Fall can be one of the best travel times of the year and the American South offers a range of adventures for fall travelers, from fun in the sun to flourishing and lively festivals.
Fall travel is perfect for solo travelers and couples looking to avoid the peak tourism crowds, and the season also appeals to families looking to save on off-season rates before winter arrives. According to AAA, a quarter of all Americans regularly travel for leisure between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Smaller cities offer a specific charm sometimes lost in the major metropolis. Therefore, for this list, we consider the best cities with a population of under 100,000, limiting our selection to one city per southern state.
It seems there are no set definitions for what constitutes the Southern United States. Depending on a person’s beliefs and social circles, it can include anywhere from 11 to 16 states. Some people consider everything south of the Mason Dixon line part of the south, while many grapple with the idea of Texas being listed as a southern state. Following most established definitions of the geographic area, we look at the following 12 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Below, in alphabetical order by state, we list the best small southern US cities to visit in the fall.
In and around the eastern Alabama city of Auburn haunted farms, spooky walking tours, and frightful film events delight locals and tourists. Those travelling to this historic college city, home of Auburn University, find Alabama’s fastest-growing metropolitan area filled with cultural and recreational opportunities. The university is home to the Donald E. Davis Arboretum. Athletic-minded travelers can enjoy Auburn University sports, which beyond National Championship caliber football, includes soccer, volleyball, and equestrian meets. The history of Auburn athletics is on display at the Jonathan Bell Lovelace Museum. The metro area has become a gastronomic center with eateries redefining southern cuisine, spurred by an influx of agri-tourism. Nightlife sizzles with everything from college bars to distilleries, live music venues to breweries.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
When the fall nights get cooler down south there may be no better place to be than Hot Springs. Surrounded by the Ouachita Mountains in central Arkansas and named after the 47 thermal-water springs bubbling to the surface, Hot Springs draws curiosity seekers, nature lovers, and wellness travelers. The primary attraction is Bathhouse Row, a collection of eight bathhouses constructed between 1892 and 1923. The Grand Promenade was designated as a National Historic Landmark District in 1987 and is surrounded by 26 miles of hiking trails. The fully accessible Garvan Woodland Gardens, the botanical garden of the University of Arkansas, offers woodland on the shores of Lake Hamilton, a four-story treehouse, and the stunning Anthony Chapel with its walls of glass.
Boca Raton, Florida
Florida is one of the most searched fall travel destinations on the internet. The allure of sun, sand, and nature attracts visitors from cooler climates. Boca Raton (and nearby Delray Beach) is where the beauty of nature meets the beauty of art. Florida’s southeastern coast is widely known for its golf courses, parks and beaches, and here nature is in full display at places like Red Reef Park and the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, which houses a sea turtle sanctuary. The downtown Boca Raton Museum of Art displays modern and contemporary American, and European collections, while Delray Beach is home to a myriad of art galleries making up The Pineapple Grove Arts District. Known by locals simply as “Boca,” this city by the sea hosts the First Friday Art Walk, every first Friday of the month from October through May.
Gainesville splashed onto the tourism scene in 1996 when the small city hosted the Olympic rowing and kayaking events at nearby Lake Sidney Lanier. The lake still uses those world class facilities where watersports lovers kayak, boat, and jet-ski. Auto racing fans have been trekking to Gainesville for over 20 years to catch a glimpse of cars sporting the Petit LeMans on Road Atlanta. Other than the lake, nature lovers enjoy the Elachee Nature Science Center, the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve, and Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center. Downtown Gainesville is a quintessential American experience with boutiques, eateries, and entertainment, and visitors can even take a walk around the solar system. Starting at the sun, Earth-bound astronauts follow a 1.8-mile, self-guided scale model of the solar system through downtown.
Lake Charles, Louisiana
The Band, the rock act from the ’60s and ’70s, knew how to get here. Just go “straight down the Mississippi River / To the Gulf of Mexico / To Lake Charles, Louisiana.” In Lake Charles, Cajun influences merge with Texan flair and nature surrounds big city entertainment. Fall is gumbo weather and eating out is a pastime as popular as baseball in this neck of the woods. The fall also welcomes several festivals, like the food-centric Chuck Fest and the Smoke & Barrel whiskey and barbecue event. Temperatures do not start to really cool until December, and October and November provide few rainy days making Lake Charles a great destination to enjoy fall fun in the sun at a resort.
Calling all the hound dogs! Tupelo is the birthplace of The King, Elvis Pressley. Fall is the perfect time to follow the Elvis Tupelo itinerary with stops at the performer’s birthplace and museum, Tupelo Hardware Company where his mother purchased his first guitar, and any of the other 14 significant sites in Elvis’ early years marked with bronze plaques. Fall foliage makes Elvis’ Tupelo Driving Tour especially beautiful. For seasonal spookiness, Tupelo Community Theatre’s annual Haunted Theatre takes place at the downtown Lyric Theatre. Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo is home to more than 260 animals on 210 acres; admission is free for children 12 and under.
Asheville, North Carolina
A trip to Asheville in the fall is a great way to celebrate Oktoberfest, as the unofficial beer capital of the south Asheville is home to more than 30 breweries. The area hosts a myriad of themed beer festivals from the environmentally conscious efforts of Bears, Bees, & Brews to the spooky Beers and Fears! The city is also an epicurean wonderland ranging from traditional BBQ joints to kitchens run by James Beard Award finalists. Asheville is also a gateway to the great outdoors. Cooler temperatures make hikes on the waterfall-laden Graveyard Fields loop trail a splendid addition to a nice drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The monarch butterfly migration reaches Asheville starting at the end of September into October. A blend of both worlds can be found at Wrong Way River Lodge & Cabins.
Greenville, South Carolina
This city of 69,648 residents, equidistant from metro Atlanta, GA and Charlotte, NC, hosts a myriad of fall festivals celebrating wine, music, and lots of food. Alfresco dining is popular in Greenville and fall temperatures are perfect for patio seating at the dozens of hip restaurants serving everything from classic southern BBQ to authentic Persian fare. Greenville’s Nightmare Dungeon, housed in a 120-year-old farmhouse, and Madworld, filled with scenes of the macabre, are two of the US’ top haunted attractions. Lodging is easy to find in Greenville as it is home to all major hotel brands and a selection of independent hotels, B&Bs, and campgrounds.
Charm and historical heritage make Cookeville stand out from the other small cities surrounding Nashville. There’s a growing culinary scene with more than 100 restaurants and new breweries. Foodies can grab one of “Tennessee’s Best Donuts” at Ralph’s Donut Shop. In order to burn off the calories from all the delicacies, Cookeville has established itself as a destination for fitness tourism. Cummins Falls, Fall Creek Falls, and Burgess Falls State Park all provide access to hiking trails for hikers, bikers, climbers, and horseback riders. Spelunkers visit Cookeville to explore the documented caves. More relaxed sporting-travelers can enjoy several golf courses in Cookeville and Putnam County. Every October the Upper Cumberland Air Fair brings balloon, helicopter, and antique plane rides to the local airport.
Fall is festival season in the Central Texas city of Fredericksburg. The celebrations start with a traditional Oktoberfest, followed by the Texas Mesquite Arts Festival where artisans display handcrafted mesquite wood products, and the BestFest celebrating the area’s rich German heritage with beer, food, and family fun benefiting the Knights of Columbus. October is also Texas Wine Month, making this one of the best times of year to experience more than 50 vineyards and tasting rooms around the city. For more than 30 years, Fredericksburg has also hosted a food and wine festival at the end of October. For history buffs, there’s the Pioneer Museum and the National Museum of the Pacific War, which features WWII exhibits, including a recreated combat zone.
In the fall, the city of Staunton’s Blue Ridge Mountain-forest backdrop turns orange, yellow, and red. Staunton is a convenient, amenity-filled city with access to the scenic Skyline Drive, heading north, and Blue Ridge Parkway, heading south. The 105-mile Skyline Drive runs along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. Founded in 1761, explore the city’s history at the Frontier Culture Museum, which provides glimpses into the lives and customs of Native American tribes, and the German, English, and Irish settlers who travelled the Great Wagon Road. Theatre lovers flock to Staunton for the American Shakespeare Center and the Blackfriars Playhouse, which replicates the famous Globe Theater in London. And every September, downtown Staunton is filled with characters, dragons, and creatures from the pages of popular wizarding books during the Queen City Mischief & Magic festival.
Huntington, West Virginia
West Virginia’s country roads may have been made famous by John Denver, but Huntington is putting cities on the map. Epic eateries and lively entertainment fill H-Town, as it is locally known. Across from Pullman Square sits Harris Riverfront Park, which hosts outdoor concerts and events on the banks of the Ohio River. Trains are a big fall travel draw in West Virginia as folks look to chug through the scenic mountains and hills as the leaves change colors. The Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society organizes themed New River Train trips, including the Murder and Merriment and Autumn Colors Express in October. Outside of the city limits, adventure awaits at the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains at Rustic Ravines and their stylish accommodations. Yurts and lodges are perched on a 300-acre wooded paradise, perfect for a mountain getaway.