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Southern City Centers

From popular cities to small villages, Southern downtowns are overflowing with charm.

Perfectly preserved 19th-century downtowns full of brick-lined streets, historic homes and storefronts are spread throughout the South and are well worth a visit. Here are five noteworthy downtowns where group travelers can get a true sense of what it was like to live in the South during a period that redefined what it meant to be an American.

Charleston, South Carolina

Historic downtown Charleston is lined with pastel-colored antebellum homes, garden paths, parks, narrow alleys and cobblestone streets. The quaint area is packed with shops, restaurants and historic sites, especially the French Quarter and Battery districts. The Battery overlooks Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

Group visitors will want to tour Fort Sumter National Monument/Fort Moultrie and spend a day at Charleston City Market, one of the country’s oldest public markets, which is home to more than 300 boutique shops selling everything from local art to antiques. Charleston’s newest museum, the International African American Museum tells the stories of how Africans and African Americans have shaped the world through their labor, resistance and ingenuity.

Groups can tour three local plantations: Boone Hall, Magnolia and Charleston Tea Garden. And Patriot’s Point Naval and Maritime Museum/USS Yorktown makes for a fun day out. Several historic homes in Charleston are open for tours, including Heyward-Washington, Joseph Manigault, Aiken-Rhett, Edmonston-Alston, and Nathaniel Russell.

There are several walking tours available downtown, including history, culinary, Black history, and ghost tours. Charleston is also known for its carriage tours, which will take visitors past antebellum mansions, historic landmarks and beautiful parks. More adventurous groups can book Charleston Harbor Tours aboard the 84-foot, three-masted, wooden Schooner Pride. The tour takes groups past Civil War landmarks, barrier islands and the second-longest cable-stay bridge in North America. Charleston Bicycle Tours will take groups through historic downtown, over the Arthur Ravenal Jr. Bridge and past the USS Yorktown, salt marshes and beaches.

Jonesborough, Tennessee

Tennessee’s oldest town, Jonesborough, is tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s known for its storytelling heritage, history, unique shopping and dining. For more than 200 years, the town’s merchants have offered wares from around the world and locally made items, including nostalgic candy at The Lollipop Shop, unique art at Mill Spring Makers Market, and holiday-themed items at Noelle Gifts and Décor. Visitors can grab a cup of coffee or sample local spirits from Tennessee Hills Distillery, which is in an 1840s house used to store salt during the Civil War era.

A self-guided walking tour brochure is available that will take groups past shops and restaurants while learning about the town’s architecture and the history of the people who once lived and worked downtown. Groups can enjoy dinner at the International Storytelling Center, a one-of-a-kind venue that offers an opportunity to learn about the art behind homespun tales.

Group visitors can dive into the town’s history through a tour with the Heritage Alliance. Guides share the history of the town, its people and the lives they built. Travelers can explore the beautifully preserved Main Street where famous people like Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson and Davey Crockett once walked, or visit the Chuckey Depot Museum at Jonesborough, a restored turn-of-the-century railroad depot that tells the story of the railroad’s impact on small rural communities.

Dahlonega, Georgia

Dahlonega’s historic public square is lined with brick sidewalks and features 19th century buildings filled with shops, galleries, restaurants and entertainment venues. The downtown district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is considered one of the South’s most quaint and active town centers. The city is known for its gold rush history. In 1928, Dahlonega was flooded with miners after it was discovered to have the largest gold deposits east of the Mississippi River.

Groups can visit the Dahlonega Gold Museum State Historic Site, which is in the town square, to learn about the area’s mining past. The museum is in a historic courthouse that originally served as the courthouse for Lumpkin County from 1836 to 1965. Visitors can visit the judge’s chambers and view rare coins and gold nuggets.

To learn more about the town, groups can take the Dahlonega History Tour, which features stories of the individuals who were integral in making Dahlonega what it is today, including Colonel William Pierce Price Jr., who founded the University of North Georgia.

The Historic Smith House Inn has ample space for large groups and offers family-style country foods. The downtown square also has two confectionaries, Paul Thomas Chocolates and The Fudge Factory. A short drive away, visitors can enjoy Chestatee Wildlife Preserve and Zoo and North Georgia Wildlife Park. The Dahlonega Butterfly Farm is open seasonally and allows visitors to get up close to butterflies in a tropical greenhouse. Red Oak Lavender Farm is one of the largest lavender farms in Georgia, with over 4,000 plants. 

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Harpers Ferry and neighboring Bolivar have walkable historic downtowns with distinctive shops and a variety of cafes and restaurants. Harpers Ferry and the surrounding county are steeped in Civil War history. Its most famous attraction, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, preserves the U.S. Armory and Arsenal held by John Brown and his supporters for three days in 1859. Brown, an abolitionist, wanted to get his hands on the estimated 100,000 firearms stored in the federal arsenal to arm the slaves to foment a rebellion. On Oct. 18, 1859, he led 18 men into the town of Harpers Ferry, but he overestimated the support he would receive, and his rebellion was quickly dispelled.

Groups can take a ranger-guided tour of the armory and arsenal or trace John Brown’s Trail, which follows Brown from his planning of the raid through his incarceration and hanging. Storer College, which is part of the national historical park, is a historically Black college that operated from 1867 to 1955 and is where the precursor to the NAACP got its start.

Harpers Ferry is also known for its beautiful scenery. The Potomac and Shenandoah rivers both run through the town, and groups can spend a day on the water with standup paddleboards or book a raft or float trip. The Appalachian Trail runs right through Harpers Ferry, and groups can hike along the historic towpath along the C&O Canal. Ghost tours are also offered downtown.

Covington, Kentucky

Across the Ohio river from Cincinnati, Covington, Kentucky, is divided into several trendy neighborhoods full of unique shops, street art, restaurants, bourbon bars and craft breweries. The Madison District, or downtown Covington, wends from Madison Avenue to the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, a Catholic cathedral modeled on Notre Dame in Paris. Groups can tour the interior of the church, with its stained-glass windows imported from Germany.

Like other districts in Covington, Madison features craft breweries, restaurants and three stops on the B-Line, northern Kentucky’s self-guided bourbon trail. Roebling Point is at the foot of the Roebling Suspension Bridge that connects Covington with Cincinnati. It is a foodie paradise, with ice cream shops, Molly Malone’s Irish pub, Smoke Justis, and Covington Yard, an outdoor gathering place ringed with shipping-container restaurants and a full-service bar.

Mainstrasse Village is one of the most popular neighborhoods in Covington. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places because it has one of the densest collections of 19th century architecture in the U.S. and is just a few blocks from the riverfront hotels and convention center.

The Goose Girl Fountain is in the heart of Mainstrasse, and the Carroll Chimes Bell Tower entertains with a carillon and working glockenspiel. Five times a day, from April through November, mechanical figures of the Pied Piper and the children following him emerge from the top of the tower.