About those cobblestones that pave River Street, Savannah’s well-known street that anchors the Historic District. The big rocks come from all over the globe, most notably France, Spain and England. The stones were originally used for balancing the cargo load on the steady stream of ships that sailed up the Savannah River in the early days of the city. The balance stones or ballast stones — chert, quartz, granite and basalt among them — were collected from a ship’s departure point and then tossed out at the unloading sites at the harbor of River Street before being cobbled together as the base for streets, sidewalks and even the foundations of churches, businesses and homes. When you walk on River Street, you walk on the world.
Savannah’s grand architecture, with generous helpings of Gothic, Georgian, Victorian, Greek Revival, Italianate, Colonial, Regency and Federal masterpieces, spans the pre-Revolution period to the antebellum years to Reconstruction in the post-Civil War era. The Historic District is crammed with red brick, wrought iron, stucco, wood and even tabby, the so-called coastal concrete that’s a mix of lime, water and oyster shells. The architecture is an authentication of Savannah’s global past, a distinctive sliver of its character.
If Savannah has a signature, other than its famed flora, it’s those treasured historic squares, the whole of them laid out in the Historic District much like the stitched-together fragments of a colorful, old patchwork quilt. There are 22 of them now, down from the original of 24, and their uniqueness sets Savannah apart from all other cities in the South.
Each is different from the other, but in most you’ll find the requisite statues and fountains, iron-and-wooden benches and gobs of pigeons surrounded by moss-drizzled oaks, gardens of tulips, sweetly scented magnolias and omnipresent azaleas. The best way to see them is by slow stroll, but Savannah is also a hotbed of tour companies offering horse-drawn carriage or trolley rides if you’re not up to walking.
From the oldest of Johnson Square, designed in 1733, to the youngest of Whitefield Square, created in 1851, each of the squares offers a unique component, if not a complement, to Savannah’s shady, verdant Historic District.
All 22 squares tell spellbinding stories of Savannah’s past and offer one-of-a-kind experiences. The Kehoe House, a stunning red brick home converted into a luxury bed-and-breakfast inn, is on Columbia Square, while you can get your culture fix of Telfair Square by visiting Telfair Museum of Art and Jepson Center for the Arts. Franklin Square, named after the kite-flying Benjamin Franklin, was designed in 1791 and contains First African Baptist Church and the western end of Savannah City Market, a popular spot for shopping.
Among the best-known squares is Chippewa Square, made famous by the movie “Forrest Gump.” The square was designed in 1815 and commemorates the Battle of Chippewa in the War of 1812. Its centerpiece is a statue of General James Edward Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Georgia in 1733. There’s also Johnson Square, the largest and oldest square named for Robert Johnson, the Royal Governor of South Carolina when Georgia was founded. Savannah City Hall and Christ Episcopal Church line its parameters.
The oak-dotted Monterey Square dates to 1847 and was named to commemorate the 1846 Battle of Monterey during the Mexican-American War. Fans of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” the book and the movie, will recognize the stunning Italianate mansion of the Mercer Williams House Museum, where antiques dealer Jim Williams once lived and where he shot Danny Hansford, his alleged paramour. Let the stunning collection of antiques draw you into the home and not the scandal that rocked Savannah for so many years.
Where to sleep
A number of old mansions and townhouses, some dating to the 18th century, have been transformed into inns to keep up with the startling number of tourists who come to Savannah (the latest numbers for 2021 hover at 15 million).
A Savannah favorite is the Ballastone Inn, an elegant Historic District property built in 1838 that sits on land dating to the original settlement of Savannah. The Ballastone, a former private mansion crammed with wonderful period furnishings, also has an antique bar and a cozy courtyard. It’s a beautiful retreat for old-fashioned romantic adventures combined with a full gourmet breakfast. Also among the grand former mansions are The Jules on Chippewa Square, built in 1870 but opened as an inn in 2019, and the Mansion on Forsyth Park, known for its Victorian-Romanesque architecture.
The Historic Inns of Savannah is a collection of six inns peppered around the Historic District, including the Marshall House, Gastonian, Kehoe House, East Bay Inn, Olde Harbour Inn and Eliza Thompson House. They are all pretty, historic and laden with great stories, some with ghosts, from the 1800s until now.
Where to eat
My favorite meal in all of Savannah is the shrimp and grits at the stunning rose-colored Olde Pink House, also in the Historic District. The dish is constructed of cheddar-infused stoneground grits cakes, then smothered and covered with country ham gravy and sweet, plump shrimp and complemented with collard greens. It’s where Southern cuisine meets seafood, and paired with a cup of she-crab soup, it’s a masterpiece on a plate. Anything on the menu is a good choice, from flounder to filet mignon, but the shrimp and grits takes Lowcountry dining to an entirely new level.
Vic’s on the River is in an old cotton warehouse on River Street and remains a favorite for romantic dinners for locals and visitors alike. Try the French onion soup with an entrée of fried chicken, shrimp or oysters. For a singular experience, mosey on over to Alligator Soul, where the namesake reptile is served candied (yes, you read that right), in tempura or risotto, and even in a red pepper jam. Seriously, this gorgeous restaurant with its red brick archways and wooden bar serves outstanding fare from seafood and steaks to ostrich and kangaroo.
Sample tender takeout barbecue at Randy’s Bar-B-Q that’s in an old gas station, Sly’s Sliders and Fries for possibly the best fries you’ll ever eat, the much-loved Vinnie Van Go Go’s for pizza, or open-only-on-weekends Back in the Day Bakery for biscuits, cupcakes, cookies and pound cake.
With all of Savannah’s architectural beauty, flower-filled squares, tree-lined streets and Southern cuisine galore, candied alligator included, it’s the perfect place for love to bloom.
IF YOU GO
Visit Savannah, on the web at www.visitsavannah.com or by phone at 877-SAVANNAH (877-728-2662), is a treasure trove of information on Savannah’s history, things to do, restaurants and accommodations. Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport is served by all major U.S. carriers and Air Canada. The Historic Inns of Savannah is found on the web at www.historicinnsofsavannah.com. Visit the Ballastone Inn at www.ballastone.com, the Jules at www.thejulessavannah.com, and the Mansion on Forsyth Park at www.kesslercollection.com.