Article 19 April

First 24 hours in Savannah, Georgia

Julia Hammond discovers a slice of real Americana in Savannah, Georgia - far away from the maddening crowds

Where: America’s historic south east
Why: Ditch the car for this absorbing, historic charmer
When: Spring or late autumn, perfect strolling weather

Before you arrive

This isn’t the America of Disney, with cop shows and bright lights. Founded in 1733, Savannah is the oldest city in the state of Georgia, lying on the banks of the Savannah River. She’s a true Southern belle, genteel in the squares but playful down by the waterfront. The freeways are well hidden from the Historic District, where you’ll be warmly welcomed by the locals as you amble through their 22 squares at leisure.

At the airport

As with many regional US airports, there isn’t a wide range of concessions, but you will find the usual offerings such as Starbucks Coffee, Burger King and a Samuel Adams Brewhouse. In addition, there are post office facilities, free wi-fi and even a small art gallery.

Getting into town

Chatham Area Transit (CAT) run a shuttle from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport to the Joe Murray Rivers Jr. Intermodal Transit Center, a bus depot just on the edge of town. Ask for the 100X Express Shuttle. It’s a bargain at only $1.50 and departs hourly. From the Transit Center you can pick up the DOT, a free streetcar that takes you to a range of locations in the Historic District and which also connects to the river ferry if your hotel is just across the water. A useful map (with all the connections) can be found here.

Alternatively, take a taxi direct to your hotel. Any destination in the Historic District costs a flat rate of $28. The airport also provides a handy cab fare rate system

Other ways to arrive

Take the train – Amtrak links Savannah to South Carolina’s delightful Charleston via the alluringly-named Silver Meteor and Palmetto services. The journey takes around 1 hour 45 minutes and both stations are an easy cab ride from their historic cores.

The easiest route to Savannah from the UK involves travelling with Delta via Atlanta. Make it a road trip picking up a hire car in Atlanta where you can pay a visit to CNN and Coca Cola before heading for the coast. Break your journey at sleepy Macon just off I-75, packed with architectural character.

After Savannah, head north to Charleston via Beaufort, whose quaint waterfront is a walkable distance from many old mansions whose residents will greet you from their porch swings. From Charleston back to Atlanta, a detour to the north east could find you on an organised tour of the BMW factory in Spartanburg, or hiking the Smokey Mountains.

First day’s tour

Start your visit with a walking tour of Savannah’s historic squares to get your bearings. Begin in Johnson Square, the oldest of all, in the heart of the financial area, before meandering via Oglethorpe Square (it was he who designed the grid layout) or Chippewa Square, where you can check out the strange fish caps on the downpipes. Head south towards Forsyth Park with its glorious fountain.

For a local’s insight into the city and its people (and some movie location references to boot) you could book Savannah Dan to be your guide. Two hour tours cost $25 and begin from Johnson Square

Stop for lunch at Mrs Wilkes Dining Room (107 W Jones St) for some good old fashioned Southern dining, but get there early or you’ll queue round the block. If you’re too late, head instead for Clary’s Cafe round the corner (404 Abercorn Street); it featured in the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

End the day in River Street. Cobbled paths down to the river lead you past nine blocks of boutique shops selling crafts and souvenirs giving a new lease of life to former warehouses on the wharf. In the evening, this is where Savannah’s visitors come to kick back and enjoy themselves. Head for Joe’s Crab Shack; drool over the menu whilst working your way through a Mason Jar Margarita or two – try a Ragin’ Cajun steampot or an enormous bucket of king crab legs. You won’t have room for dessert, but pick up some salt water taffy or glazed pecans from the candy store opposite to nibble on later.

First night’s sleep

Top end: The Bohemian (doubles from $249/nt). Right on the river, it is an easy walk to restaurants, and bars – that’s if you can drag yourself off the hotel’s own beautiful terrace. Effortlessly elegant, it is tastefully decorated in earthy tones.

Mid-range: Hyatt’s Andaz Hotel (doubles from $189/nt), is right on Ellis Square and a short walk from the waterfront. Ask to face the square on a high floor and enjoy stunning views across the Historic District from your room’s comfy chaise longue.

Budget: The Hampton Inn (doubles from $149/nt), near SCAD Museum of Art and the Georgia State Railroad Museum, is just adjacent to the Historic District and easily walkable. It offers a free breakfast, free wi-fi and parking, as does its sister hotel on Bay Street.

Top Tip

Renting a bicycle (or if you’re brave, a Segway) enables you to cover more ground than if you stick to two feet. Off Bay Street, traffic is light (the drivers cannot be bothered to make the four turns each time they need to navigate the squares) so you can freewheel or stop without risk of being hooted or rear-end shunted.

Stay or go?

If Savannah has whetted your appetite, head north to Charleston in the neighbouring state of South Carolina. More like Savannah’s big sister (for this feels like a city), Charleston is packed full of historic homes and guides itching to show you on one of the many excellent walking tours. Head a short distance out of the city to the Magnolia Plantation, where you can nose around a plantation house, admire the gardens and take a boat trip through the plantation’s swamp to spot alligators. Basing yourself in Historic South Charleston, it’s also an easy boat trip to Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

Alternatively, if the weather’s good, stay in Georgia and head for the coast. Savannah’s resort is a few miles east at Tybee Island, with wide stretches of white sand perfect for soaking up some rays in summer or taking a stroll along the wooden pier in the shoulder seasons.

Essential info

Population: 142,000

Language: English

Time zone: GMT -5 (Mar-Nov GMT -6)

International dialling code: +1

Visas: British citizens must obtain an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). It is available online at a cost of $14 (beware of agencies which will charge more) and you must purchase it at least 72 hours before travel.

Currency: US dollar ($), currently around $1.59 to the UK£.

Highest viewpoint: This is a low-rise city, for the best views try to book a hotel room on a high floor as there’ll be little to get in your way.

Health issues: None - though watch out for those snappy 'gators if you visit a swamp!

Recommended guidebooks:
Frommer’s The Carolinas and Georgia

Web resources: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/usa/the-south/savannah

App: Savannah Walking Tour by Tour Buddy

Climate: Humid sub-tropical best describes this city, so best avoid the sweltering heat of high summer and the chance of a hurricane in early autumn. Winter days are pleasantly sunny with an average high of 15°C and almost no chance of frost. The humidity falls dramatically as the breeze picks up in spring and late autumn yet temperatures are well into the 20s, making this the best time to go.

Follow Team Wanderlust