From Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia to Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, the South is a veritable playground for visitors of all ages. Here are just a few family-friendly destinations that offer a wonderful mix of outdoor adventure, history and amusement park thrills.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is surrounded on three sides by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its jaw-dropping mountain vistas. It also is home to four family-friendly attractions: the Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park and Ski Area, Gatlinburg SkyLift Park, Anakeesta Mountaintop Park and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Pigeon Forge, the home of Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park, is only six miles away.
Ober Gatlinburg is a ski area in the winter but offers year-round amusements, such as an indoor ice skating rink, a snowless tubing hill, a mountain coaster and children’s rides. Gatlinburg Skylift Park is home to the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. It features glass panels, giving guests a heart-pounding view of the terrain below.
Anakeesta Mountaintop Park has dining, shopping, lush botanical gardens and an observation tower with 360-degree views of the Smokies. It also has zip lines, a treetop skywalk and a challenging ropes course.
Ripley’s Aquarium boasts a large saltwater lagoon that is home to 8,500 aquatic animals, including sharks, sawfish and Sally, a green sea turtle. Visitors can take a glass-bottom-boat ride on top of the tank to get a closer view of the lagoon’s inhabitants.
Williamsburg is the ultimate destination for families because its attractions span historic sites, amusement parks and many outdoor adventures. The most famous attraction is Colonial Williamsburg, the perfectly preserved Colonial city, where visitors learn about the birth of our country.
Group tours touch upon some of the historic highlights of the site, including the Governor’s Palace and the Capitol, taverns that date back to the late 1700s, museums, and historic area demonstrations and daily reenactments. The site also explains the relationship between wealthy landowners and slaves and tells the story of African Americans’ long road to freedom.
Williamsburg is within 13 miles of Historic Jamestowne, the site of the 1607 James Fort, the Jamestown settlement and Yorktown, the location of the last battle of the Revolutionary War.
And although younger generations will enjoy the historical aspects of the area, two major theme parks also call the area home: Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA, Virginia’s largest water park. Outdoor recreation options include biking, hiking, Segway tours, zip lining, golf, schooner sails, and paddleboarding and kayaking on the James and York rivers.
Lafayette, Louisiana, is the capital of Cajun country and is best known for its food, its blend of Cajun and Creole culture and its zydeco and Cajun music.
Groups that want to experience what it was like at the founding of Lafayette can visit Vermilionville, a living-history museum that delves into the history and culture of the area and how it was influenced by Native Americans, French Acadians, Creoles and people of African descent who called the area home. Costumed interpreters give tours and hands-on demonstrations.
Avery Island, which is just outside Lafayette, is a popular attraction. People can take a factory tour and learn how Tabasco brand pepper sauce is made. Explore the museum, pepper greenhouse and barrel warehouse, or see how Tabasco is blended and bottled. After the tour, visitors can stroll through Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre semitropical garden, to view local plants and native wildlife.
Visitors who want to experience the natural wonders of Lafayette should take an airboat tour or a guided kayak or canoe trip through the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in North America. Families can enjoy the mystique of the moss-draped trees and search the area for elusive alligators, beautiful birds and other wildlife.
Biloxi, Ocean Springs and Gulfport make up coastal Mississippi, a region full of fun family activities. The area offers pristine beaches, kid-friendly museums, an aquarium, boat tours and casinos. The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport offers hands-on indoor and outdoor activities for children, including a treehouse village and Kids Street, a real-life kid-size subdivision that fuels the imagination.
The Mississippi Aquarium, which opened in Gulfport in August 2020, sits on 5.8 acres along the waterfront and features more than 200 species of animals and 50 species of plants that are native to the area. The Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi brings the area’s seafood and maritime history to life. Groups that are interested in learning more about the seafood industry can get out on a shrimping boat for a more hands-on experience.
Families can get out on the water by taking a ferry to Ship Island to enjoy the beach and tour a real Civil War fort or by booking a ride on the Betsy Ann Riverboat, which gives historical and ecological tours of the Mississippi Sound and Biloxi Bay.
Art lovers should visit the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, which features the pottery of George Ohr, the “mad potter of Biloxi.”
Greenville, South Carolina
Greenville sits at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which makes it a great jumping-off spot for outdoor enthusiasts. Downtown is walkable, and museums, restaurants, bike trails and attractions are all withing walking distance. A free trolley service offers passage to the Village of West Greenville — the city’s arts district — and the baseball stadium, which is home to the Greenville Drive, a minor league team affiliated with the Boston Red Sox.
Greenville has a robust arts scene with multiple theaters that produce everything from live local music and theatrical productions to Broadway shows, ballet and symphony performances.
Younger visitors will love the Greenville Zoo and Cedar Falls Park, a 90-acre park that features a 200-foot-wide waterfall on the Reedy River, as well as 2.2 miles of walking and mountain biking trails. More adventurous families should experience the Gorge, a zip-line canopy tour that plunges visitors 1,100 vertical feet from the rim of the Green River Gorge.
Greenville also is home to the Greenville Museum of Art, which has the largest Andrew Wyeth painting collection in the country, and the BMW Performance Center, a driving school that allows group visitors to drive BMWs on more than 1.7 miles of paved and off-road tracks.
Charleston, West Virginia
The riverfront capital of West Virginia is still a small town at heart, with hip art galleries, independent restaurants and boutique shops. Visitors should make a point of touring the newly refurbished, historic gold-domed state Capitol and taking a tour of the opulent Governor’s Mansion.
The West Virginia State Museum, which is housed in the Culture Center, tells the history of the state from prehistoric times to present day. West Virginia Public Broadcasting records its “Mountain Stage” program from the Culture Center. The show presents live folk, country and blues concerts that air on National Public Radio. Visitors are welcome to take in these live performances during their visits.
Haddad Riverfront Park is home to Live on the Levee, the city’s free live concert series that takes place every Friday night from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Streets are closed off, and there are numerous food trucks to choose from.
Art aficionados can take a self-guided art tour through different neighborhoods in the city or spend the day at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences. The 240,000-square-foot center features the Avampato Discovery Museum, a children’s museum with hands-on exhibits and a towering climbing sculpture; the Caperton Planetarium and Theater; the Maier Foundation Performance Hall; and Juliet Art Museum.