What’s a better way to enjoy the culture, cuisine and music of the South than celebrating it with 10,000 of your closest friends?
From the Gulf Coast to the Appalachian Mountains, Southern communities know how to party. Every year brings carnivals, music, food, art and Christmas festivals across the Southeast. There is something for everyone, and many events are worth traveling to attend.
The following six Southeastern events are ideal for groups wanting to immerse themselves in regional culture. From an intimate music festival in the Ozark mountains to a fried chicken festival in Kentucky, there is a lot to do, eat and experience at these festivals.
The National Shrimp Festival
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Alabama’s National Shrimp Festival will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. The four-day festival will be held October 12–15 on the beaches of coastal Alabama. It’s the place to be for seafood, art and music lovers. The programming continues growing each year with live music, a sand sculpture contest, a children’s activity village, a 10K and 5K run, and the Miss Shrimp Festival pageant.
At the festival, visitors find shrimp prepared in nearly endless ways alongside other seafood like crab, and nonseafood delights. The entertainment is spread across two stages and various genres like country, jazz, rock and more. For art enthusiasts, there are paintings, jewelry and artisan-made crafts to enjoy. But according to Steve Jones of the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber, one of the unique parts of the festival is it’s entirely volunteer run by passionate locals and visitors alike.
Three hundred thousand people typically attend the festival, so planning at least six months ahead of the event is crucial. The festival team makes getting to the event smoother and more accessible for groups by organizing local shuttle services to and from the event to reduce crowded parking.
Carnival started in the beautiful country of Trinidad and Tobago, but today iterations are celebrated all over the world, including in Miami every October. Miami Carnival is the largest Carnival in North America. Each festival season is packed with events from a steel-band competition to Parade of the Bands, featuring more than 18,000 masqueraders dressed in colorful beaded and feathered costumes and over 20 masquerade bands.
At Miami Carnival, travelers can also enjoy the unique Carnival Village, a mashup of food and drink options with more than 50 vendors and food from across the many Caribbean countries, from Jamaica to the Bahamas. For an added cultural flair, distillery and brewery representatives will be on-site serving the best rums, beers and spirits from across the islands.
John Beckford, chief marketing officer, recommends groups block out hotel rooms and car rentals well in advance because there’s an acute shortage.
The Miami region has more than 40 miles of beaches and year-round warm weather, which makes the festival’s early fall date attractive to travelers coming from the colder Northeastern states.
World Chicken Festival
London, Kentucky, loves fried chicken. The area is home to Colonel Sanders’ original Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, established in the 1940s. Today, the annual World Chicken Festival continues the tradition honoring the beloved crispy finger food. For three decades, it’s been one of Kentucky’s largest festivals, taking place annually during the last full weekend of September.
Over 170 vendors spread out over downtown London, and multiple music stages feature free concerts from regional and national artists. Entertainment line-ups are usually announced in the spring.
Kelly Burton, executive director at London Laurel County Tourist Commission, said the event is run to benefit local nonprofits.
“The one thing that makes it different from any other festival is that all these food vendors on Main Street have to be associated with a nonprofit organization,” she said. The vendors’ relationships with nonprofits significantly impact the organizations’ fundraising efforts.
Of course, there’s a lot of fried chicken to be tasted at the festival, and one of the features of the celebration is the World’s Largest Stainless Steel Skillet, which weighs 700 pounds. Dozens of volunteer cooks stand around the piping hot cauldron frying birds for festivalgoers, having served over 120,000 chicken dinners since the festival’s 1992 start.
The festival is digitally enhanced this year with a QR code and scannable map that allow travelers to have the festival layout at their fingertips.
Charleston, West Virginia
FestivALL is a three-day, citywide, multiarts festival each June in Charleston, West Virginia. It features music, dance, theater and visual art from local, national and international artists, and it attracts about 30,000 attendees annually. Exhibitions, installations and performances happen across various city galleries, theaters and outdoor venues. There’s so much to be explored and experienced as the Appalachian city becomes one extensive work of art itself.
The festival’s main events range from a Carriage Trail to the Porch Parade, a popular pandemic-era adaptation to the festival’s programming that utilizes locals’ front yards for art installations. But the festival is also going back to its pre-COVID-19 roots, with a large, ticketed concert, parades and community arts projects.
Surrounding the festival are various outdoor activities like hiking and river rafting.
“It’s the best of both worlds here,” said Mackenzie Spencer, FestivALL executive director. “Get off the grid and take part in all of the outdoor activities. But then at the end of the day, you can come downtown, see a show, support local music and artists, and really be immersed in the culture.”
Beyond the festival’s season, FestivALL is an arts organization supporting Charleston with year-round arts programming and events. As the cooler months roll around, FestivALL transforms into FestivFALL, an October event with even more art experiences happening over 10 days.
Natchitoches Christmas Festival
It’s been nearly 100 years since this holiday tradition began in Natchitoches, a town in north-central Louisiana. The event started with a display of 10-watt Christmas tree bulbs strung along Front Street. It’s now a six-week Christmas celebration from late November through early January. The Natchitoches Christmas Festival features over 300,000 colored lights covering the city, a firework show and live entertainment on the riverbank stage.
Food vendors at the festival sell all kinds of bites, from the usual cotton candy and funnel cakes to burgers and alligator. But the most sought-after food at Natchitoches Christmas Festival is the meat pie, a famous cultural delight of the region that’s reminiscent of an empanada. It’s made with ground beef, pork, onions and peppers stuffed in a flaky pastry turnover.
Unique attractions like Mistletoe Market, an annual arts and crafts market, make this celebration memorable. The lineup of events includes the Festival of Lights Parade, a lighted boat parade, a 5K run and cookies with Santa. For an enchanting experience, groups can travel on a Christmas-themed road trip along Louisiana’s Holiday Trail of Lights across 10 regional festivities cities, including Shreveport-Bossier, Minden, Monroe-West Monroe, Alexandria/Pineville, Ruston and Logansport.
Ozark Mountain Music Festival
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Tucked away in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the Ozark Mountains Music Festival, also known as OzMoMu, is an annual four-day annual taking place each January and featuring 20 acts. The festivals’ sounds are a fusion of Bluegrass, folk, urban and American roots music. And because it happens on a crisp January weekend, the festival takes over the entire Basin Park Hotel, bringing the vibe of an outdoor festival inside.
The 1905-era hotel hosts multiple festival stages in the heart of its downtown entertainment district location, allowing for popular events like Late Night Jams to be held in a nearby local cafe, Chelsea’s. The festival is unique because there are no backstage or private areas for the artists. Instead, bands and festivalgoers share the same space, experiencing the concert together. Music lovers enjoy hanging out personally with artists for an experience unlike any other festival.
Beyond the mean stage performances, there are listening rooms where feature artists can share their music and personal stories with attendees.