Visiting Savannah for the first time can be overwhelming. Savannah’s Historic District encompasses over two square miles, and nearly every building in the district has a story to tell. Fortunately, there’s a way to experience and learn all about the Historic District – and at your own pace, too. Old Savannah Tours offers an On and Off Tour, a fully narrated experience that transports passengers as far north as River Street and south to the border of Forsyth Park.
15 trolley stops are thoughtfully placed throughout the district at important historic landmarks. A trolley collects passengers at each stop every 20 minutes, and one ticket is good for an entire day’s worth of hopping off and on. For passengers, that means there is plenty of time to check out the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, explore the Telfair Museum, or take a tour through one of Savannah’s grand homes – and still hitch a ride back to your car or hotel at the end of the day.
The trolley takes passengers by the African Baptist Church, the oldest African American church in the country, renowned novelist Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, and Chippewa Square, where key Forrest Gump scenes were filmed. Passengers also learn about Savannah’s old police headquarters, built in 1869, that still functions as the city’s police department today.
One stop along the tour is the Pirates’ House. The Pirates’ House is now home to a seafaring restaurant aimed at tourists, but the staff is kind enough to lead visitors through a short tour of the home even when you don’t plan on a meal (just be sure to bring a small tip).
The Pirates’ House has layers of history, literally. Savannah was a thriving port town in the 18th century, and the Pirates’ House served a much-needed purpose as an inn and tavern for travelers. Today, tunnels quarried by pirates still exist underneath the building. Rumor has it that the tunnels were used to smuggle rum into the city and kidnapped sailors out to the riverfront. In the late 1800s, a young Robert Louis Stevenson traveled to Savannah and rented an upstairs room in the boarding house. It is said that his stay inspired Stevenson to write Treasure Island. Some even claim he wrote part of the novel there.
Neither the tunnels or upstairs are available to guests due to safety issues, but the main level of the Pirates’ House is worth exploring in its own right. While on tour, visitors can catch a glimpse of the rum cellar and an old trap door cut into the wood plank walls. The Herb House, originally a home for a Savannah gardener, once stood next door to the boarding house. Built in 1734, it is the oldest private residence in Savannah. Today, the Herb House is a part of the restaurant.
Near Lafayette Square is the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, another stop on the On and Off Tour. The cathedral is one of the grandest buildings in Savannah. Built in 1896, it has a whitewashed, stucco facade, and two towering spires frame the entrance. The cathedral’s interior, with its painted ceilings and Austrian stained glass windows, is breathtaking and well worth a peek inside.
A short walk north of the cathedral is the Colonial Park Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Savannah and the only cemetery located within the historic district. Home to over 9,000 graves but only 1,000 tombstones, the site served as Savannah’s main burial ground from 1750 to 1853. It includes a mass burial site used for yellow fever victims during the epidemic of 1820.
Colonial Park Cemetery went through a period of disrepair in the 19th century, when many gravestones were scattered, lost, or defaced. During the Civil War, Union troops camped in Colonial Park Cemetery and desecrated several graves, carving the wrong dates into some tombstones and knocking down others. During a restoration project in later years, many tombstones that were misplaced found a home against the far east wall of the cemetery, where they can be seen today.
About the Author: Lauren Winter
Lauren Winter is a writer and blogger hailing from the Midwest. After a childhood vacation introduced her to the complex charm and history of the South, she promptly moved to Nashville, Tennessee following college. She now calls Savannah, Georgia home and lives in the Midtown district with her husband and one rowdy terrier. More about Lauren Winter