The story goes that Gen. Sherman was so taken aback by Savannah's beauty that he spared the port city during his devastating March to the Sea, even offering Savannah as a Christmas present to President Lincoln. Yet letters imply that the city was instead preserved as a base to launch the general's next march. Either way, Savannah lucked out. Few cities in the South – the country, even – retain such tangible ties to their pasts as Savannah, with its gorgeous mansions, cobblestone streets and public squares.
About four hours southeast of Atlanta, a weekend in Savannah feels like a trip back in time. To get there, take I-75 south and hang a left on I-16 at Macon. Be careful about speeding – highway patrollers are in full force on the I-16 corridor. Greyhound also runs regular routes from Atlanta to Savannah, with the trip taking about five hours and costing about $40 – not a bad option, since you won't need a car while you're there.
Founded in 1733, the city originally was gridded by Englishman James Oglethorpe, whose name should be familiar to Atlantans for his namesake Oglethorpe University. You could spend an entire afternoon strolling the city's public squares with coffee in hand – or make that beer in hand, since Savannah's Historic District is one of the state's only areas that allows open containers. Monuments adorn the parks, including a fountain commemorating Lafayette Square's 250th anniversary and a large bronze statue honoring Haitian soldiers in Franklin Square.
Savannah once was the world's most prominent cotton port, and visitors can still see the historic waterfront area today where the crop was traded. Revitalized in the '70s, cobblestoned River Street has some of the city's top restaurants, galleries and shops, including 19 historical monuments such as the 1886 Cotton Exchange building. River Street's also ground zero for the city's infamous St. Patrick's Day parade.
Many famous Georgians are buried in the scenic Bonaventure Cemetery (330 Bonaventure Road, 912-651-6843, www.savannahga.gov) such as songwriter Johnny Mercer. Housed in a landmark former railroad station, the Savannah History Museum (303 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 912-651-6825, www.chsgeorgia.org/shm) contains relics dating from the Colonial period all the way up to Forrest Gump, which was partially filmed there.
One of the best reasons to visit Savannah, of course, are the stately historic homes. (Imagine if Atlanta hadn't burned!) The Juliette Gordon Low House (10 E. Oglethorpe Ave., 912-233-4501, www.juliettegordonlowbirthplace.org), birthplace of the Girl Scouts, is Savannah's first registered national historic landmark. Tours of the house, built in 1820, occur daily every 15 minutes. Did you know Gordon was buried in her scout uniform? Freaky. Also on Bull Street, the Mercer Williams House (429 Bull St., 912-236-6352, www.mercerhouse.com) does not give tours but remains a popular attraction due to it being the domicile featured in the beloved Savannah-based book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Since Savannah's a port city, and not a Puritan outpost, thee Savannahers of yore liked to get down. The tradition continues, with a huge range of cozy bars and slick clubs. Check out Tantra Lounge (8 E. Broughton St., 912-231-0888) with its Asian flair, diverse crowd and (occasional) belly dancers. Dive bar Mercury Lounge (125 W. Congress St., 912-447-6952, www.mercurylounge.com) is the perfect place to karaoke "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Speaking of dives, Pinkie Master's Lounge (318 Drayton St., 912-238-0447, www.facebook.com/Pinkie.Masters) is a must visit with cheap PBR, a great jukebox, and even a bronze plaque marking where Jimmy Carter once stood on the bar and declared he'd be president one day. And the classy Venus De Milo (38 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 912-447-0901) has an extensive wine list. The city's manageable size and open-container leniency make Savannah the perfect place to pub crawl – haunted pub crawls are even offered! Try Cobblestone Tours (912-604-3007, www.ghostsavannah.com) for as little as $8 with a website coupon.
After all that walking ... and boozing ... you'll need somewhere to rest your weary head. Nice bed and breakfasts are as abundant here as syrupy Southern accents. If money is no object, check out the Mansion on Forsyth Park (700 Drayton St., 912-238-5158, www.mansiononforsythpark.com), where prices start at $169 per night. In addition to luxe accommodations and a modern-bordello vibe, the Mansion boasts the hottest cocktail lounge in the city. If money is an object, try the Inn at 909 Lincoln (909 Lincoln St., 912-238-8628), with rooms around $100 per night. Innkeeper Elaine Lahey artfully restored the 1896 house and prepares a delicious breakfast you'll need before a day full of touring – and drinking.
Don't leave home without ... Fly sunglasses for walking the sunny city by day – and to hide your hangover the morning after.
Don't miss ... Savannah resident Paula Deen may be a household name, but it's all about Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room (107 W. Jones St., 912-232-5997, www.mrswilkes.com) for authentic fried chicken, collard greens and banana pudding – though such delectable Southern food can come with a hour-plus wait. Dine in separate rooms in an old mansion at Elizabeth on Thirty Seventh (105 E. 37th St., 912-236-5547, www.elizabethon37th.net), arguably Savannah's best restaurant with a modern take on Southern food and an upscale price tag to match. ... Twenty minutes east of the city is a kitschy-cute beach town, Tybee Island (tybeeisland.com). Be sure to stop at the Crab Shack (40 Estill Hammock Road, Tybee Island, 912-786-9857, www.thecrabshack.com), "Where the Elite Eat in Their Bare Feet." ... City Market (1 Jefferson St., 912-232-0200, www.savannahcitymarket.com) is kind of like Savannah's Underground Atlanta – if people actually liked Underground Atlanta. The city's commercial center has shops, restaurants and bars, and can seem a little fratty even though it has the city's biggest gay club, Club One (Jefferson and West Saint Julian streets, 912-232-4903, www.clubone-online.com). ... The Savannah College of Art and Design should be credited with restoring many historic buildings in Savannah – and also for operating a cool art shop (340 Bull St., 912-525-5180, shopscad.com).
Song for the drive ... "Hard-Hearted Hannah" by Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles or any of the many artists who covered it.
Souvenir ... Ye Olde Stein beer mug from many of the shops along River Street (River Street, 912-234-0295, www.riverstreetsavannah.com) – so you can drink your open-container booze historically.