A history lesson from a foul-mouthed pirate is never dull, which is one of the many reasons it’s important to select the right city tours when building a travel itinerary.
Sightseeing tours can incorporate many of an area’s must-see attractions, historical sites and exceptional cuisine, delivered in well-organized and entertaining packages. However, some tours are more memorable than others.
From riding in party buses to squad cars, an unconventional tour of a town can help groups build the travel experience of a lifetime. These tours capture the souls of their cities with lively characters and charming themes that showcase each downtown’s individual spirit.
Whether they’re exploring a new city or rediscovering an old favorite, groups will enjoy fresh and charismatic perspectives on downtown tours of these Southeastern cities.
Eat, Drink and Ride with Comedienne Joy
One of the best ways to learn about a city is to become acquainted with its cuisine. In Birmingham, affectionately nicknamed “the Dinner Table of the South,” the food and beverage scene is famous for its barbecue and Southern influences. It also boasts lively music and nightlife, which makes it a great city for groups looking for both food and fun.
Joy King, also known as “Comedienne Joy” and “the Queen of Clean Comedy,” is no stranger to Birmingham’s cuisine. Her television show “Dining Out with Comedienne Joy” encouraged viewers to eat at delicious local restaurants. Now, groups can eat like King and tour Birmingham, which has a culinary scene as rich and varied as its history, with the Eat, Drink and Ride with Comedienne Joy tours.
“If you want to eat like a local, some great delicious food from places you didn’t know existed, you need to come on this tour,” said King, who has been giving these tours for five years.
Tours take place on a luxurious party bus that travels from one side of Birmingham to another, with King or another knowledgeable — and hilarious — guide keeping guests entertained while they’re shown around town. Groups of 10 to 17 will make four or five stops at local restaurants to sample their small plates and adult beverages. From hidden gems to town favorites, the restaurants along the route are sure to delight and surprise even long-term residents of Birmingham. Food is ready to be enjoyed when groups arrive at each stop.
“You get the VIP service when you come on the tour,” said King. “You don’t have to worry about ordering off the menu because these are my favorite dishes.”
Hot Springs Walking Tours
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Appropriately named for its naturally occurring thermal springs, Hot Springs, Arkansas, is a town in the Ouachita Mountains whose historic downtown is uniquely preserved as Hot Springs National Park. The famed springs that earned the town its name have also given it a reputation for their health benefits and relaxing scenery. Many of the town’s visitors come to see the hot springs and visit its plentiful bathhouses for their therapeutic qualities. One of the most famous ways to explore this city’s history and its beautiful natural environment is with the Hot Springs Walking Tours, given by the national park’s very own troop of park rangers. While ranger-led tours are a constant in any national park, Hot Springs tours may look a little different because they focus on the downtown area as well as the surrounding park.
“We really want people to have a chance to learn about Hot Springs within the resource itself — the bathhouse buildings, the thermal springs, the hillside itself with its rock formations,” said Cane West, park ranger at Hot Springs National Park, who added that the tours present visitors with a “combination of history and geology and biology and the theme of public health.”
These 45-minute walking tours allow visitors to explore the downtown area and ask rangers questions in real time, whether they’re curious to know about the 10,000-year history of people occupying the area or the 4,000-year history of the thermal waters in the springs. From the 143-degree springs to the town’s museums and cultural centers, groups can see and learn about all that makes this breathtaking mountain town unique.
Pirates of the Quarter
New Orleans is a city of magic and intrigue, known for its vibrant mix of cultures and its exciting nightlife. Shaped heavily by French, Spanish and Creole influences, New Orleans’ music, architecture and cuisine make the city one of the most distinctive and exciting destinations in the Southeast. It’s home to many mystical legends and traditions, from the ghosts that allegedly haunt its above-ground cemeteries to its prominent voodoo practices.
One part of the city’s history that may seem more legendary than factual is the presence of pirates in the city during the early 1800s. To hear the tales of the real pirates that once inhabited the city and their exploits, and to explore the popular attractions of the French Quarter with fresh perspective, guests can take a Pirates of the Quarter tour.
Founded six years ago by a duo known only by their pirate titles, the Captain and the Quartermaster, tours are given by guides clad in traditional pirate attire. The walking tour allows groups of up to 15 to explore a one-mile stretch of the French Quarter, with many stops at historic sites.
“A lot of people have the idea of one thing when they sign up for this tour. They think it’s going to be just movie pirates. We are going to dispel a lot of myths people think are true about pirates,” said the Captain, adding that the tour “intertwines a lot of significant events with real pirate history.”
From pirate involvement in the New Orleans economy to their significance in the War of 1812, there are plenty of tales to be told on the tour. Pirates of the Quarter also offers a pub crawl for an after-hours experience that explores the darker and more raucous side of the area’s pirate history.
Squad Car Tours
Mount Airy, North Carolina
One of the most beloved sitcoms of the 20th century, “The Andy Griffith Show,” took place in the small, fictional town of Mayberry. People grew to love the quaint town and its quirky characters, which are said to be based on Mount Airy, North Carolina, where Andy Griffith grew up. Mount Airy has embraced the fictional Mayberry and become a hub for all things related to the series and even adopted replica businesses and landmarks from the show, such as Wally’s Fillin’ Station and a replica Mayberry courthouse. But one of the area’s best known Mayberry-related activities is the Mayberry Squad Car Tours, which give visitors the opportunity to tour the town from a vintage Ford Galaxy painted to resemble Sheriff Andy Taylor’s squad car.
“We were starting to see some tour buses coming to town, so I came up with the idea of making a replica of a squad car to drive people around,” said Mike Cockerham, a long-time car enthusiast who personally restored the first replica squad car and began giving tours.
Now, two decades later, the fleet has grown to include seven cars, all Ford Galaxies from the 1960s. Up to five people can ride in each car for an interesting introduction to Mount Airy and an exploration of the town’s connections to the Andy Griffith Show. Tours begin at Wally’s Fillin’ Station, where groups can explore the service station and the adjacent model courthouse. Then, visitors are driven down Main Street for a tour of the town where Griffith himself once lived. The tours also showcase some of its other notable features, such as the Mount Airy Granite Quarry, the largest open-faced granite quarry in the world. Still, it’s the connection to the beloved Mayberry that gives Mount Airy its claim to fame and its charm.
“You can’t hop in a Mayberry squad car and ride around anywhere but here in Mayberry,” said Cockerham.
One of Tennessee’s two music cities, Memphis is known for its role in shaping blues music. Early rock ’n’ roll is rumored to have gotten its start in the city too, as did musicians such as Elvis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis. Downtown is dotted with famous music studios, concert venues and musical hubs.
Headquartered on the famed Beale Street, Backbeat Tours provides both walking and bus tours that explore the city’s history and contributions to music. It was founded in 2006 by Bill Patton, who wanted to use musicians to explore the city’s history and bridge the gap between the music of the 1950s and ’60s to the music of today.
The company’s signature tour, the Mojo Tour, was designed to do just that. Patton created this 90-minute bus tour to allow guests to learn about music history in Memphis from actual musicians, with many opportunities to hear live music along the way.
“His idea behind that was instead of just driving around and telling visitors to Memphis the history of its music, why not let its musicians do it, because they’re the ones entrenched in it every day,” said Meagan May, vice president and group sales and event coordinator for Backbeat Tours.
Prominent stops on the tour include Sun Studios, where musical legends got their start in the recording studio. Groups can get off the bus to get a close-up look at the Overton Park Shell, another Memphis staple and historical site, where Elvis performed his first concert. Backbeat Tours also offers other historical walking tours, ghost tours and musician-themed tours, each of which offers fresh perspectives on this delightful musical city.
Hatfield and McCoy Airboat Tours
Matewan, West Virginia
Few stories have captivated the public and inspired their imaginations as much as the Hatfield and McCoy feud. This decades-long dispute between two families on either side of the Tug Fork River has been explored in countless books, documentaries and even an acclaimed miniseries. Today, the small communities in both states bordering the river claim this long and bloody feud, and the legends that go with it, as important parts of their histories.
Matewan, a West Virginia mining town with a population of about 500, was founded years after the height of the feud. It’s geographically close to where much of the fighting between the families took place, which has brought an increase in tourist traffic in recent years. While exploring Matewan’s tiny downtown doesn’t take long, one of the best ways to discover the area and its ties to the legendary feud is with Hatfield and McCoy Airboat Tours.
“A lot of people started coming to Matewan, but there wasn’t a lot to do in Matewan when they did get here,” said Keith Gibson, the creator of the Hatfield and McCoy Airboat Tours. “I bought an airboat, and that’s been 10 years ago now.”
For a decade, Gibson has been taking people out on the river to see the sights and sounds of the beautiful Appalachian Mountains, combining the experience of riding on an airboat with the area’s rich history. Exploring the river by airboat is best because it has no problems riding through the river’s shallowest and rockiest regions, where a motor would be unable to go.
The airboat can accommodate groups of up to six at a time. During the tours, Gibson gives a history of the area and points out wildlife, such as bald eagles, heron, deer, river otters and the occasional bear. Prominent sites from the feud itself, such as the cabin where Roseanna McCoy lived after her ill-fated affair with Johnse Hatfield, can be found along the river and are included in the tour.