LGBTQ Travel Guide: Savannah

River Street, Savannah, Georgia, America
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Author John Berendt's iconic 1994 nonfiction tome "Midnight in the Garden of Good And Evil" and its 1997 movie adaptation about a charming, rich antiques dealer and the murder of a young man he had an affair with—populated with an cast of eccentric real life characters—put Savannah, Georgia and its Spanish moss-splashed green parks, public squares, homes and architecture, and historic cobblestoned waterfront on the tourism musts map.

Like a quirkier, more history-rich cousin of fellow port city Charleston, Savannah—which was founded along with Georgia as a whole in 1733 by a British General, James Oglethorpe—now balances hospitable Southern charm with bustle, and LGBTQ+ friendly businesses and locals. The presence of the Savannah College of Art and Design—fashion icon André Leon Talley serves as a trustee—and its public museums and store, meanwhile, ensures a flow of fresh, young creative queer blood through its nearly 13,000 undergraduate students.

Haunted Savannah Tour

Lawrence Ferber

One can easily fill out a day with tours themed around architecture, history, and hauntings—Savannah's timeline is chock full of grisly murders and ghosts—and unusual one-of-a-kind attractions, while taking in nouveau and classic Southern and lowcountry cuisine (hello shrimp and grits!).

Although not much exists as far as LGBTQ-specific nightlife venues of late—there's only one remaining club at present, Club One—local queers throw house parties with regularity (giving one a reason to quickly make friends!), while the last weekend of October sees the jubilant city-wide Savannah Pride. Combining Halloween costumes with indoor and outdoor activities and parties, the 2021 edition is scheduled for October 28-30. And located just an hour outside Savannah, The Hideaway Campground is an LGBTQ clothing optional favorite that hosts bear, fetish, lesbian-only, and other special weekends and events.

Architecture Tour

Lawrence Ferber

The Best Things to Do

Official tourism office Visit Savannah's website features plenty of resources and at least a couple of easily searchable LGBT-specific articles, including one on the city's queer history. History figures heavily into Savannah's to-do's for visitors, with a bevy of themed tours. LGBT local Jonathan Stalcup founded Architectural Tours of Savannah, which offers engaging information packed walking tours of the grid-like city's center and its many highlights and building styles with photos illustrating significant changes over the years. Even those disinterested in architecture will gleam fascinating stories and details about the city from Stalcup, and should consider this one a must.

One featured stop on many Savannah tours is the Mercer House, where Jim Williams shot his hustler boyfriend and was a featured location in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." You can now take a guided tour of the art and antique-filled property itself, now officially known as the Mercer Williams House Museum, and hear some of the incredible stories about Williams and the house's history (alas, only the downstairs, since Williams' sister still lives on property).

SCAD Museum of Art

Lawrence Ferber

Comprising almost 20,000 square feet of indoor gallery space plus expansive outdoor footprint, The SCAD Museum of Art features contemporary multimedia exhibitions by international artists and designers: 2015 saw an Oscar de la Renta retrospective (which featured outfits worn by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Hilary Clinton), and the more recent "Beast In Show" by the gay-straight twin duo, the Haas Brothers. Located about 15 minutes away by foot, shopSCAD is jam packed with artwork, jewelry, clothing, and home goods you can take home with you by a slew of talented designers and artists, including SCAD's own creations.

If horror movies, serial killers, and the macabre are your thing, the Graveface Museum is a must. Located in the emerging, hipster Starland District at the Historic District's edge, this former tobacco warehouse turned private two-level museum—just open between Thursday and Sunday—fills out its space with impressive collections of items and artifacts related to serial killers (including a pair of Aileen Wournos' underwear, of all things, and many of John Wayne Gacy's original paintings), cults, the occult, and sideshow oddities, plus a massive horror movie themed pinball arcade and store stocked with paraphernalia, original T-shirts, and vinyl records: owner and musician Ryan Graveface also runs a record label that releases horror movie soundtracks.

Need a coffee break? Visit the flagship cafe of excellent local craft roasters Perc Coffee for a cold brew, pour-over, cappuccino or signature specialty like the lavender-vanilla Good Times Latte. The passionate and progressive owner, Philip Brown, is proud parent of a trans child, and Perc's employees cover the entire LGBTQ spectrum. Downtown's gay-owned Blends also roasts its internationally sourced beans (from countries including Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and Ethiopia) in-house, while offering full fresh breakfast and lunch menus. If you're looking for a permanent souvenir from Savannah, get inked at the queer, women-owned and run Riverside Tattoo Parlor.

Chocolat By Adam Turoni

Lawrence Ferber

Chocolate lovers should make a beeline to Chocolat by Adam Turoni, whose openly gay chocolatier crafts utterly delicious, artfully designed, high quality confections ranging from gold-dusted local honeycomb-filled bars to mint julep and red velvet cake truffles. There are several locations, each themed and designed to evoke a type of room: the "Chocolate Library" on Bull Street keeps its wares in bookcases (you take the ones you want with tongs), while chocolatiers create new batches in a glass-enclosed kitchen.

If a nature and naturism lover, The Hideaway Campground is located just an hour outside Savannah. Queer and clothing optional, its grounds include a 4,000 square foot entertainment room for shows and parties, a pool and spa, six fresh water lakes and springs (with fish!), and several winding trails, plus tent and RV spaces, fully equipped cabins for rent, and on weekends a cafe.

LGBTQ Bars and Clubs

Savannah's nightlife scene has become almost entirely mixed and straight in recent years. Gay bars like Felicias, Loading Dock, Faces, and delightfully divey Chuck's Bar on River Street have all closed, the latter in 2019 to much local chagrin. However, the multi-level Club One - where, famously, the Lady Chablis performed regularly - continues to bring plenty of dancing, drag queen entertainers, mixing and mingling and more. Some nights are 18+ (if there's live entertainment at a bar/venue, 18+ is allowed), while weekend drag cabaret becomes so packed that advance reservations are available online.

Some local drag queens, like the effervescent Venezuela-born Marie Con (an aspiring designer when out of drag, her stage name is cheekily derived from an unflattering Spanish slang term for gay), lead an evening bar crawl tour titled Yes, Queen!. Although this tour is primarily attended by rowdy bachelorette parties and straight folks, and entails an obnoxiously loud public spectacle while making way from bar to bar for drink specials—this being Savannah, obnoxious public spectacles are typically met with bemusement by tourists and locals alike - it's a way to cozy up and get insider scoop from (and selfies with!) the queens. Marie Con, incidentally, is a member of Savannah's most fierce alternative drag troupe, House of Gunt: check their website and social media for the colorful members' upcoming appearances!

Mixed sports bar, Bar Food—which boasts a dozen large TVs, an outdoor patio, activities like Trivia Night, cocktails and pub food menu—is lesbian owned. And since a lot of Savannah's LGBTQ population congregate at house parties, do be friendly and try to connect with the locals, like Architectural Tours of Savannah's Jonathan Stalcup.

Where to Eat

There are a handful of LGBTQ-owned and managed restaurants in Savannah, and even more that emphasize their LGBTQ friendliness.

Start with an outstanding breakfast or brunch—served daily from 8am until 3pm—at the historic downtown B. Matthew's, which is self-designated as a safe space for the transgender community and serves outstanding, decadent renditions and twists on Southern and lowcountry classics like a fried green tomato and crabcake eggs benedict, shrimp and cheesy grits with tasso ham, and pulled pork mac and cheese. There's an excellent cold brew—still too rare in restaurants—plus brunch cocktail menu featuring handful of bloody marys (available with locally distilled Lit Vodka) and originals. Reservations strongly advised for foodies, since even on weekdays the place fills up quick!

Drag brunch is a popular Savannah weekend to-do, and Moon River Brewing Company's monthly family friendly Sunday Drag Brunch is presented by Club One and its cast of queens.

Lily Tomlin at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room

Lawrence Ferber

A who's who of celebrities, politicians, VIPs, and famous LGBTQs including Lily Tomlin, have savored a family style fried chicken lunch at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room. The family run, nearly 80-year-old institution, open from 11am-2pm Monday through Friday, complements the chicken (and sometimes other meats) with Southern staples like mac and cheese, black eyed peas, okra, candied yams, and of course cornbread. Go hungry, and don't schedule dinner until at least 6 hours after!

Southern cuisine gets a progressive, upscale spin at the Historic District's critically acclaimed, gorgeously designed Husk and the superlative early 2021 arrival Common Thread, the latter of which occupies an historic, restored 1840s house (and former antiques store) and whose Chef Brandon Carter adds a dash of hipster flair to its brightly flavored, texture-rich locavore-centric offerings.

LGBTQ locals love to check out the many food and drink offerings at Starland Yard, a development featuring ever-changing food truck line-ups plus cocktails (it should be noted here that frozen slush drinks are immensely popular and common in Savannah!).

If overdosed on Southern cuisine and craving some European fare and atmosphere, a gay couple, Jeffrey Downey and Donald Lubowicki, owns the traditional French bistro Circa 1875, and also a newer Italian-centric venue, La Scala Ristorante, where pastas and hearty meat and fish mains rule.

Perry Lane Hotel

The Perry Lane

Where to Stay

The contemporary, two-building Perry Lane Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, is perfectly located in the heart of the leafy Historic District, surrounded by excellent stores, coffee shops (like Franklin's), and all the must-sees. A four-star 167-room property, amenities include a rooftop swimming pool and bar, curated modern art throughout (the rooms are filled with fun bits of decor), a fitness center, complimentary cocktail demo and sampling at 5pm at in-house The Wayward bar, and a restaurant/market, while a house car offers complimentary rides within two miles of the Historic District (on a first-served basis).

Just a block from the bustling River Street, the LGBTQ-friendly Kimpton brand's 145-room Brice Hotel offers complimentary use of bicycles and also boasts a seasonal outdoor pool. Part of a massive $375 million, 4.5 acre riverfront redevelopment project branded "Savannah's Entertainment District," the 419-room JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District opened in 2020. The crisp, modern rooms include a dash of contemporary quirk, river or city views, while amenities include a fitness center, full service spa, and handful of F&B venues including the rooftop's Electric Moon Skytop Lounge for craft cocktails and unbeatable views/ambiance.

Also in the Historic District, gay bed and breakfast Foley House Inn is reportedly, and proudly, haunted: some Savannah ghost tours include it as a stop. Other LGBTQ (and friendly) Savannah properties include another B&B, the Catherine Ward House Inn, the 99-room River Street Inn, the gay owned classic Savannah styled 4-suite Galloway House Inn, and the 151-room Andaz Savannah hotel.