Think of them as some of the South’s best treasures: small and midsized cities that offer bucket-list-worthy experiences you can’t find anyplace else.
Though they may be smaller, these five Southern destinations deliver on history, culture and scenic beauty in a big way.
At the epicenter of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail lies Bardstown, routinely voted one of America’s Most Beautiful Small Towns.
Groups can enjoy strolls through the city’s quaint downtown, where locally owned shops and restaurants abound, including Bardstown’s famed Old Talbot Tavern, built in 1789, one year before the city’s founding.
At My Old Kentucky Home State Park, guests can tour the famed Federal-style manor that inspired Stephen Foster’s iconic ballad. Each summer, Foster’s music comes to life through productions of “The Stephen Foster Story” at the park’s outdoor amphitheater.
For bourbon lovers, the city and its surrounding region offer no shortage of distilleries to explore.
“We have nine distilleries within 16 miles of our downtown courthouse,” said Sam Lacy, director of marketing and bourbon experiences for the Bardstown/Nelson County Tourism and Convention Commission. “Our distilleries offer multiple, unique experiences, so it really just depends on what groups are looking for.”
Groups can opt for everything from a free tour experience at Barton 1792, the oldest distillery in Bardstown, to hands-on learning opportunities at the new Bardstown Bourbon Company, where visitors can learn to make a proper Old-Fashioned and even taste the bourbon straight from the barrel.
Booking a dinner excursion on My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, which leaves from a Bardstown depot, offers another way to explore Kentucky’s bourbon country.
Faith-based groups may also want to schedule stops at the city’s historic Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains. Additionally, the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of Trappist monks well known as the former home of famed spiritual writer Thomas Merton, offers group tours and retreats on its picturesque campus.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Famous as the site of abolitionist John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid, which he had hoped would lead to a slave rebellion, Harpers Ferry has long held a unique position in American history.
A visit to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park offers insights not only into John Brown’s life and the specific events of the raid, but also, life in general in 19th-century America. Costumed re-enactors demonstrate period-authentic crafts and trades through living-history workshops. Trails at the park also commemorate Civil War skirmish lines from the Battle at Harpers Ferry.
The city is also home to breathtaking natural beauty, sitting as it does along the Appalachian Trail at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
“We have this great mix of history and outdoor recreation,” said Annette Gavin-Bates, director of the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Harpers Ferry is this beautiful small-town village amongst a national park, surrounded by hills and valleys and rivers, which really lends itself to a unique setting that’s like nothing else you’ve ever been to.”
Groups can easily hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail from the city or, for those looking for even more adventure, book a kayak or tubing trip on the Shenandoah River through outfitters such as River Riders Family Adventure Resort.
The city also offers easy access to major destinations like Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
“You can enjoy our authentic natural beauty here in Harpers Ferry — and avoid rush hour traffic — and still be in Washington, D.C., in under an hour, which is one reason we are fortunate to host so many visitors here every year,” Gavin-Bates said.
St. Augustine, Florida
Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in America. The town proudly bills itself as America’s first city, and there’s no shortage of history to explore.
Groups can tour the famed Castillo de San Marcos, where costumed re-enactors often delight visitors with cannon-firing demonstrations. Built between 1672 and 1695, it’s the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.
A visit to the city’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, situated in the area first visited by Ponce de Leon in 1513, offers a trip even further back in time to chart the earliest origins of Spanish exploration in the area.
“Archaeological digs on the back of the park have found that it is, significantly, the site where Pedro Menendez de Aviles and the Spaniards, in 1565, had developed their first colony site among the Timucua Indians,” said Barbara Golden, communications manager for St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau. Occasionally, it’s possible to see ongoing exploratory digs as they happen.
Another popular stop is the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, where visitors can climb to the top of the lighthouse for breathtaking views and, down below, enjoy detailed exhibits about the city’s centuries-long maritime heritage.
Art and design fans will want to make time to visit the Lightner Museum, as well as nearby Flagler College. Former hotels built by Standard Oil founder and railroad magnate Henry Flagler in the 19th century, they each offer daily tours of their stunning buildings and grounds.
The Lightner Museum, formerly the Alcazar Hotel, is today home to one of the country’s top collections of 19th-century fine and decorative art. Flagler College, the former Hotel Ponce de Leon, is home to one of the largest collections of Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass windows in the world.
Beaufort, North Carolina
Beaufort is a sun lover’s dream destination, with easy access to boating and all varieties of watersport fun.
Its small downtown is bustling with shops, restaurants and galleries, as well as cultural gems like the North Carolina Maritime Museum, which celebrates the area’s rich seafaring history.
The nearby Rachel Carson Reserve, accessible only by boat, offers opportunities for birding, shelling and even wild-horse viewing. Private tour groups such as Island Ferry Adventures offer daily ferry and tour service.
In the city, groups can take bike, walking and even pirate-themed tours to learn more about Beaufort and its history.
“We have lots of pirate history in Beaufort,” said Karen Gould, director of digital and event marketing at the Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority.
Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground in 1718, was found and identified just offshore near Beaufort in 1996. Some of the items reclaimed from the ship are now on view at the city’s Maritime Museum. The town was also part of a so-called Pirate Invasion in 1747, an event that’s re-enacted over two days each August in an annual citywide celebration with costumed pirates, a parade, demonstrations and more.
“There are also beautiful homes to view down Ann Street,” Gould said. “And some tours focus on sites mentioned in Nicholas Sparks’ book ‘A Walk To Remember.’”
In all, the Beaufort Historic District includes 285 historic homes, more than 150 of which are at least 100 years old. Some, such as the Leffers Cottage, date to the late 1700s.
Guided walking tours of the historic district are available, as are double-decker bus tours. Staff at the Beaufort Historic Site Visitor Center and Museum can help groups make the most of their visit to the city’s old-town center.
Home to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Charlottesville offers guests a chance to walk in the footsteps of presidential history.
“There’s a ton to take in there,” said Brantley Ussery, director of marketing and public relations for the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We always encourage groups to allocate at least four hours for a tour of the home and its grounds.”
The city’s University of Virginia campus — specifically its rotunda, lawn and original academic core, which was designed by Jefferson and is often celebrated for its beauty — has also been named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Historic tours of the campus are available through the university.
Charlottesville also boasts a bustling downtown center, highlighted by its pedestrian-only Downtown Mall.
“We are home to one of the most successful pedestrian malls in the country,” Ussery said. “Our Downtown Mall is about eight blocks in length and features a wonderful variety of restaurants and shopping, unique bookstores and real boutique-type places where you can get those truly one-of-a-kind gifts.”
Many restaurants feature patio dining with live music when the weather is nice.
“It’s the true artery of downtown and a real must-see when you’re in the area,” Ussery said. “It’s just a very vibrant, cool place to explore.”
Groups can also enjoy the region’s booming wine scene, which includes more than 35 wineries, all within just 20 minutes of downtown.