Musical instruments, cookware, leather goods, paintings — there’s just something special about handmade objects.
Products of a region’s culture and creativity are more than mere souvenirs. They’re a tangible, one-of-a-kind reflection of both the place and the person who created them.
Whether purchasing for yourself or as a gift, handmade products are also likely to be crafted with pride and of higher quality both in workmanship and materials. Many crafts are also examples of arts and techniques that are otherwise in danger of being lost to mass production. And purchasing directly from makers supports their livelihood as artists.
Here are some can’t-miss Southern destinations where your groups can meet artisans and bring home meaningful mementos.
Kentucky Artisan Center
Berea College was founded by abolitionists in 1855 to serve needy students from the Appalachian Mountains. The city of Berea is now Kentucky’s Folk Arts and Crafts Capital, supporting and showcasing the work of artists who call Kentucky “home.” This arts heritage — including traditional crafts like wood turning, broom-making and ironwork — is celebrated at the Kentucky Artisan Center, where creations from artists throughout the Bluegrass State are on display and available for purchase.
“We are Kentucky’s largest retailer of Kentucky-made fine art and craft,” said the center’s executive director, Todd Finley. “We have over 850 Kentucky artisans who make a variety of products, from hand-blown glass to handcrafted wood items. We have blacksmiths, all kinds of metal workers, jewelers, lots of craftsmen in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and they are spread across Kentucky’s entire 120 counties. And we’re happy to put that artwork in front of about 300,000 visitors every year.”
The center has 14 motorcoach parking spots and can accommodate several hundred visitors at once. The Artisan Cafe serves breakfast and lunch, including homemade ice cream. Downtown Berea also boasts a walkable old town arts district with numerous galleries, studios, restaurants and boutiques. In College Square, crafts created by Berea College students are also for sale, and a stroll through the sculpture garden in Fee Glade Park offers a quiet and scenic spot for artistic contemplation.
West Monroe, Louisiana
Nestled on the banks of the Ouachita River and Bayou DeSiard in north Louisiana, the twin cities of Monroe-West Monroe ooze Delta charm and hospitality, making for a picture-perfect Southern getaway. While the surrounding hardwood forests and marshes are known for duck hunting, the beautifully restored storefronts of West Monroe’s historic downtown, which includes Antique Alley, provide some of the best treasure hunting in the South.
“Antique Alley is located in the historic district of downtown West Monroe, and we’re also a cultural district,” said Karen Laban, president of the Antique Alley Merchants Association. “We have more than 80 different businesses with antique stores, boutiques and specialty shops, and restaurants. We also do downtown gallery crawls and special events. We’re happy to accommodate groups and work with the convention and visitors bureau to be able to plan the best experience.”
Don’t miss the eclectic original art and garden at Courtyard on Cotton (which also has an event space for groups). Travelers can pick up locally made lotions, potions, and goats’ milk soaps while browsing Antiques and Treasures Galore, which also has a lovely assortment of artisanal wooden housewares, including charcuterie boards. And pie, divinity and other treats — plus excellent coffee — can be found at Sweet Loves Bakery.
Go on a Heron Hunt: Local artists have created 100 heron sculptures that are positioned throughout Ouachita Parish. Heron hunting works up an appetite, and the Delta is known for its catfish. Try the Catfish DeSiard at The Waterfront Grill, which can accommodate up to 50 in its private dining room. Served on a bed of shrimp, this delicious dish features a grilled catfish filet topped with seasoned breadcrumbs, mushrooms, green onions and a crispy layer of parmesan cheese.
Lodge Museum of Cast Iron
You may already have one or more of their wares in your kitchen, but the Lodge Museum of Cast Iron in South Pittsburg is a must-see on any tour of Tennessee. Opened in 2022, the new museum has rapidly become a destination for cast iron aficionados and lovers of history, food and culture. Visitors can learn how cast iron has been made by the Lodge family since 1896 and explore interactive displays created in partnership with the Southern Foodways Alliance on the culture and versatility of cast iron and Southern food.
Vistors can also walk through the foundry process and experience what it’s like to make cast iron — including the chance to operate an electromagnet that collects the ingredients needed to make a skillet.
“We have a store in with the museum,” said Angela Stephens, who helps manage the museum. “You can do the store first, but the museum starts off with how it’s made. It shows you the process of what goes in the skillets, how they’re made and how they’re pressed together for their designs, and the heating and the seasoning. There’s an area with our founder Joseph Lodge’s history and his journey to Tennessee. We also have a kiosk where people can pick out what recipes they might want, and we’ll send them by email.”
Of course, the real draws are the giant skillets. Groups can take pictures with the World’s Largest Cast Iron Skillet, which measures more than 18 feet from handle to handle, weighs 14,360 pounds and can reputedly handle 650 eggs. Then they can enjoy breakfast at the Big Bad Breakfast Cafe.
North Carolina Pottery Center
Seagrove, North Carolina
Dig into North Carolina, and you will find clay. And nestled in the countryside, one of the largest concentrations of working potters in the country are working that clay into beautiful pieces of decorative and functional art. The quaint coastal town of Seagrove is located in the southeastern part of the state, between New Bern and Wilmington, and is home to the North Carolina Pottery Center.
“Our mission here is sharing North Carolina’s clay stories past and present,” said executive director Lindsey Lambert. “We do that so that folks will have a greater understanding and appreciation of the history, heritage and ongoing tradition of pottery-making in North Carolina. That’s really important, because we have hundreds of potters spread across the state. So we try to educate people about them and get them pointed in the direction of those potters; in particular, the local Seagrove area. There are more than 50 different pottery shops and over 100 different potters. We’re one of the highest concentrations of potters in the United States, outside of perhaps the Navajo nation.”
In addition to information on the art and gorgeous items for sale, the center does a series of rotating exhibits, including a recent one on the wood-fired potters of the state. (Wood-firing is among the most revered and evocative of all pottery traditions.) There are also classes, workshops and lectures on this unique and precious tradition.
In the area surrounding the “Handmade Pottery Capital of the United States,” visitors will find vineyards, breweries, cozy inns, museums and, of course, pottery.
Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi
“Makers with a mission” is the motto of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting excellence in regional crafts. The guild has two retail galleries and offers a number of classes taught by master crafters, along with a children’s summer camp that promotes the creative arts.
“The craftsmen’s guild has been creating handmade crafts for 50 years as of November,” said executive director Betsy Ross. “We have over 260 participating craftsmen currently who are members of the guild, all of whom make their own crafts. This year we welcome back our magnolia woodturners along with blacksmiths of the Mississippi Forge Council. Potters, weavers — all those folks are making handmade crafts this year.”
Nestled off the lovely Natchez Trace Parkway, the 20,000-square-foot Bill Waller Craft Center in Ridgeland features a spacious retail gallery and welcomes groups of all sizes. A satellite gallery is located at the Outlets of Mississippi in Pearl, just across the Pearl River from Jackson, the state capital. Shoppers will find everything from traditional crafts like hand-pieced quilts and Choctaw baskets to modern offerings such as fused glass, jewelry and metal sculptures.
For a taste of the classic riverboat era, groups will enjoy a meal at Cock of the Walk, overlooking the 33,000-acre Barnett Reservoir, a recreational haven for kayaking, fishing, paddleboarding and sailing.
Arkansas Craft Guild and Gallery
Mountain View, Arkansas
The historic town of Mountain View is known as the Folk Music Capital of the World, and its vibrant arts scene is just as renowned. Nestled in the rugged Ozark Mountains and surrounded by rivers, the scenic city is approximately a two-hour drive from Little Rock.
The state’s largest craft cooperative, the Arkansas Craft Guild, is headquartered on Main Street in the historic downtown. Originally founded as the Ozark Foothills Handicraft Guild, the guild’s aim was to provide income in the economically depressed mountain region.
“We work on a consignment basis here at the gallery,” said secretary-treasurer Sue Lukens. “And we probably have about 90 of our members who have work in here. It has to be made in Arkansas and has to be original and handmade. So we have pottery and jewelry and lots of wood and art, not just crafts.”
Mountain View and the surrounding area offers stunning scenery and a plethora of outdoor recreational opportunities. Groups will love the traditional fare and atmosphere at the Skillet Restaurant at the Ozark Folk Center State Park, where large windows in the glass-enclosed, natural cedar and stone dining room overlook a butterfly garden, wildlife feeding stations and a water garden, where visitors may spot birds, raccoons, foxes or even a bear.