It’s the time of year when we start planning upcoming adventures. There are so many places I recommend visiting in the South, but 2019 will be an important year for many reasons. Each of these destinations has been thoughtfully selected for what is new and exciting in the state. This list also serves as a personal bucket list for places we need to write about! So start searching for transportation deals and prepare to pack your bags!
Huntsville is home to a thriving population of young people, especially those working in the science and technology fields. The US Space and Rocket Center first attracted these specialized workers during the Space Race. Today, it is home to Space Camp, featured in the Netflix documentary, and industries attached to military defense. But there are also bike-friendly paths and green spaces as well as a thriving restaurant scene.
Visitors to the city can use it as a base to discover other destinations around Northern Alabama, which is rich in history, especially for the Native American peoples removed on the Trail of Tears. Madison has a quaint downtown only a few minutes away, with a handful of breweries. Florence is a must-see for music fans and Decatur has a few museums and hosts the annual Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic.
El Dorado, Arkansas
Arkansas is known for its ties to presidential history in Hope and Little Rock as well as the great outdoors in the Northwest. Even the Arkansas Delta is visited for its connection to music legend Johnny Cash. But few know about the southern central region of the state, which is two hours from the capital and about the same to northern Louisiana.
The former oil boom town of El Dorado opened the Murphy Arts District in 2017, investing over $100 million dollars to attract visitors with music festivals like Music Fest and other live entertainment. The three-day event in October has an eclectic lineup spanning all genres.
The Panhandle, Florida
It’s been a difficult year for the “Panhandle,” the strip of Florida that neighbors Alabama on the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Michael hit this region hard in the fall of 2018, wiping the town of Mexico Beach almost entirely away with the storm surge and high winds. Category 4 winds also led to damage in Panama City. While repair efforts are still underway, tourism will help these communities rebuild in the coming year.
This region is often unkindly nicknamed the “Redneck Riviera,” especially the kitschy shops and restaurants in Panama City Beach. But there’s so much more to it than that. The St. Andrews neighborhood of Panama City is one of the area’s oldest, hosting its own Mardi Gras festivities. Panama City Beach offers scuba diving of shipwrecks in the crystal blue water. Shell Island and St. Andrew State Park have some of the best beaches around.
Few places in the country can say that they are home to a living president. Americus is one such, not far from Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains. In fact, Carter was one of the first guests at the reopened Windsor Hotel, which previously hosted Al Capone. Andersonville is close by too, the site of a Civil War POW camp.
In downtown Americus, there is a sense of entrepreneurial spirit in the local businesses. For example, Cafe Campesino was founded in the 1990s as one of the first responsible coffee importers that started during a Habitat for Humanity trip to Guatemala. The charitable organization was also founded here and keeps their offices in town. Thirteenth Colony doesn’t have a tasting room, but is a locally made product that can’t be missed, available at one of the local restaurants.
In past years, we’ve written about well-known destinations like Lexington and Louisville. But this year, it’s all about the far western region of Kentucky. Located on the winding Ohio River just across the border from Illinois, the town has a number of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
The National Quilt Museum educates visitors on a nearly forgotten art form that spans generations. The functional and creative collection of over 500 pieces also hosts traveling exhibits. In addition to Paducah’s arts community, it’s close to the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area, which is home to a 700-acre elk and bison prairie.
Louisiana has many places worth visiting in the coming year, but some won’t be around indefinitely. The bayou region of the state is heavily affected by climate change, especially hurricanes. For this place, it’s not some scientific conspiracy, but something to be dealt with almost daily. Houma was named for a Native American tribe that lived in the area. In later years, the main industry was sugar cane.
This city is the place to stay if you want to explore the unique ecosystem of the bayous. Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge is a freshwater marsh and cypress-tupelo swamp where hundreds of species of birds live. It’s only accessible by boat, allowing the few visitors to feel as if they discovered it. Houma also has a few cultural attractions that educate visitors on the region’s way of life.
We first visited the town of Greenwood on a tour of the Mississippi Delta‘s music scene, especially the blues. It’s home to the Viking company, and its adjacent cooking school and luxury hotel, The Alluvian. The town was where B.B. King performed his first live broadcast, and one of the main locations of the film The Help.
But what makes it important to visit right now is its ties to the Civil Rights Movement. It was here that protests took place and in nearby Money where a young Emmett Till was lynched after being accused of harassing a white woman. Photos of his open casket at the funeral were published in national magazines, galvanizing the movement in the rest of the country. Little remains of Bryant’s Grocery, the store where Till came with relatives to buy candy, apart from a freedom trail marker. Only 20 minutes away from Greenwood, it’s important to visit this place before nature takes over the crumbling structure, as important today as ever.
Swansboro, North Carolina
Also affected by this year’s storms, specifically Hurricane Florence, the North Carolina Coast also needs your love and support in 2019. A few weeks after my visit to this area earlier this year, much of it was under water. But it’s still worth exploring this special part of the state, especially for the charming downtowns.
The town of Swansboro, North Carolina is sometimes overlooked by its neighboring destinations, the Outer Banks and Wilmington. But the coastal community’s historic buildings and dockside restaurants look like what you might find in Maine or Massachusetts. The nearby barrier islands and national seashore are like slices of unspoiled nature, especially Bear Island, which is only accessible by ferry. You can also use it as a hub for trips to Wilmington, New Bern, Topsail Island, and the North Carolina Aquarium.
Georgetown, South Carolina
You might have heard about the towns along the South Carolina coast, including Georgetown, a few years back during the devastating floods. Incorporated in 1729, it’s the third-oldest city and the state’s second-largest port, surrounded by four rivers. Native American tribes lived nearby and the Spanish explored the region before a permanent settlement was established. Plantations were established to grow indigo, rice, and cotton, relying on slave labor, but in later years industry shifted to a lumber mill.
Today, the town an hour from Charleston and Myrtle Beach has a number of historically significant landmarks. Brookgreen Gardens was set up on the site of a former plantation and features acres of plants, sculptures, and even a zoo. Hobcaw Barony was a winter retreat for the Baruch family and now serves as a nature preserve. Downtown Georgetown has the Rice Museum and Gullah Museum, which educate on important elements of local history.
Johnson City, Tennessee
Memorialized in the Old Crow Medicine Show song “Wagon Wheel,” Johnson City is tucked between the mountainous Cherokee National Forest and the North Carolina state line in East Tennessee. First settled in the 1850s, the railroad was an important part of the industry. It’s a part of what is referred to as the “Tri-Cities,” with Bristol and Kingsport and shares some of the music history with these towns. They had their own “Johnson City Sessions” with old-time bands.
These days, Johnson City has been named a top place to live and work. It boasts a thriving food and craft beer scene plus a minor league baseball team. The Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site has a number of historic buildings that belonged to an early frontiersman and statesman who opposed a plan for the secession of the land around Franklin. A replica of Davy Crockett’s home also sits nearby. The Watauga Flats Railroad Bridge is one of many scenic spots in Johnson City.
Just across the border in Virginia, Abingdon is one of the region’s leading arts hubs. Inhabited by early Cherokee tribes, the town was later explored by Daniel Boone. It was named after the ancestral home of Martha Washington in Oxfordshire, England and a women’s college was later established here, also in her honor. One of the campus buildings was even transformed into a AAA Four Diamond inn and spa that has hosted countless celebrities and politicians.
Heartwood is an incredible art gallery featuring local crafts, goods, and museum-worthy artifacts and hosting live music through the Crooked Road Music Trail. It’s closed for renovations but reopens in March. The Barter Theatre is one of the longest-running in the nation, giving a young Gregory Peck his start. The William King Museum of Art features regional works. Abingdon is also twenty minutes away from Damascus, home of the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 35-mile rail bike trail.
Where do you want to go in the South in 2019?
Sammi Eubanks provided additional assistance in putting this post together.