Savannah’s historic districts create a spectacular holiday backdrop.
Admit it – when an excursion to Savannah, Ga., comes to mind, the first things to enter it are Sherman’s March and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. One nearly meant the end of the city; the other – known simply as “The Book” by locals – helped preserve it.
Yet for all the beauty of this Georgia town’s celebrated sub-tropical gardens and promenades lined with live oaks, famously strewn with Spanish moss, Savannah creates an unforgettable picture for the holidays. And it owes much of that appeal to its historic districts.
Founded as a British colony town in 1733, Savannah first gained importance as a major seaport on the Atlantic Ocean. In recent decades, the city has reaffirmed its usefulness for today’s exporters and importers. Located on the Savannah River about 20 miles upstream from the ocean, the south-bank city is forward-thinking, yet appreciative of its heritage.
Downtown Savannah boasts the Victorian District and Historic District along with 22 lovingly cultivated park squares, all folded into a single National Historic Landmark District.
Blending Southern culture with coastal town living, Savannah during the holidays offers a unique travel experience. If you thought the city was magnificent in the bloom of spring, wait until you see its palms, oaks and streets awash in poinsettias and big red bows.
Holly Jolly Trolley Tour
When you hop aboard the Old Town Trolley, you’re getting more than just a convenient ride around town. The trolley takes guests around downtown Savannah’s Historic District and onto Hutchinson Island, a narrow island in the Savannah River. During November and December, the trolley runs tours in the evening so visitors can see the city’s brick-paved streets, century-old structures and parks bathed in the glow of holiday lights before swinging by Westin Harbor Resort’s Gingerbread Village, a seasonal favorite. Tourists are in good hands – the Old Town Trolley Tours is the only one of its kind endorsed by the Historic Savannah Foundation.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
The Roman Catholic presence in Savannah is strong, and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist represents that influence well. Construction started in 1873 and was completed in 1896, but the church was nearly destroyed two years later by a fire. Rebuilt in 1899, the Gothic-style cathedral has withstood the trials of time (and some aggressive renovations) to remind all of the endurance of goodness and spirit. During the holidays, the cathedral sanctuary and its stained glass windows are even more impressive – decked with beautiful décor and wreathes that only enhance the experience for worship and contemplation during one of the holiest seasons of the year for many. There’s also a strikingly detailed Nativity scene.
Savannah Harbor Festival of Lights
The holiday season is also marked by the winter solstice (Dec. 21) and new beginnings. The city started a tradition only three years ago with the Savannah Harbor Festival of Lights on Hutchinson Island. Drive or walk through an extensive holiday lights display, visit the petting zoo, watch live musical theater pieces and feast on a giant turkey leg with a chaser of s’mores and hot chocolate. If you want to know what it is to live in festive Savannah, this is it. The Savannah Harbor Foundation founded the event along with several other holiday events unique to the city.
Shopping on River Street
One of the most frequented sections of town is River Street – part riverfront thoroughfare, part people-watching haven. During November and December, the milder winters allow sweater-clad diners to continue enjoying coffee al fresco. Shoppers make the most of browsing the numerous specialty and boutique shops on the riverfront. Imparting a hint of Old World charisma, River Street is what today’s Savannah is all about – a progressive community paying homage to its history by living with it.
There’s a reason it’s called the “art and soul” of Savannah. City Market, a four-block center in the Historic District, first saw life as an open-air marketplace for fishermen and farmers back in the 1700s. In more recent decades, the center was renovated to include warehouses and properties around Ellis Square. Today, visitors will find a marketplace and social square much expanded from City Market’s original intent, but thanks to careful planning, this downtown haven retains the atmosphere of by-gone days. And there’s plenty to do at City Market during the holidays, including open house events, the Christmas for Kids Celebration and the New Year’s Eve Celebration.
Savannah Holly Days
Savannah goes all out for the holiday season every year with Savannah Holly Days. Beginning in early November and running through New Year’s Eve, the festival is an umbrella for a myriad of activities, including the annual lights festival, a children’s celebration, ice skating, horse-drawn carriage rides, running events, historic home tours, Christmas church bazaars and more. One of the highlights is Christmas on the River, a day at the picturesque Rousakis Riverfront Plaza on the Savannah River filled with shopping, music and the best seats for the city’s lighted Christmas parade on River Street. Another is the Boat Parade of Lights, held after Thanksgiving and featuring a holiday party, music, fireworks and a parade of 50 boats.
Visit online at www.visitsavannah.com.
At A Glance
- Access: Arrive at Savannah International Airport, which has flights to major cities of the region and along the east coast. In town, shuttle buses, taxis and rental cars get you to various points, while pedicabs, carriage rides, trolleys and a streetcar allow visitors to see more.
- Climate: Temperatures in November and December fluctuate between upper and lower 60s as fall passes. The semi-tropical climate creates milder winters.
- Main attractions: Bonaventure Cemetery, Lafayette Square, Fort Pulaski National Monument, Tybee Island Beach, Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace
Stay In Style
- The Ballastone: Live the grandeur of old Savannah at the Ballastone, a bed and breakfast swaddling guests in Southern decadence. Built in 1838 and once operated as a bordello, the Ballastone is dressed in Victorian-period antiques and includes a bar, patio and restaurant that are the essence of luxury without stodginess. It’s no surprise that the Ballastone is located in the Historic District, and after you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why this sumptuous backdrop is popular for weddings and special occasions. See you for high tea in the dining room! www.ballastone.com
- Thunderbird Inn: The Thunderbird Inn is a colorful, retro-chic, motel-style establishment with pop culture touches from Savannah’s not-so-distant past. Accommodating travelers with pets and appealing to a carefree set, the inn may not be for everyone, but there’s a reason why the “hippest hotel” in town is well regarded by national media (including The New York Times, Southern Living and Fodor’s). Praised for its creativity, convenience and budget-mindedness, this Historic District stand out begs to be noticed. www.thethunderbirdinn.com
- The Olde Pink House
Restaurant: One of Savannah’s most popular stops for fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, crab cakes and great surf and turf selections, the Olde Pink House Restaurant is true to its name. Adjacent to the Planters Inn, the famed restaurant brings its upscale best to the table, whether that table is located in one of the gorgeously preserved rooms of this 18th-century mansion or in the romantic wine cellar. www.plantersinnsavannah.com
- Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room: No guide to dining in Savannah ever leaves out Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room – Southern cooking with everything from fried chicken and meat loaf to okra gumbo, collard greens and biscuits. Part of the historic Wilkes House boarding establishment, the kitchen is better known than the lodgings, which is saying something. If you go for lunch, plan on waiting in a line out the door and making friends at the big dining tables, which offer the best chance to meet fellow travelers and locals. www.mrswilkes.com
- Leopold’s Ice Cream: Who wants ice cream in December? Savannah’s mild temperatures mean frozen treats are perfect any month. This old-school ice cream parlor goes back to 1919, when it was opened by brothers George, Peter and Basil Leopold. Leopold’s continues to make its own ice cream from the original recipes and in a multitude of flavors. Johnny Mercer, the renowned songwriter, grew up a block away from Leopold’s, and his favorite flavor was “tutti-fruiti,” still served today. www.leopoldsicecream.com