For those interested in history, the arts and music, these Southeastern cities and rural destinations have something to offer the inquisitive, mindful traveler. Some sites are well-known destinations, others less-visited by tourists but known all too well by locals.
Carolina culture meets commerce
Asheville, N.C., sits in a wide basin cut through by the French Broad River and surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. That makes it a natural crossroads area for commerce and culture.
Like most cities its size, Asheville sports a music scene that includes a symphony, night clubs and outdoor festivals. What sets Asheville apart is its direct connection to the traditional mountain music of Southern Appalachia. Asheville is home to the longest running folk festival in the U.S — the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (828-258-6101, folkheritage.org) — held the first weekend of August at the Diana Wortham Theatre. Since 1928, fans and performers of Appalachian music have made the trek to Asheville for this event. Unlike most other folk festivals, it features traditional dancing as a primary focus, along with the music.
The Shindig on the Green takes place each Saturday between July and September, in Pack Square Park nearby. Along with the official entertainment on the stage, plenty of informal jam sessions take place on the green. The shindig has been a mainstay in Asheville since 1966 thanks to the Folk Heritage Committee, the same organization that puts on the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival.
Buskers, or street musicians, abound in Asheville. Every hundred feet or so on the sidewalks it seems there’s another performer. This makes any downtown stroll a musical experience. You’ll hear many genres performed by solo artists and full bands vying for your attention and spare change.
More musical street magic occurs in Pritchard Park each Friday evening with the Asheville Drum Circle, a giant rhythm circle that anyone can join in on. Things get going at 6 p.m. and last until whenever people stop pounding and dancing.
Birmingham’s steely past
Once called “the Pittsburgh of the South,” Birmingham’s massive steel industry is all but gone now, but the hulking, haunting visage that is Sloss Furnaces (20 32nd St. N., Birmingham. 205-324-1911, slossfurnaces.com) still stands.
This National Historic Landmark no longer produces pig iron, as it did for almost a century until it shut down in the 1970s, but it helped to fuel Birmingham’s rise from a tiny post-Civil War crossroads town into a prosperous industrial hub that became known as the Magic City. That magic had a lot to do with its location between Appalachian ridges that held all the ingredients necessary for steel and iron production.
As the steel industry slowly died out, Sloss sat there, a relic from the city’s past. It began a new life as a concert venue, with stages underneath the water tower and train shed, home to festivals like the Magic City Brewfest in June and the Sloss Music and Arts Festival each July, and a favorite destination around Halloween due to the spookiness of its abandoned industrial environs.
There’s a new state-of-the-art visitor center, but the rest of the facility is filled with historic structures, including the enormous blast furnaces. There’s even an underground tunnel to explore. Admission is free. Sloss is open for self-guided tours every day of the week except Monday. Free guided tours are available at 1 p.m. Saturdays.
Other don’t-miss spots related to Birmingham’s steely past: Vulcan, the largest cast iron statue in the world, stands atop Red Mountain, with an observation platform providing the best view of the city. And Red Mountain Park is a 1,300-acre green space covering the mountain where mining operations once took place. Nature has overtaken the mines and reclaimed the once barren mountain. The old mine shafts blow out cold air, providing a nice respite from the heat on a long hike.
Photo: Fort Morgan, which played a significant role in the Battle of Mobile Bay, offers guided tours, or you can explore on your own.
Full speed ahead on Mobile Bay
Most everyone knows the famous battle cry, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” What’s less known is the who, where and when. Union Admiral David Farragut bellowed the command (or a variation thereof) on Aug. 5, 1864, during the Battle of Mobile Bay in the waters off Fort Morgan (110 State Highway 180, Gulf Shores, Ala. 251-540-5257, fort-morgan.org).
These days, instead of protecting the bay, Fort Morgan welcomes visitors to tour the site. Most visitors to this area come primarily for the white sand beaches on the Fort Morgan Peninsula and in nearby Gulf Shores, but the fort is well worth a visit. A ferry service connects Fort Morgan to Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island on the other side of the bay, carrying pedestrians and vehicles. On the ferry, you’re actually crossing the waters where Farragut said his immortal words.
Point Clear, on the Eastern Shore, is home to another historic treasure where you can spend an entire vacation, the Grand Hotel. This resort, now operated as a Marriott property (rates start at $209; 1 Grand Blvd., Point Clear, Ala. 251-928-9201, marriottgrand.com), has been in operation since 1847, except for when it served as a hospital during the Civil War and an Air Force training facility in World War II. This strong military heritage is honored every afternoon with a ceremonial procession and canon firing over the bay, one of many longstanding traditions at the Grand.
A few miles north, the small, eclectic town of Fairhope stands as another Eastern Shore treasure. Founded in 1894 as a utopian single tax colony, where every citizen would have a “fair hope of success,” today it’s known as a haven for artists and writers who settle there for the laid-back, old-school coastal charm.
A short drive around the top of the bay, the port city of Mobile awaits like a smaller version of New Orleans. The city has a vibrant downtown area, especially around Bienville Square. There, it becomes evident why Mobile is called “the Little Easy.”
Photo: Anglers enjoy some downtime on the shore of Black Rock Mountain Lake inside Black Rock Mountain State Park. The Firefox Museum and Heritage Center is adjacent to the park.
Folklore in Rabun County
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Foxfire, a magazine produced by high school students in Rabun County in the mountainous northeast corner of Georgia. The success of the magazine, which chronicles the folkways and history of Southern Appalachia, led to a popular book series and then the Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center (admission $8. 98 Foxfire Lane, Mountain City, Ga. 706-746-5828, foxfirefund.org).
The center sits on 106 acres of land in Mountain City, with original pioneer log cabins and other structures built using construction tools and methods from the pioneer period. If you want to know what it was like to settle and live in the Appalachian wilderness 180 years ago, this is the place. You’ll see the toys kids played with and the housewares used back then. There’s a grist mill on-site, as well as a chapel with pews made out of split logs. Hike the nature trail, take a self-guided tour of the structures and observe craft and amusement demonstrations of how everyday life was lived in the mountains when this part of the country was still frontier land.
Next door to Foxfire, Black Rock Mountain State Park rises even higher, as the winding road takes you up to Georgia’s highest state park. The eastern Continental Divide runs through the park, which contains some of North Georgia’s more jaw-dropping vistas from its overlooks. Don’t miss Black Rock Lake, a 17-acre lake ringed by mountain peaks and an easy .85-mile loop trail providing great views of the emerald water and evergreen trees.
Hometown by the lake
Greensboro gets touted as “Lake Oconee’s hometown,” but most people who vacation on Georgia’s second largest lake have never set foot within its city limits a few miles to the north. Founded in 1786, it’s much older than the lake, which was created in 1979.
Greensboro’s tiny, charming downtown contains an abundance of antique shops, art galleries and boutiques. Perhaps the most notable building is a jailhouse, built in 1807 with 2-foot-thick granite blocks when the surrounding area was still a frontier land inhabited by the Cherokee and Creek tribes. The Old Gaol, as it’s called, still has its irons where prisoners were chained to the floor and a trap-door gallows where the condemned were hung.
You can gander at this historical treasure from the outside or make an appointment for a free inside tour through the Greene County Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (111 N Main St., Greensboro. 706-453-7592, www.greeneccoc.org). The Old Gaol opens up for special events, including the Southland Jubilee each April, Greensboro’s largest annual event. Main Street becomes a pedestrian-only zone for the fest, which draws in visitors from around the region who come to sample an authentic taste of small town rural life.
Another historic downtown building will become home to one of Georgia’s newest craft breweries later this year when the Oconee Brewing Co. (facebook.com/oconeebrewingcompany) opens for business. The brewery, which will offer a tasting room and tours, is housed in the former Chero-Cola bottling plant next door to a small but magnificent old train depot. Plans call for the depot to become a gastropub. This kind of development is bound to bring more of the lake folks into town. For locals, the brewery has generated excitement in this hybrid community of agriculture and resort life. Greenboro is that rare kind of place where John Deere and Mercedes Benz share the roadways.
Check out the ‘Scruffy City’
Touchscreens, so ubiquitous now, were first introduced to the public at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. Digital natives, and anyone else who can no longer imagine living without such power at their fingertips, can pay homage with a visit to the “Scruffy City.” Why is Knoxville called the Scruffy City? Because a media report at the time questioned how such “a scruffy little city” could pull off hosting a World’s Fair. But pull it off they did.
Today, Knoxvillians take pride in the name, and their scruffy little Sunsphere, the tower topped with a golden glass globe that served as the centerpiece attraction of the fair. It’s one of the few tangible remnants of the fair, along with the hotel next door that today operates as Holiday Inn World’s Fair Park (rates start at $136; 525 Henley St., Knoxville. 865-522-2800, ihg.com/holidayinn). In the lobby, you’ll find the world’s largest Rubik’s Cube, another remnant of the fair. The hotel serves as a good base of operations for exploring a revitalized downtown area and points beyond.
Don’t-miss spots: Market Square is a pedestrian-only zone brimming with mainstay restaurants and longstanding pubs, as well as a vibrant street life that includes unofficial buskers and bands belting out tunes and a built-in stage for official performances from an array of Americana acts. A couple of blocks away, you’ll find the Knoxville Visitors Center, which likely draws more locals than visitors thanks to the Blue Plate Special, a live lunchtime radio broadcast from the in-house studios of WDVX, a legendary radio station that calls the visitors center home. And, yes, you can eat lunch there.
Living history in Savannah
Downtown Savannah seems like an outdoor living history museum on any street. No matter which corner you turn, there’s an enchanting vibe from a distant era brought out by the architecture, the trees, the ivy, the street grid that hasn’t changed over centuries.
But, Georgia’s founding city is also home to the oldest public art museum in the South. Telfair Academy was established as the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1883 in a former private mansion built in 1818. Today, Telfair is part of a triad known as the Telfair Museums (912-790-8800, telfair.org) that includes the Jepson Center and the Owens-Thomas House. A single admission fee of $20 will get you in all three sites over a weeklong period, so you won’t have to rush to get all three covered in a day.
Telfair Academy’s collection showcases American and European works from the 19th and 20th centuries. Across the street, the Jepson Center will spring you headlong into the modern era with contemporary art and rotating exhibits in a much larger space. The Jepson is also where you’ll find the “bird girl” statue made famous from its star turn on the cover of the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” It was relocated here from Bonaventure Cemetery on the outskirts of town (another Savannah don’t-miss spot) because of vandalism concerns. The circa-1819 Owens-Thomas House on the other side of downtown from the Telfair Academy and the Jepson Center is a treasure trove of a house museum representing the aristocratic elegance of a bygone era.
A Southern college town
It’s always good to have a local show you around when traveling. In Oxford, Miss., one of the best ways to do that is to take the Double Decker Bus Tour.
Yes, the kind of double-decker buses they have in Great Britain. Oxford has a small fleet of them, because this college town — home to the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) — is named after Oxford, England. The local tourism bureau offers spring and fall bus tours guided by historian and fifth-generation Oxonian Jack Mayfield.
Mayfield makes an excellent guide, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Oxford and Ole Miss. Stops include William Faulkner’s grave site, the downtown square and the oldest buildings on campus. The upper deck of the bus is open-air, providing great views of town on the one-hour tour. Tickets are $10; $5 for kids. Remaining tours this fall are at 2 p.m. Sept. 30 and Oct. 28, departing from the Oxford Visitors Center (1013 Jackson Ave. E., Oxford, Miss. 662-232-2477, visitoxfordms.com).
For live music, two spots stand out: Thacker Mountain Radio Hour at 6 p.m. Thursdays at Off Square Books downtown, a live radio broadcast with Americana acts and author readings from the stage in the back of a used bookstore. Admission is free, but get there early because it always fills up. And the Lyric Oxford, featuring top regional and national touring acts, is in a late-19th century building that once served as a stable and a movie theater before being turned into the town’s top concert venue. Don’t miss the easy-to-miss eatery Oxford Canteen in the alley next to the Lyric, a take-out window serving not your ordinary take-out window food.