The American South is home to incredible cities like New Orleans, Atlanta, Charleston, and Nashville. But some of the greatest gems can be found in charming small towns throughout the region, where the heritage, music, food, architecture, and famous southern hospitality of this beautiful, complicated, and often misunderstood region of the United States can truly be experienced.
In these towns and small cities, visitors will find accents and sometimes languages that have faded from larger cities, incredible and unexpected histories, and some of the best food in the world.
1. Abita Springs, Louisiana
An hour’s drive across the world’s longest overwater bridge from New Orleans is the quirky, artsy, tiny town of Abita Springs. Best known for its eponymous beer, a stop at the Abita Brewing Company is a must. While many tourists from New Orleans make a day trip to Abita, the newly opened Abita Springs Hotel makes an overnight possible, and there is plenty to do. The Abita Mystery House is perhaps America’s weirdest museum (it’s been featured on American Pickers, Roadside America, and is frequented by celebrities filming in the area) and just around the corner is the historic Abita Cafe and its sister snowball stand selling New Orleans’ favorite dessert. Abita is also a gateway to the Tammany Trace, one of America’s first rails to trails path which winds for 31 miles through St. Tammany Parish.
2. Natchez, Mississippi
The southernmost stop of the Natchez Trace, Natchez was settled by French colonists in 1716 and is one of the oldest communities in the South. Situated high on a bluff over the Mississippi River, Natchez is known for its Antebellum-era Greek Revival architecture and is home to numerous plantations and mansions, including Longwood, Melrose, Rosalie Mansion, and Stanton Hall. Natchez is also home to St. Mary’s Basilica, constructed in the mid-1800s as the only Catholic Cathedral in Mississippi and widely considered an architectural masterpiece among Southern Catholic churches.
3. Breaux Bridge, Louisiana
The crawfish capital of the world is situated between Lake Martin and the Atchafalaya Basin, and is a wonderful base for experiencing authentic Cajun culture and swamp tours. Breaux Bridge is just a few miles outside of Lafayette, but has a charming small town vibe and lots of great restaurants and unique lodging options. Don’t miss La Poussiere, an authentic Cajun Dancehall that opened in 1955, and be sure to strike up a conversation with the locals, some of whom still speak Cajun French.
4. Muscle Shoals, Alabama
This northwest Alabama town is best known for developing the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Artists including Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, and Carrie Underwood have all recorded hits at studios in Muscle Shoals, and visitors can tour both historic and active recording studios including FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Also nearby is Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s birthplace which offers tours and a chance to see the water pump that famous for providing Helen Keller’s breakthrough.
5. Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
Situated on the Gulf of Mexico an hour outside of New Orleans, Bay St. Louis has experienced a renaissance since it was decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Almost 13 years later, Old Town Bay St. Louis has become a hub for art galleries, restaurants, and local shopping. Each May, pirates take over the bay for a weekend during the annual Pirate Day in the Bay, during which the town celebrates all things pirate.
6. Dauphin Island, Alabama
Just outside of Mobile, Alabama, Dauphin Island is often passed over for larger beach towns on the Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast. But this tiny island, accessible via ferry or bridge, is one of the few places on the Gulf Coast that hasn’t been built up with hotels and condos. The island is ringed by beautiful beaches and teeming with wildlife, both on its shores and inland in places like the Audubon Bird Sanctuary and Indian Shell Mound Park. For history buffs, there’s the Fort Gaines Historic Site, home of the Battle of Mobile Bay. Hotel lodging is limited, but there are plenty of affordable beach house options, most of the situated high up on stilts and sometimes precariously over the open water.
7. Cleveland, Mississippi
A jewel of the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland is one of many towns in Northwest Mississippi that deserve a stop on any southern road trip. From the Grammy Museum to Po Monkey’s Lounge, Cleveland highlights the incredible contribution the Mississippi Delta region made to the blues and to all American music. The Delta is arguably the best place to experience true southern soul food, and there are dozens of authentic local restaurants featuring classics like catfish, collard greens and cornbread.
8. Seaside, Florida
Population: 55,000 (Fort Walton County)
This planned community located in unincorporated Fort Walton County is largely made up of vacation rentals, but is a fascinating find for fans of urban planning. Seaside is a master planned community, one of the first examples of New Urbanism fully formed, and has been an example to cities and towns all over the South looking to incorporate its design principles. But the real draw to this picture perfect town is its stunningly gorgeous beaches, which with their crystal clear and emerald blue waters and powder-like sand are some of Florida’s best.
9. Wears Valley, Tennessee
Often overlooked for the more touristy neighboring towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Wears Valley is both more affordable and more authentic than its neighbors and offers a bypass to the bumper to bumper traffic experienced at the Gatlinburg entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Come in the spring to see bear cubs up close, or in the fall for the beautiful foliage. An unexpected treasure in the Smoky Mountains communities are the dozens and dozens of pancake houses — try Hillbilly’s.
10. Milledgeville, Georgia
Architecture is the draw of this town in Central Georgia, home to the Greek Revival masterpieces Rose Hill at the Lockerly Arboretum and the Old Governor’s Mansion, the Old Capitol Building, considered to be the first example of Gothic Architecture in a public building in the United States, and Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor’s home Andalusia Farms. The Visitor’s Center offers a guided landmark tour on a historic trolley.
11. Tupelo, Mississippi
Tupelo is best known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley, and his childhood home and church have been converted to a museum in his honor. But there is more to Tupelo than Elvis, including the Tupelo Automobile Museum and a Buffalo Park, which you can tour on the “Bison Bus”. Tupelo is one of several stops on the Natchez Trace Parkway, an “All-American Road” maintained by the National Park Service, and has several opportunities for camping or hiking.
12. Oxford, Mississippi
A literature lover’s dream, Oxford has been home to William Faulkner, John Grisham, and dozens of other authors, poets, and artists. For sports fans, Oxford is best known as the home of Ole Miss and the famous Manning quarterbacks it produced. Visit during the spring and summer to experience the charm of the historic Downtown Square and Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, or come on a home game weekend in the fall to get the full Southern tailgating experience.
13. Natchitoches, Louisiana
Pronounced “Nac-a-tish”, this college town in northern Louisiana is most famously known as the setting for Steel Magnolias starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field, and Dolly Parton, and fans can stay at the house turned bed and breakfast where the movie was filmed. Though beautiful year round, this town is best visited during its elaborate Christmas Festival which takes over the town in December and features over 300,000 lights and 100 set pieces on the banks of the Cane River, or during the Meat Pie Festival which celebrates the town’s favorite food.