The South’s Best Cities 2020
Four years have gone by since we first posed the question to readers: Which destination is the South’s ultimate urban gem? And the answers, unsurprisingly, have been varied. Some readers prefer their Southern metropolises with a heavy dose of historic charm, while others love all things sleek and modern. For some, it has to be a mountain city; others want to keep it coastal. No matter the landscape (or seascape) we want lots to see and do. We want plenty of good food and good drink—and fine company. We want natural beauty and cultural riches—retail abundance too. And our top twenty favorites all deliver. But among these contenders is a clear favorite–our four-time South’s Best champion, beloved for its historic architecture, sizzling food scene, and classic gardens. See the city that came out on top (again!), plus 19 others that have stolen the hearts of Southerners everywhere.
20. Orlando, Florida
Would a roundup of the South’s Best Cities be complete without the home of Mickey Mouse? Probably not, especially when that city is Orlando. With charming tree-lined neighborhoods and a downtown that embraces nightclubs and high-end restaurants in equal measure, Orlando is a destination that’s increasingly finding its way out of the shadow of theme parks. Visit during the off-seasons (spring and fall), to score on both downtown room rates and theme park ride waits.
19. Raleigh, North Carolina
As the hometown of a major university and one-third of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, Raleigh is known for its smarts. But understanding the city’s appeal isn’t rocket science: Outside of its collegiate offerings, Raleigh sports a rollicking downtown complete with lively food halls, numerous breweries, and—get this—a video store where you can rent DVDs à la the pre-Netflix days.
18. Lexington, Kentucky
There’s a lot more to Lexington than what the weekenders see during trips to Keeneland's Race Course. Famed for its bourbon and bluegrass, the city is spoiled with choice when it comes to distilleries, cocktail bars, and live music venues. And with miles of farmland surrounding the city limits, farm-to-table restaurants here aren’t a trend—they’re a tradition.
17. Memphis, Tennessee
As the birthplace of blues and rock ’n’ roll, Memphis holds an important spot in American history. Today, travelers are often drawn here to explore the city’s past, touring civil rights sites like the National Civil Rights Museum and musical landmarks from Elvis Presley’s Graceland to the Blues Hall of Fame. Outside of the blues, however, the Tennessee getaway is famed for its barbecue. If you’re there for the nosh, here are seven finger-lickin’ spots you won’t want to miss.
16. St. Petersburg, Florida
If your idea of the perfect big city involves easy access to the country’s best beaches, say hello to St. Petersburg. The Gulf Coast paradise has its own sand-and-surf backyard in beautiful St. Pete Beach and Pass-A-Grille Beach, and it’s an easy drive to chart-topping white sand in Clearwater. When locals aren’t soaking up the sunshine, there’s plenty to do within the city limits, where you’ll find tons of restaurants, bars, and museums. (Don’t miss the Salvador Dalí Museum, which houses the artist’s largest collection outside of Europe.)
15. Charlotte, North Carolina
For a sprawling metropolis with a population of more than 870,000, the Queen City has a way of feeling quaint and cozy. That’s largely due to the collection of distinct neighborhoods that fan out from the city’s urban epicenter, each offering a little slice of small-town life with charming main streets and locally owned boutiques. The great thing about Charlotte, however, is that big-city amenities are never too far away—in this case, lucrative jobs, world-class museums, and major sports teams.
14. Birmingham, Alabama
We might be partial to the home of our Southern Living headquarters, but according to readers, we’re not alone. The Magic City has seen its share of revitalization in the past several years, from the opening of its city-view green space, Railroad Park, to the continued evolution of its nationally lauded food scene. Here, you can find everything from posh white-linen restaurants with James Beard Award-winning cred to a globally influenced food hall sporting everything from Israeli cuisine to fried chicken and other Southern faves.
13. Chattanooga, Tennessee
Nashville and Memphis might be Tennessee’s kings when it comes to music and BBQ, but Chattanooga reigns supreme in outdoor adventure. The mid-sized riverfront getaway is a magnet for nature-loving travelers, with trails and activities that suit hikers, backpackers, bikers, paddlers, and more. If you prefer to get your cardio while sightseeing, stroll through the city’s Bluff View Art District, or run your credit card at Warehouse Row, a Civil War fort turned mixed-use shopping center with both retail and restaurants.
12. Wilmington, North Carolina
We’re suckers for small beach towns, but beachfront cities hold their own special appeal. With a population of 119,000, Wilmington strikes just the right balance: It’s large enough to offer plenty in the way of drinking, dining, and activity, but small enough to feel manageable for a quick getaway. The city’s two-mile Riverwalk is at the center of the action, but you’ll also want to save time for the Historic District, where beautiful Victorian and Antebellum-style homes make for many a photo op.
11. Greenville, South Carolina
As the midway point between Charlotte and Atlanta, smaller Greenville might be overlooked. But this fast-growing riverfront city is making that harder and harder to do. With a walkable downtown and happening Main Street, Greenville has all the amenities of an urban metropolis (star-powered restaurants, swanky cocktail lounges, a 32-acre green space in the city center) in a more easily accessible package.
10. Tallahassee, Florida
Ardent Seminole fans might tell you that the best place to be in Tallahassee—come fall, anyway—is Doak Campbell Stadium. But Florida’s capital is home to much more than a major university and a slew of government buildings. Here, tourists often come for Tallahassee’s history and natural beauty: The city has numerous wildlife preserves, animal refuges, state parks, history museums, and even a 17th-century Spanish mission.
9. Richmond, Virginia
There’s plenty to love about this one-time Capital of the South that goes far beyond its four centuries of history. Today, Richmond’s reputation for cool is often what attracts visitors to the area. Expect to find trendy boutique hotels, gorgeous nature trails, casual oyster joints, and an impressive roster of more than 30 craft breweries. Up for something a little offbeat? Attend one of the Edgar Allen Poe Museum’s “UNhappy Hours,” social gatherings in the museum’s garden held monthly from summer through fall.
8. Atlanta, Georgia
Home to the busiest airport in the world, Atlanta sees tens of millions of visitors pass through its city limits every year. Those who choose to stay awhile (or a lifetime) are the lucky ones. From its bustling urban epicenter to its trendy outlying neighborhoods (Buckhead might be the swankiest; Old Fourth Ward is the up-and-coming hip hangout), Georgia’s capital offers everything you’d want in a big city—with a hint of a Southern drawl.
7. Alexandria, Virginia
Just a stone’s throw from our nation’s capital, Alexandria maintains its small-town historic charm, and in the hearts of our readers, this city has it all. Stroll down the walkable King Street Mile and you’ll see why—the buzzy, beautiful neighborhood features everything from centuries-old architecture to dozens of independently owned restaurants and boutiques. And if you visit during the holidays, when a canopy of twinkling lights illuminates the charming brick sidewalks, you’ll really see the magic of this Virginia city.
6. Asheville, North Carolina
If ever there were a single city that put the funk in the South, it could very well be Asheville. The modestly sized mountain escape is known for its hippie-chic boutiques and thriving craft brew scene. But as of 2020, the city’s culinary chops are taking the spotlight. In addition to a new Art Deco Food Hall helmed by two James Beard nominees, Asheville will hold its second annual Chow Chow Festival, a food-focused event showcasing flavors and makers unique to the city.
5. Austin, Texas
The Texas capital—and capital of outdoor fun—made a big leap on this year’s South’s Best list, from a previous number-ten ranking to top five territory. And, frankly, we can’t blame readers. While the city might be known for its hip festivals and trendy taco joints, the year-round getaway offers something for everyone, from nature lovers to art aficionados.
4. New Orleans, Louisiana
It might be just a few years past its 300th birthday, but the Big Easy has a way of revitalizing itself year after year (annual visits are highly recommended). In 2020, visitors won’t want to miss the recently opened Sazerac House, a museum that explores the city’s cocktail culture. With a completely revamped airport, New Orleans is easier to reach than ever.
3. Nashville, Tennessee
As the HQ of country music, Nashville has been luring aspiring musicians and honky-tonk revelers for decades. But outside of the boot-scootin’ fun, there’s plenty more city to love. On the food and drink front, Nashville has been busy developing some serious culinary cred, with celebrated Southern chefs from Sean Brock to, most recently, Ford Fry (of Atlanta’s The Optimist) investing in Music City. If sightseeing is more your thing, Nashville’s picturesque parks and historic homes are perennial favorites.
2. Savannah, Georgia
With its romantic garden squares, stately antebellum mansions, and picturesque waterfront, Savannah is the kind of place that’s always ready for its closeup. But there’s more to this Georgia gem than just good looks: Savannah is famous for its thriving arts community (and SCAD, one of the country’s most famous design schools), delicious seafood restaurants, and spooky ghost tours.
1. Charleston, South Carolina
It’s no coincidence that South Carolina’s historic treasure of a city consistently ranks high on readers’ love lists. All those who have visited (and even those who haven’t) are instantly charmed by its historic homes, towering oaks, and cobblestoned streets. We’ve written extensively on the allure of the Holy City, but if you’re planning a getaway, you might want to take a peek at10 fun (and free!) things to do in town and our ode to Charleston’s legendary food scene.