The South's Best Small Towns 2020
We all have our favorite Southern small towns—from those perfectly picturesque villages we consider our go-to retreats to the happy accidents we discover on road trips. Some offer enough to keep us busy for a long weekend, while others are a day trip (but a fine one, at that). We might love them for the local shops and restaurants, the scenic surroundings, or all of the above. When we asked readers to choose their very favorites, we found out just how much variety the South has to offer—from coastal villages to horse country hideaways, from Virginia to Florida, North Carolina to Texas, with a few located in every state in between. What they all share in common is an authentic sense of place and devoted locals who get more excited about preservation and reinvention than demolition. Read on to find out which small towns our readers think are the best of the best.
20. DeLand, Florida
Travelers come to DeLand, about 34 miles north of Orlando, to experience its crystal springs, host to a growing community of manatees. At Blue Spring Park, a manatee refuge, swimming season generally runs April through October—the rest of the year, the water belongs to marine critters, no human allowed. Explore DeLand’s historic downtown, Stetson University, and the stunning Athens Theater, which was built in 1921.
Learn more about DeLand, Florida.
19. St. Marys, Georgia
Find this tiny jewel of a historic town on the Atlantic Coast, at the Georgia-Florida line. It’s wrapped on three sides by the St. Marys River, and you can catch the ferry to Cumberland Island here. But save some time to explore the shops, see some beautiful old churches, and have a bite to eat at a local restaurant. Stop by Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum while you’re in the historic district. Market on the Square, across the street from the ferry, can get you all set for your trip to Cumberland.
Learn more about St. Marys, Georgia.
18. Manteo, North Carolina
Located on Roanoke Island, the “Gateway to the Outer Banks” is so pretty it looks like a waterfront movie set. (Paging Hallmark...) Besides rambling its charming, postcard-worthy storefronts, you’ll find lots of paddle boarding and other water recreation even before you head over to the big waves on the Banks.
Learn more about Manteo, NC.
17. Florence, Alabama
Florence and “The Shoals” on the Tennessee River (particularly Muscle Shoals) are part of the Americana Music Triangle stretching from Nashville west to Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, then reaching south to New Orleans. Don’t miss dining at Odette and stop by designer Billy Reid’s flagship store.
Learn more about Florence, Alabama.
16. Opelika, Alabama
Next-door neighbor to the Auburn Tigers, historic Opelika is a spirited Southern town—literally—with John Emerald Distilling Company making the first legal Alabama whiskey since Prohibition. There are two craft breweries here, Red Clay Brewing Co. and Resting Pulse Brewing Co., as well as sophisticated Ampersand Wine Bar and popular music venue Eighth & Rail, all clustered along the entertainment district around Railroad Avenue.
Learn more about Opelika, Alabama.
15. Isle of Hope, Georgia
A tiny town with a close-knit community of people who can’t imagine living anywhere else, Isle of Hope is 15 minutes from Savannah, but it feels far away. That sense of serene quiet coupled with a stunning coastal landscape is what locals love about this sleepy small town—that, and the iconic oak-canopied drive at the Wormsloe Historic Site.
Learn more about Isle of Hope, Georgia.
14. Natchitoches, Louisiana
Countless Steel Magnolia fans have made the pilgrimage to this Louisiana town on the Cane River, where the movie was filmed. Natchitoches has a 33-block National Historic Landmark District, where you’ll find French Creole structures, the Minor Basilica, and the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile. But who are we kidding? We know you’ve really come to see the church where Shelby got married, the Eatenton house, and Truvy’s 2.
Learn more about Natchitoches, Louisiana.
13. Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Located in northwest Arkansas, Eureka Springs is surrounded by the stunning natural beauty of the Ozark Mountains. Its eclectic downtown has a wonderful array of one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants, galleries, inns, and historic Victorian homes.
Learn more about Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
12. Paducah, Kentucky
This riverside town is tucked into a prime spot where the Tennessee meets the Ohio, lending it great views of the water. It’s home to a historic riverfront area and visitor-friendly destinations such as the National Quilt Museum and River Discovery Center, plus the extremely cool 1857 Hotel, a historic boutique property with 10 rooms, walkable to restaurants and attractions.
Learn more about Paducah, Kentucky.
11. Mount Dora, Florida
Nearly equidistant from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Mount Dora is a palm-tree-lined Florida village popular with antiquers. Check into a cozy local inn or B&B to enjoy its walkable (and shoppable) downtown, plus area lakes for boating and fishing. Orlando and Mickey Mania are just an hour away.
Learn more about Mount Dora, Florida.
10. Aiken, South Carolina
Located in the heart of South’s Carolina’s horse country, beautiful Aiken has plenty of equestrian charms, as well as a vibrant downtown, a strong dining scene for a town this size, the historic Wilcox hotel, and plenty to see and do. The town’s urban forest—2,100-acre Hitchcock Woods, with 70 miles of trails for hikers and equestrians—has been preserved since the early 19th century.
Learn more about Aiken, South Carolina.
9. Bluffton, South Carolina
This dreamy town on the May River just keeps getting better. It’s near Atlantic Coast beaches such as Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Tybee Island, Georgia; it’s filled with creative locals who are putting their talents to use in new shops, restaurants, and live music venues; and it has an eclectic vibe that speaks to everyone who visits.
Learn more about Bluffton, South Carolina.
8. Thomasville, Georgia
The charming cobblestone Main Street, lined with one-of-a-kind boutiques and eateries, is Thomasville’s calling card. Its downtown is filled with historic homes and oak-canopied streets. At Elizabeth Ireland Poe Park, see “The Big Oak,” a Southern live oak with a 165-foot limb span. While you’re there, have your picture made at the Big Oak Cam.
Learn more about Thomasville, Georgia.
7. Beaufort, North Carolina
This North Carolina gem is a former fishing village located on the state’s southern coast. Beaufort (BOW-fert) has a vibrant community of locals who love sharing their town. Proprietors of its shops, restaurants, and inns are known to treat visitors like family—enticing some of them to pull up stakes and move there.
Learn more about Beaufort, North Carolina.
6. Fredericksburg, Texas
A Texas Hill Country town known for its National Historic District along Main Street, Fredericksburg is loaded with shops, galleries, and boutiques (around 150), plus restaurants, breweries, and wineries. No chain stores are allowed in the Historic District, so no worries about cookie-cutter shopping. The town’s German roots are reflected in its architecture and biergartens.
Learn more about Fredericksburg, Texas.
5. Fredericksburg, Virginia
Fredericksburg’s historic downtown is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. It’s home to more than 350 historic buildings, including the Mary Washington House and St. George’s Episcopal Church.
Learn more about Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Check Out The South's Best Small Towns
4. Franklin, Tennessee
Just south of Nashville is a picturesque but sophisticated town filled with shops and restaurants and plenty of porches for sitting and chatting. Don’t miss Main Street, where you’ll find the Art Deco-style Franklin Theatre that was built in 1937. New to Franklin is the luxury Harpeth Hotel, a boutique property on the Harpeth River.
Learn more about Franklin, Tennessee.
3. Fairhope, Alabama
Readers voted this Alabama treasure on Mobile Bay one of the South’s best small towns in 2019, and it’s still a favorite. From the architecturally stunning Fruit and Nut District to locally owned shops and restaurants and abundant fresh seafood, Fairhope has everything you could want in a small coastal town.
Learn more about Fairhope, Alabama.
2. Beaufort, South Carolina
Voted the best small town in South Carolina by Southern Living readers last year, Beaufort (BEW-fert) is a coastal gem brimming with charm and hospitality. Its walkable, centuries-old downtown is situated on the picturesque Beaufort River with a historic district, great hotels, and can’t-miss restaurants nearby.
Learn more about Beaufort, South Carolina.
1. Williamsburg, Virginia
There’s so much to do in Williamsburg, including what it’s most famous for: Colonial Williamsburg, the living history experience located in one of the country’s first planned cities. Historic architecture and lots of great restaurants make Williamsburg a fun, contemporary small town, with plenty of outdoor recreation nearby.
Learn more about Williamsburg, Virginia.