Best Budget Destinations in America, Part III: The South

Tybee Island, Georgia Sulphur, Oklahoma. Chickasaw Cultural CenterRichmond, Virginia
Raleigh, North CarolinaNatchitochesLaurel, Mississippi
Covington, KentuckyBentonville, ArkansasHarpers Ferry, West Virginia
Entrance to the Sandy Hook Fish & Rib House in Matlacha, Florida.Beaufort, South Carolina
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Southern charm and history wrapped up on a single tiny island.

Let the crowds have Cape Cod, Miami, the Hamptons, and the Jersey Shore. Georgia’s Tybee Island, a small barrier island with three miles of Atlantic beach and sprawling sand dunes, is a quiet year-round refuge that delivers classic beach town eats and great waves for surfing, plus some American history tossed in for good measure, from the circa-1736 lighthouse, which you can climb, to Fort Pulaski, the site where the Union Army first tested rifled cannon in battle during the Civil War, which changed the course of military combat. While the place hops in the summertime with live music on a central pavilion, it’s a decidedly laidback destination in the off-season. Most of the island’s dining options, like the homey seafood joint AJ’s Dockside, Bubba Gumbo’s, a go-to for traditional Low Country fare, and Seaside Sweets, a source for homemade gelato, are open year-round, unlike the seasonal operations up north. With eight hotels, six B&Bs, and upwards of 800 houses, cottages, and condos, you’ll find lodging from $150 in the summer and from $100 in the off-season.


Sights, sounds, and flavors of America's native culture.

You could find quainter destinations in Oklahoma, but with a population that hovers around 5,000 and expanses of land devoted to recreational activities and all kinds of places with a rich American heritage, why look further than Sulphur, Oklahoma? The stunning Chickasaw National Recreation Area is one of the major draws. Hiking, fishing and wildlife-watching, as well as a kid-friendly nature center featuring all kinds of reptiles and the like, are just a few ways to fill your days. The area’s heritage is on display at the Arbuckle Historical Society Museum, formerly the town’s city hall, and the Chickasaw Cultural Center, a lively and immersive way to learn about the Chickasaw tribe. And we mean immersive. The center’s Aaimpa’s Café doles out traditional American Indian fare, like fry bread, corn soup, and much more, mostly made with produce grown onsite. There’s American classic dishes, too. Of course, there are loads of fun places to eat beyond the sprawling center. Homestyle meals about at the diner-esque Poor Girls Café. And this being Oklahoma, you’re not gonna find big city prices for luxury accommodations. The luxe and tranquil five-star Echo Spa has rates starting at $225 while the Artesian Hotel ranges from $150 to $250 per night. A glorious hotspot that drew celebrities in the early 20th century, today it’s a restored luxury hotel complete with a spa and casino.

Courtesy Chickasaw Cultural Center


Natural beauty meets urban charm. 

While long viewed as a classically proper Southern city, the number of young people, many from the area’s colleges, who’ve come to call Richmond, Virginia’s capital, home have imbued it with an unmistakably hip vibrancy. Case in point: 2017 marks the founding of the Richmond Beer Trail, which encompasses over 20 craft breweries. Collectively, the Trail is a tribute to the city’s sudsy history, which dates back over 150 years. And where there are hip breweries, there are hip restaurants. Supper and the adjoining Lunch, which opened in 2012, is known for its modern versions of Southern classics, and Brewer’s Café, which draws locals and tourists with a variety of wholesome sandwiches and coffee selection (not to mention art and music events) are among the many spots to enjoy creative food and local soul. But lest you think that all that fun stuff overshadows the area’s rich history.  In May 2016, The Black History Museum and Cultural Center reopened after an extensive overhaul in a building that once stood as African-American militia unit’s armory. Interactive exhibits, objects, and replica of a Woolworth luncheonette, site of Civil Rights-era sit-ins, are all on display. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts also boasts enhancement thanks to the addition of 165,000 feet of gallery space, which is filled with Art Deco and Art Nouveau works. Admission to permanent exhibits is free as are half-hour gallery tours every Friday at 7PM and 7.30PM. When it comes to where to sleep, there’s no shortage of boutique hotels. Quirk Hotel gets a lot of attention for its funky gallery and shop, minimalist rooms with locally-minded décor, and lively rooftop bar, all of which adds up to a pretty good bang for your buck with rates starting around $175.


A hipster enclave in downtown Raleigh.

With its universities, Revolutionary War history, various cultural institutions, and spectacular weather, it’s little wonder that Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital, is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. That said, even the city’s buzzy downtown offers an increasing number of things to see, do, and taste beyond the guidebook sites, most of which have the same indie verve that define restaurants and shops and such in other cities’ far-flung emerging areas. That’s especially true in the Glenwood South District, once a nondescript strip of warehouses that’s been transformed into a virtual restaurant village. To wit: the Raleigh Beer Garden holds the Guinness World Record for having the largest selection of draft beers on the planet, and its sister outpost, the more subdued Hibernian Pub; the ultra-cool Clockwork, which specializes in classic cocktails served amid a 1960s moon lounge vibe; and Vidrio, offering Mediterranean fare and a design that might make you feel you’re eating in a modern art museum. Head there early in the day to meander in and out of the local shops, like the locally based natural beauty store Front Row Cosmetics, the vintage vinyl shop Record Krate, and Feelgoodz, a Raleigh-based shoe shop featuring men’s and women’s selections inspired by global materials and traditions. And with boutique hotels that clock in at $200/night or less, there’s no reason not to soak up Raleigh’s pride.

Kelley Albert/Dreamstime


A pretty-as-a-picture Southern town that's ready for its close-up. 

New Orleans has its French heritage, no doubt, (Hello, Napoleon House!) but when it comes to Louisiana’s Gallic legacy, Natchitoches offers les bons temps (trans: good times) the way that only a picturesque Southern small town can. How picturesque, you ask? So much so that you might recognize it from "Steel Magnolias," which was filmed there in the 1980s. So much so that the quaintness you remember from the movie is embodied at the nearly 100 B&Bs in town, which range between $100 and $175/night. How picturesque, you ask? Downtown’s historic Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store is the state’s oldest general store and has the classic toys, functional early 20th century register, and nostalgic vibe. The list goes on, and it’s easily topped by the soulful Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant. The no-frills family-owned institution is a beacon of authentic Creole cuisine known for its generations-old recipes. There’s a different history on display at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, a tribute to the state’s many legendary athletes and coaches, from Shaquille O’Neal to longtime New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning to plenty of other talented sportsmen and women whose names are less known but whose stories are no less glorious.

Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism


A Southern story told in design and architecture.

There’s poetic justice in the fact that a couple that’s become famous for revitalizing homes makes its hometown famous for its urban revitalization. Ben and Erin Napier have done for Laurel, Mississippi what Chip and Joanna Gains of “Fixer Upper” fame did for Waco, Texas, which is to say made it a destination for design enthusiasts and pop culture devotees alike. The husband and wife hosts of HGTV’s “Home Town” restoring historic homes around town, so those abodes have become a bit of an attraction for anyone drawn to Southern culture. Meantime, the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art showcases art made far beyond the region—European paintings, Japanese woodblock prints, English Georgian silver. So go for the architecture and Laurel Mercantile, a downtown emporium showcasing the Napiers' collection of hand-worked reclaimed furniture and plenty more made-in-the-USA treasures, but stay for the food. Café La Fleur, which specializes in classic New Orleans staples, and The Knight Butcher, a custom butcher that offers fresh cuts of meat as well as brown-bag lunches (read: a perfect meal during a day of wandering), are just a few of the many options.

Mississippi Development Authority


Like a cool, far-flung borough of Louisville.

Covington is a small Northern Kentucky town on the banks of the Ohio River that easily feels like it is to Louisville with Brooklyn is to Manhattan or what Oakland is to San Francisco, despite the fact that they’re not adjoined. Hip and historic, this up-and-coming city boast 12 historic districts (and the second highest number of properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Kentucky), but most of the energy revolves around MainStrasse Village, a lively enclave anchored by the iconic Carrol Chimes Bell Tower that pays homage to the area’s German heritage. Many of the funky shops and creative restaurants are located in longstanding historic buildings. When it comes to dining, Otto’s, a modern, creative eatery known for its tomato pie, is a local favorite, right up there with the Dutch-accented Lisse Steakhuis. No town in Kentucky would be complete without a fantastic bourbon bar, and Covington represents with the neighborhood’s impressive Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar. You could easily spend the day walking through the district, but you shouldn’t. There’s plenty more to see in other neighborhoods, especially along the waterfront, which is lined with bronze statues of historical figures and the Roebling Murals, 18 colorful paintings on a floodwall that chronicle the area’s history back to BC times.


A city with a retail icon's history and much more in store.

Once was a time when Walmart was just a family retailer in Bentonville, a sleepy town nestled in Arkansas' stretch  Ozarks. but since that store grew into a global behemoth, the quaint hometown has become something of a destination. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a sleek ultra-modern building that houses a top-rate collection (Warhol and O’Keefe, anyone?) and is free to enter, has long been an attraction, as has the Museum of Native American History. Add to that the new Amazeum, a veritable children’s wonderland with art activities, interactive exhibits, climbing, and more, as well as the Walmart Museum. Located in the original Walmart store, the museum pays tribute to history, culture, American retail and entrepreneurial grit. But let’s not forget, this town is set amid mountains, which, as you can imagine, lends itself to some pretty worthwhile time spent outside, especially on a bike. The town actually hosted the International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit in 2016. And while lodging options are plentiful, with popular picks including the art museum-style 21C Hotel, there are dozens of campsites where you can sleep under the stars.


Like Thomas Jefferson said: "Worth a voyage across the Atlantic."

Despite its unassuming look and feel, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, has a lot to show off. A mere 55 miles northwest of the frenzied Washington DC, the stunning city sits along the Blue Ridge Mountains where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet and the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers converge alongside a national park. Harpers Ferry is perhaps best known for John Brown’s failed effort in 1859 to raid the city and free the slaves, or Thomas Jefferson’s appearance when he stood in the center of town and proclaimed the view “worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” Some might argue that’s still true today. Its old-world flavor is preserved in sites like an 1860s restored general store, working blacksmith shop, and the circa 1775 Harper House, the oldest structure in town gussied up with period furniture. And, of course, the Harpers Ferry National Park offers plenty for nature lovers. To refuel after a long bike ride or hike –in the woods or around town—dining options are bountiful. Check out Anvil, a cozy spot that specializes in seafood, the charming local-art-adorned Country Café, which is known for its locally made hot dogs and assortment of hearty classics, and Scoops,  a cute ice cream shop also popular for its donuts. And there’s Little surprise here that the B&Bs are comfy and laid-back. Spots like the Angler’s Inn has rooms starting at $145.

Steven Frame/Dreamstime


Anglers have long known that Matlacha, one of the five communities of Pine Island off mainland Cape Coral, is a dependable place to catch fish (not to mention hang out with the Hookers, women brandishing hooks in their pockets as a sign of their belonging to the local club that runs fishing tournaments and other charity events.) But with loads of fun and quirky things to do in this island community of about 700 people and buildings splashed with brightly colored murals, Matlacha, an artists’ enclave, has started turning travelers’ heads. First, the obvious: in addition to the fishing there are plenty of opportunities for shrimping and crabbing and clamming, not to mention kayaking. But as far as the things that make Matlacha unique, there’s one of the most talked-about resident is known as the Doll Lady, who regularly sets up dolls and hobby horses outside her small home along with a sign indicating they’re not for sale, just displayed for fun. Another roadside attraction, indeed. Also well-known is Cindee Tolliver, who sells stunning handmade Native American-style silver jewelry and turquoise at Traders Hitching Post, a gallery/shop downtown. Other vibrant galleries are easy to come by. Meanwhile the past is on display at the Museum of the Islands, which chronicles the history of Pine Island and its neighboring islands going back to the turn of the 20th century. The community is small, but there’s no shortage of places to eat, many of which showcase the day’s local catch. The waterside Sandy Hook Fish and Rib House and Bert’s Bar & Grill are both lively seafood-focused eateries, the latter of which features live music. Same goes for places to stay. The Bridgewater Inn, a colorful bungalow with a wraparound porch and prime views of the local dolphins, is located next to the bridge that connects to the mainland, known as the “fishingest bridge in the world.” Rooms and cottages start at $119


Gorgeous, tranquil oceanside vistas are easy to come by throughout South Carolina’s coastal Sea Islands, but Beaufort, a quaint hamlet on Port Royal Island with an expansive waterside park and lots of galleries to wander through, stands out for a few reasons. First: the architecture. The pretty antebellum mansions, some of which stand as B&Bs these days, and the downtown historic district overall serve as the lens through which to learn about local history. Several attractions, like the John Mark Verdier House Museum, a Federalist mansion built by a wealthy merchant in 1804, provide details on life in the South in that era. For true architecture and history junkies, there’s a House and Gardens festival each fall. Speaking of gardens, food plays a big part in local culture. The year-round farmers market never fails to impress. Then there’s the bevy of old-school taverns, diners, and BBQ joints to choose from, but a big source of local pride is Habersham Marketplace, an emporium of shops and restaurants minutes outside Beaufort’s borders. Among the many businesses is the elegant 10 Market, a creative eatery with an open kitchen and four-course prix-fixe dinners for $65; the well-curated vintage shop Pearls Before Noon; Maggie’s Pub, known for its elevated pub grub; the funky homegoods shop Chartreuse, just to name a few. Toss in Hunting Island State Park, and all sorts of enclaves for hunting and fishing and boating and plenty other outdoor activities and you have yourself a getaway with a little bit of something to please even the pickiest travelers.   

Rackley Photography

We're tracking down the 51 coolest affordable hot spots in the U.S. (one in each state, plus Washington, DC). Here, the third installment in our series, with uniquely awesome destinations in the South that won't break the bank.

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