Destination Georgia: Savannah

Everyone, it seems, either raves about – or wants to visit – Savannah. My brother always makes a point to coordinate a trip when he visits South Carolina; work colleagues told John it was a “must-see” destination in the South; Tripadvisor reviews are glowing.

Hmmm.

If I had to use a single word to describe Savannah, it would be “underwhelming”.

But then I’d be quick to provide lots of caveats. In retrospect, I think much of this underwhelm had to do with our inflated expectations, relatively short stay (a day trip), and some unfortunate timing/misinformation. Because it was a lovely day: my sister took our kiddos to the local zoo back in Columbia while John and I got to explore a beautiful city on foot.

Summary: I’m glad we went, but don’t think I’d feel the need to return on any subsequent trip.

highlights

*Credit alert: every picture in this post (except the header) was taken by John. I didn’t touch my phone while we were in Savannah!*

  • The architecture. Hands down my favourite part of Savannah was wandering the streets and seeing all the beautiful historic homes. Everything oozes character. It’s hard (especially on a first visit to a new location) to gauge how much time to prioritize for leisurely wandering vs. doing specific touristy things. We tried to strike the right balance, but if I ever do go back to Savannah, I would aim to spend the majority of my time exploring the quaint streets and marveling at the charm of the buildings.
I loved, loved, loved this. An old stucco sign peeling away to reveal the original brick.
  • Cobblestones. This fits in with my appreciation for the architecture; I loved seeing all the cobblestones and learning more about their history. In Savannah, most of the cobblestone streets were sourced from rocks used for ballast. Ships were landing in the area and unloading ballast stones right into the harbour which, for obvious reasons, isn’t sustainable long-term. Harbourmasters started forcing ships to unload their rock ballast (apparently the water would go rancid so they couldn’t use the same rocks over and over again) onshore, and those rocks were then used to pave streets. Since different source locations used different stones for ballast, it resulted in a range in the type of cobblestone streets. This all makes sense, but I was oblivious until I read a placard about it. In a few places, I actually saw old asphalt chipping away to reveal the original cobblestone beneath. So cool!
  • The squares. I think there are 22 squares total in Savannah and they were delightful. They’re scattered throughout the city and lend to it being such a walkable city. Vehicles have to constantly route around these squares, so there are no big lanes of traffic to navigate as a pedestrian. One square had a statue of John Wesley – founder of the Methodist Church and famous hymn writer (including Hark The Herald Angels Sing) – who preached in Savannah.
First Methodist Church
John Wesley statue

  • The Spanish moss. It adds so much charm to the area and everywhere we looked there were giant southern oak trees dripping with the stuff.
  • Sushi. Okay, this had nothing to do with Savannah, but we couldn’t decide what to do for lunch (we had looked at some local seafood places along the waterfront but nothing seemed overly appealing). In the end, we Googled “sushi” and found a nice, but inexpensive, spot about 400 m away from our current location. It was hot and I was thirsty and hungry. The combination of some solidly enjoyable sushi and bottomless ice water was so refreshing.
  • Old Sheldon Church Ruins. This was en route back to Columbia (located in Beaufort County, SC – so we were no longer in Georgia). What a hidden gem! Up until recently, it was believed this church had been burned by the British in 1779 (during the Revolutionary War), rebuilt in 1826, and then burned again in 1865 during the Civil War. In reality, the church may have been dismantled for materials during the Civil War. Either way, it was a beautiful spot off the beaten track which ended up being one of the highlights of the day.
About a decade ago they put up fences as people were stealing the stonework. Sigh.
This was so cool (pictures don’t do it justice). This stonework growing into the tree was something we just happened to spot on the periphery of the grounds.

medium lights

  • Fresh pralines. All along River Street, candy stores hand out free samples of praline. They were good, though a very big sugar high and a bit too sweet for me. It felt like an iconic food to indulge in, though, and we each bought one and ate it by the waterfront! (The kids would have lost their minds as each store had SO. MUCH. CANDY.)
  • The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. The architecture was beautiful.
  • Forsyth Park. Admittedly we didn’t explore absolutely everything in this park and it was very pretty…but mildly underwhelming. I think it is the #1 ranked destination in Savannah and I kept thinking, “We have parks as nice as this back in Canada.” Minus the Spanish moss which really is so hauntingly beautiful. I understand why it is iconic, but I was left expecting something more, somehow?
  • We stopped in at the world-famous Savannah College of Art and Design. There are a lot of different locations in the city, but we happened upon a store-front/gallery which is also part of the school campus. We love art!

low lights/UNDERWHELMING STOPS

  • We went to the Bonaventure Cemetary to see the statue made famous by the cover of Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil. And the statue wasn’t there. Whomp, whomp. Now if I had done sufficient research before the trip I would have been aware the statue has been moved to a museum (by the family whose plot contained this suddenly iconic grave marker, so this makes a lot of sense). The cemetery was huge and really quite beautiful but we didn’t stop to take a single picture. Oops. The cemetery is so large you can drive through it and we had someone behind us the whole way so it never made sense to stop. If we had planned to explore the cemetery more leisurely I think I would have really enjoyed this spot, but the air had gone out of my proverbial balloon upon learning the statue wasn’t there (which was the main point of our stop).

We did walk by the Mercer House (I haven’t read the book or watched the movie but this is a BIG tourist draw).
  • Chippewa Square. This square was made famous because it’s the location of the Forrest Gump “Life is like a box of chocolates…” scene. Except the bench built/used in the movie is now in a museum. Which was a bummer…couldn’t they at least build a replica?)
Forrest in Chippewa Square
Elisabeth in Chippewa Square (I found a bench, but should have posed in front of the memorial you can see behind Forrest)…
  • The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is closed for renovations until April 2023. Normally you can drive a 5-mile stretch and see lots of alligators (there is a part of the road officially labeled Alligator Alley). From what I’ve heard/read it is very beautiful, and there are some great hiking trails. Not being able to access this spot was a major bummer and the information online was ambiguous so we did swing by and can confirm – it IS closed/gated to the public right now.
  • The waterfront. We started our trip at Forsyth Park (nice, but underwhelming given the hype), and I was legit excited to get down to the famous waterfront. We wandered down through the city and suddenly looked up and saw an ENORMOUS container ship going right by us. We had arrived! (This makes a lot of sense; for many years Savannah was North America’s fourth-largest port for shipping container traffic!). Now the pictures of Savannah’s waterfront looked lovely (see the Unsplash header for this post by way of an example), but those views are taken from the other side of the Savannah River! I suppose if we had taken a river cruise we would have gotten to see a full view of the historic part of town, but from my viewpoint looking over to the opposite side, it was mostly just a lot of cranes, convention centres, and big hotels – a very industrial vibe, and not in a hip, trendy way.
  • Tybee Island. We went to Tybee Island to visit the lighthouse; this island is a major tourist draw and I think if we had been staying for the day and rented bikes it would have been a lot of fun. But parking was crazy and what we really wanted to do was wander around the lighthouse and read about the history of this lighthouse…but it’s all fenced off. To get on the grounds you have to pay (entry does include a climb to the top of the lighthouse, though). It would have been $12 USD each (so over $30 CAD total) to get entry and it just didn’t feel worth it. So that was disappointing. The beach was…okay. We wandered down to explore, but it didn’t have anything unusual that made it stand out to me.

A few other thoughts:

  1. If I was interested in American Civil War history, I think I would adore Savannah. History is everywhere with plaques about specific soldiers and battles which, frankly, all goes over my head.
  2. On a related note, locations celebrating Johnny Mercer (most famous for writing Moon River, but he received nineteen Oscar nominations and won four Best Original Song Oscars), Flannery O’Connor (born and lived in Savannah until she was 15), and the Mercer House (famous for Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil), would all be a lot more impressive if I was attached to these famous Savannah natives/stories. Apparently, some people base their entire trip around Mercer House tours and relevant sites. I think it’s a bit like visiting Prince Edward Island – if you’re not engaged by the Anne of Green Gables narrative, you’re going to miss out on a lot of the charm and touristy appeals.

While I’d rank Savannah as a solid B, I can see how to certain demographics/under certain conditions it would be an A+. We didn’t do a riverfront cruise, trolley car tour, visit local plantations, or rent bikes on Tybee Island. We weren’t there long enough to soak up some of the most charming elements of the area and I think the city at dusk would be stunning. So, given the parameters of our visit it was underwhelming but with oodles of caveats and still many, many highlights! Even as I’m writing this I feel like I need to go back and give it another try?!

Has anyone else ever been (or have plans to go) to Savannah? Thoughts?

Header photo by Tyler Edic on Unsplash

28 thoughts on “Destination Georgia: Savannah”

    1. I’m glad it wasn’t just me!
      It was lovely; and, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting? Maybe if those few major “let-downs” hadn’t happened, I’d be singing a different tune?

      I also think some of this might stem from the fact I already live in such a beautiful, walkable waterfront town? If I came from a big, bustling city, I think it would have felt more unique? I love where we live so much/find it has a lot of character, that I may have an unrealistic barometer for charm and Savannah felt a bit like where I already come from, if that makes sense?

  1. I was in Savannah years ago (in my early 20s) and had read Midnight in the Garden… so I liked it, but I don’t really remember that much. We were actually passing through on our way somewhere else, so I didn’t see as much as you did. I think it’s probably an amazing city that suffers from being overhyped and over-visited- things just aren’t as much fun when there’s crowds of people everywhere and some of the sights have been moved to museums. Your pictures do look beautiful though- it sounds like a really nice day!

    1. There definitely is a lot of hype about the city; to be fair, I think if we had set up different things to do (say, for example, I wasn’t aiming to see the Bird Statue or go see alligators), I would likely have felt it met my expectations for the day.
      It WAS beautiful, though, and the combination of interesting architecture/Spanish moss dangling everywhere was visually stunning!

  2. I really liked Savannah! I went there for a shorter trip, I think 2 nights maybe? I went in March and everything was blooming so I found the city very charming and sweet. I loved Forsynthe Park. I thought the fountain was so picturesque and the trees with the spanish moss are so gorgeous and different from what we have back in the Midwest. I did a walking tour of the city and I think that gave me more appreciation for the city and its history. The water front was not pretty, but I thought the little downtown was charming and I liked that the stores were mostly small locally owned places – there weren’t big corporations like Lulu Lemon, etc. That is one thing I didn’t love about Charleston. The downtown shopping center was just sooo commercial!

    But overall my favorite part of Savannah were all the charming squares! We walked through several and learned more about them on the walking tour. I just really appreciated the slower pace of life and how those squares just kind of beg for you to sit down and read a book/watch the world go by. There was also live music in one of the parks in the evening so I sat and enjoyed some gorgeous classical music. But I did not know about thing about Savannah before my trip and didn’t have much in the way of expectations so that probably factored into how I felt about the city!

    1. We often do walking tours when we visit a new place; because we had planned out a lot of stops/not having a lot of time, we DIDN’T do any formal tour, but I think that might have been a mistake? I love behind-the-scenes stories about a place and think that would have brought it alive in a different way.
      The squares and architecture were hard to beat. As I commented to someone else – I wonder if some of my underwhelm comes from the fact I live in a town that reminds me a bit of Savannah. A lot of green space, small shops, a waterfront. They’re very different, of course, but there were enough similarities that some of those charming elements felt a little more common.
      And not being there at night was a shame. I wanted to maximize time with my sister/her family since our visit was relatively short, but I think almost all destinations are most charming and enjoyable at night and we didn’t get any element of that in our visit to Savannah because of the timing of our trip (there and back in the same day).

    2. I have never been to Savannah, but I think I envision more along the lines of what Lisa is saying! I don’t think I would really “expect” it to be a raging tourist destination, really (personally)… Like, I don’t know that I would expect the parks to be any “better” than parks in other places…most parks have a lot of similar qualities! I tend to love wandering through city parks everywhere I travel- I am sure I’d love yours in Canada, too. 🙂

      I honestly don’t know much about Savannah, but I always kind of assumed it was just a classic Southern town. I suppose I envisioned just walking around, seeing the squares, pretty buildings, hanging out, people watching, etc. But I will say- although I don’t really think I’m the world’s most naturally optimistic person in MANY situations, I am usually a very easy to please traveler! I don’t know why, because like I said, this isn’t something that comes naturally to me in all areas of life. Always working on it, you know, hence the whole grateful kae thing. 😉 But I find it is very, very rare that I travel to a new place and feel unsatisfied in too many ways. I think I somehow have a really good ability to just find wonder and amazement in any new place- even if it’s maybe not “that” spectacular. Maybe my travel sunglasses are rose colored?? haha. But really, I have written reviews on Trip Advisor and have had people respond back commenting on what a “good natured traveler” I seemed to be. One guy told me he appreciated my positive attitude when things didn’t always go as planned. I took that as a big compliment!

      From the looks of it, I think I would greatly enjoy a couple days in Savannah, preferably in the spring time I think, when it’s windy and drizzling in Wisconsin. It’s kind of a running joke in our family between me and my dad that we always say we think we could throw a dart at the map of the world and be perfectly happy visiting any place it landed for several days, no matter where it was. 🙂 I’m sorry it wasn’t a home run for you though! Still looks like you had a nice day, at least!. 🙂

      1. After reading your comment my thought? “Kae sounds like a perfect traveling companion.”
        I love to travel but often find it quite stressful (if it’s a destination). I wasn’t able to travel much at all as a child since we simply couldn’t afford anything beyond local destinations. I want to maximize my time in a location because I constantly feel this inner voice saying: “What if you never get back here.” But then I also hate spending money. Like find it so, so hard to do – especially because travel things can be SO expensive and then what if I don’t end up liking the thing we do.
        Even writing that out sounds ridiculous, but I do have a hard time relaxing on vacation. And I go into KNOWING this is an issue for me…and yet it never fails to rear its ugly head.
        That said, I think for the most part I end up feeling contented at the end of a vacation, I just have lots of pockets of stress inside the actual event.
        I think you’d love Savannah! It really is beautiful and I think the weather in the spring would be perfect. If I had it to do over again I think I’d try to be a bit more relaxed and stay overnight since it really would have been ideal to have time there in the evening (it was SO hot during the day). We did spend a night in Charleston and I enjoyed that trip a lot more than Savannah, but some of that could have to do with it feeling more relaxed since we had more flexibility in our schedule (my sister and her family came along, too, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out on time with family).

  3. I’ve never been to Savannah, but honestly the treatment of Civil War history in most southern states makes me cringe, so I am not sure it’s really on my bucket list. That being said, there’s are sometimes when I desperately just want a few days away somewhere warm and then Savannah comes around to looking like a decent option!

    1. I know so, so little about American history, but know Savannah is a destination for people that study/are interested in the topic; I’m not sure how they handle the material, but it is very Southern.

  4. I have not been to Savannah yet but have been to Charleston (her sister city) several times. I imagine I would be under whelmed with either if I only had a day to explore. I’ve done several tours, including a house, in Charleston and they were really interesting and informative. The thing about both cities is that they are touristy and that can be off-putting what with the crowds, etc.

    1. I do think that not having an overnight in Savannah detracted from the visit; and not taking a tour which I always finds helps me orient and grow more attached to a location beside of the “inside scoop.”

      We really enjoyed our time in Charleston, but did different types of things + had an overnight, so that might have been a big contributing factor. I did also think the waterfront was nicer in Charleston and we loved fishing off the pier at sunset beside the Ravenel Bridge. Just so iconic and lovely!

  5. I have not been to Savannah (heard people rave about it though) and wouldn’t mind visiting some time. All your (or Jon’s ;)) pictures look lovely and it does sound like you had a fun day and saw a lot of neat things. However, I can understand that you were disappointed by a few things and if expectations were high to begin with, this can take away from the best places.

    1. I feel guilty saying it was underwhelming when all the pictures clearly show it is a lovely spot; it just felt underwhelming at the time, mostly because of expectations and the time crunch, I think. But I hope I’ve made that clear enough so I’m not scaring anyone away from Savannah. And based on most feedback from people that go there, I expect most people will walk away raving about it (as might I if I tried it again another time!?)

  6. We’ve been to Savannah + Tybee Island twice and loved it. The southern charm plus the history was a draw for us. Plus there’s never a shortage of places to stop for a drink, so it’s low-key vibe appealed to us. Of course we were there for a weekend each time, on our way to somewhere else, so maybe it was the opening act for our vacation as a whole.

    1. Savannah definitely felt low-key (in a good way) and I think a weekend would likely be the perfect amount of time to really appreciate all the area has to offer.
      I do think, too, because I come from an area full of charm and history (I live 5 minutes from a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and quaint shops I actually find something completely different more…awe-inspiring and exciting? Say a big city, which feels so, so different from the small-town vibe where I currently live (that has lots of shops and places to stop for drinks or photo-ops or interesting cuisine).

  7. I had never heard of Savannah before I read this post. It does sound like it could be an interesting place but I guess if it is not about things you are interested in then it would not be. The architecture does look lovely and I am intrigued by the cobbled streets I am wondering where all those rocks came from? Many different countries or all from other parts of the US. We have a lot of cobbled streets here in the UK particularly in my part of the country.

    Thank you for sharing your visit, a virtual tour from my sofa is probably the closest I will get to visiting 😉

    1. I don’t think the placards said anything about where the rocks came from, just different locations used different stones for ballast but it would be so interesting to know what came from where!
      I always love cobblestone streets, and I found these especially intriguing as they were made up of so many different types of stones and looked more…organic and natural?…than some of the more stylized/intricately designed cobblestones I’ve seen in other locations.
      Either way, cobblestones are just so cool!
      Savannah wasn’t really on my radar until we planned our trip down South (my sister always goes to/prefers Charleston, which is considered a “sister” city to Savannah) – I’m glad we went, but as you can gather from my summary…there were some major misses for me as well.

  8. My husband and I went to Charleston and Savannah on our first kid-free trip after having our 2nd baby – in 2013, so I do have very fond memories of that vacation! I remember at the time thinking that I enjoyed Charleston WAY more – it felt more authentic, and the food (that we had at least) was much better. Savannah felt like someone designed a touristy Southern city, and it was very cute, but just felt kind of fake. I didn’t have a bad time there, but after Charleston it just wasn’t as cool of a place.

    1. We definitely enjoyed our time in Charleston more and we’re really hoping to get back for another few days the next time we’re in SC (and we’re determined it won’t take us 15 years to get back the next time)!

  9. I love Savannah, having visited a few times, but A) it’s very different from where I live – small non-walkable southern city – B) we were able to do all the things on our list when visiting – #1 Gryphon’s tea room (love love), #2 trolley tour to see all the squares and cool architecture, and #3 Forsyth Park (my hubs loves fountains). I am not a history person and have seen plenty of gators, so don’t find them exciting LOL.

    1. An alligator would DEFINITELY have been an out-of-the-ordinary sighting for us.
      I’m so glad you enjoy Savannah! I think I’m on outlier on finding it underwhelming and am thinking more and more about a return trip that’s a bit longer + includes some paid experiences (like a trolley car tour, river cruise, or other specific event).

  10. I’m sorry that Savannah wasn’t quite up to your liking! It’s probably my favorite city, and I’d move there in a heartbeat if I could. I just find it so charming and picturesque and filled with so much history. I did a walking tour when I visited and that really helped me understand Savannah and its history, and gave me a different appreciation of the city.

    It does suck when you visited a city and you’re underwhelmed, doesn’t it? That’s happened to me before, too!

    1. That’s great that you enjoy Savannah so much! It was a lovely city…and I think that a walking tour would have been ideal.

  11. I don’t believe I have ever been to Savannah (even as a young child). I have had Charleston recommended to me multiple times as a southern destination that I would enjoy; my parents and I have tossed around the idea of meeting up there for a long weekend at some point. Anyway! I’m sorry the city did not live up to your expectations – but good grief, do they charge for/move/change everything? I mean, seriously – removing the statue? requiring excessive fees to access what should be public areas (e.g., the lighthouse)? I would probably be in your camp on this one – the city seems appealing from an aesthetic point of view but maybe not in other ways? e.g., learning, accessibility, connecting visitors with the past in a way that draws them in?
    I’d be so interested to hear from people who love Savannah, to see what they actually, well, love about it. (The heat, I admit, would be a huge draw for me, ha! I bet no magic bags were required on this vacation…)

    1. We really enjoyed Charleston (and my sister, who lives about 1.5 hours from both cities, exclusively goes to Charleston)…and definitely thought it had more to offer us than Savannah.
      You’re right – NO MAGIC BAGS the whole trip. I really appreciated how well my sister balanced AC in her home. Typically I freeze to death because of AC in warmer locations, but it was just very comfortable and relatively warm inside (but not so warm it wasn’t still a huge relief from the heat outside). Perfect!

  12. I forgot to ask about the pralines. I have 1/year when on St. Simons Island, GA, and that’s just right for me. It’s the architecture that makes me love Savannah, but we usually only do an annual daytrip, which is enough. Another city that must be experienced on foot!

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