The South's Best Cities On the Rise 2021

Huntsville, AL
Photo: Robbie Caponetto; Mural: Kim Radford

If the South's big cities are the lauded older sibling and its small towns the beloved youngest child, then the region's up-and-coming cities could very well be relegated to middle-child status, sometimes overshadowed and left to go about their business quietly. But in the past few years, many of these smaller urban spots have stepped into the limelight, earning their stripes as destinations in their own right.

Often just short drives from the big-city scene stealers (and typically without the headaches that tend to accompany life in metropolitan areas), these growing cities have burgeoning food scenes, blossoming downtowns, and enough cultural and outdoor activities to fill a weekend itinerary several times over. In other words, they're basically the Goldilocks of cities: not too big, not too small, and just right. From artsy Wilmington, North Carolina, to Fixer Upper-famous Waco, Texas, there's plenty to celebrate in the South's ten best Cities on the Rise.

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Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Baton Rouge, LA
Sean Pavone Photo/Getty Images

Given the legendary energy of New Orleans downriver, Baton Rouge has sometimes played second fiddle. However, the state capital and home to the LSU Tigers is definitely deserving of a spot on your Southern bucket list. Its trendy Mid City neighborhood has a gourmet food hall, antiques market, and Red Stick Social—a bowling alley, music venue, restaurant, and bar with an expansive rooftop deck. Taste 300-plus years of the city's rich history on a food tour, where you can sample some of the flavorful Creole and Cajun cuisine that this state is famous for.

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Fayetteville, Arkansas

Fayetteville, Arkansas
BlazenImages / Getty Images

A college town (home of the Razorbacks), with the popular Dickson Street entertainment district, Fayetteville is also a dream for both art and nature lovers. The Ozarks have become a real magnet for mountain bikers, but there are multiuse trails here—well over 100 miles of them—for everybody. Adventurers can traverse bike-friendly paths that zigzag around downtown and beyond, passing through the scenic mountains that have inspired creativity here for decades. Hundreds of artists have contributed their work to Terra Studios, which features sculpture gardens, murals, and fountains in a space that's designed for community interaction.

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Greenville, South Carolina

Greenville, SC: Falls Park
Laurey W. Glenn

A perennial stopover between Charlotte and Atlanta (as well as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country), Greenville has become a destination in its own right. The walkable downtown, Instagrammable Main Street, and chef-driven culinary scene are easy draws. Foodies can choose from cuisines reflecting a variety of cultures, authentic barbecue, and James Beard Award-nominated dishes. Greenville's thriving arts community includes public sculptures and murals, the Peace Center (home to Greenville Symphony Orchestra), and the annual Artisphere, which showcases 135 artists. Don't miss 26-acre Falls Park on the Reedy.

Get ready for your next trip to Greenville with this handy guide.

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Huntsville, Alabama

Huntsville, AL
Robbie Caponetto; Mural: Kim Radford

Rocket City USA has taken off, and a lot more than space exploration is happening there. With repurposing at its center, Huntsville is flourishing as a hot spot for culture and nightlife. A 1901 textile mill has become a premier privately owned arts facility. Inside a former school, find everything from sushi and ax throwing to a speakeasy. The city offers three designated arts and entertainment districts, including Quigley downtown, home to the Huntsville Museum of Art and the Von Braun Center. The lively craft beer scene features eight breweries, with a few more in nearby Madison.

Get ready for your next trip to Huntsville with this handy guide.

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The South's Best Cities On the Rise

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Lexington, Kentucky

Keeneland Warmup Lap in Lexington, KY
Brown W. Cannon III

Over the past few years, Lexington has become known for much more than just its bluegrass music and racetracks. Caribbean and Sri Lankan cuisine commingle with farm-to-table powerhouses like Honeywood, owned by six-time James Beard Award-nominee chef Ouita Michel. Even the city's long-standing bourbon culture is getting a makeover thanks to the debut of Fresh Bourbon Distilling Co., Lexington's first African American-owned distillery, and the reopening of the historic James E. Pepper Distillery.

Get ready for your next trip to Lexington with this handy guide.

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Norfolk, Virginia

Norfolk, VA Harbor at Sunset
Courtesy VisitNorfolk

Old meets new in this naval town at the confluence of the Elizabeth River, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. Founded in the late 17th century, Norfolk is loaded with historic character, maritime lore, and outdoor adventure but also offers growing culinary and arts landscapes, especially in neighborhoods like happening Ghent. Find plenty to do along an expansive waterfront, with museums, galleries, breweries, and endless options for enjoying fresh seafood. Visit Selden Market, a repurposed arcade, to explore an ever-changing selection of up-and-coming local retail and food operations.

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Tulsa, Oklahoma

Downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma
traveler1116/Getty Images

It's safe to say that Tulsa is getting lots of press these days. Everybody from Condé Nast Traveler and AFAR to Architectural Digest and Rolling Stone is giving it praise. There's never been a stronger case for a vacation here. It all coalesces at the Gathering Place, a nearly half-billion-dollar, 66-acre riverfront park. This is a visual wonderland that's designed to engage people of any age with a phenomenal playground, grand lawns, gorgeous gardens, trippy sculptures, outdoor adventure, and cooling water features, which are a welcome respite during hot Tulsa summers.

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Waco, Texas

Magnolia Market at The Silos
Jennifer Boomer

Spend five minutes in Waco, and you'll see that the charismatic community Chip and Joanna Gaines introduced on the show Fixer Upper is a gem. Shop an arsenal of home stores and boutiques, and then relax at 400-acre Cameron Park along the Brazos River. Take the Magnolia Trail for a tour of all the Magnolia empire outposts (Silos and bakery included) as well as the reality-TV couple's favorite haunts. The Baylor University Bears are also at the ready for game day.

Get ready for your next trip to Waco with this handy guide.

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Wilmington, North Carolina

Downtown Wilmington
DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

Situated on the Cape Fear River with easy access to Carolina, Kure, and Wrightsville Beaches, Wilmington is the perfect marriage of quiet coastal hamlet and bustling city. Among the charming Craftsman-style homes and historic Greek Revival mansions, find modern amenities such as boutique hotels, cocktail bars, and waterfront amphitheaters hosting frequent music festivals and live shows. The best way to take in the city is via a stroll on the Wilmington Riverwalk. Nearly 2 miles long, this path connects more than 200 restaurants, shops, and more.

Get ready for your next trip to Wilmington with this handy guide.

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Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Downtown Winston Salem, NC at Sunset
Kmason Photography

The ingenuity of the city's Moravian founders has translated into a community of young entrepreneurs and creators who spurred a live-work-play revolution. That spirit is most apparent at Innovation Quarter, a downtown-based research park that encompasses 90 companies, over 1,000 residences, 5 academic institutions, and 20 miles of connected greenways and parks—plus restaurants, coffee shops, and watering holes.

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