4 Essential Stops in the American South for Your Next Road Trip

Discover flourishing historic districts, tantalizing southern cuisine, and easy access to the outdoors.

4 Essential Stops in the American South for Your Next Road Trip

Richmond is one of the few cities in the county where you can raft on class III and IV rapids.

Photo by Main Focus Media/Shutterstock

The cities of the American South have given us everything from soul music to soul food. But outside such popular destinations as New Orleans, Nashville, Atlanta, Asheville, and Savannah, there are several other cities and towns teeming with color, culture, and charm. Whether it’s for one day or several days, these four southern cities are excellent places to add to your next road trip itinerary.

Beginning in Richmond and traveling from Virginia wine country to Georgia wine country, this trip involves a multi-day drive down Interstates 85 and 77 through Durham, Columbia, and Helen for urban adventures filled with exceptionally enticing food, brews, and wine.

Richmond, Virginia

Most people recognize Richmond as a historical capital, but the appeal of “RVA” goes well beyond the city’s famed sites. Surprisingly, Richmond is one of the few U.S. cities where you can raft on class III and IV rapids past the city’s skyline with companies such as RVA Paddlesports.

Bike and Brunch Tours connects riders to Richmond’s history, murals, and local gems through bike tours followed by a delicious brunch at local restaurants and community gardens. One of the company’s signature tours features Mending Walls, a public art project created by artist Hamilton Glass in spring 2020 to challenge a diverse group of artists to collaborate on 16 murals about social justice.

Get a taste of the city through food tours such as the Arts District Food Tour in Jackson Ward, where you can sample fusion fare from Mexican Chinese to West African Carolinian. Richmond is also the gateway to Virginia wine country and houses numerous wine bars and wineries, such as urban winery Brambly Park, in or within a short drive of the city.

The restaurant scene reflects a diverse array of tastes with Chez Foushee, a mainstay serving Creole and French-inspired dishes since 1989; Mama J’s, where the peach cobbler is legendary; and Cobra Cabana, which serves vegan-friendly versions of familiar foods such as tofu “wings.” And the city’s first food hall, Hatch Local, opened in January in Old Town Manchester with a full-service bar and a curated collection of local food vendors, such as Buttermilk + Honey, where the specialty is fried chicken.

From the Science Museum of Richmond to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond’s museums are appealinag places to spend the day. Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2022, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum regularly hosts “Unhappy Hour,” in honor of the writer’s legacy and often melancholy disposition.

One of the city’s most compelling permanent artworks isn’t even housed in a museum, but is adjacent to one. Rumors of War, a contemporary bronze equestrian statue created by artist Kehinde Wiley—best known for painting the official portrait of President Barack Obama—was commissioned by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2019 as a direct response to the post-Reconstruction-era Confederate equestrian statues that were recently removed from Monument Avenue.

Where to stay

Book Now: The Jefferson

After exploring the city, cozy up at the Quirk Hotel, a contemporary, art-filled boutique hotel with the hip Q Rooftop Bar overlooking downtown Richmond. For a more traditional luxury experience, book a room at the city’s most exclusive hotel, the Jefferson, where the Sunday Champagne Brunch is the “toast” of the town.

Durham is a mix of high tech and history.

Durham is a mix of high tech and history.

Photo by zimmytws/Shutterstock

Durham, North Carolina

While Durham is practically synonymous with Duke University, the city was formerly home to one of the world’s largest tobacco companies and a thriving Black Wall Street anchored by the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company—established in 1898. The evolution of the “Bull City” has seen its reliance on tobacco replaced with technological innovation and culinary excellence.

High-tech companies and startups have blossomed in the city. Old manufacturing complexes that once processed “bright leaves” have been transformed into mixed-use entertainment districts at the American Tobacco Campus and Brightleaf Square, allowing visitors to park their car for days and explore the city via foot and via food.

Durham’s downtown corridor is an ideal place to stroll while browsing shops and pop-ups selling a variety of goods from stationery to vintage clothing. On the American Tobacco Campus, you can catch a concert at the Amphitheater lawn, try a German-style Kölsch at Bull Durham Beer Co., and order coffee with a crêpe at Durham’s first crêpe-focused restaurant, Press.

With several James Beard Award–nominated chefs calling Durham home, it’s no surprise that Durham’s gastronomy continues to shine. Beyond Carolina barbecue, diners can look forward to an eclectic mix of international and family-run establishments from Zimbabwean restaurant Zweli’s to Elmo’s Diner.

Other dining options to check out in Durham include Boricua Soul, which recently brought its Puerto Rican soul food to a new retail location on the American Tobacco Campus, and Saltbox Seafood Joint, a casual restaurant serving fresh fish from the Carolina coast and mouthwatering “Hush-Honeys” (hush puppies glazed with honey). For dinners before a performance at the Durham Performing Arts Center, NanaSteak is the place to go.

Where to stay

Book now: Durham Hotel

One of the chicest places to stay in the city is the Durham Hotel, a 53-room, midcentury-modern boutique property in the city center within walking distance of major districts and attractions.

Congaree National Park lies in wait a short distance from Columbia.

Congaree National Park lies in wait a short distance from Columbia.

Photo by Jonathan A. Mauer/Shutterstock

Columbia, South Carolina

Well before other small cities commissioned public art, Columbia’s parks and buildings featured beautiful sculptures and murals—one of the most iconic murals being “Tunnelvision,” created by artist Blue Sky in 1975. Currently, the Columbia region has nearly 200 pieces of public art, which visitors can locate through the public art directory managed by One Columbia for Arts and Culture.

On Saturdays, head to Soda City Market, a producers-only market selling fresh flowers, local produce, and handmade goods from South Carolina. There, you’re sure to find the city’s signature snack: pimento cheese. The city has even implemented a Pimento Cheese Passport to help harness the unique uses of the snack in a fun and easily digestible format. From Lowcountry hashbrowns at Café Strudel to pimento cheeseburger pizza at Terra, there are many creative variations of pimento cheese to discover, and the Passport incentivizes diners to try them all.

Read: The Perfect Weekend Getaway to Columbia, South Carolina

Within close proximity of the city are two of the state’s top spots for outdoor enthusiasts. Just north of Columbia, Lake Murray is the place to go for sublime views and water activities like fishing and boating. There’s even a sandy beach at Dreher Island State Park.

Just south of Columbia lies Congaree National Park, the state’s only national park. Comprising more than 26,000 acres of old-growth hardwood forests and some of the tallest trees in eastern North America, the park is an outstanding place to go kayaking, traipsing on the boardwalks, and camping (fee may apply). From May to June, the park is one of the few places in the world where a rare natural phenomenon takes place, as fireflies blink in tandem as part of their annual mating ritual.

Where to stay

Book Now: Hotel Trundle

For a relaxing yet stylish stay, book one of the 41 art-deco-style rooms at Hotel Trundle. Located in the heart of the Main Street District, the hotel is housed in three historic buildings that have been combined into one complex. The property is one of only 24 hotels hand-selected to be part of the Southern Living Hotel Collection.

Find a slice of Germany in Georgia.

Find a slice of Germany in Georgia.

Photo by The Brownfowl Collection/Shutterstock

Helen, Georgia

Escape to Bavaria in the town of Helen, Georgia, a recreated alpine village approximately 90 miles northeast of Atlanta. Cobblestone streets, Bavarian-style shops, and southern and German restaurants, such as Hofer’s of Helen, adorn this small mountain town, which is a hub of recreational activities ranging from river tubing to hiking.

Zip-line through the forests just south of town with Nacoochee Adventures and go tubing down the Chattahoochee River with outfitters like Cool River Tubing and Helen Tubing. Additionally, there are many scenic, short waterfall hikes to enjoy, including Raven Cliff Falls, Dukes Creek Falls, and Anna Ruby Falls.

One of the town’s food specialties is “Georgia ice cream,” aka grits from Nora Mill Granary, an 1876 gristmill with a country store and gift shop. These aren’t your typical processed grits; they’re coarse ground from whole corn using French burr stones and contain no additives or preservatives.

Coming to Georgia for wine? A half mile south of town is one of Georgia’s oldest wineries, Habersham Vineyards & Winery, which offers tastings of its vinifera and southern muscadine varietals and hosts an annual WineFest during the first weekend in May.

Fall is also a good time to visit Helen, when the oldest running Oktoberfest in the United States takes place. Just like in Germany, revelers don traditional attire, dance the polka, and drink Märzen beer.

Where to stay

Book Now: Helendorf River Inn Suites and Conference Center

To be in the heart of the action, stay at the Helendorf River Inn Suites and Conference Center, a few steps from the Chattahoochee River in downtown Helen.

Taryn White is a DC-based travel writer, serial wanderluster, and founder of The Trip Wish List. Always looking for her next adventure, she has visited more than 75 countries and all 50 states.
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