There’s much more to this charming, gay-friendly Southern city than a flamboyant drag queen and the notorious shooting of a gay gigolo
After years of lagging behind nearby Charleston in popularity, historic Savannah soared to new heights in the ’90s and remains one of the nation’s hottest destinations. Much of the city’s renaissance had do to with the popularity of John Berendt’s best-seller, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," whose droll yet salacious account of Savannah society propelled the city into a gay hot spot almost overnight.
The jewel of Georgia’s lazily enchanting seacoast, Savannah is famous for its perfect grid of streets and grassy tree-shaded squares. Much of downtown consists of elaborate brick and stucco antebellum buildings built following an 1820 fire that destroyed many of the city’s beautiful wood-frame Colonial homes. Had General Sherman not spared Savannah during his notorious and destructive March to the Sea, most of these structures would also have been burned.
Begin your explorations at the southwestern edge of the historic district, inside the restored 1860s rail terminal that houses both the Savannah Visitor Information Center and the Savannah History Museum. It’s a short walk north to City Market, a three-block pedestrian mall with a handful of gay-friendly shops and restaurants, and many contemporary boutiques and art galleries that line the city’s oak-shaded streets.
Plenty of folks come to Savannah to seek out the sites Berendt so vividly brought to life in "The Book," as many locals refer to "Midnight." Of particular note is the privately owned Mercer House, in which "Midnight’s" central figure, antiques dealer Jim Williams, shot and killed his young lover in 1981. Near City Market is the gay disco Club One, the performing home of the Lady Chablis, who appeared as herself in the movie adaptation.
Its literary fame (or notoriety) notwithstanding, Savannah still rivals any Southern destination for its bedazzled and meticulously restored house museums. If you have time for only one, visit the Owens-Thomas House, a splendid 1819 Regency mansion built by renowned British architect William Jay. Nearby is the Isaiah Davenport House, an 1815 Federal beauty.
To see a fine collection of classical sculpture and Impressionist painting, visit the Telfair Mansion and Art Museum, a memorable 1818 structure in its own right. In 2006, the museum expanded with the construction of the striking new Jepson Center for the Arts, which added more galleries and exhibition space.
At the north end of the historic district, the city’s riverfront is lined with a stately row of restored cotton warehouses (now containing a slew of touristy businesses) and a cobbled lane that’s sits a full flight of steps below the rest of the city. The best time to appreciate it and the views of the bridge and freighters chugging along the Savannah River is in the morning, when you’ll encounter few crowds.
One great way to explore downtown and get some advice on the local gay scene is to take a guided walk with knowledgeable local Jonathan Stalcup, who runs Architectural Tours of Savannah.
For dining, avoid most of the mediocre eateries by the river and stick to one of the several local favorites, virtually all of them gay-friendly. One of the most famous restaurants in the South, Elizabeth on 37th specializes in subtly sublime regional cooking like grilled rack of lamb with corn pudding and stewed okra. Sexy and sophisticated Sapphire Grill serves some exciting and innovative contemporary American fare.
A bit more affordable, chic Il Pasticcio presents contemporary Northern Italian cuisine, while Olde Pink House is one of those Savannah traditions that everybody should experience at least once: fine Continental fare with regional twists, like black grouper stuffed with blue crab and a Vidalia onion sauce. Garibaldi’s, in an 1870s firehouse, prepares simple but very good Italian fare, while the trendy City Market Cafe is a dependable choice for lunch or dinner.
It’s touristy, but fans of Food Network TV star Paula Deen won’t want to pass up a chance to dine at her downtown Savannah restaurant, The Lady & Sons, known for its down-home Southern cuisine. An elegant basement space with a youthful, see-and-be-seen following, Jazz’d Tapas Bar is perfect for late-night snacking.
Lesbian-owned Firefly Cafe serves affordable American cuisine. This dapper spot overlooks Troup Square and is especially popular for brunch. For post-club noshing, check out Sushi Zen, a hip and gay-popular Asian restaurant with a convivial atmosphere.
The bar staff and regulars in Savannah’s bars are friendly and forward. Although some locals shun the touristy and cavernous Club One, it’s one of the most impressive clubs in the Southeast, and it can be fun when the Lady Chablis is performing. Other options include Chuck’s, a friendly locals joint near the river that draws a mixed bunch; and Blaine’s Back Door Bar, a casual cruise and dance lounge that also has a deli serving pretty tasty sandwiches and pizza.
While not gay per se, Venus de Milo is a sexy and sophisticated wine bar with a welcoming, bohemian vibe. Down along the riverfront, gay-friendly Kevin Barry’s Irish Pub is popular early in the evening for Irish music, food and drink.
The only LGBT-exclusive B&B in Savannah, 912 Barnard, is also one of the least expensive. This dramatic yellow turn-of-the-century house has been handsomely restored to its original splendor, with antiques and authentic colors that convey the ambience of the city. But with the recent rise in gay tourism, Savannah’s grand old hotels have become increasingly open to visiting same-sex couples.
Among the city’s many classic luxury inns, the Ballastone Inn is renowned for its gracious hospitality and over-the-top, lavish rooms. The four-story 1838 mansion sits along one of the prettiest streets in the city.
A mid-19th-Century inn with an expansive landscaped courtyard, the Eliza Thompson House and its grand guest rooms look much as you might imagine they did when cotton was king of Savannah. Original heart-pine floors and period antiques impart a romantic ambience, and yet rooms have comfortable, modern amenities, especially the bathrooms.
Rooms at the Foley House Inn contain antiques and Oriental rugs; many overlook Chippewa Square and have massive two-person Jacuzzis. Of affordable chain properties, the Comfort Suites Historic District is clean, pleasantly furnished, and a short walk from City Market.
A fully restored 1889 sea captain’s house that once belonged to one of Savannah’s wealthiest merchants, the Azalea Inn is quite gay-friendly. All rooms are configured and decorated differently, and each has a gas fireplace; two have whirlpool tubs and two have balconies.
For the most memorable accommodations, however, look to the gay-friendly Mansion on Forsyth Park, which offers some of finest digs in town. This stylish mini-resort beside verdant Forsyth Park contains 126 rooms with smart, contemporary furnishings, plus a top-notch spa, a cooking school, two cool bars, an art gallery and the highly regarded 700 Drayton Restaurant. Opened in 2005, the hotel offers further evidence of Savannah’s gradual shift from a bastion of Old South gentility to a beacon of New South panache and style.
Andrew Collins is the author of "Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA" and other travel books.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 4, 2008.