Mini Travel Guide: America’s Deep South

Hidden Southern gems you didn't know about! Like the Greenbean festival and The Possum Drop. // yesandyes.org

Howdy ya’ll! I’m Lauren and I grew up in a small town in South Carolina that had a post office, a church and a rodeo. I lived in and traveled around the Deep South for 25 years until I moved to Seoul, South Korea and everyday I miss those southern drawls and starry skies. But don’t worry, I’ve found a way to make sweet tea here.

I grew up playing in creeks, attending the rodeo and church regularly and sitting on big porches in rocking chairs. It truly is a beautiful way of life in the south and I hope you can experience it one day.

Travel in American South

MUST GO IN AMERICA’S DEEP SOUTH

Beaches

Charleston, South Carolina is truly the gem of the south; if you only have one chance to visit the south, Charleston has it all the southern charm you need. Charleston boasts southern hospitality with that charming southern drawl and it is one of our most beautiful and historic cities. Spend the day with the locals on Folly Beach and indulge in a rich array of local foods and markets along Rainbow Row. Right down the road, boasting similar qualities but shaded by Live Oak Trees laden with Spanish moss is Savannah, Georgia. And for the wide-open beach bums who want water sports and/or no city distractions see the expansive Outer Banks.

Cities

New Orleans, Louisiana is a must to see the French Quarter, eat Beignets and stroll down Bourbon Street. Nashville, Tennessee is the home of country music where you can rub shoulders with stars on any street corner. Athens, Georgia is home to the beautiful, historic UGA campus and where REM and the B52s both got their start. Athens’ historic downtown boasts of 95 bars within 3 small blocks with more local art, music, food, breweries and shopping than any other small town. Memphis, Tennessee is the birthplace of the Blues, home to Elvis Presley and The Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, JR was assassinated.

Mountains

If you’re looking for a more local, hipster retreat try Ashville or Boone for lots of local art, street musicians and great food. For a kitschy, family fun experience visit Pigeon Forge. For a mix of the city life but to still enjoy the mountain retreat scene spend some time in Chattanooga or Gatlinburg. For the ultimate mountain retreat experience where you can stay in a log cabin, wear plaid, chop your wood and buy local handmade crafts look for small towns in the Smoky Mountains or along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Make sure to check these smaller towns festival and fair schedules as they have the best events, like the Green Bean Festival or The Possum Drop! Regardless if you stay or not, these places have the best scenic mountain drives around, so be sure to take the long way and stop at as many overlooks and jam stands as you can.

Must do in the South

MUST DO IN THE SOUTH

Carnivals and Fairs

A classic southern summer and fall activity are carnivals and fairs. Go ride the ferris wheel and eat a funnel cake. Likely they will also have a country singer doing a live concert at these events and that is something you don’t want to miss! Put on your cowboy boots and cowboy hat and hit the open field for an evening of dancing and live entertainment under a blanket of a thousand stars.

Line dancing

Speaking of dancing, try to catch a lesson in line dancing or shag dancing if you can. Make sure you get outside to ride ATVs, go mud slinging and if you’re near a swamp take an airboat out to see the alligators.

Nascar

And for all the fans of adrenaline and fast cars, make sure you catch a Nascar Race or a monster truck show. Most southern of all: attend a rodeo! For those looking for a more quintessential and quiet experience do a farm stay where you can milk a cow, collect eggs, till the land and ride a horse.

Must eat in the South

MUST EAT IN THE SOUTH

Sweet tea

The south is famous for its ability to deep-fry anything and then add butter, salt and sugar. While it may not be the healthiest region of the land, it very well could be the tastiest. A southern staple with any meal, at any time of the day is a cold glass of sweet tea.

Cheerwine

You should also try Cheerwine, Cherry Lemon Sundrop and for an adult beverage try Firefly vodka or go to a moonshine tasting.

Biscuits and gravy

For breakfast eat biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits. For the rest of your meals you have a lot of great options, most will include a fried dish or two.

Deep pit barbecue

Famous southern meals are Chicken-n-Dumplins and Deep Pit BBQ. You will also want to find good places that serve Soul Food and Creole Food. And don’t forget to eat your veggies: fried okra or squash and collard greens.

Cultural tips for traveling in the south

CULTURAL TIPS FOR TRAVELING IN THE SOUTH

Southerners are known for their hospitality. When you are out in public everyone will speak to you, wave to you and will lend a helping hand. So be sure to return the favor. Hold open the door, especially for a lady, say excuse me, don’t push past someone, be a gentleman and be patient. These manners and common courtesies are highly valued in southern towns and will make it much easier for you to make friends and get assistance when needed.

Most importantly, learn your ma’ams and sirs. Respect when addressing someone, especially your elder is the key to winning a southerners heart. Answering questions with a ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no sir’ will truly make your interactions much more pleasant and successful.

Know that directions can tend to be more ‘loose’ and landmark based. Hearing someone say ‘just go round yonder and turn by the Wal-Mart’ is likely. So be sure to ask for clarification or bring a GPS as dirt roads lined with cornfields can go on for miles and miles with no signs or gas stations.

It gets hot, sticky and itchy in the south. During summer months (April-October) it gets very hot and humid and the bugs come out to bite. So dress accordingly, bring sunscreen and bug spray.

The south is wonderful and hospitable and people will want you to stay and sit and chat, but one area they struggle with is being multi-lingual. The main second language spoken in the south, in general, is Spanish but on a very basic level. So have a good translator app and be prepared with your patience if English isn’t your first or best language.

We respect God and Country and by ‘Country’ we mean the south because those city folk from up north just don’t get understand us sometimes. And on Sundays most everything will shut down so you can attend church. Alcohol won’t likely be sold and everyone will drive nice and slow…

And last, a word of warning: when someone says ‘bless his heart’ know that it doesn’t always carry the kindest connotation

Cheap southern travel

TRAVEL ON THE CHEAP IN THE SOUTH

The southern states are very expansive and farmlands cover a great deal of the area. Therefore traveling around can be tricky, even in major cities. Southerners are car people. Everyone owns a car because public transportation is almost non-existent.

The best thing you can do on a trip to the south, especially if you are going to be traveling to multiple places is to rent a car. This will also allow you to see some of the South’s greatest natural beauties that you can’t get to on any bus routes.

Speaking of natural beauty, the south is very proud of their land and much of it is reserved as some type of government-protected parks. A great way to see these hidden gems and to have very cheap lodging is to camp. It is very fun pastime for southerners and you will likely make some new friends around the campfire.

Lodging is likely cheaper at Bed & Breakfast’s or Inns in smaller to mid-size towns, but depending on the level of tourism hotels may be the cheapest way to go in the bigger cities. Hostels are non-existent. Food is very moderately to cheaply priced compared to the northern states and so is gas.

I hope I’ve given you a tiny glimpse into how diverse and welcoming the Deep South is. If you have any questions please ask in the comments and I’ll be around to answer.

Thanks so much for sharing, Lauren! I’m sure we have plenty of Southern readers – what would you guys add to this list?

P.S. You might also like the Canadian Rockies or Puerto Rico’s Travel Guides!

photo credits: sonja lovas // john hoey // roger blake // ross catrow // faungg’s photos // aj hill – blacklight propeganda

9 Comments

Claire

Ok, as a born and bred southerner I’m soberly aware of some of the dubious cultural traditions/histories here, but there can still be much to enjoy and some fine folks to meet.

Columbia, South Carolina (the capital) actually has a lot to offer:
-Riverbanks Zoo and Garden (with a Riverwalk)
-Columbia City Ballet, a surprisingly excellent dance company
-Downtown life – Five Points and The Vista
-Statehouse grounds that are quite lovely (nearby is the beautiful Horseshoe at the University of SC, where I was married)

And to me, the quintessential must-eat of the South: BOILED PEANUTS!

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Lesley S

Great guide!
Come and see us in Knoxville, TN! We’re close to the Smoky Mountains and Dollywood. We have UT football (which has a super fun (unofficial) fight song, a cool dog for a mascot, the Vol Navy for tailgating, and fans that are dedicated enough to turn the stadium into an orange and white checkerboard), awesome outdoor activities, a hip and happening downtown area with a town square that hosts all kinds of events from movie nights to Shakespeare on the square to a twice a week farmer’s market, delicious food and drinks (including the International Biscuit Festival and world famous Benton’s bacon), and we’re the cradle of country music (our visitor’s center hosts The Blue Plate Special – a free concert nearly every day at noon that plays on listener supported WDVX radio). It’s a fun spot to stay if you’re visiting the Smokies!
http://gardenandgun.com/article/city-portrait-knoxville-tennessee

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Laura

No Alabama love?! This must be remedied!

I’ve gotta disagree, the Gulf Coast beaches are by far the prettiest 😉 Hit up Panama City Beach for a party atmosphere, Gulf Shores/Orange Beach for a small town laid back atmosphere, and Destin for something in between.

Southerners are also famous for our storytelling. Almost any larger city you visit, especially this time of year, will probably have some sort of ghost tour. I cannot recommend them enough! We do love a good ghost story.

Huntsville, Alabama is known as The Rocket City because of our history with NASA and the space program. We are literally a town of rocket scientists! It’s probably the most liberal city in Alabama and there are definitely lots of fun, science related activities going on at any given time. Check out the US Space and Rocket Center (a combination museum/activity place with thrill rides!) and be sure to ride the Space Shot!

Lowe Mill is giant former factory turned into an enormous quirky arts center. There are dozens of galleries and independent shops and classes and performances and swing dances happening every week! It’s my favorite place in all the world. http://www.lowemill.net

While I am personally not a football fan, I’m in the minority for sure. Southerners are slightly college football obsessed and for good reason: our teams are the best in the country, winning dozens of National Championships. Tailgating at college campuses on game day is super popular. It’s like a giant outdoor party picnic with delicious food (usually involving chicken wings and something with lots of cheese) and of course, beer. Some people go all out, bringing couches and TVs and basically setting up a living room to watch The Game together.

The cultural tips are spot on. We LOVE to talk, to anybody, anytime. Open doors for people, respect your elders, and don’t be alarmed when strangers start making small talk. We are extremely friendly, helpful, and hospitable. We want to make sure you’re having a great time. We’re proud of our state and love showing it off.

However.

While we are certainly not all backward rednecks, this stereotype does unfortunately exist for a reason. Smaller towns are not especially known for tolerance, and racism and homophobia are sometimes still blatantly displayed. You might see rebel flags hanging proudly outside of homes and decorating trucks. It is an unfortunate reality but please do not let this dissuade you from visiting us! These people are a vocal minority for sure.

Birmingham and south Alabama have tons of civil rights history. Museums and parks dedicated to the brave men and women who fought for equality are everywhere. There’s a particularly moving sculpture park in downtown Birmingham. You can stand in front of the statues of police dogs and men with firehoses and get a sense of how it felt for the civil rights activists to literally face down violence.

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Lauren

This is great, thank you! I’m from Australia but next year my boyfriend and I are heading over to the US for a 12 week road trip across the southern states. So this has been super helpful! 🙂

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Jen

I’m gonna have to second the idea of spending some time along the Gulf Coast. For beautiful old-Florida beaches, we recommend Florida’s Forgotten Coast – Mexico Beach, Apalachicola, etc. And along with that there has to be lots and lots of seafood eating.

Beyond beaches, though, I recommend a trip along the Natchez Trace or up the Great Blues Highway – you can go from New Orleans to Memphis and learn a great deal about the blues – stopping at places like the Onward Store (where Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a chained black bear and thus the teddy bear was born) as well as see Jim Henson’s boyhood home and see landmark sites of the Civil Rights movement. The Natchez Trace is just a beautiful delight.

There’s also quite a bit of Native American culture to discover in the south – outside of Tuscaloosa, AL is Moundville and there many different mounds located along the Natchez Trace.

There are also traces of WWII era POW camps, which I’m just now beginning to learn more about as I stumble across the remains of them on my photo wanders.

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