It’s the time of year when we start planning upcoming adventures. There are so many places I recommend visiting in the South, but 2020 will be an important year for many reasons. Based on travel trends from Destination Analysts, four of the top 20 destinations in the United States are within the South.
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!
Eastern Shore, Alabama
Alabama may be small on coastline but what it lacks in square footage, it makes up for in charm. Across the bay from Mobile, the towns of Fairhope, Point Clear, Magnolia Springs, and Foley are a short drive from Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
OWA in Foley is like a world all its own with a theme park featuring dozens of amusement rides for all ages, restaurants, shops, and even onsite lodging. Magnolia Springs looks just out of a postcard with its Spanish moss-draped trees. Point Clear is a stop along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at the renovated Grand Hotel.
In Fairhope, Top Chef winner Kelsey Barnard Clark owns KBC, her catering company and restaurant that offers biscuits and other Southern favorites. And speaking of food, it’s in this area where you’ll find Murder Point Oysters, one of the most sought-after types in the region.
Fort Smith, Arkansas
Set south of Northwest Arkansas on the border with Oklahoma, Fort Smith is the state’s Wild West town, dating back to 1817. You might recognize the name from the book, and later movies, True Grit.
This history is also described at the US Marshals Museum about the agency behind some of the nation’s most infamous captures. It is currently under construction and is set to open in the next year.
It sits on the Arkansas River and has a number of historic buildings, including in the Belle Grove historic district. Fort Smith National Historic Site educates visitors about the Indian Territory leading up to the Trail of Tears.
Fort Smith is also home to the Fort Smith Mural Festival. Among the pieces that transformed the city are the OK Feed Mills murals, depicting portraits on the side of grain towers by artist Guido van Helten.
Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia
Despite being located on the way south to Florida, the Okefenokee Swamp remains untouched by the majority of travelers. Set east of Valdosta, the over 400,000-acre swamp is one of the state’s unique wetlands.
It’s also one of Georgia’s natural wonders. It’s especially important to think about these wetlands as climate change makes its way through the nation and water levels rise.
The area also includes Stephen C. Foster State Park, which is a designated dark sky park. They offer guided boat tours, including to Billy’s Island, a place where escaped slaves and AWOL soldiers resided during the Seminole Wars. Visitors can also go fishing, hiking, geocaching, and kayaking. The park has cottages, campgrounds, and an eco-lodge to spend the night.
Anna Maria Island, Florida
Florida has incredible beaches, but once you’ve seen Anna Maria Island, you’ll see why Coastal Living named it one of the best in the country. The barrier island on the Gulf Coast is a short drive from Sarasota and Bradenton.
The sugar-white sand beaches, 1911 pier, and crystal blue water are only part of the attraction. The beach houses on the seven-mile-long island are mostly in colorful pastel shades and the streets are wide, accommodating golf carts and bikes.
Restaurants are all locally owned and visitors can even chow down on fish tacos right on the beach. Shops are funky and sell coastal-inspired decor and clothing. Outdoors lovers can enjoy parasailing, kayaking, and hiking at Egmont Key State Park.
Daniel Boone Forest, Kentucky
The state of Kentucky has so much to offer outdoors lovers from hiking to mountain biking to caving. But perhaps the best is the 700,00 acre Daniel Boone National Forest, which was established in 1937 in honor of the frontiersman.
Natural Bridge, Buckhorn Lake, and Cumberland Falls state parks are all included within the forest’s boundaries, along with the Red River Gorge. All have onsite accommodations and trails with recreational activities.
Corbin, home to the original Kentucky Fried Chicken, is another good place to base yourself, as is London . While you’re in the area, stop by Renfro Valley, a rural farm that hosts country music acts.
Thousands of travelers come to New Orleans every year to experience that “Big Easy” lifestyle. But there are dozens of great communities near the city, especially on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. St. Tammany Parish is made up of the towns of Slidell, Mandeville, Covington, Abita Springs, and dozens of others.
Visitors can go on swamp tours or kayak the waterways on their own before chowing down on local seafood at a waterfront eatery. The Abita Brewery is one of the top draws to the region. End the night by dancing at one of the music venues.
It’s also a place to find the wacky and weird. St. Benedict Abbey is one of the monasteries in the South, just north of Covington. The Abita Mystery House is a roadside attraction known for its collection of folk art. It’s been featured on shows like American Pickers.
The city of Natchez is over 300 years old, located on the mighty Mississippi River right near the Louisiana state line. It’s rich in history with antebellum plantations and homes dating back to the 1800s and beyond. But it’s also a place where a new generation is making their place in Natchez.
For example, Natchez Brewing Company is the city’s only craft brewery, offering beers inspired by their surroundings like the Bluff City Blonde. Charboneau Distillery makes the first legally distilled rum in Mississippi. Steampunk Coffee Roasters is a former cabin turned hip coffee shop.
But you can’t talk about Natchez without discussing the important role that enslaved people played in making it what it is today. Forks of the Road Historical Site is an important monument on the site of a slave market that once operated in Natchez, supplying African slaves to nearby plantations.
The Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture includes a monument to the Rhythm Night Club, one of the deadliest fires in our nation’s history, which killed 200 mostly African American people at a nightclub in Natchez.
In October 2019, the “Proud to Take a Stand” monument was dedicated at the City Auditorium to honor the Civil Rights Movement advocates that suffered during “The Parchman Ordeal” in 1965.
Bryson City and Cherokee, North Carolina
The Great Smoky Mountains is America’s most visited national park and it spans between Tennessee and North Carolina. But not as many people flock to the towns on the latter side, centered around Bryson City and Cherokee, which makes it the perfect mountain getaway.
Bryson City is home to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which runs through Sylva and Dillsboro, and past filming locations from The Fugitive. The town itself has a number of great restaurants and breweries. It’s a short drive into the national park and Fontana Lake.
Neighboring Cherokee is far more than its casino. It’s the home to the Cherokee Nation and its museums about the tribe’s history and present. Here you can see the seasonal Unto These Hills production.
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is one of the most popular destinations in the United States, so it’s not exactly an under-the-radar place for us to recommend. But this will be a big year for the destination where the inspiration for This Is My South actually began.
The Holy City will celebrate its 350th anniversary in 2020, marking the date that the English arrived in 1670 to form Charles Town in honor of King Charles.
The International African African American Museum will open in 2021, honoring the site where 40% of all American slaves disembarked. It’s an important addition to the city that has previously had few exhibits on the slave experience.
Charleston is also a great base for travels to the coastal communities of South Carolina. Near the city, visitors can explore Edisto and Wadmalaw Islands. Further afield, you can explore historic Georgetown, learn about the Gullah people on Daufuskie Island.
In fact, it’s where you can still see intimate performances by big-name stars at the bars and venues around town like Puckett’s Grocery and Kimbro’s Pickin’ Parlor. Franklin hosts the annual Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival, which brings in acts from all genres.
Franklin is also where restaurants get their start before opening additional locations elsewhere. For example, both Franklin Juice Company and Five Daughters Bakery have started here before expanding to Nashville and beyond. Honest Coffee Roasters did the same, opening in Huntsville.
On the heels of Ken Burns’ 2019 documentary series Country Music, music fans can tour countless places that contributed to the genre beyond places like Nashville. Bristol, which is on the border between Tennessee and Virginia, is considered to be the Birthplace of Country Music following the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is the best place to start a music pilgrimage with its interactive exhibits. But it’s one of many. The town also hosts the annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival for bluegrass, country, and Americana artists.
The town of Hiltons is a 30-minute drive away and is home to the Carter Family Fold where the family band once played. The rustic shed still offers live music and has a small museum. The Crooked Road Music Trail has dozens of other small venues that welcome anyone to show off their talents.
Where do you want to go in the South in 2020?