Used to be that Savannah had an off-season and an on-season when it came to tourists taking over the town.
Just as the first azalea bush bloomed and the first green beer tapped, pale and ruddy folks, mostly from the Northeast and Midwest, flocked to Georgia’s first city for sun salutations and spirits of all kinds. Once summer arrived and Savannah turned hotter than the hinges on the gates of hell, things quieted down until Thanksgiving when the seasonal posse known as “the snowbirds” arrived and the busy gala season began.
Wise marketing, however, cast the city as a mecca for conventions and festivals. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of cultural, musical, food and sports festivals flourished and gave travelers reasons to travel to the city nearly every month of the year. But then, COVID-19.
Even though the area’s convention business hasn’t quite bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, January through March and September through November remain peak convention season, when thousands of name-tagged lapels float through downtown. And 2022 saw the return of the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and both the Stopover and Savannah Music festivals.
And that’s a good thing for local businesses, according to Joseph Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah. “As a visitor destination, Savannah-area leadership has worked hard to minimize the peaks and valleys of our tourism season by creating festivals at the time of the year when we see valleys. At the end of the day, it’s about keeping locals working in this sector throughout the year.”
Digital marketing and the use of social media influencers has transformed Savannah’s typical tourist. When Marinelli took the helm of Visit Savannah in 2007, the average age of visitors was late 40s. In the past 15 years, that demographic has grown younger, between the ages of 40-42.
Coastal Georgia is a hot spot for day-trippers, weekenders and the proverbial “Woo-Woo girls” donning sashes and tiaras. Inclusivity reigns as African American and LGBTQ tourism has spiked the past several years.
Because of that youthful turn, Savannah now comprises many — and mini — tourist seasons based around experiences.
The Green Season
Savannah was Georgia’s original settlement and founded by the English – during the reign of King George II, hence the state’s name – but it was the Irish potato famine a century later that turned the city into a 19th century metropolis. Irishmen flooded into Savannah, many from County Wexford on Ireland’s southeast coast. By 1860, as many as 1 in 3 white households in Savannah were Irish-born immigrants, according to research conducted by Georgia Southern University.
Amidst the Irish immigration began the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade. First held as a procession of families following St. Patrick’s Day Mass in 1824, the parade has grown into a several week-long celebration of Irish heritage and Catholicism capped by 3-mile long parade through downtown Savannah that includes bands, families, Irish societies, elected officials and commercial floats attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators.
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March means the start of spring in Savannah as well, with temperatures warming consistently into the 70s. The city and neighboring Tybee Island are popular with families on spring break as well as Girl Scout troops on pilgrimage – the Girl Scouts of America were founded in downtown Savannah by hometown girl Juliette Gordon Low. She started the organization with an 18-girl troop in 1912, and her birthplace is now a museum and a must-visit for every green sash-wearing, cookie-selling girl.
What to see and do
Downtown’s green fountain: Savannah officials once attempted to dye the river green in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, but the area’s powerful tidal cycles made this impractical. Sometime in the mid-1980s, a group of what has been described as “hooligans” dumped green dye into downtown fountains, and the tradition was born. Today, the city handles the fountain dying the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day, highlighted by a ceremony at the Forsyth Park fountain.
Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist: The center of Catholicism in south Georgia, the cathedral has towered above Lafayette Square since 1873 and features pointed arches in French-Gothic architectural style. The church is open to the public for tours except when Mass is being held.
Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace: The historic site and museum is dedicated to the group’s founder and is located on Oglethorpe Street in the heart of downtown Savannah.
Here comes the bride! Walking down River Street in matching themed outfits with her bridesmaids and a sash declaring her soon-to-be-wed status, bar hopping on Congress Street, belting out karaoke lyrics at a local pub or a pedal tour, and hustling their dollars together for an energy-filled drag show.
One of the most visible seasons of the year might be wedding season and every year from March to June and September to November, Savannah is host to a multitude of bachelorette weekends and bachelor parties before the big wedding celebrations.
With its picturesque backdrop, romantic views and charming — as well as creepy —magic, the city is a popular spot for big and micro outdoor weddings as well as elopements. It also boasts the ability to give people the perfect moment under Savannah’s live oak trees as well as activities for friends and family to enjoy such as trolley and ghost tours.
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Jamie Weaver, founder of Savannah Wedding Vendors, said bridal couples in Savannah are spending more money on group activities days before the wedding in addition to the actual ceremony.
“What people are doing is … they’re going to do a trolley tour, or we have such great golfing here. And they might treat the guys to the fishing excursions that we have here,” Weaver said. “That’s a priority. They want the guests to enjoy the city and to have everything done together. “
Speaking of golf…
Golfers can play year-round in Savannah, but April is prime tee time on the local links. Professional golf’s biggest event, The Masters, takes place two hours northeast in Augusta, and many Masters’ participants play the following week in the RBC Heritage on neighboring Hilton Head Island. Savannah has been home to several professional events of its own over the years, including the Champions Tour’s Legends of Golf and a tournament on the PGA Tour’s development circuit, the Club Car Championship.
For those who like to play and not just watch, Savannah and Hilton Head offer close to 100 options.
Where to play
Harbour Town Golf Links: The RBC Heritage’s home course, the Harbour Town Golf Links, is world-renowned and one of three courses at the Sea Pines Resort.
Savannah Harbor: Built on Hutchinson Island, located in the middle of the Savannah River across from downtown’s River Street, the course was home to the Legends of Golf and remains a popular golf getaway destination.
Old South Golf Links: Located in Bluffton, S.C. in between Savannah and Hilton Head, Old South is situated along intracoastal marshes and is a locals favorite.
Private clubs: Savannah is home to several world-class golf courses not open to the general public, including the Savannah Golf Club, one of the oldest in America; the six courses of The Landings Club; and The Ford Field & River Club, formerly known as the Ford Plantation, in neighboring Richmond Hill.
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Savannah has a long and complicated history. Thankfully, there are tours around Savannah that break down and highlight the Black history in the city from museums, churches, historic foundations, cemeteries and walking tours.
Most of these tours are available year-round to highlight the influence of Gullah Geechee culture — local descendants of enslaved West Africans who populated the sea islands and coastal mainland between Jacksonville, N.C., and Jacksonville, Florida — and how Savannah is at the forefront of many moments in U.S. history.
These tours and points of interest temper the wild fun in Savannah with curious sobriety and bring in hundreds of tourists every day who are looking to soak in Black history beyond a date or a month.
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As the heat makes touring Savannah’s historic district unbearable, the visitor focus shifts to the shore and Tybee Island. Located a 20-minute drive east of downtown, Tybee has resisted the resort takeover that has marred other seaside getaways.
Tybee features three miles of beaches that typically see gentle surf conditions, perfect for families with young children. Despite the absence of resorts, the island has plenty of lodging options, from small hotels to bed and breakfasts and from a campground to short-term vacation rentals.
Tybee’s beach season unofficially opens a week before Memorial Day with the Beach Bum Parade, a community-wide water pistol fight along the city’s main street, Butler Avenue. Visitation drops off around Labor Day, although beach weather continues well into October. Tybee accommodations book up early for the peak weeks between Memorial Day and early August.
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Bird Watchers:The Coastal Bird Ambassador program is helping make Tybee paradise
What to do besides sunbathe
Surfing: No one would mistake Tybee for Hawaii’s north shore, but the island’s South Beach does see small breakers that attract surfers. Local surf instructor Atsuchi Yamada, better known as Hot Sushi, operates summer surf camps.
Dolphin watching: Porpoises are as plentiful as sunburned visitors in Tybee’s waters and several operators offer dolphin spotting tours, including Captain Mike and Captain Derek. Visitors out for tours at low tide may get lucky and see porpoises herd their dinner – schools of fish – up onto mudflats. Savannah is believed to be one of the few places in the world where porpoises use this technique.
Fishing: The rivers and creeks around Tybee are home to some of the best inshore fishing in America, with anglers hooking redfish, flounder, sheepshead, black drum and sea trout. For those who crave bigger catch, the gulf stream lies about 60 miles to the east, where fisherman can fight marlin, wahoo, amberjack, mackerel, cobia and red snapper. Several captains offer inshore and offshore charters.
Paddling: Tybee isn’t just surrounded by water – it’s part of a watershed dotted by hammocks, marshes and uninhabited islands. Kayaks, canoes and paddleboards are popular ways to explore the surrounding environs. Paddlers need to be conscious of the tides and currents, and visitors can enjoy tours organized by several local outfitters, such as Savannah Canoe and Kayak, Sea Kayak Georgia and North Island Surf & Kayak.
Lighthouse exploring: The Tybee Island Light Station stands 145 feet tall and dates to 1736. The lighthouse is operational yet open for tours. Visitors can climb the 178 steps to the top. A second lighthouse, the Cockspur Island Lighthouse, is located offshore and is not open to the public.
There are plenty of people who plan excursions around their next meal, and Savannah is the ideal place to exploit hunger for epicurean exploration breakfast, lunch and dinner. The city’s food scene has broadened its palate over the past decade and good eats can be found outside of the Landmark Historic District in neighborhoods such as Thomas Square, Starland and Sandfly. Even hotels have picked up on the tastes of travelers by finding star chefs to lead their signature restaurants.
Have Fork, Will Travel
Highbrow and Downhome
With two-time James Beard Award-winning chef Mashama Bailey leading the re-imagined Southern soul food kitchen at The Grey, the city’s reputation for authentic and intentional dishes has grown. Stalwarts like Elizabeth on 37th continue to define the farm-to-table ethos, while newer kids on the block — Husk, Cotton & Rye and Common Thread — explore new takes and Southern standards.
Catch of the Day
The perks of the salt life is the abundance of fresh seafood. From peal ‘n’ eats at roadside shack Flying Fish to Savannah’s signature crispy scored flounder at the Olde Pink House, Savannah is a true ocean-to-table town. Don’t miss the offerings of Tybee Island, either, from North Beach Grill and The Deck to Salt Island Fish and Beer and Sundae’s Café.
Whether to satisfy a sweet tooth or begin a day with a flaky pastry, the menu of bakeries dotting greater Savannah now make venturing south of downtown worth the trip. Along the way, pick up Chocolate Heaven cupcakes from Back in the Day Bakery, breakfast pizza from Auspicious Bakery, a cheddar-pecan scone from Savannah Scone Co., a Slow Start Scramble from Alexander’s Bistro.
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Savannah took third place in Travel + Leisure’s list of Top 10 Most Haunted Cities, making the macabre big business in a city that’s literally built upon its dead. Rural folklore holds that cities that sit at a crossroads – where land and water meet, evil is likely present. But most “haints” don’t want to hurt folk, say the city’s ghosthunters. They just have unfinished business here.
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For Thrills and Chills
There’s plenty of places to get spooked while also getting a lesson in history beyond anything you learned in school. Starting with the city’s darkly beautiful cemeteries.
The sidewalk around the Revolutionary-era Colonial Park Cemetery at the corner of Oglethorpe Drive and Abercorn Street in downtown Savannah is adjacent to the former dueling grounds. The undulating sidewalk outside the gate reveals that the graves, many of them casualties of multiple yellow fever epidemics, extend underground and out into the roadways. The gravestones posted on the far brick wall are a reminder of Union soldier shenanigans when they encamped there during the Civil War.
Bonaventure Cemetery along the Wilmington River in the historic shrimping village of Thunderbolt holds the remains of some of Savannah’s most notable families as well as famous native sons, such as Johnny Mercer.
Walk off all those calories from the shrimp and grits and cocktails during a late-night stroll with one of Savannah’s many ghost tours. It’s a great way to beat the heat, take in the architecture, experience the strange enchantment of moonlit oaks, and get a chill up your spine.
And if you’re really brave, book a stay at any one of the stately bed and breakfasts where some of the guests never check out. Take a class in paranormal investigation while you’re in town.