By Beverly Stephen
Show me oaks dripping with Spanish moss and I’m there. Add a dollop of Southern hospitality, cobblestone streets, and a hint of haunted houses and I’m buying a plane ticket. Savannah was calling.
But nothing prepared me for the charm of its unique squares. Savannah has 22 squares, some with fountains, some with statues, and all with flowering bushes and shaded by magnificent trees. Visitors like me stroll through the city from one square to the next to the next to the next. Or sometimes sit on lookalikes for the famous Forrest Gump bus bench which has now been moved to a museum.
When James Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733, he decided the town was going to be laid out in squares. The idea was based on the design of a Roman military encampment and the squares were originally used for militia drills but evolved into bucolic public parks. There is an Oglethorpe Square but the statue honoring Oglethorpe sits in Chippewa Square protected by four stone lions. Forsyth Park Fountain is the most visited and the most photographed. The fountain was built to resemble the grand fountain in Paris at the Place de la Concorde. Monterrey Square is said to be the most picturesque. The Mercer-Williams house made famous by the book and movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” faces this square. This book is credited for setting off the tourist boom in Savannah.
In 1993, the year before the book’s publication, Savannah had five million visitors, who spent almost $600 million during their time in the city. Two years after the book’s release, Savannah was seeing a 46 percent increase in tourism. Twenty years later, the number of visitors to the city had jumped to 12.5 million, spending $2.2 billion.
“This might be the first true-crime book that makes the reader want to book a bed and breakfast for an extended weekend at the scene of the crime,” said The New York Times Book Review.
After all these years, it’s still a great place for an extended weekend.
In addition to the squares, sights not to miss include the awe inspiring Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, built in 1873-1876, with its spectacular stained glass, the gold domed city hall, the Savannah College of Art and Design shop, the beautifully restored historic houses, the bustling Riverside District.
Bring your most comfortable walking shoes or hop on and off a trolley tour. There are numerous places to stay from historic mansions converted into hotels to giant modern hotels like the JW Marriott on the river.
We chose The Drayton Hotel, a charming boutique hotel installed in what was once an 1890s American Bank and Trust Company conveniently located in the historic area. The staff is lovely and helpful. The décor is chic and makes thoughtful local references such as upholstered benches meant to resemble the benches in the squares, and chandeliers shaped to resemble hoop skirts.
Its St. Neo’s Brasserie features a raw bar with an oyster shucker. There’s also a rooftop bar. The complimentary Drayton breakfast of bacon and eggs comes with obligatory grits.
All the walking requires sustenance and there’s a booming restaurant and bar scene. The Grey executive chef/managing partner Mashama Bailey took top honors as the James Beard Outstanding Chef for 2022. The Grey, as the name suggests, is located in a renovated Art Deco Greyhound bus station. Unfortunately, it was closed for some renovations during our visit but foodie friends who have visited raved about it.
I was able to get a taste of grits and braised greens at the counter at The Grey Market.
We had a lovely dinner of grilled octopus paired with a pale Spanish rose at Common Thread in a restored mansion. At another contemporary restaurant, Local 11ten, executive chef Brett Cavanna, an alum of Fig in Charleston and Bar Boulud in New York City, rides the range.
You won’t go hungry anywhere near the squares.
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a principal of the culinary travel company Flavor Forays. She is the co-author, with Barbara Mathias, of On the Road With Flavor Forays An Insider’s Guide to Four of America’s Hottest Food Cities—Austin, Charleston, Portland and New Orleans.