The South is home to many signature attractions that are must-visits for any group travelers. From the longest-running radio show in the world at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, to one of the most beautiful river gorges in the U.S. in West Virginia, these five iconic stops offer a taste of history and natural wonder.
Grand Ole Opry
A legend in country music, the “Grand Ole Opry” radio show got its start in 1925 when Nashville radio station WSM introduced a new show called “The WSM Barn Dance,” featuring live performances by some of the biggest names in country music. Later renamed the “Grand Ole Opry,” it is the longest-running radio show in the world. The show moved to the Grand Ole Opry House in 1974. The theater seats 4,400 fans. More than 6,000 songs are performed during the show each year, and the Opry has welcomed more than 200 members throughout its history, from Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline to Carrie Underwood and Garth Brooks.
People come from all over the world to see the Opry’s live shows. Groups can book tickets to see performances or sign up for a daytime backstage tour of the Opry with a guide that will share stories and exclusive photos from some of the biggest moments in the show’s history. They also talk about the country music legends who got their start on the show and continue to grace its stage. Groups can step on the stage and into the famed wooden circle or visit Studio A, a live television studio and the former home of “Hee Haw.”
Post-show backstage tours are also available, showing what happens right after performances and offering a closeup look at the Opry’s 18 uniquely themed dressing rooms.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center opened in 1970 to showcase Alabama’s contributions to the U.S. space program, including the Saturn V rocket that took America to the moon. It is the official visitor center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Displays include the National Historic Landmark Saturn V rocket, the only one-to-one scale model of a Saturn V, as well as the Apollo 16 capsule that went to the moon, a moon rock and many exhibits that talk about the Apollo missions. The site also has an exhibit about the International Space Station to help visitors understand what it is like for the astronauts who live and work there. The Intuitive Planetarium offers original programming with the latest data and images from NASA’s space telescopes and the Mars rovers. The center is also home to the Space Camp program, which encourages children to become astronauts, engineers and scientists.
Groups can schedule tours of the facility with knowledgeable docents. Many of the center’s docents have worked in the space programs detailed in the museum exhibits and love to tell their first-person accounts as they lead people through the exhibits. The Daily Space Adventure includes general admission to the center and a visit to the planetarium. The Ultimate Field Trip includes general admission, a planetarium show, a guided tour and a one-hour student lab.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
Fayetteville, West Virginia
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia protects the longest and deepest gorge in the Appalachian Mountains, which was carved by the New River. The park encompasses 70,000 acres of dense forest that cover the remains of several coal-mining towns from the late 1800s and early 1900s that were built on the banks of the river.
The best preserved coal town of the era, Nuttallburg, has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places because its coal tipple, coal conveyor, coke ovens and buildings are still intact. The town became famous in the 1920s when automobile industrialist Henry Ford leased the town’s mines to provide coal for his company’s steel mills. The park features one of the largest tracts of unfragmented forest in the East.
Groups can take a ranger-led walk or talk at the Grandview visitors center, learning about the area’s diversity of wildlife and plants and its coal-mining history. The overlook at Grandview offers spectacular views of the gorge from 1,400 feet above the river. Many of the park’s major features are easy to access by road, and some are accessible via shorter hikes, including the New River Gorge Bridge, which spans the gorge 876 feet above the river, and Sandstone Falls, the largest waterfall on the New River. Outdoor junkies will want to take a guided whitewater rafting trip through the gorge, hike or bike the many trails, or climb the sandstone cliffs.
Gateway Arch National Park
The iconic Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis stands sentinel over the city and the Mississippi River. The 630-foot-tall, stainless-steel landmark, which was completed in 1965, symbolizes the area’s significance as the jumping-off point for western expansion. For many years, there was a small museum in the base of the arch. In the past few years, the National Park Service spent $380 million to build a 46,000-square-foot space at the base of the arch, which includes a new entrance, additional security and museum space, and an education center for meetings and workshops.
The Gateway Arch museum educates visitors about westward expansion from the perspectives of the many people that have called the area home, including Native Americans and European settlers. Groups can learn about the Louisiana Territory and the Lewis and Clark expedition, Manifest Destiny and how the Gateway Arch came to be built. A 35-minute film, “Monument to the Dream,” gives a detailed account of how and why the arch was built.
The museum is free to visit, and groups can get discounts on tram tours to the top of the arch. Ranger-led tours of the arch are available for larger groups, or planners can arrange for a park ranger to speak to them in more detail about the many themes encapsulated in the museum’s exhibits.
Featuring dolphin and sea lion shows and a rare opportunity to see whale sharks in captivity, the Georgia Aquarium is one of the most famous attractions in Atlanta. The aquarium is a research and conservation organization that works with the animals in captivity, as well as those out in nature, to get a better understanding of their natural habitats. This research better informs aquarium staff on how to take care of their marine residents and build better exhibits to help conserve many species.
The largest exhibit at the aquarium, “Ocean Voyager,” is a 6.3-million-gallon saltwater tank that is home to whale sharks, the largest sharks in the deep, as well as manta rays, a green sea turtle and more than 90 species of brightly colored fish. “Cold Water Quest” is home to penguins, beluga whales and sea otters, all marine animals that live in colder waters.
Visitors to the aquarium can watch many live animal shows daily, from “Dolphins in Depth” to “22.5 the Fin,” the aquarium’s sea lion presentation. There is a 4D theater experience and a state-of-the-art, motion-based, virtual reality ride that transports visitors back in time to see amazing prehistoric marine life.
The 30-minute-long Behind the Seas Tour takes groups to the aquarium’s backstage areas, where they can learn about how the exhibits are maintained and the animals cared for every day. The tour includes a look at the aquarium’s watery residents from the topside galleries.