15 Charming Cities in the American South You May Have Overlooked
By: Perri Ormont Blumberg, CNN
August 4, 2017
(CNN) — There’s more to America’s Southern states than cities such as Nashville, Austin and New Orleans.
In fact, in recent years, so-called “second-tier” cities in the South have witnessed a massive boom in hotels, restaurants and micro-everythings.
Travel companies agree, too. “With the appeal of an all-American road trip style of travel, famous barbecue cuisine and a rich musical heritage, we’ve seen international bookings to Southern US destinations double in the last year,” says Intrepid Travel’s Director of North America Leigh Barnes.
Their “Southern Comfort USA,” trip — which weaves travelers through Savannah, Georgia; Asheville, North Carolina; the Blue Ridge Mountains and beyond — has experienced a whopping 180% growth. With diverse picks ranging from San Antonio and its old Western feel to post-industrial Birmingham, Alabama, here are our 15 favorite Southern cities flying under the radar.
Use our suggestions as a launching pad, but in true Southern style, do yourself a favor and leave the day up to wherever your Frye boots take you.
1. SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
A flight of stairs below street level, SA’s River Walk offers plenty of opportunities for dining and nightlife.
Grab a stool at Ocho, where you’ll get a bird’s eye view of the water, and wash down an order of the huitlacoche quesadillas with a Havana margarita.
Keep the buzz going at Jazz, TX, where on any given night you may catch jazz, Texas Swing or salsa. The tequila-based “For Grit and Glory” cocktail with jicama juice, watermelon and spicy salt foam may be enough to persuade you to sidle up to the mic for your own rendition of the Bob Wills classic “San Antonio Rose.”
The St. Anthony feels haunted in the best way possible. After you’ve gotten the perfunctory shot with the hotel lobby’s grand piano (Billy Joel recently test drove its keys), head to the new Sky Terrace, a hip rooftop scene with live music on Saturdays.
A vibrant city perched on the San Antonio river, the bustling River Walk melds European charm with Tex-Mex flair. In addition to the eateries, there’s shopping, museums and river taxi tours.
Sure, there’s the Alamo, the historic battlegrounds for the famed fights during the Texas Revolution in 1836. But San Antonio has a lot more going for it.
Venture to the Southtown Arts District, on downtown’s southern tip, or scope out The Pearl for its brewery, events, weekly farmers market and more.
2. BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA
You won’t go hungry in The Magic City. Eat too much swordfish and blistered okra at Hot & Hot Fish Club; drink too many icy cold brews at revered local haunt The Garage Cafe.
Keep the soigné vibrations rolling with a meal at Highlands Bar and Grill, a beloved establishment that doles out Southern grub with a French finesse.
There’s a new food court. Pizitz Food Hall is housed in a former downtown department store, but until crowds fade out, we’d choose Carrigan’s Public House on the outskirts of downtown. There, savor fine bites and killer martinis on their comfortable roof deck.
Barbecue is its own food group here. Carlile’s BBQ has the best potato salad in town, while Dreamland Bar-B-Que churns out melt-in-your-mouth ribs.
Sleep it all off at the newly restored Redmont Hotel, with an ambiance that still tips its hat to the roaring ’20s. Meanwhile, the Westin Birmingham has a Todd English restaurant, outdoor pool and free airport shuttle.
Gaze at 56-foot Vulcan, the world’s largest cast iron statue, designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti in 1904.
It’s located inside Red Mountain Park, which contains two city overlooks, three treehouses, a giant dog park and zip lining.
As one native puts it, “It’s free to go look at Vulcan’s bare ass, but you have to pay to ride the elevator up to the observation tower and gaze out on the city.”
On a more serious note, there’s plenty to see at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
Or, make your way toward Sloss Furnaces, a national historic landmark that bleeds gritty, post-industrial splendor and is completely free to visit.
3. GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA
For your first real meal in Greensbohemia, savor a superior Banh Mi at Bánh Mì Saigon Sandwiches & Bakery.
Or, flip a coin to decide between Crafted – the Art of the Taco and Crafted – the Art of Street Food. The grilled, stuffed avocado at Taco showcases divine intervention, as does the shrimp bibimbap at Street Food.
At Southern comfort food emperor Lucky 32, brace yourself for dreams about their signature Voodoo Sauce, a trademarked secret that’s a tangy riff on North Carolina’s barbecue glaze.
Southern standouts like flash-fried artichoke hearts and local pulled pork on johnny cakes grace the seasonal menus, and one of their Carolina vesper libations should always grace your place setting.
Siesta in style at the O. Henry Hotel, where you can enjoy traditional afternoon tea daily in the lobby, weekly live jazz performances on Thursday and Saturday and loaner bikes, should the mood strike to take the city by two wheels.
Another fine pick is The Proximity Hotel, an AAA Four Diamond property, that’s employee-owned and the first LEED Platinum “green hotel.”
There are gorgeous gardens and greenways, along with eclectic furnishings and art made in the local community.
After hitting up the tourist must-dos of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, explore GSO’s funkier side.
First, visit Hudson’s Hill to choose from heritage denim and handmade gifts. Then, catch a show at Triad Stage‘s Pyrle Theater or The Barn Dinner Theater, which has been operating since 1964.
Finally, book a one-of-a-kind tour at Replacements Ltd., the world’s largest supplier of vintage and contemporary dinnerware, crystal, silver and collectibles.
4. NORFOLK, VIRGINIA
Norfolk is home to a surprisingly dynamic vegan scene (our guess is it has something to do with animal rights group PETA being headquartered here). And even if you’re not into plant-based eating, do yourself a favor and try the vegan breakfast burrito at Yorgo’s Bageldashery.
At night, book it to A.W. Shucks, a raw bar hangout for locals, or enjoy a formal experience at Todd Jurich’s Bistro that has all the perks of an upscale restaurant (stellar service, interesting menu, fun people watching) with none of the pretension.
When hunger strikes again, head to Commune.
New for 2017, locavores and those traveling from abroad will particularly appreciate the 100% Virginia-sourced menu. Everyone will drool over the sourdough doughnuts with pastry cream and strawberries.
Rest your weary feet at brand-new Hilton property The Main, which is booking up thanks to its spectacular ballroom for weddings and conferences.
Or, check into Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel, where you can soak up picturesque harbor views with your she-crab soup or crab cake sandwich.
Shopping fiend? The new Simon outlets open this summer. There’s also the colossal MacArthur Center.
If you’re in the market for new ink, book it to the NEON District for Fuzion Ink Tattoo and Piercing Studio, followed by an improv show at Push Comedy Theater.
5. KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE
Go upscale with modern Southern fare at Knox Mason or spear your fork into hybrid dishes at Bistro by the Tracks where the duck ramen is as inspired as the traditional butcher’s crock pie.
Our pick for the South’s most important dish? Sweet P’s BBQ and Soul House, where a rack of ribs and pint of ‘tater salad is about three racks and seven pints too few.
Any vacation that starts off with an old fashioned smoked right before your eyes is likely a good one. At the newly opened TENNESSEAN Hotel’s restaurant, The Drawing Room, sling back one or two of the aforementioned elixir before wandering around Knoxville’s highly walkable downtown hub.
The Oliver Hotel is a boutique property downtown with an outstanding beverage program at its literary-inspired speakeasy, the Peter Kern Library (order the Holly Golightly or Holden Caulfield).
Studded with musical venues, funky restaurants and a weekly seasonal farmers market worth planning your trip around, the city center pulses with a contagious energy.
Sweat off gluttony by paddle boarding along the Tennessee River or head underground for bowling at Maple Hall, a boutique 11-lane setup that feels like it could just as easily be in London or Los Angeles.
6. LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY
Treat yourself to a meal at Red Barn Kitchen, where there’s a whole hog barbecue roast on the last Thursday of every month. With a moonshine cocktail en tote, beeline to the upbeat patio, which often hosts local musicians.
The Kentucky State Fair runs August 17-28 with live music, cooking competitions and one of the world’s most acclaimed horse shows. America’s largest indoor fair also boasts The Great American Spam Championship, if canned meat is your thing.
To try more things, frolick around town with food-centric Mint Julep Tours where the Chicken Fried, Gettin’ Pickled and Butter My Biscuit tours will all ensure you’re not hungry for the next nine years.
If you favor staying in one spot, sip on a boozy milkshake and enjoy grub like a grilled cheese that (almost) rivals dad’s at Red Herring Cocktail Lounge & Kitchen.
Book a room at the 21c Museum Hotel tucked into the heart of downtown.
If the wide open road calls, tack on a quick road trip (about an hour and a half) to Shaker Village — where you can take in 34 original Shaker structures in the country’s largest private collection of original buildings from the 1800s — and spend the night at The Inn.
There’s way more to Lou-ah-vull than bourbon, horses and fancy hats. For instance, geek out at “Hunger Games: The Exhibition” as you explore the wild world of Panem at Frazier History Museum (through September 10).
And then, of course, there’s the bourbon, horses and fancy hats. Running into all three is pretty unavoidable here. Be sure to carve out time for a drink at Lola, the fabled upstairs bar of Butchertown Grocery. It’s got a speakeasy vibe, and one hell of a drinks list.
7. CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA
Nosh on Mediterranean bites at Red Pump Kitchen, or get comfortable at Draft Taproom, a haven for craft beer lovers, with 60 taps (the self-serve pouring system allows patrons to pay by the ounce).
The Fitzroy and Brasserie Saison are both newcomers and have beautiful interiors, along with stellar food.
Plan your stay at The Townsman, C’ville’s newest boutique property arrival with four carefully appointed rooms in the downtown hub.
If you’re looking for something a little more isolated, treat yourself to a stay at Keswick Hall at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 48-room manor’s gold medal goes to its prestigious golf club, though we gravitate toward the grounds’ three pools.
There are two types of people who come to Charlottesville: Dave Matthews Band superfans and everyone else. If you’re in the former group, you’re likely making your pilgrimage to Miller’s, where Matthews himself once tended bar, to Matthews’ own scenic Blenheim Vineyards and to the Pink Warehouse where the band played its first official gig.
If you’re everyone else, swap Dave stalking for visiting a presidential home like Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, or Highland, the former digs of James Monroe.
Burn off all the eating at Shenandoah National Park, where you can snake your way through quiet wooded hollows and marvel at cascading waterfalls on the same hike. Pack lunch and set up an impromptu picnic within the 200,000 protected acres, alongside songbirds, deer and more wildlife creatures.
8. GULF SHORES, ALABAMA
Music lovers, head to Lucy Buffett’s (yes, sister of a certain Jimmy) LuLu’s for an energetic vibe and serious seafood platters.
Or, complete your Bushwacker (an ice cream-based cocktail that’s as popular as a vodka-soda here) crawl at Flora-Bama, a dive bar, multistage music venue, oyster bar, Sunday church and occasional rodeo rolled into one beachside locale.
Finish up with a boozy cake from Rum Sisters or play mad scientist at newly opened The Yard Milkshake Bar, and create a custom dessert. Who said a glazed doughnut or brownie isn’t a suitable milkshake topping?
Newcomers to the hotel scene include Best Western Premier-The Tides, Hotel Indigo, and in July 2017, the area welcomed Island House Hotel, a Doubletree by Hilton.
One of the most luxurious oceanfront condo options is Turquoise Place, which even has its own on-site lazy river.
Gulf State Park also offers lakefront cottages and around 500 RV sites and a tent camping area (many have swimming pools and other amenities). Newly launched Gulf Shores Travel Trailer Rentals will allow you to reserve a spot at any of the local campsites, and then drop off an RV for you and pick it up when your vacation ends.
Make as few plans as possible — you deserve it. Plop yourself on the sugar-white beaches (which rival any Caribbean treasure) with a stack of magazines or a book. If you’re so inclined, a beachside slow-flow class with Glow Yoga is a relaxing delight.
It’s hard to have a bad night at the open-air Wharf Amphitheater (acts this summer include Kenny Chesney, Green Day and Eric Church), where in true vacation mindset, your best bet is probably walking up to the box office 20 minutes before the main act takes the stage — the $20ish bleacher seats are surprisingly stellar.
Dreading the vacation hangover? Blow off some steam at family-owned hub The Factory, a giant web of interconnected trampolines, Tarzan swings, foam pits and more that lets kids of all ages bounce their way out of back-to-reality malaise.
9. WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA
Seafood is king here, though you can find plenty of menus graced with Southern staples like butter beans and pimento cheese, if you’re seeking more down-home cookery.
At PinPoint Restaurant, chase a radish in NC butterbean hummus or candied pecans with a Tropical Lightning IPA from Wilmington Brewing Company.
A surprising standout is Indochine, where one order of the braised Vietnamese catfish is about one too few. Meanwhile, seafood seekers can spear their fork into daily specials or slurp up oysters on the half shell dusted with bacon, pimento cheese and more.
The Graystone Inn, built in 1905 by a railroad magnate’s widow, proves a nice place to count sheep and a spot you may also recognize from “Dawson’s Creek,” “One Tree Hill” and “Sleepy Hollow,” among others.
To fulfill your veranda rocking chair fantasies, check into The Wilmingtonian, on a quiet street dripping in tree-lined perfection that’s only a short walk to the Cape Fear riverfront, a scenic strip studded with watering holes, eateries and specialty stores.
All in all, Wilmington may have that dreamy, laid-back pace, but this port town is gaining serious momentum: an Embassy Suites opens in the fall and Aloft and Westin properties are also in the works.
Don’t skip town without paying a visit to Airlie Gardens, an alternate 67-acre universe with live oak trees (it gets its name from the 472-year-old Airlie Oak), a freshwater lake and winding paths of seasonal blossoms.
Another spot to absorb Southern culture at its finest is Bellamy Mansion Museum, an 1859 architectural prize that talented tour guides will bring to life with tales of its former residents.
10. GULFPORT, MISSISSIPPI
Start at Triplett-Day Drug Co., a family-owned soda fountain that will teleport you to the “Leave it to Beaver” glory days.
Next, scope out the eclectic Fishbone Alley, a mural hunter’s Eden, which puts you a stone’s throw away from more local artwork, bars, restaurants and live music. (Be warned: Football game days are LOUD.)
Fight the heat with a small-batch icicle from Pop Bothers with inventive flavors ranging from Dragon Fruit to Graceland (an alluring medley of peanut butter with silky bananas and flecks of salty bacon).
Also book an outing with Tasty Tours in Downtown Gulfport, a three-hour walking culinary tour that spotlights five local dining establishments.
Rest your head at The Guest House at Gulfport Landing, an endearing bed and breakfast that dates to 1906 (it was restored in 2014, so you won’t need to worry about unplugging).
Or try The Almanett Hotel & Bistro, a cozy restaurant and inn overlooking the Mississippi Sound where all six guest rooms sport a private terrace. Worth noting: The shrimp here is beyond.
Grab a ferry to one of the area’s barrier islands for a half-day excursion with Ship Island Excursions (full-day trips are also available), where you’ll be spoiled with views of Fort Massachusetts, which was built in 1866, and idyllic beaches free from mainland crowds.
Also, it’s worth considering a wintertime trip, as holiday enthusiasts will rejoice in the spectacular Gulfport Harbor Lights Winter Festival, which runs from the end of November through the start of January. Last year it drew 60,000+ guests, not only for the dazzling illuminated displays, but also for the food trucks, rides, live performances and the 40 acres of greenspace it takes up on the majestic Gulf of Mexico.
11. WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA
A city steeped deeply in Moravian roots (they’re a Protestant denomination with German and Czech heritage), you’ll note this the most in the Old Salem Historic District and on your taste buds; expect Moravian chicken pie, sugar cake and thin cookies (try the ginger ones). Local brewery Foothills Brewing even creates a Moravian Porter every holiday season.
A glass of wine is always in easy reach here, too. Gaining traction as the gateway to the Yadkin Valley wine region, the state’s first and largest American Viticultural Area established in 2003 and now booming with 45+ wineries.
Or, take a tour and tasting of whiskey at Broad Branch Distillery. Another solid bet is Sutler’s Spirit Co. where you’ll swear their handcrafted gin is the nectar of gods.
Beer fans, drum up a list of tasting notes (and a hangover) at Small Batch Beer Co., Wise Man Brewing and Hoots Roller Bar & Beer Co.
The first Kimpton-brand hotel in the Carolinas, Winston-Salem recently got The Cardinal Hotel, inside the historic R.J. Reynolds building. Between the adult recreation room (oddball feature: an adult-sized twisting slide), indoor basketball court and bowling alley, you won’t get bored here. Don’t miss a meal at the ground floor’s Katharine Brasserie, named after the Reynolds’ family matriarch.
Landing in spring 2018, another historic downtown structure,The Pepper Building, will be reinvented as a 75-room Hotel Indigo with two on-site restaurants.
2017 marks the 15th season of the biennial National Black Theatre Festival, which features theater workshops and international vendors market, in addition to six days of theatrical performances.
For more cultural highlights, check out the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and Reynolda House Museum of American Art, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in August with the opening of “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern.”
12. FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS
Get a sense of Fayetteville’s local pride at seasonal First Thursday fêtes, May through October. Then, ride that happy buzz along the Fayetteville Ale Trail, a self-guided journey where you can fill in your beer passport with all the breweries in Northwest Arkansas.
Want to skip the trail? Try Columbus House Brewery, that hosts a running and cycling club and welcomes dogs with open arms. Alternatively, there’s Fossil Cove Brewing Co., which attracts an Ultimate Frisbee crowd and provides a ton of crave-worthy food trucks out back. Or try Maxine’s Tap Room, a combination revived hipster pub and community music hub.
Locals flock to Hugo’s , a mainstay since 1977, where the deep-fried potato skins are worth every calorie. For lighter fare, try Greenhouse Grille and marvel at how the hell they made Brussels sprouts taste so good (hint: frying them with pickled peppers and apple vinaigrette helps).
Waking up to the awe-inspiring Ozark Mountains has never looked better than at The Chancellor Hotel, and if your travels lean romantic, book your stay at the Inn at Carnall Hall, a lovely mansion that was once a University of Arkansas Residence Hall.
If you want to wallow in country vibes, choose Pratt Place Inn, a rustic and inviting getaway on 140 acres.
To quote a native, “Fayetteville is this lovely Southern and Midwestern mix where the Bible Belt, SEC football, back-to-the-land hippies, Walton (the family behind Walmart) money and university professors all meet up.”
Recently, Fayetteville has been making headlines for the mountain biking trails throughout the region. And cyclists will be delighted to hit the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile trail that connects six cities in the area, with plenty of attention-grabbing vistas. But if pedaling isn’t for you, get a dose of nature with an hour drive to Kings River Falls for a hike and pristine watering hole views.
History buffs will appreciate a visit to The Clinton House Museum, the former first couple’s first home together stacked with memorabilia and a beautiful garden (they were married in the living room).
To end the night, leave self-consciousness at the door and join the square dance at Backspace, a quirky performance hall.
13. PANAMA CITY BEACH, FLORIDA
At Andy’s Flour Power, a croissant or thick french toast with nuts, strawberries and powdered sugar is the way to go for breakfast. Even the Greek salads come loaded with crab meat and juicy Gulf shrimp at celebrated restaurant Capt. Anderson’s, and you (or the kids) will never tire of the ritual cannon blasting at the nightly sunset celebrations at Schooners, which bills itself as “The Last Local Beach Club.”
Perched on a 27-mile strip of sugar-white sand beach where the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrew Bay come together, you’ll find more old-school Southern charm here than Miami-style glitz. We love the quiet west end of the beach and the spacious, airy Carillon Beach Rentals that also boasts five private pools, restaurants and a spa within a private community.
After a $30 million renovation, Sheraton Bay Point Resort really left no detail unaddressed, from the private beach area to all 36 of the holes on the Nicklaus Design golf course.
Put the smartphone down and feast your eyes on the natural wonders at St. Andrews State Park — if time allows, tack on snorkeling or kayaking — especially the two nature trails that weave you through a smattering of coastal plant species.
For a more relaxing encounter with nature, set out on a 55-foot catamaran with Paradise Adventures.
14. BREAUX BRIDGE, LOUISIANA
Down by the bayou, it’s difficult to meet a meal you don’t like. You’re dining in the Crawfish Capital of the World, in which the yearly Crawfish Festival in May draws hundreds of thousands of hungry and thirsty visitors.
Revel in the liquor-soaked Zydeco brunches at Buck & Johnny’s, then enjoy a flawlessly prepared gumbo at Chez Jacqueline. You’re in Cajun country, so while the service may be slow, the homespun food will be well worth the growling stomach while you wait.
End the day by dancing your cares away at Whiskey River in nearby Henderson, where the proverbial levee never runs dry.
Book a room at The Juliet in neighboring Lafayette (about 9 miles away) or stay in town at the Maison Des Amis, a Caribbean-Creole property which has a spot on the National Registry of Historic Homes.
Another excellent option to call home is Maison Madeleine, where you can take part in cooking classes and bass fishing.
If you or members of your party are antiquers, Lagniappe Antiques Market, spread over 17,000 square feet, is a must-see.
Meanwhile, nearby Lake Martin has made the Audubon Society’s list of top 10 bird watching spots in the United States.
15. GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA
Say cheers at The Dark Corner Distillery, a craft microdistillery with moonshine as good as your brother-in-law’s.
Dine at Smoke on the Water restaurant, a “saucy Southern tavern” where more cornbread stuffing is always the correct answer. (As is doubling up on the fried bourbon bread pudding.)
The Swamp Rabbit Inn is a refreshingly chic bed and breakfast that’s two blocks from its namesake Swamp Rabbit Trail, an 18-mile bike trail. Or, reserve your room at Aloft Greenville Downtown, close to downtown’s shops and restaurants.
Ride your Reedy Rides bike rental loaner around town or please your inner speed demon at LeMans Karting Greenville, where you can drag your European karts up to 40 mph on a 750-foot long road course.
One day, slot in time to hit up Falls Park on the Reedy, which has beautiful gardens and trails.
Perri Ormont Blumberg is New York City-born and -based writer. She’s a graduate of Columbia University and the Natural Gourmet Institute culinary school. Follow her on Twitter @66PerriStreet.