A Literary Tour of Savannah, Georgia
When you visit a new place, what is your absolute favorite thing to do? Are you an adventurous traveler who looks for hikes and outdoor experiences? A foodie who has to find the best places to eat? A culture and history buff who spends all your time in museums? A party lover who is all about the night life?
As for me, I like to think I'm a pretty well-rounded traveler. I like to experience it all. Still, I have to say that whenever I visit a new town or city, I can't help incorporating the following three things into my itinerary:
Tracking down literary sites and bookstores
Finding good food (and tea)
And doing lots of walking to take in the overall feel, pace, and experience of a new place
I've always heard glowing reviews from people who have visited Savannah, Georgia, but I never personally had the chance to go until a work trip at the end of 2019, thankfully a few months before the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I'm sometimes hesitant to visit or to expect much from travel destinations, fearing that they might be overhyped. It was a very pleasant surprise to find that in the case of Savannah, that was not the case!
In fact, I have long held Boston as my absolute favorite city in the US, and I think it still holds top spot, but Savannah made such a strongly positive impression on me that it likely took over second place.
Warm, sunny, historic, and beautiful, I highly recommend making Savannah, Georgia one of your top towns or cities to visit in the United States, and especially in the South.
Savannah has its own unique literary history and therefore a good number of interesting literary sites to visit. If you're a book lover and literary history enthusiast like me, check out these literary sites to add to your Savannah itinerary.
In this post, you will find:
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Flannery O'Connor's Childhood Home
207 East Charlton St
For most people, the writer who instantly comes to mind when you talk about Savannah is regionalist gothic writer Flannery O'Connor.
O'Connor is best known for her many short stories, which are notoriously dark and subtly sinister. Flannery grew up in Georgia in the 1930s-60s, so her style was especially shocking coming from a "good, Southern, Catholic girl." She was quite the character, which makes both her life and writing rich subjects to study.
It's certainly worthwhile to say that Flannery O'Connor was no saint. It's important to examine her life and works with a critical eye rather than the rosy colored glasses that are so much more comfortable but so damaging.
Of particular note, there has been much discussion of O'Connor's racism and how it shows up in her published stories and unpublished personal letters. I encourage you to read this detailed and nuanced article on the subject.
All that being said, Flannery O'Connor's childhood home is an interesting and worthwhile historical literary site to visit while in Savannah.
Interested visitors can take an intimate, guided tour of the Flannery O'Connor home led by a museum docent who is thoroughly knowledgeable about O'Connor's life and works. When I toured the home, we were a small crowd of three, and the docent was very willing to engage in productive discussions with lots of give and take. It was more of a discussion than a lecture, which means every tour will end up being both unique and memorable.
The home is very well preserved and includes most of the original furnishings and decorations from Flannery's time living there, which is always a rare surprise for authors' homes.
Some of my favorite things to see on the tour included her bathtub where she used to have her friends sit while she read to them Grimm's Fairy Tales from her toilet throne (until the girls' mothers found out and threw a fit).
I also enjoyed a glimpse into her feisty childhood personality, as evidenced by her first book review (she wrote "not a very good book" on the title page) and the yard where she used to keep chickens and pea fowl and where she achieved a brief fame for teaching her chicken to walk backwards (an interesting story to hear about on the tour, and it's not quite what you think!).
If you're in Savannah in March, don't miss Savannah's annual Flannery O'Connor birthday parade in Lafayette Square. Over the years it's gone from a small un-permitted parade to a full-blown festival. Expect live music, displays from local authors, an impressive birthday cake, and free access to the Flannery O'Connor museum for the day.
Visit the Flannery O'Connor childhood home website to book a tour. Unfortunately, it is not wheelchair accessible. Metered street parking is available.
St. John Cathedral
222 E Harris St
This beautiful, historic Catholic church is a Savannah icon and located just across the street from Flannery O'Connor's childhood home. It's a beautiful building in the heart of Savannah that's sure to catch the eye of any passerby, but less obvious is the literary significance of its location.
Flannery was baptized, confirmed, and attended regular Mass here at St. John Cathedral. Much of Flannery's work is in dialogue with her religious upbringing as she explores the teachings of the Catholic Church and how that holds up against real human nature.
Growing up across the street from this arresting church building, with a view of its spires from her bedroom window, influenced Flannery greatly in her early years. Have a wander inside and take in the gothic architecture, but be respectful of worshippers and be sure to check mass times before entering.
E. Oglethorp Ave
Many people don't realize, but poet Conraid Aiken hails from Savannah. Aiken was a significant mid-20th century poet, novelist, short story writer, and literary critic whose work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He also served as the United States Poet Laureate from 1950-1952.
Aiken was Harvard-educated and well-traveled, but he was a Savannah man through and through. He was born there in 1889 and died there in 1973.
Today, you can walk down Savannah's East Oglethorp Ave and see the homes where Conrad Aiken lived during childhood (at 228) and in adulthood (at 230). These are private residences, so doing so will give an exterior view of the homes and a general feel of the area where Aiken grew up.
He's buried in nearby Bonaventure Cemetery.
Mercer Williams House Museum
429 Bull Street
Another significant part of Savannah's literary history is the novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. This landmark book by John Berendt is a "non-fiction novel" that tells the true story of a Savannah antiques dealer who was tried (four times!) for the murder of a male prostitute who was in his employ.
Basically, Berendt (among others) successfully tapped into the American thirst for true crime stories before a million podcasts and TV documentaries saturated the market.
The book is deeply rooted in Savannah, not only in the location but in the culture and the people, and its publication started drawing crowds who came to Savannah to see the real-life sites mentioned in the book. It's reported that two years after its release, Savannah saw a 46% increase in local tourism. A Savannah bookshop reports having sold 15,000 copies of that book alone.
The Mercer Williams house has become famous as the site of the murder detailed in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
The historic mansion is now owned by the alleged murderer's sister, Dorothy Kingery. You can take a guided tour of the home, but don't expect much information to be given about the famous murder, trials, or the book, and don't be surprised at a less-than-positive reaction if you ask any questions about it.
Still, the house is a worthwhile stop for the architecture alone. It was designed by New York architect John S. Norris and construction spanned from 1860-1868 (it was delayed by the Civil War).
The Mercer Williams House is open for 40-minute guided tours for $13.
For those true crime fans more interested in hearing about the macabre history of this home, you can book a ghost tour through a third party to get all the grisly details.
Forrest Gump Square
Okay, so this is only very loosely a literary site. Still, who doesn't love Forrest Gump?
If you didn't know, before Tom Hanks donned high water khakis and a southern accent, Forrest Gump, like so many movies, was first a book. Winston Groom published his novel in 1986, initially selling only about 10,000 copies before it faded into obscurity. Of course, it gained a sudden popularity after the 1994 loosely adapted movie of the same name that stole all of our hearts.
Many of the scenes from the Forrest Gump movie were filmed right here in Savannah, including the most iconic of all: the beautiful square where Forrest sat on his bench waiting for the bus and telling his story was filmed at Chippewa Square in Savannah.
The bench is no longer there, as it was donated to the city and can be seen in the Savannah History Museum. You may not be able to exactly recreate your own iconic Forrest Gump bench photo, but you can still enjoy this beautiful square.
Book and tea shops
E. Shaver, bookseller
If you're a book lover visiting Savannah, you're not going to want to miss adorable indie bookshop E. Shaver, booksellers. It's housed in an 1842 building that started as a private residence, then as an antiques shop, and finally this charming and unique indie bookstore.
It's got all the things you look for in a bookstore: rows and rows of books to get lost in, creative and beautiful displays, cozy reading nooks, and cats.
The sign pictured left was posted in the front door the bookstore when I visited, making shop visitors aware that three cats regularly wander through the shop (so no dogs, please, unless they are service animals or one of a select few local dogs whose names are listed.)
This Savannah bookstore also aims to offer more than browsing; they host lots of regular events and themed book clubs, including Jane Austen; graphic novels; humor books; social justice; Sci-Fi/Fantasy; and more.
Note that all of these book clubs are still meeting virtually.
Savannah Tea Room
As if E. Shaver Booksellers wasn't enough to tickle all my reading and book browsing fantasies, when I visited in pre-Covid times it shared a premises with none other than the Savannah Tea Room, Purveyor of fine teas!
The Savannah Tea Room specializes in high quality loose leaf teas, but you'll also find beautiful tea wares: tea cups, teapots, strainers, infusers, cozies, everything a tea lover delights in finding, buying, collecting, and using.
When I visited, they had lots of tea samples ready.
Luckily for you, even if you're not headed to Savannah anytime soon, you can shop their collection online. I highly recommend the Tea for Ruby! They even have some literary tea blends that book lovers will appreciate, including several inspired by the characters in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander (including a Jamie Fraser -inspired tea and a Claire Fraser Sassenach tea as well).
The Savannah Tea Room has recently moved to a new location across the street, so it is no longer physically connected to the bookstore. However, both small, locally-owned businesses are easy to combine in one visit and very worthwhile.
The Book Lady Bookstore
Unless you know about this tucked away indie bookstore in Savannah, you might walk right past it on the street. Look for the faded red awning that leads down into this little basement bookstore that doesn't run short on beauty or character.
You'll find everything from new, gently used, to rare and out-of-print books in this Savannah institution since 1978. Make sure to check out the extensive collection of books dedicated to Georgia and Southern history.
Gryphon Tea Room
Located right on the corner of Savannah's Madison Square, the Gryphon Tea Room is an appealing destination for tea lovers. It's owned and operated by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), oddly enough.
This unique eatery is housed in a converted turn-of-the-century pharmacy/drugstore, making it a tea room like no other. You can enjoy elements of the 1920s architecture and beautiful furnishings while sipping your tea. Perhaps most pleasingly of all for this book lover, the glass medicine display cases now house shelves and shelves of antique books.
The overall effect is a tea room with history, beauty, and character. After all, what else can you expect from a tea room owned by an art and design school?
Visit Gryphon for brunch or lunch or just come for the tea and scones (both were delicious). In true Savannah fashion, all ingredients are locally sourced, so you can feel good about supporting local businesses on many levels.
All in all, Savannah, Georgia is a beautiful little corner of America and has quickly become one of my favorites. There is so much here to entertain the book and tea lover. I hope you go check some of these places out soon.
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