Follow I-65 through the heart of Alabama to explore the state’s three biggest cities: Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile. Birmingham’s former Dr. Pepper Syrup Plant and Bottling Company is reborn as Pepper Place, an industrial-chic entertainment and design hot spot. In downtown Montgomery, stroll the Alley, the state’s first entertainment district. From here it’s a short walk to Riverwalk Stadium, the historic train depot turned ballpark home of the Montgomery Biscuits Double-A baseball team. Mobile’s Lower Dauphin Street Commercial District, or LoDa, is the place to party, shop, and people-watch.
Best Bets: Saturdays April to early December, the Market at Pepper Place hosts a Rooted in Alabama Farmers Market featuring local products and live music. The Fitzgerald Museum is housed in the Montgomery home where F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife, Zelda, and their daughter lived briefly in the early 1930s. Take a tour to see family artifacts, such as paintings by Zelda.
Insider Tips: Ribs and white bread get all the love at Dreamland Bar-B-Que in The Alley, but the single-serving banana pudding could be the best two bucks you’ve ever spent.
Don’t Miss: Birmingham’s twin trendsetter neighborhoods—Forest Park and South Avondale—border the southern edge of the city’s renovated urban oasis, Avondale Park.
Atlanta’s oldest neighborhoods are where you’ll find some of Georgia’s hippest retail and entertainment hot spots. The Eastside Trail, the first completed section of the pedestrian Atlanta BeltLine rail-to-trail project, connects five of these buzzing neighborhoods: Virginia-Highland, Midtown, Poncey-Highland, Old Fourth Ward, and Inman Park. Step off the trail to meander around Ponce City Market, opened in 2014 in a restored 1926 Sears department store and distribution center. The 2.1-million-square-foot area (billed as the largest brick structure in the South) houses a bustling Central Food Hall and a growing list of artisanal shops, such as Citizen Supply and Elk Head Clothing.
Best Bets: Browse the vinyl collection at Criminal Records and see some of the city’s wildest street art, including the ginormous skull outside the Vortex bar in Little Five Points, Atlanta’s original bohemian-hip neighborhood. West Midtown is a former industrial area reborn as an upscale retail and dining hub. Visit the neighborhood’s Westside Provisions District, home to luxury retailers, including American designer Billy Reid and foodie-favorite eateries like Yeah! Burger.
Insider Tip: Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party in Candler Park is as Mad Hatter-fanciful as its name implies. Paper umbrellas hang from the ceiling, pastries and teas are served on mismatched vintage china, and floor-to-ceiling shelves are stuffed with books. To guarantee a space at one of the shared tables, make reservations for High Tea.
Louisville, Lexington, and Bowling Green are three big reasons why Kentucky is tailor-made for urban explorers. In Louisville, the state’s largest city, East Market Street’s NuLu—or New Louisville—district is a hip haven lined with local-centric businesses. Make a game out of touring Lexington’s historic neighborhoods by taking the Lexington Mural Challenge or going on a “Big Lex” Scavenger Hunt. In downtown Bowling Green, a former department store houses the original Corsair Distillery. Sign up for a tour (Tuesday to Saturday) to see how small-batch spirits, such as Corsair’s Wry Moon rye white whiskey, are handcrafted and taste.
Best Bets: Shop for handmade jewelry, art, and other one-of-a-kind gifts at Revelry, a NuLu boutique and gallery promoting Louisville-area artists. Tour five restored railcars—including the Duncan Hines Diner named for the native son behind the famous cake mix—at the Historic Railpark and Train Museum in Bowling Green.
Insider Tip: Get a caffeine-and-creativity infusion at High on Art & Coffee, an artisanal coffee shop and local art gallery in Lexington’s bohemian Woodland Triangle neighborhood.
Don’t Miss: Louisville’s historically hip Butchertown Market is a retail and light-manufacturing space located in a renovated 1880 factory building.
The Magnolia State may be primarily rural, but the capital city, Jackson, has plenty of urban territory to discover. Billed as Jackson’s hippest neighborhood, Fondren is the place to shop and eat local at locations like Sneaky Beans coffeehouse and Walker’s Drive-In. Learn about Mississippi state history at the Old Capitol Museum and the Beaux arts-style Mississippi State Capitol. See Jackson’s notable Mississippi Freedom Trail landmarks, such as the 1963 Woolworth’s sit-in site and Medgar Evers’s house. Shop specialty retailers including Mississippi’s own Buffalo Peak Outfitters at Highland Village.
Insider Tips: The climb-on “Exploring Mississippi” gallery map at the Mississippi Children’s Museum helps kids learn about state geography, natural science, history, and culture while they play. Monday nights at Hal and Mal’s restaurant, the kitchen is closed but the doors are open (tickets five dollars) for the Blue Monday blues jam session.
Don’t Miss: The Saturday (8 a.m. to 2 p.m.) Mississippi Farmers Market, an all-weather marketplace featuring homegrown produce and items crafted by Mississippi artisans, is the largest of its kind in the state.
In Missouri’s most populous city, Kansas City, ride the free KC Streetcar through the heart of downtown to Union Station. Stops along the 2.2-mile (3.5-kilometer) streetcar route go through the Crown Center District, the historic Kansas City River Market, and the nine-block Power & Light District (or “P&L”) retail, dining, and entertainment hub. The state’s second largest city, St. Louis, is filled with urban play spaces—such as City Museum’s all-ages, indoor playground and 1,300-acre (527-hectare) Forest Park, host of the 1904 World’s Fair.
Best Bets: Historic C-Street in Springfield is a six-block district lined with locally owned restaurants, shops, and studios such as Creative Escape Glass. The glass studio offers workshops (most Saturdays and by appointment) where you can learn how to make your own fused glass pieces, as well as open studios Wednesday through Saturday. The studio is closed Sunday to Tuesday.
Insider Tip: Wednesday to Saturday, stroll around St. Louis’s historic (established in 1779) Soulard Market, one of the oldest farmers markets west of the Mississippi and one of the best places to try a city original: gooey butter cake.
Don’t Miss: Kansas City’s Arabia Steamboat Museum contains the world’s largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts, all recovered from a fully loaded steamer, which sunk in the Missouri River in September 1856.
Urban adventures abound in every region of South Carolina. On the coast in Charleston, park at the official Charleston Visitor Center on Meeting Street. From here, you can explore the North of Broad historic district on foot or board CARTA’s (Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority) free hop-on, hop-off DASH Trolley. In the Midlands, downtown Columbia’s historic Congaree Vista, or Vista—a former industrial district and commercial railroad terminal—is the capital city’s upscale retail and entertainment hub. Greenville in the state’s western Mountains region has a revitalized downtown that’s easy to navigate on a Greenville Glides Segway tour.
Best Bets: Mid-April to early September, cheer for the home team at a Greenville Drive baseball game at Fluor Field (a miniature replica of Boston’s Fenway Park) or at a Columbia Fireflies game at the new (opened April 2016) Spirit Communications Park, named 2016 Ballpark of the Year by Ballpark Digest.
Insider Tips: In the Vista, buy flour, stone-ground grits, cornmeal, and other South Carolina grown and milled products at Adluh Flour, the state’s only remaining flour and cornmeal mill. Weather permitting, view the moon, planets, and stars during a Tuesday night observing session at the South Carolina State Museum Boeing Observatory.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Everything old is new again in downtown Knoxville and the adjacent Old City, Downtown North, and Happy Holler neighborhoods. Two of the newest kids on the city’s historic blocks are the Maple Hall urban bowling-and-bar experience and Shulz Bräu Brewing, a castle-looking complex housing a brewery, taproom, and authentic German beer garden. In Nashville, while music reigns, it isn’t the only thing that’s cool. Urban-hip neighborhoods—such as 12South, the Gulch, East Nashville, and SoBro (south of Broadway)—are lined with an eclectic mix of shops, cafés, craft breweries, and live music venues. In Memphis, historic buildings and former industrial sites are being repurposed in neighborhoods such as Cooper-Young, the South Main Arts District, Overton Square, and the Broad Avenue Arts District.
Best Bets: Taste your way around East Nashville or SoBro on a Walk Eat Nashville tour. In 12South, visit White’s Mercantile, a stylish dry goods store with an old-timey vibe that’s owned by singer-songwriter Holly Williams (daughter of country music star Hank Williams, Jr., and granddaughter of the legendary Hank Sr.).
Insider Tip: Register for Good Sport Night at the Central Collective in Knoxville’s Downtown North district. Held monthly, the nights are mystery events (such as an egg-drop competition off the roof of the building) designed to be fun and build community.
The Mountain State’s five biggest cities—Charleston, Huntington, Parkersburg, Morgantown, and Wheeling—are easy to navigate and exude a charming, small-town vibe. Charleston’s hippest enclave is East End. Visit on a second or third Saturday, May through September, to browse the East End Bazaar Open-Air Artisan Market. Stroll around Huntington’s Old Central City, regionally known for its collection of antique shops and the Wild Ramp at Central City Market, a nonprofit space for local artisans and food producers. In Parkersburg, Mulberry Lane Country Store stocks a wide selection of regional products, including Uncle Bunk’s old-time Appalachian specialties.
Best Bets: In the capital city, Charleston, visit the indoor-outdoor Capitol Market to buy local and West Virginia-made items, such as Blenko glass decanters, bottles, and bowls. Morgantown’s Appalachian Gallery, housed in the 1902 brick-and-stone “Sandcastle” building, sells original works by West Virginia artisans.
Insider Tips: From Parkersburg, it’s a scenic 35-mile (56-kilometer) drive east to Berdine’s Five and Dime, a Harrisville landmark since 1908. Andrew White is a Morgantown luthier (stringed instrument maker), and you can visit his Andrew White Guitars studio and showroom. Shop for a handcrafted or factory-made (based on his designs) White guitar while you talk to the artist about his process.
Don’t Miss: Centre Market (built in 1853) in Wheeling is one of the oldest market houses in the country.