When most people think of Savannah, of the old mansions and historic homes, of the drooping, moss-draped live oaks, and of the squares and the fountains and monuments, they are thinking of its Historic District.
The Historic District, a little over a mile square running southwards from the river, preserves the oldest and many of the most beautiful and interesting parts of Savannah, where much of its history – both good and bad – was played out.
Here are many of the city’s historic homes and its museums, its old churches and synagogues, the cobbled 19th-century riverfront — relics of Savannah’s colonial past and the later trades in slaves and cotton upon which much of the city based its wealth.
Here too are all the cultural sites and amenities that bring Savannah into the modern day: restaurants and cafes; places to shop, from small boutiques to larger stores; galleries; theaters and art museums; and the redeveloped Ellis Square.
Read on for more information about planning your trip to Savannah, the history of this beautiful city and its people, and ideas for what to see and do while you are visiting.
Most of Savannah is now divided into a patchwork of historic districts intended to preserve the character of its 19th and 20th century neighborhoods. The main and most famous one, The Historic District, is its National Landmark Historic District, designated in 1966 and then, and still, one of the largest historic preservation areas ever established in the United States.
So what exactly does it preserve? Primarily, it encapsulates the area of Savannah’s original, and unique, city plan.
When James Oglethorpe and his colonists founded Savannah in 1733, Oglethorpe set out a scheme by which the city would grow according to a system of wards. One of America’s earliest and most distinctive plans, Savannah’s design also allowed for numerous squares – today landscaped as small but beautiful parks – laid out every few blocks along the city’s principal streets.
Each ward had 40 “tything” lots for houses and 4 larger “trust” lots for public and civic buildings arranged around a central square. A new ward and square could be added whenever the city’s growth made it necessary.
Oglethorpe’s plan was conceived to further the egalitarian ideals of the Georgia colonists, with equal sized lots for houses, and spaces for communal and government buildings (larger farming and garden lots were set out on the then outskirts of the city). It also had to meet the practical needs of a frontier colony for defense, the squares intended as places to gather in case of outside attack.
The precise origins of the plan are unknown. Speculation as to its inspiration ranges widely, from military encampments or the squares of London to an old plan of Beijing.
What is known for certain is that Savannah was one of the few American cities laid out according to a consistent plan over such a long stretch of time. Oglethorpe’s scheme was to guide the growth of Savannah for over 100 years.
Today, the squares and the districts that grew up around them have very different characters: some more modern and some more traditional; some squares surrounded by the grandest homes and buildings, and others by quiet residential streets.
They are unified by a later-added component of Savannah’s urban landscape that adds as much to its beauty and character as do the squares of Oglethorpe’s plan: its trees, the hundreds of live oaks hung with moss, interspersed with hundreds more still of other ornamental species, for which Savannah has long and justly been known as “the Forest City”.
River Street, running alongside the Savannah River, marks the northern limit of the Historic District. Once at the center of Savannah’s shipping and commerce, it is now a thriving area of shops, bars and restaurants, popular with tourists who want to enjoy its promenade and river views.
Moving southwards from River Street and parallel Bay Street are many of Savannah’s larger stores. Ellis Square, with a visitor center, play fountain and the adjacent City Market, is another favorite destination. Nearby is Telfair Square, where you can visit the Telfair Academy of Art or the contemporary collections at the Jepson Center.
Running from Bay Street down to Forsyth Park is Savannah’s historic promenade, Bull Street. Many of Savannah’s most beautiful squares, each with monuments to the city’s historical and military figures, are here.
Around or near the Bull Street squares are some of Savannah’s most notable buildings and landmarks. Historic places of worship include the synagogue of the Congregation Mickve Israel, one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the country, and the Independent Presbyterian Church, which featured in the film Forrest Gump.
Historic homes include the famous Mercer-Williams House (seen or read about in Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil), the Green-Meldrim House, where General Sherman stayed during his Civil War occupation of Savannah, and the birthplace of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low.
Forsyth Park itself, one of the earliest and prettiest urban parks in the United States, is the final and largest “square” in the Bull Street series. At the center of the park’s northern portion is the well-known fountain that graces the front of many Savannah travel guides.
Around the park and the streets in the south of the Historic District are many fine examples of late-19th-century brick and wood frame architecture, with particular highlights being the streets between Chatham and Pulaski Squares, to the northwest of Forsyth Park, and to its northeast, the “gingerbread” style frame houses around the vicinity of Whitefield Square.
Heading back northwards along Abercorn Street, you can see Lafayette Square, home to the imposing and beautiful Cathedral of St John the Baptist, and Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah’s 18th-century burial ground.
In the northeast of the Historic District are some of Savannah’s quieter, more residential squares. Many of the homes here are inspired by northern styles.
In the 19th century, the busy port and wharves nearby made this the district of choice for seamen and Savannah’s many Irish laborers. Among the area’s larger historic homes are the Owens-Thomas and Davenport Houses.
Savannah is a highly walkable city, and is often best experienced on foot to allow a full appreciation of its squares and views and architecture.
The entire Historic District, within which most of the city’s major sights are located, is only around a mile wide by a little more than a mile deep. As so many of Savannah’s attractions are close together (often only a few blocks), it usually makes more sense to walk than to drive between them.
Drivers should also note that many of Savannah’s streets are one-way, which can make navigation more difficult. Tour buses and carriages add to downtown traffic problems, particularly in peak season.
Many commercial tour operators offer guided tours of the city. Contact the Visitor Information Center, either in person at 301 Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard, or call on 912-944-0455, for more information about tours available during your stay. Walking tours and ghost tours are amongst the most popular.
Although the Historic District is the focus of most visitors’ time in Savannah, several other neighborhoods and designated historic districts are of interest too.
The Victorian District, immediately south of the National Landmark Historic District and centered around the lower half of Forsyth Park, offers many excellent examples of late-nineteenth-century architecture, historic buildings, and several popular dining establishments.
Further south is the Thomas Square Streetcar Historic District, primarily residential but now home to the developing Starland District. Named for the historic Starland Dairy, the district offers galleries and arts events, vintage and boutique shopping, and a range of cafés, bars and restaurants, plus one of Savannah’s several local breweries.
South of Savannah is the Moon River District. Nestled amidst beautiful salt marshes and creeks, the district offers several attractions, including the popular Pin Point Heritage Museum, Wormsloe Plantation and the charming riverside community of Isle of Hope.