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.
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.
*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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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?)
- 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:
- 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.
- 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?