SAVANNAH, Ga. – Savannah was founded in 1733 and was one of America's first planned cities, with a series of squares and parks that can still be enjoyed today.
But the reason for those public spaces might surprise modern visitors: British General James Oglethorpe designed them as part of a military grid so his troops could set up camp and have shaded meeting spots. The soldiers were there to keep the Spanish from advancing north to the English colony in Charleston, S.C., and Oglethorpe's statue faces south, as if still keeping a watchful eye on things.
Originally the city had 24 squares. It's a remarkable feat of preservation that 22 are still in existence and one more is being restored. Surrounded by stately homes and beautiful gardens, they form the heart of a two-and-a-half-square-mile historic district with more than 2,000 historic or architecturally significant buildings.
The city's preservation movement got a jumpstart in 1955 from a group of women angry that the historic Isaiah Davenport House was about to be knocked down for a parking lot. Eventually that home and many others were saved.
Today the area is one of the largest National Historic Landmark districts in the country. Most of the houses remain privately owned, but a few are open for public tours, including the Davenport House. It dates to 1820 and is considered one of the best examples of Federal architecture in the area, with original plasterwork, a cantilevered staircase, a large collection of Davenport china and period furniture.
Another popular house for tourists is the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, where the founder of the Girl Scouts grew up. The house was built in 1821; Low was born in 1860. It had more than 65,000 visitors last year, including at least 20,000 Girl Scouts whose visits earn them a special birthplace pin for their uniforms. Generally it takes about two years for a troop to reserve a visit, plan for it and raise the necessary money.
The Mercer House dates to the 1860s but achieved fame in the late 20th century as home to the late art dealer Jim Williams, who was tried but never convicted in a fatal shooting there. The case inspired the book and movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
Savannah's historic cemeteries include the Colonial Park Cemetery, which dates to 1750 but was occupied during the Civil War by Union troops who famously altered some of the dates on tombstones; the Mordecai Sheftall Cemetery, an early burial place for the city's substantial Jewish population, which also founded a synagogue in 1733, Congregation Mickve Israel; and Laurel Grove Cemetery, which was designed in 1850 as a segregated graveyard, with one section for blacks and one for whites.
Savannah's most famous cemetery is Bonaventure. It's one of the most photographed cemeteries in the country. Not only does it have a beautiful collection of camellias, azaleas, dogwoods, magnolias and old live oak trees, but it's also where many prominent locals were buried. Its unique monuments and tombstones include one in the shape of a piano. The cemetery's famous "Bird Girl" statue, which was featured on the cover of the "Midnight in the Garden" book, is now on view at Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art. It was moved there to protect it from vandalism.
Savannah has a history in movies too, dating to a silent film shot there in 1915 called "Under Southern Skies." Other movies shot in Savannah include "Forrest Gump," "Roots," and "Glory." As you stroll through the historic district, you'll pass by the place where Forrest Gump sat on a bench with a box of chocolates, telling his life story as he waited for a bus to take him to his beloved Jenny's house. But the spot in Chippewa Square on Hull Street never had a real bus stop, and the bench used in the movie is in the Savannah History Museum.
Savannah's tours include those devoted to the Civil War, art, architecture, African-American heritage, gardens, and of course ghosts, with a choice of transportation from limos, trolleys and buses, to horse-drawn carriages and boats along the waterway. Savannah likes to call itself the "most haunted city in America," and one ghost tour offers transportation by hearse.
But nothing beats seeing the city on foot. With all those beautiful parks, it's easy to find a nice spot to sit for awhile and people-watch. Temperatures are mild even in winter, with daytime highs in the 60s not unusual. Stroll on down to the City Market or River Street for a drink, shopping, or something to eat.
A project now under development called Savannah River Landing will include hotels, offices, estate homes, condos, shopping, boat slips, a garden plaza and retail shopping, all along the waterfront. But developers say they'll respect Oglethorpe's original plans by leaving pedestrian-friendly spaces and blending in with the historic cityscape.