The crown jewel of the Old South is reinventing itself with cutting-edge art, music and cuisine.
Savannah, Georgia’s reputation as the crown jewel of the Old South – full of haunted Gothic mansions, trees hung with moss and implausibly syrupy Southern accents – has been crystallized in people’s minds, thanks to iconic Hollywood films like Forrest Gump. But in recent years, the sleepy southern dame has transformed into a vibrant, art-filled city that is attracting young sophisticates from Atlanta, Boston and Washington, DC.
The most potent reason for this change is the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). With more than 10,000 students, many from outside the United States, SCAD occupies 70 renovated historic buildings in downtown Savannah and its influence can be felt everywhere. Seven SCAD art galleries complement the 1886 Telfair Museum, the south’s first public art museum with a large collection of European masters. In 2006, the Telfair opened an acclaimed modern expansion and houses works from Hans Holbein to Jasper Johns.
In the Savannah of years past, most visitors’ attention was focused on the city’s 22 historic squares — picturesque parks surrounded by 19th-century mansions embroidered with wrought iron accents. The new Savannah is centred around Broughton Street, the city’s original shopping thoroughfare, and nearby City Market, a pedestrian mall that encompasses Savannah’s first retail area. Broughton Street was once blighted with boarded-up storefronts, but the core is now chockablock with stores, nightclubs and restaurants.
Sylvester & Co Savannah, a branch of the eco-minimalist Hamptons, New York retailer, attracts a steady stream of new Savannah urbanites and faux-hawked, black-rim-bespectacled millennials. There are also several vintage clothing stores, including a branch of Atlanta’s Clothing Warehouse and the Savannah Bee Company, a shop filled with products from local beekeepers.
At night, music ranging from nouveau country to thrash rock leaks from the doorways of clubs, restaurants, tea rooms and hookah lounges along Broughton Street. Most weekends, packs of partygoers roam the streets until the wee hours, satiated with art, food, music and plenty of adult beverages to wash it all down. The Crypt, a pub and dance club on Broughton, is decorated with candles and skulls, but also has a surprising menu of delicious sustainably-produced food, like locally caught shrimp. There is also a wide-ranging beer selection with microbrews such as Fat Tire, but try the Hobgoblin with a touch of Framboise for something a little different.
Do not be tempted by low rates at “convenient” Midtown motels. Book your hotel in the historic district, where parking is scarce, but you can walk to the clubs, restaurants and shops. Two chic newcomers are the Avia, a trendy boutique hotel, and the Studio Homes at Ellis Square, a contemporary style timeshare building. The Thunderbird Inn has received a lot of press, but its location, across from the Greyhound bus station west of City Market, is still suspect safety-wise. At the Mansion on Forsyth Park, one of hotelier Richard Kessler’s masterpieces, the eclectic decor embraces both Greek columns and orange crystal chandeliers and the hotel holds more than 400 pieces of contemporary art.
Savannah’s cuisine is not on the same level as Charleston, South Carolina, or New Orleans, but it is getting there. Longtime standouts Garibaldi Cafe, Elizabeth on 37th and the Olde Pink House have been joined by new inventive eateries. At the high end, try 700 Drayton at the Mansion on Forsyth Park, where they pair local shrimp with garganelli pasta and Niman Ranch bacon. Jazz’d is a tapas bar with a Rat Pack-cool interior and live music. For artery-clogging southern standards, try the Lady and Sons, the signature restaurant of Food Network star Paula Deen. Despite Deen’s diabetes diagnosis, the food is just as creamy-buttery-salty as ever. For breakfast, there is no better place than Clary’s Café, a no-nonsense neighbourhood diner. Zunzis has vegan dishes and coffee shop the Sentient Bean is a little slice of Seattle in Savannah, its tables laden with MacBook computers and organic baked goods.
The Savannah College of Art and Design operates seven galleries in the city and maintains a calendar of exhibitions, so you can get a preview of what will be showing during your stay. Much of the work is very experimental. The newly opened “main” museum, the SCAD Museum of Art, has a permanent collection that is augmented by temporary exhibitions of the best current works. You should definitely make time for the city’s Telfair Museum and in particular, it’s gorgeous modern wing designed by architect Moshe Safdie. In City Market, check out the gallery of local artist Stephen Kasun.
The shopping is laid out along a half-dozen blocks of Broughton Street and in City Market. Sylvester & Co has everything from zip-up flowered cowboy boots to retro refrigerators. The Paris Market sells collectibles and housewares that have been gathered worldwide. Beekeeper Ted Dennard parlayed his fascination with the social insects into a stellar boutique, Savannah Bee Company, which offers dozens of deliciously packaged local honeys and soap.
While Savannah has great musical history — it was home to the composer of Jingle Bells and Johnny “Moon River” Mercer — it did not have much to offer beyond country and blues bands until fairly recently. At Casimir’s Lounge, jazz combos play Sinatra and standards while cigar smokers retreat to the rooftop terrace overlooking Forsyth Park to sip their Scotch. SubZero is a faux ice bar located in a basement. Everything is white, from the fur-trimmed minis worn by the hostesses to igloo-esque walls and a mounted caribou head. The crowd starts young and gets younger as the night goes on. On Congress Street, 51 Degrees is a three-story dance club with very loud hip-hop, salsa and house music.