A group of tourists stands in the basement of First African Baptist Church, staring at mysterious holes in the floor. Slaves founded First African, the oldest black church in the country, in 1777. Later, the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves hid under these planks, breathing through the holes drilled in a pattern as pretty as the punched tin on a pie safe. The design, a guide explains, is an African meditation symbol meaning "flash of the spirit." Here, crouching under points of light that meant something only to them, slaves began their journey to freedom.
History weighs heavy in First African, but step outside, and Savannah, Georgia, feels as light and happy as a city spun from cotton candy. Fairy-tale carriages roll slowly past elegant, shoulder-to-shoulder homes. The brown-sugary perfume of pralines wafts in the air. Spanish moss drips from curving oaks, and every March, thousands of azaleas bloom in a stunning pink dsiplay that seems to say, "What? Winter?" (Even in January, when temps here average in the 50s, hardy Midwesterners stroll in shorts.) From the heart of town, the Savannah River flows 15 miles through bird-filled marshes to the Atlantic. But the bitter legacy of slavery, Civil War and segregation temper Savannah's sweetness. The best way to know the city is to taste both flavors.
Savannah Historic District. Photos Courtesy of Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce.
And that's easy, because the city's history is written in its geography. In 1733, Gen. James Oglethorpe planned Savannah with four open squares for military drills; as the city grew, the squares multiplied. Today, 22 remain, holding the street grid in place like big green pegs. Roads seem to dead-end at these parks but then wrap around them, an inefficient system that slows traffic but makes the town a pedestrian's dream.
Every park has a different character. In busy Wright Square, itinerant vendors twist palm fronds into flowers called Savannah roses. A popular souvenir, they commemorate the blooms Confederate soldiers wore as a sign of peace after surrendering in nearby Johnson Square.
The Civil War left Georgia in ruins, and you still can sense the friction. On narrated trolley tours, guides poke gentle fun at the "Yankees" on board while pointing out sites from Forrest Gump and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But feeling a little like a foreigner — different accents, flowers, flavors — is part of the fun. At the stylish Gryphon Tea Room, Savannah College of Art and Design students serve iced tea with a pitcher of sugar syrup. One Fish Two Fish sells candleholders shaped like magnolias. Palm trees grow outside the plush Azalea Inn and Gardens.
Well outside of Savannah's gentrified core, a Northern-turned-Southerner named Joe Randall hosts visitors in his tiny demo kitchen for classes in Low-Country cuisine—stewed okra, red rice and butter beans, peach-blueberry tart. Chef Joe also cooks up the kind of goodwill people here know now to take for granted. Nearly 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. rehearsed his "I Have a Dream" speech in First African Baptist Church. Today, a few miles away, folks of all colors gather to learn how to fry green tomatoes.
"Southern food is good food because they aren't afraid of seasoning. Just throw in some bacon and cayenne," says Joe, plopping another stick of butter into his pan. "That's not so unusual now, but in the '60s, America's culinary landscape was a less seasoned place." History often casts the South as catching up with the North, but knowledge flows in every direction. Chef Joe watches his students, who have come from Iowa, Michigan, Connecticut and the other side of Savannah, tuck into his ethereal crab cakes. Before the night is over, two couples have already planned return visits.
A party spot at night, River Street mellows by day. Try beignets (sweet pillows of fried dough) at Huey's on the River (hueysontheriver.net). Candy stores bookend the street; River Street Sweets sells the better pralines (riverstreetsweets.com).
First African Baptist Church hides near Broughton (firstafricanbc.com).
First African Baptist Church
Chef Joe Randall's Cooking School feels like dinner with friends (chefjoerandall.com).
Visitors don't need cars in Savannah, but it's worth renting one to see Fort Pulaski, a fascinating Civil War site with top-notch tours (nps.gov/fopu).
Nearby, Tybee Island beaches offer good birding (and a chance for Midwesterners to breathe that fresh sea air!) (visittybee.com).
Nearby, the guides at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace tell fun stories about Low's childhood and her experience founding the Girl Scouts (juliettegordonlowbirthplace.org).
The gleaming Jepson Center shows contemporary art (telfair.org).
And at Olde Pink House, the crab-stuffed grouper almost rivals the historic charm—(912) 232-4286.
More information: (877) 728-2662; visitsavannah.com
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® January/February 2011. Prices, dates and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)