Standing on the top level of a parking garage I watched a brilliant sunset play out across the sky beyond the church steeples and a courthouse tower. The air was just the right amount of cool and the summer humidity was still a month away. It really was the perfect time to visit Savannah with the blooming azalea bushes, smaller crowds, and warmer days. The colors of the sunset faded and it was time for my Savannah weekend to end. But what a weekend it had been.
A Guided Tour
I’ve always found the best way to get to know a new destination it to take a guided tour. It’s even better when the guided tour is on an open air bus where you can just sit and enjoy the view. That’s exactly what I got with the Old Town Trolley Tour. Last year during a three-day visit to Nashville the same company offered a similar deal: buy a ticket to enjoy the service for a day, hop on and off as many of their buses as you would like at a few dozen stops, and enjoy a lively tour from one of the drivers in the mean time.
My first bus of the day pulled out of the parking lot at the Savannah Visitor Center as the tour drive played some “mood music” courtesy Jude Garland’s The Trolley Song. I leaned back in the moderately comfortable bench seat at the very back of the bus and gazed out the large open window as we rolled through the historic city. The tour driver wasted no time regaling us with stories of Savannah’s history including the founder James Oglethorpe, history of the squares, pirate encounters, fires that swept the city, and of course a few mentions of Forest Gump, filmed on location here, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a book written about a Savannah murder mystery that was eventually turned into a film by Clint Eastwood.
It took a little over an hour to ride the tour bus through the entire city back to the beginning of the route. A few minutes later, still riding the same bus, I left again for my second route through the city. I hopped off a few minutes later in front of the Independent Baptist Church and began my self-guided walking tour through Savannah’s squares.
The squares of Savannah are perhaps the most beautiful feature of the city. It also gives Savannah the claim to “oldest planned city in the country” because these squares were designed from the very beginning in 1730 to be used strictly as public parks. With only two exceptions that is exactly what has happened here.
Walking the squares was pretty easy: they are evenly spaced along straight lines two blocks apart from each other. In fact Savannah had some of the straightest streets and squarest blocks I’ve ever seen in an old city. Sorry, Charleston, but your “Grand Modell” turned out to be a mess.
Each square had a unique attraction and history. Chippewa Square, made famous as the park bench scene from Forest Gump, features a towering statue of the city’s founder James Oglethorpe. Troup Square had this funky looking Armillary Sphere that instantly became my favorite thing in Savannah. Wright Square is the location of Tomochichi’s Rock.
While each square had a unique attraction they all had a few things in common. They are all shaded beneath massive oak trees, providing a respite during those sunny summer days. There are several park benches scattered around each of the squares to give you a break from those self-guided walking tours or just a chance to enjoy the peacefulness.
Savannah’s squares were one of the most beautiful and unique attractions in the city, and they were completely free to explore. That makes it a win-win in anyone’s book. I wonder if someone’s written a book about them yet?
One Good Meal
Whenever I travel I always try to get one good meal from a local joint. In Savannah that local joint was The Pirate’s House. Fortunately the Old Trolley Town bus made a stop at the restaurant so I didn’t have far to go once I knew I hungry.
From the outside the restaurant looks like a conglomeration of various buildings hobbled together over the decades. On the inside it looks like a conglomeration of various buildings hobbled together over the decades. They don’t try to hide the fact they started small and have expanded since. The Herb House near the center of the current restaurant is the oldest part of the building. It looks like a dining room decorated like a house but in fact it was a freestanding house at one time. A large dining table in the middle with a fireplace on one side, staircase in the corner, and indoor window are evidence of the former house.
Winding through narrow hallways through rooms of different sizes and styles my host finally seated me at a table in a backroom. This was the most modern looking room and my guess is that it’s the rental space for larger events and gatherings. In fact two large families were celebrating birthdays so everyone had the honor of hearing my wonderful singing voice. Twice.
I ordered the 1776 Burger and, yes, it came with American cheese. It was also the best burger I have ever eaten (sorry Burger Bar, but you’re now second on that list). It’s not often I can tell my waitress I want my burger cooked through and find it still juicy. Along with a decent amount of house-made fries and a zesty dipping sauce this was one good meal.
By the way, when you visit (because I know you will) be sure to take the free guided tour to learn about the history of the restaurant, how it started as a tavern, the 10 miles of tunnels beneath, and the connection to Captain Flint.
Fort Pulaski National Monument
I could have spent days exploring the squares of Savannah and discovering all the wonderful local businesses, but sometimes I just gotta get out into the country. Or, in this case, the coast. The drive along Islands Expressway was peaceful and beautiful. A few miles from the national monument I was surrounded by coastal wetlands on the right and the Savannah River on the left.
Fort Pulaski National Monument is one of several coastal fortifications built as a result of the War of 1812. It is similar to Fort Monroe National Monument, Fort Macon State Park, and Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park. But one thing that made Fort Pulaski stand out, and made me giddy as a kid, is that it is still surrounded by a fully functional mote. A ranger explained how a channel connected to the Savannah River can be opened via a floodgate to fill the mote when it gets low, and vice versa when the mote is nearly overflowing from rainwater. I thought it was the coolest thing to stand on the wooden bridge crossing the mote before entering the fort.
Inside Fort Pulaski is a wonderfully preserved relic with significant history. Several of the rooms have been restored as they would have been seen during the Civil War, the grounds are kept in very good condition, and several canons show how the fort would have been armed. Speaking of those canons you get a fantastic view from atop the casemate via a couple of brick staircases and a few stone spiral staircases.
Although the fort has been restored (the gift shop is now located inside one of those restored rooms) the powers that be have very cleverly opted to leave some damage as it is. The outside walls are still pockmarked from Union bombardment during the Civil War and large pieces of the upper fort walls are still missing around the canon emplacements. It’s interesting to be able to see how the fort once stood, but also how it suffered during the war.
I made the same critical mistake so many others make when trying to visit an island: I arrived too late. Although I left my hotel just after sunrise the stop at Fort Pulaski took much longer than I expected (there was just so much to see). It was almost noon by the time I arrived on Tybee Island and made my way down the twisting and confusing streets to the Tybee Island Light Station.
This beautiful lighthouse has a long history and is one of the finest examples of a complete “system” anywhere on the east coast. Several of the original support buildings such as the lightkeepers house not only still stand, but they have been meticulously restored. One of those restored buildings is used as a small theater with a short video playing the history of the lighthouse, while the larger building is a house museum complete with several original pieces of furniture and appliances.
Of course the real treat is being able to climb the lighthouse’s 178 steps (there is a platform for catching your breath every 25 steps) for a breathtaking view from the top. At least that’s what I’m told. I didn’t get the chance to climb those steps (maybe that was a good thing) because there were about a hundred people standing in line by the time I got there.
To make up for the fact I didn’t want to spend too much time standing in line I visited the Battery Garland Museum across the street. The visit is included in the price of admission to the light station so I figured I might as well take advantage. It’s a rare opportunity to explore inside a World War I and World War II era concrete battery, especially one that has been converted into a museum. After following the narrow and winding passages I eventually found myself on the roof of the battery with a clear view of the beach on one side and the light house on the other.
I should have taken the beach as a clue to what I would find further down Tybee Island; I could barely see any sand for all the people spread out on blankets and chairs. Savannians (Savannahians?) call Tybee Island “Savannah Beach” partly because of a 1950s marketing ploy but also because it’s the best beach for anyone in Savannah to visit. This was one of the first warm days of Spring so I think everyone from Savannah did just that. I drove down the main drag through the island but after spending nearly an hour sitting in traffic watching people fight over the scarce parking I decided this was something best left to a return visit.
The last stop I made on Sunday night was the top level of the State Street Parking Garage. Anyone who follows me knows I have a thing for visiting the top levels of parking garages in cities to enjoy the view. I set up my camera gear and got ready for what I hoped was a fantastic sunset. I was not disappointed. It was one of those sunsets that just kept getting better and better with each passing minute until suddenly it was gone. The streets below were quiet. I was the only person on the top of the garage. I felt like I said the city to myself.
A weekend in Savannah is just enough time to get to experience the city but not enough to see it all. I think I could head down to this gem one weekend a month for a year and never do, eat, or see the same thing twice. That’s actually not a bad idea.
I only took advantage of about 5 of the 15 stops on the Old Town Trolley Tour. I visited the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, but missed most of the house museums. There’s also a riverboat in Savannah that just looks like it would make for an amazing evening cruise along the river. Needless to say I’m heading back for another Savannah weekend just as soon as I can.
Will you join me?