If these walls could talk, they’d have centuries of stories to tell.
From relics dating back to America’s colonization to modern-day medieval castles, the architectural wonders of America’s South are more than just ornate and interesting buildings; they represent the intersection of history and aesthetics. They capture important moments in time and demonstrate what their designers and craftsmen were capable of, and visitors won’t need to be architecture aficionados to appreciate their beauty.
In addition to admiring their exteriors, groups can tour these impressive structures to gain a greater appreciation for their history, design and the cities they’re part of, which makes them an excellent stop on any journey through the South.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
St. Augustine, Florida
The seat of the oldest parish in the United States and the oldest Catholic church in the city, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine is a historic church in the city of St. Augustine, Florida. The first Catholic mass was held during 1565, upon the city’s founding, and is thought to be the first mass held in North America.
The cathedral basilica’s current structure isn’t quite that old. The original structure was complete in 1797, and its two-foot-thick walls were made of coquina, a type of rock derived from seashells. This material saved some of the building’s structure when a fire broke out in the late 1800s. The church was rebuilt in an eclectic mix of styles; the curved gables and clay roof are evidence of the Spanish-mission style, while the entrance is adorned with neoclassical elements, and the addition of a Spanish-Renaissance bell tower introduces a European touch. Inside, the cathedral basilica is intricately detailed. Gilded statues, murals, stained-glass windows, exposed beams and painted ceilings wait to awe visitors and parishioners alike.
“It includes so much of the history of St. Augustine,” said Michelle Reyna, tour guide at the cathedral basilica. “Even the murals tell the story.”
To learn more about the journey of this church, from its origins as a modest parish church to its designation as a cathedral and later to a basilica, groups can take behind-the-scenes tours, which are offered daily during the week. From the choir loft to the sacristy to the chapel, a guide will walk the group through the building’s history and its significance to the parish of St. Augustine. They may have a chance to see the holy relics that lie in the church, such as the piece of Saint Augustine of Hippo’s finger bone, which dates back to the fifth century.
The last thing a traveler expects to see on a drive through the scenic rolling hills and horse farms of central Kentucky is a medieval European-inspired castle. But it’s no fairy tale — the Kentucky Castle, a stone castle with towers and turrets sits majestically on 53 acres of farmland, backlit by the beauty of the Bluegrass. Inspired by the old castles of Europe, its original owners began construction of this 19,355-square-foot castle in 1969. Construction was halted in 1980, but the castle changed ownership and was eventually rebuilt in 2004 following a fire. Today, the Kentucky Castle is a source of intrigue for those driving by it, but it’s also a must-see attraction for locals and tourists alike.
“We always say first and foremost we’re a working farm,” said Christie Eckerline, chief operating officer at the Kentucky Castle. “Beyond that we’re a hotel, and we have a farm-to-table restaurant.”
Groups can tour the castle and its surrounding farm and gardens to learn about their history and enjoy the Kentucky scenery. Specialty experiences like bourbon-tasting meals, murder-mystery dinners, rooftop yoga and tea are also offered. At the property’s restaurant, Castle Farm, fresh and creative dishes are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner; groups can enjoy elegant meals with a bourbon cocktail for a signature Kentucky dining experience.
A total of 18 overnight accommodations are available on the property, including nine elegantly decorated hotel rooms, four luxurious tower suites on the castle’s outer walls, a glamping tent, a garden cabin, a farmhouse and two tiny homes. A spa is available for guests looking to rejuvenate with massages, skincare treatments and a sauna.
Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park
Ste. Genevieve, Missouri
Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, was a settlement founded by French colonists in 1750 on the banks of the Mississippi River, during a time when land in North America was still divided among French, Spanish and British colonial rule. Due to flooding on the riverbank, the town was forced to move three miles to its current location in 1785. Though technically under Spanish rule, the settlement was heavily influenced by its French origins.
Today, Ste. Genevieve has some of its original buildings, built in one of the rarest architectural styles in the United States. Some of these historic buildings are the Jean Baptiste Vallé House, the Bauvais-Amoureux House and Green Tree Tavern. The tavern, which also served as an inn, was built in 1790 and is the oldest building in Ste. Genevieve. They are vertical log homes, a popular French colonial building style. Of the handful of known poteaux-en-terre, or “post-in-ground,” buildings — where the logs go directly into the earth instead of a stone foundation — three in the United States can be found in Ste. Genevieve.
“For those interested in architecture, Ste. Genevieve is a place to explore traditional French architecture in a way that you can’t anywhere else,” said park rangers at Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park.
To get to know Ste. Genevieve and these historic homes, groups can take ranger-guided tours through the homes. They can peruse the grounds, including the Jean Baptiste Vallé gardens and the trails near the historic town. For a look at French colonial life and history, groups can check out exhibits at the Center for French Colonial Life or the park’s Museum Learning Center.
Charleston, South Carolina
A well-preserved home that was in one family for seven generations has also become a historic landmark and a treasure of Charleston, South Carolina. Drayton Hall, built from 1747-52, was constructed by John Drayton, the member of a prominent Colonial family. Drayton’s wealth stemmed from raising indigo, rice and cattle on multiple slave plantations totaling over 75,000 acres. Drayton Hall, while not a working plantation itself, was the center of Drayton’s business affairs.
The two-story red-brick building on the Ashley River is one of the earliest examples of Palladian architecture in North America. Its symmetrical designs, stately columns and ornately detailed interior can still be seen today, as very few renovations or alterations have been made inside the home. The home has survived the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and several natural disasters such as hurricanes and fires. The property is an active archaeological site containing artifacts ranging from art found within the home to items used by slaves on the property.
Group experiences at Drayton Hall include a guided tour of the home and grounds and a catered lunch. Groups can learn about the history of the house and observe its unique architectural features. The grounds of Drayton Hall contain an African American cemetery, a caretaker’s home, gardens, an education center, an exhibit gallery and a visitor center for groups to learn about the hall’s extensive history and the lives of all those who lived there. While the Drayton family and their lives are explored in depth, the caretaker’s home has been converted to a museum exploring the lives and legacies of the slaves who lived and worked on the property.
The home of any founding father makes a worthy stop on a travel itinerary, but Monticello, home and lifelong project of Thomas Jefferson, is significant for its status as both a historical site and an architectural marvel. The author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, Jefferson was also an inventor, legal scholar, amateur botanist and architect.
What began as a grand house constructed on his father’s 5,000-acre plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia, became a passion for Jefferson, who renovated and modeled it after Italian-Renaissance and neoclassical architecture he saw during his time in Europe. By the time it was completed in 1809, it was one of the most unique and impressive structures in the country, with 35 rooms and an octagonal dome as a centerpiece, the first in the United States.
For all its impressive architecture, the house and its grounds were not just home to Jefferson, and the conflicting ideals present on the land of the man who championed equality and owned nearly 600 slaves in his lifetime leave additional stories to be told.
“What Monticello has done over the past 15 to 20 years has been to really make sure they’re telling a much more complete narrative of what happened on the mountaintop,” said Brantley Ussery, director of marketing and public relations at the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Groups can tour the home and grounds to hear the stories of its residents, see Jefferson’s inventions and belongings, and admire the home’s innovative design. Named for the signature property and inspired by Jefferson’s attempts to grow grapes, the Monticello Wine Trail makes an excellent activity for groups in the area, which will have their pick of 40 wineries to visit. For a satisfying lunch on the road to Monticello, they can stop at Michie Tavern, a buffet-style restaurant set in an 18th century tavern serving old-fashioned Southern classics.
Palace of Gold
Moundsville, West Virginia
Constructed between 1973 and 1979, Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold was intended to be a home for Srila Prabhupada, an Indian guru at the forefront of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), or the Hare Krishna movement. Prabhupada was a Vedic scholar who came to the U.S. in 1965 to spread the ancient religion, a precursor to Hinduism, to the English-speaking world. Prabhupada passed away in 1977, and instead of becoming a home for the guru, the palace became a memorial constructed by his followers.
Though they were amateur craftsmen, Prabhupada’s dedicated followers managed to create one of the most intricate and beautiful religious buildings in the United States. It’s nestled in the serene hillsides near Moundsville, West Virginia. Though it’s a surprising find for a state in the Bible Belt, the palace’s beauty and distinct architecture make “America’s Taj Mahal” a major tourist attraction. Adorned with gold, marble floors, chandeliers, precious stones and stained-glass windows, the palace is a luxurious tribute to Prabhupada and a wonder to behold. It’s set on a 133-acre plot known as New Vrindaban, which features a lodge, picturesque gardens and temples devoted to honoring the Vedic principles of ISKCON.
Visitors of any faith can go to New Vrindaban to tour the Palace of Gold and see its artistry and lush gardens for themselves. Groups can dine at Govinda’s Restaurant, which serves vegetarian fare from traditional Indian dishes to American classics like fries and pizza. The palace lodge offers 70 rooms and 10 cabins for guests of the palace to stay in while they visit.