From the Louisiana Bayou and the mountains of Arkansas to historic Virginia and sunny Florida, the Southeast is one of the best areas of the country for a getaway. TravelAwaits writers have been out exploring the southeastern part of the U.S. and have shared their destination recommendations below. Whether you visit the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the tiny towns tucked away in northern Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest or not, we’re sure you’ll enjoy learning about them!
1. Huntsville, Alabama
Nicknamed The Rocket City because of its role in the U.S. space program, Huntsville, Alabama, is home to the second-largest technology and research park in the country. With its highly educated population and its beautiful location in Alabama’s Appalachian region, Huntsville has much to offer.
See space program artifacts like the lunar rover and Saturn rockets at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the largest space museum in the world. But it’s not all rockets — there’s rock music too! Boasting 8,000 seats, the $40 million Orion Amphitheater opened in May 2022. Hosting ballet, plays, sports, fairs, and festivals, the Von Braun Center has five venues, plus the Rhythm on Monroe restaurant and rooftop bar. Or, enjoy one of Lowe Mill’s Concerts on the Dock. Roxie Yonkey recommends visiting in the spring for wildflowers or in autumn for fall foliage.
2. Hot Springs, Arkansas
“Hot Springs was the sleeper hit of my 2022 travel season,” says Jill Robbins, who stayed there on her visit to Hot Springs National Park. In addition to the park and various spas along Bathhouse Row, Hot Springs boasts a walkable downtown with lots of shopping, dining, and bar options.
Robbins recommends checking out The Gangster Museum of America. “It might seem cheesy at first glance,” she explains, “but it gives an informative history of how the city of Hot Springs evolved from a Vegas-style retreat for Al Capone into what it is today.”
Visit in June to catch Bridge St. LIVE!, a free block party on Thursdays when the entertainment district fills with live entertainment, activities for kids, food, and vendors. Plan your trip around the bucket list-worthy World Championship Running of the Tubs bathtub race on June 3.
3. Amelia Island, Florida
Situated on the northeast coast of Florida, Amelia Island features 13 miles of beautiful uncrowded beaches, a historic old town, and excellent restaurants. It is also home to welcoming residents and a pleasant beachy atmosphere. Great shopping, golfing, and all kinds of water activities can also be found on the island, which offers a variety of tours and boat rentals.
Spring through fall is the best time to visit to enjoy the beach according to Robin O’Neal Smith. Kicking off with a pirate parade, the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival takes place in downtown Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, May 5 to 7. Admission is free for this food fest, which also features antiques and collectibles, over 375 booths, and an arts and crafts show. Or, come the first week of October to catch the Amelia Island Jazz Festival. Either way, Amelia Island is a great place to kick back, relax, and unplug.
4. Anna Maria Island, Florida
Off of Florida’s Gulf Coast, Anna Maria Island (AMI) beckons you to explore its 7 miles of beach. Along with Longboat Key, AMI makes up the Bradenton Gulf Islands, which is home to six Blue Wave-certified beaches.
But the island has more to offer than fun in the sun, according to Amy Piper. Learn about the area at historical and cultural venues such as Anna Maria Island Museum. Explore Anna Maria City Pier, a 700-foot-long, historic pier from the early 1900s that features some of the best views of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Enjoy shopping along Pine Street. Several restaurants offer outdoor seating and sunset views, including Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe and Anna Maria Oyster Bar on the pier.
5. Pensacola, Florida
Just across the Florida-Alabama state line on The Sunshine State’s panhandle, Pensacola is known for its miles of white quartz sand beaches and the clear emerald waters of Pensacola Bay. However, the area offers several other incredible things to do in addition to its gorgeous beaches.
Zibula recommends wandering around Belmont-DeVilliers, a historic neighborhood, which was a melting pot for music and food during the early 20th century. “Landmark buildings and the general vibe of the area helped work up an appetite for a fabulous jazz brunch at Five Sisters Blues Café,” she says.
Speaking of restaurants, Zibula has some great recs for indulging in Pensacola’s outstanding fresh seafood scene: The Grand Marlin, Jaco’s Bayfront Bar & Grille, Red Fish Blue Fish, and Casino Beach Bar & Grille. Burn off the calories on America’s First Settlement Trail. The 3-mile trail runs through downtown Pensacola and the Pensacola Historic District, Fort Pickens, and the Pensacola Beach Pier. For more of a workout, check out these nearby hiking trails.
6. Stuart, Florida
A true treasure on Florida’s Treasure Coast, Stuart serves as a perfect weekend getaway. This lesser-known gem is home to uncrowded beaches, unspoiled parkland, a charming walkable downtown district, and fabulous food.
Non-beach activities include an informative 2-hour Treasure Coast River Cruise and visiting the phenomenal 57-acre Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, where you can feed and pet stingrays, among other things.
Stuart boasts several fine museums, but Zibula says the Elliott Museum is not to be missed. Its collection features antique automobiles, rare watercraft, autographed baseball memorabilia, and Treasure Coast history.
About half an hour south of Stuart, quaint Hobe Sound offers antique shops, art galleries, and a treasure trove of natural beauty.
7. Longboat Key, Florida
Near Sarasota, Longboat Key, Florida, is part of the Bradenton–Sarasota metropolitan area along with Anna Maria Island. With miles of pristine sandy white beaches, fine dining, and designer shopping, luxurious Longboat Key is “a great place to be a higher-end beach bum” according to SJ Morgensen.
“If you’re going for the beach, you may as well stay right on the beach,” says Morgensen. There are quite a few hotels and rentals to choose from, based on your budget. Morgensen recommends the Zota Beach Resort. “The beachfront location is perfect and the infinity pool and adjacent outdoor bar are gorgeous,” she raves.
Head to St. Armands Circle for open-air shopping and dining with a European vibe.
Grab a table by the water at Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub, where dinner is tranquil and the catch of the day is ultra-fresh. Or, enjoy an intimate dining experience at Euphemia Haye Restaurant. After dinner, head up the stairs to the Haye Loft for a decadent dessert.
8. Blairsville, Georgia
A couple of hours north of Atlanta, not too terribly far from the North Carolina border, Blairsville, Georgia, lies nestled within the Chattahoochee National Forest. The Appalachian Trail passes nearby, making Blairsville a popular destination for hikers and campers. In addition to being home to Georgia’s highest peaks, Brasstown Bald and Blood Mountain, the area is also home to Vogel State Park. The second-oldest state park in Georgia is a favorite of Kathleen Walls.
“I love visiting the Old Courthouse Museum and enjoy its concerts of old Appalachian music,” says Walls. The Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center pays tribute to Union County’s most famous poet.
For entertainment and beverages, head downtown to Granddaddy Mimm’s Distilling Company. The distillery was founded by musician Tommy Townsend. Not only is Townsend the grandson of moonshiner Grandaddy Mimms, but he also played with Waylon Jennings. “Now he has his own band, Waymore’s Outlaws, composed of Waylon’s original band members,” Walls tells us. “I love Tommy’s concerts,” she says, “Even if you don’t drink, you’ll enjoy the music.” Speaking of live music, Paradise Hills Winery Resort and Spa offers live music every Friday and Saturday.
9. Thomasville, Georgia
Thomasville, Georgia, is 34 miles north of Tallahassee, Florida. “In the late 1800s, the railroad ended in Thomasville, and northerners came south for the winters,” explains Yonkey, “Eventually, the wealthy visitors realized that buying homes was less expensive than hotel living.” Many of the winter cottages are now on the Thomasville walking and driving tours.
While the gorgeous “cottages” are beautiful, Thomasville’s fame is tied to roses. Its nickname is the City of Roses, and it holds the Rose Show and Festival annually. Thomasville celebrated the show’s centennial in 2022. The 2023 edition will be held downtown on April 28 and 29.
Don’t just stop to smell the roses; hug a tree. But not just any tree. The Big Oak is more than 26 feet around. Call (229) 236-0053 to activate the Big Oak Cam for your selfie with the celebrity tree.
10. Lake Charles, Louisiana
About an hour outside of Beaumont, Texas, Lake Charles has earned its reputation as Louisiana’s Playground. Jill Robbins tells us that the historic town offers all sorts of activities, including luxury casinos, golf courses, and a robust music scene. It even has the Creole Nature Trail and Sam Houston Jones State Park for nature lovers!
“A long list of dining options will both satisfy your quest for Cajun eats and surprise you with cuisine you wouldn’t expect to find in Southwest Louisiana,” Robbins assures us.
While the mild climates are conducive to year-round visits, summers are hot and humid. Keep an eye on any incoming hurricanes or tropical storms. The best time to visit Lake Charles is Mardi Gras. While Lake Charles can party it up as well as their neighbors in New Orleans, its Fat Tuesday activities are less rowdy and more suitable for families. There’s a Mardi Gras parade for children and the Krewe of Krewes Parade is well-known for throwing more than beads at spectators. Don’t be surprised if someone tosses you a Nerf football or a Moon Pie.
Pro Tip: For a truly authentic Mardi Gras experience for all ages, check out the famous Chicken Run in neighboring Iowa (pronounced eye-oh-way).
11. Asheville, North Carolina
Tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville has a diverse array of activities that will keep travelers busy. “Plus, the incredible food scene is one of the best in the Southeast,” as Jeanine Consoli contends. In addition to its restaurants, Consoli loves Asheville for its arts district, quirky museums, the Biltmore Estate, breweries, and the opportunity to immerse yourself in nature.
Once you’re finished exploring the Biltmore house, head over to Chai Pani for authentic Indian street food. “The restaurant is funky and laid back,” remarks Consoli, “but the food — served family style — is out of this world.”
12. Edenton, North Carolina
Named one of the prettiest towns in America by Forbes, Edenton, North Carolina, is the quintessential southern town. Nestled on the banks of the Albemarle Sound, just 2 hours from Raleigh, Edenton oozes Southern charm and character.
Rich with history, Edenton was North Carolina’s first Colonial capital. Its picturesque downtown is very Americana, with shops and restaurants housed in restored historic buildings lining the streets. Peruse your way down Broad Street to Colonial Park on Edenton Bay. Stately Victorian homes wrapped with porches that are adorned with swings and Southern-style rocking chairs populate the historic district.
“Edenton has a lot to offer,” says Loretta Berry, who recommends taking a Trolley Tour and Edenton Bay cruise aboard the Liber-Tea. The Edenton Museum Trail self-guided walking tour begins at the Historic Edenton Visitor Center. While at the waterfront, Berry suggests visiting the Penelope Barker House Welcome Center and the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse.
13. Salisbury, North Carolina
“On First Fridays, downtown shops and restaurants offered a little something for everyone,” she reports, “In the spring, there was face painting, roses, apple pie bites, candy, balloons, et cetera. There was dancing to live band music in the streets.”
Thrift stores and the Webb Flea Market provide hours of treasure hunting. “Every second Saturday, there was a Studio Crawl offered by a thriving art community that had relocated from Charlotte, where the cost of living is much higher,” Colborn asserts. There are two dozen pieces of fine public art around town and the Confederate Prison and National Cemetery offer a bit of history.
North Carolina’s famous Transportation Museum can be found less than 10 minutes away in Spencer. “A little further away, the Sea Grove community of a hundred potters clusters around the four roads of Star,” recalls Colborn.
14. Winston-Salem, North Carolina
“Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is one of those towns you could miss if it’s not on your radar,” says Sandi Barrett. The city is a Southern foodie destination serving up classic dishes like dreamy tomato pie and soul-satisfying shrimp and grits. “I was happy to taste test all the goodies,” Barrett tells us, “It was a delightful adventure.”
Spend an afternoon strolling the charming shops of busy Reynolda Village. The former estate of the R.J. Reynolds family is now a gathering spot for locals and visitors. Stop and smell the roses in beautiful Reynolda Gardens, which features a landscaped park and garden beds.
Another must-see in Winston-Salem is Old Salem Museum & Gardens, a vibrant historical village highlighting the Moravian settlers. “Be sure to add a visit out to Mrs. Hanes’ Moravian Cookies production factory in Clemmens,” Barrett adds, “It is a sweet addition to any itinerary.”
15. Walhalla, South Carolina
Nestled in the northwesternmost part of South Carolina, Walhalla is a charming small town with loads of personality. Its Oconee County location puts it in proximity to other interesting towns and the county’s whopping 26 waterfalls.
“I enjoyed RVing there but stayed overnight in the Chattanooga Studio at Lofts Over Main overlooking Main Street,” Melody Pittman tells us. She attests that there’s no wrong time to visit, but spring or summer are best if you want to take advantage of all that Lake Jocassee has to offer, including boating, swimming, and fishing. Pittman recommends exploring the gorgeous lake with a naturalist from Jocassee Lake Tours, which she describes as “the perfect partner to hit the water with and learn about ecotourism.”
16. Wytheville, Virginia
Wytheville’s Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum honors President Wilson’s wife, who many historians call the “first acting woman president.” Learn about the historic town’s past, including the county’s 1950 polio epidemic, at the Thomas J. Boyd Museum.
Wytheville Training School Cultural Center houses the African American Heritage Museum, where you can learn about Wythe County’s history of African American education through photos, stories, and other memorabilia.
See five states from Big Walker Lookout. The 100-foot lookout tower offers sweeping panoramic vistas. Feed wildlife from a safari bus at Fort Chiswell Animal Park (open seasonally, April through October).
Walls recommends staying at the stately Trinkle Mansion Bed & Breakfast, which once was the home of a Virginia governor’s brother. For food and drink, check out Log House 1776 Restaurant, Seven Sisters Brewery, and 7 Dogs Brewpub. Visit in June to catch the Chautauqua Festival!