The Historic Savannah Weekend Travel Guide: Discover The History And Heritage Of This Southern City

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Cheers to this famous Southern city’s charm and haunted reputation! The American Institute of Parapsychology named Savannah the most haunted city in the United States in 2002 – a city full of a past, culture, and paranormal experiences.

My trip to Savannah was hosted, but as always, the thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.

Savannah’s History

Savannah is one of the oldest cities in the United States, and its history dates back to 1733. General James Oglethorpe and 120 other passengers disembarked the gallant ship “Anne” in the Savannah River. They were starting a new settlement! A natural high feeling of excitement and adventure filled these new settlers.

Once they were on dry land, Oglethorpe christened the new colony “Georgia” in honor of King George II of England and established the city of Savannah as his first city. 

The Colonial Period of Savannah

Much of the history of Savannah can be discovered with a visit to the Savannah History Museum. The museum covers Savannah’s history beginning in 1733. It is home to an extensive collection of Civil War Memorabilia.

Ghosts and History

There were tensions in Florida between the English colonists and the Spanish, and South Carolina served as a buffer between them.

Surprisingly, you could worship anyone you liked, but rum, lawyers, and slavery were outlawed – for a while at least.

Where would the ghosts be if there wasn’t any Native American territory in the middle of this haunted metropolis? Oglethorpe befriended the local Yamacraw Indian chief, Tomochichi, and the two vowed to treat each other with kindness. 

It was then that Oglethorpe received permission from the Yamacraw chief to bring his people to Savannah and settle on the bluff, ushering in an era of peace and prosperity for the city.

Since many colonies struggled to establish relations with the natives, and imposed suffering on them, this was a rare occurrence.

The Design of Savannah

Savannah was designed with a series of grids. This allowed for wide-open streets that would intertwine with public squares and parks. The squares and parks offered a respite from the steamy, unbearable summer heat.

Each of the squares were also used for town meeting places and businesses sprung up around them. A gruesome use of the squares was to punish criminal offenders. The punishment could encompass anything from public whipping to hangings.

There were 24 original squares, but today there are only 22 squares.

Oglethorpe’s idea to use English grids in the city’s layout would make it easier for residents to go on foot and conduct business. The city’s squares became its backbone. Once used for military training and exercise, they are now places where residents and visitors alike may meet, take in the sights, and listen to music with street artists. 

Different people, places, and events are commemorated in each square, giving the whole grid a sense of individuality – showing how much history this city truly has to offer.

Revolutionary War And The Antebellum Period

Savannah played a crucial part in the American Revolution when the British took it in 1778 and held on to it until 1782. 

In 1779, the French and the Americans launched a land and sea strike to try to retake the island, but they were unsuccessful. 

After winning the war for independence was won, the city of Savannah prospered. Farmers discovered that the climate was perfect for the cultivation of cotton and rice. 

Sadly, landowners in the surrounding “Lowcountry” of South Carolina discovered their plantations were a viable economic model after the war. This economic model resulted in the first free colony to approve slavery. Savannah became one of the United States’ busiest ports for transatlantic slave traffic.

Savannah, Georgia, surpassed Charleson as a commercial port with the discovery of the cotton gin. Some inhabitants became wealthy at the expense of others via the city’s new economic enterprises. This new wealth led to the construction of over-the-top luxurious homes and churches. 

The Savannah Cotton Exchange, one of the historic buildings in downtown, is a purpose-built trading facility whose purpose was to set global cotton prices. The Cotton Exchange is still standing today.

Savannah Cotton Exchange is a reminder of cotton’s influence on Savannah. Built in 1886 by architect William G. Preston, it was one of the first major buildings to be constructed over a public street.

Savannah was destroyed by fire twice, in 1796 and 1820, but its citizens quickly rose from the ashes to rebuild the city. A percent of Savannah’s population died from yellow fever in 1820. 

Savannah is said to be the most haunted city in the United States. After surviving two fires, an epidemic, and a devastating storm, you can imagine why this city was named the Most Haunted City. But there is another more sinister event. Savannah was built on native American land, and is surrounded by mass slave graves.

What To Do In Savannah

In the historic area alone, you have a wide choice of historical tours, including more than 40 ghost tours to choose from. How do you pick the best one covering everything you desire?

Explore Savannah’s Old City and See Its Famous Sights with Trolley Tours

Visiting Savannah’s historic quarter is like going back in time. One of my favorite things to do as soon as I get to a new place is to take a trolley tour.

A trolley tour gives you an overview of the city and places you want to visit. My top two choices for trolley tours in Savannah are Old Savannah Tours and Old Town Trolley tours of Savannah. As I strolled around the city, I took note of the many original buildings that dated back hundreds of years.

Old Savannah Tours is the oldest-running trolley tour in this historic Southern city. This tour does offer Hop-on, Hop-off tour options, with 14 stops across the city. They are also pet-friendly, welcoming animals on their trips.

So many times in historic cities, parking is an issue. The Visitors Center offers free parking. This is also where their tours originate.

In about 90 minutes, you will see all of Savannah’s most important historical sites and decide which ones to explore in more depth. Some of the highlights of this tour include the Savannah theater, Chippewa Square (made famous in the movie Forrest Gump), Sorrel Weed House (one of the most haunted homes in the USA), Forsyth Park, Massie Heritage Center, The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, The 1753 Pirate’s House, Telfair Academy & Jepson Center, Reynolds Square and a statue of John Wesley, River Street Marketplace, Old City Exchange Bell, and more.

Old Town Trolley Tours of Savannah, with convenient hop-on, hop-off service, you get a tour guide’s insights while exploring the city on your own. All of the guides are natives of Savannah and know the city well. Listen as they share some of its most well-kept secrets. 

The fact that this trolley has an accompanying app with detailed descriptions of each stop and other useful information is a huge perk. To top it all off, they provide discounts for additional attractions. This tour begins at the Visitor Center, and includes 15 sites. The sites include:

  • Old Town Trolley Welcome Center – neighboring the Railroad Museum 
  • Franklin Square – designed in 1790 and named after Benjamin Franklin
  • Madison Square – designed in 1837 with the monument of Jasper, an American soldier in the Revolutionary War from 1779, close-by to the Sorrel Weed House, Green-Meldrim house, and Temple Mickve Israel 
  • Forsyth Park – built in 1858
  • Calhoun Square — laid out in 1851 and named in honor of John C. Calhoun, a United States Senator from South Carolina, who served as the Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson
  • The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist – is open to tour if there are no events.
  • Old Town Trolley Barn 
  • City Market – By day, local musicians entertain visitors in a shady patio between two Savannah squares. In the evening,enjoy music and food.
  • River Street – walk down by the river and enjoy the River street market and the factors walk.
  • The Waving Girl – Statue was a tribute to Florence Martus who waved at every ship from 1887 to 1931 as they entered Savannah.
  • Davenport House Museum – built in 1820.
  • Colonial Park Cemetery – a famous haunted cemetery. The cemetery was established in 1750 as Savannah was the capital of the English Provinces in Georgia. 
  • Bull Street Corridor – Birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts

Pro Tip: Begin your visit to Savannah with one of these excursions. You can expect to get a good sense of the city’s history and popular sights with either tour.

Colonial Period Monuments 

The Colonel William Bull Sundial, constructed in 1933 to mark the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the colony of Georgia in 1733, is just one of the monuments that can be seen in Johnson Square. The monument depicts Colonel William Bull, who assisted in selecting Savannah’s location and layout. 

Madison Square contains two Colonial era road markers. The markers have a cannon mounted on a stone pedestal. These serve as a reminder of the square’s colonial past.

One cannon is mounted on a rough granite base. The inscription reads: “HERE, IN 1735, WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE ROAD TO DARIEN NOW CALLED OGEECHEE ROAD, PROBABLY THE FIRST ROAD LAID OUT IN GEORGIA, WITH THE ASSISTANCE OF TOMOCHICHI. ERECTED BY THE SAVANNAH CHAPTER DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION 1920.” 

The marker, also a cannon mounted on a granite base, on the west roads has the inscription: “NORTHWEST OF THIS SPOT, ON LIBERTY AND WEST BROAD STREETS, BEGAN THE AUGUSTA ROAD, ONE OF THE OLDEST IN GEORGIA. ERECTED BY THE SAVANNAH CHAPTER DAUGHTER OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. 1735-1920.”

The Freedom Trail Tour

The Freedom Trail tour highlights the black history of Savannah. You’ll ride in a church van, and stop at various historically significant stops. These stops include the Beach Institute of African American Culture (established in 1867), where you’ll learn about a tiny concrete and brick building. The building is Bethel AME church, which served as a crucial station on the Underground Railroad. 

This church was remarkable as it was connected to many persons who helped slaves escape from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware in the early 1800s. 

The Remarkable History Of The Bethel AME Church in New Jersey

White and black Methodist Episcopal alike attended services there. However, the congregation split over the issue of slavery. As the number of Methodist slaveholders in these churches grew, they put pressure on their leaders to change the church’s stance on slavery.

As a result, black members felt unwanted and left, united in their fierce opposition to slavery. They formed the African Society of Methodists in Greenwich. 

By 1810, the church had bought a small plot of land and a cabin or home. By 1817, it had joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in Philadelphia. 

The current Bethel AME Church was constructed a mile from the original location in Greenwich Township between 1838 and 1841. The newly built church replaced their first church, which was destroyed by fire in the 1830s. 

Algy Stanford, a churchgoer, and an Underground Railroad conductor, lived next door to the construction site.

River Street Marketplace

With its abundance of restaurants, bars, and shops, Savannah’s historic river street is the city’s most popular attraction. Both tourists and locals voted it as the No. 1 destination for shopping, dining, and nightlife.

One of Savannah’s most iconic landmarks is the River Street Market, an outdoor marketplace with a rich history reaching back to the 18th century. Local artisans sell their wares in unique, one-of-a-kind markets that make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

River Street in Savannah Georgia

In the immediate area around the Hyatt Residence Hotel on the river walk’s southern end, you’ll find many charming cafes and restaurants just waiting for you to wander in. Alongside the warm and inviting cafes and restaurants, you’ll find a few haunted hotels perched on the riverbank – dare to stay there? 

While strolling along the river walk’s mile length, you’ll come across several old stairs on the right that are higher than my knees — It makes you wonder how tall and athletic people were back then. 

Historic Boat Tour

The Savannah River Queen and the Georgia Queen are two of the city’s historic river boats. Both have elegant ballrooms, open-air upper decks, and bars, making them ideal for sightseeing excursions of the city’s riverfront. 

You may opt to go on a brunch cruise or a historical trip where you’ll learn about the area’s past as you make your way down north to the waving girl and the legend of lost love.

Factors Walk

The Factors Row and Factors Walk may be reached by following the river walk downstream from the river street. Take the ancient stairs built into the bluff that date back to the 18th century. Take a stroll along the cobblestone path. Turning your head to the north, you’ll see the side of the waterfront warehouses. These warehouses were a bustling center of the cotton industry. 

Today the marketplace is still bustling with activity. The focus has shifted away from cotton. Today it’s a hub for quaint cafes, restaurants, and inns, where visitors can experience the city’s renowned Southern hospitality.

The Waving Girl Statue 

The statue is a memorial to Florence Martus, who greeted every ship from 1887 through 1931. If you are like me, you may wonder why someone would greet every ship coming into port twice a day for over 44 years. 

Savannah is one of the top three US ports, making her a celebrity within the maritime community. The truth is she was only looking for her long-lost navy officer sweetheart – at least, that’s what many locals say. 

The waving girl greets ships entering the port of Savannah, Georgia

Since Florence was the first thing ships would see as they reached the port, she would welcome them with a cloth during the day and a lamp at night. She would also get a greeting from the ships through their horns. Even after a century, many people continue to blow the horn as a form of respect.

In an interview shortly before she died, she explained that she only waved because she was lonely and bored on an isolated island. What do you think? Was it a sad love story or just boredom?

The Savannah Theater

A must for any historic fan is the Savannah theater. The theater is the oldest continuously operating theater in the United States. The giant neon sign is impossible to miss when walking down the street. 

The British architect William Jay (who also designed the Telfair Mansion and the Owens-Thomas House) opened the theater on December 4, 1818 at 5:30 pm. The inaugural play was “The Soldier’s Daughter.” 

Unfortunately, the original building was severely damaged by the hurricane that struck Savannah on August 21, 1898. Parts of the roof ripped off, and flooding entered the auditorium. 

However, this wasn’t the only tragedy. The building was severely damaged by fire twice, in 1906 and 1948. The damages from the fires meant extensive reconstruction. Following the 1948 fire, the theater was renovated in the Art Deco style.

Are you up for some ghost hunting after seeing a play? If so, check out their new paranormal tours at midnight. You’ll use actual paranormal equipment to investigate any paranormal activity.

Savannah offers everything a traveler might want, whether it’s a taste of Southern cuisine, history, culture, or its spooky and haunted past. 

Pro Tip: If you’re curious about the nightlife – Savannah is unique. There are no nightclubs, just pubs, and bars. Some of these have historic speakeasies.

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