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Explore Savannah's history, mansions and squares

St. Paul's Catholic Church is surrounded by trees

St. Paul's Catholic Church is surrounded by trees covered with Savannah's picturesque hanging moss. (2010) Photo Credit: istock

Savannah was founded in 1733 and was one of America's first planned cities, with a series of squares and parks.

But the reason for those public spaces might surprise modern visitors: British general James Oglethorpe designed them as part of a military grid so his troops could set up camp and have shaded meeting spots. The soldiers were there to keep the Spanish from advancing north to the English colony in Charleston, S.C., and Oglethorpe's statue faces south, as if still keeping a watchful eye on things.

Originally, the city had 24 squares. It's a remarkable feat of preservation that 22 are still in existence and one more is being restored. Surrounded by stately homes and beautiful gardens, they form the heart of a 2 1/2-square-mile historic district with more than 2,000 historic or architecturally significant buildings.

The city's preservation movement got a jump-start in 1955 from a group of women angry that the historic Isaiah Davenport House was about to be knocked down for a parking lot. Eventually that home and many others were saved.

Today the area is one of the largest National Historic Landmark districts in the country. Most of the houses remain privately owned, but a few are open for public tours, including:


The Davenport House

Dating back to 1820, it's considered one of the best examples of Federal architecture in the area, with original plasterwork, a cantilevered staircase, a large collection of Davenport china and period furniture ($8 adults, $5 ages 6-17; 912-236-8097, davenporthousemuseum.org).


Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace

More than 65,000 people visited this house, where the founder of the Girl Scouts grew up, including at least 20,000 Girl Scouts whose visits earn them a special birthplace pin for their uniforms ($8 adults, $7 students ages 6-20, $6 Girl Scouts; juliettegordonlowbirthplace.org).


The Mercer House

It dates to the 1860s but achieved fame in the late 20th century as home to the late art dealer Jim Williams, who was tried but never convicted in a fatal shooting there. The case inspired the book and movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" ($12.50, 912-236-6352, mercerhouse.com).


Other sites around town

Savannah's most famous cemetery is Bonaventure. It's one of the most photographed cemeteries in the country. Not only does it have a beautiful collection of camellias, magnolias and old live oak trees, but it's also where many prominent locals were buried. Its unique monuments and tombstones include one in the shape of a piano. The cemetery's famous "Bird Girl" statue, which was featured on the cover of the "Midnight in the Garden" book, is now on view at Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art.

Savannah has a history in movies, too. Films shot in town include "Forrest Gump," "Roots" and "Glory." As you stroll through the historic district, you'll pass by the place where Forrest Gump sat on a bench with a box of chocolates, telling his life story as he waited for a bus to take him to his beloved Jenny's house. But the spot in Chippewa Square on Hull Street never had a real bus stop, and the bench used in the movie is in the Savannah History Museum.


Public tours

Savannah likes to call itself the "most haunted city in America." Several outfitters run tours devoted to the Civil War, art, architecture, African-American heritage, gardens and, of course, ghosts in your choice of transportation - limos, trolleys, buses, horse-drawn carriages, boats along the waterway. There's even a 90-minute ghost tour that chauffeurs passengers by hearse ($15, 912-695-1578, hearseghosttours.com).


On foot

With all those beautiful parks, it's easy to find a nice spot to sit and people-watch. Temperatures are mild, even in winter, with daytime highs in the 60s not unusual.

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