After you gawk at stunning centuries-old architecture and walk through town squares beneath Spanish moss-laden trees, spend the rest of your day in historic Savannah a different way. Starting with a particular street that runs along the Savannah River and a dramatic cemetery that has become a major tourist attraction.
Sitting in Reynolds Square and looking at the map we decided to take a break from Savannah square-seeing. Instead, we ambled over to Bay Street (not far, only a long block away). Across the intersection was the hundred-year-old City Hall, 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 leading down to the river. Both the street and the ramps leading down to it from Bay Street are paved with cobblestones. Empty ships used the stones as ballast on the trip from England. They were abandoned on the riverbanks by departing sailing ships, now laden with cotton.
What I love most about these picturesque iron walkways is their 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.
Where to eat in Savannah
Anywhere you go in town, you can expect to find a lot of shellfish and pork on the menu. Welcome to the coastal South. Both are very popular here, to the point that some places don't offer much else.
Pity the vegetarians. This is one place where it pays to inspect the menu before you decide to sit down.
Besides The Olde Pink House and the Pirate House, two other well-known places to eat are:
- Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room (107 W. Jones St.) began as a boardinghouse in 1943 and now serves its food family style. Eating here means lining up outside, then sharing a table-for-ten with other hungry visitors. There is no menu per se so it's hit-or-miss as to whether you'll like what's being served. Just like at home, they bring out the food in big dishes and soon your table will be crowded with traditional Southern specialties like fried chicken, cornbread dressing, sweet potato souffle, black-eyed peas, okra gumbo, corn muffins and biscuits.
- On the other end of the spectrum, The Lady and Sons (102 W. Congress St.) has no lines because it requires reservations. Savannah natives Paula Deen — celebrity chef from the Food Network — and her two sons offer a buffet of Southern dishes as well as a varied menu for those who'd prefer to eat something healthier. (If you have an allergy, be aware that they cook with peanut oil.)
We didn't eat at either one because we were on a very strict diet regimen. Besides, we were hungry and craved immediate gratification. Playing it safe, we chose a place with a familiar menu: Outback Steakhouse (on Bay Street). We enjoyed a small sirloin steak cooked Pittsburgh style.
This didn't rival the Colonial dining atmosphere at the Olde Pink House, but it was a decent alternative. My nicely charred steak hit the spot.
- If you're watching your pennies or saving room for dinner, Five Guys Burgers (on Bay Street near Ellis Square) is a good option. Both their burgers and hot dogs (Hebrew National brand) are prepared to order, and you can even get them served without a bun. Beware if you're counting calories, though: One order of their fresh-cut French fries is enough for two people.
- If you want to eat at The Lady and Sons but forgot to make reservations, take the Paula Deen trolley tour. It includes VIP seating at the restaurant.
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.
I know we'll want to return.