When I sat down to make this list two years ago, I had no idea what would happen to the travel industry. But I’m so happy to see the interest in domestic exploration, especially in the small towns of the Southeast. This year, I’ve selected places that may be on your radar but have new things coming as well as some real under-the-radar spots.
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Don’t let the college town association fool you. The towns of Auburn and Opelika are well worth a visit, whether it’s a game day or not. I made a detour on my way to the coast, checking out the craft breweries and shops like the 10000 Hz Record Store. Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art is a nice way to spend the day, with work from the likes of Salvador Dali and Romare Bearden.
The two towns also have top-notch dining like Acre, honored by the James Beard Foundation and Wine Spectator. The Hound is a bourbon bar and restaurant filled with taxidermy. Menu highlights are burgers, sandwiches, and meat and three, which changes daily.
The Laurel Hotel and Spa opened in the fall in the university’s new culinary program building, with a rooftop pool and incredible restaurant. The Collegiate Hotel at Auburn is another option, set in a former dorm.
Charming Wilson is one of Arkansas’ best small towns as new restaurants and shops continue to open. This includes an outpost of White’s Mercantile, owned by Hank Williams‘ granddaughter. The Hampson Archaeological Museum is another must-see, interpreting the early Indigenous site with educational panels and preserved pottery.
Chow down on the Blue Plate Special at the famed Wilson Cafe, with its artfully prepared Southern dishes. The Hog Pen in nearby Osceola is another favorite, for its smoked ribs and barbecue sides. The Louis Hotel is under construction, so in the meantime, Airbnb rentals are your best bet.
Ocala, Florida, a community between Gainesville and Orlando, is known for its ties to the equestrian industry dating back to 1943. An Ocala-raised horse went on to win the Kentucky Derby and celebs like John Travolta come here to care for their horses.
It’s also home to the World Equestrian Center, known as the “Disney World” of horses, where owners bring their horses to compete for a hefty prize purse. The WEC’s campus has a number of shops and restaurants as well as the five-star Equestrian Hotel. The luxury property has horse details around every corner, along with shops, restaurants, and the world’s youngest master sommelier.
Another college town worth exploring, Athens, Georgia is known for its music ties, where acts like R.E.M. and The B-52s performed before hitting it big. Live music is still a big part of the culture, along with landmarks like the Georgia Museum of Art.
Five and Ten was one of the first restaurants to gain national acclaim, run by Hugh Acheson, but it certainly isn’t the last. Puma Yu’s serves Asian-inspired cuisine and craft cocktails while Sidecar specializes in shared plates.
The town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky is best known for being home to spiritualist Edgar Cayce and authors bell hooks and Robert Penn Warren. It was the site of an alleged 1955 “close encounter” with extraterrestrials and is close to the military base at Fort Campbell.
The area’s Amish and Mennonite makers sell their handmade goods, including leatherworking, quilts, and woodworking. Visitors can also go on seasonal farm tours. Hopkinsville was also part of the Trail of Tears and memorializes the Indigenous loss of life at the Trail of Tears Commemorative Park and Heritage Center.
Divers can visit the 22-acre Pennyroyal Scuba Blue Springs Resort, a spring-fed quarry ideal for beginners. The town also has two museums highlighting local history: the Pennyroyal Area Museum and the Woody Winfree Fire-Transportation Museum.
Being in Kentucky, the area also has two distilleries, MB Roland Distillery and Casey Jones Distillery. Downtown Hopkinsville is full of local restaurants, including The Mixer, a restaurant and bakery in a former hardware store. Ferrell’s Snappy Service is a small burger joint open since 1936. Hopkinsville Brewing is a great spot for a pint.
Monroe and sister city West Monroe is known for its association with Duck Dynasty and being the home to the first Coca-Cola bottling operation. The Ouachita River runs through the area and both towns have local restaurants and shops.
A street known as Antique Alley is lined with not only antique shops but also restaurants and boutiques. The Biedenharn Museum & Gardens has multiple collections, including rare bibles and Coca-Cola memorabilia.
Don’t miss the Masur Museum of Art, located in the former Masur family home. The free-to-visit museum has works by Louisiana artists, including the famous “Blue Dog” series.
Enjoy the best of Louisiana cooking at Parish Restaurant and Bar, which offers craft cocktails and dishes with the best local ingredients. Warehouse No. 1 is set on the water and has been a favorite since 1980 for its shrimp and grits, fried oysters, and catfish.
There are a number of inns and rentals, but the TownePlace Suites by Marriott Monroe has large extended stay suites with comfortable amenities.
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
It’s full of locally owned shops like Fleurty Girl, Social Chair, and Bay Books. The Alice Mosley Museum is devoted to the folk artist and the galleries include Mosley’s work as well as a collection of antiques.
Make a reservation for Field’s Steak and Oyster Bar, a popular restaurant known for its local seafood and steaks. Located in an old home that also has a yoga studio, Mockingbird Cafe is a popular stop for breakfast and coffee. Favorite dishes include waffles, bowls, and sandwiches.
The town has colorful homes turned rentals, but The Pearl Hotel is a lovely boutique hotel that has 53 rooms and six suites, along with an outdoor pool, restaurants, and free WiFi.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Winston-Salem, North Carolina is one of the three points of the Triad and is, to me, one of the most underrated cities in the state. Originally settled by the Moravians, it’s now influenced by the banking industry, the nearby universities, and the many artists that have flocked here.
Learn about the past at Reynolda, the home of RJ Reynolds which now operates as an art museum. Old Salem Museums & Gardens features historic Moravian buildings that have been restored to serve as a living history museum, complete with interactive exhibits and costumed docents. The city is also the gateway to the wineries of the Yadkin Valley.
Upstate, South Carolina
This pick is a personal one as I’ve been spending more time in this region. The towns of the Upstate, including Walhalla, Seneca, and Anderson, are an easy drive from Clemson University and Greenville but have interesting places to see along lakes Hartwell and Keowee.
Check out the local history museums, including the Anderson County Museum, Oconee History Museum, and Museum of the Cherokee. Spend some time on the water or go hiking to one of the nearby waterfalls. The Stumphouse Tunnel can’t be missed, built during the Civil War and later used to age cheese.
Enjoy a meal at one of the old-school restaurants in this part of the state. Steak House Cafeteria in Walhalla is known for its fried chicken. Eva’s Restaurant in Westminster is the classic greasy spoon with corned beef hash and biscuits. There are also a number of craft breweries.
Most visitors stay in one of the rental lake houses, but if you prefer the amenities of a hotel, the Hampton Inn & Suites Seneca-Clemson Area is recommended. The Abernathy is another option near the university campus.
The town of Maryville is a quieter gateway to the Smokies, very different from the energy of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. It’s home to a college and is an easy drive to the national park via the Foothills Parkway. There’s also a maker community including McQueen Pottery.
The area has benefited from the proximity to the luxury resort Blackberry Farm, where alumni of the culinary program have gone on to open local restaurants. Another element is Blackberry Farm Brewing, a taproom highlighting the resort’s craft beer.
Diamondjack Wine Bar is run by BF alums and has creative shared plates and a diverse wine menu. Another alum restaurant is Amici, serving Italian favorites in a casual atmosphere, including woodfired pizza and house-made pasta.
The best place to stay (and dine!) is RT Lodge, a historic home and former Ruby Tuesday’s corporate retreat. The hotel has cozy rooms with a bar and restaurant and daily activities. It’s also close to hiking trails.
Norfolk, Virginia is often associated with its nautical history, but there’s also an interesting arts scene. The coastal location made it easy to set up rail and shipping connections. The industry also grew around seafood, specifically the sought-after Lynnhaven oysters.
Founded in 1933, the Chrysler Museum of Art has an incredible collection from early Medieval pieces to glass artwork. The adjacent glassblowing studio offers classes and demonstrations. Hermitage Museum and Gardens has Asian artifacts, textiles, and decorative arts.
Located in the harbor, Nauticus and Battleship Wisconsin is an interactive science and technology museum that focuses on maritime and naval history from the area.
Open since 1904, Doumar’s is an old-school drive-in restaurant with world’s first ice cream cone machine. Handsome Biscuit is the perfect spot for breakfast with heaping biscuits piled high with eggs. Syd’s FishPig Cafe is full of quirky folk art and is helmed by the James Beard-nominated chef, Cowboy Syd. The menu features Louisiana-style gumbo, house-made sausage, and fried flounder.
Glass Light Hotel (review here) has a restaurant and bar and a world-class art gallery. Guest rooms have views of the harbor, Illy coffee makers, and Nest toiletries. The Inn at Four Eleven York is convenient to downtown museums. Guest rooms have stylish decor and amenities including daily breakfast, free WiFi, and an in-house restaurant and bar.