During the last week of March I went on a family trip with my parents and sister to the Deep South, a region of the United States historically known for its dependency on plantation agriculture and slavery during the pre–Civil War period. It was not exactly the typical booze-drenched, bikini-clad Spring break you see in movies, but instead a culture and history rich experience full of picturesque charm and fried food.
Our trip started in Savannah, Georgia, where we landed on Saturday, March 19th – two days after St. Patrick’s Day. Little did we know that in Savannah, St. Paddy’s is highly celebrated, starting Thursday and going strong through the early hours of Sunday morning. Traffic was crazy and the city streets were packed with people, drinking green beer and being merry. Everything was decorated for the weekend long party – even the historic fountains were spouting water dyed green!
Because of the boisterous celebrations, our first impression of Savannah was that of a rowdy party town, which seemed strange in the context of charming old brick buildings and Spanish moss strewn oaks. When we woke up to explore the town further on Sunday morning, we were given a second chance at a first impression. We were informed by a local that the city’s clean-up crew had been hard at work since the early hours of the morning to restore it to its everyday charm. We were so impressed! If you hadn’t known about the weekend’s festivities, you wouldn’t be able to tell anything had ever happened.
We spent our time in Savannah walking the cobbled streets and exploring its old neighborhoods and public parks. Savannah has 22 open squares of landscaped parkland sprinkled throughout, which provide a great punctuation and relief between the city blocks. These green squares were busy with locals walking dogs, toddlers playing, and tourists in awe. It’s too bad this urban planning model isn’t more common across American cities.
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Our second designation was Charleston, South Carolina, the city where the first shots of the Civil War rang. Charleston was so ridiculously cute and charming, it was almost surreal. Every corner I turned, there was more adorable antebellum architecture, always neatly decorated with flower boxes hanging under the windows. While in Savannah we took a trolley tour of the city to get an overview of the major landmarks, in Charleston we did a self-guided walking tour. We spent a sunny (and windy) day walking through ultra charming cobble-stoned neighborhoods, along the Battery next to huge pastel mansions, past palmettos (the state tree) and peach blossoms, and through the historic City Market.
At the Market, and at pop-up stands throughout the city, African American women were selling sweetgrass baskets, a traditional art form brought to the United States by slaves from West Africa. I overheard a tour guide tell her group that the sweetgrass basket tradition was a dying one, since today very few young ladies want to learn this craft from their mothers and grandmothers. As if that wasn’t sad enough already, because the baskets are becoming more rare, prices are going up. I would have loved to take one home (I’m such a sucker for local craft with historical meaning), but even the smallest 5 inch diameter baskets were upwards of $40. Too much for something that could get squished in my suitcase on the trip home!
By this time we needed a break from Southern comfort food, so for dinner we found a cozy and delicious neapolitan pizza joint called Monza on the main shopping artery of King Street. As the name suggests, everything down to the menu items are themed after Italian Formula One drivers and vehicles, which was pretty fun and clever. If you like Napoli-style pizza, you will love this place!
Before we left town for our final destination, we visited Magnolia Plantation, one of the most iconic and visited historical plantations in South Carolina. Formerly a rice plantation, its grounds are now a huge garden that I can only describe accurately as magical. The air was thick with the most lovely floral scent my nose has ever had the honor of sniffing. The place reverted me to childish giddiness and joy, feeling like a fairy princess in a beautiful flowery kingdom. I am fully aware of how lame this sounds, but it’s the truth. Go visit and see/smell for yourself! I should also add that the grounds are home to many cute critters like gators, turtles, and snakes – an absolute joy to see!
ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA
The final stop on our Deep South itinerary was St. Augustine, Florida. Founded in 1585, it is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the contiguous US. In its early history, St. Augustine has been taken and seized several times between Spain and Britain, resulting in its mix of Spanish and British influenced architecture. Out of the three cities I visited on this trip, St. Augustine felt the most remote and European. I could have been on vacation in Spain if I hadn’t known better. The city featured many grand and palatial structures in ornate Spanish styles, including Flager College (a hotel turned university), Lightner Museum, Casa Monica, the Memorial Presbyterian Church, and its own City Hall.
My favorite part of St. Augustine was Castillo de San Marcos, a national monument and the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. The fort is four sided with the traditional lookout tower at each spiked corner. I was amazed at the sheer scale of the thing – so robust and strong. It was refreshing to see a truly old monument in the US, where everything feels so new (and often cheap) compared to the legacy and quality of European architecture. But that’s a different discussion entirely. What I mean to say is that Castillo de San Marcos was on Europe’s level of badass.
To conclude, it was a great trip that exposed me to the three beautiful historically and culturally rich Southern cities that were previously completely off my radar. If you can only visit one city, I highly recommend Charleston for its insane charm, but all three destinations are really worth it. I also recommend visiting the South in the Springtime like I did, before it gets too unbearably hot and humid in the Summer.
Thanks for reading!