Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Enduring Favorites in the South

Tourism in the South has exploded in the past five decades. But some of the region’s most iconic attractions have been open for 50 years or longer and have become essential elements of the Southern travel experience.

In Virginia, George Washington’s Mount Vernon has been offering public tours for 155 years, longer than most of the West has been part of the Union. The Vulcan statue has been a fixture of Birmingham, Alabama, for more than 100 years, and Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial has honored World War I service members since 1926.

Carving began at Stone Mountain near Atlanta in 1923, the first visitors saw Chattanooga’s Ruby Falls in 1929, and Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls was among the first sites enshrined in the state park system when it opened in 1924.


George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon, Virginia

Walking through George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, there are a few sights that seem to strike visitors. They’re in awe when they see the bedroom where the first president died in 1799. They’re amazed by the key to the Bastille that hangs in the main hallway. And they’re often struck by the bright wall colors: turquoise in the West Parlor, sea foam in the New Room, emerald green in the small dining room.

“Some of it was the more fashionable colors of the time, but he also thought green aided digestion,” said Melissa Wood, director of media relations at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon has welcomed more than 100 million visitors since it opened for public tours in 1860. The estate stayed in the family for 50 years after Martha Washington died in 1802, but the family couldn’t maintain the property. By the 1850s, Washington’s mansion was beginning to crumble. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association was founded in 1853 to save the estate, which the family sold to the association in 1858.

“The mansion is the crown jewel of the estate,” Wood said. “No one should leave here without seeing the mansion.”

In 1735, Washington’s father built a farmhouse on a hill overlooking the banks of the Potomac River, but Washington began renovating and adding to it after he acquired the house in 1754.

In addition to Washington’s mansion and extensive gardens, visitors can also tour the gristmill, the whiskey distillery and several outbuildings, including the greenhouse, the blacksmith shop and the slave quarters. Visitors can also see the original tomb where Washington was buried and the new tomb to which his body was relocated in 1831.

In fall 2006, the association opened the Mount Vernon Museum and Education Center, which features 23 galleries and theaters, all constructed underground to preserve the estate’s historic integrity and visual appeal. The addition of the center allowed the association to expand its exhibits and display an additional 700 artifacts.


Vulcan Park and Museum

Birmingham, Alabama

He’s an icon of Birmingham, but the enormous statue of Vulcan — the Roman god of fire and forging — hasn’t always been treated right by his hometown.

He’s been abandoned by the railroad tracks and reassembled incorrectly, filled with concrete, and forced to hold ice cream and pickles for advertising purposes. But a five-year, $15.5 million restoration of the statue and renovation of his pedestal and park in the early 2000s finally gave Vulcan his due and ensured his future.

“The community really rallied to make sure he came back looking the best he can,” said Vulcan Park and Museum president and CEO Darlene Negrotto. “He’s been around 110 years — that’s four generations — and with this restoration, he’s going to be around for many generations to come.”

Vulcan was created as a way to honor Birmingham’s iron industry for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Sculptor Giuseppe Moretti began work on the project in 1903, and Birmingham ironworkers cast the 27 hollow pieces that make up the 56-foot-tall statue. Vulcan’s foot alone is more than 10 feet tall and weighs more than 6 tons.

After Vulcan spent 30 years assembled incorrectly at the Alabama State Fairgrounds, in the mid-1930s, civic leaders built a park on top of Red Mountain and placed him atop a 124-foot octagonal tower. That’s when he was filled with concrete up to his chest in order to secure him on his perch.

That concrete is what eventually damaged the statue so severely that it became a safety hazard. In 1999, the park was closed to the public, and Vulcan was removed from his pedestal. A capital campaign raised more than $15 million to restore the cast-iron colossus as well as the tower and the surrounding park, which had received a “modern” makeover in the late 1960s.

In 2003, Vulcan was reinstalled on the tower, which has a viewing platform; and in 2004, 100 years after Vulcan’s debut, the park reopened to the public.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.