There's a reason why so many classic films—like Steel Magnolias, The Notebook, and Forrest Gump—take place in small Southern towns. These quaint destinations are oozing with charm, from the lively music scene to the slower pace of life, hearty comfort food, and of course, the legendary hospitality.
While the hustle and bustle of major cities like Nashville and New Orleans can be exciting, you can't beat the appeal of meandering quiet sidewalks and meeting the warm and welcoming locals in a cozier community. And these storybook towns often have no shortage of things to do—many are loaded with rich history, vibrant arts and culture scenes, and incredible dining options.
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The Best Small Towns in the South
1. Tarpon Springs, Florida
Right along the Gulf of Mexico shores just an hour's drive northwest of Tampa lies this adorable waterfront town—which, according to Kathryn Anderson, founder of the travel blog Coffee&Mascara, feels like a slice of Greece.
"With a population of just over 25,000 people, many of whom are of Greek descent, this charming town will transport you to the Greek islands," she says. "Authentic Greek music pours out onto the streets from the stores as the vendors are trying to pull you in to shop. Others are encouraging you to enter their restaurants for a meal, claiming to have the best Greek food in town."
While all the authentic Greek fare is tasty, Anderson strongly recommends hitting up Dimitri's On The Water for the flaming Saganaki and fresh grilled octopus.
"The main strip is lined with fishing and sponge dock boats, and you can even go on a boat tour to learn all about natural sponges and how they are harvested," adds Anderson. "These eco-friendly alternatives to synthetic sponges are far better for both mother nature and your home. Several shops are dedicated to selling a wide variety of sea sponges so be sure to grab a few as souvenirs."
Laura Olds, co-founder and full-time travel blogger at A Piece of Travel, says between the Greek flags hanging from store shops and boats, and the locals often speaking Greek to one another, you may just forget you're still in the U.S.
Did we mention that Tarpon Springs sees an average of 246 days of sunshine a year? Spend those sun-soaked afternoons strolling the markets, touring one of the many museums, or lounging on the spectacular beaches.
2. Dahlonega, Georgia
The name of this town stems from the Cherokee word for gold—because it was home to a major gold rush in the 1830s. Today, you can still tour an old gold mine there and visit the Dahlonega Gold Museum to take a closer look at Georgia's gold mining history. During the October Gold Rush Festival, over 200 vendors line the streets of the town square with homemade goods, food, and tons of holiday decor.
Needless to say, Dahlonega is an ideal destination for history buffs. But this town—which is just a one hour drive north of Atlanta at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains—has a lot of other things to offer, says Brianna Knight, founder of Third Row Adventures.
Knight recommends checking out the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve, a local sanctuary for animals that were injured or orphaned—where you can catch a glimpse of sloths, tigers, and so much more. A couple of other stops worth making are the Red Oak Lavender Farm and Camp Creek Falls, which boasts reasonable hikes to breathtaking waterfalls.
Dahlonega has been used as a filming location for many of the Hallmark Christmas movies, according to Knight, and once you see the elaborate town square holiday decorations, you'll understand why.
"While you're there, make sure to check out the historic Holly Theatre and toast your time there with one of Georgia wine country's best tipples," adds Jenny Ly, a professional travel blogger and entrepreneur at Go Wanderly.
3. Folly Beach, South Carolina
This seaside town is a mecca for fishermen, beach bums, and surfers alike. It's known for its easygoing, come-as-you-are vibe—and as such, flip-flops are the footwear of choice here (unless you're going barefoot, as many locals do).
Folly Beach, which happens to be just minutes from historic downtown Charleston, boasts 6 miles of beaches. There's plenty to do here—from kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding to fishing and eco-tours. Before catching some legendary waves at The Washout, stop by South Carolina's oldest surfing outfitter, McKevlin's Surf Shop, to snag some new gear. After changing out of your wetsuit, stop by one of the many oceanfront eateries for some fish tacos or other fresh seafood.
According to Shaun Hammond, author of The Traveling Drifter, the town is also loaded with unique shops with funky clothing and knick-knacks. And the fun doesn't stop after dark, either: once night falls, expect to find phenomenal live music, dangerously tasty fruity cocktails, and occasional rooftop dance parties.
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4. West Monroe, Louisiana
Situated right on the banks of the Ouachita River, this picture-perfect Southern town feels like a movie set—between the rich history, spectacular nature trails, stunning architecture, and antique stores bursting with nostalgia.
"In the 19th century, West Monroe was known as Louisiana's Cotton Port," says Jenna Walker, author/owner of the blog Travels of Jenna. "Many of the old buildings from the 19th and 20th century still stand allowing West Monroe to retain its historic charm."
Step back in time by spending an afternoon perusing Antique Alley, where you'll find tons of vintage furniture, home decor, clothing, art, and even old baseball cards. From there, Walker suggests sampling some local suds at the Flying Heart Brewery, or getting your fill of cajun cuisine at one of the many stellar downtown restaurants.
History buffs can take a guided walking tour to learn more about the famous landmarks. Or, if you'd prefer to get an up-close look at local plant and animal life, you can trek the ample scenic hiking trails through the forested wetlands and scope out the alligators, turtles, egrets, red-winged blackbirds, and more at the majestic 4,500-acre Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
For a super unique experience, swing by the Biedenharn Museum&Gardens, a complex that combines an artifact-filled historic home, formal English botanical gardens, a Coca-Cola Museum, and a Bible Museum all in one place.
5. Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Outdoorsy travelers may just never want to leave this cozy town, which is nestled in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. Known for its bevy of noteworthy landmarks, all of which are built around the natural springs, this city is actually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But beyond the stunning long-standing churches, eye-opening museums, and preserved Victorian buildings to see, there's also lots to do here as well—from camping and ziplining to mountain biking and trout fishing.
"One of the things that makes Eureka Springs so charming is Beaver Lake," says Jon Callahan, the author behind Journey Junket. "Created in the 1960s, Beaver Lake is an artificial reservoir and holds about 29,000 acres of water. There are many boat launches and picnic tables in the Beaver Lake area and if you love cold-water fishing, you can't beat it. There are also lots of other great spots to stop and have a memorable swim or hike."
There's a little something for everyone in Eureka Springs. Adventurous types will enjoy exploring some of Arkansas's largest show caves, like Cosmic Cavern and Onyx Cave — where you'll get to see jaw-dropping rock formations and chambers. Music lovers, meanwhile, should stop by Mojo's Records to check out the unparalleled selection of vintage vinyl. And art enthusiasts should definitely stop by the Zarks Gallery or Quicksilver Art&Fine Craft Gallery to pick up special souvenirs created by locals.
6. Southern Pines, North Carolina
There are lots of reasons why visitors from all over the region flock to this beautiful Southern town—from its spectacular historical sites and exciting outdoor activities to its many local boutiques and renowned restaurants. The vibrant downtown area is studded with cute cafes and craft breweries where you can sip on local suds while enjoying live music and sampling some food truck eats.
"The people in Southern Pines are some of the sweetest souls you will meet," says Abby Price, CEO and co-founder of Trekking Price's. "They treat you like family right away."
According to Price, the pristine world-class golf courses are one of the main attractions here. For example, the town's own Pine Needles Resort&Golf Club has hosted the U.S. Women's Open five different times.
But that's not all Southern Pines has to offer. This town is also known for its equestrian activity thanks to its miles of riding trails and plentiful horse farms. It's also home to the 900-acre Weymouth Woods nature preserve, which features centuries-old pine trees and an exhibit hall where you can learn about the history, flora, and fauna of the area.
Meanwhile, the Weymouth Center for the Arts&Humanities not only functions as a park, formal gardens, and nature preserve, but also as a residency where you can attend poetry readings, musical concerts, and dramatic performances.
7. Blue Ridge, Georgia
Between the staggering 106,000 acres of Chattahoochee National Forest, 300 miles of hiking trails, and 100 miles of trout streams, Blue Ridge is a must-visit town for any nature enthusiast. This mountain town also features ample craft wineries and breweries, art exhibitions, and upscale shops and galleries. Whether you want to spend your days kayaking in the Toccoa, hiking to local waterfalls along the Appalachian Trail, whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River, or just doing some window shopping downtown, you're bound to have a memorable stay.
"The downtown is one very fluid line of shops that straddle the railroad of the Blue Ridge train station," explains Knight. "Visitors can find apparel shops, general stores, homemade ice cream and fudge, and many others. The lines of shops on each side of the street are separated by a well-maintained green space that offers a playground, picnic areas, and some fun local chickens that always seem to be hungry."
Knight says the thriving restaurant scene here is teeming with classic Southern cuisine, from barbecue to fried catfish. "The best activities include riding the scenic Blue Ridge Railway, picking apples at Mercier Orchards, and the Swan Drive-In movie theater," adds Knight. "And the railway station is in the heart of downtown so visitors can easily park their cars in one of the all-day lots and spend the whole day downtown."
Knight's favorite thing about Blue Ridge is that it is super walkable—while exploring the downtown area, feel free to bring along a furry friend or stroller. "And the town is on mountain time so there's no rush, whether driving through or walking the streets," she explains. "It's extremely family and pet-friendly—in fact, most shops have water bowls for dogs outside of their doors."
8. Beaufort, South Carolina
With its close proximity to both Charleston and Hilton Head Island, this town—which is set on Port Royal Island—serves as an ideal day trip or home base for any coastal South Carolina vacation.
"You will be hard-pressed to find a more quintessentially Southern town than Beaufort," says DeWayne Tudor, a writer at The Simple Traveler Blog&Travel Agency. "Beautiful southern homes with big porches line the streets as you head into the easily walkable downtown area full of boutiques and restaurants. The waterfront park offers frequent porch swings along the riverwalk where you can stop and watch the shrimping boats come in and out of the marina. And the people are incredibly friendly and hospitable."
While exploring the downtown historic district, you're bound to spot some spectacular antebellum mansions. And when you're not marveling at the architecture, Luke Xavier from the travel blog USA Rover recommends enjoying a leisurely paddle down the river or taking a boat ride out to one of the nearby barrier islands.
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9. Heber Springs, Arkansas
To say Heber Springs is a small town might be an understatement: it's only 8 square miles. While it may be small in size, though, it's certainly not short on beauty—after all, it's named for a series of natural springs located on the east side of town. Just north of the city, Little Red River and Greers Ferry Lake offer ample opportunities for fishing, boating, and swimming.
"Heber Springs is a lake town full of gorgeous campgrounds, scenic hiking trails, and the best trout fishing in the world," says Lindsey Ralston, owner of All About Arkansas. "Greers Ferry Lake is perfect for any water sport—including my favorite: lazily floating on a raft. But what truly makes this easygoing town the best in Arkansas are the people. You'll find the friendliest people in the South in Heber Springs. We have made lifelong friends there in just one visit around a campfire."
When you need a break from lake life, consider visiting the Cleburne County Historical Society to look at historical displays and artifacts, soaking up the beautiful view at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Overlook, playing the 18-hole Mossy Bluff Disc Golf Course, taking a painting class at Ellen Hobgood Gallery, or scoping out the diverse shops and restaurants in the historic downtown area.
10. West Jefferson, North Carolina
"West Jefferson is close to Boone but without the crowds and heavy traffic," says Alison Watta, creator and editor of Exploration Solo. "Locals greet each other in shops and on the street, but they're also happy to point visitors to the best spots for food or coffee."
Watta suggests checking out the breweries, restaurants, and shops downtown—and also paying a visit to Ashe County Cheese factory to watch them make cheese curds.
Without a doubt, one of the first things you'll notice about West Jefferson is the vibrant arts district, which features a striking array of 13 distinctive murals and a handful of noteworthy galleries. "If you're lucky, you may find yourself visiting during one of the Gallery Crawls hosted throughout the year," Watta adds.
Speaking of art—one of the town's most visited attractions is St. Mary's Church of the Frescoes, a historic church featuring murals by celebrated local artist Ben Long.
And if you're the kind of person who just can't get enough holiday cheer, don't miss the town's Christmas in July celebration during Independence Day weekend—which typically draws over 20,000 visitors.