The Mercer-Williams House is one of the most famous places in Savannah, but for somewhat ghoulish reasons. Even though the name Mercer is one of the most famous names in the city, people don’t tour the Mercer-Williams House because they want to know more about Johnny Mercer, legendary songwriter of “Moon River”. They tour the home because they want to know about the famous murder that took place here in the 1980s.
But Savannah is so much more than scandalous murders. In 24 hours in Savannah, we will see at least three historic homes, sample every kind of drink from fancy espresso concoctions to bourbon, and wander through the most beautiful park in Georgia. Plus there will be Kevin Spacey jokes. (Too soon?) Let’s go! Time’s a-wasting!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Savannah. And if you’d like some itineraries for Atlanta to add to your Georgia vacation, just click here.
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24 Hours in Savannah
Where Should I Stay?
Now we are talking! Savannah, Georgia is home to some of the finest hotels and bed and breakfasts in the country. I recommend the Justine Inn for some serious Southern charm. There’s a full breakfast every morning, a huge wine and cheese spread each evening, and a delicious baked treat with your turndown service at night. (And I guess there’s nice fluffy beds or something. I just care about the food!)
The location is in a beautiful, safe neighborhood which is just a short drive from every attraction, including the Mercer-Williams House. And if you don’t drive, like me, Uber is everywhere in Savannah. You see! Now you have no excuse not to stay here.
24 Hours in Savannah
Morning: Telfair Academy
The Telfair Academy might look like our first historic house tour, but it’s not the Mercer-Williams House. It’s actually a museum. It is housed in an old mansion that the Telfair family used to live in. (More about them later.) The Telfair Academy is one of the three Telfair Museums in Savannah. So if you get a combination ticket, you can save money and visit all three attractions. You have a week to do so, so no rush!
Despite Savannah’s old-school reputation, many museums in the city like the SCAD Museum and the Jepson Center feature modern and contemporary art. But at the Telfair Academy, you’re only going to get the classic stuff. Faces that look like faces and not cubes. Sculptures made of marble, not trash that washed up on the beach. That sort of thing.
We’re going to spend a couple of hours diving deep into the Telfair Academy, which is more than enough time to learn…
three fun facts: telfair academy
1) who are these telfair people?
Well, just take a look at this home, Internet Stranger! They were obviously rolling in the green stuff. I gathered that this family was rather important because their name pops up on so many things in Savannah. Even now, I feel the family spirits possessing my fingers and compelling me to write their name over and over.
Telfair, Telfair, Telfair, Telfair, Telfair, Telfair, Telfair…
The museum reminded me of museums in Florence because both the exterior and interior were filled with classical looking marble statues. I felt sure that this similarity was intentional. The illustrious Telfairs had attempted to give their already brilliant name an even shinier polish by making their collection an homage to the Medicis and other great European families.
If you show up promptly at 10, you can take the free Mansion to Museum tour and learn even more about how this gorgeous private home was turned into the fanciest museum in Savannah.
2) what’s the most famous painting?
That’s debatable of course! I look forward to the angry emails telling me ACTUALLY I’ve overlooking the REAL most famous work at the Telfair Academy. But my impression is that the most famous work in the TA’s collection is the dramatic “The Black Prince at Crecy”. This gigantic creature takes up almost one whole wall. The subject is English King Edward III’s son on the field of battle, and it was painted by the American painter Julian Story.
Apparently Story was having trouble getting his work noticed by the European academies. Therefore he decided to make a splash by painting a work that drew on European history and was also really, really big. It worked; he finally won a Major Award for his efforts on The Black Prince.
I liked the painting both for its hugeness, which must be seen in person to be believed, and because the figure of the Black Prince is fascinating. He looks like a crow-faced harbinger of death, yet his posture and his location in the portrait appear heroic. He’s the Severus Snape of characters in monumental paintings.
3) what’s your favorite painting, stella jane?
How nice of you to ask! Perhaps one day we will be Internet Friends instead of Internet Strangers! Art watching is an extremely personal experience. I hope to teach you tips and tricks about how to appreciate art and museums, but no one can tell you how to feel when you look a painting.
That’s why I recommend that when you arrive at a museum, you should take some time to wander around aimlessly and see what strikes your eye and fancy. Come back and spend more time with those works later. You can take notes on what you see and why you like it in your journal or on an app in your phone. As an added bonus, see if you can buy a postcard of it at the museum store. The postcard + your description will make a nice and very cheap travel souvenir.
I’m from New York City, so my favorite painting was Brooklyn Bridge in Winter by Childe Hassam. You can probably tell from the painting that Hassam was an Impressionist, but he was born in Boston, so he was an American Impressionist, not one of these Frenchies. Even though he was born in Boston, he loved New York City and called it “the most wonderful and beautiful city in the world”. This proves he was the most sensible person to ever come out of Boston.
24 Hours in Savannah
Afternoon: Explore Savannah!
All right, Internet Stranger! I promised you the Mercer-Williams House and you’re going to get the Mercer-Williams House. But there’s many other wonderful historic homes in Savannah that we shouldn’t miss. There’s the Davenport House, if you’re interested in the history of old Savannah. We’ve got the Juliette Gordon Low House, if you like big-shouldered broads and Girl Scouts. And yes, I promise we can visit all three in one day, though feel free to skip one if you’re pressed for time.
But first, as I love to say, LUNCH!
approximately top 5: 24 hours in Savannah
1) fox and fig
We don’t have oodles of time for lunch, so let’s keep it light and refreshing with a stop at a local cafe. I keep calling the Fox and Fig Cafe the Pig and Fig, but apparently the name is alliterative and not rhyming. Also it wouldn’t make any sense for it to be called the Pig and Fig because the Fox and Fig is a plant-based cafe.
They are also famous for their coffee drinks, so order something refreshing like this espresso and tonic. It will cool you off on a hot Savannah day. (PS. That’s every day in Savannah.)
I’m not even remotely vegan, but I enjoy good vegan food as much as any other kind of food. Plus, I like giving my vegan readers options! This vegan banh mi is a great choice even if you are a carnivore because there are so many yummy spices and seasonings in it. (The “meat” in the banh mi is seitan, but I guarantee with all the sriracha mayo and fresh veggies, you won’t miss the meat.)
2) mercer-williams house
The Mercer-Williams House is one of the most popular historic house tours in Savannah. The tours are so popular, you should reserve your spot for a tour on their website in advance. I recommend the 1:30 tour time for this itinerary. But the Mercer-Williams House is not only popular because the interior is so beautiful. (Though it is lovely and flawlessly decorated.)
The Mercer-Williams House is a tourist draw because a very famous MURDER took place here. In fact, you could almost call it the MURDER-Williams House instead of the Mercer-Williams House. But in fact, it’s not clear whether or not it was a murder, so maybe I should call it the MURDER?Williams House.
Let me give you the CliffsNotes version of this MURDER? The Mercer-Williams House used to belong to an antiques dealer named Jim Williams. In 1981, he shot and killed his assistant/lover Danny Lewis Hansford inside his home. So if you take the Mercer-Williams house tour, you’ll see the very spot where the killing took place. (But don’t worry you’ll run into Mr. Williams inside the Mercer-Williams House. He died of a heart attack in 1990 and it belongs to his sister now.)
Jim Williams claimed he shot Hansford in self-defense. He ended up being tried four times for the death. The first two times he was convicted, the third trial ended in a hung jury, but the fourth trial ended in his acquittal. If you want more detail, please read the fantastic book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And please never see the movie version starring John Cusack because it is awful.
3) davenport House
The Davenport House tour isn’t as murdery as the Mercer-Williams House tour. But unlike the Mercer-Williams House, you’re allowed to take pictures inside. I recommend taking the 3PM tour here. That will give you enough time to make the tour at our last and most cheerful house tour. (Like the Mercer-Williams House, you can only see the inside of the Davenport house on a guided tour.)
The Davenport House was the home of a master builder named Isaiah Davenport. He was born in Rhode Island, but moved to Savannah in the early 1800s. Because he was a master builder, he did a lot of the work in the house itself, including his own molding. Our docent said that the house was both a home for Davenport and an advertisement for his work. How clever!
When it came to slavery and the Confederacy, the Davenport family was a house divided. Davenport himself owned enslaved people, including several enslaved master builders who worked with him to construct some of Savannah’s beautiful homes, including his own.
Davenport had six sons and one daughter who died young. Three of his sons fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, two fought for the Union, and one abstained from fighting. I assume the son who abstained just didn’t get invited to anyone’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. That’s how families are.
4) juliette gordon low birthplace
The Mercer-Williams House is one of the most murdery places in Savannah. But for our last historic house tour, we’re heading to one of the least murdery places in Savannah. It’s the former home of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts. (No, you can’t buy Girl Scout Cookies in the house shop. I checked!
The tour times vary, but when I did this itinerary, it all worked out because there was a tour at 4:30. You can check the tour times and availability on the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace website. But if you’re pressed for time or you’re really passionate about getting to see the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, do this instead of the Davenport House.
If you are now or you have ever been a Girl Scout, you’ll flip over all the Girl Scout trivia on the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace tour. For example, did you know that the first level of Girl Scout is a Daisy because Juliette Gordon Low was nicknamed Daisy? (In fact, your guide will refer to Ms. Low as Daisy throughout the entire tour.)
But even if, like me, you have never done any more Girl Scouting than nomming an entire box of Thin Mints in one go, you’ll still love hearing about the brassy Daisy. My favorite story about her was that she was a little hard of hearing, which she used to her advantage when raising money for the Girl Scouts. If someone turned down her request, she would pretend she didn’t hear until the person changed the no into a yes. So smart! I’m stealing that idea.
5) forsyth park
At this point it will be around 5:15, and you’ll probably be tired from all this sightseeing. So why not take a load off your feet in Forsyth Park? Forsyth Park is a flawless rectangle with an equally flawless fountain in the middle. Set aside some time during your 24 Hours in Savannah to walk around and admire its beauties.
I must admit that Forsyth Park is much prettier than my beloved Washington Square Park back home. The one thing that I will say in Washington Square Park’s defense is that we have a big monument to the Father of Our Country smack dab in the middle of the park. In Forsyth they have a big monument to Confederate soldiers instead. So NYC wins in the monument department.
In fairness to Savannah, I must add that the city council recently voted unanimously to remove the busts of the Confederate leaders, but it hasn’t happened yet. But Savannah can be incredibly resistant to change, so it’s progress that they even voted to make any alteration to a public monument.
24 Hours in Savannah
Evening: Dinner at A Lure
When many people think of Southern food, they think of barbecue, fried chicken, and lots of lard in all the things. But cooking in Savannah is different. It’s on the coast, so the cuisine is full of the freshest fish you can imagine. That’s why you should visit at least one seafood-focused restaurant in Savannah.
My recommendation is A Lure. The seafood is flawless, and so are the other Southern classics with a twist on the menu. Plus A Lure is right in the heart of historic Savannah, so you can go gallery hopping at places like A T Hun or party down on River Street when you are finished.
The first Southern classic with a twist that I recommend is the fried green tomatoes. They are served with creamy green goddess dressing and even creamier pimento cheese. (It’s pronounced pimenno.)
As the child of Southern parents, pimento cheese is one of the foods I crave the most when I go down South. (The others are barbecue, stewed okra and tomatoes, and grits.) Pimento cheese spread is made with cheese, mayo, pimento peppers, and a whole lot of love. You can try to make it at home if you’re not a Southerner, but I think it just tastes better in the South.
24 hour treat: shrimp and grits
This here’s probably the most famous dish in Savannah: shrimp and grits. I was already feeling lucky because I got to have grits and pimento cheese in the same meal. Now all I needed was stewed okra for dessert and I was set!
These shrimp and grits were fairly classic, but they did add some small touches like bits of bacon and crispy leeks on top. The bacon added a welcome richness, and the crispy bits livened up the texture. And frankly, bacon just makes everything better. Like when people are giving you bad news, they should just hand you some crispy bacon as you start to cry. No one can be sad when there’s bacon.
Apparently A Lure doesn’t serve stewed okra for dessert. So I’d have to make do with chocolate bourbon pecan pie with butter pecan ice cream and bourbon caramel. Poor me! This dessert decadently combines three of every Georgian’s favorite foods: pecans, bourbon, and butter. We might die of clogged arteries (if our secret antique dealer lover doesn’t shoot us first) but it’ll be a hell of a ride on the way!
That’s 24 Hours With the Mercer-Williams House!
What would you do at the Mercer-Williams House? Would you rather have chocolate bourbon pecan pie or stewed okra for dessert? And can I start calling it the MURDER-Williams house, or will Jim Williams’ estate sue me for slander? Please leave your thoughts below!