It’s early morning in Savannah’s Oglethorpe Square, almost a postcard of the distinctive beauty for which Savannah is famed. Curtains of Spanish moss drape the low branches of live oaks, green lawns sparkle with dew and brick pathways lead to the front porches of homes that are both historic and hip. For a few moments, you can imagine what it felt like back in 1733, when General James Oglethorpe, the square’s namesake, claimed this forested bluff on what’s now known as the Savannah River and commenced his singular vision of building the New World’s first planned city.
These days, though, Savannah doesn’t stay sleepy for long—it’s got too much going on for that. As the sun dapples the tree canopy, the city quickly wakes to its thoroughly modern self: Men and women sipping from coffee cups stride by on their way to work or class, shopkeepers open their doors, and tourists on River Street watch as massive cargo ships wind their way along the river to the Port of Savannah.
That’s the rare paradox of Savannah: It’s a small city, but in terms of culture, business and innovation, it punches way above its weight. With a population of less than 150,000, Savannah welcomes more than 14 million visitors a year. From the shopping districts of Broughton Street and City Market to the country’s second-busiest port and its massive Panamax ships, downtown Savannah is a hub of commercial activity. Luxury hotels and world-class cuisine flourish within the city’s original 1733 footprint, as do world-class museums and art galleries. Tours of historic homes abound, and a wealth of azaleas, magnolias, camellias and crepe myrtles keep the city awash in colorful blooms all year long.
Such varied ways of appreciating the city are all part of what Visit Savannah President Joseph Marinelli calls the Savannah experience.
“In addition to the incredible history here, Savannah has evolved to offer exquisite hotels, restaurants and retail,” Marinelli says. “People come and return again and again because there are so many things to do and see, from exploring Revolutionary War sites and shopping for unique accessories to enjoying craft cocktails at one of our hotel rooftop bars with a view of the river.” But, Marinelli is quick to point out, Savannah is also a great place to do business: It’s easily accessible, has a top-notch airport and robust transportation infrastructure and has a coastal location.
As the area’s visitor and convention bureau, Visit Savannah oversees and tracks the city’s $2.9 billion tourism industry, which has set records for five consecutive years. The city is renowned as a destination for vacationers and day-trippers and as a locale for romantic weddings, and the planned expansion of the 330,000-square-foot Savannah Convention Center will significantly boost revenue from business travel. “On any given day, you’ll see brides in the squares in their veils and people walking around with lanyards in between meetings. It’s always buzzing,” observes Marinelli.
The buzz will grow with the imminent completion of two multimillion-dollar developments that will extend River Street and expand waterfront land use. Set to open its first phase in 2020, Eastern Wharf combines high-end residential and commercial spaces with boutique hotels, shady parks and recreational attractions on property that once held sawmills and foundries.“
“We recognize the significance of the Eastern Wharf project in both size and scale and the impact it will have on Savannah’s iconic historic district,” says Fielder Shurling, a principal at Regent Partners, the firm overseeing the project.“We have worked diligently with the community to ensure we respect Savannah’s storied past and honor her future by creating a place that endures the test of time.”
A similarly thoughtful reclamation is taking place on the western end of Savannah’s Historic Landmark District, where hotelier Richard Kessler has undertaken a legacy project of civic magnitude: His Plant Riverside District, which centers around the restoration of a century-old power plant that was no longer in operation, will add a quarter mile of public river walk to the city. Kessler, a Savannah native, bought the ruggedly beautiful facility from Georgia Power company in 2012. He has reimagined its soaring ceilings and brick archways as home to a contemporary lodging and entertainment complex; Plant Riverside will feature a dozen restaurants, three rooftop bars, multiple live music venues and a science museum that will include a full dinosaur skeleton suspended from the ceiling.
“Plant Riverside is a stage for personal growth of Savannah residents and guests alike,” says Kessler, who’s known for creating hotels that are original and inspiring. “It should always be a place of both rest and excitement, limited only by one’s imagination and creativity.”
The largest of the three hotels in the new Plant Riverside complex, the JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside Hotel will raise the bar for luxury accommodations in the city. Its 419 rooms and suites are artistically appointed with details like lavender-hued marble and bonafide maritime artifacts, and Kessler’s lush aesthetic is evident in everything from the linens to the original artwork.
Also touting international standards of luxury is Perry Lane Hotel, a four-star stunner embraced by locals for its genuine love for Savannah and unparalleled views from the rooftop Peregrin. Downstairs in the elegant library, you’ll find local authors on the shelves—and perhaps holding court at The Wayward. Such attention to authenticity is likewise de rigueur at the Alida Hotel, where corner studios and a 2,700-square-foot penthouse with a wrap-around balcony offer plush amenities and an upscale contemporary motif.
In conjunction with its thriving hotel scene, Savanah has in recent years developed a reputation as a fantastic food town. Speaking of Leopold’s, the city’s honors surely have a bit to do with its famous distinctive treats, along with the handcrafted truffles at Chocolat by Adam Turon and pralines from River Street Sweets.
Food & Wine magazine recently named The Grey, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, as one of the world’s best restaurants for its thoughtful, modern interpretations of Southern cuisine by Chef Mashama Bailey, who won a James Beard Award in 2019. Longtime culinary linchpins 45 Bistro and Elizabeth on 37th continue to elevate the fine dining scene, and refined local palates praise the Fat Radish and Chef Sean Brock’s Husk. In fact, the abundance of new restaurants has broadened the boundaries of the city’s traditional dining scene. Foodies are finding their way to the locally revered bars and restaurants in the Victorian and Starland neighborhoods—notably Cotton & Rye, Atlantic, Lone Wolf Lounge and Starland Yard, an upscale food truck court constructed from reclaimed shipping containers.
“We’re not just River Street and City Market anymore,” Joseph Marinelli says.“There’s a lot going on south of Forsyth Park and beyond, and today’s visitor is enjoying discovering these new neighborhoods and districts.”
Thanks in large part to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Savannah has become a crucible for creative entrepreneurs. SCAD grad Elizabeth Seeger founded Satchel, where bespoke leather purses and accessories are stitched onsite, and exotic baubles dazzle at Zia Couture Jewelry. Art collectors will find a variety of work in diverse styles at Roots Up and Location Gallery, and Laney Contemporary showcases photographer Jack Leigh’s prints along with the work of local and regional artists in a Brutalist architectural marvel on the city’s west side. “We are extremely proud of our makers in Savannah,” says Marinelli.
For those seeking entertainment, the city’s dance card is always full: The calendar boasts a bevy of acclaimed cultural events, including the Savannah Music Festival, featuring classical and world musicians; the edgier Savannah Stopover Festival, with its lineup of bands on their way to Austin for SXSW; and the Savannah Film Festival, hosted every fall in conjunction with SCAD and a magnet for film industry professionals and celebrities. In between, there are celebratory homages to everything from craft beer and bacon to the city’s African American heritage. And no discussion of Savannah is complete without a toast to the annual St. Patrick’s Day Festival, the second-largest celebration of its kind in the country and the reason why the iconic Forsyth Park Fountain runs green every spring.
Yet even with its thrum of year-round activity and top-tier attractions, Savannah maintains an enchanting peacefulness. Sitting in a square listening to the breeze rustle branches of 150-year-old oak trees, it’s still possible to enjoy quiet moments. Just don’t expect them to last all day.