Murrells Inlet, South Carolina: The Marsh Walk begins to see more tourists as summer quickly approaches. Editorial credit: Chris Perello /

7 Coolest Towns in the Southern United States for a Summer Vacation in 2024

The American South, the land of hospitality, sweet tea, and beautiful landscapes to the Atlantic seascape, worships the sun. Home to pristine beaches, lush state parks, and national forests, the natural endowments are definitely the fantastic front-of-the-stage attractions. Holidaymakers and outdoorsy people flock to the South for the pleasant weather and the local welcome that feels like a home vibe.

Key Biscayne is minutes from Miami, but its tropical feel transports you further, like a real vacation. Gulf Shores is straight from your childhood dreams, with a famous waterpark and 32 miles of beaches with dolphin tours, the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, and stunning sunsets. So, seek the seascape of the Gulf of Mexico or switch to mountain time in the first town this summer in 2024.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Gatlinburg, Tennessee: Street view of the popular tourist city in the Smoky Mountains with attractions visible.

The main street in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Image credit Dawid S Swierczek via Shutterstock

Home to under 4,000 people, this family-friendly town in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a not-so-secret adventure destination for hiking and biking in the fresh mountain air through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The less active can take a scenic drive along the Cades Cove Loop Road, while the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail splits off into trailheads to various waterfalls for a stunning, misty picnic in the summer. With big city attractions, it is no wonder that this tiny town was ranked among the nation's top by TravelUs News. Home to Gatlinburg Wild Bear Falls Water Park and Mountaintop Zipline for thrills, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum delights all ages.

The Hampton Inn is right by the famous Crockett's Breakfast Camp and the Ober Mountain Tramway Mall, art galleries, and a cool gem shop for everyone's browsing pleasures. It's hard to miss the 407-foot-tall Gatlinburg Space Needle from anywhere in town, near the notable Hollywood Star Cars Museum. Hit the Ole Smoky Distillery "the Holler" and unwind at the Sugarlands Distilling Company to see which you prefer. After all, moonshine tastings are an Appalachian tradition no matter the season and a sure way to warm up and unwind after wintertime skiing and tubing at Ober Mountain Adventure Park and Ski Area.

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Gulf Shores, Alabama: People enjoying a beautiful sunny day at Gulf Shores Beach on the Gulf of Mexico.

Gulf Shores, Alabama. Editorial credit: Mark Winfrey /

Weaving old-time charm and Southern hospitality into modernity and stunning nature on the Gulf Coast, this resort town is a top-of-the-bucket list item for beachgoers and those seeking excitement beyond the "Shores." Flaunting 32 miles of bright white beaches out of Alabama's 50-some miles, visitors can take a fishing charter, take off in a boat, or, if looking to relax, enjoy cruises, a dolphin tour, and stunning sunsets. The chill beach vibes encourage you to unplug, unwind, and bond with your loved ones, whether you are building sand castles, sunbathing, or swimming in the cooling yet warm waters that soothe your muscles after the nature trails at Gulf State Park just east.

From its own airport with international departures to Waterville USA/Escape House, this small town makes the world feel like your oyster. So welcome to the shrimping mecca of the state, where local cuisine is served fresh from the gulf with Southern flair, like the delicious menu at LuLu's Gulf Shores. Home to the Track, a family recreation center with bumper boats, and the infamous Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, there are also plentiful, affordable, family-friendly lodgings for every comfort and style of vacation, including camping and beachfront rentals. Find more serenity on the Jeff Friend Trail, Centennial Trail, and Pine Beach Trail, snaking around the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge along the peninsula to the west.

Hilton Head, South Carolina

Hilton Head, South Carolina: Lighthouse at dusk.

Hilton Head, South Carolina: Lighthouse at dusk.

Ranked among the top small towns by Travel US News, Hilton Head Island is not your typical summer destination but attracts beachgoers, wildlife lovers, and foodies all the same. The Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, an all-star attraction for outdoor enthusiasts, is home to wildlife like wading birds, raptors, white-tailed deer, and even alligators sunning on the banks of the lagoons. For families and culture lovers, the Coastal Discovery Museum and the Sandbox Children's Museum have something for all ages. Don't skip dolphin-watching—some of the best around these open waters—aboard the friendly Zodiac rafts or golf, some of the best in the country.

From the Inn & Club at Harbour Town to the Sea Pines Resort and Harbour Town Sea Pines Condo, there's something for every style and budget, with access to the sun and the white sands all around for swimming or lounging in the warm southern surf of the beautiful Atlantic Ocean. So catch the ray and bask in the semi-remote feel of the barrier island, or scavenge for great food because the authentic Lowcountry boil is irresistible. Harbour Town, a private community, is worth the small fee to access great dining and shopping galore, while to escape further, the nearby Bloody Point Beach on the neighboring Daufuskie Island, home to the Iron Fish Gallery & Studio, feels like the edge of the world.

Hot Springs, Arkansas

Hot Springs, Arkansas: Town skyline from above at dawn.

Hot Springs, Arkansas: Town skyline from above at dawn.

Named the best waterfront town in the state by Southern Living, Hot Springs could be your ideal destination this summer in America's South. Living up to the hype as a larger small town with innumerable attractions, Hot Springs National Park takes center stage, encompassing an array of historic, naturally heated mineral springs and thermal baths. As the smallest and oldest of the parks in the National Park System, it was established on the grounds of 47 naturally flowing thermal springs in 1832 by Congress, 40 years before Yellowstone. The first federally protected area, Hot Springs Reservation, renamed in 1921, today offers free access to visit the springs on the southwestern slope of Hot Springs Mountain, while the historic Fordyce Bathhouse, on famous Bathhouse Row, is the park's visitor center.

Attracting everyone from sightseers to wellness seekers, history fans are tickled to learn, let alone soak in the springs like the former U.S. President Bill Clinton did, having spent his childhood years living in town. Beyond the springs, the family-friendly community is home to Oaklawn with thoroughbred racing and gaming, Magic Springs/Crystal Falls theme and water parks, as well as the 210-acre Garvan Woodland Gardens. Among plenty of art galleries, the Gangster Museum of America may be the most unique museum you've ever seen, while the Mid-America Science Museum is a winner of the 2016 National Medal for Library and Museum Service. Whether you're in for culture or the bubbling benefits, the historic row is thrumming with a nostalgic Romanesque feel, while Lake Ouachita, Lake Hamilton, Lake Catherine, and the Ouachita River are perfectly cooling under the summer sun.

Key Biscayne, Florida

Miami, Florida: Aerial view of Biscayne Bay and Miami skyline from Virginia Key.

Miami, Florida: Aerial view of Biscayne Bay and Miami skyline from Virginia Key.

Minutes from downtown Miami, there's no better place than Key Biscayne for a convenient escape, but abounding in attractions across the Rickenbacker Causeway, it is also a world-class beach vacation destination. Despite the busy feel in the summer, Key Biscayne inspires a tropical escape from the heated steel to a former coconut plantation with its lush parks, elegant seaside dining, and vacation rentals. Attracting out-of-state and globe-wide visitors wishing to experience the big city from a small beach town, this five-mile-long barrier island even offers the thought-after emote vibe along the picturesque beaches, like the dog-friendly Hobie Beach, aka the Windsurfer Beach.

From watersports to hiking, biking, fishing, and even boat camping, don't miss a tour of the historic Cape Florida Lighthouse. For dinner, the Rusty Pelican offers the best city panorama and a contemporary menu with Latin flare, while Costa Med Bistro + Wine is chic casual with European, Mediterranean, and South American influences. Just north of the isle, Virginia Key features the serene Beach Park, while Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park flaunts awe-inspiring sunrises. Spend a day at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Centre, a hit with families with interactive learning, and nothing delights the little ones like face-to-face with smiling dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium.

Murrells Inlet, South Carolina

Murrells Inlet, South Carolina: The MarshWalk, located in the historic fishing village, with people walking on the wooden boardwalk next to restaurants, bars, and boats.

Murrells Inlet, South Carolina: The MarshWalk, located in the historic fishing village. Editorial credit: Margaret.Wiktor /

Not just the “Seafood Capital of South Carolina,” but an underrated beach destination tucked 14 miles south of busy Myrtle Beach, Murells Inlet is a hit for a relaxing summer vacation. Nestled along the Hammock Coast, the humble fishing town vibes to the ebb and flow of the ocean; its lifeline is a 360-degree change of pace and scenery from the city. The active can still enjoy water sports and join locals in fishing, or just let the pleasure waves wash over as they indulge in fresh seafood served any style at the local waterfront restaurants, like the best oysters at the Claw House’s raw bar.

One of the most significant public gardens in the Southeastern US, the 9,100-acre Brookgreen Gardens is a stunning blend of a botanical garden, sculpture park, and wildlife preserve for strolls and relaxation. Don't miss the extensive collection of American figurative sculptures for selfies with your favorite while nature lovers explore the garden's trails for diverse native flora and fauna like birds, butterflies, reptiles, and mammals. Afterward, Wicked Tuna’s “Hook to Plate” serves local seafood freshly caught by its own fishing fleet, while Woof Woof Wings pair great with drinks at the Dead Dog Saloon.

Tybee Island, Georgia

Tybee Island, Georgia: Aerial shot of a gorgeous spring landscape with the lighthouse, blue ocean water, sandy beach, homes, and lush green trees and grass at Tybee Island Beach.

Aerial shot of Tybee Island, Georgia.

Tybee Island is another top-ten destination in the country, according to US Travel News, and is a small barrier island under 20 miles south of Savannah. The island's beaches offer captivating views along the dig-in-your-toes-worthy soft sands and the beckoning warm surf. Visitors can enjoy swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, and surfing before taking a tour of the nearby historic Tybee Island Light Station and Museum, the oldest and tallest in the Peach State, at sunset. From historic walking and bike tours around the island to surfing lessons and exploring the trails on your own two-wheeled friend, there's something for every curious, adventurous, and relaxation-minded traveler.

The island offers a unique opportunity to hunt for fossilized megalodon teeth during low tide, while the Tybee Beach Pier and Pavilion is great for a stroll against the oceanic backdrop. Visitors can join a dolphin-watching excursion or explore the spectacular Fort Pulaski National Monument grounds, which are excellent for photoshoots with picnic spots. The downtown, full of unique, historic architecture, features shopping and dining with waterfront views, like the carnival-themed Fannie’s on the Beach. Basking in the prevailing laid-back feel against the calmness of the Atlantic and balanced by the lively summertime atmosphere, this barrier island is the equation of a perfect vacation.

Discover the South's Best-Kept Secrets for a Summer Escape

Hot Springs, the recreational grounds of Little Bill Clinton, features the free-to-visit Hot Spring State Park, the smallest and oldest state park in the US, built around 47 natural springs bubbling with mineral benefits, as well as the historic Bathhouse Row with a Romanesque feel. From a mountain town to the Gulf Coast of Mexico and barrier islands, with chill vibes throughout, the warm South is undeniably a cool summer vacation base. The "Seafood Capital of South Carolina," Murrells Inlet, is home to the stunning Brookgreen Gardens with a sculpture park and trails through a wildlife preserve for strolls and relaxation, while Tybee Island sports the oldest and tallest lighthouse in the Peach State as well as the Fort Pulaski National Monument.

  1. Home
  2. Places
  3. Cities
  4. 7 Coolest Towns in the Southern United States for a Summer Vacation in 2024

More in Places