You haven’t experienced hospitality until you’ve visited the Deep South of the USA.
Welcoming guests has been elevated to an art form here. Southern society is built on a longstanding tradition of gracious manners that have well and truly weathered the changes in social convention that have swept the rest of the western world. It’s one of the things that makes the South such a wonderful travel destination.
Add to that an incredible cultural and musical heritage to explore, and superb Southern cuisine to enjoy, and you have all the makings of a once-in-a-lifetime holiday.
Here are ten top things to do in the Deep South.
Charleston, South Carolina has been named the USA’s best travel destination by various prestigious travel publications. It’s a stunning place, and as one of the South’s oldest cities it has an extraordinary history to explore and a wealth of antebellum (pre-Civil War) architecture to enjoy.
However, like a true Southern belle, this town won’t give up its secrets easily. So take a guided tour by horse and carriage and let your local guide share their insider knowledge with you. A lot of the most beautiful spots are hidden down small laneways or behind high stone walls. From your carriage you’ll be able to see right over the top.
Elvis has well and truly left the building but his legacy lives on at Graceland — the former home of The King, which is located in the city of Memphis. Despite the commercialisation (trust me, there’s not much you can’t put Elvis’ face on, as you’ll discover in the gift shop on your way out) the home itself is an intimate and touching memorial to the global star. It’s surprisingly modest, delightfully kitsch, and won’t fail to bring a smile to your face (perhaps even a tear or two for what is essentially quite a sad story).
Visit the car museum and Elvis’ private jets across the street in the main visitor complex. While you’re there, try a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in the diner. Elvis, this one’s for you. Delicious!
Sister city to Charleston, and wonderfully historic in its own right, Savannah, Georgia, is also said to be one of the most haunted cities in the whole of the USA. Even the visitor centre is built right on top of a yellow fever graveyard. So it seems only fitting that ghost tours are a popular tourist pastime here. We hitched a ride with Old Savannah Tours and thoroughly enjoyed it. After dark the city does take on a rather ethereal quality. As the locals say, beware of the haints.
Southern cooking is comfort food pure and simple, and Charleston is packed with great restaurants where you can experience traditional fare, including fried chicken, shrimp n’ grits, she-crab soup and hush puppies. We stumbled upon Hyman’s Half Shell Seafood and loved it. Clearly, so do numerous celebs judging by the signed photographs that adorn the walls, including Oprah and Hulk Hogan. I can’t say that the grits did a lot for me, but the rest of the deep-fried delights won’t fail to please.
Ah, the strange case of the Peabody Ducks. Now we all know that the USA is the spiritual home of the weird and the wonderful. Well, at the five-star Peabody Hotel in Memphis — at 11am sharp each day — the hotel’s ‘Duckmaster’ summons five resident ducks from their purpose-built rooftop penthouse to come down in the hotel lift and waddle along a red carpet to a fountain in the centre of the lobby. There they will spend their day frolicking in the water feature, before returning to their ducky-digs at 5pm. It’s so random, and it’s been going on since 1940.
This spectacle draws quite a crowd so get there early for a prime possie. And be warned — once the lift doors open these down-covered divas move like lightning down the red carpet. You’ll need your camera on the sports setting…
New Orleans is a travel destination like no other. There’s so much to see and do, so we won’t go into too many specifics here — except to reiterate that sometimes the best things in life are free — or very close to free. Once you’ve had your fill of wandering the back streets of the fabulous French Quarter, grab a park bench on the Rue de Chartres in front of the St Louis Cathedral and enjoy the passing parade. You won’t have to spend one penny to be totally entertained — although the street jazz musicians will no doubt appreciate a modest contribution.
Our view of life on a Southern plantation during the infamous period of the slave trade (during the 18th and 19th centuries) may have been influenced by Hollywood’s Gone with the Wind, but in reality life for a slave was much more brutal. There are many surviving plantations to visit across the South, but Frogmore Plantation, located outside picturesque Natchez on the Mississippi River, provides perhaps the most complete picture of day-to-day life for a slave. It’s still possible to visit the slave quarters and Frogmore also has one of the oldest complete cotton gins in the USA. It’s a working cotton farm to this very day.
The city of Nashville is the place to be in the USA (possibly the world) if you want to make it as a serious country music artist. The colourful District is lined with honky-tonk bars, where local musoes on the up play for tips, hoping to get that big break in the process. Legendary venues like Tootsies Orchid Lounge have given rise to some of the biggest names in the business. Pull up a pew, grab a beer, and if you like the act you leave a small donation. It’s as simple as that.
Many performers haven’t even made it this far. You’ll often see those with just a guitar and a dream — playing in the street just to get noticed.
Country music aside, the South is the spiritual home of many music genres, including jazz, gospel and of course the blues, which originated in the African-American communities of the Deep South around the turn of the 20th century. Memphis is recognised as the heartland of blues music and to be honest there is a sort of melancholy that hangs over this slightly-rough-around-the-edges city. Spend an evening in downtown Beale Street with its bustling restaurants and ear-splitting blues bars.
No visit to Nashville would be complete without a night at the Grand Ole Opry — the venerable country music venue and WSM radio show that’s been launching the careers of the legends of the genre since 1925. The Opry is hugely famous in the USA and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The hallowed performer’s circle in the centre of the stage has almost spiritual significance and first-time performers have been known to break down in tears just stepping into it. Take a back stage tour to see it up close.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in the Deep South? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.