Savannah, Georgia, is steeped in history and charm, and you will have no lack of things to do while spending a long weekend in this historic city. Savannah is one of Georgia’s oldest towns, dating back to 1733 when British settlers first arrived. Savannah became the seat of government for the new colony of Georgia and eventually the state capital, a title it held until 1804 when it was moved to Midgeville and eventually to its current location in Atlanta.
Savannah ranks among one of my favorite US cities to visit. The combination of historical sites, outdoor activities, nearby beaches, and great places to eat, drink, and unwind make Savannah a great place to travel, whether alone or with friends or family. I also enjoy the walkability of Savannah. Most places of interest in town are within walking distance of each other, limiting the need to drive excessively during your vacation. If you are wondering what to do in Savannah, this article should give you some helpful hints and personal recommendations.
When To Visit Savannah
The spring and fall are peak tourist seasons with no shortage of things to do in Savannah. The days are summer-like, and the nights are still warm. I visited in April and coming from New England where it’s still very much winter, it was like a bit of magic to suddenly step into summer weather and seaside vibes.
Savannah’s Historic District
Savannah might be best known for its historic district, comprised of 22 squares. The squares are mini-parks, with benches for sitting and lounging, and plenty of Spanish moss strewn trees that add to the charm and block the direct sunlight, which can be downright brutal during the summer months. Many of the squares contain monuments, fountains, or other markers to commemorate the city’s historical significance.
Savannah’s squares were part of the original design of the city in 1733. At first, there were four public squares, surrounded by eight city blocks of similar size. Four of these blocks were residential, and the other four were civic. The square with its surrounding blocks made up a city unit called a ward, and by the late 18th century, Savannah had 24 of them, 22 of which survive today.
Visitors to Savannah can make an entire day of walking downtown from one square to the next, taking in the many historical, cultural, and commercial sites along the way.
Notable Squares in Savannah
If you begin your walking tour of Savannah’s historic district in the north end near the Savannah River, then Franklin Square might be the first square that you will want to visit. Before you start your sightseeing, head over to Bitty & Beau’s Coffee for a cup of java. If you are here in the afternoon, then definitely an iced java is in order. One note on this very unique coffee shop. Bitty & Beau’s is staffed by folks with developmental disabilities, many of whom would have difficulty finding an accommodating work environment elsewhere. So when you make a purchase here, it’s not just a cup of coffee and a bread product. You’re supporting someone’s ability to find a purpose and a place in the world. That might sound a bit grand, but as the parent of an autistic child, I can assure you it’s the truth.
At the center of Franklin Square is the Haitian Monument. Erected fairly recently in 2009, the monument pays homage to the Chasseurs-Volontaires, a military unit comprised of free colored men, or des gens de couleur libres, from the French colony of Saint Domingue. The gens de couleur were born free, giving them a higher social social and political class in the colony, but the military unit also contained some slaves that were promised their freedom upon completion of their military service.
The Chasseurs served as part of the French forces and fought alongside the Patriots in the American Revolution during the Siege of Savannah in the autumn on 1779. The attempt to retake the city from the British was one of the bloodiest battles of the war and ultimately ended in failure. US and French casualties topped 800. The Chasseurs are credited with forming a rear guard and allowing Colonial and French troops to retreat, preventing that number from climbing much higher. The battle is now part of Haitian history. The unit was comprised of many soldiers that would go on to form the officer class of rebel forces during its own revolution against the French in 1804. One of those was young Henri Christophe who served as a drummer boy in Savannah and would go on to become Haiti’s first king following the Haitian Revolution. He is depicted in the Franklin Square monument.
After visiting Franklin Square, walk through the open-air City Market.
Not all of Savannah’s squares are historic. A couple of them are fairly modern, including Ellis Square, known for its large water fountain that erupts from street level and serves as a splash pad for children (and adults) looking for a way to cool off in the hot, summer heat. It is located on the other side of the City Market. One of the original squares designed in 1733, Ellis Square was lost to development in 1954 when a parking garage was erected in it’s place. It was in 2005 that the city decided to re-create the square in a more modern fashion, recognizing that the historical significance was lost forever. The square also features shaded tables and a life-size chess set. A statue of Johnny Mercer, one of Savannah’s more notable residents and writer of the famous song Moon River, is also prominent on the square.
Chippewa Square is the filming location for the park bench scenes in the film Forest Gump
One of the most famous of Savannah’s squares is Chippewa Square, known as the filming location of the bus stop scenes in the Tom Hanks movie, Forrest Gump. Many changes to the square were made during and after the filming, but with a bit of imagination and an old photo frame from the movie, you can see where Gump sat, telling random strangers his life story. The best angle to visualize the film’s scenes is from north of the square on Bull Street, looking southward.
At the center of Chippewa Square is a statue of James Oglethorpe, who landed in Savannah along with the first European settlers in 1733. Oglethorpe is credited with the founding of the British colony of Georgia. Also surrounding the square is some notable architecture including the Savannah Theater, which has been in operation since 1818, and the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah.
The Mercer-Williams House is the scene of the crime in the non-fiction book Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil
Another Savannah square that has become famous due to Hollywood is Monterey Square. Adjacent to this park is the Mercer-Williams House that was the murder scene in the death of Danny Hansford. The home’s owner, Jim Williams, shot and killed Hansford in 1981 and the crime became the subject of the 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The story was retold in 1997 with the release of the Clint Eastwood film of the same name, starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey. The book and film together have been responsible for tremendous growth in tourism to Savannah. The book alone spurred a 46% increase in tourism two years after its release. I did not take a tour of the home during my visit, but they are available.
In the center of Monterey Square is the Casimir Pulaski monument, dedicated to the exiled Polish nobleman who fought for the Patriot cause during the American Revolution. Pulaski, recruited by Benjamin Franklin, achieved the rank of General and is known as the Father of the American Cavalry, having promoted the horse-mounted method of combat during the war. He was killed on October 11, 1779, during the Siege of Savannah. The Pulaski monument was begun in 1825, the cornerstone being laid in Chippewa Square by the Marquis de Lafayette himself while on a US tour commemorating the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution. However, funding dried up and it was another 30 years before the monument was completed after moving to Monterey Square. It was dedicated in 1855. Pulaski’s remains were moved and interred alongside the monument during its construction.
One of the best-preserved squares in Savannah, Calhoun Square is surrounded by original architecture from the 19th century, providing a snapshot of what Savannah might have looked like in the late 1800s. The Wesleyan Monumental Church is the prominent landmark, located on the western edge of the square. The remainder of the square is surrounded by Savannah-style row houses as well as the Massie Heritage Center, a schoolhouse-museum that focuses on Savannah’s history and offers multiple exhibits and classes to the public. Although lacking a large central monument like many other Savannah squares, Calhoun Square is located just three blocks from Savannah’s largest public green space, Forsythe Park.
At the center of this square is a statue of John Wesley, founder of the United Methodist Church. Like other squares in Savannah, it is complete with Spanish moss-draped trees and shaded park benches. However, it is what surrounds this park that captures the interest of many visitors.
Leopold’s Ice Cream is the place to get your favorite frozen treat while in town. They have been in operation for over a century, and enthusiasm has not died down yet. There used to be quite a line coming out of Leopold’s, but with the onset of COVID-19, the shop has established online ordering “TO-GO.” Although just about everything related to COVID is nothing but pure suck, we can at least be thankful for the elimination of long queues.
Also located on Reynolds Square is the Olde Pink House, one of Savannah’s landmark restaurants where visitors can go for a casual lunch or fine dining in the evening.
John Wesley Statue
The founder of the Methodist denomination is memorialized at the center of Reynolds Square.
This is another square best known for its surroundings. Adjacent to this park is the Telfair Academy and the Jepson Center for the Arts. Both are highly regarded museums in Savannah that feature works of fine art from regional and national artists. The famous Bird Girl statue featured on the cover of the book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was relocated to the Telfair museums from its original location in Bonaventure Cemetery following the release of the novel due to a sudden influx of tourism and concerns that the statue would become damaged.
Things to Do in Savannah’s Historic District
One could spend much of the day just walking the city, but there are other ways to experience Savannah. There are several tour operators in the historic district for those that want a more guided, or perhaps seated, experience. Bus tours, horse-drawn carriage, and even a pedal-pub tour are available. During my trip to Savannah, I opted to explore on foot, but it was quickly apparent that these other options were extremely popular. There was no shortage of trolleys, horse buggies, and leg-leveraged mobile bars cruising the historic district.
Old Town Trolley Tours
Photo by John Stavely / CC BY-ND 2.0
If you want to see as much of the city as possible in a limited amount of time, then this is a very appealing option. This is a hop-on, hop-off tour, meaning that riders can disembark the trolley at any one of 15 points of interest and explore, grab lunch, or hang out in one of the squares and then simply catch the next trolley when it arrives to continue the tour. Each trolley has a guide that narrates the experience and points out places of interest and historical facts.
I did not take this tour while in Savannah, however, Old Town Trolley Tours also operates in Boston, and I have taken the tour there, so I feel like I can recommend the experience, which has exactly the same format.
For those that want a more specialized experience, Old Town also offers its Ghosts & Gravestones nighttime tour. Your trolley conductor will spook you with tales of Savannah’s haunted history and your tour will stop for exclusive entry at two of the city’s more macabre sights, the Andrew Low House and Perkin’s & Sons Ship Chandlery. This would make a great after-dinner tour. Savannah is a great city, very beautiful, and one of my favorites. But it’s not a place that I would recommend exploring on your own after dark. This would be a fine way to avoid wandering off the beaten path at night.
Adding to the city’s charm are a number of horse-drawn carriages slowly clomping through the streets of the historic district. All vendors offer a narrated history tour and last about 45-60 minutes. This is a great option for couples celebrating a romantic getaway. Two popular options are Savannah Carriage Tours and Carriage Tours of Savannah.
Operators offer group tours in longer carriages of up to about 15 people, but the private tour seemed a lot more comfortable.
Pedal Pub Tours
For those looking for a fun way to experience the city and have a few drinks along the way, look no further than the Pedal Pub. Savannah’s open container law makes it possible to grab a seat at the bar and have the entire pub roll along the streets of the historic district for a two hour tour. A set of bicycle pedals is located under the bar stool and guests leg it out while a driver steers and provides narration of the sights. There is no alcohol served on the pub. Rather, the tour makes stops at 3-4 different local establishments along the way where riders can disembark, grab a drink, and hop back on again.
Photo by Ritchie Diesterheft / CC BY-SA 2.0
Savannah History Museum
Savannah is Georgia’s first settled town, established in 1733. That nearly 300 years of recorded history is kept at the Savannah History Museum. Learn how the area was planned and developed, listen to a reenactor from the Georgia militia talk about the town’s role in the American Revolution, stand next to a full-size locomotive, and see the park bench that Tom Hanks sat on in the movie Forest Gump.
Click HERE for a more detailed article on the Savannah History Museum
River Street is where the historic, southern charm stops and the party atmosphere begins. During the day, it is a fun place to grab lunch and a drink while listening to beach music being pumped through the speakers of open-air restaurants and bars. When the sun sets, it becomes a hub for Savannah’s vibrant nightlife scene. One fun fact is that Savannah has an open container law, so taking your favorite beverage for a walk is commonplace.
As you may have figured out by now, Savannah has no shortage of monuments, and River Street is home to one of the most famous of the towns statues. The Waving Girl statue is located near the mouth of the Savannah River and displays a young lady waving a large handkerchief as a greeting to incoming ships to the Port of Savannah. The statue is based on a real-life person, Florence Martus, who greeted every ship from 1887-1931. Click HERE for a short article on the Waving Girl statue (1 min read).
Photo by Neal Wellons / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Explore the artery that gave life to Savannah in the 18th century and continues to do so today. Savannah Riverboat Cruises offers a number of tours up and down the Savannah River, including lunch and dinner cruises, sunset and moonlight cruises, and narrated sightseeing cruises. Their boats are a throwback to the glory days of river travel, with huge paddle wheels and decorated ballrooms. Full bar and grill are available on all cruises.
I picked an Air Bnb half-way between downtown Savannah and the Tybee Island beaches during my stay in the low country, an area known as Thunderbolt. Traveling alone, I had no desire to rub elbows with the party-going masses. I just wanted a quiet bar where I could grab a meal, a beer, and some local knowledge from the bartender. A quiet neighborhood on Thunderbolt’s Whitemarsh Island proved to be a good choice.
Things To Do in Savannah’s Thunderbolt District
There are no celebrities or historical figures buried here, but Bonaventure Cemetery is still a popular destination for visitors. Historically, before urban development and the addition of public parks to a city’s amenities was widespread, the local graveyard served as a sort of public greenspace where local residents could enjoy being outside. To make the space more attractive, families would place ornate monuments and statues on the burial sites of their departed, and Bonaventure attracts many amateur photographers looking to get that perfect shot that balances beauty and macabre.
The cemetery is best known as the original location for the popular book cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, featuring the “Bird Girl” statue. The statue has since been relocated to the Telfair Academy museum due to its popularity.
Bonaventure’s most famous resident is Gracie Watson, who passed away in 1889 at the young age of six years old. Gracie’s family had moved from Boston to Savannah when her father was offered a position to manage the Pulaski Hotel, one of the finest hotels in the city. Gracie would often frequent the hotel lobby, bringing a bit of playfulness to the otherwise weary guests and staff that surrounded her. However, that changed in the spring of 1889 when she fell ill with pneumonia and died just two days before Easter Sunday. She was buried at Bonaventure Cemetery, in a large plot that was intended for her parents. A detailed, life-size statue of Gracie was placed atop her remains. Shortly thereafter, her heartbroken parents moved back to New England.
Visitors to Gracie Watson’s grave often bring small toys as gifts. Others throw coins and dollar bills over the fence. Maybe they want to provide some type of tribute to her, or perhaps they cast the cash in wishing-well like fashion, hoping that the same fate does not fall upon their own families. In any case, if you make it to Bonaventure, be sure to stop by and say hello.
For those interested in photographing Bonaventure, be sure to visit during the early morning or late afternoon as the sun provides better side-lighting and a more eerie feel. I went mid-day, and the harsh lighting washed out the character of the statues and monuments. At that hour, the dead were quite boring and I had to move on rather quickly.
Kayak & Jet Ski Rental
One of the activities that I really wanted to enjoy on my trip to Savannah was to paddleboard at the mouth of the Savannah River and see some of the resident dolphins. This family of dolphins is unique in their hunting, practicing a technique known as strand feeding. Several of the pod will form a line and chase fish right up onto the shore. The dolphins follow them, nearly “stranding” themselves on the beach as they devour their prey before wiggling themselves back into the water. Unfortunately, because my visit was at the earlier part of the season in April, and also due to a lack of planning on my part, there were none available. However, after a bit of scrambling, I was able to rent a kayak at Tybee Jet Ski & Kayak. This was a great paddling location near Tybee Island where kayakers could paddle all the way to the open Atlantic if they choose, or travel the opposite direction to the calm water of Lazaretto Creek. I did a bit of both but unfortunately did not see any dolphins. However, I was told that in the mid to late morning, dolphins follow the shrimp boats back to the dock in search of a free meal, so plan to get there a bit earlier than I had. But truthfully, it was my lack of planning that got in the way of my dolphin viewing. The best practice is to plan ahead and get a guided tour from a local outfitter who knows their feeding habits.
If you want guaranteed dolphin viewing, then a good option is to sign up for Captain Mike’s Dolphin Tours. Located at the same dock as Tybee Jet Ski & Kayak, this tour involves boarding a large passenger boat and motoring out to the dolphin pod. Although I opted to paddle, I was a bit jealous when a returning boat of passengers arrived and told me that they saw dozens of dolphins on their excursion.
Food & Drink in Thunderbolt
This small pub and pizzeria was located just a mile from my Air Bnb, and served up delicious Neapolitan style pizza and cold beer on tap (I always get Sweetwater 420 Extra Pale Ale when in Georgia). The pizza was thin crust, the way I like it. It’s a great place to chill after a long day in the Georgia sun. Recommended.
My second night landed me at Molly McGuires. It may not strike most visitors as a place to find an Irish Pub, but Savannah is a great place to be “going on the gargle.” That’s “out drinking” for the uninitiated. In fact, Savannah has one of the largest Saint Patrick’s Day parades in the United States, on par with Boston.
Molly’s has a large outdoor seating area and bar, as well as plenty of bar space indoors. I wanted something with a local flavor, and ordered the shrimp quesadillas. They were excellent, so much so that I’ve tried to replicate them at home over the past year, with some degree of success. There are many places to try in Savannah, but if you are looking for a laid back pub and grill, then I do recommend Molly’s.
Tybee Island is Savannah’s beachfront community. While it is its own town, it can be thought of as an extension of Savannah, just around the corner and certainly an attraction for those visiting the city. Tybee has a massive beachfront, fishing pier, and commercial district along the main strip that contains several restaurants, bars, and retail space to purchase beach chairs, sunscreen, etc.
While many seaside communities have seen their traditional beach cottages demolished and replaced by small mansions, Tybee retains the character of a quint and quirky oceanfront town. It’s a nice side-trip from Savannah when you want to enjoy a bit of the ocean. April was the perfect time to visit. The beaches weren’t crowded and the weather was hot enough to make me crave a bit of saltwater and ocean breeze.
Things To Do on Tybee Island
Not To Miss – Sunrise
A couple enjoys a sunrise stroll on the beach at Tybee Island
With eastward facing beaches, Tybee is the perfect place to catch the sunrise. I woke up early to get a glimpse and was not disappointed. With an entire beach to yourself, you can enjoy a morning walk as the sun peeks over the horizon for a great start to your day. Bring a cup of coffee from wherever you are staying. No coffee shop is open early enough to accommodate sunrise. However, if you need a cup after your stroll on the beach, head on over Tybean Art & Coffee Bar where you can pick up your favorite specialty brew. I got a plain cup of coffee, nothing fancy, but all of that is available.
Tybee Island Lighthouse
Georgia’s tallest lighthouse stands at 145 feet tall and is open to visitors six days per week. Your admission ($10 for adults) gets you access to the lighthouse grounds, tower, and the Tybee Museum located across the street. The lighthouse tower is 178 steps to the top, where you will be able to see most of Tybee as well as large cargo ships entering and exiting the busy Port of Savannah.
Touring Tybee Island can easily be accomplished by bicycle. Besides Butler Avenue, the main strip that runs along the beachfront, the roads are mostly residential neighborhoods with slow-moving traffic and very few blind corners. The grid layout of the streets is a perfect design for bicycle riding. Several options for bike rentals can be found along Butler Avenue as well as on the north side of the island near the Tybee Island Lighthouse. Many rental shops have free delivery anywhere on the island.
- Tim’s Beach Gear rents cruiser-style bicycles as well as other necessities for a day in the sun (umbrellas, beach chairs, towels, etc.). Their island north location is great for picking up a bike and cruising the neighborhood near the Tybee Island Lighthouse, while their location on Butler Avenue is suited for exploring the southside beaches and fishing pier.
- Tybee Island Bike Rental is a garage-based operation that delivers gear to your location. Give them a call and let them know where you are. Pedal out from your hotel, AirBnb, or restaurant parking lot. Their website needs some work, they do not take online orders. However, they get great reviews, and as a fellow garage-preneur, thought they should get a shout-out.
Food & Drink
The Crab Shack
One of the more popular restaurants on Tybee, the Crab Shack features the region’s signature meal – the Low Country Boil. Consisting of boiled shrimp, crab, mussels, and clams, along with potatoes, corn, and sausage, this dish is great for families and groups looking for a casual seafood fix. The Crab Shack makes managing the shells easy, too. Most tables sit over a trash barrel and have a hole in the middle where diners can simply toss the shells and napkins as they eat.
I went to AJ’s because they advertised stand-up paddleboard rentals. As I mentioned, I was looking to get out on the water for a bit. However, I arrived a bit too early in the season and they were still in storage when I arrived. But I decided to stay for lunch, anyway.
AJ’s is located on the backside of Tybee Island, overlooking one of the many tidal creeks that interlace the land between Savannah and the Atlantic Ocean. There is plenty of outdoor seating at umbrella-covered tables and the menu is decidedly pub-style casual. I was not in the mood for fried fish, so I ordered a burger that was quite tasty. If you are in the mood for a quirky fish-house, I’d recommend coming here. It was worth the visit. Just don’t plan on ordering anything too healthy.
Savannah is definitely a place I plan to visit again. Being from the north, I love the early spring weather that I usually can’t enjoy until late in June. The walkability of the town is fantastic, and the variety of historic and outdoor activities makes for a great long weekend. I’d highly recommend heading here on your next getaway.
If you have any planning questions, feel free to email me at [email protected], or post your questions and comments below.
12/14/2020 - UPDATE: Due to COVID-19, Gasparilla Parade of Pirates will be postponed until April 17, 2021. I'll see...
Featured Image courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium Clearwater, Florida, is best known for its deep, white sand...