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When John Berendt's bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil hit bookstores in 1994, Savannah had already long been one of the South's most beloved destinations, a vibrant port city with a graceful layout of beautifully preserved leafy city squares interspersed by broad streets lined with mansions and moss-draped oaks.
"The Book," as Berendt's fascinating look into eccentric Savannah society came to be nicknamed, upped the public's interest in the city. Over the past 15 years or so, historic inns have become ever more posh, accomplished chefs have opened noteworthy restaurants, and a dynamic arts scene - fueled by the presence of Savannah College of Art and Design - has steadily blossomed.
Today Savannah offers bounty of leisurely pursuits - a visit here is less about big attractions and more of an opportunity to immerse yourself in a city exuding old-world charm and infectious hospitality. Pack a sturdy pair of shoes, too - this city is made for walking.
5…Drop by City Market
Now one of the city's foremost hubs for dining and shopping, as well an incubator of sorts for Savannah's burgeoning arts scene, City Market (W. Bryan St. and Jefferson St., http://www.savannahcitymarket.com) became a lynchpin of local preservation efforts when developers demolished it in 1954. Concerned locals formed the Historic Savannah Foundation, which has gone on to save more than 400 local buildings facing similar threats, and in the late '80s, the market was rebuilt and the surrounding blocks redeveloped. Today, along this pedestrian-only four-block stretch of redbrick buildings, you'll find a bustling mix of restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries.
The City Market Art Center (204 W. St. Julian Street) contains many of the galleries - about 20 studios in all, including such favorites as Jim Holmes Photography, Osibisa Fine Arts, and Addiktspace Studios. Several other galleries are set around the City Market neighborhood, plus the sorts of touristy but engaging shops you might expect of such an area (think scented candles and pecan pralines). All Things Georgia is good fun, though, carrying a remarkably varied array of made-in-state products, from artful wooden walking sticks to picked olives.
4…Savor down-home Southern cooking
You'll usually find long lines out the door at Lady and Sons - the famed restaurant operated by larger-than-life celeb chef Paula Deen - and by all means, make a point of eating here if you have the inclination. But many of the city's best purveyors of old-school, down-home regional cooking are far less crowded. Although it's also well-loved by tourists, Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House (107 W. Jones St., 912-232-5997, http://www.mrswilkes.com) is simply stellar when it comes to family-style Southern fare. Friends and strangers alike gather at this lunch-only establishment - opened as a genuine boardinghouse in the 1940s - piling their plates high with rice & gravy, beef and biscuits, macaroni & cheese, butter beans, candied yams, fried chicken, and utterly decadent banana pudding for dessert.
Fans of fried green tomatoes, Brunswick stew, tender slow-barbecued leg of lamb, baby back ribs, and broiled oysters head to another of the city's longest-running restaurants, Johnny Harris, a humble establishment that opened in 1924. For a hearty, if artery-clogging breakfast, drop by Clary's (404 Abercorn St., 912-233-0402), a greasy-spoon diner that appeared memorably in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The honey-pecan waffles are a fine beginning to any morning.
3…Stroll through 280 years of history
With one of the best-preserved historic downtowns in the country, Savannah is tailor-made for walking. The city also offers visitors an impressive survey of American building styles since the mid-18th century. One of the most engaging, hands-on ways to view the city and actually gain an appreciation of Savannah's stately houses and oft-photographed tree-shaded square is to book a guided walk with Architectural Tours of Savannah (912-604-6354, http://www.architecturalsavannah.com). Local architectural historian Jonathan Stalcup leads these intimate, colorful strolls throughout the year. They typically begin at Chippewa Square, which you may recognize from the opening scene in Forrest Gump, and includes a discussion of such iconic Savannah buildings as the Owens-Thomas House - often cited as America's exemplar of English Regency-style architecture - and the ornately Romanesque Federal Courthouse.
If there's one restaurant in the city's that especially lends itself to lunch or dinner - or even just a mint julep in the open-air Arches Bar - it's the Olde Pink House (23 Abercorn St., 912-232-4286), which occupies a splendid 1771 Georgian house on Reynolds Square. Within this grand, antiques-filled house warmed by the glow of several fireplaces, the kitchen turns out superb and quite lavish Lowcountry favorites like she-crab soup, crispy flounder with apricot-shallot sauce and grits, and sautéed local shrimp with country-ham gravy.
2…Go green among the parks and islands
Amid Savannah's tight grid of historic residential and commercial blocks, it's surprisingly easy to find inviting greenery here. Moss-draped live oaks line most of the streets in the Historic District, and the city's 22 regal squares - most of them anchored with gardens, lawns, and statuary - invite leisurely pauses, whether to sip espresso or listen to chirping birds. The standout for leafy strolls is Forsyth Park (enter at Bull and E. Gaston Sts.), a dignified 30-acre swath of oak trees and garden that forms a long rectangle on the southern side of the Historic District. Laced with paved walkways and inspired by the grand urban oases of Paris, Forsyth Park is arguably the most romantic meeting spot in Savannah, an ornate cast-iron fountain surrounded by benches, and from which the grandest lanes emanate.
And don't forget that Savannah lies a mere 17 miles inland from one of the Georgia coast's loveliest beach communities, Tybee Island. This family-oriented stretch of serene beaches is backed by a small clutch of seafood restaurants, shops, and B&Bs. It makes for a perfect outdoorsy day trip, perhaps stopping along the way at Fort Pulaski National Monument (off U.S. 80 east, 3 mi before you reach Tybee Island, 912-786-5787, http://www.nps.gov/fopu), the site of a pivotal two-day Civil War battle that ended with a Union victory.
1…Explore the Telfair Museums
Savannah's seminal attraction, the Telfair Museums complex (207 W. York St., 912-790-8800, http://telfair.org), is actually three noted museums under the aegis of one organization. There's the aforementioned Owens-Thomas, which lies about six blocks east of the main Telfair complex, overlooking the fashionable old homes, tall shade trees, and Greek Revival Trinity Methodist Church surrounding Telfair Square. The two primary museums, both of them containing incomparable collections of art, couldn't be more different in appearance: local star architect William Jay designed the Telfair Academy building in 1819 as a private mansion, in the English Regency style. It became the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences 1886, and it now contains rarefied furnishings from the Georgia Historical Society as well as an exceptional art collection that include many works by noted American Impressionists like Childe Hassam and Robert Henri. Save time to walk through the building's stately sculpture garden.
The final jewel in the Telfair crown is next door to the Academy building. The angular Jepson Center, which celebrated contemporary architect Moshe Safdie designed in 2006, strikes a dramatic pose over the square. Its soaring walls are hung with works by some of the art world's most esteemed contemporary masters, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Avedon, and the interactive, 3,500-square-foot ArtZeum delights children of all ages.