Must-See Southern Pit Stops

32 of our readers’ favorite places to pull over and grab a snack, fill the trunk, or just shake off the dust

Illustration: Ross MacDonald


Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, GA
The very embodiment of Southern gothic, Bonaventure Cemetery has long had stories to tell and secrets to keep. Columns of 250-year-old live oaks loom over the sandy lanes of this Victorian city of the dead, populated by eerily captivating statuary and monuments, including the graves of Savannahian luminaries such as the poet Conrad Aiken and the songwriter Johnny Mercer. Like them, you’ll almost certainly stay longer than you planned. 912-651-6843


Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville, KY
You could be forgiven for thinking of Cave Hill as a leafy park and sculpture garden that just so happens to have more than 120,000 people buried in it. After all, the cemetery itself offers themed tours tailored for bird-watchers, Civil War enthusiasts, and art lovers. Even quick visits typically include an obligatory stop at the grave of Colonel Sanders.


Grave of Stonewall Jackson’s Arm, Locust Grove, VA
In the spring of 1863, near Chancellorsville, Virginia, doctors amputated the left arm of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, wounded by musket balls errantly fired by his own soldiers. The next morning Jackson’s chaplain came upon the limb outside the surgical tent, deemed it worthy of a dignified burial, and laid it in the family cemetery behind Ellwood, his brother’s nearby plantation home. After Jackson died a week later, most of him got buried many miles away in Lexington. But a gravestone marks the vicinity of his arm’s final resting place—now overseen by the National Park Service and open to visitors—with a ghoulishly deadpan inscription: “Arm of Stonewall Jackson, May 3, 1863.”


Brazos Drive-In Theatre, Granbury, TX  
You have to like a community that designates both its 1886 opera house and its 1952 drive-in as historic landmarks. On a Texas summer night, you’ll choose the drive-in, and for the second feature, you’ll choose to sit on the matching metal lawn chairs lined up just outside the snack bar.


Hull’s Drive-In Movie Theatre, Lexington, VA  
When their beloved drive-in, which had brought Hollywood to a grassy clearing outside town for almost fifty years, closed in 1999, heartbroken locals formed the Hull’s Angels nonprofit to reopen it. Now the nation’s first community-owned drive-in packs ’em in for double features every weekend. That’s not just butter on your popcorn—it’s community pride.


Silver Moon Drive-In Theatre, Lakeland, FL
This twin-screen 1948 icon just might have the most impressive art deco–ish entrance gate of any drive-in still in existence, and the festival of neon continues inside. If you want your dazzled eyes to lead you back to the right car in the dark, consider wearing sunglasses to the glowing concession stand.


Junk for the Trunk

Main Street, Hazel, KY
This former railroad town of just 440 residents has found new life in old stuff, with more than a dozen well-curated antiques stores lining its quaint Main Street. All that rummaging is thirsty work, so take a break at the old-fashioned soda fountain tucked inside Charlie’s Antique Mall.


Mr. Bill’s Antiques & Collectibles, Mobile, AL  
Shopping for antique Tiffany stemware? This probably isn’t your first destination. But if your taste runs more to vintage anvils, gas pumps, iron beds, and bear traps, Mr. Bill’s sprawling, jam-packed four-building complex is the place. 251-645-9517


The Old Schoolhouse Antique Mall, Washington, LA
No one-room schoolhouse here. This two-story former school and gymnasium offers 40,000 square feet of dealer space, overflowing with antiques that run the gamut from fine English furniture to rare coins. And if you happen to break a lamp, just blame it on the ghosts rumored to be looking for a bargain. Friday–Sunday, 337-826-3580



Ava Gardner Museum, Smithfield, NC
At age twelve, Thomas Banks was playing on the campus of Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, North Carolina, where then-unknown Ava Gardner was studying to be a secretary. In response to his typical schoolyard teasing, she chased him down and gave him a kiss. It made a lasting impression. When she became a movie star several years later, Banks began following her career and amassing a huge collection of memorabilia along the way—from jewelry and china to costumes and awards. After Banks’s death, in 1989, and Gardner’s the following year, Banks’s wife donated his entire collection to the county where Gardner grew up, making officials promise to open a museum honoring the Hollywood legend. They did. The collection now encompasses more than 20,000 items, including a watch given to Frank Sinatra by Gardner and, ironically, twenty-three pairs of shoes from her role in The Barefoot Contessa.


John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL
This art-filled mansion rests on sixty-six beautiful acres on Sarasota Bay. But don’t be fooled by the pristine surroundings; the museum is as varied and outrageous as one might expect from a destination designed by one of the world’s most famous circus visionaries. The mansion itself, Ca’ d’Zan, is a Venetian marvel, and the collection has grown since Ringling’s time to include some 15,000 objects, from big-top memorabilia to European masterworks.


National Bird Dog Museum, Grand Junction, TN
A century’s worth of bird dog paintings, sculptures, photographs, and history—including portraits of every dog to win the national bird dog trials dating back to 1895—will inspire you to pull out a whistle and get to work with your pooch. Naturally, dogs are welcome, on lead, around the grounds. And there’s a fenced area for leash-less mayhem.


Photo: Chris Granger

A beachside drive along NC 12 on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

Parks & Gardens

Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales, FL
Though Central Florida is famous for many things, serenity is not one of them. All the more reason to make a side trip to this 250-acre oasis, an hour south of Orlando. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (son of the renowned Central Park landscape architect), designed the tropical sanctuary, which is punctuated by a 205-foot-high, sixty-bell carillon tower; concerts daily at 1:00 and 3:00 p.m.


Cypress Island Preserve, Lake Martin, LA  
Some 9,500 acres of bayou and bottomland hardwoods, thick with cypresses and old-growth live oaks, provide an idyllic setting for one of the continent’s largest wading-bird rookeries. Thousands of herons, egrets, ibis, and roseate spoonbills nest here, as do ospreys, bald eagles, and gators. It’s gloriously primeval.


Grandview, Beaver, WV
Awestruck by its thousand-foot-high cliff-top overlooks and thunderous rapids far below, admirers have called the New River Gorge the Grand Canyon of the East. And there’s no better place than Grandview, near Beckley (a former state park and now part of the New River Gorge National River), to take in a God’s-eye view of it.


Hunting Island State Park, Hunting Island, SC
Hours spent here play out in lackadaisical Lowcountry rhythms: surf fishing and meandering strolls along five miles of beach; braving the cast-iron spiral-staircase steps of the nineteenth-century lighthouse; taking in the vast expanse of saltwater marsh from the fishing pier at Fripp Inlet; stargazing from around a campfire. With more than a million yearly visitors, the park is hardly a secret, though, so consider an off-season pilgrimage.


Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, Savannah, GA
Just a couple of miles west of I-95 (via Exit 94) awaits a small gem of a refuge, a link to Savannah’s antebellum days. Beginning in 1830, horse- and mule-drawn barges and boats plied the 16.5-mile canal to shuttle goods back and forth between the Ogeechee River and downtown Savannah’s bustling port. Here at the waterway’s western end, three miles of trails and boardwalks cross through pine forest and cypress-tupelo swamp to the river. It’s a soothing antidote to interstate-highway-induced malaise.


Produce Stands

Mark’s Melon Patch, Sasser, GA   
The owners started this produce pit stop by selling watermelons out of a pickup truck. Thirty years later it has expanded to a roadside stand piled high with everything from cantaloupes and boiled peanuts to scuppernongs and sweet corn—all grown on the seventy-acre farm—along with homemade jam, barbecue sauce, and pickled veggies.


Sanders Peaches, Filbert, SC
Dori Sanders and her ten brothers and sisters were born on this 200-acre farm, which their parents bought in 1916. Stop by during peach season (June to September), and if you’re lucky, Dori will be there to welcome you. Also a published novelist, she knows a thing or two about telling a good story. Ask her how her daddy inspired her to be a writer, or how she picks the best peach. You won’t just leave with a bag (or car) full of chin soakers—you’ll have a Southern tale of your own to tell.

Photo: Chris Granger

Novelist and farmer Dori Sanders of Sanders Peaches.


Yazoo Market, Yazoo City, MS
This eight-year-old market offers fresh produce in summer and prepared food always—shrimp and cheese grits every Thursday, catfish two ways on Fridays, as well as kibbe (a mix of bulgur and ground meat). Stock up the cooler. 662-716-0505


Road Food

The Homeplace, Catawba, VA   
Out in the beautiful middle of nowhere, a short detour off I-81, sits this red-shuttered white farmhouse. The tables are set with bowls of coleslaw, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and apple butter, surrounding a genre-defining fried chicken with flawlessly crisped skin. 540-384-7252


Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, MS  
Designed to lure Gone with the Wind fans to Natchez, the seventy-two-year-old Mammy’s Cupboard (yes, the restaurant is actually shaped like a slim-waisted black housemaid) causes some double takes along Highway 61. But the architecture is eclipsed by the pies—banana caramel, chocolate icebox, and lemon meringue as broad as a Studebaker steering wheel. 601-445-8957


Stone Mountain Country Store, Traphill, NC  
This outpost sells sundries and cast-iron pots to wilderness adventurers, but its hospitality tests their resolve to wander into the nearby woods. Get yourself some ice cream (twelve flavors) or a milk shake, and settle into a front-porch rocking chair for a spell.


Village Bakery, West, TX
Savvy kolache fans know to bypass the bakeries with gargantuan highway signs and get their Czech pastry fix at Village Bakery, where locals take turns warming their prune, apricot, and poppy seed varieties in a self-service microwave, filling the homey room with the sweet aroma of sugared dough. 254-826-5151

Photo: Chris Granger

Watering Hole

Ruby’s Roadhouse in Mandeville, Louisiana.


Bob’s Place, Sunset, SC
It’s a good sign a bar’s country when locals use it to give directions to swimming holes. Nestled in the Pickens County hills, the cabin-esque Bob’s is a favorite hangout for a different type of liquid refreshment—at least until the hands on the Cheerwine clock say it’s time to head home. 864-898-1623


Padre’s, Marfa, TX
Most visitors come to Marfa for the scenic vistas and daring art. But another kind of South Texas wild lurks at Padre’s, a white adobe former feed store and funeral home that now houses a dance floor, pool tables, and two jukeboxes. Jimmie Dale Gilmore is a frequent guest.


Ruby’s Roadhouse, Mandeville, LA
A beat-up dance floor and a weathered bar bear witness to many nights misspent at this nearly thirty-year-old music hall. Though the bar has straightened up a bit since its days of hosting indoor bicycle races, it hasn’t lost its ramshackle soul, which—along with the ice-cold Abitas—draws a diverse crowd of Harley riders and college professors.


Photo: Chris Granger

The Old Sheldon Church ruins near Yemassee, South Carolina.


Old Sheldon Church Ruins, Yemassee, SC
Standing amid the moss-draped oaks and ruins of the Old Sheldon Church, you don’t need clairvoyance to know you’re steeped in history. The first Greek Revival building in the South, the church held its first service in 1757 before being burned down during the Revolutionary War. It was rebuilt in 1826, only to be torched by Sherman in 1865. Today the still-standing walls and columns are a dramatic backdrop for a picturesque picnic. Old Sheldon Church Rd.


Windsor Ruins, Port Gibson, MS
It’s said that Mark Twain used to admire the view from the rooftop observatory of this 25-room mansion, completed in 1861. Though it withstood the Civil War, the house burned down in 1890 when a lit cigar was left on the balcony. All that remains are twenty-three hauntingly beautiful handcrafted columns. Rodney Rd.


Graceland Too, Holly Springs, MS
Knock on the door of Paul McLeod’s blue-colored home (seriously, midday or midnight, just knock), and prepare to be awed by a memorabilia supernova so obsessive it ran off his wife years ago. Elvis really is everywhere, with thousands of records, photos, toys, and costumes bursting from every cranny. McLeod himself is a big part of the attraction, complete with pork-chop sideburns. The tour: five bucks. The elevation of kitsch to a transcendent experience: priceless. 200 E. Gholson Ave.


The Minister’s Tree House, Crossville, TN
No, Tarzan didn’t win the lottery. This incredible structure came to ordained preacher Horace Burgess in a heavenly vision years ago. And 258,000 nails later, its ten scrapwood floors house a spiral staircase, bedrooms, a basketball court, and a chime tower, all of it stacked around an eighty-foot live white oak. Best of all: Anybody can climb around in it. Beehive Lane


Vollis Simpson’s Whirligigs, Lucama, NC
Like Tinkertoys dropped by a race of giant children, the creations of ninety-three-year-old repairman turned folk artist Vollis Simpson are whimsical wonders—towering scrap-metal sculptures adorned with wind-powered propellers and bicycle wheels. Many will soon be relocated to a new park in the nearby town of Wilson, so go now to witness the whirligigs in their “natural” habitat. Vollis Shop Rd.