25 Things Southerners Should Do When They Retire
Retiring to the South means lots of sunshine, manicured golf courses, rocking chairs on wide porches, and if you’re lucky, friendships straight out of the Golden Girls. While you may be tempted to sit on the couch watching hours of HGTV, there are much more exciting ways to while away the hours of your well-deserved retirement. Here are 25 items to add to your Southern retirement bucket list, whether you like the great outdoors, grand old homes, or good old-fashioned fun.
1. Hike on the Appalachian Trail (or part of it)
The 2,200 miles of trail run like a backbone down the Eastern United States, including much of the south. Pick up the trail where it begins in Georgia’s Springer Mountain and hike an hour or two or make a go of it and head North as the trail runs through North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia and points north.
2. Watch the Kentucky Derby
You don’t have to be a horse-racing fan to feel the allure of the Kentucky Derby. Put on your wildest hat or most dapper suit and spend the day at Churchill Downs people watching and sipping mint juleps. If you are one to bet on the ponies, place your wagers and wait for the “fastest two minutes in sports” to take over the famed track.
3. Check into The Greenbrier
This classic resort has been welcoming families since 1778, so they have a great deal of experience in making guests feel at home in their luxurious resort in the Allegheny Mountains. The 11,000-acre resort has impeccable gardens as well as golf and tennis. For those who prefer the great indoors, the spa, bowling alley and bunker tour are all fun options.
4. See the Weeki Wachee Mermaids
The mermaids of Weeki Wachee have been delighting visitors to this Spring Hill, Florida state park since 1947. The magical mermaids perform underwater acrobatics in their submerged theater in a campy throwback that never seems to lose its charm.
5. Tour the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina
George Vanderbilt constructed the largest private residence in the United States in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The house and gardens have been welcoming guests since 1885, so expect an expert tour full of information, wonder, and spectacle.
6. Watch a Sea Turtle Release on Padre Island
Padre Island has become an important nesting ground for several species of sea turtles, including the rare Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, and if you’re lucky, you can watch the hatchlings be released. Check the National Park Services sea turtle updates for your chance to watch the little turtles make their way from their nests, across the sand, and in to the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
7. Listen to New Orleans Jazz at Preservation Hall
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is practically synonymous with New Orleans jazz. The historic dance hall which gave the band its name has been an institution on St. Peters in the French Quarter since 1961. It’s easy to see music here, as the band puts on shows 350 nights a year.
8. Spend a Day in Dollywood
You don’t have to be a Dolly Parton fan (if such a thing is even possible) to enjoy a day at this amusement park set in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Go for a wild ride on Daredevil Falls, take the Big Bear Plunge at the water park, or just take in the park’s world famous dinner shows.
9. Check into Blackberry Farms
This 4,200-acre Tennessee farm is not only the place to pick up fresh milk from the on-site creamery, but also a splurge-worthy luxury hotel, memorable spa, and food lover’s paradise. Spend your days playing tennis or croquet, or hiking through the Smoky Mountains and reserve your nights for the Farms’ award winning cuisine and fireside s’mores.
10. Watch the Sunset in Key West
Every night as the sun goes down, Key West throws a party. To join in the fun, head to Mallory Square for music, food, and a dance party that lasts far after the last rays of the sun have disappeared.
11. Visit Robert Johnson’s Grave(s)
You may not have time to visit all the spots on Mississippi’s Blues Trail, but when it comes to paying homage to Robert Johnson, you have a lot of options. The Delta blues legend has three graves to choose from making for either a one-stop tribute or a fun journey along the backroads of Mississippi and into the heart of the blues. Get details at msbluestrail.org.
12. Go Swimming with Whale Sharks
Some of the largest fish in the world call the Georgia Aquarium home and while they are fun to watch, it’s even more exciting to jump in with them. Thanks to a unique program at the aquarium, it’s possible to swim with these gentle giants, no diving experience—and no trip to the Galapagos Islands—necessary.
13. Watch the South’s Sports Highlights
Head to Tampa for spring training, pick a side at the Iron Bowl when Auburn and Alabama face off, watch a football team play under those Friday night lights in Texas, see the racing at Talladega, or watch those Saints go marching in to the field in Mississippi.
14. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
Take a spectacular drive through one of the most popular national parks. The Blue Ridge Mountain really shine during fall, of course, but there’s plenty to see and do in the other three seasons, too, whether just for a leisurely Sunday afternoon or a road trip that runs all 469 of the parkway.
15. See a show at the Grand Ole Opry
Every country music fan should make a pilgrimage to where it all began—the hallowed halls of the Opry. The historic venue hosts shows almost every night and whether you see an up-and-comer working on a dream or a living legend revisiting their old stomping ground you’re undoubtedly in for a good time.
16. Visit Rowan Oak
Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner had a way with words and a knack for architecture. He restored Rowan Oak, the antebellum mansion built by Robert Sheegog back in 1848 and turned into a home and, now, a tourist destination. The house is not only a beautiful southern home, but a tribute to Faulkner’s life and work.
17. Sign up for Space Camp
18. Mardi Gras in New Orleans
The wonders of Mardi Gras should be experienced at least once in your Southern life, even if you aren’t a fan of crowds, bead-throwing festivities, brass bands, or fun. Pick your parade (Bacchus and Endymion are popular) and then push your way through the crowds in the Faubourg Marigny or the French Quarter. To make it easier, head to the foot of Canal Street near the river, stake a spot, and just wait for the fun to roll on by.
19. Drive the Natchez Trace Parkway
This picturesque road stretches for 444 scenic miles as it rolls through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, following the path carved by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. These days you’ll find horseback riders, picnickers, and campers, and drivers taking the long way between Natchez and Nashville.
20. Take a Seaplane to the Dry Tortugas
The southernmost national park lies 68 miles off the coast of Key West and is accessible only by boat or seaplane. The park is so far-flung that it’s one of the least visited national parks, although it is arguably one of the most beautiful. Tour historic Fort Jefferson, built after the War of 1812, snorkel or scuba dive among the 67,000 acres of coral reef, or simply sit back and watch the migrating birds.
21. Pay Homage to the King at Graceland
Elvis Presley’s incredible Memphis estate is equal parts memorial to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and mecca for music fans. Tour through the gilded mansion to see his luxurious living quarters, recording studio, private planes, and extensive automobile collection. To complete the musical pilgrimage, visit historic Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded and the Rock n’ Soul Museum near Beale Street.
22. Follow the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Bourbon is a Southern tradition and so is following the trail of distilleries through the heart of bourbon country. The Kentucky bourbon trail takes thirsty travelers to some of the South’s finest distillery including Four Roses, Bulleit, Jim Beam, and more. Download a map, pick a designated driver (or get a limo) and hit the trail. The Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, TN is also a classic, but bourbon lovers beware—it’s in a dry county, so no tasting allowed.
23. Go on a Mississippi River Cruise
The Mississippi runs like a ribbon through the South and steamboats used to be a frequent sight on the mighty river. Relive those glory days by cruising the Old Muddy River in a paddleboat. Roll along the river past storybook towns, antebellum plantations, and beautiful scenery on this trip through the past.
24. Take a Night Hike at Dismals Canyon Conservatory
This canyon has a dark secret—at night it lights up with tiny “glow worms”—bioluminescent creatures known as Dismalites. These unusual critters, which are cousins of Australia’s glow worms, can be spotted on night tours that take visitors on a winding path through this Alabama park.
25. Southern Food Tour
If you’re looking for a real retirement bucket list contender, pack your stretchiest pants and hit the road on a southern food tour: Dine on Willie’s Mae’s Scotch House fried chicken and a po’boy at Mahoney’s in New Orleans, try a pig’s ear sandwich at the Big Apple Inn in Jackson, and fried green tomatoes at the Irondale Café in Alabama. Gulp down the namesake Big Orange at Tanner's Big Orange in Greenville, SC. There’s crawfish at Prejean’s and butter beans and pork chops at Martha Lou’s Kitchen and pimento cheese sandwiches at Burbage’s Grocery in Charleston. Thee hoppel poppel at Clary’s Café and the red velvet cake at MaRandy’s in Savannah must be tried. A peach milkshake at Atlanta’s Majestic Diner is a must, as are the huevos rancheros at Mi Tierra in San Antonio, and get a plate of the charcoal ribs at Charles Vergos Rendezvous in Memphis. Of course, you must also eat barbecue everywhere you go so you can decide once and for all which is the best.