Savannah’s charm extends to Bonaventure Cemetery, which was featured in the book and movie, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." Photo courtesy of Visit Savannah

Walkable Wonder

Savannah offers history galore, art and inventive Low Country cuisine

By Michael J. Solender

Less than a four-hour drive from Ballantyne, Georgia’s “first city” offers a charming spring getaway for those who love to explore.

Savannah is an eminently walkable place. Its historic district has a village-like feel that encourages lazy walks under big oaks adorned with Spanish moss. There are also resplendent public squares and parks as well as architectural styles from simple Georgian and Federal designs to the more elaborate Gothic, Greek and Romanesque Revival.

With its notable terra cotta exterior, Mansion on Forsyth Park has an engaging history and extensive art collection. Photo courtesy of Mansion on Forsyth Park

There’s no finer accommodation to anchor a Savannah stay than the storied Mansion on Forsyth Park, Autograph Collection. The original Romanesque manse was built in the late 1800s as a private residence. In its next incarnation, the terra cotta landmark served as a mortuary and home to the city’s most respected undertaker before being reborn as a luxury hotel.

Directly across from the city’s expansive Forsyth Park, the mansion is home to 126 rooms, an extensive Expressionist and Impressionist art collection and a vintage ladies’ hat display (1860s to 1960s). Design accents include bold chandeliers, Roman columns and a stately Bosendorfer grand piano. Cooking classes offer an excursion into farm-to-table cuisine, led by executive chef and Michelin-starred culinary wizard Shahin Afsharian.

Savannah  rewards curiosity. Backstories and fascinating culture are around every corner.

The movie “Forrest Gump” showed Forsyth Park Fountain, built more than 150 years ago.

Historic District

Savannah is Georgia’s oldest city, founded in 1733 by British philanthropist and Parliament member Gen. James Oglethorpe. Widely considered “America’s first planned city,” Savannah was organized into grids. Twenty-two public squares and parks dot the compact historic district alone. Thirty-acre Forsyth Park serves as a central gathering place and one of the best people-watching spots in the Southeast.

The fabled Forsyth Park Fountain, built more than 150 years ago, is an iconic landmark and meeting place. The park has served as an inspiration or backdrop for many novels and films, including “Forrest Gump.”

More than 40 percent of the 2,500 buildings inventoried in Savannah have architectural or historical significance, according to the Savannah Historical Foundation. Two of the most striking structures highlight Savannah’s rich and diverse religious background.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is often referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of the South.” This French Gothic stunner is open daily for public visits. Its origin dates to the late 1700s when French emigres established a parish there. Notable features include soaring arched ceilings, elaborate stained-glass windows, carefully crafted stations of the cross and a massive, balconied pipe organ.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is called the "Sistine Chapel of the South." Photo courtesy of Visit Savannah
The beauty of the historic district includes ivy-covered walls and a variety of trees. Photo courtesy of Visit Savannah, by Dylan Wilson
The city is known for interesting residential architecture. Photo courtesy of Visit Savannah

The second structure, about a mile from the cathedral, is Congregation Mickve Israel. The Gothic revival sanctuary built in 1878 is home today to more than 400 Reform Jewish families. The congregation has roots extending back to 1733, and the site’s museum celebrates centuries of Jewish life in the South. A deerskin Torah scroll dating back to the late 1400s is among the congregation’s most precious artifacts.

One of Savannah’s most visited, and hauntingly beautiful, destinations remains the Bonaventure Cemetery. It has a prominent role in the quintessential Savannah novel and film, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

In-the-know locals also love strolling through Colonial Park Cemetery, a less frequented yet equally worthy destination. Established in 1750, the heavily tree-canopied park is the final resting place for many of Savannah’s earliest citizens and a popular stop on many of the city’s ghost tours.

The nearby Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, Savannah’s first designated National Historic Landmark, is the one-time home of the founder of the Girl Scouts. House tours provide a fascinating look at this American icon. The Regency-style mansion was designed by William Jay and features a columned portico, double staircase and lovely Victorian garden.

Husk restaurant has made a name for itself by adding creative touches to traditional Southern food. Photo courtesy of Husk and Andrew Cebulka

Low Country Dining with Flair

Savannah’s culinary scene is exploding. Here, innovative takes on traditional Low Country dining bring flavor with flair to the forefront.

Chef Blake Young at 700 Drayton is garnering raves with his mastery of spice blends and light twists on Southern favorites like pork chops and chicken and waffles. Dinner at 700 Drayton, located in Mansion on Forsyth Park, means top-drawer service and elegant surroundings. Breakfast is notable too, as Young elevates avocado toast to an ethereal level.

Savannah’s newest star eatery is The Grey. Its nouvelle Southern dishes shine — such as chicken liver mousse tart with onion jelly and braised rabbit with spaetzle, mushrooms and parsley. Set in a renovated Greyhound bus station, this popular nightspot delivers with thoughtful cocktails and a well-trained staff.

At Husk, Chef Chris Hathcock, a Savannah native, uses the freshest available bounty from area farms to create distinctive Southern dishes that have made Husk worthy of its accolades. The menu changes almost daily, but diners can count on staples like pimento cheese with benne seed wafers; local greens with smoked trout; watermelon radish, egg and everything grains; and Husk’s famed fried chicken.

Having a cocktail on the rooftop bar at Rocks on the Roof is a great way to watch the sunset over the Savannah River and the city’s bustling River Street shopping district. For local suds, Service Brewing Co. crafts some of the area’s tastiest ales and lagers. Owned by a veteran, the microbrewery is “dedicated to honoring those that have put their lives at risk and their country and community first,” notes the company’s website.

Savannah College of Art and Design

South Charlotte resident Chanda Antoon and her husband, Jay, have visited Savannah several times over the past few years, enjoying the history, dining, shopping and Southern style of the city.

“Our last visit was in June of 2018,” says Chanda. “Our daughter was in a summer camp at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), and we loved bike riding through the historic district.”

Chanda suggests visitors take in the SCAD Museum of Art gift shop for special and uniquely designed artwork. “It’s an absolute must,” she says. “There is fabulous photography, textiles, paintings, sculpture and lovely gift items for the home. The SCAD Museum is a wonderful showcase of contemporary artists and well worth a visit.”

Savannah is a place that rewards curiosity; backstories and fascinating culture are around every corner. There’s no hurried pace in what some call the “Hostess City of the South.” Savannah is a city to be savored.

Visitors stop at Savannah College of Art and Design to view contemporary artwork, some of which is available in the gift shop. Photo by Geoff Photography