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The Southern United States has many incredible destinations, whether you’re looking for big cities or rural landscapes. It’s where American music has its roots and where you’re never far from a delicious meal. But there are places beyond popular destinations such as Nashville, Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans. If you’re planning your own road trip around this region, don’t miss these underrated towns and cities.
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The capital city of the Commonwealth is still too often overshadowed by nearby, Washington, DC. It has a thriving arts district with funky galleries and museums showcasing works from around the world. Richmond also has an award-winning restaurant scene. L’Opposum is a modern French restaurant helmed by a James Beard semifinalist, and Southern Living magazine even named it the South’s Best Restaurant in 2018. It’s just a short drive from wine country and the Shenandoah Valley.
Spend the night at the Quirk Hotel, created by owners of a nearby art gallery in a former dry goods store. It’s decked out in millennial pink with artwork in every room. They have their own gallery, restaurant and rooftop bar. It’s a member of Destination Hotels.
Durham, North Carolina
Durham is in a corner of what’s called “the Triangle,” a collection of three cities in central North Carolina where many of its major universities are located. Durham is home to Duke University and the Durham Bulls baseball team, as seen in the classic film, “Bull Durham.” Duke’s campus has the Duke Lemur Center, the foremost facility for the primates, and the Duke Gardens, a 55-acre botanical garden. The former tobacco town has been transformed, with warehouses at the American Tobacco campus being turned into into lofts and offices. Even Burt’s Bees moved their headquarters here.
Unscripted Durham is a midcentury-inspired hotel that gave new life to the formerly vacant Jack Tar Hotel. Managed by New York-based Dream Hotels, the property is covered in murals and artwork, serves Partners Coffee (formerly Toby’s Estate), stocks toiletries by Jonathan Adler has a popular poolside restaurant.
Greenville, South Carolina
Located in what’s known as the “Upstate,” Greenville strikes a perfect balance of city and nature, close to the mountains that run to the border of North Carolina. Paris Mountain State Park is one of the places where visitors can disconnect, and Falls Park on the Reedy is a green space that connects both sides of the Reedy River downtown. The Swamp Rabbit Trail, a paved bike and pedestrian path, connects Greenville to Travelers Rest. Pass a drizzly day at the BMW Zentrum — the German automaker’s main North American factory. It has a museum featuring some of its most impressive cars.
Earn (or redeem) Marriott Bonvoy points when you bed down at the Westin Poinsett, which was originally built in 1925 to host attendees of a textile convention. This downtown property was restored in the 1990s and has a fitness studio, restaurant and bar. This spring, rates start at $158 or 35,000 points.
Savannah has risen to become one of Georgia’s most popular road trip stops, but there’s plenty to love in the capital city of Atlanta, too. Long a destination for sports fans, hosting the 1996 Olympics and the Super Bowl in 1994, 2000 and 2019. Today, it has four teams: the Braves (baseball), Hawks (basketball), Falcons (football) and United (soccer) and the experiences at the new and renovated stadiums are a huge draw for fans. For example, SunTrust Park, home of the Braves, has an in-house brewery at Terrapin Taproom, while Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where United and the Falcons play, has a restaurant by “Top Chef” Kevin Gillespie.
Book a night or two at the American Hotel, one of the few nonbranded properties downtown. Managed by DoubleTree by Hilton, it was redesigned to resemble how it looked in the 1960s when it was Atlanta’s first desegregated hotel. With its own bar and restaurant, it combines boutique style with the amenities of a chain hotel where you can earn and redeem Hilton Honors points. Rates start around $130 a night this spring, or 32,000 points.
Typically associated with its rail history, this city was memorialized in the song “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” But today, the forward-thinking destination is known for something different entirely. It leads the nation with the country’s first and fastest citywide fiber optic internet, earning the nickname “Gig City” and bringing in tech-focused businesses. They also have a free electric-powered bus that has serviced the downtown area since 1992. The Chattanooga Riverwalk runs 13 miles along the Tennessee River with paved paths that runners and cyclists can enjoy.
The Dwell Hotel is a design lover’s dream, featuring colorful wallpaper, midcentury furnishings, and a popular restaurant. Rooms come with pourover coffee-making supplies, a sound machine, a claw-foot bathtub and balconies. The hotel is also a participating member of Design Hotels, so you can earn and redeem Marriott Bonvoy points at this Category 5 property.
The South has deep ties to American music, but few know about the importance of this Alabama town. Florence, and the surrounding towns of the Muscle Shoals, welcomed big-name musicians in the 1960s to record in the studios for the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Cher are among those that recorded hit songs at Fame Recording Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, which are now open for tours.
After a long day of driving, reserve a room at the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa, which overlooks the Tennessee River and has a fitness center, a pool and a revolving restaurant in its attached tower. The hotel is proud of its musical heritage and plays the documentary “Muscle Shoals” on the television throughout the day. The bar is named for the Swampers, the Muscle Shoals house band.
Known as “Ground Zero of the Blues,” it was here that Robert Johnson was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil at the Crossroads for his guitar talents. But one thing is for certain: The Mississippi Delta is where American music has its roots. Visitors can catch a show at Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, or learn about the music legend at the BB King Museum in nearby Indianola.
Clarksdale doesn’t have many accommodation options, but the Shack Up Inn is one, made of restored sharecropper cabins. For the full hotel experience, there’s nowhere better than the Gold Strike Casino in nearby Tunica, which is an MGM property.
Northwest Arkansas is home to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, started by Alice Walton (daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton), which boasts a collection of works by Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keefe and Norman Rockwell. A Frank Lloyd Wright home was even moved to the museum campus. Bentonville also has paved bike trails and mountain biking trails nearby for travelers who want to stretch their legs after the long drive.
There’s even a 21C Museum Hotel that opened here with ties to Crystal Bridges. The hotel has its own art gallery, gym, restaurant and rooms stocked with Malin + Goetz toiletries. Their signature bright green penguin statues can be found across the property, and the hotel brand was acquired by AccorHotels, which recently announced a refreshed loyalty program.
Featured photo by Luigi Manga / Unsplash.
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