Best Budget Destinations in America 2018, Part III: The South

We’re rounding up value trips across the U.S. (one in each state, plus DC) to inspire Budget Travelers to see more of America for less money. Here, the best of the South.

Sometimes, the best laid vacation plans go astray. And that can be a very, very good thing. When you diverge from your prearranged plans, you open yourself up to discovery, which is something we heartily endorse here at Budget Travel. Our editors spend the past year listening to your experiences and talking to locals to assemble 51 Best Budget Destinations 2018, one in every state, plus the District of Columbia. Each of these selections is a place that might be near to or on the way to or even part of a familiar destination—someplace that will richly reward you for veering off the well-trod path. We define a “Budget Destination” as a place that includes, but is not limited to: excellent food and drink, a variety of cultural options, a hearty helping of American history, unique institutions, and jaw-dropping natural beauty. And what’s more, you won’t have to mortgage your home to enjoy it, as we sought out places with lodging under $200 per night. In the hopes of inspiring new bucket-list journeys, whether you're committed road-trippers, weekend warriors, or travel junkies, here are the 13 Best Budget Destinations in the South.

WACO, TEXAS

Texas-Waco-magnolia.JPG?mtime=20180418092842#asset:101517(Courtesy of the Waco Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Memphis has Elvis, Pittsburgh has Andy Warhol...and Waco has Chip and Joanna Gaines. The couple, hosts of HGTV’s wildly popular Fixer Upper and media darlings with 841,000 and 1.01 million Twitter followers, respectively, are natives of this central Texas town, which they spotlight on their home-improvement show. Now they’re drawing fans from across the globe to see the city for themselves with their Silo District, a veritable campus comprising the sweeping home-design store Magnolia Market, a plant nursery, a bakery, a garden, and a green space with food trucks, games, and play areas—all on an old grain-storage property, where the silos still tower over everything else. (Free trolley rides are available from downtown.) Waco is also where a pharmacist formulated the enduring Dr Pepper soft drink in 1885, a legacy that's on display at the quirky, engaging Dr Pepper Museum. But it’s another drink that’s putting Waco on hipsters’ radar in the past few years: whiskey. Balcones, a distillery founded in 2008, before the craft-spirits movement took on a sweeping momentum, offers tours and drinks in a tasting room. Add to that all the recreational activities at Lake Waco and its expansive surrounding parks, running trails in the city, and the Waco Mammoth Site, which displays fossils from 67,000 years ago in their original position, and it's safe to say there’s pretty much something for everyone here.

ORANGE BEACH, ALABAMA

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Surfing in California? Check. Lounging in the Caribbean? Check. Sailing in New England? Check. Fewer people, however, have discovered the many glorious pleasures to be found along the Gulf of Mexico on Alabama’s Orange Beach, part of what locals call “Pleasure Island.” But not for long. For many families, it’s been a vacation destination for many generations, but more first-timers are arriving to explore the 30-plus miles of white sand beach, which offer access to the interior bays, an ideal setting for catamarans, water skiing, fishing and more. Landlubbers have a range of fun ways to fill the days here as well, from water parks to golf courses to zip lines. There’s also the Backcountry Trail through Gulf State Park, 25 miles of paved, flat trails for biking (rental bikes are available), running, and walking. And, of course, this being a beach town, you’re guaranteed some remarkable seafood platters, many from restaurants that have been dishing out food for decades. 

EL DORADO, ARKANSAS

Arkansas-el-dorado.JPG?mtime=20180418092827#asset:101508(Courtesy Casey Crocker)

Last September, Brad Paisley and Smokey Robinson were just a few of the legends to go to El Dorado for the unveiling of the first phase of the Murphy Arts District. The $100 million project will include a farm-to-table restaurant, a cabaret lounge, and a 2,000-seat music hall in a building that once stood as an assembly plant and showroom for Model T Fords. All this plus an outdoor amphitheater for up to 8,000 concert-goers, about two acres of kids’ play space, and a next-door farmers’ market. This confluence of old and new is evident throughout the city, which became a hub of activity and culture in the 1920s thanks to the discovery of oil just west of town. It quickly rose to “boomtown” status, and the gorgeous buildings that sprung up downtown in those years are now restored and listed on the National Register, meaning that spending an afternoon browsing the various charming shops and restaurants doubles as an architectural history lesson. The city’s cultural legacy runs strong in many other ways too: The South Arkansas Arts Center is 53 years old, and the South Arkansas Symphony has been around for more than 60 years.

SPACE COAST, FLORIDA

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Everybody knows that the Kennedy Space Center is hit destination for curious kids, budding scientists, and grownups who are fascinated by the history of the U.S. space program. But not nearly as many travelers realize that there’s a whole world of vacation possibilities on Florida’s “Space Coast.” From Titusville to Melbourne, you’ll find ample attractions devoted to the space program that was centered here in the 1960s (and where launches still take place), plus some of Florida’s most beautiful beaches and parks, all about an hour’s drive from the Orlando area. We heartily recommend a visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge to spot egrets, herons, manatees, and feral hogs. Head to Canaveral National Seashore for loggerhead turtles. Hit Cocoa Beach for the surfing scene (it’s fun even if you are just a spectator), Ron Jon's Surf Shop, and excellent Cuban sandwiches. Stop in Melbourne for open-water scuba lessons or just to take in the gorgeous scenery.

ATHENS, GEORGIA

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We love college towns, and Athens, in northeastern Georgia, stands head and shoulders above most for its mix of intellectual pursuits, a hot music scene, great cuisine, and much more. For quirky shops, rising chefs, and truly international menus, you’ll want to spend some time strolling downtown. Then hit one of Athens’s legendary music venues for an earful of the local alternative music scene that has been buzzing since iconic bands such as the B-52s and R.E.M. helped put Athens on hipsters’ maps in the 1970s and ‘80s. AthFest Music and Arts Festival takes place in downtown Athens in June, featuring more than 100 bands on three free outdoor stages, plus a Club Crawl. Each May, the two-day Athens Human Rights Festival dedicates itself to promoting free speech and awareness of issues that challenge human rights. And when you’re visiting a major college town, you’re always in good company taking in a football, basketball, soccer, or gymnastics event. Go Bulldogs!

PADUCAH, KENTUCKY

Kentucky-Paducah-mural-train.jpg?mtime=20180418092833#asset:101511(Lisa Mckown/Dreamstime)

Only a few cities are arts-centric enough to be part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, and Paducah, Kentucky, is one of them. The National Quilt Museum and the Floodwall Murals, a series of more than 50 oversized panoramic images by globally known mural artist Robert Dafford, are just a few of the sites that earned the town its status as a City of Crafts and Folk Art. There are also dedicated quilt weeks in April and September. For creativity of the architectural stripe, check out the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant: It’s been faithfully restored to preserve the design details of the original circa-1939 building, and today, the historic building houses local, creative food and drink makers and purveyors, like Dry Ground Brewing, Mellow Mushroom Pizza, Piper’s Tea & Coffee, and the Ice Cream Factory. Local is also the name of the game at Freight House, where native daughter Sara Bradley, a veteran of kitchens in New York and Chicago, uses Kentucky-sourced ingredients in her imaginative Southern-accented dishes. Finish it off with a stay at the 1857 Hotel, located in a gorgeously retrofitted building that dates to the 1800s, and you’ll leave with a rich appreciation for the creative energy of the Bluegrass State.

LAFAYETTE, LOUISIANA

Louisiana-Lafayette-music-festival.JPG?mtime=20180418092834#asset:101512(Courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism)

It’s easy to think of Lafayette, Louisiana, home of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Ragin’ Cajuns, as a college town, but in addition to the campus museums, sports arenas, and creative eateries that are pretty much prerequisites wherever students dwell, it has a bunch of quirky sites that the curious traveler should have on his or her bucket list. First, it’s the only college campus in the country with a swamp, and you can tour the two-acre bayou, a habitat for irises and a few reptiles, including alligators. But for a real taste of Cajun culture, a visit to Martin Accordians is an absolute must. The 30-plus-year-old full-service store features handmade instruments and, for the enthusiast or just plain curious, there are shop tours and demonstrations. You never know: If the zydeco spirit strikes you, you might go home with a pretty eccentric souvenir.

BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI

Mississippi-Biloxi_lighthouse.jpg?mtime=20180418092836#asset:101513(Sean Pavone/Dreamstime)

There’s an oak tree in Biloxi that’s known locally as Patriarch. We wouldn’t typically recommend a destination for a single tree, but this one is 2,000 years old and quite a sight to behold. Luckily, this Gulf Coast Town also offers miles of white-sand beaches, and plenty more longstanding sites as well. Mary Mahoney’s, a courtyard restaurant known for its fresh seafood, is located in one of the oldest buildings in America. The Biloxi Lighthouse, which is open for tours, was built in 1848 and survived Hurricane Katrina. (There’s a memorial downtown—a black-granite slab and an adjoining mosaic—to the many local hurricane victims.) To get a deeper understanding of the area’s long nautical history, the Maritime and Seafood Museum delivers a comprehensive education. Its Civil War history is honored at Beauvoir, the retirement home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, which shares a 52-acre property with a Civil War museum, a historic Confederate cemetery, a botanical garden, and a presidential library. For more modern attractions, check out the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum, named for the “Mad Potter of Biloxi” (aka George E. Ohr) and featuring an abundance of his signature paper-thin pottery pieces. 

WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA

North-Carolina-Winston-Salem-Bailey-Park.JPG?mtime=20180418092837#asset:101514(Courtesy VisitNC.com)

Tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds and the textile industry built this city, but Wake Forest University gave it its youthful energy, and today’s creative class makes it a destination for anyone drawn to good food, wine, craft beer, history, NASCAR, theater, and art—and that’s to say nothing of the natural beauty of its location at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Winston-Salem is a city that holds fast to a classic Southern slow-paced life, and it serves as a gateway to the Yadkin Valley wine region, one of the few federally approved American Viticultural Areas in the country, a recognition of the uniqueness of the grape-growing land. It’s also home to Foothills Brewing, which is known for spearheading North Carolina’s craft brewing scene. Considering that Asheville has more breweries per capita than any other US city, that’s no small feat. And a Southern city isn’t a true Southern city without eateries around every corner. Winston-Salem delivers on that, with options like Sweet Potatoes, which offers modern renditions of classic Southern fare, and Crafted The Art of the Taco, known for international riffs on the classic street food. Between eating and drinking, make time to check out works by local, national, and international artists at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, where entrance is free. Or time your visit so you’re there for the RiverRun International Film Festival in April or the National Black Theater Festival, held every other summer. 

SPARTANBURG, SOUTH CAROLINA

South-Carolina-Spartenburg-festival.JPG?mtime=20180418092838#asset:101515(Courtesy DiscoverSouthCarolina.com)

Go to South Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains for the hiking and picture-perfect scenery, but stay for the arts and culture scene in Spartanburg, a community at the foot of the mountains that makes for a standout family getaway. The brand new Children’s Museum of the Upstate boast 6,000 square feet of activities for kids aged one to 15. The Spartanburg Science Center is equally kid-friendly. And the Hub City Railroad Museum presents a vivid history of the railway and the industries it supported: textiles and peaches. There's plenty of outdoor activity as well: Croft State Park, which is only five miles from downtown and clocks in at 7,000 acres, has trails, fishing, a playground, and a well-known kid-friendly equestrian facility. To fortify yourself after a day of activity, scoot over to nearby Chesnee, which has one of the Southeast’s largest strawberry fields, as well as apples, pumpkins, and more. Across the way is a café known for its homemade ice cream.   

CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE

CHATTANOOGA_Tennessee_38023040.jpg?mtime=20171006093102#asset:98089(Sean Pavone/Dreamstime)

In the 1880s, a wood-fired choo-choo train was the main attraction in this city right over the Georgia state line; today, it’s the Innovation District. Thanks to the somewhat surprising fact that Chattanooga is home to the fastest internet in the country, startups have come here and set up camp, and where tech people go, bars and restaurants follow. From Stir, where shelves of liquor stretch so high that bartenders require ladders, to American Draft, a bar in a revamped train car where you can pour your own beer, to several Guatemalan eateries, there’s no shortage of choices for eating and drinking. None of this, however, overshadows its longtime charms and natural beauty. With its Appalachian Mountains location, biking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and hiking are just a few of the ways to take advantage of the gorgeous landscape.  

ROANOKE, VIRGINIA

Virginia-ROANOKE-market-54761381.jpg?mtime=20180418092844#asset:101518(Larry Metayer/Dreamstime)

The Blue Ridge mountains, pristine lakes, a rich history, and unique celebrations throughout the year (Kite Festival, anyone?) are just a few of the things that draw visitors to this bucolic city, the largest on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Situated at the southern tip of the Shenandoah Valley, the mountains are a veritable playground for hiking and mountain biking. After a scenic drive down the Parkway, take some time to get a deep understanding of the region’s epic transportation history at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which showcases how the railway system and aviation evolved in the area. But when exploring downtown these days, your feet are the only means of transportation you’ll need. The City Market, which has essentially been operating since 1882, is a bustling farmers’ market that  serves as a flavor tour of the region, as told by local farmers. Artists and craftspeople sell their work here, too. It runs seven days a week year-round. 

MORGANTOWN, WEST VIRGINIA

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In Morgantown, West Virginia, you can find the beautiful Monongahela River and Cooper’s Rock State Forest, with more than 12,000 acres for hiking, biking, camping, and more, plus vibrant small-city shopping and a local food scene. West Virginia University defines the town in many good ways, with impressive arts, food, and entertainment offerings. Don’t miss the university’s Canopy Tour, which includes four ziplines. Fall football is a big draw here, but any time of year, Morgantown’s downtown offers a variety of delights, from beer served in generous portions at Mario’s Fishbowl, to American-style small plates at Tin 202, to the Iron Horse Tavern gastropub serving hearty breakfasts, classic American comfort food, local craft beers, and cocktails. Cheat Lake Park and Trail is an easy 4.5-mile trail with a playground by the lake that kids will love, and the Atomic Grill will help you refuel with BBQ and burgers burgers in a design-forward environment.

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