The South's Best Roadside Attractions
Unclaimed Baggage Center: Scottboro, AL
Still looking for that favorite sweater the airline lost? You might consider checking the Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC), located in North Alabama. This 40,000-square-foot store—the size of a city block—buys the 1% of lost luggage that never gets reunited with its owners. That translates to around 2 million pounds of stuff. UBC sorts it, cleans it, appraises it, and scraps the junk; about half gets tossed. What's left, from iPads to jewelry to clothing, goes on sale at majorly discounted prices. The business started in 1970 when founder Doyle Owens bought his first shipment for $300 in Washington, D.C., and sold the miscellaneous contents on card tables in an old house. Now, the center is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state. But before you start a letter-writing campaign to your airline, know that UBC doesn't get a piece of luggage until the airlines spend at least 90 days hunting for the rightful owner.
Admission: free. 509 West Willow Street; unclaimedbaggage.com
Coral Castle Museum: Miami, FL
During the course of 28 years (1923-1951), Edward Leedskalnin single-handedly carved 1,100 tons of coral rock into a castle. It was truly a labor of love: He dedicated the entire project to a woman named Agnes, 10 years his junior, who broke his heart by leaving him a day before they were to be married. The only other tribute that's comparable might be the Taj Mahal, which was built to honor an emperor's wife and took 20 years (plus thousands of laborers). Curiously, no one ever witnessed Leedskalnin actually working on the coral or even moving it—an impressive feat and amazing accomplishment considering each section of wall weighs more than 58 tons. Not to mention he was a slight man: 5 feet tall, 100 pounds. Among the achievements of engineering are a 9-ton gate that opens with a single touch and working rocking chairs—all made of coral. When questioned about how he mysteriously built this jaw-dropping castle all on his own, Leedskalnin would demur, simply saying he understood the laws of weight and leverage.
Admission: $15 adults, $7 ages 7-12. 28655 South Dixie Highway (U.S.1); coralcastle.com
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park: Spring Hill, FL
Mermaids exist. Really. Located about an hour north of Tampa, Weeki Wachee Springs is one of Florida's oldest roadside attractions. Opened in 1947 by a former Navy SEAL trainer, this park merges theater, fantasy, and kitsch with mermaid shows in a natural spring that pumps 117 million gallons of water daily. Settle into the 500-seat submerged theater to watch the ballet-like moves of fin-clad performers, who breathe through underwater hoses, in the crystal-clear 74-degree water. Weeki Wachee offers two-day mermaid camps for children in the spring and summer, as well as underwater ballet camps for adults from April through October.
Admission: $13 adults, $8 ages 6-12. 6131 Commercial Way; weekiwachee.com
Rock City: Lookout Mountain, GA
To draw visitors, entrepreneur Garnet Carter hired a young painter to travel the country painting "See Rock City" on barns from Michigan to Texas starting in the 1930s. Today, those barns are as famous as the park itself. On the mountaintop, you can wander along the 4,100-foot walking trail through soaring rock formations, caves, and gardens. And at the Lover's Leap lookout point, take in panoramic views of seven states while standing over the 90-foot waterfall that gushes down the face of Lookout Mountain.
Admission: $19.95 adults, $11.95 ages 3-12. 1400 Patten Road; seerockcity.com
Waffle House Museum: Decatur, GA
Scattered, smothered, chunked, and covered: Regardless of how you take your hash browns, everyone knows his or her go-to Waffle House order by heart. Two neighbors, Joe Rogers, Sr., and Tom Forkner, opened this iconic, beloved chain in Decatur, Georgia, in 1955. Today, the franchise spans more than 1,700 restaurants in 25 states. Stop by the very first one, which has been turned into a museum. (Don't come hungry.) Restored to reflect the original look and feel of the 1950s, it is packed with six decades of memorabilia that pays homage to the best waitresses and griddle masters in the business. Make an appointment 48 hours in advance for a free tour (Wednesdays and Thursdays, weekly) and guided inside look at the evolution of this regional treasure, with recordings of the founders explaining the history, previous menus, uniforms—and even a dose of vintage flair. wafflehouse.com
World's Largest Peanut: Ashburn, GA
Since February 15, 1975, the World's Largest Peanut has watched over Interstate 75, just south of Exit 82. The gigantic symbol of the state's official crop sits atop a crown bearing the words "Georgia 1st in Peanuts" and draws visitors of all stripes, including movie stars Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, who took a photo at the monument.
Buffalo Trace Distillery: Frankfort, KY
As you walk through Buffalo Trace, take in air that's deliciously saturated with fermented corn and rye—like bread with attitude. Though Kentucky has its fair share of stop-worthy distilleries, Buffalo Trace is one of the only ones still around that were allowed to continue operating through Prohibition. As a result, its tours offer a rare perspective for visitors. Even if you're just passing by, take the hour-long Trace Tour, which leaves every hour on the hour and talks you through the process before taking you deep into aging warehouses and the bottling line. Or make a reservation for the Hard Hat Tour to get an inside look at bourbon-making, all the way from grain delivery to fermentation to distilling. If a batch is in process, you might even get a taste of the White Dog (unaged whiskey) as it pours straight off the still. But if you happen to catch them at the end of a run, don't worry. All tours are free and come with a little treat: a few sips to sample at the newly expanded tasting bar.
Admission: free. 113 Great Buffalo Trace; buffalotracedistillery.com
Mammoth Cave National Park: Mammoth Cave, KY
Under a swath of south central Kentucky, a network of limestone passages forms the heart of an underground national park. Mammoth is the longest cave system in the world and has been named a United Nations World Heritage site. Though 400 miles have been explored, only about 10 miles of these passages are available for tour, but that's plenty to give you a sense of the world beneath your feet. Rangers lead groups into the darkness—some 200 or 300 feet below the ground—and regale the 390,000 annual visitors with lessons in natural history and tales of local lore. Some of the tours can be physically demanding, and all require you to wear lace-up hiking boots as you explore the natural annals of the Bluegrass State. But a visit to Mammoth Cave is ideal for anyone with a penchant for discovery—it's the closest you'll ever get to journeying to the center of the earth.
Admission: $7 adults, $5 ages 6-12. 1 Mammoth Cave Parkway; nps.gov/maca
Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History: Bardstown, KY
This museum, housed on the first floor of the Georgian-style Spalding Hall, is the ultimate place for whiskey lovers to geek out. The product of an obsessive collector, the museum features rare artifacts that give a visual history of the bourbon industry like no other. There are hundreds of bottles (many with whiskey still in them), including some dating to the Revolutionary War and other novelty bottles in the shapes of everything from log cabins to mermaids to pretzels. You'll even find prescriptions for "medicinal" whiskey, written by doctors during Prohibition; a copy of young Abraham Lincoln's liquor license; and what is believed to be George Washington's old still. Yes, our Founding Father distilled his own liquor. Quite a bit, actually—Mount Vernon was the largest distillery in the country at the time of his death. About the only thing you can't find at this pantheon of whiskey knowledge is an actual drink.
Admission: $2 suggested donation. 114 North Fifth Street; whiskeymuseum.com
Abita Mystery House: Abita Springs, LA
It says a lot if a place is known as "Louisiana's most eccentric attraction," yet that's the exact moniker the Abita Mystery House has earned. Owner John Preble has spent a lifetime collecting everything from rocks and bottles to old motors, springs, and even hair combs. You might venture to say he was the original hoarder. Preble has amassed more than 50,000 miscellaneous objects to create a unique folk art series of wonder. Enter the mystery house through a vintage Standard Oil gas station, which leads to Louisiana-inspired exhibits and intriguing open-air vignettes. You can also explore the main hall of peculiar showpieces housed in a Creole cottage that's over a century old. Pay a visit to Darrell, the Dogigator who guards an exhibit, and check out a whimsical Mardi Gras parade diorama that places you in the French Quarter. Don't miss the House of Shards, a building covered in a full armor-like mosaic of pottery splinters, colorful tiles, broken mirrors, and glass.
Admission: $3 ages 3 and up. 22275 State 36; ucmmuseum.com
Metairie Cemetery: New Orleans, LA
New Orleans cemeteries are often called "cities of the dead," which references its tradition of laying the deceased to rest in ornate, aboveground mausoleums that look like rows of miniature houses. The 150-acre Metairie Cemetery, which began its life as a horse-racing track in 1838 and was established as a cemetery in 1872, is no different. Among the French-, Creole-, and Mediterranean-style mausoleums, you'll find a pyramid guarded by a sphinx and the 85-foot-tall Moriarity family monument, topped with a cross. Visitors are welcome to stroll through the quiet grounds, paying respects to the legions of New Orleanians past.
Admission: free. 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd.; 504/486-6331
Elvis Prelsey Birthplace: Tupelo, MS
Elvis' father, Vernon Presley, built this tiny white house, illuminated by a single bulb in each room, in 1934 with $180 of borrowed money. A few years later, the Presleys fell on hard times, lost the house, and had to move—a plight that would happen often during the 13 years that the family lived in Mississippi. But in 1957, the native son returned to perform a benefit concert in his hometown. He used the proceeds to buy back his old childhood home and construct a park for neighborhood children. Take a short tour through the restored house, and then spend some time exploring the rest of the idyllic grounds, including the relocated Assembly of God Church where he developed his voice through gospel music and learned to play guitar. And if you're looking to get hitched, know that the King's birthplace has you covered. The on-site Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel, which was dedicated in 1979, offers wedding services too.
Admission: $16 adults, $7 ages 7-12. 306 Elvis Presley Drive; elvispresleybirthplace.com
The Crossroads: Clarksdale, MS
A sign formed from a trio of blue guitars sits at the intersection of U.S. 61 and U.S. 49 in the middle of the Mississippi Delta. Many lovers of the blues know this as the infamous spot where legendary musician Robert Johnson mythically sold his soul in exchange for his unparalleled ability to play the blues. Or was it? In recent years, Son House—a fellow Delta native and renowned blues musician—has asserted that it actually took place down the road in nearby Rosedale, where State 8 and State 1 intersect near the Mississippi River. The truth is, however, no one will ever know exactly where the famous pact was made. But whatever the official details of the story, we do know at least one thing: Johnson sure could make a guitar sing. And in Clarksdale, about a mile away from The Crossroads, at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, you can get a modern taste of Johnson's rich blues sound (without compromising your soul).
Admission: free. Intersection of U.S. 61 and U.S. 49 (State 161 and Desoto Avenue); visitthedelta.com
Windsor Ruins: Port Gibson, MS
Photographer and writer Eudora Welty famously captured the Southern Gothic nature of these Corinthian columns in her circa-1935 black-and-white photos. The 23 standing columns are all that remain of Windsor mansion, the largest antebellum house built in Mississippi. Its presence was so prominent that Mark Twain waxed poetic about its sophistication in his Life on the Mississippi. The home was destroyed by fire in 1890 when, according to lore, a visiting houseguest dropped a cigar into a pile of construction debris. Today, fans of the supernatural regularly show up looking for the ghosts among the ruins.
Admission: free. State 552; nps.gov
Wally's Service Station and Mayberry Replica Courthouse: Mount Airy, NC
Andy Griffith might be gone, but his legacy continues to live on in this tiny North Carolina town that sits near the Virginia border. Griffith grew up here, so it comes as no surprise that Mount Airy inspired the fictional town of Mayberry on his show. These days, in a classic case of art-imitating-life-imitating-art, much of Mount Airy feels like a movie set. It's not often that television devotees can experience their favorite shows in living color, but visitors feel like they've stepped through the frame and entered into Andy, Opie, and Aunt Bee's world of small-town quirks and old-school values. Wally's Service Station is a former 1937 gas station that Griffith would walk to as a boy for an afternoon snack. It also serves as the launch spot for the can't-miss Mayberry Squad Car Tours, which take patrons around the town, stopping at landmarks such as Snappy Lunch, Floyd's City Barber Shop, and Griffith's childhood home. The town embraces its Mayberry identity so much that they remodeled the courthouse to look identical to the one on television, going so far as to include jail cells and Sheriff Andy's desk. Visitors are even allowed (and encouraged) to kick their feet up on the desk, just like he used to.
Admission: free for service station and courthouse. Mayberry Squad Car Tours are $35 per carload. (Each car holds up to five people.) 625 South Main Street; visitmayberry.com
World's Largest Chair: Thomasville, NC
Paul Bunyan would feel right at home sitting in the 30-foot-tall chair in the middle of downtown. Purported to be the biggest in the world, it was built in 1950 to honor the town's renowned furniture-making industry. Ten years later, Vice Presidential hopeful Lyndon B. Johnson stood on it while campaigning.
The Peachoid: Gaffney, SC
In the South, we're so smitten with produce that we write songs about it, name beauty queens after it, and even make it our team mascots. (Go, Fighting Okra!) But perhaps the ultimate declaration of love is to put a fruit or vegetable on a water tower, flaunting it high in the air for all to see. In 1981, Gaffney, South Carolina, showed its abiding affection for peaches by erecting a 1 million-gallon water tower just off I-85, between Exits 90 and 92. The artist, Peter Freudenberg, worked to make it look like an actual peach, and his efforts with the cleft were so successful that The Peachoid is now jokingly referred to as the "Moon over Gaffney." If you can't make it over to the attraction, catch it on the hit Netflix TV show House of Cards. Frank Underwood, the fictitious U.S. Congressman from South Carolina played by Kevin Spacey, keeps a photo of The Peachoid on his desk at the Capitol, and the plot of an entire episode revolves around the prominence of the tower in the roadside sky.
Loretta Lynn's Ranch: Hurricane Mills, TN
Only a handful of people in the world can get by simply on their first names. Loretta is one of them. At the 18,000-square-foot Coal Miner's Daughter Museum, built at the site of her own home where she raised her children, you can get to know a little more about this firecracker of a woman who became the Queen of Country—despite country radio stations refusing to play her songs about cheating husbands and double standards. In the museum, you'll find the usual artist memorabilia (photos and awards), but there's also considerable space dedicated to her family and friends, like her longtime duet partner Conway Twitty. Also on the property, Lynn has re-created the coal mine where her father worked in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, the very same one that inspired her hit song and her lasting moniker. Be sure to swing through the gift shop; you never know what autographed merchandise you'll find. The clerks say the Queen herself will sometimes just show up with a pen and start signing things.
Admission: $12.50 ages 10 and up. 8000 U.S. 13 South; lorettalynnranch.net
Cadillac Ranch: Amarillo, TX
This rather strange collection of nose-down, half-buried, bizarrely decorated Cadillacs, a pseudo-Stonehenge of American automobiles, has become one of the most recognized sites along the Mother Road. Located west of Amarillo on the tatters of the old Route 66, Cadillac Ranch started in 1974 when Texas millionaire Stanley Marsh invited a talented collective of San Francisco artists known as the Ant Farm to create a unique piece of public art on his property. He was going for shock value—a goal that he certainly achieved. They drove 10 Caddies into the ground, with models running the gamut from a 1949 Club Coupe to a 1963 Sedan DeVille. People began stopping to spray-paint the cars in bright and wild colors, an act encouraged by Marsh, and to this day, the Caddies remain an ever-evolving canvas of modern graffiti art. It's important to bring along your own can of spray paint in your preferred color when you visit the Cadillac Ranch so you can leave your mark. But keep in mind that art is fleeting, so don't expect your contribution to remain on this car collection forever. Because, as it turns out, a lot of aerosol-happy people make their way across the Texas Panhandle.
Admission: free. Take Exit 60 off I-40 onto Arnot Road; visitamarillo.com
Prada Marfa: Valentine, TX
This installation has become one of the most recognized and most photographed pieces of pop art since Andy Warhol memorialized tomato soup. Check out #PradaMarfa on Instagram and you'll see what we mean. In 2005, Scandinavian-born artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset erected their completely inaccessible Prada boutique about 35 miles northwest of Marfa, Texas, as a critique of the luxury fashion industry. Modeled after an actual Prada store, the shack-size building stands alone against the rugged West Texas landscape. The inside houses Prada's 2005 fall collection of handbags and shoes—except the bottoms are cut out of the bags, and the shoes aren't in pairs.
U.S. 90; ballroommarfa.org
Natural Bridge: Natural Bridge, VA
This marvel will soon become a state park, marking the end of more than 240 years of private ownership: Thomas Jefferson bought the land from King George III of England in 1774 for 20 shillings. The stunning bridge, flanked by the Blue Ridge Mountains, was immortalized by American landscape painters in the mid-1800s. This 90-foot-long expanse was formed when a cavern beneath it collapsed, leaving a 215-foot-high arch. The Monacan Indians claim that the bridge appeared as if by magic, right when they needed to escape an enemy. Enter through the Rockbridge Center for access to the bridge, and take in panoramic views of the surrounding Shenandoah Valley. During winter months, call ahead to make sure there's no ice, as they'll close if there's even a hint of slippage.
Admission: $20 adults, $12 ages 7-17. 15 Appledore Lane; naturalbridgeva.com