The South's Best Small Towns 2021
The anatomy of a perfect Southern small town doesn't come in just one idyllic shape or size, nor does it ever look or act in quite the same way. Some show their personality by way of tiny historic downtowns, while others spread out their charm across sprawling parks and rivers. However, what all of the South's most treasured small towns do have in common is that each possesses a strong sense of place and presence, no matter how little square footage they actually hold.
The heart of the South can be found in these picturesque locales if only you're paying close enough attention to what the storied streets, friendly locals, and lovable quirks are telling you. Add each of these winners to your dream travel itinerary, and you'll be eating beignets, dancing to bluegrass music, and exploring some truly magnificent scenery in no time. How's that for your bucket list? These are the South's Best Small Towns 2021.
Bell Buckle, Tennessee
Many still debate the genesis of this town's quirky name. Perhaps the most universally accepted story is that pioneers in the region found a carving on a tree shaped like a bell and buckle near what would later become the town creek and settlement. Boom! Bell Buckle was born. Situated around 50 miles southeast of Nashville, the tiny arts community holds an annual summertime festival dedicated to two favorite Southern treats—MoonPies and RC Cola—that brings live bluegrass music, dancing, and a parade to the area.
Boerne, Texas, sits in a quiet spot within the Texas Hill Country, surrounded by rugged limestone countryside and lush water-fed pockets of live oaks and bald cypress. It's the perfect weekend destination for those searching for nostalgic joys: a root beer float from an old-school sweet shop, a friendly local smile on a colorful Main Street, or an accidental dunk into cold river waters in the heat of spring. Visit its lively downtown, known in Texas as the Hill Country Mile, which consists of a Main Street drag lined with antiques and specialty stores.
The home of our 2010 Southern Living Idea House, Covington is, first and foremost, an old, humble Cajun river town. Founded in 1813, the Northshore community occupies a prime spot between the Bogue Falaya and Tchefuncte Rivers and sits just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Wander each tree-shaded street to see some of the most charming cottages in the South. You will also find Louisiana's choice beer at Abita Brewing Company, as well as Covington's very own Café Du Monde, where the fresh beignets rival those served at the original location in the French Quarter.
If you've never visited the Sooner State, Guthrie is an excellent place to start. As you enjoy local shopping and restaurants in the historic Victorian-era downtown (which is the largest contiguous Historic Preservation District in the nation), you'll also be catching glimpses into a heyday of American history, back when thousands of caravans flocked to this area to claim land and establish settlements. Guthrie was Oklahoma's first territorial capital before the official title of state capital was given to neighboring Oklahoma City in 1910. Learn more about its pioneer past on one of the trolley tours.
The South's Best Small Towns
New Albany, Mississippi
This North Mississippi town is perhaps most widely known as the birthplace of Southern literary giant William Faulkner. However, its abundant outdoor recreation just might lure you away from books. Embark on the Tanglefoot Trail (a biker-friendly, 44-mile jaunt located along a former railroad line in the foothills of the western Appalachian Mountains), or enjoy a stroll through New Albany's walkable downtown. Stop into The Vintage Market for quaint soda-shop vibes and a tasty ice-cream sundae.
New Bern, North Carolina
Any place that can make it through two hurricanes hitting closely together—in this case, Hurricane Florence in 2018 and Hurricane Dorian just about a year later—surely deserves our respect. But there are tons of other reasons to give props to New Bern. Situated where the Neuse and Trent Rivers converge, this waterfront getaway is best recognized for its two most legendary landmarks: Tryon Palace and gardens (North Carolina's first permanent capitol) and Bradham's Drug Store (the birthplace of the soda pop giant Pepsi-Cola).
Your initial assumptions about this town in Western Kentucky might not include "arts hub." However, Paducah has enjoyed an influx of artisans, performers, writers, and craftspeople as well as world-class quilters drawn in by the lauded National Quilt Museum. (The historic river town was named a UNESCO Creative City in 2013.) Shop downtown for artisanal goods to take home, saddle up to a Kentucky bourbon bar, and experience the annual springtime festival honoring a trail of dogwoods in bloom.
After a powerful series of tornadoes struck Central Alabama in 2019, Wetumpka worked to recover. Located just northeast of Montgomery, this town sits on the banks of the Coosa River, which has been its claim to fame, along with Gold Star Park—until now. In July 2020, Erin and Ben Napier, stars of HGTV's wildly popular Home Town, reported that they were taking over the entire town, known as "The City of Natural Beauty," for their home-renovation show's next season.
Wheeling, West Virginia
Set on the Ohio River in the foothills of the central Appalachian Mountains, Wheeling is an outdoorsy town equipped with all the sought-after natural pursuits characteristic of the Mountain State, from zip lines to biking trails to lush butterfly gardens. Its Heritage Trails System, built on former railroad beds, offers you nearly 18 miles to explore. But there's indoor fun just as inviting, such as the beautifully restored 1928 Capitol Theatre and Wheeling Artisan Center Shop, where you can browse such West Virginia artistry as hand-blown glass and pottery.
Once, it might have been a convenient pit stop along a stretch of U.S. 61 where the mighty Mississippi meets the "Blues Highway." But this rural burg has since undergone a cultural renaissance that has reinvigorated the former cotton boom-town. Now it attracts folks from nearby Memphis, escaping the city for a laid-back weekend. Be sure to hit Wilson Cafe, a popular local trough situated on the town square. Here, everyone is family, and the cozy homestyle fare is served with a smile. Then visit White's Mercantile, and stop by Wilson Gardens, which works as both a community garden and a shared neighborhood farm.