The American South is defined by its cuisine, landscape, accent, literature, music and history. In the cities of the Southeast, one can uncover the true American experience, from the sweat-drenched noir of New Orleans to the accept-all-comers diversity of Atlanta and Nashville. These cities also offer the perfect bases to explore this fascinating region further.
Editor's note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice.
Best day trips from Atlanta
Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Georgia
The Georgia Museum of Art is a smart, modern gallery where brainy, arty types set up in the wired lobby for personal study, while art hounds gawk at modern sculpture in the courtyard garden as well as the tremendous collection from American realists of the 1930s. 1hr 15min by car.
North Georgia Wine Country
The Appalachian foothills north of Atlanta are now a recognized viticultural region, thanks to the ultra-quaffable wines produced here. There are more than a dozen wineries to choose from, many with breathtaking mountain views, live music or patios that are perfect for whiling away an afternoon. Pull up a stool at one of Dahlonega’s tasting rooms to sample the best of the region. 2hr by car.
Providence Canyon State Park, Georgia
You might not expect Grand Canyon-style landscapes within an easy drive of Atlanta, but that’s what you'll find at Providence Canyon. The 1000-acre park has hiking trails galore amid its trademark gullies, with cliffs of layered sediment in a rainbow of colors. Stop for a bite and a riverside stroll in Columbus, on the Chattahoochee River. 2hr 20min by car.
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Best day trips from Charlotte
Asheville, North Carolina
In 1890, George Vanderbilt decided to build himself the largest home in the US in the most beautiful location. He chose the rolling mountains near Asheville – along what’s now the Blue Ridge Parkway – where art deco buildings, farm-to-table restaurants and innovative microbreweries now pave the way to his Biltmore Estate. The town is home to a sizable population of artists and hard-core hippies. 2hr by car.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Firefly speed dating? Yup. Not only does Congaree National Park have the world’s largest expanse of old-growth hardwood forest and miles of boardwalk trails through languid blackwater swamps, but for two weeks in late May to early June, Congaree becomes a first-date hotspot for a million Photinus carolinus fireflies, who blink in unison during mating season. 2hr by car.
Mount Airy, North Carolina
The inspirational setting for the fictional town of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show, Mount Airy is as American as the $1.80 bologna sandwich at its Snappy Lunch diner. The surrounding Yadkin Valley’s wine industry has lent an air of sophistication to this old-timey town. Check into the endearingly perfect Pilot Knob Inn to stay in an original tobacco cabin, and canoe on your own private lake. 2hr by car.
Best day trips from Nashville
Lynchburg – the home of Jack Daniels Distillery – is a veritable mecca for fans of Tennessee whiskey. The distillery is located in a dry county, but you can still sample whiskey drawn from individual barrels during one of their informative distillery tours. If wine is more your speed, pop into the Lynchburg Winery before indulging in a slice of rich Southern gastronomic history at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House Restaurant. If souvenir shopping is on the list, the surrounding shops are stocked with a delightful assortment of handmade crafts. 1hr 40min by car.
Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Six miles from downtown Chattanooga lies a nature-based triple treat: Ruby Falls, Rock City and the Inline Railway. This adventure is based in Lookout Mountain, a mountain ridge running through Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Go in for a guided cave tour or a 700ft zipline adventure through Ruby Falls, home of the world’s largest underground waterfall. Stroll through the diverse flora and fauna of the Rock City Gardens. Wrap up with a mile-high ride on the Incline Railway, one of the world’s steepest passenger railways. At the top: a bird’s eye from the Lookout Mountain observation deck. 2hr 10min by car.
Lost Sea, Sweetwater, Tennessee
Tennessee may be land-locked, but that doesn’t stop the state from boasting its very own sea. Listed as "America’s largest underground lake" by Guinness World Book of Records, the Lost Sea is a massive body of water located in a historic cave system known as the Craighead Caverns. The lake’s true size is unknown, but you can glide across its four-acre surface and catch a glimpse of the crystal formations and colossal rainbow trout that inhabit the caverns on a boat tour. Nearby, Sweetwater’s revitalized Main Street offers a bake shop full of indulgent Southern sweets, galleries and plenty of antique shopping. 2hr 53min by car.
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Best day trips from New Orleans
Barataria Preserve, Marrero, Louisiana
The Barataria Preserve is part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, south of New Orleans near the town of Marrero (and Crown Point). This section provides the easiest access to the encircling dense swamplands. The eight miles of boardwalk trails offer a stunning exploration through the fecund, thriving swamp, home to alligators, nutrias (basically big, invasive river rats), tree frogs and myriad species of birds. 30min by car.
Laura Plantation, Vacherie
Discover Louisiana’s turbulent past at Laura Plantation, a restored 19th-century estate on the west bank of the Mississippi River. It was run by four Creole women, most notably Laura, for whom it is named. A tour teases out the distinctions between Creole, Anglo, free and enslaved African Americans. Culturally and architecturally, this Creole mansion is strikingly distinct from other plantations. 1hr by car.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital, is home to a thriving arts community, largely thanks to Louisiana State University. The LSU Museum of Art, within the clean, geometric lines of the Shaw Center for the Arts, holds a permanent collection of over 5000 works and also hosts touring exhibitions. There are lots more galleries on and off campus, many affiliated with the university and its myriad arts courses. 1hr 20min by car.
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