From the East Coast to the Mississippi River, I just adore traveling around the American South, whether it’s for a Southern US weekend getaway or a longer southeastern road trip. I took a quick count, and my best guess is that I’ve taken over forty independent trips to the South, so trust me when I say, you will not run out of great places to visit in the South.
Here are my favorite places to go in the Southern United States, plus the places that are on my American South bucket list (many of which I will be crossing off soon!).
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The Best Places to Visit in the South
No one human call see all of these places in one trip unless you’re fully nomadic, so don’t worry if it takes you more than one trip (or ten) to see even twenty percent of this list! And traveling the South is so much fun, and such an important learning experience, that you shouldn’t rush through it. Slow travel here is a great way to grapple with America’s past.
How to Use this List
I have chosen my favorite places and a few bucket list items in the South. I am listing them by state, to make it easy for you to plan your own Southern USA road trip. Where available, I link to other travel guides I have about the area to help you plan your trip even further in detail.
These places have been chosen for a myriad of reasons, from their importance in Civil War history, Civil Rights history, famous music venues and live music scenes, grand antebellum or European architecture (and the heaviness that comes with that), delicious variations of Southern cuisine, great outdoor activities, charming historic districts, famous nightlife, etc. There simply is no one-size-fits-all guide for deciding where to go in the South, so I’m including a bit of everything!
While I am listing southern cities and towns you should visit, many have been chosen because of their proximity to a state park or national park that you can see while in the area or the cities or towns might be known for stunning beaches or beautiful waterfalls. The South has great places for biking, hiking, kayaking, swimming, golfing, and more. Don’t spend all your time in the south indoors soaking up the Southern Hospitality!
Note that I am not including Texas, since I include it in my Southwest USA region. However, there are parts of Eastern Texas that identify culturally and historically with the South.
The Yellowhammer State is one of the most important states to visit to experience the Civil Rights Trail. From good eats to important historic spots, you’ll leave Alabama with an expanded mind in addition to an expanded waistline.
A famous quote about Alabama by Paula Poundstone goes “I was born in Alabama, but I only lived there for a month before I’d done everything there was to do.” That may have been true decades ago, but it certainly isn’t now!
From Birmingham to Gulf Shores, there’s just so much to do here that you can’t fit it into one small trip (or five).
It may not be New York, but Birmingham is the Magic City, and that counts for a lot. While here, make sure to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, but don’t stop there! The historic sites here are spread out all over the city, and there is no shortage of important things to do in Birmingham.
The city has great food, a charming state park just a half-hour away, and fabulous historic architecture. Don’t overlook this industrial capital!
The city of Selma is famous for the march Civil Rights protestors made across the Edmund Pettus Bridge but plan to spend at least a day here exploring the history of this city beyond its most famous landmark.
From Brown Chapel AME Church to the National Voting Rights Museum and its sister museum Ancient Africa, Enslavement, and Civil War Museum, there are many important sites to visit before or after you make your own walk across the bridge.
While you can visit as a day trip from Birmingham or Montgomery, there’s more than enough here to dedicate to its own weekend getaway.
While the highlight for many here will be the beautiful riverfront, Montgomery is the state capital, and as such it holds the key to many important historic events that took place in the state.
Of important note to those wanting to travel the Civil Rights Trail are Dexter Parsonage, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr lived, and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where he was the pastor, as well as the Rosa Parks Museum and the Legacy Museum and National Memorial to Peace and Justice.
For those interested in the Jazz Age, make sure to visit the F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum.
I probably don’t need to convince you to plan a trip to one of the best beach towns in the South. Beyond its titular beautiful Gulf (of Mexico) Shores, this town is famous for its hospitality as well as the pristine waters of the Gulf State Park.
When you’re done swimming, make sure to hang out on the Original Oyster House Boardwalk and taste Matt’s Homemade Ice Cream.
Home to the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the country, Mobile is definitely a destination you do not want to overlook when planning an Alabama itinerary.
For history lovers, you should make sure to visit the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum as well as the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. The Carnival Museum highlights the city’s role at the forefront of Mardi Gras in the United States, while the Fort of Colonial Mobile dates all the way back to 1702.
If you love Space Tourism, make sure to plan a visit to Huntsville. From Space Camp to the Space Museum, this is the top hangout for mini future astronauts to get in touch with their space-centric dreams. And as a little girl who has a blast at the space center in Houston when I was eight, I wholeheartedly recommend Huntsville as a great place to go on vacation in Alabama with kids.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotions (both good and bad) that I would feel visiting Tuskeegee. So much so that I went back again this year to see it in more depth. The highlights here are the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and Tuskeegee University, but the downtown is charming enough to merit a separate stop.
Roll tide? Not in Auburn! While here, take in an Auburn Tigers game, enjoy the college-town atmosphere, and take part in some university hijinks. Beyond indulging in college life and sports, visitors here can enjoy Chewacla State Park, the Tuskeegee National Forest, and the Southeastern Raptor Center.
New Orleans doesn’t have the only must-see French Quarter in the South! Make sure to stop by this charming neighborhood while in Fairhope. You should also make time to catch a sunset on Mobile Bay, get out on the water, and walk down the town’s municipal pier.
Arkansas is known as the natural state, and with its long list of natural wonders, it’s not hard to understand why.
The Natural State is one that I overlooked growing up. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to visit Fort Smith and Little Rock, and I really didn’t understand the beauty of Arkansas’s national parks, lakes, mountains, hidden gems, and small towns. They even have some cool castles in Arkansas!
Here are some of my favorite places to visit in Arkansas and the places still on my Arkansas bucket list.
As a self-proclaimed history fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put Little Rock at the very top of my recommendations of places you should visit, whether as a Romantic southern getaway or if you visit Little Rock with kids.
The city was founded in 1831 and it still has a wide range of historic buildings, parks, and neighborhoods to explore. Of course, the most famous site is the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, which is the site of one of the most pivotal chapters of the US Civil Rights Movement.
For those of you who are looking for a little respite from the hectic pace of life, this is the perfect place to go.
Hot Springs sits at the base of the Ouachita Mountains and is a popular destination for travelers looking to relax in nature. It’s home to over 60 unique hotels, resorts, and inns.
The town has one of the largest collections of Victorian-style buildings in the US. It’s also home to Hot Springs National Park, one of the most popular national parks in Arkansas.
Eureka Springs is a beautiful small town in Arkansas with a population of about 2,000 people. The town is rich in culture and history.
Eureka Springs is known for its hot springs, obviously, but it also has a Victorian architecture that dates back to the late 1800s. You can feel like you are stepping back in time when walking its charming streets
The city also has some of the best antique shops in Arkansas as well as many other unique shops with handmade items and locally made goods. Whether you’re looking for something new or old, you will find it here.
One of the most popular attractions to see on vacation in Eureka Springs, beyond the springs and the shopping, is live music. You can find traditional Arkansas folk music as well as Blues and modern groups.
Fort Smith is a city that is located near the Arkansas River in the northwestern part of the state. There are many old buildings with a rich history in Fort Smith and people come to visit them.
Fort Smith offers great opportunities for outdoor recreation as well. People can visit various parks and trails, or take part in bike tours along the Riverline Trail, which traverses the entire length of Fort Smith, from west to east.
The city also is home to a variety of museums like the Fort Smith Museum of History and the museum at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, which showcase different aspects (both positive and negative) of life in the early days of America’s westward expansion.