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Downtowns Down South

The South boasts some of America’s most charming and inviting downtowns, places where history and culture coexist with a vibrant, modern energy.

Home to museums and specialty shopping, historic districts and cutting-edge food scenes, these Southern downtowns offer a great destination for your next group getaway.

Savannah, Georgia

For pure Southern charm, few cities can match Savannah. Renowned for its stately antebellum homes, picturesque parks and cobblestone streets, Savannah is also home to some of America’s most beautiful churches and a bustling riverside district full of eclectic shops and eateries.

“People appreciate that Savannah is a very walkable destination,” said Erica Backus, director of public relations for Visit Savannah. “It’s only 2.5 square miles, so if you’re up to the challenge, you can experience all 22 of our historic parks and squares in a couple of days.”

Top on the list of Savannah green spaces to visit is Forsyth Park, known for its iconic fountain and Spanish-moss-draped trees. “It is one of Savannah’s most photographable spots,” Backus said.

Faith-based groups will want to explore the city’s many places of worship, such as the First African Baptist Church, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and the Congregation Mickve Israel, noteworthy both for their architectural beauty and their history.

The city’s downtown bustles with energy, particularly on River Street, which hugs the Savannah River and is home to more than 75 boutiques, galleries, restaurants and artist studios.

The city’s two paddleboats, the Georgia Queen and the Savannah River Queen, offer an excellent way for groups to enjoy Savannah’s downtown waterway, as well as sweeping views of the city. Of course, because Savannah’s a coastal city, world-class beach access is also a stone’s throw away, at nearby Tybee Island.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Home to Louisiana State University (LSU), the Louisiana state Capitol, a vibrant riverfront and prominent museums, Baton Rouge is a town with a vibe that’s both sophisticated and fun.

Groups can enjoy touring both the Old and New State Capitol buildings downtown. Both are architecturally significant in their own ways: The earlier 19th-century building is noteworthy for its castlelike design; its towering 1930s-era successor stands 450 feet and 34 stories tall, making it the tallest capitol in the United States.

“Our New State Capitol has a great observation deck that offers a birds-eye view of the downtown area and Mississippi River,” said Courtney Taylor, director of destination services for Visit Baton Rouge. “On a clear day, you can even see all the way to LSU Tiger Stadium.”

The downtown riverfront is a destination itself, with attractions like the USS Kidd, a restored World War II-era Fletcher class destroyer, and its accompanying Louisiana Naval Veterans Museum. Next door, the Louisiana Art and Science Museum offers exhibits that cover everything from ancient Egypt to the solar system.

A new reflective sculpture with sensors that make music corresponding to the rise and fall of the river was recently installed on the Baton Rouge riverfront, offering another must-see destination.

“We’ve also added some riverfront seating and shading — it’s really become an inviting place to go up on top of the levee and see the magnificent river,” Taylor said.

The Shaw Center for the Arts, also downtown, houses the LSU Museum of Art as well as several theaters that can host an array of concerts and performances.

With more than 20 restaurants in the downtown walking area, there’s also no shortage of places to dine.

The city’s historic Third Street is an especially popular, pedestrian-friendly downtown corridor, home to spots like the Bengal Tap Room and Boudreau and Thibodeau’s, a go-to destination for classic Cajun fare.

Biloxi, Mississippi

It may be famous for its many resort casinos, but there’s much more to Biloxi, Mississippi, than a chance to press your luck.

Founded in 1699 by French explorers and named for the Biloxi Indian tribe that lived there, the city has overcome a recent spate of hardships. Hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010, Biloxi is now thriving.

“It’s important to know just how far this region has come,” said Anna Roy, media relations manager for Coastal Mississippi. “I think a lot of people don’t realize the amount of development that’s happening down here right now. It’s amazing.”

Groups can explore the rich culture and history of the city’s maritime and fishing industries at the newly rebuilt Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, home to two masted, 65-foot Biloxi Schooners; the Wade Guice Hurricane Museum; and dozens of exhibits highlighting the ecology and industry found on the waters of the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico.

“For coastal Mississippi, it’s all about the water,” Roy said. “That’s what life revolves around here. That’s why we love to get guests to that museum. They also do cooking classes there, and they’ll do traditional seafood boils, which large groups really enjoy.”

No tour of the city is complete without a visit to its picturesque lighthouse, erected in 1848. The lighthouse is open for tours Monday through Saturday, and visitors can climb its spiral staircase for a stunning view of the coast.

The city’s downtown corridor, especially Howard Avenue, is also booming. Home to the Coastal Mississippi Mardi Gras Museum as well as many shops, bars, art studios and businesses, the street has recently been renovated to make it more suitable for visitors.

“Howard Avenue is a brick road now, and it’s stunning,” Roy said. “There are loads more businesses moving in rapidly.”

Charleston, South Carolina

For sheer architectural beauty, Charleston, South Carolina, is unmatched. With street after street of historic buildings and quaint byways, walking or enjoying a horse-drawn carriage ride through downtown Charleston is a bit like going back in time.

Dubbed the Holy City for its history of religious tolerance and its many historic churches, Charleston also offers a great destination for faith-based groups.

“Our history is steeped in religious freedom,” said Doug Warner, vice president of media and innovation development for Explore Charleston. “There are 180 historic churches on the [downtown] Peninsula alone. That includes the oldest French Huguenot church and the oldest Jewish Reformed synagogue in continuous use in the country. You can’t separate the history of Charleston from that historic foundation on religious acceptance and freedom.”

History buffs will also want to visit nearby Fort Sumter National Historic Park, site of the opening salvo of the American Civil War. For more recent military history, Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, just minutes from downtown Charleston, offers access to three World War II-era ships — the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, the destroyer USS Laffey and the submarine USS Clagmore — plus multiple aircraft exhibits and the Medal of Honor Museum.

History aside, Charleston is a city that’s very much alive, especially in terms of its food scene.

“History is the No. 1 reason visitors come to Charleston,” Warner said. “No. 2 is our culinary experience. We have eight James Beard Award-winning chefs who practice their art here.”

By late 2021, a new International African American museum will open in the city as well. The museum will commemorate Charleston’s status as the port of arrival for nearly half of all Africans forced into North American slavery while, at the same time, sharing the important story of African Americans’ lasting contributions to American culture and society.

Chattanooga, Tennessee

With its 13-mile paved Riverwalk dotted with parks and attractions, including the Chattanooga Zoo, the Tennessee Aquarium and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, it’s easy to build a fun-filled itinerary in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Nestled along the Tennessee River, Chattanooga boasts both natural beauty and a thriving arts and cultural scene thanks to a downtown brimming with shops, restaurants and nightclubs.

Art aficionados will want to explore the Hunter Museum of American Art — home to one of the finest collections of art in the Southeast — as well as the Bluff View Art District, a historic neighborhood within walking distance of downtown that’s become a mecca for both visual and culinary artists.

Opened in late February, the new National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga celebrates recipients of the nation’s highest military award for valor, from the first medals given in 1863 to the present.

The city also offers easy access to nearby attractions, such as Rock City, home to breathtaking rock formations, panoramic views and beautiful gardens to explore.

While in the area, groups should make time to visit Lookout Mountain via the unique Incline Railway — a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark in operation since 1895 — and then enjoy attractions at the top, including Point Park and the Battles for Chattanooga Museum.