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Are you looking to immerse yourself in the rich history of America? Plan your next vacation to the South and experience different eras of American history through the museums, monuments, and historical tours that these old historical towns have to offer. Whether you’re a history buff or just looking for a fun and educational adventure for the whole family, these towns are sure to provide plenty of entertainment and learning opportunities.
Alexandria, Virginia, is a city with a rich history dating back to the 18th century. With strong ties to the nation’s first president, George Washington, this walkable city offers a plethora of historical tours and monuments. Start your tour with a visit to the historical Carlyle House, home of Alexandria’s co-founder John Carlyle. Experience 18th century life through Carlyle’s eyes with daily tours, youth programs, special events, exhibits, and lectures.
Afterward, head to the historic Gadsby’s Tavern and Museum, which was a 5-star hotel during the colonial era. The tavern’s ballroom was the site of George Washington’s Birthnight Ball in 1798 and 1799, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Inaugural Banquet in 1803. Take a stroll along the brick-lined streets of Old Town’s King Street Mile, where you’ll find over one hundred independently-owned boutiques and restaurants. Many of these establishments are located in centuries-old historic buildings.
If you have a sweet tooth, be sure to visit Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats, which has been named one of the top 5 restaurants by the Food Network. For a deeper dive into history, visit the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, which features a 17-foot bronze statue of George Washington. End your day by visiting the historic Waterfront District, where you can enjoy views of the Potomac River and Washington, D.C., as well as some of the finest seafood restaurants in the area.
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville, North Carolina, is well-known for its Southern charm, delicious food, and historical architecture. Take a guided walking tour to see the bold Art Deco buildings in the downtown area. Don’t miss the Basilica of St. Lawrence, which boasts North America’s largest free-standing dome. To learn more about Asheville’s vibrant mountain culture, take a stroll along the Asheville Urban Trail. This self-guided tour highlights the unique history of the city, with stops including an iconic flat iron sculpture and a tribute to Appalachian music heritage.
If you prefer not to walk, hop on one of Asheville’s iconic red trolley cars for a tour of the city’s eclectic neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are filled with the sights and sounds of street musicians playing everything from traditional bluegrass to jazz to zydeco. One of the most iconic historical buildings in Asheville is the Biltmore Estate. Created by George Vanderbilt, this 250-room estate is modeled after the grand castles of France and Britain. The Biltmore House is the largest private home in America, with original furniture, art, and artifacts collected by Vanderbilt himself.
The estate’s formal gardens are a sight to behold, with separate themes such as the Italian Garden, the natural Shrub Garden, and the English Walled Garden. The Biltmore Winery and the Antler Hill Farm provide additional opportunities to learn more about the estate’s history and enjoy the surrounding beauty. For a luxurious experience, stay the night at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, a four-star, four-diamond hotel.
Birmingham, Alabama, is a city steeped in the history of the Civil Rights Era. It features several historic monuments where you can learn about this important time in our nation’s history. The Civil Rights District in Birmingham includes Kelly Ingram Park, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed in 1963 by a white supremacist terrorist group. The Four Spirits Statue in Kelly Ingram Park serves as a memorial to the four young victims of the tragic bombing.
To learn more about African-American baseball and its impact on Birmingham, visit the Negro Southern League Museum. This world-class facility features the uniforms of legendary baseball players, including Satchel Paige and Willie Wells, along with Louis Santop’s bat and an exhibit of Rickwood Field. Another historic site to visit is the A.G. Gaston Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters held meetings during the Civil Rights Movement.
For a family-friendly evening, head to the historic Alabama Theatre, where you can enjoy classic film screenings, concerts, plays, musicals, and more. This historic gem is located in the heart of the Birmingham Theatre District, which is home to the only remaining theaters in the district, the Alabama Theatre and the adjacent Lyric Theatre.
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the most charming and historic cities in the South. Its sprawling plantations, colorful antebellum homes, and steepled churches flanked by cobblestone sidewalks create a picturesque landscape. Take a carriage ride through East Bay Street, also known as Rainbow Row, to admire the pastel-colored 18th-century homes and capture endless photo opportunities. Alternatively, enjoy Charleston’s skyline from one of the city’s many rooftop bars and restaurants, where you can savor the soulful flavors of Low Country cuisine.
To delve deeper into history, visit the Middleton Place plantation. This historic site spans over 65 acres and offers a glimpse into the lives of the enslaved and freed people who maintained its gardens and produced a variety of crafts. For majestic views of Fort Sumter and the Charleston Harbor, visit the Battery and White Point Garden. This historic park contains numerous monuments, cannons, and a gazebo dating back to the Civil and Revolutionary War era.
Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the City Market District, where you can indulge in a variety of Southern food staples and authentic moonshine. The market is filled with local vendors offering a wide range of goods, from handmade crafts to delicious treats.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock, Arkansas, offers a diverse culture and history that can be explored through its many museums, monuments, and vibrant neighborhoods. Take a ride on the River Rail Streetcar to explore Historic Downtown Argenta, where rail operators provide news and facts about community events and historic sites. Don’t miss the Argenta Drug Company, which has been operating since 1880 and is the oldest continuously operating pharmacy west of the Mississippi River.
Other notable sites in Little Rock include the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. The former showcases the history of maritime vessels used in World War II and the Vietnam War, while the latter celebrates the achievements of Arkansas athletes.
To learn about the pivotal role that Little Rock played in the Civil Rights Movement, visit the Little Rock Nine Monument at the State Capitol. This monument commemorates the nine African-American students who enrolled at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, spearheading the desegregation movement in the city’s public schools. Another unique museum to visit is the ESSE Purse Museum, which chronicles the evolution of 20th-century American women through the bags they carry and their contents.
If you’re visiting Little Rock in November, be sure to attend the Arkansas Cornbread Festival. This annual event features a cornbread competition, live music, unique Arkansas gifts, and a variety of cuisines and beverages from local restaurants and breweries.
Louisville, Kentucky, has a rich history that dates back to its founding in 1778 by George Rogers Clark. By 1830, it became the largest city in Kentucky and has since been home to several men and women who changed the history of America. Notable figures include President Zachary Taylor, naturalist John James Audubon, author F. Scott Fitzgerald, and boxer Muhammad Ali. Louisville’s famous Seelbach Hotel was even immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby.”
For an in-depth exploration of Louisville’s history, visit some of the city’s more than 120 attractions. Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum are a must-visit for sports enthusiasts, as they provide insights into the world of thoroughbred horses and jockeys. The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory exhibits over 3,000 original bat models, sculptures, and artifacts featuring some of baseball’s greatest legends.
To learn more about Muhammad Ali, visit the Muhammad Ali Center. This museum celebrates the boxer’s spectacular life and encourages visitors to reflect on their own values, inner strengths, and character traits. The Frazier Kentucky History Museum is another must-visit. Located in downtown Louisville, it chronicles the city’s unique history of bourbon-making with the Spirit of Kentucky Bourbon Exhibition. The museum also offers spectacular views of the Louisville skyline from its rooftop bar.
For a unique experience, board the Belle of Louisville for a steamboat trip down the Ohio River. This historic vessel offers live music, delicious food, and themed special events. And if you’re visiting in October, don’t miss the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular, a month-long event featuring over 5,000 carved pumpkins.
Memphis, Tennessee, is a city known for its rich musical history. If you’re a music lover, this is the place to be. Start your musical journey at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, where you can groove to the sounds of some of history’s biggest musical legends. The museum houses artifacts such as Isaac Hayes’ gold-trimmed Cadillac, a Hall of Records with over 1,000 vinyl records, listening stations, and a large dance floor.
Continue your musical exploration at Sun Studios, where musicians like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded some of their biggest hits. Other sites of interest for music lovers include the Blues Hall of Fame and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum.
No visit to Memphis would be complete without a trip to Graceland, the home of the legendary Elvis Presley. Take a tour of the mansion and see Elvis’ famous pink Cadillac. Afterward, enjoy dinner and a show at Graceland’s Delta’s Kitchen, which offers upscale Southern cuisine and performances from a variety of artists throughout the year.
To learn about the civil rights history in Memphis, visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. This historical site features over 260 artifacts, 40 films, interactive exhibits, and personal accounts from the Civil Rights era. And of course, don’t forget to indulge in some authentic Memphis barbecue from one of the city’s many barbecue restaurants.
Jackson, Mississippi, known as “The City With Soul,” boasts over 30 interactive museums featuring various aspects of history and culture. Whether you’re interested in sports, agriculture, science, history, aviation, art, music, or civil rights, Jackson has something for everyone.
One of the most significant museums in Jackson is the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. As one of the largest museums chronicling the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, it features eight interactive exhibits that cover the Jim Crow era to the current state of Civil Rights in America. The museum’s central space is lit by a dramatic light sculpture that plays the song “This Little Light of Mine” and highlights the people who gave their lives for the Movement.
Other points of interest in Jackson include the historic Alamo Theatre, which served as a cinema for African American films and a performing arts theater featuring Black Vaudeville acts and other performing artists. The Iron Horse Grill is another famous landmark in Jackson, having hosted performances from Jimmie Rodgers, Elvis Presley, and Robert Johnson. The building has been restored to its full glory and now houses two dining rooms, a performance stage, and a museum.
Visitors to Jackson can also tour the historic Governor’s Mansion, a National Historic Landmark. Built in 1842, it is the second-oldest continuously occupied gubernatorial residence in the United States.
Savannah, Georgia, is one of the most historic cities in the South. Known for its Southern charm and beautiful architecture, Savannah offers visitors a chance to step back in time. Explore the historic area with a carriage ride or hop on one of the many trolley tours available. For a truly unique experience, embark on the Ghosts and Gravestones Trolley Tour, which takes you to some of the historic district’s most haunted sites.
While in Savannah, don’t miss the opportunity to see a show at the historic Savannah Theatre. Built in 1818, it is the oldest continuously operating theatre in the country. After the show, head to the Artillery Bar, located in the same building. The Artillery Bar was once the site of Georgia Hussar’s armory and still features its unique and original terracotta façade.
For a deeper dive into history, visit the Fort Pulaski National Monument. This fort offers guided tours, a military museum, and hiking trails with informational markers. Don’t forget to explore the Governor’s Palace Garden and Grounds, where you can gain insight into how the colonists lived and worked as a community. The Level 2 Certified Arboretum on the grounds features a variety of 18th-century trees, flowers, and woody shrubs.
If you’re visiting Savannah in October, be sure to attend the annual Jack O’Lantern Spectacular. This event features thousands of intricately carved pumpkins and is a sight to behold.
Williamsburg, Virginia, is often referred to as the world’s largest living history museum. With its 301 acres of iconic sites, working tradespeople, historic taverns, and two world-class art museums, Williamsburg offers a unique opportunity to step back in time. The Historic Area of Williamsburg contains 89 18th-century buildings, including the bustling Market Square, which is a hub of colonial activity and shopping opportunities.
Take a leisurely carriage ride through the town and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of colonial life. If you want to explore even further, visit the Jamestown Settlement, where you can see where the first settlers made their home. This site includes re-creations of a 1610-1614 fort and replicas of three ships that sailed from England to Virginia in 1607.
Nature lovers will appreciate the Governor’s Palace Garden and Grounds, which provide a glimpse into how the colonists lived and worked as a community. The Level 2 Certified Arboretum on the grounds features a variety of 18th-century trees, flowers, and woody shrubs.
For history buffs, Williamsburg offers a unique opportunity to witness the Yorktown Day celebrations in October. Yorktown Day commemorates the 1781 siege that was one of the most important victories in the Revolutionary War. The day features a patriotic parade down Main Street, complete with a fife and drum performance.
In conclusion, the South is home to a plethora of old historical towns that offer a wealth of attractions for visitors. From Alexandria, Virginia, with its rich ties to the nation’s first president, to Williamsburg, Virginia, the world’s largest living history museum, these towns provide a unique opportunity to step back in time and learn about different eras of American history. Whether you’re interested in the Civil Rights Era in Birmingham, Alabama, or the birth of blues and rock and roll in Memphis, Tennessee, there is something for everyone in these old historical towns. Plan your next vacation and embark on a fun and educational adventure that the whole family will enjoy.