Some 17 miles up river from the Atlantic, Savannah has always been one of the most ravishing cities in the American South, long before John Berendt and his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil added some mystery and chic to the place in the 1990s. Few cities in America can match Savannah for sheer romantic beauty: live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, stately antebellum mansions, mint juleps sipped on the veranda, magnolia trees, peaceful marshes, horse-drawn carriages, and ships sailing up the river. Savannah’s famed squares add an extra touch of elegance, spacious, lush spaces that break up the Historic District with statues, memorials and plenty of greenery.
Savannah is similar to Charleston, but definitely not the same. The free spirit, the passion, and even the decadence of Savannah resemble that of Key West or New Orleans more than they do the Bible Belt, downhome interior of Georgia. It’s a lot wilder—and a little edgier—than Charleston, with high levels poverty beyond the handsome streets of the old center.
Founded in 1733 by British colonists led by Gen. James Oglethorpe, Savannah’s precious stock of historic homes had fallen into deep decay by the 1950s, and it’s largely thanks to volunteers and local organizations such as the Historic Savannah Foundation that anything survives. Tourism really took off after the publication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, of course, and even today, “The Book” remains a source of curiosity for many visitors, and a livelihood for many locals. In fact Savannah’s boasts several respected literary scions, including Flannery O’Connor and Conrad Aiken, the American poet, critic, writer, and Pulitzer Prize winner.
Today the economy and much of the city’s day-to-day life still revolve around port activity. For the visitor, however, it’s the Historic District, a beautifully restored and maintained area, that’s the big draw. More than 800 of Old Savannah’s 1,100 historic buildings have been restored, using original paint colors—pinks and reds and blues and greens. This “living museum” is now the largest urban National Historic Landmark District in the country—some 2 1/2 square miles, including 20 one-acre squares that still survive from James Oglethorpe’s dream of a gracious city.