A Tale of Two City
Welcome to Savannah
Bob and Terry on Tour 2012, with Ellen and Richard


So you’re planning a vacation to Savannah, Georgia. And for this reason or that, you find yourself having a conversation with someone and the subject of the trip begins to come up. At some point, you make a very simple statement: “Yeah, we’re going to Savannah.”

One of two reactions will follow.

“Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there!”


“You are going to have an incredible time!”

And that’s pretty much it. It’s like some magic spell that Savannah holds over people where only two responses are permissible. Reaction one -- someone that hasn’t been to Savannah expresses that they have it rated highly on their someday list. And reaction two -- someone that has been to Savannah confirms that it’s worthy of a place near the top on everyone’s someday list.

Happens every time.

Sure… there might be a person that does not offer one of those responses. There could be people that don’t care at all about heading to Savannah. After all, just about anything’s possible.

The thing is… I’ve never met one. Not one.

(It’s all very mysterious. And you might not even think much of it. Except…)

Terry, Ellen, Richard and I have always wanted to go to Savannah. Plans were put into motion for a visit. But as we mapped out our few days and the vacation crept closer, something occurred to me. All those people that loved Savannah? Yeah… umm… they never said why they loved it.

Tell someone you’re going to San Francisco. You’ll hear about the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, wine country, and more.

Washington, DC? Smithsonian… Arlington… The White House… pandas at the National Zoo… and more.

New York? Times Square… Empire State Building… Statue of Liberty.

Sydney, Australia? The Opera House… Harbour Bridge.

Of course I’m missing some fabulous sites in these cities, but as examples you get the idea. Why wasn’t anyone openly sharing the to-do list of Savannah?

So I began asking a question whenever the subject came up and I had been told I was going to love Savannah. I wanted to know what types of places and things we should be sure to include. And every time I asked these “You are going to have an incredible time!” people what we should do, not one person provided a single suggestion.

Not one person.

Not one suggestion.

And the more I tried to get some thoughts, the more it concerned me.

Once, from a person that seemed a bit confused that I would even ask what to do, I was told that Savannah is just beautiful. (And it is.)

I couldn’t get a restaurant recommendation though… or experiences with museums or historical sites… or advice on where to stay… or… well, or anything.

And I wasn’t alone. Once I mentioned it to Terry, Ellen and Richard, they all realized that their experiences were the same.

We were going to Savannah. We were excited to be going to Savannah. People that had been to Savannah were telling us we should be excited about going to Savannah. But apparently, no one knew why.

So here we are… with my approaching the travel diaries, “Best of…” columns, and other portions of our 2012 journey to Florida and Georgia… and I’m glad that I took a few months to put things together. It provided some perspective. Because even after the visit, I find at times I’m still a bit confused by Savannah in ways that are difficult to describe.

I have arrived at a conclusion though.

Savannah is two distinct places… and one great place.

There’s the tourist Savannah and the historic Savannah. And more so than any other place I have ever been… any city, state, or country… there is a divide between the touristy and the historical that is difficult to separate and impossible to unite. Characteristics blur. It’s really quite strange.

We can start with the tourism.

If you go to Savannah you will be stunned by the overwhelming presence of two things: Number one… Paula Deen. Number two… Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I’m telling you this now… and you might even tell yourself that you expect a lot of material based on these two… and you can prepare for the onslaught… and you will still be stunned by how much they are on display.

They are the driving forces behind the bus tours… the shops… the restaurants… and everything else. They provide tourism and touchstones and connections to virtually every element of life in Savannah. And honestly, nothing else is close. Even when not directly mentioning Paula or the book, you’ll get references to The Lady and Sons restaurant and the Bird Girl statue. These culinary and literary giants cast an immense shadow across the region, which in turn is frankly shocking considering the longevity of the city and its place in history.

That’s not the only touristy aspect of the city of course. The shops… especially along the water… will seem familiar to anyone that has been to San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, Newport, or another recognizable waterside destination. Obviously the beaches and mansions and histories change… but the concept is the same. Been there… bought the t-shirt.

Down near the Savannah River is East River Street. And strolling along this road you’ll come across places to shop and eat. Check out what I wrote about John’s Pass Boardwalk after a 2010 visit to Madeira Beach in Florida:

Sure… some of the shops were kind of boring. Seemed like the pattern of stores repeated at every fourth door. (Door number one… shells and dolphin statues and discount t-shirts, none of which truly captured the feeling of Madeira Beach but seemed more likely set up to be just cheap enough and just beach-themed enough to take a dollar or two out of your pocket. Door number two… perhaps a restaurant or bar or store selling water. Door number three… something amazing and different and unusual that really attracted you by offering brilliant original stuff, plus the feeling that if you didn’t pay attention and look at everything you were definitely missing something. Door number four… shells and dolphin statues and discount t-shirts, none of which truly captured the feeling of Madeira Beach but seemed to be ordered from exactly the same catalogue that was used at door number one (and I mean, exactly the same catalogue). Door number five… perhaps a restaurant or bar or store selling water… and you see how this is beginning to repeat.) The goal was to get to as many door number three locations as possible.

And in Savannah on East River Street? Same idea… bought the t-shirt.

I mentioned that things blur though.

We were talking to a waiter in a restaurant on our first night. We had parked our car and planned on spending the after-dinner hours walking around the area and wondered if there were some things we should look for. He talked a bit in generalities… surprise, still no specific advice, “it’s all great”… and then he mentioned how much he loved the history of River Street.

Not years ago… not decades ago… quite literally centuries ago, the ships sailing from Europe into Savannah would come across the ocean and up the Savannah River loaded with ballast stones for stability. They would pick up cargo and leave the ballast stones behind. These stones were in turn used in the construction of buildings… stairs… and, for this waiter’s story most specifically, for the actual street of River Street.

River Street is a cobblestone road of sorts -- formed from the very history… the very ballast stones… of the city’s early days. It is quite impressive and stunning when you are standing on River Street and are aware of this.

Now… combine things. Touristy like everyplace… filled with unique and amazing historical significance few locations could compare with… literally woven into the fabric of the city.

That’s Savannah.

You want touristy? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the Bird Girl are on display in every gift shop, from copies of the book to different sizes of the statue. And suddenly, it blurs, and you are on Bull Street… across from Monterey Square… at the Mercer House.

You want touristy? You find The Lady and Sons… cookbooks and Paula Deen bus tours… referrals to Uncle Bubba’s. And then that overlap comes into play… just casually speaking to the owner of The Christmas Shop on Bull Street and she asks if you’re in the area for lunch. And when you ask why she refers you to the greatest restaurant you might ever set foot in -- Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room.

Savannah isn’t simply what you experience… it’s how you experience it. And that can create quite a different visit to this gorgeous city.

Visually it is striking.

The people we met were all wonderful.

Unlike those advising me though, I will break the spell and give you some specifics.

Stop and check out some of the squares and get to Forsyth Park -- all different and filled with history, while claiming a place in the incredible design of the city. Do not miss the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist -- one of the most breathtaking and brilliant places I have ever set foot inside. And, whatever you do, get to The Wilkes House for the meal of a lifetime.

Forsythe Park and the Savannah Squares… the St. John Cathedral… Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room… the three must-do places of Savannah.

Some casual thoughts? Ok. Please stop in The Christmas Shop on Bull Street. Friendly people there. (Conveniently located near Madison Square… and very near St. John’s.)

Go see at least one of the historic homes. I’d refer you to the Mercer House (actually called the Mercer-Williams House), but there are several worthy of note and I’m certain would offer a fascinating tour as Savannah’s bygone days merge with current events.

I could go on… but that is the perfect start. You can build from there.

Because when it comes to Savannah… I can’t tell you that you will have an incredible time on your visit. That’s going to be up to you, and how you decide to experience it. What I can tell you is that this city is amazing and wonderful… you just might need to be open and flexible with your expectations and plans.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com