Sweet Home Savannah

“Life is like a box of chocolates” echoed through my head as I navigated my way around the small square where Forrest Gump sat on his famous park bench in the 1994 blockbuster film of the same name. The park bench isn’t there of course, but there’s plenty of beautiful filming locations from other movies, lovely gardens and antebellum architecture to keep visitors busy in Georgia’s most historical city. And don’t worry about getting your Gump bench picture. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Besides providing locations for a few scenes in the Tom Hanks film, Savannah got a revival on the tourist route when the book (and the movie shortly after) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was released. This mostly factual story was the perfect showcase  for the Georgian city: graveyards full of moss covered oaks, “a good old southern boy” culture, and historic neighborhoods full of wooded squares and antebellum homes. This sums up a trip to Savannah: stroll or picnic in a few of it’s 24 squares, sample some southern cuisine and take a paddle boat down the Savannah river while sipping sweet tea. Savannah is everything you expect and more.

Staying in the historic district is the best option since everything you’ll want to see is in walking or cycling distance, but convenience comes at a premium. Hotels and parking can be pricey, so budget travelers can opt for less expensive options on the fringes of town and use a free shuttle to get there. The historic area includes the riverfront on the Savannah river , the nearby market area and extends to Forsythe Park. 

Forsythe Park is a good place to start your your tour actually. Almost any image search for Savannah will render a picture of this iconic green spot with its famous antique fountain. The fountain was ordered from a mail catalog a century and a half ago and has somehow survived wars and hurricanes and remained the most photographed spot in the city. There’s even a special garden allocated for the visually impaired chocked full of aromatic flowers. You’ll also find sporting areas and a theater for outdoor shows. 

Nearby is Pulaski square which is instantly recognizable from the film MITGOGAE. The central character in the movie is Jim Williams, played by Kevin Spacey, a socialite antique dealer who lived in the 1860 Mercer-Williams home across from the square and was tried and acquitted for the same crime a record four times. This house was used in the Clint Eastwood produced film as well as the movies “Glory” and curiously enough…. “Swamp Thing”. You can tour one floor of this home, including the room where Jim Williams shot Danny Lewis Hansford  (presumably in self defense), the garden and the modernized carriage house. There’s more focus on the contents of the house  than the Williams’ story, and you can’t see the entire home (or take photos), but it’s definitely worth doing the short tour.

The Mercer-Williams home gets half of its name from it’s famous resident, the other from the Mercer family who started building it the year before the civil war began, but never lived there.Two generations later, grandson Johnny Mercer created his own legacy when he co-founded Capital Records along with penning hundreds of popular songs sang by some of the most famous people in show business. After his death, Johnny was laid to rest in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery. He is among one of it’s most famous residents and the reason for many a tourist’s visit. His grave is featured in the beginning scene of the Spacey film and is one of the most visited spots in Savannah in spite of it being outside the the main quarter of town. Mary Telfair, the woman who left her family mansion and art collection to the city after her death in 1875, is buried nearby. Ironically, the cemetery’s famous statue of “The Bird Girl” from the MITGOGAE novel  has been relocated to one of the Telfair museums due to vandalism. You’ll find lots of other interesting graves in Savannah . The founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low, is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery. While on the subject of necro-tourism, some of the most haunted hotels in America can be found in Savannah as well. The Marshall House, Olde Harbor Inn, and the Kehoe House are just a few of the inns with well deserved ghostly reputations.

The Savannah History Museum is a great place to beat the heat and see the iconic bench from Forrest Gump. It was never a real bench, but a movie prop made of fiberglass so that it could easily be moved during filming. It was one of several created for the film, but it’s the real deal (for a movie prop) and you can take a photo standing next to it. There’s a sizable section of the museum dedicated to Juliette Low, who created the Girl Scouts of America and the museum chronicles her fascinating life traveling the world and creating an organization that emphasized equality, achievement and sports at a time where girls didn’t have the same opportunities as their male counterparts. If you’re a Low fan, you can also visit her childhood home in the historical district. The museum is full of civil war memorabilia  and even brings in costumed guest actors to help bring the stories to life.

Savannah is jammed with small cafes, tea rooms and niche restaurants that cater to every taste, but if you’re looking for the true “southern experience”, you can’t go wrong with shrimp and grits, pecan fried chicken, or anything made with peaches. Barbecue is a thing in Georgia as well, plus the famous Brunswick Stew that you can’t get very many other places in the US. There’s a fine line between authentic and “tourist trap” sometimes, but the riverside and market area both have their share of popular eateries, great people watching spots, and Byrd’s Famous Cookies. While I think that adding “famous” to any name will make a brand no one has heard of “more famous”, Byrd’s has earned it’s stripes after almost a hundred years of producing delicious bite size fare in a variety of flavors. It’s key lime and peach cookies are two of it’s finest reputation makers, and you can taste free samples of almost anything at one of it’s stores. On the subject of sweet things, Leopold’s ice cream shop should not be missed. It’s  marble soda fountain and nostalgic 50s motif is reason enough to visit, but the ice cream is fantastic and there’s unique flavors you’ll be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Leopold’s is doing something right, because it’s celebrating it’s 100th year in 2019.

The Telfair Academy isn’t the biggest collection you’ll ever see, but it’s the first art museum in the south and a beautiful mansion full of European treasures and temporary exhibits from around the world. Italian statues adorn the  front of the building and make the re-purposed Telfair home looks like something that belongs on the Amalfi coast. There are three museums included in your ticket: The Telfair Academy, The Jepsen Center (where you’ll find the Bird Girl statue), and Owens-Thomas antebellum house.

So what else could you ask for? Savannah has one of the country’s most famous dive bars, one of the oldest bars in the US and one of the most haunted hotels in America  (plus shrimp and grits!) all in one beautiful walkable town. What are you waiting for?