Forget the Charleston/Savannah rivalry. With its funky vintage style and burgeoning culinary and art scenes, Savannah is much more than a shabby sister city — it's a destination in itself. While its historic B&Bs and romantic restaurants make it a popular couple's retreat, the eclectic shopping and nightlife mean it's perfect for a weekend getaway with friends. On a recent Friday, we loaded up the car and made the two-hour drive with plenty of time to settle into our hotel and have a drink before heading out to dinner.
Our home base was the AVIA, a boutique hotel overlooking the brand new Ellis Square in the city center. Once an eyesore of a parking garage, the sunny park has an interactive fountain, benches, public bathrooms, an underground parking garage, and a statue of Savannah native Johnny Mercer. The AVIA is a stunningly stylish spot — the decor is modern yet comfortable, with luxurious amenities like a terrace pool and in-room spa services. The restaurant and bar on the first floor churn out some of the city's most inventive food and drinks — perfect for stopping in before or after a night out (try the Meyer Lemon cocktail: Charbay Meyer Lemon vodka with an elderflower syrup froth).
The AVIA Kitchen is just one of many Savannah restaurants breaking away from the Paula Deen model. Places like Alligator Soul, Local 11 Ten, Cha Bella, and Noble Fare emphasize the use of locally sourced ingredients and inventive flavor combinations. We strolled a few blocks through the city's famous squares to Noble Fare for our first dinner in town, finding a dark and intimate dining room decorated with a slightly dated black-and-pink boudoir theme. Chef Patrick McNamara has a flair for piling flavors on top of each other, usually resulting in a pleasing mouth explosion — try the ahi tuna tartare with avocado puree, mango relish, salmon caviar, curry oil, and a plantain chip, or the lavender-rubbed venison tenderloin with potato pavee, wilted spinach, haricots verts, and pinotage syrup.
With a belly full of good food and a few cocktails, we headed out for a night on the town. And don't kid yourself — nights on the town are what Savannah does best. For one thing, it's one of the few cities in the U.S. where you can drink in the streets; as long as you're in the historic district and your drink is in the proper container, you're good to go. This helps visitors adjust to Savannah's slower, lingering pace — no need to chug that drink, just pour it in a to-go cup and be on your merry way. You'll find everything from gay bars to Irish pubs to a piano bar scattered throughout the picturesque, pedestrian-friendly historic district. Bonus: the bars stay open until 3 a.m.
Much like Charleston's Market area, tourists usually head straight for River Street, and locals steer clear of it. There are a few exceptions, including Rocks on the Roof, set on the rooftop of the Bohemian Hotel overlooking the Savannah River. We found the best bars around the City Market area, including college/hipster hotspot Hangfire, Murphy's Law, and Pinkie Master's, a storied dive.
You won't find many straight-up dance clubs in Savannah, but gay bar Club One is an exception — just don't go too early or you'll find yourself alone on the dance floor. And make time for a drag show (10:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights), where performers like Destiny Myklz and Layla Foxxx saunter and lip synch (and occasionally strip) their way through a set of pop songs.
Saturday morning we hopped in the car and made a beeline to Forsyth Park for the farmers market. At the far end of the park under a row of trees, a small but quality selection of vendors were selling local produce and fresh-baked bread. The extensive park (where you'll find the iconic Forsyth Fountain) and the surrounding historic neighborhood are worth exploring. After a quick stroll around, we headed up Bull Street to the Back in the Day Bakery (closed Sun.), a pastel, mid-century-decorated spot that's cute enough to eat. The display cases are packed with cute cupcakes, big-as-your-head cinnamon buns, and sandwiches. Around the corner is DeSotoRow art gallery, displaying contemporary art from emerging and professional artists.
Thanks to the Savannah College of Art and Design, the entire city is filled with galleries, public art, and design-oriented shops. The school also runs eight free galleries around town. If your goal is to buy art, stop by ShopSCAD to browse handmade goods from the college's talented students, faculty, and alumni. The prices aren't cheap, but you might take home a future Warhol.
Like ShopSCAD, some of Savannah's best shopping is off of the main drag, Broughton Street — don't be ashamed to make like a tourist and map out your route. Stop by Fabrika Fine Fabrics on Abercorn, stationery shop La Paperie on Whitaker, and Red Clover, featuring local designers and affordable fashion, on Montgomery. On Broughton, you'll find chains like Banana Republic, Urban Outfitters, and Marc Jacobs, along with vintage and antique shops, clothing boutiques, and artsy home goods stores. Civvie's and the Clothing Warehouse both have affordable vintage clothing and accessories for men and women, while boutiques like BleuBelle and James Gunn stock more high-end fashion. Paris Market & Brocante has two floors of artfully arranged, European-style home goods and a little café.
We stopped in at the Wright Square Café for lunch, one of many locally owned cafés tucked away among the squares. The menu ranges from classic (chicken salad) to creative (grilled chicken wrap with apricot chutney), but the dessert is the main attraction — this place is known for its exquisite handmade chocolates. Another promising lunch/sweet tooth powerhouse is Leopold's Ice Cream, a retro spot that offers soups, sandwiches, and about 20 ice cream flavors.
After a little siesta back at the AVIA, we headed out for dinner, seeking a more low-key vibe than the previous night. Our destination was the Distillery, housed in an old building with a beer-filled history — before Prohibition, it was home to both the Kentucky Distilling Co. and the Louisville Distilling Co. The food is pretty standard pub fare, but the beer selection is one of the best in the city — they have more than 21 rotating craft beers on tap and more than 100 bottled selections. Beer fans should also check out the Moon River Brewing Co., a brew pub with options like Nick's Balls of Gold, a Belgian abbey and American IPA hybrid, and Skunk-Ape Stout, a wheat stout with hints of chocolate.
Like any proper Southern drinking town, Savannah is all about a good brunch. While we had a disappointing experience at the Firefly Café, it's widely known that a visit to Clary's Café can prove to be a perfect hangover cure. Featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this '50s-style diner is truly authentic, from the greasy menus to the waitresses that call you "Sugar." Locals tell us that J. Christopher's and SoHo South Café are good bets as well.
Heading north on I-95 later that day, we couldn't help but think about the contrasts between our two Southern cities. It's easy to look at the landscape, the architecture, the carriage rides, and even the cable-stayed bridge leading into the city and think of Savannah as a carbon copy of Charleston. Yet every time we make the short trek down the coast, we're made more aware of Savannah's unique, blossoming creative community. Skip the traditional tourist attractions and seek out the people and places that work hard to energize this slow-paced city.