Savannah was established as Georgia’s first city – a working port – in 1733. It’s been welcoming people and trade for over 280 years, adding a global, cosmopolitan flavor to its Deep South traditions.
Piano bar at Savannah's The Olde Pink House
Really, it was the melting pot aspects of the city that intrigued me more than the “Southern” establishments trotted out for tourists. The family-style dining at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room where people wait outside for an hour in the heat, only to have to bus their own tables as well as The Olde Pink House with special occasion prices – in spite of men wearing Adidas shorts and gym towels in the main dining room – both seem to count on a “one and done” clientele.
Savannah was carefully laid out by its planners and comprises 22 squares: each gorgeous and each with its own personality.
What to do
Your first stop should be the main Savannah Visitor’s Center in the old red-brick passenger terminal of the Central of Georgia Railroad complex. They give out free maps, coupons and samples of locally made candies! In the same complex is The Savannah History Museum.
Walking around the historic district, you can carry one open plastic container of an alcoholic beverage not exceeding 16 ounces. This works great for Savannah Slow Ride, a kind of group surrey powered by bicycle; it definitely seems to make for a party on wheels! I wish I had been able to catch up and snap a pic of a bunch of ladies drinking/bicycling, but they got too motivated by the booze.
Old Savannah Tours is an excellent jump-on, jump-off trolley tour throughout the historic district. The drivers dress in period costumes from the Colonial era through the early 20th century, inviting more period characters on over the course of the circuit. Each of the drivers has different strengths, from encyclopedic history knowledge to a gift for making the passengers roar with laughter. I got more out of their tour than the Savannah River Boat Cruises.
Savannah is home to the third-oldest synagogue in the US: Congregation Mickve Israel. This beautiful Sephardic origin house of worship traces itself to the same year as the city’s establishment. They offer guided tours where you can see letters written to the congregation by Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison, as well as other priceless treasures.
Where to stay
One of the most fun, funky accommodations I’ve ever stayed in is the Thunderbird Inn. This motel has been renovated to feel like one from the 1960’s with ‘50’s and ‘60’s music playing in the parking lot, bright ‘60’s décor, RC Cola and Moon Pies in the rooms, lemonade at the front desk. It’s modestly priced and within walking distance of all the cool things you want to see and do. Roller Derby Girls stay here for bouts.
What to eat
Right next to the Savannah College of Art and Design’s store where you can buy student-made everything from perfume to paintings to leather mini-skirts is the school’s official café: Gryphon. It’s elegant with an old men’s club ambiance, serving Southern-inspired fusion cuisine with hints of Latin, Asian and even Yankee (!) flavors. They have generous portions – not "ladies’ lunch" size, though plenty of ladies eat here for lunch.
Leoci’s Trattoria is a locals’ secret on a quiet residential street. Chef-owner Roberto Leoci started studying the art of Italian cuisine during family summers in Sicily, with later formal training in Florence. He's cooked for jet-setters at the Ritz Carlton and such tony spots as Fisher Island. I would describe his style as Italian slow-cooking/home-cooking made with gourmet, luscious ingredients. NY strips, filet tips and chuck cooked with al dente Cavatelli absolutely redefine meat sauce and pasta.
With so many touristy bars and snack spots around, it’s good to know of a place with delicious food in an authentic setting. River House Seafood is in an 18th century restored cotton warehouse along the Savannah River. River House Stone Oven Baked Oysters Rockefeller are excellent! They do their own Southern take on the dish: it's made with local oysters, bacon, collard greens and Parmesan. The collard greens really work! They're done up crispy and the dish is not too salty at all.
It seems like everyone, including Oprah, knows about Savannah Bee Co. They have everything from everyday honeys, artisanal honeys to bring out for company, luxurious skin care products and gifts. Best of all might be the free samples of the whole shebang!
Leopold’s Ice Cream has been a family-owned business since 1919. Songwriter Johnny Mercer lived a block away and wrote "Tutti Frutti" about their signature flavor, which has a very rich custard-like base, with bits of nuts and candied fruit.