48 secret destinations in the South to add to your travel list

These hidden gems, undisclosed attractions, and lesser-known events are waiting to be discovered—you just have to know where to look

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The world’s largest fully steerable telescope at the Green Bank Observatory

Photo by Sean Pierce

Deep in the valleys, down bumpy roads, accessible only by boat or request—some of these lesser-known treasures are hard to reach, and that’s part of their charm. Others are hidden in plain sight—you just have to know where to look.

Intriguing Islands
Dip away from the mainstream

Peanut Island | Florida
A band of glittering turquoise water is all that separates this 80-acre county park from the glitzy mansions of Palm Beach, but the laidback, locals-only vibe feels worlds away. Kayak, paddleboard, or take the ferry there (it departs every 20 minutes), then snorkel around man-made reefs at the mouth of the inlet and check out manatees, spotted eagle rays, and parrotfish. With a little exploring on the island’s paths, you can still spy the ironclad entrance to JFK’s fallout shelter for the winter White House (currently being revamped but reopening to the public next year).

Blowing Rocks Preserve, Florida

Photo courtesy of Emergent Media/Visit Florida

Blowing Rocks Preserve | Jupiter Island, Florida
The craggy limestone outcropping of Blowing Rock feels more Hawaii than south Florida. The formation, made up of shell and coral fragments, fossils, and sand—together known as coquina—is shaped by the sea with pools made for treasure hunting. During winter or very high tides, waves can crash through the holes and “chimneys” up to 50 feet high.

Ship Island | Mississippi
Hop on a (seasonal) ferry from Gulfport or Biloxi to this island 11 miles off the coast of Mississippi, part of Gulf Islands National Seashore. Take a ranger-led tour of the beautifully preserved D-shaped Fort Massachusetts, which served as a Civil War prison for Confederate POWs. It was also a base for the U.S. Second Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards, a unit of African American soldiers.

Unlikely Star-Spotting
Stumble into celebrities at these unexpected haunts

Morgan Freeman, Ground Zero Blues Club | Clarksdale, Mississippi
The Birthplace of the Blues has been home to Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, and Ike Turner. Now it’s a part-time residence for actor Morgan Freeman, who owns a 124-acre ranch nearby (which he’s converted largely into a bee sanctuary) and co-owns a divey blues club called Ground Zero (with a second location in Biloxi). He’s been spotted there unannounced, shooting pool and nodding his head to live music.

Judy Blume, Books & Books | Key West, Florida
It sounds like a childhood dream, having beloved author Judy Blume doling out personal book recommendations and guiding you through the shelves. But it might not be your imagination—at this nonprofit bookstore where Blume and her husband are co-owners, she’s been known to discreetly ring up customers.

Bill Murray | Charleston, South Carolina
Reports of the actor’s antics in the Holy City include crashing engagement photos, faux napping with a toddler outside a lunch joint, and smooching the big-screen camera at a RiverDogs game (the Minor League Baseball team he co-owns). He’s also part-owner of hip restaurants Harold’s Cabin, Rutledge Cab Co., and Container Bar, but he’s more likely to be spotted on Sullivan’s Island or favored hangouts Queen Street Grocery and Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer.

Relics of the Sea
Where ghost ships find new life

Illustration by Liz Lovasco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Concrete Fleet at Kiptopeke State Park | Cape Charles, Virginia
Nine of 24 concrete ships commissioned during World War II found their final resting place at the southern tip of the Chesapeake Bay as a storm breakwater. Partially submerged and decaying, rust bleeding from rebars, they also create a hauntingly beautiful memorial and a haven for wildlife. You can view them from the beach, but better yet, rent a kayak at the pier.

Undercover Dining
Seek out these easy-to-miss restaurants

Hawk’s Crawfish Restaurant | Rayne, Louisiana
You’ll swear you’re the only one out there, bumping down rural roads in Cajun country alongside boggy fields thick with crawfish. Then you spy all the cars tucked into the woods by a bright and lively barn. In-the-know diners flock to Hawk’s to taste the results of its two-day crawfish cleaning process that rids the mudbugs of waste and bitter taste. Go ahead, order a 5-pound plate.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner | Marianna, Arkansas
One of the oldest Black-owned businesses in the country, dating to 1910, this little two-table diner was the first restaurant in Arkansas to land a James Beard Award. It serves up just one thing: perfect pulled pork on Wonder Bread with tangy slaw, which is usually sold out by noon. After a fire in 2021, Jones used donations to rebuild only slightly snazzier new digs.

Route 76 Roadhouse Bar & Grill | Clayton, Georgia
Owned by an Elvis impersonator, Mark “Elvis” Eskew, the interiors at this roadside joint are part rock ‘n’ roll, part 1989 Patrick Swayze cult classic. Order a Roadhouse Big E—a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich on Texas toast (Elvis’s signature)—and wait for the King to take the stage.

Trader Vick’s, Georgia

Photography by Greg Miller

Trader Vic’s | Atlanta, Georgia
One of just two Trader Vic’s locations left in the country (there used to be a couple dozen) sits in the basement of the downtown Hilton. Founder Vic Bergeron reportedly spent millions sourcing the Polynesian-inspired decor in the 1950s and ’60s—outrigger canoe oars, taxidermied blowfish, and yes, carved tiki. Choose from 60 stiff tropical cocktails, including the mai tai, which Bergeron invented.

Spark Cafe | Bentonville, Arkansas
The quaint 1950s 5&10 at the heart of Walmart’s humble beginnings bears little resemblance to the sprawling megastore of today. Now, a Walmart museum complex on the site (currently undergoing renovation and set to reopen in spring 2024) includes Spark Cafe, a throwback soda fountain that pays tribute to founder Sam Walton’s love of ice cream. Until the cafe reopens, grab a scoop of the store’s signature blue-and-yellow vanilla ice cream at midcentury prices (starting at 50 cents) from the food truck across the street.

Room Requests
Bedtime stories and strange bedfellows

Talbott Tavern | Bardstown, Kentucky
This 1779 stone inn is thought to be America’s oldest Western stagecoach stop—and perhaps the world’s most historic bourbon bar. The inn once housed a young Abraham Lincoln, as well as the infamous outlaw Jesse James. As legend has it, James fired those bullet holes in the plaster wall after a night of revelry downstairs.

Hotel Monteleone, Louisiana

Photo by Rush Jagoe

Hotel Monteleone | New Orleans, Louisiana
This ornate French Quarter hotel is no secret, with its rotating Carousel Bar adorned with hand-painted circus animals, but its literary heritage might be. Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, and Ernest Hemingway all found inspiration circling ’round the bar. Book the dual-balcony Hemingway suite, in a section of the hotel that once housed Union troops.

RT Lodge | Maryville, Tennessee
Tucked away on Maryville College’s wooded grounds, this gracious estate was built as a private residence, then served as the college president’s house and a corporate retreat for Ruby Tuesday, based nearby. Now the rambling 1930s lodge and gardens have been restored as a rustic-elegant hotel that some consider a more accessible alternative to nearby Blackberry Farm, where RT Lodge Chef Trevor Stockton cut his teeth.

The Arlington Hotel Resort & Spa | Hot Springs, Arkansas
Gangsters like Al Capone flocked to this resort town in the 1920s for gambling, whiskey, and bathhouses. At the Arlington Hotel, insiders know to book Capone’s own suite (room 443), once outfitted with a secret getaway through the closet (it’s now boarded up). The 1893 hotel is showing its age, but a major restoration is set to be completed by its 100th birthday in December 2024,

Apartments at the Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum| Montgomery, Alabama
It’s great to visit the house museum where the infamous literary couple lived in the 1930s while working on their novels Tender Is the Night and Save Me the Waltz, but for something even better, try staying in the period-inspired apartments upstairs. In the Zelda suite, the living room furniture was donated by her childhood family friends; in the F. Scott suite, find swathes of the same (now tattered) wallpaper the author himself would have gazed upon.

In Living Color
Fall Like You’ve Never Seen It

Illustration by Liz Lovasco

Colorblind Viewfinders | 13 State Parks, Tennessee
Thirteen million Americans experience colorblindness, mostly in the form of a red-green deficiency, which dulls the vivid colors of fall foliage or even makes the breathtaking hues impossible to see. But at 13 scenic state parks in the Tennessee mountains, free vista viewfinders equipped with high-tech EnChroma lenses give colorblind visitors the chance to see fall color for perhaps the first time.

Insider Tours
Adventures you never knew you needed

Green Bank Observatory, West Virginia

Photo by Sean Pierce

Green Bank Observatory | Green Bank, West Virginia
Deep in the Allegheny Mountains, blanketed by the darkest skies on the East Coast, the Green Bank observatory sits in the 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone. Here, Wi-Fi and cell service are nonexistent in order to protect the airwaves of the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. Book the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) tour, which opens “restricted access points” and details the observatory’s findings on alien life.

Pleasure House Oysters | Virginia Beach, Virginia
Pull on waders and pluck oysters straight from the Lynnhaven River with the Pleasure House oyster farmers, who can teach you all about the briny jewel that was recently saved from near extinction. After the harvest, slurp these beauties from a table positioned directly in the river; bring your own bottle of wine for a dining experience like no other.

Project Chimps | Morganton, Georgia
Nearly 100 retired research chimpanzees roam 230 acres of forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains. For a chance to spot them, sign up for one of several events the organization hosts each year. Or book a private tour, like the Lunch Launch, which includes an hour-long hike with opportunities to see the chimps, then a chance to slingshot veggies into the habitat for their midday meal.

Old Friends | Georgetown, Kentucky
Here’s your chance to meet a Kentucky Derby winner. At this nonprofit Thoroughbred retirement home about an hour east of Churchill Downs, guides regale visitors with stories of the horses’ racing days and unique personalities. Silver Charm, a regal gray who won the Derby in 1997, is the star attraction. He doesn’t like to be touched, though plenty of other steeds do; you’ll have a bucket of carrots to win them over.

Cool Transportation
When the journey is the destination

Historic SAM Shortline Railroad | Cordele to Plains, Georgia
Hop aboard this restored 1940s train at Georgia Veterans State Park in Cordele, then chug past Lake Blackshear, pecan groves, and rolling farmland to Jimmy Carter’s quaint hometown. There you’ll have time for tours and peanut ice cream before heading back.

Key West Express | Fort Myers to Key West, Florida
Skip the connecting flight (or endless drive) to the southernmost tip of the United States in favor of lounging on a sun deck, drink in hand, on a high-speed catamaran. Watch for dolphins as the mainland coastline fades into the Gulf of Mexico, and three and a half hours later, dock at Key West. Opt for the sunset cruise on the way back.

Personal Rapid Transit | Morgantown, West Virginia
When Boeing designed these driverless electric vehicles to navigate the hilly terrain of the University of West Virginia and downtown Morgantown, it aimed to spark a transportation revolution. It didn’t, but it remains the best way to get around. With the push of a button, one of 70 updated blue-and-gold buggies (which seat 8) will arrive and zip passengers directly to their station of choice along nine miles of guideway.

Open Secrets
These treasures are hidden in plain sight

The Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library

Photography by Larry McCormack

The Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library | Nashville, Tennessee
On the second floor of this downtown library, find a little-known exhibit dedicated to Nashville’s civil rights history, including first-hand accounts, photographs, and ephemera like diaries and scrapbooks. From the windows, look out at the intersection where nonviolent protestors demonstrated against segregated lunch counters in 1960.

A Saint Simon spirit tree

Photo via goldenisles.com

Spirit Trees | St. Simons Island, Georgia
The barrier island’s live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss, appear mysterious enough, but if you know where to look, you might see faces peering back at you. Sculptor Keith Jennings (now along with his son) has carved more than 20 “tree spirits” into the oaks’ scars since 1982. Find a map of the spirits at the welcome center and make it a scavenger hunt by bike.

Satellite Park | Durham, North Carolina
At this former facility for Duke University radio, now the Duke Arts Annex, eight decommissioned satellite dishes were saved from the junkyard by the efforts of local artists. Sit in the shade of a “dish” painted like a piece of Mexican pottery by artist Cornelio Campos (among seven others).

Mole Hill | Dayton, Virginia
It looks like your average wooded knoll in the rural Shenandoah Valley. Turns out, it’s an extinct volcano—yes, in Virginia—identifiable by its black basalt rubble in a valley of sedimentary rock. It sits on private property, but if you’re into geology or just want to see this enigma up close, contact Mole Hill Bikes in nearby Dayton for an opportunity to hike its trails.

Spring water spigots | Hot Springs, Arkansas
Does the thermal spring water in Hot Springs have healing powers? Visitors have flocked to soak in its baths, now part of a national park, for hundreds of years—but you can also quaff the 4,000-year-old elixir. The National Park Service details where to find the town’s public fountains where you can sip the water, which is hot enough at the source to make it safe for drinking without treatment.

Off-the-Menu
Where’s the beef?

Illustration by Liz Lovasco

Chick-fil-A Dwarf House | Hapeville, Georgia
Chick-fil-A’s famous cows might revolt. The fast-food empire known for tirelessly touting chicken has quietly been serving burgers at its original Dwarf House location in Hapeville. Check out the newly renovated first location in Hapeville (originally called the Dwarf Grill), which offers full-service dining, grilled tenderloin steak, and a cheeseburger that rivals its best drive-through competitors.

Special Shops
Hunt for treasures off the beaten path

Alabama Booksmith | Homewood, Alabama
This unassuming, family-owned bookseller near Birmingham specializes in signed first editions by renowned authors including John Updike, Jesmyn Ward, and Khaled Hosseini. Nearly every book on the shelf bears an autograph; the longtime bestseller is Alabamian Rick Bragg’s memoir, All Over But the Shoutin’, with more than 5,000 copies sold.

Tiny Gallery | Asheville, North Carolina
Baker Camille Cogswell, a 2018 James Beard–nominated Rising Star and 2020 Food & Wine Best New Chef, turns out flaky pies (rotating options include banana cream and honey cake) and other “tasties” every Tuesday from a handcrafted sidewalk shed in her North Asheville neighborhood. There, you can admire mini exhibitions by local artists, including Cogswell’s mother, Margaret.

Tavern at Rainbow Row | Charleston, South Carolina
According to old seafarer’s maps, this tavern dates to 1686, making it the oldest liquor store in the country and the most historic commercial building in Charleston. With its creaky floors and Prohibition-era trap door, the shop remains a gem among the Battery’s candy-colored Georgian homes. Ask for a Southern-tinged bottle, like Six & Twenty’s five-grain bourbon made with Carolina Gold rice.

Furniture outlets | High Point and Greensboro, North Carolina
The “Furniture Capital of the World” draws hordes of design professionals to its twice-annual, trade-only markets. But what happens to all those high-quality samples after the showrooms close in April and October? They fan out to thrift stores and clearance centers bearing slashed prices. For the mother lode, check out High Point’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore and Greensboro’s Red Collection consignment—where recent finds include new Kelly Wearstler chandeliers at a fraction of the retail price.

Under-the-Radar Events
Go where everyone will wish they’d been

Maison Madeleine Secret Suppers | Breaux Bridge, Louisiana
As if Maison Madeleine, an 1840s Creole cottage tucked among old oaks, wasn’t dreamy enough, add in James Beard Award–winning chefs and Grammy-nominated musicians for pure magic. Join the Secret Suppers email list for notifications about upcoming evenings, held several times a year with a rotating cast of top talent. It always sells out, despite the $325 price tag.

Fasnacht | Helvetia, West Virginia
The remote mountain valley terrain helped preserve the traditions of the Swiss and German immigrants who settled here in the 19th century, including a Swiss-Appalachian kickoff to Lent called Fasnacht. Join the festivities of this lesser-known late-winter holiday at the historic Alpine-style buildings of Helvetia (population: 59), including deep-fried pastries, square dancing and jam sessions, a lantern parade, and the effigy burning of “Old Man Winter.”

A moonbow sighting in Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, Kentucky

Photo via Shutterstock

Moonbow Sightings | Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, Corbin, Kentucky
There are few places in the world where you can consistently spot a moonbow: an eerie, pale rainbow created at night by moonlight refracting off water droplets. The dramatic 68-foot-tall, 125-foot-wide Cumberland Falls creates just the right conditions with its height and angle during a full moon on a clear night. A calendar on the park’s website details the best times each month to spot one.

Duncan Hines Days | Bowling Green, Kentucky
Before his name was stamped on cake-mix boxes, Duncan Hines was the OG food and travel influencer, taking the back roads and compiling restaurant reviews from the 1930s to 1950s. The Bowling Green native inspired this town-wide festival, held June 3–9 this year, which includes concerts, parades, and admission to the Kentucky Museum, which features some of the spots that landed Hines’s seal of approval.

Iowa Chicken Run | Iowa, Louisiana
Join a rural Cajun Mardi Gras in Iowa (pronounced I-Way), where revelers “beg” fellow townfolk for dinner by dancing and cranking out zydeco on accordions and washboards. If they impress, out comes boudin, okra, onions—maybe a rowdy live chicken. Historically, the ingredients went into a community gumbo; today, it’s just for show, as the real stew has been simmering at the Knights of Columbus Hall all day.

Secret Gardens
Find peace and perspective in these green spaces

Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens | Delray Beach, Florida
A sea of golf courses and country clubs surrounds this oasis, created by a descendant of a small Japanese farming community that settled here in the early 20th century. Sixteen acres of bonsai trees, bamboo groves, Zen rock gardens, and arched bridges over koi ponds prompt quiet reflection. A museum details the little-known connection between Japanese and south Florida cultures.

Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden | Wilmington, North Carolina
It may seem exotic, but the toothy Venus fly trap is native only to the boggy, acidic soils within a 70-mile radius of Wilmington. Admire these and other meat-eating plants (which trap and digest insects for nutrition) like sundews and pitcher plants at this small garden on the Piney Ridge Nature Preserve—the only one in America dedicated to carnivorous plants.

Eudora Welty’s Camellia Garden | Jackson, Mississippi
Literary pilgrims who descend upon Welty’s Tudor Revival–style home may be surprised to find the Pulitzer Prize–winning author was as prolific a gardener as she was a writer. The grounds overflow with more than 30 varieties of Welty’s beloved camellias—most of which she grafted herself—plus irises, zinnias, and sky-high lilies. Go in February, when the sasanquas are still in bloom and the Japonicas are just opening up.

Charleston Tea Garden | Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina
On quiet Wadmalaw Island, near Charleston, find the only large-scale tea garden in America. It was first cultivated in 1963 with 19th-century tea bushes (Camellia sinensis) transplanted from a long-abandoned tea plantation nearby. Now owned by Bigelow, the farm is known for its “American Classic” black tea, the first tea produced entirely in the United States. Sip a steaming cup and tour the factory and greenhouse or take a trolley tour of the 127 acres.

Rock On
A place where even beginners climb to great heights 

Illustration by Liz Lovasco

NROCKS | Circleville, West Virgina
The Appalachians meet the Alps at Nelson Rocks, two dramatic, fin-like ridges rising 800 feet from the leafy valley below. Ascend one of the East Coast’s only via ferratas (Italian for “by way of iron”)—a permanent rock-climbing installation of steel rungs and cables—plus a stomach-turning suspension bridge. Not a climber? Zip line across the valley or tour the formation’s underground caves.

Unusual Museums
Explore the quirky, the unexpected, and the misunderstood

House of Refuge Museum | Stuart, Florida
Ten “houses of refuge” once sheltered shipwrecked travelers along Florida’s treacherous Atlantic coast. Only one still stands. Dating to 1876, it now serves as a museum showcasing Florida’s maritime history, the isolated lives of the refuge “keepers,” and found artifacts, from diaries to rusty lanterns. Just offshore lies the wreck of the Georges Valentine, which smashed ashore in 1904, now beckoning snorkelers and divers.

Museum of the Reconstruction Era at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home |  Columbia, South Carolina
In 2014, Historic Columbia turned this presidential house museum into one of the country’s only museums dedicated to the Reconstruction era. President Woodrow Wilson lived in the home as a teenager in the tumultuous post–Civil War period, when Blacks were rising in status but faced violent backlash. Interactive displays and guided tours tell the story of South Carolina during this shifting time in the racial, social, and political landscape.

Duke Lemur Center | Durham, North Carolina
Wide-eyed, adorable lemurs are among the most endangered mammals on the planet. The mission of this center, with the largest and most diverse colony outside Madagascar, is non-invasive research, conservation, and education to save these creatures from extinction. Tours range from self-guided strolls to behind-the-scenes lessons with a keeper, where you’ll shadow feeding and enrichment activities. (Sorry, no petting!) Advance reservations required.

Bachman-Wilson House at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art | Bentonville, Arkansas
Frank Lloyd Wright built this Usonian house, with a simple, nature-inspired design, in 1954 in New Jersey. After persistent flooding threatened to ruin the structure, all 1,700 square feet of it was disassembled and packed, labeled, and trucked to this Arkansas museum in 2013. There it was fit back together like a puzzle whose pieces include mahogany planks, clerestory windows, and Cherokee red tile floors.

Unclaimed Baggage Museum | Scottsboro, Alabama
Unclaimed Baggage is the country’s only retailer of lost luggage, buying orphaned bags from airlines since 1970. In 2023, it opened a museum to display some of the most unusual finds it’s unzipped. There’s a Michael Jordan–signed basketball. A Gucci bag of Egyptian artifacts. A taxidermied rattlesnake to represent the live one found in a duffel. And the famous 4-foot-tall puppet, Hoggle, from Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie.

This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Southbound.

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