Best Places in the South
This year, more than 41,000 of you voted in our annual Readers' Choice survey, highlighting your favorite places in the South. Here, we present the winners and reveal what makes them unique. Consider it a salute to the soul of our region―from Carolina barbecue to Texas dance halls, and everything in between.
Best Live Music Venue in Louisiana
This year, readers picked the House of Blues (houseofblues.com), with its folk-art festooned walls and a metal box of Mississippi Delta mud tucked under the stage, as the best music venue in the state.
There is a show of shows seven nights a week in New Orleans, more live music than one could ever hear in a lifetime of late nights. In the Quarter, in the Marigny, Uptown, downtown, and, when all else fails, on street corners spotlighted and improvised. No trip to the Crescent City is right without joining the parade. Luckily, all you have to do is follow your ear.
Best Crab Cake in Maryland
The Crab Claw, co-owner Sylvia Jones serves up our readers' favorite crab cake in the state. On the wooden deck of this 45-year-old restaurant in St. Michaels, people take to piles of fresh Maryland crab like lightning to a mast, feverishly pounding the brittle shells with mallets. In the background, yachts cruise the Miles River with a guttural murmur, sailboats bob on the water, and families wander around the 18-acre Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum next door.
Arrive by land or by sea (Sylvia offers free dockage while you dine) to feast on a whopping 5 ounces of jumbo lump crabmeat scented with a heady dose of Old Bay, and served with the house-made tartar sauce. thecrabclaw.com or 410-745-2900
Best Drive in West Virginia
No single route marks the New River Gorge National River scenic drive―you must piece together roads that cross the river like uneven stitches―but wow factors quickly pile up. Take U.S. 19 near Fayetteville, where the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere links canyon rims 876 feet up. The older, smaller bridge of State 82, Fayette Station Road, sits far below, part of a narrow, steep, switchback-heavy course.
Get a good map (such as "National River Gorge Scenic Drives," available at nps.gov/neri or any park visitors center) and explore the thinnest, wiggliest lines―these rural byways head to the heart of this adventureland.
Best Lake in Alabama
Long weekends on Lake Guntersville, this year's reader favorite, reveal why lakes are as social as drinks on a porch. Watch one friendly fireworks duel between waterfront neighbors, and you'll understand. Share a table at Crawmama's (crawmamas.com or 256-582-0484), where the tin roof rattles under pea-size raindrops and the shrimp boil spices your elbows. Take a midnight dip in the moonlit lake, and you'll see why Alabamians are lake people. alapark.com/lakeguntersville
Best Literary Stop in Mississippi
William Faulkner was loathe to leave Mississippi in the years he went to Hollywood to earn a little money screenwriting. He pined to return to Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford. It was the only place he could get any writing done. He once turned down an invitation from President Kennedy to dine at the White House, saying, "Why...that's a long way to go just to eat."
Life, whatever its problems, always bears gifts, and for those of us from Mississippi one of its great fruits has been our literature, the written words by those who come from the place where, for all its conflicts and complexities, people always seem so openly friendly and generous, where the pine-winey summer afternoons or winter woodsmoke or the light in August never fail to bring to mind memories―and stories. rowanoak.com
Best Live Music in Tennessee
For generations, Saturday night listeners have tapped toes and nodded along to the Grand Ole Opry. Whether sitting close enough to the stage to see Reba McEntire's makeup or leaning near enough to the living room radio to hear "Dixie Dewdrop" Uncle Dave Macon step through the crackle and into the house, the Opry has always been about the music. No matter the decade or the method of delivery, the Grand Ole Opry has been Tennessee's sweet-sounding gift to the world since 1925.
The Opry is timeless. The stars change from Patsy Cline to Dolly Parton to Martina McBride. What endures―and has for 85 years―is the Opry itself. opry.com
Best Attraction in Arkansas
One of the coolest places in Arkansas? Hot Springs. Whether you're a first-time visitor or a returnee, here's our guide to a perfect day.
Best Historic Site in Virginia
- You might have toured the blacksmith shop and the bookbindery; ridden in a carriage on Duke of Gloucester Street; and stayed in one of the Colonial Houses. But did you know?
- The dessert Death by Chocolate was created in Williamsburg at the Trellis Restaurant.thetrellis.com
- At The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg you can customize a 17th-century-style apothecary scrub with maize, raw sugar, and herbal powders for a one-hour treatment ($135).
- The Rare Breeds program rears six heritage species from colonial days, including Ossabaw Island pigs found off the coast of Georgia.
- In the early 1900s, tunnels were dug to move employees and supplies without disrupting the visitors' experience.colonialwilliamsburg.com
Best Attraction in Georgia
For anyone who isn't satisfied looking at fish from the other side of a glass wall, the Georgia Aquarium lets you jump in headfirst. You don't even have to be scuba-certified.
The Journey with Gentle Giants program is for anyone over 12 years old. Guides lead you through the world's largest aquarium that holds some of the world's largest fish: four whale sharks, which range from 17 to 22 feet long, as well as a passel of hammerhead sharks, giant groupers, and manta rays.
Explore the surface where you may be bumped by docile whale sharks or go eyeball-to-eyeball with schools of silvery pompano. In exotic dive spots there are no guarantees, but at the Georgia Aquarium you'll always swim with the big guys. georgiaaquarium.org or 404-581-4000. Journey with Gentle Giants: $225 swim program, $325 scuba.
Best Dance Hall in Texas
Dance halls are as classic Texas as pickup trucks, brisket, and big hair. Gruene Hall, halfway between San Antonio and Austin, holds the honor of being the oldest in the state.
Built in 1878, it helped launch the careers of household names such as Lyle Lovett and George Strait. And any musicians in Texas worth their cowboy boots have played on its stage, from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson to Jack Ingram and the Dixie Chicks. If you're anywhere close, it's a must. Here's our Dance Hall Survival Guide to ensure you make the most of your visit. 1281 Gruene Road; gruenehall.com or 830-606-1281
Best Place To Get Your Cowboy Fix in Oklahoma
No place tells the story of the cowboy and the West with more drama than the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Inside the complex that covers more than 220,000 square feet, the West comes alive in ways that stampede across your senses, such as the recorded snorts of a bull banging against a rodeo chute. Twelve exhibition areas cover everything from Western movies to rodeo, including James Earle Frasier's 18-foot-tall The End of the Trail, which depicts a defeated warrior on horseback. In Oklahoma, the cowboy spirit isn't just a dream. It's real. nationalcowboymuseum.org or 405-478-2250
Best Barbecue in the Carolinas
Best Drive in Missouri
Journey through a section of Missouri's wine country, from Augusta to Hermann, and you'll see why some people compare it to the Rhine River Valley―Southern style. This path follows two-lane U.S. 94, crosses the Missouri River to U.S. 100, and snakes past lush green vineyards ripe with Catawba, Norton, and Concord grapes.
Best Small Town in Kentucky
Just 37 miles south of Lexington off I-75, Berea continues to build on its reputation as the crafts capital of Kentucky. More than 50 professional artisans call it home. Take Warren A. May, who carves dulcimers from walnut, cherry, and poplar. He's just one reason you love this town. Here are some others.
• Down-home desserts: Order buttery spoonbread with chocolate at the newly renovated Historic Boone Tavern Hotel & Restaurant (boonetavernhotel.com or 800-366-9358).
• Souvenirs: For $25, you can buy a handmade glass bead―a perfect pendant for a necklace―by Jimmy Lou Jackson at her shop Hot Flash Beads.
• Berea Crafts Festival: July 9-10, more than 125 artists and craftspeople sell their work at the Indian Fort Theater.
• Blue plate specials: The Dinner Bell serves grandma-worthy fried chicken and hot buttered rolls.
Best Sunset in Florida
Here in Key West, at the southernmost point in the U.S., folks make quite a fuss over sunsets. They even built a stage of sorts―Mallory Square―where, at the water's edge, musicians, escape artists, jugglers, magicians, and other street performers warm up the throngs of tourists who flock here for this daily and oftentimes cheeky going-away party for the sun. It's such a sacred event, the city even passed an ordinance requiring cruise ships to leave port before sunset to ensure the view isn't blocked.
For many, witnessing a sunset from Mallory Square is a bucket-list item, akin to seeing fireworks over the Washington, D.C., Mall or the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. Only in Key West, a place made famous by its anything-goes attitude, do folks offer a reverent good-bye so irreverently, and then get the chance to do it all over again the very next day. sunsetcelebration.org
Best Historic Site in Delaware
This remarkable sanctuary reflects the vision of its creator, Henry Francis du Pont, who began work on it in 1902 at the age of 22. He'd grown up there, the son of an influential businessman, but business was not where his heart lay. He assumed management of Winterthur's grounds, overseeing planting and design. Unlike other estate gardens of the period, his plantings fit the lay of the land and not the other way around. He wrote, "A good landscape architect's work should fit in so well with the natural landscape that one should hardly be conscious that it has been accomplished."
Winterthur's 60 acres of gardens make a gorgeous visit any time, but spring is special. Thousands of bulbs and wildflowers carpet the ground on the March Bank and spectacular drifts of azaleas bloom beneath towering trees in the Azalea Woods. winterthur.org
Best Museum in D.C.
It would be easy to spend all day wandering the 300,000 square feet of exhibition space at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, our readers' pick as the best museum in D.C. This national treasure highlights American cultural icons and rites of passage. But if you're short on time, here are our Top 5 can't-miss picks.