotton into Savannah’s wharves from distant plantations. William Gordon was grandfather of Juliette Gordon Low.
Turning onto York Street, we found Owens-Thomas House at the next square. Our guide book said that architectural historians consider the building to be one of the finest examples of English Regency architecture in America.
If you visit, you can also see the slave quarters in the carriage house, which contains items that were constructed and used by slaves. If you don't, you can still peek through a gate to see the home's beautiful garden.
Colonial Park Cemetery
Before our next stop on our tour we detoured to walk through nearby Colonial Park Cemetery, used from 1733-1850. It's now a peaceful city park.
The most famous person buried at Colonial Park Cemetery is Button Gwinnett. He signed the Declaration of Independence.
We saw a pile of headstones along one wall. The explanation: When General Sherman's troops camped there during the Civil War the soldiers found a unique form of entertainment: altering and moving gravestones. That pile is of the ones they could not relocate afterward. My tour book said that some of the dates now show that someone died before he was born!
There’s a fountain in the center of Columbia Square, the next square on York. It came from a nearby plantation that was owned by the wealthiest man in Georgia colony.
Standing nearby is Kehoe House, an 1892 Renaissance Revival mansion that was built as a residence for William Kehoe, his wife, Anne, and their ten children. Mr. Kehoe operated an iron foundry and when the house was built many of its details were made of iron. It has been exquisitely restored and is now a luxury bed and breakfast. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, each of the 13 guest rooms is appointed with elegant furnishings and antiques. No wonder guests have to be at least 21 years old to stay there.
Another remarkable house on the square is the Davenport House, which is open to visitors. It boasts some of the finest wrought iron in town. Even if you don’t go inside, look for the dolphin downspouts on each corner. Also check out the third step on the front staircase: there’s a boot scraper placed below a heart!
Tip: The Davenport House is included in the multi-site Pioneers in Preservation Pass (see above).
Laid out a short time after the Revolutionary War, this square was named to honor General Nathanael Greene, who was second in command to George Washington. (Greene, along with his son, is actually buried in Johnson Square. Go figure.)
Greene Square was once the center of Savannah's African-American community. On one of the adjacent lots is Second African Baptist Church. It was here that General Sherman read the Emancipation Proclamation and promised the newly freed slaves “40 acres and a mule.” A century later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood here as well, and practiced his famous “I had a dream” speech before delivering it in Washington, D.C.
Washington Square was named for the first President of the United States, who had recently visited Savannah. It was the site of the Trustees' Garden, where they experimented with a variety of potential cash crops for the new colony. Most of these experiments
— including mulberry (for silkworms), hemp, olives, and indigo — were unsuccessful, but the peach trees prospered. Yep, that's the story behind those famous Georgia peaches.
By the way, as you walk around town you may notice the paving material, called “tabby.” Tabby was often used for both roads and buildings. It is a resourceful mixture of oyster shells, lime, sand, and water.
Walk to the end of Houston Street and look across Broad Street. The weathered building is the Pirate’s House, which began as an inn for visiting seamen. Pirate’s House was an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson as he wrote Treasure Island. Indeed, Savannah is mentioned in the book more than once.
Now a restaurant, it has a shady history because, according to legend, a tunnel ran from the cellar to the river. Patrons of the tavern were given strong drinks and when they passed out they were carried, unconscious, to ships waiting in the harbor. When they awoke, they would find themselves at sea on a strange ship bound for a port half a world away.
Seems to me, though, that if there really is a tunnel under the city, there would be a tour or something. Wouldn't you think?
Warren Square was named for General Joseph Warren, a Revolutionary War patriot. He had been President of the Provincial Government of Massachusetts and was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Several of the homes there were completely restored in the 1900s, but not all. A double house on the south side of the square was built in 1998.
We followed St. Julian Street to get there. This street has some of the oldest houses in the Historic District (from the 1700s). You can tell it because the architecture is completely different.
This square was named for Capt. John Reynolds, governor of Georgia in the mid-1750s. The bronze statue in the middle honors John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Wesley spent a few years in Savannah (1735–1738), during which time he founded the first Sunday school in America. He is shown preaching outdoors, just as he did when leading services for Native Americans.
Had it been open, Dan and I would have stopped for lunch at the Olde Pink House. Thanks to surviving a devastating city fire in 1796, it is the only surviving 18th century mansion. It earned its name because the soft native brick began to bleed through the white plastered walls, and the Habersham house turned Jamaican pink.
Even though it was closed, they let us take a look around. We shot as many photos as we wanted of the atmospheric dining rooms. I have to say that for such a pleasant ambiance I was surprised at how affordable the menu is. The chef was very creative with the menu options and is very willing to cater to special dietary requests, such as sugar- or gluten-free. Woo-hoo!
Remember Greene Square, named after Nathanael Greene? This is where his and his son’s remains are buried. The obelisk in the center of the square is a memorial to the general.
Also on Johnson Square are two fountains, as well as a sundial dedicated to Colonel William Bull, the namesake of Savannah's Bull Street. Bull surveyed Savannah’s original street grid.
Time to take a break from Savannah square-seeing. Instead, we ambled over to Bay Street, where the hundred-year-old City Hall stands, its pretty gilt dome glittering in the noonday sun.
It wasn't City Hall that interested us, though. Our goal was a close-up look at the historic Washington Guns.
Sitting peacefully under an unassuming canopy near City Hall are two relatively nondescript “guns” (cannons?) that are fondly referred to as “George and Martha.” Tour guides will tell you that they were captured from the British during the American Revolutionary War and that they were a gift to the Chatham Artillery from George Washington when he visited in 1791.
After checking out the historic weapons, we continued past the Exchange Fire Bell. It may be old-fashioned, but it was once how they used to alert citizens of fire.
The bell got its name because of its location: near the old Cotton Exchange. Once upon a time, the world's daily price of cotton was set in this very building. The men who negotiated the rate were known as Cotton Factors. I'll tell you about that in a moment.
The fountain in front boasts a really nice-looking griffin in the center. Griffins are mythical beasts that were said to guard ancient treasure.
The Cotton Exchange is not far from my favorite part of Savannah, Factors Row and Factors Walk, both of which sit atop a bluff along the Savannah River. Factors Row is a unique collection of huge red brick buildings, two or three stories tall, that were used in the cotton trade back in the day.
The top floors once contained the cotton factors’ offices, while the lower floors were used as warehouses and faced the river. A series of iron and concrete walkways, known as Factors Walk, connected the buildings to the bluff.
Look down between Bay Street and the Factors Walk, and you'll see a cobbled street and ramps leading down to the river. Their cobblestones were used as ballast when the empty ships sailed here from England. They were abandoned on the riverbanks as the ships were loaded with cotton.
These picturesque iron walkways aren't just photogenic, they have an interesting history. The Cotton Factors would stand on these bridges and bid on the loads, as wagons full of cotton passed underneath.
These days, these historic buildings are occupied by pricey antique shops, historic inns, cafes, and exclusive offices.
Rested and refreshed, we were ready to tackle the rest of the city. Ellis Square marks one end of an area known as City Market. This has been an area for public marketing since 1755. The beautiful market building once located here was demolished in the 1950s so that they could build a parking garage on the site.
After years of complaints about its ugliness, Savannah finally caved and demolished it. The space is now a public square ABOVE an underground parking garage. The new public square features a bronze statue of songwriter-lyricist Johnny Mercer (“Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses”), and fittingly, has open spaces for public concerts.
There's also a small tourist office, which was staffed when we were there. In good weather, children romp and play in a spot where water spurts from the ground in patterns. The fountain was still running, as were the kids, when we were there on a warm mid-October day.
Tucked between Ellis and Franklin Squares, you'll find a pedestrian shopping area known as City Market. Expect live music, boutiques, art galleries, sweet shops, bars and restaurants to vie for your attention.
Tip: This is also a good place to arrange for a bicycle taxi or horse-drawn carriage tour.
Franklin Square was named for Benjamin Franklin, who had died the year before. In the middle of the square is a statue honoring the many Haitian soldiers who fought for America’s independence in the Revolutionary War. That Haitians had defended the Colonies was a surprise to me.
First African Baptist Church overlooks the square. This still-vibrant church is the oldest African American congregation in the U.S. Much of the building’s features are original.
As a part of the “Underground Railroad,” members would hide slaves in the church before their flight north to freedom. They hid them on a finished subfloor four feet beneath the lower auditorium floor.
The church has a museum and offers tours. Check their website for details.
By this time we had worked up a good thirst from all our walking and the waterfront along River Street began to beckon us. What could be better than to enjoy the breezes along the water and a bit of refreshment as we rested our feet and watch the boats tooling along on Savannah River?
By the way, I have no idea how I managed it (I was in charge of the map) but somehow we completely missed seeing Telfair Square. I only realized my error after we got home. (Dang, it was right nearby!)
I’m very disappointed actually, because Telfair Square contains tributes to the Girl Scouts of the USA, founded here in Savannah by Juliette Gordon Low. I have fond memories of my times as a Girl Scout, from Brownie to Senior.
Telfair Square was one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in early Savannah and it is the only square honoring a family rather than an individual. One of the original mansions on the square was owned by Mary Telfair. She deeded it to the city in her will and it opened as Telfair Museum of Arts and Sciences in 1886. I hope her kids weren't too upset when the lawyer read her will.
Heading to River Street
Always suckers for cobbled streets we walked back along Bay Street to Factor's Row and descended to the lower level. Now we were at the lower levels of the cotton warehouses, below Factor's Walk. Here we had a Choose Your Own Adventure decision to make: Do we:
- head down the cobbled ramp to the middle of River Street or
- follow the narrow street to the end?
Door #2 won.
It was a great idea in theory, but we quickly realized we'd have to pay attention to where we put our feet. Thise cobbles aren't smooth and it would be so easy to take a nasty tumble!
The waving girl
As we approached the end or the street, a trolley passed us heading down to the water. We followed its path to a park where a statue of a woman waved to passing ships.
This statue has long been a Savannah landmark. The real life woman, Florence Martus, had once lived on nearby Elba Island with her parents and brother. When their parents passed away, she became the housekeeper and her brother took over the duties as lighthouse keeper. From the age of 19 until her death, Florence waved to every ship entering or leaving the harbor. She became known as the “waving girl.”
Now felt like a good time to give our feet a break with a $2 bottle of Dasani at a table along the river.
The blazing sun couldn't reach us as we sat under an umbrella and a cooling breeze wafted over us from the river. We watched the passersby and marveled at the variety of trinkets for sale in a nearby shop. Why buy all that stuff? Likely all made in China, I thought, cynically. Same worthless dust collectors as every other touristy place, just with a different city\s name stamped on the t-shirts.
Okay, so I was partially wrong.
As sure as they had a lot of knick-knacks, the market had just as many craft stalls staffed by local artisans. One woman had some gorgeous silver earrings I almost succumbed to but, unfortunately in retrospect, didn't.
Serves me right, I suppose.
With the variety of unique nightspots, elegant inns and hotels, quaint brew pubs and fabulous restaurants, I would imagine that River Street glitters after dark. By day, though, it's the century-old cotton warehouses that tempt visitors, with all their antique shops, jewelry boutiques and galleries.
Actually, there is something for everyone along the cobbled street, including those made-in-China souvenirs. And of course, there is food galore, from grilled fish to cappuccinos to ice cream to hand-made pecan pralines.
Tell you what, I'd have liked to visit the honey tasting room we passed beneath the Hyatt Hotel. If it hadn't been for our diet….
Cruising the Savannah River
If the tang of the ocean in the air gets too tempting, you can board a boat for a daytime tour from the water or a sunset cruise. I guess you could do that if you're only in Savannah for a day, but it wouldn't be the best way to see the squares.
The other half of Savannah's historic district
Sigh. Time to leave the river. Here it was, mid-afternoon, and we'd only seen half of the historic district. We hadn't seen Forsyth Park or the eight squares on the other side of Liberty Street, and yet we didn't think we could manage a whole ‘nother walking tour. Nope, our feet were loudly complaining that they had had enough. So we found a way to finish our tour the energy-efficient way.
How about a pedicab?
Always eager for new experiences, we hired a pedicab at City Market. As soon as we learned that he could charge for a set amount of time we asked him to give us a half-hour tour so we could see the few squares we had missed that morning without making our feet complain. I told him he could take any route he wanted, but please make it a point to go around Lafayette Square and pass the fountain in Forsyth Park.
Tip: It really pays to check multiple resources before you start a trip. Aside from the Visitor Center, advice from locals, blog posts, and YouTube videos, try clicking “Images” in Google's search results. That's how we discovered that fountain.
Lafayette Square is a “don't miss” spot because it has three notable buildings on it:
- Andrew Low House, built by Juliette Gordon Low's father-in-law, was where she spent most of her life and the site of the first Girl Scout headquarters.
- Hamilton Turner Mansion, which was the inspiration for Walt Disney's famous “Haunted Mansion” and
- Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which rivals the sky with its brilliant blue steeples. Its stained glass windows were made in Austria and its wood carvings of the stations of the cross came from Bavaria.
Temple Mickve Israel
We also wanted to see Temple Mickve Israel on our tour. The temple is remarkable for two reasons:
- It is the only purely Gothic revival synagogue in the United States
- It has the oldest Torah in the country
- The congregation received a perpetual charter from Governor Telfair in 1790, which makes it the third-oldest congregation in the U.S.
Had it not been a Sunday we would have taken a tour of the temple itself. We understand that the tour is very interesting. (Tours are available from Monday-Friday 10am-12pm and 2pm-4pm.)
If you visit and have more than one day, consider spending a while in Forsyth Park, too. It is large enough to occupy the space that two of Savannah's squares should occupy. We rode past its dramatic fountain but unfortunately, Dan's photos didn't come out.
Before we knew it our half hour ride was over and we were back at the Visitor Center. Time to get out and cross the street to our car.
Back on the road we soon found our way to Bonaventure Cemetery. Not that we like hanging around dead bodies: We usually avoid the morbid and eerie. However, three locals had recommended it so highly we figured we should stop by to see why. Once we arrived we understood.
We drove through its gates at 5 pm with the late afternoon sun slanting through the branches and Spanish moss overhead. Here and there the rays cast golden light onto grave markers, birds chirped and shadows grew long. It was quite peaceful, and not just because there were only two or three cars in the entire place.
All we knew when we entered its gates was that it has a scenic bluff that overlooks the Wilmington River. We didn't know who were the famous people buried at Bonaventure Cemetery and we didn't care to look for their resting places anyway. We preferred to drive around aimlessly, which was a good thing since we didn't have a map, haha.
It wasn't long before we arrived at the bluff, where we found a convenient spot to park. We climbed out and found some dramatic grave markers nearby.
It would have served us right if we were locked in overnight. After all, we had entered at closing time and the cemetery hours were clearly posted on the gate. Still, a little time is better than none at all; it was certainly worth just the few minutes we were able to spend there.
Most of our “one day” experiences include dinner and evening activities, but this time we had to cut our visit short. Time to head home to Florida. A shame that we had to, because Savannah is full of inviting places to enjoy an evening meal.
There are so many things to do in Savannah that one day is not enough.Save this for later