Culture

The 10 Most Underrated Destinations in the South

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Last week I shared my picks for the most overrated destinations in the South, and this week I’m presenting the flip side of that list. Here are ten destinations that don’t always make the list of great places to visit down here in Dixie. Hopefully some of you will consider these places when you book your next vacation. Enjoy!

10. St. Petersburg, FL

On the north side of Tampa Bay, on a peninsula bordering the Gulf of Mexico, sits St. Petersburg. Like its sister city, Tampa, St. Pete boasts beautiful beaches, vibrant attractions, and nightlife. But deep down, St. Petersburg is a funky arts and architecture town masquerading as a mid-sized city.

The architecture of this city encapsulates much of the 20th century’s notable styles, yet nearly all the buildings look like they belong in a city by the water – quintessentially Floridian. The arts scene in St. Pete is strong – museums and bohemian arts communities are nestled all over the city, and one museum in particular holds the largest collection of Salvador Dali’s works in North America.

With an exciting city core and a beach rated number one in America, St. Petersburg has a lot to offer its visitors.

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9. Williamsburg, VA

When we think of Virginia, we often think of history. There aren’t many places where history is so openly on display as it in Williamsburg. The famed Colonial Williamsburg area has captured the atmosphere of the 18th century in a striking way, becoming an interactive experience rather than just a museum.

But there’s more to Williamsburg than living history. The city boasts the largest winery in Virginia, as well as one of Anheuser-Busch’s breweries. Theme parks, shopping areas, and other tourist destinations sit just outside of Williamsburg proper. The local botanical garden attracts visitors every year.

Combining a visit to Williamsburg with visits to other historical sites – like Jamestown and Yorktown – in the area makes for a refreshing educational vacation.

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8. St. Augustine, FL

Places like Daytona, Miami, and Tampa get most of the attention when it comes to Florida beach towns, but one smaller city on the Atlantic side deserves some of the love too. St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement in the continental United States, is a terrific destination for tourists of all ages.

If you’re interested in history, there’s plenty of it in St. Augustine. The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument offers tours and a fascinating glimpse into the city’s entire history, while other forts and lighthouses will satisfy the history buff. Downtown St. Augustine contains several beautiful historic homes and buildings as well as sites significant to the civil rights movement.

With beautiful beaches and all the comforts of modern life located within a city so full of history, St. Augustine should be on everyone’s list of places to visit.

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7. Louisville, KY

On the border with Kentucky and Indiana, Louisville is barely in the South, but it counts.

Of course, the Kentucky Derby is what most people think of when they think of Louisville, and the city hosts a number of events surrounding the race every year. Baseball fans will want to tour the Louisville Slugger Factory, while sports fans of all stripes can enjoy the number of college, professional, and semi-pro teams that call Louisville home.

The city hosts festivals dedicated to subjects as diverse as the Beatles, Shakespeare, and hot air ballooning, but the most quintessentially Kentuckian of the festivals is the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which takes place in suburban Louisville.

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6. San Antonio, TX

Deep in the heart of Texas lies a big city with a charm all its own. San Antonio blends urban sophistication with a unique sense of Texas history and culture.

Of course, everybody knows San Antonio for the Alamo, which remains the top attraction in the city, but history buffs will also enjoy the Cathedral of San Fernando, the Menger and Fairmount Hotels, and the La Villita Historic Arts Village.

For more modern fun, guests can take in HemisFair Park – including the Tower of the Americas – along with several theme parks and the famed River Walk. During the Christmas holiday season, the River Walk transforms into a wonderland of lights and color.

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5. Cumberland Island, GA

In our modern world, it’s often difficult to find nature in its purest form. Visitors to Cumberland Island on Georgia’s southeastern coast can find it easily. The National Park Service operates much of the island, which is a wildlife paradise.

Beautiful beaches, wooded areas, and ruins of colonial buildings long abandoned greet visitors to the area. The island makes itself a home for loggerhead sea turtles, dozens of species of birds, and wild hogs, among others, but the feral horses for which Cumberland Island is famous are the real stars of the show.

The island is only available by ferry from either St. Mary’s, Georgia, or Fernandina Beach, Florida. Guests can camp at various National Park sites around the island or stay at the insanely expensive Greyfield Inn, a mansion belonging to the Carnegie family. Cumberland Island also makes for a nice day trip.

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4. Chattanooga, TN

Chattanooga sits nestled in the mountains on the border between Georgia and Tennessee. In addition to being the only city to have its own official typeface, Chattanooga has a surprising amount of excitement and interest for a city its size.

Chattanooga’s downtown area offers several appealing attractions, like the IMAX 3D Theatre, the Creative Discovery Museum, and the Tennessee Riverwalk. The Chattanooga Zoo and the Tennessee Aquarium provide fun for animal lovers. The city has an active arts scene as well, with a symphony and opera company, along with theater and writing programs and museums.

Lookout Mountain, across the state line and just outside the city, offers both scenic and historic attractions like Rock City, the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, and a museum telling the story of the Civil War Battle of Chattanooga.

It may be a smaller city, but Chattanooga is a vibrant option for a day trip or a full vacation.

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3. New Smyrna Beach, FL

Just south of Daytona Beach lies a town so unique and underrated that its nickname is “Florida’s Secret Pearl” – New Smyrna Beach. (Its Latin motto is Cygnus Inter Anates – “A Swan Among Ducks.”) New Smyrna Beach offers the amenities and excitement of the best beach destination in a fun, smaller town setting.

New Smyrna Beach boasts plenty of shopping and dining options – from tasty hole-in-the-wall seafood joints to swanky boutiques, there’s something for every taste. The town has made several lists of best spots for surfing, and a thriving community of artists makes its home there.

One of the nicest features of New Smyrna Beach is that it’s a nice self-contained getaway spot, but it’s close enough to other areas – Daytona, Cape Canaveral, and even Orlando – that tourists can take advantage of the other areas while they’re in central Florida.


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2. Tybee Island, GA

Savannah in southeastern Georgia has become a go-to destination for fans of history and the South in general, but visitors to Savannah – which, according to one friend of mine, should have made the overrated destinations list – often miss the gem one bridge away: the town of Tybee Island. Interestingly enough, supposedly savvy marketers changed the town’s name to Savannah Beach in the 1950s, a name that stuck for years before the town reverted to its original moniker.

Tybee offers experiences for everyone. History buffs should visit Fort Pulaski, along the bridge between Savannah and Tybee Island, along with the lighthouse on the island. Fans of old homes will find plenty to see on Tybee as well.

Tybee Island deliberately cultivates a small-town vibe. A dearth of chain restaurants makes the local cuisine that much more appealing, while quaint local shops dot the island. The island feels more like a genuine getaway than a tourist destination, which makes visiting there that much more special. It’s easy to see why people make Tybee Island their vacation of choice year after year.


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1. Ocoee River, TN/Toccoa River, GA

The Smoky Mountains offer some of the most beautiful scenery on earth, and the Ocoee River, which becomes the Toccoa River once it crosses the Tennessee-Georgia border, is the perfect destination to experience it. The pristine beauty of nature provides the optimal backdrop for activities like hiking, rafting, and sightseeing.

Dozens of companies take tourists on rafting trips every weekend. The entire stretch of the river takes the better part of a day, or you can raft the upper or lower portion in three or four hours. Both sections include exciting and challenging rapids, but the upper portion includes the 1996 Olympic course for bigger thrills.

For those interested in lower-key fun, various trails dot the riverside, offering lovely views, and bridges along the river allow for people watching. Quaint towns sit along the river, with seemingly endless opportunities for dining, shopping, camping, and lodging. The Ocoee River area is a great chance to get away from it all and experience what the Smoky Mountains have to offer.

What are your favorite underrated Southern destinations?