The best cities to visit in southern USA

Lorna Cowan

Discover the delights of Georgia and the Carolinas.



Atlanta, Charleston, Wilmington, Raleigh and Charlotte — travel writer Lorna Cowan discovers five enchanting cities with plenty of southern charm, and all on the itinerary of Saga’s Tales of the Old South escorted tour.

Atlanta

The state capital of Georgia, Atlanta is a city steeped in history. As the birthplace of the American civil rights movement, you can visit The Center for Civil and Human Rights and the King Center, dedicated to the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr, the Baptist church minister and social activist hailing from the city.

Immerse yourself in America’s North-South history and visit the red-brick house where Margaret Mitchell penned the much-loved classic Gone with the Wind, now a museum. You will find Mitchell’s original Remington typewriter, along with photos and artefacts from the 1939 film starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, in a special exhibit at the Atlanta-Fulton Central Library.

Events and festivals take place throughout the year. The St Patrick’s Day Parade is one of the biggest celebrations in the South. And every May, vibrant costumes are de rigueur at the Atlanta Caribbean Carnival. In October, the Taste of Atlanta sees the city’s best chefs concocting culinary delights for all to enjoy.

Charleston

South Carolina’s oldest and largest city is not only famous for its roaring Twenties dance craze. In 1861, the first shot of the American Civil War was fired above Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour, and America’s oldest landscaped gardens — full of camellias and azaleas — can be found at Middleton Place, an 18th-century rice plantation and National Historic Landmark.

A meander along Meeting Street is worthwhile too. Along a one-mile section of this road, there’s six museums, five historic houses, four scenic parks and an array of historic houses of worship and public buildings, such as the Market and City Hall. The Old Slave Mart Museum may also be of interest — it is recorded that 40 per cent of slaves arrived in the States via Charleston.

Called the Holy City because of its numerous church steeples that dominate the skyline, it’s no surprise then to hear Charleston holds an annual Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival, usually in late April. Highlights include a boat parade and a shrimp-eating contest!

The Spoleto Festival, showcasing talent in dance, theatre, opera, classical music and jazz, takes over the city for 17 days every May and June.

Wilmington

On the banks of the Cape Fear River, and with three beautiful beaches on its doorstep, the historic port city of Wilmington in North Carolina attracts holidaymakers looking for resplendent southern charm. The Burgwin-Wright House Museum is a fine example of distinctive Georgian architecture, and classic antebellum homes, such as the Bellamy Mansion Museum, are scattered across the city.

Get your shopping fix at Wilmington. From chic boutiques and surf shops to destination malls and shopping villages by the sea, there are plenty of places to buy holiday souvenirs. Grab a bite to eat along Riverwalk, lined with cafes and restaurants with spectacular views. During October the three-day Wilmington Riverfest takes place, when you’ll be treated to extreme sport demonstrations and a firework display.

Every February, Wilmington holds an annual North Carolina Jazz Festival featuring musicians from around the globe. In November, for lovers of independent film, there’s the Cucalorus Film Festival and in April, the world-famous North Carolina Azalea Festival, celebrating the blooming of spring.

A bridge with pink flowers in Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

Raleigh

Often referred to as the City of Oaks, due to its many impressive trees which line the city streets, the state capital of North Carolina was named after the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, the sponsor of the first English colony in America – Roanoke Island. Today, the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site preserves and protects known portions of England’s first New World settlements, as well as the cultural heritage of Native Americans who also lived on the island.

A ride on one of the iconic vintage trolleybuses should be high on the agenda of any visitor to Raleigh, and a guided tour around the State Capitol building is a must too — it’s one of the best-preserved examples of a civic building in Greek Revival-style architecture.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is the ideal place to head to on a dull day, but if the sun is shining, make your way to the William B. Umstead State Park. Whether you like an energetic hike or a gentle saunter, there’s over 20 miles of trails to choose from.

If you love your beer, then The Raleigh Beer Garden has the world’s largest draft beer selection under one roof. And in April each year, everyone says cheers at Brewgaloo, North Carolina’s largest craft beer festival. Raleigh also celebrates a Freedom Balloon Fest every May, when dozens of hot air balloons, in honour of those who’ve served in the military, fill the sky.

City skyline at night in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.

Charlotte

Motor racing enthusiasts will love Charlotte, North Carolina. The Queen City (named after the wife of King George III) is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and it’s the place to go to learn more about speed racing. Time your visit right and you may even catch some live action at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Or come to the city in May for Speed Street, an annual festival attended by the top names of the racing world.

If you prefer a spot of culture, Charlotte delivers too. The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art houses work by Picasso, Warhol and Miró, among others, while the inspiring Harvey B. Gantt Center showcases excellent examples of African-American art.

No trip to Charlotte would be complete without exploring the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden with its idyllic meadows, woodlands and glorious floral displays. And if time allows, travel two hours west of Charlotte to the Biltmore Estate to see for yourself the extensive landscaped formal gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted — who was responsible for New York’s Central Park.

The estate’s elegant chateau-style Biltmore House, with its 250 rooms, is a delight too. A full itinerary of events and activities take place all year round — Christmas celebrations starting in early November are sure to bring festive cheer.

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