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Top Choice July/August 2014 Issue

 

Readers select the best places to see and things to do in the South.

For the play Anything Goes, Cole Porter wrote a song called “You’re the Top” in which the singers complimented each other by comparing them to all that’s best in the world, from the Tower of Pisa to Jimmy Durante’s nose.

Not everyone has the gift of verse as Porter, but readers of the AAA Southern Traveler know “the top” when they see it. For the fifth year in a row, readers have shared their picks for the South’s best places to visit, stay, shop, dine, listen to music, and have fun. If you’re inspired to visit some of these sights–as we expect you will–you might find yourself comparing them to the Mona Lisa. Enjoy the Best of the South.

Best of Midwest


 

 

Best Louisiana City: New Orleans

There are thousands of cities across the United States, but there’s only one that’s like New Orleans. Chosen as the best city in Louisiana, New Orleans exudes a joie de vivre, a passion for cuisine, a sense of history, and a relaxed spirit. What other city offers tours that feature, among other things, voodoo, cemeteries, cocktails, riverboats, gardens, and mule-drawn carriages?

The wildly diverse heritages of New Orleans’ inhabitants–French, Creole, African-American, Spanish, and Native American, to name a few–have made it a wildly interesting city with a vibrant culture. And just as diverse are the neighborhoods, from the eclectic French Quarter to the elegant Garden District, from the Warehouse Arts District to the bohemian Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. Located throughout are museums, jazz halls, restaurants, a farmer’s market, and a sprawling city park.

A city that has this much to celebrate knows how to celebrate. New Orleans hosts dozens of festivals year-round, including the upcoming Satchmo Summerfest from July 31–Aug. 3 that honors Louis Armstrong with great food, amazing live music, and street parties. To paraphrase Armstrong, what a wonderful city.

New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 672-6124, www.neworleanscvb.com

Band

Music–such as this band playing in Jackson Square–is a big part of why readers chose New Orleans as their favorite city in Louisiana. New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau photo




 

Best Arkansas City: Little Rock

A little rock, literally, on the banks of the Arkansas River marked the spot of Arkansas’s capital city when its location was discovered in the late 1600s, but there’s nothing diminutive about Little Rock today. The city has played a big role in regional and national history and offers world-class attractions.

Among its memorable sights are the Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock Zoo, and the River Market District with its farmer’s market and burgeoning restaurant scene. Visitors can tour the Arkansas State Capitol and the Clinton Presidential Center and Park. And don’t miss the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, which recalls the 1957 desegregation crisis.

Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 844-4781, www.littlerock.com

 

State Capitol

The Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo




 

Best Mississippi City: Jackson

Located nearly in the center of Mississippi, Jackson is at the heart of history, culture, politics, and music in the Magnolia State. Known as the “City with Soul,” Jackson has so many attractions that it was the clear choice among readers as the best city in Mississippi.

From the magnificent Capitol building that dates to 1903 to the modest home of Medgar Evers, landmarks abound in Jackson. Other don’t-miss sights include the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, the Jackson Zoological Park, the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, the Old State Capitol, and the Mississippi’s Children’s Museum. With so much to see, you’ll need some of the city’s down-home Southern cooking to fuel your adventure.

Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 354-7695, www.visitjackson.com

 



 

Best Small Town in Louisiana and Best Getaway in the South: Lafayette

Lafayette is known as the heart of Acadiana, or Cajun Country, and it beats with a rhythm of accordions and fiddles. Cajun influences are everywhere, not only in the music but in the cuisine, language, plentiful festivals, and more. Its laid-back vibe, hospitality, distinctive culture, and attractions–including two historical villages that examine Cajun life–are the reasons that readers chose Lafayette not only as their favorite small town in Louisiana but as their favorite getaway in the South.

Set amid meandering bayous and moss-draped oaks in south Louisiana, this vibrant city was honored recently with Louisiana’s top Cultural District Award because its downtown includes a growing collection of galleries, museums, and festivals. It’s no coincidence that the city’s weekly musical festival in spring and fall is called “Downtown Alive!,” a celebration that demonstrates the city’s passion for enjoying life.

Readers also liked Natchitoches and Breaux Bridge for the best small town in Louisiana, and New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., for the best Southern getaway.

Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, (800) 346-1958, www.lafayettetravel.com

festival

Dancers at Festivals Acadiens in Lafayette. Philip Gould/Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission photo




 

Best Small Town in Arkansas: Eureka Springs

Legend has it that warring Native American tribes were so enamored with the natural springs around what is now Eureka Springs that they would lay down their arms and enjoy the springs in peace. That same kind of peace can be experienced today in this quaint mountain village. A popular resort town since the 1800s, Eureka Springs boasts one of the largest collections of Victorian architecture anywhere with its entire downtown placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Inspired by the city’s rich history and architecture, as well as by the surrounding beauty of the Ozark Mountains, hundreds of artists have flocked to Eureka Springs, creating a vibrant arts scene. Shoppers can peruse 20 galleries, as well as more than 100 eclectic gift shops. Lay your head in one of the dozens of bed-and-breakfast inns scattered around town, or in the palatial 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa perched above town.

Readers also liked Hot Springs and Fayetteville.

Eureka Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, (479) 253-7333, www.eurekasprings.org

 




 

Best Small Town in Mississippi: Oxford

William Faulkner once said that it is the writer’s privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart. While Faulkner has lifted many hearts with his prose, his hometown has done the very same thing. Oxford, which AAA members chose as their favorite small town in Mississippi, inspires with its creative atmosphere and rich history. Called the “Cultural Mecca of the South,” Oxford is home to musicians, artists, and writers who have followed in Faulkner’s footsteps.

Nestled in the hills of North Mississippi, Oxford is home to the University of Mississippi, known as Ole Miss, which gives the town a vibrancy that can only be found in a college town. Experience that energy on the square, which is the cultural hub of Oxford and home to boutiques and extraordinary restaurants.

Readers also liked Natchez and Biloxi.

Visit Oxford MS, (800) 758-9177, http://visitoxfordms.com

town square

The Oxford square is the city’s cultural hub. Mississippi Tourism photo




 

Tastiest town: Lafayette, La.

Start the day with a Cajun benedict, featuring toasted French bread topped with poached eggs and chicken and andouille gumbo. For lunch, try a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with brisket that’s been slow-smoked for about 12 hours. Then for dinner, you can’t go wrong with a platter of crawfish étouffé or a bowl of jambalaya. Or both.

These delicacies–and many more–can be found in the remarkable restaurants and festivals of Lafayette, La., which AAA readers chose as the Tastiest Town in the South. For this culinary mecca, the hits just keep coming. The city also was named the Best Food Town by Rand McNally and was added to Livability.com’s list of the Top 10 Foodie Cities.

Readers also liked New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss.

Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, (800) 346-1958, www.lafayettetravel.com

 

dinner

The French Press in Lafayette is acclaimed for its inventive cuisine. French Press photo




 

Best New Orleans Attraction: French Quarter

What catches your eye first is the neighborhood’s stunning architecture with its balconies adorned with intricate ironwork and courtyards lush with greenery. But the abundance of attractions to focus on in the French Quarter doesn’t stop there.

Life in the Quarter centers around Jackson Square, which is dominated by the beautiful St. Louis Cathedral. From there, you can explore more than 100 square blocks filled with restaurants, shops, museums, bars, galleries, voodoo temples, music halls, and more.

Readers also liked the National World War II Museum and the Audubon Zoo.

New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 672-6124, www.neworleanscvb.com

 



 

Best Jackson Attraction: Mississippi Museum of Art

During one visit, Monet’s shimmering water lilies could calm your soul, while on another, jazz rhythms might enliven your spirit. On yet another night, a movie shown on a giant screen outside might make you laugh. The Mississippi Museum of Art engages visitors in the arts any way it can.

Boasting an impressive collection of more than 5,000 works of art, including many by Mississippians, the museum serves as the anchor of Jackson’s cultural district. Outside, the 1.2-acre Art Garden includes seasonal foliage, permanent art installations, and soothing fountains.

Readers also liked the Mississippi State Capitol and Jackson Zoo.

Mississippi Museum of Art, (866) VIEWART (843-9278), www.msmuseumart.org

 




 

Best Little Rock Attraction: Clinton Museum

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the Clinton Presidential Center and Park in Little Rock, Ark., tells the inside story of the Clinton presidency. Located on the banks of the Arkansas River, the center is home to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, which contains an astounding collection of presidential papers, artifacts, and images. There’s even a replica of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room.

After touring the museum, which was built to cantilever over the Arkansas River, visitors can explore 13 acres of pristine wetlands around the center.

Readers also liked the River Market and Arkansas State Capitol.

Clinton Presidential Center, (501) 374-4242, www.clintonpresidentialcenter.org

Presidential Library

The museum features a replica of the Oval Office. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo




 

Best San Antonio Attraction: River Walk

Seated at a table just steps from San Antonio River under a canopy of trees and colorful umbrellas with a plate of chicken enchiladas in front of you and excursion boats floating nearby, it’s hard to believe that you’re in the middle of downtown San Antonio. The River Walk, or Paseo del Rio, is the largest urban ecosystem in the nation, winding and looping under bridges and along sidewalks that are lined with restaurants, shops, and hotels.

This sanctuary also hosts more than 20 festivals each year, including the Fiesta de las Luminarias in December featuring 6,000 luminaries.

Readers also liked The Alamo and SeaWorld San Antonio.

Paseo del Rio Association, (210) 227-4262, www.thesanantonioriverwalk.com

Riverwalk

The River Walk is alive with activity. San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau photo




 

Best Casino: Beau Rivage

It’s big (32 stories, 1,740 rooms and suites), it’s glitzy (AAA Four Diamonds), and it’s the readers’ choice for best casino in the South. It’s the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Miss.

Capturing its second Best of the South award (first in 2011), the Beau Rivage has provided Mississippi’s Gulf Coast with fine accommodations and entertainment for 15 years. While some readers said they don’t gamble, there’s plenty to do away from the gaming areas, including fantastic pools, a spa, nearby golf, and live entertainment.

Readers also liked Harrah’s in New Orleans and Paragon Casino Resort in Marksville, La.

Beau Rivage Casino & Resort, (228) 386-7444, www.beaurivage.com

Resort

The resort overlooks the Gulf Coast. Beau Rivage photo




 

Best Shopping: French Quarter

More than 53 percent of readers polled last year said shopping was a favorite vacation activity. And the majority of Best of the South voters like The French Quarter as a shopping district. From the boutiques along Magazine Street, to sophisticated antique galleries on Royal Street, to the French Market, shopping truly is an adventure in The Quarter.

Readers also liked the Galleria in Dallas, Texas, and the Outlets at Louisiana Boardwalk in Shreveport, La.

New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 672-6124, www.neworleanscvb.com

 



 

Best Music Festival: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage

More than 90 percent of the voters said the Jazz & Heritage Festival, held this spring, is the South’s best. And with musicians like Eric Clapton, Aaron Neville, and Bruce Springsteen, along with hundreds of other acts, it’s a hard point to argue. What makes this a great event? Is it the amazing music or the plentiful and varied food? The arts and crafts or people watching? It’s the whole shebang!

Readers also liked the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tenn. (June 5–8); and the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Austin, Texas (Oct. 3–5 and 10–12).

Jazz & Heritage Festival, www.nojazzfest.com

Band

The festival features hundreds of performers. New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau photo




 

Best Gumbo in Louisiana: Don’s Seafood, Lafayette

With $400 borrowed from his uncle, Don Landry opened Don’s Beer Parlor in Lafayette in 1934. Now, with seven restaurants in Louisiana, it’s safe to say Don’s Seafood knows Cajun food.

Readers also liked Prejean’s Restaurant and Chris’ PoBoys, both in Lafayette, La.

Don’s Seafood Hut Restaurant & Oyster Bar, (337) 981-1141, www.donsseafoodonline.com

 



 

Best Fried Catfish in Mississippi:

Taylor Grocery & Restaurant It’s often true the more an eatery is off-the-beaten-path, the better the food. This could be said for Taylor Grocery & Restaurant that’s located outside Oxford, Miss. Open for dinner Thursday–Sunday, it’s a come-as-you-are kind of place.

Readers also liked Cock of the Walk Restaurant in Ridgeland or Pocahontas, Miss.; and Cuevas Fish House in Picayune, Miss.

Taylor Grocery and Restaurant, (662) 236-1716, www.taylorgrocery.com

catfish

There are other things on the menu at Taylor Grocery, but it’s famous for catfish. Taylor Grocery photo




 

Best Fried Chicken in Arkansas: AQ Chicken House

When a president orders your fried chicken, you know you’re doing something right. Former President Bill Clinton knows first-hand the tasty pan-fried chicken that’s served at AQ Chicken Houses (locations in Springdale and Fayetteville). Since 1947, AQ Chicken House has specialized in serving Southern comfort food to the Ozarks.

And with Razorback football around the corner (home opener is Sept. 6), something from the take-out menu is a great choice for tailgating.

And what does “AQ stand for?” Arkansas Quality.

Readers also liked Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Ark.; and Bobby’s Country Cookin’ in Little Rock, Ark.

AQ World Famous Chicken House, www.aqchickenhouse.net, (Springdale, 479-751-4633); (Fayetteville, 479-443-7555)

 


 

 

Editors’ Picks

In our frequent travels through the South, we’ve found some of our own favorite places.

 


 

Best Small Town in Arkansas: Hot Springs

It’s the many spas, historical Bathhouse Row, and the combination of lakes with the mountains that I love about Hot Springs. You can be as active–or as lazy–as you want.

–Deborah Reinhardt

Best Getaway in the South: Ocean Springs, Miss.

Whether I need an outdoor diversion, an art excursion, or just R&R, Ocean Springs is one of my favorite getaway towns.

–Don Redman

building

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo


 

Best New Orleans Attraction: City Park

With lovely gardens, a coffee shop, golf, an amusement park, a sculpture garden, gondola rides, and much more, New Orleans City Park has it all.

–Dennis Heinze

Best Catfish in Mississippi: Cuevas Fish House

That’s my go-to place in Picayune when I have a hankering for fried catfish. The fish is shipped in fresh from the Mississippi Delta and fried to perfection in the kitchen. The hush puppies also are a favorite treat.

–Don Redman

swan

New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau photo


 

Best Little Rock Attraction: Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum

At this museum, you can tour the USS Razorback submarine, which saw combat during World War II and was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrender was signed. It’s fascinating to step into this time capsule of history.

–Dennis Heinze

Best Gumbo in Louisiana: Tableau at Le Petit Theatre, New Orleans

The seafood gumbo at Tableau has great depth of flavor and it’s brimming with shrimp, crabmeat, oysters, and more.

–Don Redman

USS Razorback

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo


 
 

Honorable Mention

While these destinations and attractions weren’t ranked first among readers, they still garnered plenty of votes and are worthy of a visit.

river market
museum
The Alamo

The River Market was a runner-up for best attraction in Little Rock. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo

 

Readers liked the National World War II Museum as a top New Orleans attraction. National World War II Museum photo

 

The Alamo was a runner-up for best attraction in San Antonio. J. Griffis Smith/Texas Tourism photo

farmer's market   zoo   fest

With its farmer’s market, Fayetteville was a runner-up for best small town in Arkansas. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo

 

Audubon Zoo was a runner-up for best attraction in New Orleans. Audubon Nature Institute photo

 

The CMA Music Festival in Nashville was a runner-up for the Best Music Festival. County Music Association photo

shellfish   sand    

New Orleans was a runner-up for the Tastiest Town. New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

  Biloxi was a runner-up for the Best Getaway in the South. Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau photo  



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