Photograph by Daniel Dempster Photography, Alamy Stock Photo
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Fireworks are displayed over the Ohio River following the Kentucky Derby Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.

Photograph by Daniel Dempster Photography, Alamy Stock Photo

The Ultimate Southern Adventure: Experience the Culture

Discover the people, traditions, and events that shaped the American South.

Alabama

Alabama Scenic Byways lead to famous landmarks and off-the-beaten-path places worth seeing. On the Black Belt Nature and Heritage Trail, visit the Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center in Camden to shop for original works—such as quilts, pine-needle baskets, and pottery—handmade by artisans in the 19-county Alabama Black Belt Heritage Area. Follow the Coastal Connection Scenic Byway to see what’s blooming at 65-acre (26-hectare) Bellingrath Gardens and Home and to tour Civil War sites like Fort Morgan.

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Fort Morgan, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, in Mobile Bay, Alabama. It is a masonary star fort that was completed in 1834.

Best Bets: November 5-19, Bellingrath hosts the 53rd Annual Fall Outdoor Cascading Chrysanthemums. From Bellingrath, it’s about a 30-minute drive to downtown Mobile, where you can connect to the Historic House Museums of Mobile Alabama Road Trip. Tour stops include Historic Oakleigh and the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion, an elegant antebellum home set amid live oaks.

Insider Tip: From Camden, take the ferry to Gee’s Bend, home of the celebrated Gee’s Bend quilters. Plan ahead to visit the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective (where you can buy quilts and other folk art) and to watch quilters at work at the Boykin Nutrition Center.

Don’t Miss: Visit Northport’s Kentuck Art Center and the 45th Annual Kentuck Festival of the Arts, October 15-16.

Georgia

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Lamps glow on the pavement of Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia.

Georgia’s Antebellum Trail is steeped in tradition. The hundred-mile (161-kilometer) route meanders through the state’s heartland, connecting seven culturally rich communities from Athens south to Macon. Visit the Old Clinton Historic District (“The Town Time Forgot”); Watkinsville’s Eagle Tavern Museum (a former stagecoach stop); and other pre-Civil War sites. In Athens, tour the Georgia Museum of Art and the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. In rural southwest Georgia, ride the vintage SAM Shortline excursion train into small towns like Cordele, “Watermelon Capital of the World” and host of June’s Watermelon Days Festival. Stop in Plains to visit the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site.

Best Bets: Sample locally grown peanuts and watch the Peter Pan Peanut Butter Parade at October’s annual Georgia Peanut Festival in Sylvester. In coastal Savannah, see how many of the city’s 22 historic squares you can find on a walking or trolley tour. Visit in mid-March to watch the legendary Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a Southern institution since 1813.

Insider Tip: Dozens of historic homes in Macon’s InTown neighborhood are illuminated nightly for the Lights on Macon architectural tour.

Don’t Miss: Visit the Springer Opera House, a restored, 1871 Edwardian theater in downtown Columbus.

Kentucky

Blaze a trail across the nation’s original frontier: Kentucky, the first U.S. state west of the Appalachians. From Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, roughly retrace the wilderness route taken in 1775 by pioneer hero Daniel Boone. The 120-mile-long (193-kilometer-long) Boone Trace corridor encompasses cultural attractions—such as October’s Daniel Boone Festival in Barbourville—from Middlesboro north to Fort Boonesborough. On the drive from Lexington west to Louisville, ramble past rock walls and regal horse farms on scenic Old Frankfort Pike.

Best Bets: Celebrate Louisville’s thoroughbred traditions at the Kentucky Derby Museum and the annual spring Kentucky Derby Festival. Spend a night at the historic Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant in Berea, home to the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea. Visit multiple Louisville cultural attractions—such as the Muhammad Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory—in the four-block Museum Row on Main.

Insider Tips: The Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University in Morehead houses a collection of nearly 1,400 pieces from self-taught artists. In Lexington, visit Kentucky Horse Park before meandering the back roads to hunt for covered bridges.

Don’t Miss: Check out Bardstown’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival in September and Owensboro’s International Bar-B-Q Festival in May.

Mississippi

Natchez celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2016. Visit historical sites and landmarks—including some of the South’s best preserved antebellum homes—to learn how Native American, African, French, British, and Spanish cultures shaped the city. Natchez Pilgrimage Tours offers historic home tours every day of the year. In Laurel, see one of the most representative collections of North American Native basketry in the southeast at the free Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, the state’s oldest art museum. Other must-visit museums include the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs and the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi.

Best Bets: Tour houses from the late colonial to the antebellum period during the Natchez Fall (September 23 to October 10, 2016) or Spring (March 18 to April 18, 2017) Pilgrimage. Mississippi’s Gulf Coast is home to several exceptional arts and culture centers.

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The historic town of Natchez, Mississippi, was founded in 1716, making it the oldest city on the Mississippi River.

Insider Tip: Save money and time by purchasing the $35 Gulf Coast Attractions Pass (on sale at both museums). The pass includes onetime admission to eight area attractions, including Biloxi’s world-class Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum.

Don’t Miss: Check out Greenville’s Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival in September and Belzoni’s World Catfish Festival in April.

Missouri

Scenic drives reveal the cultural and historic treasures of the Show-Me State. Take a spin on a Missouri stretch of the Mother Road, Route 66. State must-sees along the iconic highway include the nostalgic Coral Court Motel exhibit at the Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood and the 12 historical murals in Cuba, Missouri’s official “Route 66 Mural City.” In northwestern Missouri, visit Chillicothe (the “Home of Sliced Bread”) to see 20 outdoor murals. While in the area, visit Jamesport, the largest Old Order Amish settlement west of the Mississippi.

Best Bet: Follow Central Missouri's Gray Ghosts Trail to discover the region’s “Little Dixie” heritage. Trail stop Boonville also hosts April’s Big Muddy Folk Festival and June’s Heritage Days. Late March to early November, tour (reservations required) Warm Springs Ranch, home of the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdale horses.

Insider Tip: A new state-of-the-art museum opened in April 2016 at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum in Mansfield. The museum is adjacent to Rocky Ridge Farm where Wilder penned her autobiographical Little House novels (open March 1 to November 15).

Don’t Miss: Stop at these two October festivals—the Missouri Town 1855 Fall Festival of Arts, Culture, and Music in Lee’s Summit and the Louisiana Country Colorfest in Louisiana.

South Carolina

Coastal South Carolina harbors a treasure trove of cultural attractions. One unexpected gem is Atalaya, a Moorish-style castle located inside Huntington Beach State Park near Murrells Inlet. See the castle and original works by more than a hundred artisans at the annual Atalaya Arts and Crafts Festival, in September. In historic Charleston, hear the stories behind sites such as Revolutionary and Civil War landmarks, antebellum mansions, and the City Market on a guided walking, horse-drawn carriage, or boat tour.

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Confetti floats through Charleston, South Carolina, at the Spoleto Festival.

Best Bets: Atalaya’s sister site, Brookgreen Gardens, is located across from the state park and features the first public sculpture garden in the United States. Admission includes the Lowcountry Trail audio tour depicting daily life on the former Brookgreen rice plantation. Sip warm cider and see Brookgreen twinkle and glow during the gardens’s annual Nights of a Thousand Candles in December.

Insider Tips: Get a leisurely workout and a local’s view of South Carolina’s second oldest city (behind Charleston) on a three-mile Beaufort Running Tour. Celebrate the Sea Islands’s West African/Gullah Geechee culture at the annual Penn Center Heritage Days on St. Helena Island in November.

Don’t Miss: Head to Charleston’s world-renowned Spoleto Festival USA in May and June.

Tennessee

Enjoy a three-in-one culture tour by sampling sites and festivals in Tennessee’s distinct regions: East, Middle, and West. Artifacts from more than 300 years of life in East Tennessee are displayed at the Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville. Middle Tennessee must-see cultural sites include Davidson County’s Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Clarksville’s Customs House Museum and Cultural Center, and Lynchburg’s Jack Daniel’s Distillery. Explore Nashville’s Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, a 19-acre (eight-hectare) outdoor classroom filled with interactive exhibits, such as the fact-packed Pathway of History. In West Tennessee, tour the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the Casey Jones Home and Railroad Museum in Jackson.

Best Bets: Celebrate East Tennessee heritage at Gatlinburg’s Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival, Norris’s Tennessee Fall Homecoming at the Museum of Appalachia, and South Pittsburg’s National Cornbread Festival.

Insider Tips: Make your Middle Tennessee visit extra special by attending Columbia’s Mule Day in late March, Franklin’s Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival in September, or Clarksville’s River and Spires Festival in April. In West Tennessee, save room for the World’s Biggest Fish Fry in Paris and the Memphis in May International Festival, including the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Don’t Miss: Take in the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough in October.

West Virginia

Discover West Virginia’s rich railroad, riverboat, and Civil War history in the Wheeling National Heritage Area. Wheeling, home to the state’s birthplace—West Virginia Independence Hall—is located on the Northern Panhandle. On the Eastern Panhandle, drive the Washington Heritage Trail National Scenic Byway to visit colonial, Civil War, and early industrial sites in historic Jefferson, Berkeley, and Morgan Counties.

Best Bets: Celebrate local culture at fall events such as the Wheeling Heritage Port Sternwheel Festival and Oglebayfest. Fall is a particularly picturesque time to travel the trail and offers a bounty of seasonal celebrations such as the Mountain Heritage Arts and Crafts Festival and Mountain State Apple Festival. In southern West Virginia, drive the Coal Heritage Trail National Scenic Byway to see reclaimed mining lands, coal company towns, and other National Coal Heritage Area landmarks.

Insider Tip: In Beckley, watch artisans at work and buy one-of-kind pieces at Tamarack artisan retail center. April to November, take an underground tour at Beckley’s Exhibition Coal Mine.

Don’t Miss: New River Train Excursions in Huntington celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2016.