With centuries of history, colorful arts communities and a heritage of hospitality, small towns offer groups an idyllic way to spend an afternoon experiencing Southern culture and grace. These charming destinations allow visitors to rub elbows with locals, take in beautiful architecture, enjoy a great meal and revel in a leisurely lifestyle, if only for a short time.
Plan on spending time in one of these small-town treasures on your next trip through the South.
Tracing more than 300 years of recorded history, Shepherdstown has much to offer as the oldest city in West Virginia. This wonderful historic gem embodies all the best traits of the small-town South: a warm and welcoming community, a dynamic downtown and the beautiful surrounding scenery of the Appalachian Mountains.
“We are a 21st-century town in 18th-century clothes,” said Marianne Davis, director of the Shepherdstown Visitors Center. “The whole town is part of the National Registry for Historic Places, so we’re very fierce about historic preservation.”
There are no chain stores or traffic lights in historic Shepherdstown. In the heart of town, visitors will discover a colorful selection of gift shops and specialty stores along German Street, with original brands such as the Tonic Herb Shop, Grapes and Grains Gourmet, German Street Chandlery and Coffee, and O’Hurley’s General Store. Other cultural highlights include six art galleries, the Shepherdstown Museum and the Two Rivers Chamber Orchestra, one of only three professional classical music orchestras in the state.
To learn more about the local lore and landmarks, some groups might show interest in scheduling a tour with Shepherdstown Mystery Walks, a candlelit walking tour of Shepherdstown’s most mysterious and historic locations. A newer company called Shepherdstown Ghost Tours offers a similar excursion with more emphasis on local tales of murders, strange deaths and other unusual occurrences.
Shepherdstown also provides a great base for pursuing outdoor recreation in the surrounding area. Visitors can rent bikes, kayaks or canoes from Shepherdstown Pedal and Paddle in downtown to paddle down the Potomac River or to ride along the scenic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. Groups can also bike from the city to Antietam National Battlefield, site of the bloodiest day in American history.
“We like to let Shepherdstown surprise our visitors,” said Davis. “People love the fresh air, the friendly people, the variety of things to eat and places to shop, hike, bike or fish. They’re amazed we haven’t destroyed it all and put up shopping malls.”
The beautiful downtown of Laurel, Mississippi, has experienced unprecedented revitalization over the past 10 years, with enterprising millennials who grew up in the area beginning to open new restaurants, boutiques and businesses, transforming the town center into a thriving tourist destination.
Standing at the forefront of this movement are Ben and Erin Napier, a young couple who brought national attention to the small Southern town through their hit HGTV show “Home Town.” Now entering its third season, the show follows the Napiers throughout their beloved hometown as they renovate historic homes for first-time buyers and families.
Visitors can take a driving tour of Laurel to see some of these wonderfully restored homes up close, as well as stop by the Napiers’ two downtown shops, the Laurel Mercantile and the General Store. A few other signature venues in downtown are the Slowboat Brewing Company; the Knight Butcher, a local butcher shop; Adam Trest Home, a popular home decor and design shop; and the historic Lott Furniture Shop.
Those who enjoy the arts will appreciate a visit to the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, which opened in 1923 as Mississippi’s first art museum. The museum houses an excellent collection of American art, European art and Japanese woodblock prints, with featured works from esteemed artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Jean-François Millet.
Throughout the year, the city hosts a variety of vibrant cultural festivals and events in downtown, including an annual music festival called Laurelpalooza; the Loblolly Festival, which celebrates Laurel’s heritage as a sawmill town; and community cook-offs like the Crawfish Cook-Off and Laurel Main Street’s Chili Cook-Off.
Bordering the deep blue waters of Mobile Bay, the small town of Fairhope, Alabama, is known for its charming city parks, eclectic downtown shopping and sweeping views of the Gulf Coast.
Travelers can begin their visit with a trip to the city’s cultural center at Fairhope Municipal Pier, a bayfront property that encompasses a quarter-mile pier, a beautiful rose garden and fountain, a large sandy beach, covered picnic areas and several beachfront restaurants. The pier and beach mark the beginning of the Eastern Shore Mobile Bay Loop of the Coastal Birding Trail, which extends more than 200 miles through six distinct birding regions in Alabama.
Within a short distance of the pier, visitors can stroll through the lovely cobblestone courtyard of Fairhope’s French Quarter, where they can grab a hot, fresh beignet from Panini Pete’s or sample artisan chocolates at FMC Chocolates and Confectionaries.
Groups will stumble across many other quaint specialty shops as they wander through town, with popular stops such as the Happy Olive, an olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop; Paige and Palette, a third-generation family-owned independent bookstore; and Christmas Around the Corner, a Christmas-themed shop that remains open 365 days a year.
Fairhope also harbors a thriving arts community. Each March, the prestigious Fairhope Arts and Crafts Festival draws thousands of people from across the Southeast to enjoy live music, tasty Gulf Coast cuisine and more than 230 exhibitors in downtown.
“It’s a great way for people who are traveling to be exposed to a lot of local art that you may not be able to experience in other places,” said Liz Thompson, director of tourism and special events at the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce.
Since the early 1900s, Blowing Rock, North Carolina, has served as a popular mountain retreat for families traveling from the Charlotte and Raleigh areas. The town is situated right along the famous 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, providing the perfect home base for outdoors enthusiasts as they hike and enjoy other recreational activities in the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. This section of the route winds past landmarks such as Julian Price Memorial Park, a 4,200-acre heritage site at the foot of Grandfather Mountain, as well as Tweetsie Railroad, a Wild West-themed amusement park.
In Blowing Rock, travel groups will feel right at home as they explore the walkable town center, visiting unique and quirky stops like the century-old Hanna’s Oriental Rugs and Gifts, Neaco’s Hip Home Décor and the town’s original 1800s-era post office. The city is also home to more than 30 restaurants within a three-mile radius, making it easy for groups to split up and pick their dining venue of choice.
“It’s great to be able to spend time in a small, friendly town where you can park your car once and walk to everything,” said Amanda Lugenbell, assistant director of the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority.
Travelers can relish the local scenery from town as well. In the center of town in Annie Cannon Gardens, just a block from Main Street, the 1.2-mile Glen Burney Trail travels 800 feet down into John’s River Gorge past several stunning waterfalls. Other major attractions in town include Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, a lavish country estate and Neocolonial manor; Mystery Hill, an interactive history and science museum; and the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum.
“The art and history museum is one of our hidden gems,” said Lugenbell.
Historic Brattonsville is a 775-acre Revolutionary War site and living-history attraction in McConnells, South Carolina, where visitors can interact with costumed interpreters, engage in traditional 18th-century activities and learn about the region’s fascinating history.
Originally home to Brattonsville Plantation, the property was owned and occupied by three generations of the Bratton family. It was also the site of the 1780 Battle of Huck’s Defeat, one of the first significant Colonial victories over the British during the American Revolution. Today, there are more than 30 historic structures still standing on the grounds, including the 1700s-era Colonel William Bratton House, Hightower Hall, the family homestead and an outbuilding believed to be used for storing dairy products. Several re-created structures have been added to complete the experience, such as a replica slave cabin and kitchen.
“It can be very moving for visitors to walk inside the slave quarters and learn about the things that happened there,” said Kevin Lynch, site manager at Historic Brattonsville. “You don’t get the chance to experience that many other places.”
Throughout the year, groups can take advantage of interactive, family programming such as Sheep-Shearing Family Day in May and a reenactment of the Battle of Huck’s Defeat in July. In September, the museum partners with local descendants of former plantation slaves to produce an annual event called “By the Sweat of Our Brows,” a powerful program that highlights early African-American social traditions, music and art. During the first and second weekends of December, the Christmas Candlelight Tour showcases the historic Christmas traditions of the Carolinas through festivities and hands-on activities.
Just 35 minutes north of Tallahassee, Florida, Georgia’s Thomasville epitomizes small-town appeal with a romantic aesthetic of wrought-iron benches, vibrant flowerbeds, family-owned shops and artisan eateries.
“We’re very lucky to be such a small town in rural southern Georgia, yet we have a very active cultural and artistic community, and our downtown is absolutely thrilling,” said Bonnie Hayes, tourism director at the Thomasville Visitors Center.
Thomasville’s charming downtown is the city’s No. 1 attraction, drawing visitors from all over the state to shop and dine. The city center comprises more than 100 independent shops and boutiques, some in buildings dating back to the turn of the 20th century. Visitors can sample specialty cheeses in the award-winning Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop or browse through fine leather handbags, belts and other home goods in South Life Supply Company, which custom designs leather goods for big-name clients.
“We have to keep a waiting list of people wanting to open shops in downtown,” said Hayes. “We have very few empty shops, and they’re never available for more than a month.”
Thomasville’s downtown has also become known as a popular foodie destination, showcasing reputable venues like Jonah’s Fish and Grits, George and Louie’s Seafood Restaurant, and Sass Sweet and Savory Sisters.
Visitors also enjoy visiting some of the city’s beautiful antebellum and Victorian homes. On weekends, groups can tour the Lapham-Patterson House, one of the most unusual specimens of Victorian architecture in the nation.