In 1974 my Dad moved from New York to a small town called Wilmington, just outside of Savannah, Georgia. With him was his wife and what would later become my half sister, who was then 2 years old. They moved into his Mother and Father in law’s home on a large oak tree lined property along the Wilmington River until they could get on their feet.
My Dad, an up and coming piano player and his wife would perform folk music in a restaurant on River St. in downtown Savannah. To make ends meet he held side jobs like working in the shrimp market and managing a radio shack. My sister remembers setting daily crab traps off the dock behind their house and Dad playing piano for the neighbors.
A couple years later my Dad left Savannah to move to California. He would eventually meet my Mom and have me.
Still frustrated by not “making it” as a musician in NYC he and my Mom started performing rhythm and blues together in San Diego. They recorded his first album around 1980. It was called, Savannah Showtime. The first song on the album entitled “Sweet Mary Blues” was based on a old woman he cleaned shrimp next to in that Georgia shrimp market.
It was that story that led me to Savannah.
A tour guide through Savannah
Savannah was America’s first planned city. Founded in 1733 it’s laid out in a series of squares and parks lined with rows of live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss (which I’m told is neither Spanish nor moss). Out of the 24 original squares, 22 still exist today.
In addition to the Oak trees you can find Palmetto and Magnolia trees and an interesting phenomenon called the resurrection fern – a fern that remains grey and shriveled until the rain comes, turning it bright green and causing it to unravel and wrap all around the branches and trunks of the Oak trees.
My visit took place in April. Usually, a nice time of the year to go, to avoid heat and humidity. This particular weekend was unseasonably cold however and I laughed at the fact that I had to wear the only pair of pants and long sleeves I brought everyday of my trip.
Never the less I enjoyed my stay. The city is extremely walkable and there is a trolley you can hop on and off anytime as well in order to get around.
Here are my recommendations for Savannah….
If you are going to go, do yourself a favor and stay somewhere in walking distance of downtown. You are going to be walking around down there a lot. There are many lovely bed and breakfasts to choose from and nice hotels. I opted for a retro motel with a little more personality and a cheaper price tag.
The Thunderbird Inn – This 60’s roadside style motel offers modest rooms blocks from downtown. It’s kitschy service offers RC cola and moonpies upon arrival and a variety of retro candies in the lobby. Crispy cream donuts are set out every morning for breakfast and do wop music pumps through the hallways. Me being the healthy locavore that I am skipped the junk food amenity but it was charming never the less and fit the brand.
Food & Booze
Although you will find primarily low country cuisine in Savannah there are some elevated versions of it as well as some out of the box thinkers that step outside grits and fried food. This city is always a flurry of tourists so make sure you make dinner reservations well in advance.
Cotton & Rye – This was one of my favorite dinners in town. The house-made rye bread, cornmeal fried chicken livers and the local fish of the day were all very tasty and the service was on point.
The Vault – This old bank turned hip, pan-asian restaurant is an excellent choice when you want a release from rich low country cooking. I recommend their chicken lettuce wraps, tuna tartare and spicy Korean BBQ tacos. They offer a complete sushi menu as well.
The Grey – Originally a 1980’s art deco bus terminal. If you can’t score a resi stop by and have some snacks during happy hour at the bar. They have specials on oysters and wine and offer snacks like fried croquettes and pickled eggs.
The Olde Pink House – Touristy but fun. When first built in the 1700s this house was originally considered a mansion because it had a laundry room included in the basement (a luxury most homes did not have at that time). It later went on to become a bank and then a tea room before reincarnating into The Olde Pink House Restaurant in 1992. Here you can find refined low country classics such as she crab soup and fried quail over black eyed pea and corn succotash.
Garibaldi – Old school Italian steakhouse. We sat at the bar and had great service. Our bartenders were from Philly and Jersey and had us in stitches the entire time.
39 Rue de Jean – French brasserie classics like French onion soup, crispy sweetbreads and frisee lyonnaise. Unexpected sushi menu with inventive options like foie gras nigiri. High end service.
The Atlantic – Good luck getting in. This place fills up fast. They do have a great patio out front however where we enjoyed a glass of rose sitting around a fire pit watching customers play Jenga.
Treylor Park – Kitschy “white trash” trailer park theme restaurant with nice little beer garden out back. Craft beer and comfort food.
Pinkie Master’s – After scouring downtown for a good dive bar we finally came across Pinkie Master’s. Say hi to Matt (the owner), relax with a tall PBR and hear all about the tumultuous history of this local favorite bar. Don’t let Google and Yelp fool you this place is NOT permanently closed. It’s alive and well at 318 Drayton St.
The Forsyth Farmers Market – Every Saturday on the southside of the park from 9am to 1pm you can find local farms and vendors such as…
- Gruber Farms – Strawberries and a variety of vegetables.
- Sprout Mama Breads – Danish rye, brioche, and sourdough.
- George’s Gorgeous Greens
- Canewater Farm – The only certified organic farm in the low country. They make honey, stone milled grits, cornmeal and corn flour and grow greens and other vegetables.
- Hunter Cattle – beef, pork, sausages, bacon, burgers.
- Alake’s Georgia pecans.
- Fresh Pastries.
Other restaurants and bars that I didn’t get the opportunity to try out but that were recommended by the locals are:
The Pirate’s House – I’m not one for tourist traps so I didn’t end up going here. But, if you are then this would be the spot to check out. This is the spot where pirates would capture drunk men, kidnap them through an underground tunnel and take them to their ship where they would sail off forcing them to work as deck hands. I’m told my Dad and his first wife used to eat here a lot.
Leopold’s Ice-cream – If you can stomach waiting in that line (which doesn’t let up all day) then check this place out. They are rumored to be one of the top 10 best ice-creams shops in the world.
Savannah, like most major U.S. cities these days, has a pretty respectable craft beer scene. More often than not when you step into a bar you will find local favorites like these just as much if not more than a bud light.
Service Brewing Co. – Veteran owned and operated.
- Compass Roase IPA – Citrus and pear notes.
- Savannah Brown Ale – Rich and malty with a hint of caramel and roasted nuts.
- Southern Delight Praline Amber – Reminiscent of Georgia candied pralines.
- Tybee Island Blond Beer – This is your light, mildly hoppy, Kolsch style ale for swilling.
- Scattered Sun Belgian Witbier – Coriander and citrus notes.
- Hostess City – Tart cherry and orange zest notes.
If you want to see all of the squares and learn a bit about each one take the Hop On Hop Off Trolley Tour. I am usually not one for guided tours but it was actually a very interesting way to explore the city. I have to say I learned a lot about both Savannah’s history and current events that I would have never learned if not for taking the trolley tour. You’ll see a variety of architecture from historical mansions, to brightly colored Victorians and federal style brick homes.
Down by the river you’ll stroll along streets made of ballest stones, a commodity from England once traded for cotton.
Forsyth Park – With an impressively beautiful white fountain in the center, this bustling park is the finish line for the Savannah woman’s marathon, the Saturday morning farmers market and the centerpiece for many amazing historic mansions.
Chipowa Square – The claim to fame of this square is Forrest Gump’s infamous “life is like a box of chocolate” speech. The scenes where Tom Hanks sits on the park bench in the park talking to strangers were all filmed here. Ironically, there is no bench here. lol.
Jones Street – Considered one of the best walking streets downtown. Lined with beautiful old mansions and horse drawn carriages. You will want to bring your camera for this walk.
The Mercer House – The famous murder house from the movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. A best selling book turned Clint Eastwood film that tells the story of the famous murder that took place in Savannah in the 80’s while depicting the quirkiness of the city.
St. Patricks Day – Savannah is home to the 2nd largest St. Patricks Day party in the U.S. New York City is #1.
If you’re in Savannah I highly recommend you rent a car and drive out to Tybee Island for the day. This cute little beach town has a nice pier, a white, sandy beach and lots of fun restaurants and dive bars.
Bubba Gumbos – On the way in stop here for fresh fish caught right there where you eat. I was told by one of the regulars that there isn’t a freezer in sight in the kitchen. In fact the fish of the day special is often times caught by the Chef himself right out the back door. Your other option is to catch your own fish, use the filleting station outside and then bring it to Chef and he’ll cook it for you. The day we were there, there were guys fileting whiting and sheepshead out back.
Order a bucket of beer, some hushpuppies and a basket of peel and eat shrimp and convene around one of the outdoor tables. Each one conveniently has a cut out hole in the center with a trash bin underneath for you to throw shrimp and oyster shells into as you eat.
Tybee Social Club – Fresh seafood, tacos and a stellar cocktail program. Live bluegrass on Sunday afternoons.
Doc’s Bar – Had to go here. My Dad worked at a bar called Doc’s Landing in San Diego for years. This cozy little dive bar made me feel right at home.
Huca Poo’s – Stop here on your way off the island back to Savannah for a drink and a slice of pizza (beware each slice is the size of a half a pizza!). The ambiance is on point, like an old attic decked out with albomn covers from the 60’s, old signs and license plates. It’s probably never been dusted. The pizza is really effing good after a day of drinking at the beach.
Savannah likes to party. They have no problem with you strolling the streets of the historic district in and out of bars with an alcoholic beverage (just make sure it’s in a plastic or styrophome cup without a lid). At night there are many options for live music of all different types of genres. Congress street is usually a good place to start. Start walking, listen for something you like and pop in to check it out.
Music Venues –
The Jinx – We saw an amazing band here. Their style of music was somewhere between rockabilly and heavy metal. The front man had an amazing sense of humor and finished his set off by jumping into the crowd and doing the worm all the way out the front door.
Molly MacPherson’s Scottish Pub – a fun neighborhood spot to watch a local cover band. I think I saw the band pound 3 beers and 3 shots each during their set for the short 45 minutes we were there.
The Bayou Café – We hung here until 3am where we watched a guy perform Jimi Hendrix classics all night. I felt like we were watching Hendrix himself. This guy did everything the same just short of playing the guitar with his teeth. Live music starts around 9pm everyday of the week here.
Savannah Music Festival – Lucky for me this festival was taking place the week I was there. Musicians from all over the U.S. were there to participate so I decided to take in a show at one of the concert venues owned by SCAD. (A lot like The Academy of Arts has taken over much of the real estate in San Francisco, the Savannah College of Art and Design (nicknamed SCAD) can be found on almost every corner, encompassing 67 buildings in Savannah.)
The performance I went to was called Gerald Clayton’s Piedmont blues: A search for salvation. It was inspired by the Piedmont blues music that was created in the tobacco factories and warehouses in Durham, North Carolina in the 1920s and 30s. Gerald, a jazz pianist performed with a 9 piece jazz ensemble, had tap dancer Maurice Chestnut and showed reels of Film and photography behind them as they played.
Savannah Stopover Festival – Bands travel through Savannah Georgia every year on their way to Austin’s SXSW music festival to play at the Stopover Festival. For 3 days local venues showcase big acts rocking the city of Savannah before hopping on the highway to Texas.
Whether you are looking for a history lesson or just to have a good time, Savannah is a marvelous place to visit. It’s full of characters, it’s stunningly beautiful and it’s oozing with southern hospitality. I can see now why my Dad was so drawn to it.