From exploring picturesque squares to attending iconic festivals, you’ll find that some of the best things to do in Savannah won’t cost a dime.
Savannah, Georgia has been named one of the best destinations in the United States by countless publications… and I certainly agree! It’s a great place to explore historic sites, to see locations from your favourite films such as Forrest Gump and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and much more.
You can indulge in a luxurious vacation in Savannah, but there are also plenty of activities around town that won’t cost a thing. Here are 15 of the best free things to do in Savannah.
1. Spend time in the squares and parks
What sets Savannah apart from so many other Southern cities is its layout. The streets are in a grid format usually surrounding small parks called squares that are generally centred around a statue of a notable Georgian. Chippewa Square is known as the site of the Forrest Gump bus scene, even though the bench no longer sits there. Johnson Square was the first to be established in the city, while Oglethorpe Square honours the city’s founder. And while not a square, Forsyth Park is Savannah’s most beautiful public park with its iconic white fountain.
2. Visit the statues
While you’re in the squares, don’t miss the statues. Wave to Johnny Mercer in Ellis Square, James Oglethorpe in Chippewa Square, Columbia in Columbia Square, Nathanael Greene in Johnson Square, Sergeant William Jasper in Madison Square and John Wesley in Reynolds Square. And don’t forget about the Waving Girl on River Street.
3. Go on a free walking tour
Take a free walking tour of the city and get a dose of history, while visiting Savannah’s most famous landmarks including the famous squares and the Mercer Williams House. This tour – led by local historians – is based on tips, so you pay what you think it is worth. While it’s technically free, these guides are supported by visitors. The 90-minute tours can be booked online.
4. Explore Savannah’s final resting places
Featuring Spanish moss-draped oaks and historic graves, Bonaventure Cemetery is Savannah’s most famous burial ground. Established in 1907 in nearby Thunderbolt, this Victorian-style cemetery is where Johnny Mercer and Conrad Aiken are buried.
But Bonaventure isn’t the only historic cemetery in town. Colonial Park Cemetery downtown was established in 1789 and includes the graves of plague victims. Laurel Grove Cemetery has a large section of plots for slaves and free people of colour, as well as the grave of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts.
5. Re-enact your favourite moments from Forrest Gump
Did you know that the Academy Award-winning film used a number of Savannah locations? I’ve already mentioned Chippewa Square, which is free to visit. The Independent Presbyterian Church (at the corner of Bull and Oglethorpe) was seen in the opening scenes, where a feather floats past the steeple. Debi’s Restaurant and Love’s Seafood were also used. Obviously, it’s not free to eat at the restaurants, but it’s worth the cost for film fans.
6. Tour the historic churches
It’s impossible to walk around Savannah without noticing the church steeples. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is the most well-known with its stained-glass windows and white exterior. They have free self-guided tours most days of the week, but they also accept donations. Independent Presbyterian –which was just mentioned – was rebuilt in 1891 after a devastating fire. Christ Church on Bull Street was built in 1733, making it the first house of worship in the state. The Historic First African Baptist Church opened in 1774, and features pews built by slaves and a subfloor used on the Underground Railroad.
7. Spend a day on Tybee Island
If you’ve had enough fun downtown, head over to Tybee Island, Savannah’s beach town. You will pay to park and to dine at the many cafés and seafood restaurants, but the beach itself can be accessed free of charge. Check out the famous pier and admire the lighthouse, one of the few left on the Georgia coast.
8. Ride the ferry
The Savannah Belles Ferry connects River Street with Hutchinson Island, home to the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center and the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa. It also stops in front of the Waving Girl statue at the Savannah Marriott Riverfront. You don’t have to be a guest of the hotels to ride the free ferry which operates daily from 7 a.m. to midnight. There are four boats – each named for an important woman in Savannah history: Juliette Gordon Low, Susie King Taylor, Florence Martus and Mary Musgrove.
9. Window shop on Broughton Street
If you’re short on cash, visit Savannah’s shopping district to admire what they’re carrying. Make a mental list of all of the items you want to buy at The Paris Market and Brocante. Inhale the delicious chocolate aroma at Chocolat by Adam Turoni and browse for funky vintage goods at Civvie’s.
10. Wander the Savannah Botanical Gardens
The stunning natural Savannah Botanical Gardens boast a rose garden, herb garden, camellia and azalea garden, beehive, nature trails and a pond. The historic Reinhard House is an 1840s farmhouse built near present-day Savannah and preserved for future generations to enjoy.
11. Join the fun at Savannah’s events and festivals
There’s always something going on in Savannah and many events are free to attend. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is a local favourite held every March 17 in the historic district. The SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) Sidewalk Arts Festival is held in late April and features artwork on the sidewalks of Forsyth Park.
12. Hit the nature trails
Savannah is also home to a number of nature preserves where visitors can disconnect. The McQueen’s Island Trail is a six-mile trail home to native plants such as palms, as well as animals including turtles, bobcats and pelicans. It starts at Fort Pulaski National Monument, the site of Revolutionary and Civil War battles. Skidaway Island State Park is a retreat from the city offering camping, boardwalks, an interpretive centre and the opportunity to spot countless species.
13. Admire the historic homes (from the outside)
The most beautiful historic homes in Savannah typically charge a fee for tours, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t appreciate the architecture. The Mercer Williams House is known as the setting for the book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The Flannery O’Connor House is where the writer lived during her childhood. And the Juliette Gordon Low House was the home of the woman who is credited with starting the Girl Scouts of America. Jones Street is one of the best for admiring homes.
14. Explore Plant Riverside District
Marvel at the enormous geodes from around the world and the life-sized chrome dinosaur in the lobby of the JW Marriott. Ooh and aah at the high-end shops, carefully curated retailers and original galleries. And people-watch in Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on the river in the high-energy Plant Riverside District.
15. Peruse the art galleries
Savannah has a thriving arts scene which can be seen at the Telfair and SCAD museums. However, to see the up-and-coming artists, visit the galleries – especially those around City Market. Sue Gouse Inspirations, Gutstein Gallery and Oksana Fine Art are just a few of the many worth checking out.
With so much to see and do in and around Savannah, one visit simply isn’t enough. Fortunately, that same Southern hospitality is ready to welcome visitors back again and again.
By Rex Vogel
Savannah is a lovely pastel dream of tight, cobbled streets. There are legendary scenes to rival any dreamed up by Tennessee Williams.— Rosemary Daniell