Southern US travel: Seven smaller cities well worth a visit

Experience the south’s beauty, culture, food, & hospitality.

Southern hospitality, natural beauty, colorful culture, and down-home country cooking make southern US travel so unique. It’s the smiling faces, scenic hiking trails, distinctive traditions, and mouth-watering fried dishes. As a southern gal, I’ve traveled a lot around this neck of the woods. Through my exploring, I’ve discovered the smaller cities are some of the best destinations to experience the south’s local sides. Check out these seven small southern US travel destinations well worth a visit.

Franklin, Tennessee

Located just south of Nashville, Franklin tells a chapter of the Civil War and boasts a strong singer-songwriter culture. Dotted around the city, numerous well-preserved historic sites from the Battle of Franklin are some of the top attractions. The city’s roots also run deep in Americana, making laid-back music easy to find. While walking along Franklin’s Main Street, you might just feel as though you’ve stepped foot onto a movie set showcasing a quintessential southern town. Boutiques, restaurants, and local businesses line the sixteen blocks of beautiful brick buildings.

Franklin highlights a mix of cherished traditions and new rituals, making it an interesting southern US travel destination. Its classics range from the café and bakery Merridee’s Breadbasket, which has been a gathering spot for locals since 1984, to the Franklin Theatre, which originally opened in 1937. Franklin also has a thriving restaurant scene in the downtown historic district with newer local favorites like Frothy Monkey, Red Pony, and 55 South. Boasting a perfect blend of new and old, it’s a place where traditional meets contemporary.

Franklin, TN - Southern US travel

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Known as Scenic City, Chattanooga is split by the Tennessee River and has two looming mountains, Lookout and Signal Mountain. As an underrated destination for southern US travel, Chattanooga bursts at the seams with outdoorsy things to do, including walking the 13-mile Riverwalk and pedestrian bridge, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding down the Tennessee River, and hiking and mountain biking in the city’s outskirts. Over the years, the city has also made serious strides in becoming a more sustainable city despite its manufacturing and heavily polluted past.

Furthermore, outdoor adventures aren’t the only thing Chattanooga has to offer. The city has a rich arts scene with numerous art galleries, artisan markets, and an impressive art museum. The downtown also features a diverse selection of restaurants priding themselves on serving dishes with local ingredients. On top of that, Chattanooga is becoming a city known for live music ranging in genre from jazz to rock. The Scenic City is also a destination for US history buffs with its strong Civil War and train history. Chattanooga’s strategic location and means of transportation made it become regarded as a gateway to the Deep South.

Chattanooga, TN - Southern US travel

Asheville, North Carolina

Nestled in the mountains near Blue Ridge Parkway, Asheville features one million acres of forest and hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the surrounding area. Bellyaking, which is face-first kayaking where you ride on your belly, was even invented in Asheville. It’s an ultimate outdoors destination but also has lots of stunning man-made beauty, making it an attractive southern US travel destination. The Biltmore, America’s largest home, is a marvelous 8,000-acre grand estate. Additionally, Asheville’s downtown highlights beautiful Art Deco architecture.

With a thriving music and brewery scene, Asheville is a city pulsing with life. It’s been named Beer City USA in previous years, boasting more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the country. Great beer isn’t the only thing easy to find in Asheville – live music is everywhere, including music halls, concert venues, bars, mountain-view amphitheaters, and the downtown streets. Toe-tapping sounds are at the forefront of the city’s music scene. Every Friday night from April to October, there is a drum circle in the heart of downtown where locals and tourists come together for drumming, dancing, and watching.

Asheville, NC - Southern US travel

Charleston, South Carolina

As a popular southern US travel destination best known for its rich history, beautiful beaches, and tasty food scene, Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the US and is a playground for history lovers. You can take a ferry from Charleston to the exact spot where the Civil War began at Fort Sumter. This southern city also has excellently-preserved architecture making it a charming city to explore. Rainbow Row, a series of 13 colorful historic houses, is one of the most iconic sites in the city.

Charleston and its surrounding areas boast a variety of beaches and each have a different feel. Find the one that fits your personality the best whether you’re into just relaxing, taking part in sports and outdoor activities, or exploring natural areas. Additionally, with a mix of traditional southern grub and dishes with modern twists, Charleston has been named one of the best food cities in the US on numerous occasions. And it’s a top destination to try out a southern favorite, shrimp and grits.

Charleston, SC - Southern US travel

Savannah, Georgia

Savannah is a beautiful coastal city with a charming historic district featuring cobblestone streets, oak trees covered with Spanish moss, majestic architecture, and well-kept parks. There’s even an iconic park bench that was featured in the film Forrest Gump. The historic district includes 22 beautiful squares originally used as public gathering places. As a unique southern US travel destination, Savannah is a stunning city to explore on foot with ease.

The Savannah River runs past the city and has a lovely Riverwalk with 21 restaurants along it. It’s a working harbor, so you’ll see ships pass by with massive loads. The historic River Street sits on the waterfront, which was once lined with warehouses. Now shops, art galleries, and restaurants fill it. As a southern US travel destination, Savannah is becoming known as a foodie city with a mix of southern dishes like fried chicken and biscuits and innovative cuisine with southern twists.

Savannah, GA - Southern US travel

Rome, Georgia

Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Rome, Georgia is a city situated on seven hills with three rivers meeting in downtown and is often an overlooked southern US travel destination. There are 13.5 miles of riverfront trails, which also go past many of the city’s parks. You can rent kayaks or canoes for a view from the water. To add to the city’s beauty, local university Berry College is the largest contiguous college campus in the world, featuring over 40 miles of hiking trails.

Rome’s downtown also has the biggest Victorian Era district in Georgia packed with boutiques and restaurants. Some of the best restaurants in the city sit right on Broad Street in the heart of downtown. A few of the most popular restaurants are Jamwich, a sandwich shop with unique jams, Harvest Moon Café, a southern café, and Honeymoon Bakery, a bakery also serving breakfast and lunch.

Rome, GA - Southern US travel

Huntsville, Alabama

Huntsville is most known as Rocket City because it’s home to the US Space & Rocket Center, the world’s largest space museum. But it has so much more to offer as a southern US travel destination. Located in a beautiful area of Northern Alabama, Huntsville and its surrounding areas feature numerous spots to enjoy the outdoors. A gem of the city is the Huntsville Botanical Garden, an 120-acre oasis. It features the biggest open-air season butterfly house in the US. In the heart of the city, Twickenham Historic District features beautiful antebellum houses, many with columns and wrap around porches. It’s a wonderful place to explore on foot and feels innately southern.

In Huntsville, there’s also plenty of places to support local businesses and interact with locals in unique ways. Lowe Mill ARTS and Entertainment is the largest privately-owned arts facility in the US. It features 148 working art studios for more than 200 artists, six art galleries, a theatre, and performance venue. Another unique place to support local is at Campus No. 805. As a former school, the space has evolved into a dynamic entertainment center with breweries, restaurants, and retail spaces. With a rapidly growing brewery scene, Huntsville has a craft beer trail, making it easy to try the city’s best beers.

Huntsville, AL - Southern US travel

Have you traveled in the southern United States? What were your favorite destinations? What would you like to see and experience in this region of the US?

Southern US travel: Seven smaller cities well worth a visit

22 thoughts on “Southern US travel: Seven smaller cities well worth a visit

  1. Agree whole heartedly on these towns. Mid-sized American towns have a lot of character and are the fabric of a great country.

  2. I grew up in Atlanta and have been to almost all of those little towns. There certainly is a charm to the South that you don’t get anywhere else. Savannah, Asheville and Charleston get my votes. 🙂 Have you been to Pigeon Forge? That’s quite fun as well.

  3. Great idea for a post, you are right that many of these small cities are usually overlooked by visitors, especially those of us from overseas where we’ve probably not even heard of them. I do remember visiting Chattanooga many years ago, but possibly because it was on the route between two other destinations. Charleston and Savannah were firmly on the route we did and I did love their charming old town vibe. Asheville definitely appeals, with the brewery scene and beautiful landscapes.

  4. Being from England, there are a few places on your list like Ashville, Charleston and Savannah that I’ve heard about in the past but the others not so much. However they all look like such quaint towns and well worth the visit. I like the sound of Rome, located in the foothills of the mountains, I bet it has some incredible views 😀

  5. These are some relatively lesser known places and hence I am sure they are more alluring too. The places are really charming and all of them seem to have their own character and unique charm. Personally I would love to visit Georgia and imbibe the charms of Savannah and Rome.

  6. All excellent picks and must see places. I’m from Wilmington, NC, so can suggest it for a must see smaller city as well with all the historical aspects including the Underground railroad tour! The South does have plenty of beautiful places to see and yummy food to eat, especially when you get off the beaten path!

  7. I get so caught up in my love of International travel, that I forget we have such beautiful places here at home sometimes. I’ve been eyeing the Biltmore in Asheville, NC for a while. I really need to just take a weekend and do it. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder!

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