From ghostly scares to southern grub: Top 10 things to do in Savannah, GA
Known for antebellum architecture, moss-hung oaks that line perfectly manicured squares, and food (glorious, Southern-fried food!), Savannah, Georgia, is a city that doesn't shy away from its past.
Whether you’re stifling a scream on a ghost tour or stuffing your face in a pub converted from an old cotton warehouse on River Street, Savannah makes exploring history fun (and occasionally frightening). This is a city where the ghosts of debutantes and Civil War soldiers mingle, where the fanciful facades of centuries-old mansions belie the grisly murders that took place within, and where seagulls will steal the fried shrimp from right off your plate on the waterfront, if you’re not extra vigilant. Ready to stroll, cycle, jog, or paddle your way through Savannah and her natural surroundings? Here’s what you can’t miss:
1. Indulge in Southern Classics
If you like your chicken fried and your meatloaf, uh, meaty, head to Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, a Savannah culinary institution since 1943, on elegant Jones Street. This is about as “Southern” as southern food gets: think okra gumbo, black-eyed peas, sweet tea, and buckets of biscuits, all served family-style. Seating is family-style, too, with 10 to a table—so we hope you don’t mind rubbing greasy elbows (thanks to all that fried chicken) with strangers. Finish off with something sweet at Leopold’s Ice Cream. It’s no coincidence that the place looks like an old-school ice cream parlor from a classic movie—Academy Award-nominated set designer Dan Lomino worked his Hollywood magic on Leopold’s interior, so your Rum Raisin cone comes with a touch of Tinseltown glam.
2. Stroll or Cycle Through Forsyth Park
Work off your southern food coma with a jaunt through Forsyth Park (the park you’re most likely to spy on a kitschy Savannah postcard). The park’s more-than-a-century-old cast iron fountain, wide foot paths lined with shade-throwing (no, not that kind of shade) old oaks, and the bright yellow trolleys rumbling past combine for something much prettier than a postcard. Rent a bike and make a sport of dodging pedestrians as you cycle around the fountain. Or, lace up your sneakers and explore the 1.8-mile running trail that makes a figure-eight loop through the park. Starting at the corner of Bull and Gaston streets, you’ll veer right past the fountain, jog around the Confederate Memorial, and drip sweat outside the stately mansions on the park’s surrounding streets.
3. Revel on River Street
Time to get rowdy on River Street, ya’ll. You’ll find Savannah’s best nightlife options down by the river, where small brew pubs snuggle up to avant-garde art galleries, duelling piano bars, and seafood-heavy restaurants. Come for a beer, but stay for the light display. On the first Friday of every month, fireworks explode over the river, delighting taffy-chewing kiddos (or scaring the crap out of the River Street revelers who’ve had one too many at Spanky’s).
4. Explore Savannah’s Dark Side on a Ghost Tour
Savannah doesn’t take its reputation as “the most haunted city in America” lightly—and neither do the ghosts. See for yourself on “The Dead of Night” ghost tour, which is so scream-inducing it’s reserved for the 16-and-older crowd only. You’ll learn about Savannah’s sinister history, including mass burial grounds, murders, and the most haunted grave sites in the utterly creepy Bonaventure Cemetery (that is, if you’re not too busy trying to figure out how to shield both your eyes and ears at the same time). If you’ve got kids in tow (or you’re just a wuss when it comes to all things paranormal, no judgement here), try the slightly-less-spooky “Tales From the Grave” ghost tour. You’ll get a taste of Savannah’s most famous hauntings served up in a sunnier style.
5. Beach It Up on Tybee Island
Drive 20 minutes east of Savannah and you’ll forget all about the things that go bump—or “boo!”—in the night. Instead, you can soak up some serious sun on Tybee Island, a barrier island whose 5 miles of sea oat-covered sand dunes are totally Instagram-worthy—and even prettier when spotted from above via parasail. Tybee has a lot of great, calm spots on the water for stand up paddleboarding, but if you really want to get your heart racing and your bathing suit wet, take a surfing lesson. Catch some waves near the north jetty on North Beach, and if you fall off your board, don’t feel bad. You may end up swimming with some Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, which are often spotted here.
6. Kayak on the Savannah River
If you’ve always dreamed of being in two places at once (a la Mandy Moore in the modern cinematic masterpiece “A Walk to Remember”), here’s your chance, since the Savannah River actually forms much of the border between Georgia and South Carolina. The best way to explore this state-straddling body of water? Via kayak. Rent one and strike out on your own or join a tour through outfitters like Savannah Canoe and Kayak, Moon River Kayak, and Sea Kayak Georgia. Watch out for eagles and ospreys above and manatees and otters below as you paddle through the marshes and estuaries that make up this serene part of the Low Country.
7. Colonial Park Cemetery
Be prepared to nurse a case of the willies when you visit Colonial Park Cemetery, whose long history isn’t exactly a happy one. The cemetery was first built in 1750, and less than a 100 years later it became the final resting place for the more than 600 victims of Savannah’s great yellow fever epidemic of 1820. However, the poor souls couldn’t “rest” for long; many of the graves were desecrated by Sherman’s Union Army in 1864. See if you can spot the subtle changes Union soldiers made to some of the headstones. For example, thanks to the soldiers’ tricks, it appears that one man lived for 421 years, while it looks like another was born 1,000 years before his own father.
8. Hunt for Treasures in the Alex Raskin Antiques
The inside of the Noble Hardee Mansion on Monterey Square, Savannah’s last unrestored grand mansion that’s still standing, resembles a particularly genteel episode of “Hoarders.” The decrepit mansion now houses Alex Raskin Antiques, but the antique shop feels more like a museum than a store. Hand-painted 18th-century French wallpaper, 150-year-old wooden floors, and 15 fireplaces give visitors a taste of the high life experienced by the city’s once flourishing high society. Be extra careful as you make your way through the jumbled maze of antiques, since many pedigreed items come with a hefty price tag to match—one 18th-century writing desk at the shop costs a whopping $45,000.
9. Hike Wormsloe Battery Trail
What do Miley Cyrus and the Civil War have in common? Wormsloe, a historic plantation nestled in a coastal forest less than 10 miles from Savannah. The plantation served as the location of both Miley’s 2010 movie “The Last Song” AND the construction of a Civil War-era Confederate fort (which has more historical significance? Only time will tell). After driving beneath a dreamy, sigh-inducing canopy of more than 400 moss-strewn old oaks, begin your hike in the complex’s parking lot. The trail’s 3.3-mile hike will take you past tabby ruins, the plantation family’s gravesite, and the 20-foot-tall Confederate earthworks, constructed in 1861.
10. Take a Day Trip to Cumberland Island National Seashore
Wild horses, ivy-covered abandoned mansions, and the ghost of Robert E. Lee’s father—Cumberland Island National Seashore has everything you never even knew you wanted in a beach getaway (but are now totally psyched about). Located on Georgia’s southern coast about an hour’s drive from Savannah, the island is only accessible by boat. Catch a ferry over from St. Mary’s, and pack a lunch since there are no restaurants on the island. The famous (and famously filthy rich) Carnegie family once had an estate on Cumberland Island, and when they left in 1925, they let their horses roam free. You can spot the equine descendants munching sea oats by the sea shore today. General Lee’s father, Lighthouse Harry, passed away on the island, and John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were wed in a one-room church here. Historical significance aside, the island is just plain beautiful. See for yourself on the two-mile hike that snakes through the scrub and shore.