Rising between the Eastern seaboard and the Midwestern plains, the Appalachian Mountains house an embarrassment of riches. Rolling vineyards. Stunning vistas. Charming town squares. Selecting a mere ten communities from its southern portion, which spans the Blue Ridge, Great Smoky, and Cumberland ranges, was a daunting task. To narrow the scope, we focused our search on small towns, places where you can often see Main Street end-to-end and where time seems to move at its own unhurried pace. Some of our picks are celebrated locales; others may be new to you. All share these essential elements: natural splendor, a colorful history, and a slate of interesting places to drink, dine, and do a little shopping. Come along on a whirlwind tour of some of the South’s most enchanting high-altitude destinations, and discover one—or several—that sends your spirit soaring.
Where visitors strike gold
Two centuries after Dahlonega got its start as a gold rush settlement, an explosion in wine production has painted the town purple. Kids who grew up panning for gold in area streams are returning as adults to sample Cabs and Viogniers among the vines. Pick up a $25 Wine Walk Passport at the visitors center, good for flights at four of twelve downtown tasting rooms. Just outside town, five wineries produce a variety of award-winning sips. At Montaluce Winery, the rolling landscape and Italianate villa channel the Tuscan countryside, while Wolf Mountain Vineyards offers a more rustic setting—think stonework and cedar beams—for tastings of its award-winning blends.
When you’re ready to switch from wine to sweet tea, head to the Smith House, a Southern cooking stalwart that embraced communal tables long before they were trendy. The historical boardinghouse also operates an inn with tastefully appointed rooms. After your meal, it’s a short walk to the town’s public square, replete with little discoveries such as exotic jerky (Outlaw Jerky & Trail Grub), artisan chocolates (Paul Thomas Chocolates), and a player piano (Dahlonega General Store).
If wine tasting and window-shopping feel a bit “city,” take a tubing trip down the Chestatee with Chestatee River Adventures or a guided horseback ride at Gold City Corral. Or, descend 200 feet—and more than a century into the past—on an underground tour of Consolidated Gold Mine. Don’t leave before trying your hand at panning—after all, the hunt for buried treasure never quite loses its luster. dahlonega.org
Highlands, North Carolina
An exclusive address with mass appeal
Best known as a summer retreat for retirees with oversized nest eggs, Highlands is a town whose very name—like Aspen or Martha’s Vineyard—signals the good life. But these days, you’re as likely to see young families enjoying a quick getaway as you are the silver-haired (and -spoon) set running errands before holing up in private homes. Highlands attracts visitors year-round now too, which means businesses that once closed for the winter now cater to Christmas crowds.
Many credit Old Edwards Inn, opened in 2004, for truly putting the town on the map. The luxe, European-style spa and golf resort has amassed impressive accolades (Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the top hotels in the United States last year). But the area’s natural attributes—stunning waterfalls and markedly cooler weather than the surrounding South—are also a draw. East of town, a nearly three-mile hike at Whiteside Mountain affords panoramas of silvery cliffs and dense forest.
Find color of a different sort at Highlands’ visual arts heavy-hitter, the Bascom, which showcases local works as well as loaned pieces from the likes of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. The town’s all-purpose food hub is Mountain Fresh Grocery, with wood-fired pizzas, a wine and coffee bar, and grocery essentials, while its fine-dining mainstay is Wolfgang’s, serving German and Creole–influenced cuisine. Stop in at charming Highlands Mountain Paws for all sorts of pet gear, plus locally made dog treats. Over at C. Orrico, brands like Lilly Pulitzer are right at home in this rarefied corner of Carolina. highlandschamber.org
Travelers Rest, South Carolina
Where peaceful meets progressive
Somewhere between its sleepy name and its decidedly cooler moniker—“TR”—lies the essence of this recently revitalized hamlet on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With happening Greenville just ten miles south and Furman University a stone’s throw away, Travelers Rest’s five downtown blocks feel equal parts old-fashioned and urbane.
Be sure to hit Sidewall Pizza, serving stellar brick-oven pies in a former tire shop. Over at the Cafe at Williams Hardware, a former tool shop now doubles as a boutique with locally made gifts and a cheery spot to grab a Reuben. The town boasts its own craft brewery, Swamp Rabbit, and a top-of-the-line outfitter, Sunrift Adventures. Selling bikes, kayaks, and apparel inside an old train depot, Sunrift is a great place to rent wheels before hitting the Swamp Rabbit Trail, an eighteen-mile greenway that connects with Greenville. Flat enough for leisure biking, the erstwhile railway line is responsible for much of the town’s recent growth.
A number of state parks await just outside town, including Caesars Head State Park, home to one of South Carolina’s highest peaks, and Table Rock State Park, which, besides glorious scenery, offers furnished cabins built by the New Deal–era Civilian Conservation Corps. Lodging in town is otherwise limited, though Greenville offers a wide range of options. Maintain the TR spirit at the Swamp Rabbit Inn, a bike-friendly B&B in downtown Greenville just two blocks off the greenway. travelersrestsc.com
Hendersonville, North Carolina
Asheville’s cool little sister
Hendersonville is often called a small-town version of Asheville. And these days, when you’re lucky to snag a table at Pack Square’s crowded restaurants and bars, the comparison tempts. Hendersonville is known for its serpentine Main Street adorned with colorful planters and dotted with alfresco dining tables. Postero offers New American fare such as poached salmon on avocado toast, while Mezzaluna showcases a refined Italian menu with fifty beers on tap. A visit to the gleaming Sierra Nevada brewery in nearby Mills River is in order, but make no mistake: Hendersonville is a hard cider hub. Check out the Flat Rock Ciderworks tasting room or the newly opened home of Appalachian Ridge Artisan Ciders. Prefer wine? Scarlet on Main, a fashion-forward women’s clothing boutique, offers samples from local winery Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards inside its shop.
Find fine accommodations at the Bed & Breakfast on Tiffany Hill, where each plush but understated room channels a different town in the South (balmy Seaside, equestrian Lexington). If you prefer a downtown locale, the circa-1880 Charleston Inn recently got a new name and facelift. Don’t skip a day trip to the neighboring town of Flat Rock, home to the state theater of North Carolina, the Flat Rock Playhouse (which operates a satellite location in downtown Hendersonville). It’s also where you’ll find the historic residence of poet and writer Carl Sandburg. From the Sandburg home, it’s an idyllic one-and-a-half-mile trek to the top of Big Glassy Mountain. Another popular lookout is Jump Off Rock, where on a clear day you can see four states. visithendersonvillenc.org
Blue Ridge, Georgia
Easy living in cabin country
Despite its recent downtown revitalization and close proximity to Atlanta, Blue Ridge still feels like a well-kept secret, a Southern Shangri-La. Safely ensconced in the Chattahoochee National Forest, the town’s most alluring features have remained unchanged for decades: clear, trout-stocked mountain streams; a pontoon skim across pristine Lake Blue Ridge; hand-plucked Fujis and Jonagolds from Mercier Orchards; an open-air train ride through blazing autumn foliage on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.
Though you’ll find a solid hotel choice in Reid Ridge Lodge, where the wood-walled rooms feel rustic but upscale, this is cabin country. Mountain Top Cabin Rentals and Southern Comfort Cabin Rentals both offer secluded retreats and properties close to town.
No matter where you stay, downtown Blue Ridge is worth exploring. Harvest on Main brought farm-to-table cooking to the area in 2010 and remains a favorite for a memorable dinner. Meanwhile, Black Sheep serves Southern fusion cuisine and housemade
moonshine in a historic residence that once entertained Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell. You’ll find a few breweries here; one of our favorites is Fannin Brewing Company, where you can sip German-inspired beers on weekends.
Art lovers find plenty to admire in Blue Ridge, including stunning hand-blown glassworks at Multitudes Gallery. Kids enjoy horseback or pony rides at Blue Ridge Mountain Trail Rides. And anglers discover paradise: After picking up a hand-engraved rod at Oyster Fine Bamboo Fly Rods, cast a line for the large trout that populate the Toccoa River and nearby creeks. blueridgemountains.com
Much more than mountain kitsch
After a breathtaking drive through the Smokies, it’s always a shock when downtown Gatlinburg, home of candy kitchens and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, rolls into view. But there’s another side to this popular tourist town—Gatlinburg is actually a bastion of Southern Appalachian culture. Prestigious artists-in-residence hone their skills at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, which features a lovely onsite gallery showcasing their works. The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community is a network of artisans unfurling along an eight-mile loop around the city; explore their studios on your own or, for a dollar, take a trolley. The art of moonshine making is also on full display at Ole Smoky Distillery; after a tour, sample the finely crafted white lightning for yourself.
Of course, Gatlinburg’s role as gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains is the town’s original claim to fame. Cades Cove, located a twenty-seven-mile journey from town, offers some of the best glimpses into the wilderness, as well as into the lives of early settlers. Be sure to drive the eleven-mile loop around its verdant valley, where you’ll be treated to postcard-perfect vistas of ancient mountains and forests, historical mills, barns, and homesteads—and probably deer and bears. Reserved for hikers and cyclists before 10 a.m., the loop is also a jumping-off point for several trail hikes.
If your preferred vantage point is a hammock, set up shop at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek, offering high-end suites and a magnificent mountain setting. For a more intimate escape, check in at the historical Buckhorn Inn, which drips with classic romance (think toile bedspreads and fine china). Don’t return home before fueling up at Gatlinburg’s famed Pancake Pantry, where the line usually winds down the sidewalk but moves fast (bring cash). gatlinburg.com
An unsung idyll
Long overshadowed by Helen, its bustling Bavarian neighbor, Sautee has quietly blossomed into a peaceful, culture-rich oasis. Alternately referred to as Sautee Nacoochee, the “village”—as residents call it—is said to be named for a pair of star-crossed Native American lovers. Glimpse its layered history at Hardman Farm, an 1800s Italianate home and farmstead where spotted cows graze and an old gazebo sits atop an even older Native American mound. Discover more local color at the Sautee Nacoochee Center, a regional arts hub (and mountain home for the Atlanta Ballet) that also houses a restored slave cabin and the acclaimed Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia. Over at the heirloom-filled Stovall House Inn, you won’t just find a quintessential mountain B&B with wraparound porch and expansive views; the inn is a museum of sorts, sharing in great detail the fascinating story of its 1837 origins. Sautee’s growth coincides with that of the surrounding region’s wine industry. Nearby Yonah Mountain and Stonewall Creek vineyards operate tasting rooms in
the village, the latter inside Sheilah’s Village Market, which serves creative sandwiches and gourmet goodies. Shoppers shouldn’t miss the Old Sautee Store, a shrine to the markets of yesteryear, or the Lavender Cottage & Garden, specializing in all things lavender (baby lotions, bath scrubs). Dine at Bernie’s, an atmospheric cottage serving escargot and veal marsala. And for a lovely night’s sleep, book a stay at Lucille’s Mountain Top Inn & Spa. Inside, you’ll find modern, thoughtfully decorated rooms (art books, custom soaps) and outside, a pastoral dreamscape. villageofsautee.com
Waynesville, North Carolina
Active pursuits and amazing perks
Nestled between two of the country’s most visited National Park Service sites—the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway—Waynesville brims with outdoorsy charm. Visitors and locals alike fly-fish on the Pigeon River, hopscotch across rocks at Graveyard Fields, and drive the parkway’s highest point at Richland Balsam. (Waynesville’s Haywood County is the highest county east of the Mississippi.)
But not all the fun is outdoor-oriented. Downtown buzzes with forward-thinking eateries, four breweries, and some dozen art galleries. Fill up on Texas-style barbecue at Haywood Smokehouse and savor locally sourced wine-country cuisine, such as goat-cheese risotto balls and “deconstructed” lasagna, at the Chef’s Table. Pick up home accessories at High Country Furniture & Design or a made-from-scratch treat for your pup at Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery. West of Main Street is the bohemian Frog Level district; grab a latte from Panacea Coffee Company before exploring the burgeoning gallery scene. A few blocks south stands the historic Shelton House, a late-1800s farmstead and home of the Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts.
While you’re here, stay at a luxury resort that is a destination unto itself: The all-inclusive Swag comes with daily picnic lunches, classy group dinners, curated activities, even your own walking stick to explore the spectacular grounds. If the steep price tag deters you, you won’t mind settling for the Andon-Reid Inn, a picture-perfect B&B with a fireplace in each room and plentiful homemade cookies. visitncsmokies.com/waynesville
Blowing Rock, North Carolina
A destination for all seasons
Many think of Blowing Rock as a wintertime escape. Sugar Mountain, a popular ski destination, is a half hour away, and the town boasts its own slope and skating rink, Appalachian Ski Mountain. Westglow Resort & Spa offers apres-ski massages in a fireplace-warmed treatment room, and Chetola Resort feels downright magical when the grounds are dusted with snow and children are gathered ’round the fire pit roasting s’mores.
Still, as a growing number of visitors have discovered, downtown Blowing Rock is pleasant any time of year. Browse handcrafted jewelry at Gaines Kiker Silversmith and gourmet oils and vinegars at the Art of Oil. From Main Street, it’s an easy walk to the New Public House, serving Southern-tinged American cuisine in a modern but mountainy space. Another superb dining option is Canyons, where cocktails and views of Linville Gorge make a great pairing. Cap your evening at Divide Tavern at Green Park Inn, a 125-year-old landmark once frequented by Annie Oakley.
During non-winter months, hiking and horseback riding are favorite local pastimes. Find the best trails for both at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, where you may also visit Flat Top Manor, built by a textile magnate and now home to the Parkway Craft Center. The site’s five-mile (round-trip) Flat Top Tower Trail takes you past the family graveyard and culminates in panoramic views of Blowing Rock, Boone, and beyond. blowingrock.com
A boot-stomping legacy
Though the “twin cities” of Bristol, Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia, operate as two separate municipalities, they converge in one colorful downtown. Crowning the tree-lined main drag is an iconic electric sign pointing in one direction to “VA” and the other to “Tenn”—and resolutely declaring the single town “a good place to live.”
In 1927, a New Jersey record exec came to the area to record the fiddle and banjo sounds wafting through the surrounding mountains. Thus “hillbilly” music began its journey into the mainstream. At the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, learn about the pivotal Bristol Sessions and the musical heritage of Appalachia. Bristol also hosts the Bristol Rhythm and
Roots Reunion each September, drawing the likes of Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn. State Street, downtown’s main thoroughfare, is a great place to start exploring. Drop in at Cranberry Lane for cheerful country decor and the Boxwood for classic antiques. Nearby, quaff craft beer in a historic bus station at Bristol Brewery, and grab coffee and a from-scratch doughnut at the Blackbird Bakery. Hank Williams was last seen alive at the Burger Bar, a cherished hole-in-the-wall where burgers are now named for his songs. (Your Cheatin’ Heart never tasted so good.)
Don’t leave this NASCAR hub (home of the Bristol Motor Speedway) before cruising Route 421 into the Cherokee National Forest, where the Appalachian Trail skirts town. Enjoy a picnic at South Holston Lake (check out the unique cascading dams); a few miles south, the South Holston River Lodge offers well-appointed cabins and guided fly-fishing outings. discoverbristol.org