Savannah, Georgia, has long been one of my favorite cities. With its tree-filled squares, lush gardens, waterfront location and its history as the oldest city in Georgia, the city from 1733 is a delight to visit. Even if all you do is stroll through one of its 22 squares and eat a dish of the famous Leopold’s Ice Cream. For our most recent stay we made our home at The DeSoto Savannah, which has plenty of intriguing history of its own.
Built in 1890 and once called the Empress of the South, the DeSoto has been closely linked to the history of the city itself, hosting visiting celebrities and generations of social events for locals. While the current hotel looks nothing like the original property, what hasn’t changed is the southern hospitality of the staff and a location perfect for exploring this “Hostess City of the South.”
Location: In the Heart of Savannah’s Historic District
Ever since our first trip to Paris when our hotel was in a nondescript business area, miles from anything attractive or visit-worthy, one of the most important things for me in booking a hotel is the location. I want to be able to walk to just about anything I want to do. There is such freedom in just heading out on foot, with no concerns about calling taxis or Ubers or figuring out the sometimes impossibly complicated public transportation systems.
The DeSoto Savannah is right on East Liberty Street, within walking distance of just about anything you want to do in historic Savannah. The hotel has easy valet parking right up front. After we parked our car with the valet on Friday, we didn’t get it out again until Sunday when we left. (If you’re flying, the hotel is about a 20-minute drive from the Savannah Airport and two hours from Jacksonville International Airport.)[See related story: Best Southern Hotels Where We Always Feel Welcome]
The Historic River Street is just walk a few blocks away. Yes, it’s totally touristy but worth seeing the converted cotton warehouses and 200-year-old hand-laid cobblestones. You’ll want to leave your high heels at home for this one, ladies. When you see the throngs of tourists it’s hard to believe this area was abandoned for decades after yellow fever epidemic in 1818. Urban planners revived it in the 1970s and now more than 70 shops are housed here.
The City Market is also just a few blocks away. Here you’ll find plenty of shops, the American Prohibition Museum and Byrd Cookie Company. Go inside and you’ll find a friendly face willing to let you sample as many of their yummy little cookies as you want. If you’re like us, you’ll walk back with eight bags of the delicious cookies, after multiple samples of each kind, of course. The traditional cookie of the low country is the benne wafer, a sesame seed cookie. My favorite flavor is the salted caramel, but I also look the jalapeno cheddar cookies as well – they have quick a kick to them.
We laughed because every time we were at the hotel and opened up the Maps app on our phones to see how far our desired destination was, the answer would come back in feet rather than miles. One night we were on the mood for Thai food and decided on Fire Street Food. It was a short walk away, as was the improv group, Odd Lot Improv, which turned out to be just down the street.
The Rooms and Public Spaces: A Bed Like Floating on a Cloud and an Art-Filled Lobby
Our king room was on the 13th floor, which I didn’t even notice until a guy in the elevator pointed it out, remarking that a lot of high-rises don’t have a 13th floor. Well, it was a lucky number for us because we had a beautiful corner room with two balconies and stunning views of Savannah.
We walked out on the balcony and could see the historic districts, church steeples and the Talmadge Memorial Bridge. The view is truly unsurpassed in Savannah, as it’s one of the tallest buildings in the city, towering over its neighbors. We loved just hanging on the balcony taking in the amazing view. The bathroom was elegant, with grey-and-white marble and tile.
The room was spacious and comfortable but we didn’t discover the best part until we crawled into our king bed that night – the most amazing bed. “This bed is like floating on a cloud,” Chris said.
The DeSoto Savannah has 246 newly renovated rooms. The lobby is filled with art, thanks to the hotel’s partnership with SCAD, which stands for Savannah College of Art and Design, one of the best architecture and design schools in the United States. The DeSoto displays a rotating exhibition of the students’ art and the permanent collection includes some of their pieces and hanging sculpture.
A SCAD painting professor, Tom Francis, has a trio of paintings in the permanent collection, SCAD graduate Lauren Clay has a sculpture while Justin Ward, also a SCAD graduate, has fine art photography.
The Pool Terrace: Spacious and Scenic
One of the best features of The DeSoto Savannah is the huge pool terrace on the second floor. Some have called it Savannah’s best-kept secret. The pool had a feature I’d never seen before – floats placed in the shallow end for lounging, perfect for relaxing with your feet in the water. And I do mean shallow as the water was just a few inches deep.
The pool is a decent size and the pool area surrounding it has several tables, seating areas and a bar serving hand-crafted cocktails during the day. There’s plenty of seating for relaxing and fire pits for when the weather turns a bit chilly. We saw lots of families with children swimming, couples enjoying a drink and a group of friends playing cards.
We went down to the terrace one day to catch the full moon, which was on the opposite side of our view from the balcony. It was a glorious site as it rose over the steeple of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. We tried to get an angle to shoot a photo, but there wasn’t one from our position, and moon shots never turn out anyway, do they?
The Dining: The DeSoto Savannah Restaurants Deliver Deliciousness
Hotel restaurants don’t always enjoy the best reputations, serving mediocre food to captive guests. That’s not the case here. The restaurants at the DeSoto Savannah were amazing, and worth dining there even if you aren’t staying in the hotel.
The first night we dined at the 1540 Room, a light spacious room with windows facing East Liberty Street for views of passersby. The high ceilings, white walls and hardwood floors gives the space an open, casually elegant feel. The name comes from the year Hernando de Soto first explored Georgia in 1540.
The service was phenomenal, with the waiter and manager checking on us and our meal in a welcome, not overbearing-please-leave-us-alone way. The crowd was casually dressed and we saw several large groups enjoying each other’s company. And the food.
We started with a delicious gin drink, our liquor of choice, the Cucumber Spritzer made with gin, lime juice, agave, cucumber and Prosecco. It’s light, refreshing and the perfect drink for the hot climate in Savannah.
I appreciated how the menu includes the name of the farmers they source from and I recognized a few of my favorites: Sweet Grass Dairy for cheese and Springer Mountain Farms for chicken.
My husband, a major oyster fan, had to try the raw oysters and the presentation was the fanciest we’d ever seen, served with Georgia peach mignonette and topped with caviar. I tried the yellowfin tuna crudo and we enjoyed both.
Foie gras fans should try to decadent-sounding foie gras & waffles, which includes goat cheese and bourbon syrup. Other starters include blue crab beignets, poached pei mussles and beef carpaccio.
Entrees include catch of the day, which was grouper and was Chris’s selection. I was in the mood for a steak so opted for the petite filet of beef, which was perfectly cooked and served with mac & cheese (considered a vegetable in the South) and fantastic bacon-braised collard greens. Another thing the South is famous for is taking healthy greens and cooking them in loads of fat, usually pork products, infusing them with additional calories and so much taste. Because as we all know, fat=taste.
Other entrees included duck confit, scallops and pork belly, skillet chicken pot pie and bouillabaisse. Desserts include praline grenache tart, crème brulee, lemon meringue tart and brioche bread pudding. 1540 Room also serves breakfast with classics like chicken and waffles, stuffed French toast and corned beef hash skillet.
For lunch on Saturday we tried Edgar’s Proof & Provision, where they claim “barrel-aged cocktails meet southern comfort food.” The restaurant has a great outdoor eating area right on East Liberty Street, but we opted to sit in the air-conditioned comfort of the bar area, where we could enjoy the group of black-tuxedoed groomsmen pre-gaming the wedding.
Edgar’s has an all-day menu with snacks, salads and sandwiches. Given our indulgence the previous evening we both enjoyed the Georgia Cobb, made with Spring Mountain Farms chicken breast – so yummy. I was so tempted by the fish and chips and kicking collard greens. Damn my slow metabolism and desire to fit in my jeans!
Other options include smoked wings, sticky ribs, fried chicken sandwich and four cheese brisket melt.
Edgar’s specializes in whiskeys, as evidenced by the wall on the exterior of the restaurant filled with all shapes and sizes of whiskey bottles, an excellent way to decorate and advertise your offerings at the same time.
A third option is the coffee shop Buffalo Bayou, a must for guests who love their fancy specialty coffees like its signature Honeybee Latte made with Savannah Bee Honey. You’ll also find breakfast sandwiches and lunch items for a quick, casual meal.
The Sip and Stroll Through Savannah
A service offered by the DeSoto, the Sip and Stroll is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You sip. You stroll. Thanks to Savannah’s open container laws, you can legally take whatever adult beverage you desire down the street with you. As long as it’s in a plastic container not more than 16 ounces.
The concierge and Sotherly host Kolin Podell started Sip and Stroll two years ago because he said tourists always head south from the DeSoto to see River Street, Broughton Street and City Market. “I wanted to take them the other way, the opposite of their natural inclination, towards Forsyth Park,” he said.
We met up with Kolin for our private tour and he shared a bit of the history of the DeSoto with us, showing us historic photos and newspaper clippings, one from 1963 proclaiming the DeSoto as Queen of the South. (See more on the history below.)
First stop for the Sip and Stroll is to procure the Sip portion of the activity, so it was back to the bar at Edgar’s to order an appropriate drink. It had to be the refreshing Cucumber Spritz we’d loved the night before as it was a warm late spring afternoon. Our drinks came to us in a supersize plastic cup, surely barely adhering to the 16-ounce rule. I’m not much of a day-drinker, but given how delicious this drink is and how hot it was outside, I had no doubt about my ability to enjoy the whole thing. Spoiler alert: I did, even sucking the last bits of liquid out of the mint.
We headed out the back way from the DeSoto, past several white rocking chairs. Kolin told us it was set up to remind you of a gracious southern porch, complete with the haint paint on the ceiling. If you’re not familiar with haint paint, it’s a gorgeous color of blue that has traditionally been painted on the ceilings of southern porches, supposedly to keep the spirits away. The custom dates back to Gullah days, when they also used it to paint the doors, windows and shutters.
The back of the Desoto is right on pretty Madison Square, one of 22 squares in Savannah, and designed in 1837. To addition to being the oldest city in Georgia, Savannah was also known as our country’s first planned city, helping this area to achieve its designation as a National Historic Landmark District.
We headed down Bull Street, stopping at the square for Kolin to share a bit of history and the fact that the area is filled with historic buildings that have been purchased by SCAD, renovated and are now in use for SCAD classrooms.
As we continued our stroll we heard the strains of bagpipe music and spotted a kilt-clad bagpipe player in front of St. Johns Church, welcoming guests to a wedding. Colin pointed out the Green-Meldrim House adjacent to the church, one of several historic homes in Savannah.
Mr. Green made his wealth in Savannah as a cotton merchant and ship builder, enough to build the most expensive house in Savannah in 1850. During the Civil War, General Sherman used it as his headquarters when his troops occupied Savannah. He sent a telegram from this home to President Lincoln offering him the city of Savannah as a Christmas gift.
Kolin also pointed out a massive white home at the corner of Gaston and Bull streets, telling us the 25,000-foot-home is owned by hotelier Richard Kessler who restored the home, which was built about 1917.
We made our way down to Forsyth Park, home to the ornate fountain that’s an icon of Savannah. Built in 1858, the fountain was actually ordered out of a catalog. My guess is that it was even harder to put together than an IKEA dresser. This 30-acre park is one of my favorites in Savannah. It has tennis courts, two playgrounds and a half-shell theater. There’s a farmers market here every Saturday and you can catch free concerts here during the Savannah Jazz Festival, held each year in September.
Soon our drinks were empty and our stroll was over so we headed back to the DeSoto after the delightfully informative tour. Savannah can be a very hot city and we were happy to return to the comfort of air conditioning.
The DeSoto Savannah History
The original DeSoto opened on New Year’s Day in 1890 in an effort to attract visitors to stay on their way to Florida. It featured six stories, 300 guest rooms, swimming pool and a miniature golf course. An article about the opening claimed, “It is the chief ornament of the city. It is lacking in no convenience and has every improvement to be found in the most modern hotels in the world.”
It became known as the Empress of the South and functioned as the center of social life in Savannah. The DeSoto hosted several U.S. presidents and celebrities that include BB King, Katherine Hepburn, Elvis Pressley and Gregory Peck.
The hotel suffered during the depression, however, and went slowly downhill, also suffering damage from a fire. It was decided that the old hotel couldn’t be saved and Hilton built a new property, which opened in 1968. This time, the hotel had 15 stories, 265 guest rooms and suites and underground parking. But pieces of the old DeSoto remained, include the antique chandeliers and terra cotta tiles.
The DeSoto was purchased by Sotherly Hotels in 2004 and underwent a $12 million renovation in 2008 and a $9.4 million renovation in 2017. The hotel group has hotels throughout the South, including Wilmington, Tampa and Houston. The Sotherly Hotel in Atlanta is The Georgian Terrace in Atlanta, one of my favorite hotels, built in 1911 and one of the most elegant properties in town. The DeSoto is a member of Historic Hotels of America and is our favorite choice for downtown Savannah hotels.
A Favorite with Brides: DeSoto Savannah Weddings
The DeSoto Savannah is also a popular, highly rated place for weddings and happy brides write glowing reviews. There were two there the Saturday night we stayed, in adjacent ballrooms. We rode the elevator with several well-dressed wedding guests, who we assume made it to the right wedding.
No worries if you’re having one of those big ol’ southern weddings – The Grand Oglethorpe Ballroom holds up to 420 of your closest friends for a wedding. If you’re hosting a smaller crowd, opt for the Harborview Room, with panoramic views of Savannah and wooden restored bar.
Savannah seems to be a popular place to get married. We spotted three brides while strolling around town.
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– Jan Schroder, Editor in chief