Weekend Getaways

Looking For Good and Evil in Savannah

Dripping oaks, haunted hotels, and shrimp & grits.

By Bill Wiatrak June 12, 2018

Forsyth Park.

“Life is like a box of chocolates” echoed through my head as I navigated my way around the small square where Forrest Gump sat on his famous park bench in the eponymous 1994 blockbuster film. The park bench isn’t there of course, but there’s plenty of beautiful filming locations from other movies, lovely gardens and antebellum architecture to keep visitors busy in Georgia’s most historical city. And don’t worry about getting your Gump bench picture. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Besides providing locations for a few scenes in the Tom Hanks film, Savannah got a revival on the tourist route when the non-fiction bestseller (and the movie shortly thereafter) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was released. This mostly factual story was the perfect showcase for the Georgian city: graveyards full of moss-covered oak trees, a “good old Southern boy” culture, and historic neighborhoods full of wooded squares and antebellum homes. This sums up a trip to Savannah.  Stroll or picnic in a few of its 22 squares. Sample some Southern cuisine and take a paddle boat down the Savannah River while sipping sweet tea.

Savannah is everything you expect and more.

Staying in the historic district is the best option since everything you’ll want to see is within walking or cycling distance, but convenience comes at a premium. Hotels and parking can be pricey, so budget travelers can opt for less expensive options on the fringes of town and use a free shuttle to get there. The historic area includes the riverfront on the Savannah river, the nearby market area and Forsyth Park. 

Forsyth Park is a good place to start your tour. Almost any image search for Savannah will render a picture of this iconic green spot with its famous antique fountain. The fountain was ordered from a mail catalog a century and a half ago and has somehow survived wars and hurricanes, and remained the most photographed spot in the city. There’s even a special garden allocated for the visually impaired, chock-full of aromatic flowers. You’ll also find sporting areas and a theater for outdoor shows. 

The Williams-Mercer home.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Nearby is Pulaski Square which is instantly recognizable from the film version of MITGOGAE. The central character in the movie is Jim Williams, played by Kevin Spacey, a socialite antique dealer who lived in the 1860 Mercer-Williams House across from the square and was tried and acquitted for the same crime a record four times. This house was used in the Clint Eastwood-produced film as well as the movies Glory and, curiously enough, Swamp Thing. You can tour one floor of this home, including the room where Jim Williams shot Danny Lewis Hansford  (presumably in self-defense), the garden and the modernized carriage house. There’s more focus on the contents of the house than on Williams’ story, and while you can’t see the entire home (or take photos), it’s definitely worth doing the short tour.

The Mercer-Williams House gets half of its name from its famous resident, and the other from the Mercer family, who started building it the year before the Civil War began, but never lived there. Two generations later, Johnny Mercer created his own legacy when he co-founded Capitol Records along with penning hundreds of popular songs for some of the most famous people in show business. After his death, Johnny was laid to rest in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery. He is among one of its most famous residents and the reason for many a tourist’s visit. His grave is featured in the beginning scene of the Eastwood film and is one of the most visited spots in Savannah in spite of it being outside the main quarter of town.

The Bird Girl statue.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Mary Telfair, the woman who left her family's mansion and art collection to the city after her death in 1875, is buried nearby. Ironically, the cemetery’s famous statue of “The Bird Girl” from MITGOGAE has been relocated to one of the Telfair museums due to vandalism. You’ll find lots of other interesting graves in Savannah. The founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low, is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery. While on the subject of necro-tourism, some of the most haunted hotels in America can be found in Savannah as well. The Marshall House, Olde Harbor Inn, and the Kehoe House are just a few of the inns with well-deserved ghostly reputations.

The Savannah History Museum & Battlefield Memorial Park is a great place to beat the heat and see the iconic bench from Forrest Gump. It was never a real bench, but a movie prop made of fiberglass so that it could easily be moved during filming. It was one of several created for the film, but it’s the real deal (for a movie prop) and you can take a photo standing next to it. There’s a sizable section of the museum dedicated to Juliette Gordon Low, chronicling her fascinating world travels and creation of the Girl Scouts. You can also visit Low's childhood home in the Historic District. The museum is also full of Civil War memorabilia and even brings in costumed actors to help bring the stories to life.

The Rail Pub is a must visit.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Savannah is jammed with small cafes, tea rooms and niche restaurants that cater to every taste, but if you’re looking for the true Southern experience, you can’t go wrong with shrimp and grits, pecan fried chicken, or anything made with peaches. Barbecue is a thing in Georgia as well, plus the famous Brunswick Stew that you can’t get very many other places in the U.S.  There’s a fine line between authentic and tourist trap sometimes, but the riverside and market areas both have their share of popular eateries, great people watching, and Byrd’s Famous Cookies.

Byrd's has earned its stripes after almost 100 years of producing delicious bite-size cookies in a variety of flavors—key lime and peach are two of its finest, and you can taste free samples of almost anything at one of its stores. On the subject of sweet things, Leopold’s Ice Cream should not be missed. Its marble soda fountain and nostalgic '50s motif are reason enough to visit, but the ice cream is fantastic and you'd be hard-pressed to find the unique flavors elsewhere. Leopold’s is doing something right, because it’s celebrating its 100th year in 2019.

The Owens-Thomas House.

The Telfair Academy doesn't have the biggest art collection, but it was the first art museum in the South, and it's a beautiful mansion full of European treasures and temporary exhibits from around the world. Italian statues adorn the front of the building and make the repurposed Telfair home look like something that belongs on the Amalfi coast. There are three museums included in your ticket: The Telfair Academy, The Jepsen Center (where you’ll find the Bird Girl statue), and the antebellum Owens-Thomas House.

So what else could you ask for? Savannah has one of the country’s most famous dive bars, one of the oldest bars in the U.S., and one of the most haunted hotels in America (plus shrimp and grits!) all in one beautiful walkable town. What are you waiting for? 

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