The South is a vast place filled with idyllic seaside towns, rocky desert vistas, historic homes, towering mountains, and sweet green valleys. For newcomers, it can be hard to know where to start in their explorations of the southern United States. To help first timers find their new favorite neck of the woods, we’ve put together a list of 12 Southern spots and adventures every visitor—and lifetime Southerner—should try.
Of course, there’s a lot more to do in the South than what can fit on a tiny list. Make your own Southern to-do list and whether you’re eating a fried pie at the Varsity in Atlanta, wildlife spotting at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, NC, touring Savannah’s Wormsloe Plantation Historic Site, munching on benne wafers or biscuits, or simply sitting on a warm porch and sipping a glass of iced tea you’ll be doing the South proud.
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Here are 12 things everyone should try on their first (long) trip to the South:
1. Stop at Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi
The South has a long literary heritage that is on full display in Rowan Oak, the former home of William Faulkner. The beloved author of books like The Sound and the Fury and Light in August, bought the dilapidated estate in 1930, and set about fixing it up himself. He and his family lived there for over 30 years. The Nobel Prize winner’s home was sold the house to the University of Mississippi in 1972 and its doors opened to the public so visitors could explore Faulkner’s world and walk in his very learned footsteps.
2. Explore Big Bend National Park in Texas
They say the stars at night are big and bright in the heart of Texas and visitors to Big Bend can test that theory with a stopover in either the national park or the adjacent state one. The parks, which are the largest expanses of public lands in Texas, extend along a massive swath of the Chihuahuan desert and the Rio Grande. Spend days hiking and admiring the views of Mexico and the sun dipping behind jagged mountains making for spectacular sunrises and sunsets. Camp in the rugged backcountry or hole up the Chisos Mountain Lodge in the heart of the park to explore some of the South’s most magnificent scenery.
3. Visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, AL
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opened its doors in 1992 with the mission of teaching the lessons of the past while working towards a better future. Over two million visitors have walked through the museum’s exhibitions and displays and learned about the heroes of the civil rights movement, pause for healing and remembrance, and taken away ideas about what they can do today to further expand liberty and justice for all. To make it a road trip, also visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.
4. Watch a horse race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY
Grab your most glamorous hat or finest seersucker and head to the legendary horse track, Churchill Downs. Brush up on betting 101 before you place your bets and catch a race, cheering on your favorite horse as they make their way around the famous course. Order up the official drink of the Kentucky Derby—a mint julep— while you watch the action, and if you work up an appetite watching the horses run, head for lunch in the Roses Room. After you’ve dined, visit the Kentucky Derby Museum, to learn about what it takes to become a winner of the Kentucky Derby.
5. Wander Royal Street in New Orleans
Visitors tend to flock to Bourbon Street with its world-famous nightlife and historic bars and clubs, but if elbowing your way through the crowd outside Saints and Sinners sounds like a drag, head to a different world that is just one block away—Royal Street. This is one of the oldest blocks in New Orleans and when it crosses through the French Quarter, it is lined with art galleries, boutiques, and antique shops. Royal Street is also the address for some of the finest examples of New Orleans architecture and classic hotels like the elegant Hotel Monteleone.
Of course, New Orleans has many other must-see attractions including the Backstreet Cultural Museum, the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, the F&F Botanica Spiritual Supply, the fine dining at Commander’s Palace, Willie Mae’s fried chicken, and so much more.
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6. Ride the trolley in Eureka Springs, Arkansas
This charming town is filled with beautifully maintained Victorian architecture that has been drawing visitors since the 1800s. Originally, travelers made their way to this Northern Arkansas outpost to bathe in the supposedly curative water that run out of the Ozark Mountains that gave the town its name. Now, visitors flock to visit the idyllic town’s well-preserved Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. Take a horse-drawn carriage for a ride through the winding streets or hop on the trolley that takes visitors on a blast to the past in the quaint small town.
7. Tour Graceland in Memphis, TN
Take a rock n’ roll pilgrimage to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, where fans of music (and interior decorating!) will find much to admire. The white-and-gold mansion is an homage to a musical legend filled with the mementos of the life and work of the once-and-future king of rock n’ roll. Follow up the tour of Graceland with a trip to Sun Studio, the recording studio built by Sam Phillips and then stop for lunch for some hot chicken, a Nashville specialty.
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8. Drive Georgia’s Antebellum Trail
When Union General William Sherman marched through the South he left a trail of destruction in his war-time wake. Some of Georgia’s smaller towns and older homes survived his swath of ruination, though, and still stand today offering a peek into the Antebellum South. Tour the South’s path on the Antebellum trail, which runs from Macon to Athens, Georgia with stops at historic homes, covered bridges, stage coach stops, gardens and arboretums, museums, and more remnants of the past.
9. Watch the sunset in Key West, Florida
Each night the Mallory Square Dock in Key West, Florida turns into a party. Locals and visitors alike descend on the dock to watch the sun disappear into the water and raise a glass to the oncoming night while watching boats sail through the Gulf of Mexico. The nightly ritual includes food carts doling out Key West favorites like Key Lime pie and conch fritters while artisans peddle locally made crafts. While musicians make sure the party has a good soundtrack, the real show is put on by Mother Nature herself who fills the sky with a fiery display of orange and pink—and then does it all again the next night.
10. Get a bumper sticker at South of the Border in Dillon, S.C.
It’s hard to miss the billboards that point drivers towards South of the Border in Dillon, S.C., but if you do miss the signs, the neon lights will alert you that you’ve arrived at one of the South’s most prominent roadside attractions. It’s a kitsch-filled combination truck stop, motel, and restaurant that sprawls across 300 acres of land just South of the North Carolina border. The questionably Mexican themed site offers both a motor inn and a campground, six restaurants including a steak house and ice cream shop, rides, an observation tower and naturally plenty of gift shops.
11. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway may be the most scenic road in the country, if not the world. Stretching over 469 miles, the parkway winds from the tree-lined vistas of North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the natural beauty of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. The drive is littered with memorable views and historic markers with plenty of must-see landmarks. The road trip is particularly stunning in fall, when the autumnal colors turn the hills to flame, but any time of year, the drive is an iconic part of the South’s natural heritage.
12. Eat Your Weight in Barbecue
You can’t leave the South without eating barbecue. Whether you’re scarfing down a barbecue sandwich at Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, NC; testing the wares at 4 Rivers Smokehouse in Orlando, FL; chowing down at Franklin Barbecue in Austin; sampling the pulled pork at Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, AL; or eating your way through Kansas City, you can’t go wrong (unless you forget napkins).