Ten great Southern downtowns – big and small – that are worth a visit
A downtown is the heart of a city. A great downtown is the heartbeat of a city, where residents and visitors come together to experience the art, architecture, food and culture that makes that community unique. Here are 10 downtowns that should be experienced firsthand.
The centerpiece of Canton is its beautiful Greek Revival Courthouse. Members of the local Masonic Order laid the cornerstone in July 1855 (the first Courthouse was condemned in 1840). In 1982, the Canton Courthouse Square District was officially entered into the National Register of Historic Places and declared one of three best examples in the State of Mississippi.
The Courthouse Square, still the focus of exciting activities, is the scene twice yearly of the nationally famous Canton Flea Market Arts & Crafts Show, which attracts up to 100,000 visitors annually. In recent years, the Courthouse Square and Historic District, with its beautiful homes, has attracted the attention of Hollywood. In addition to five major films, many advertising agencies have chosen Canton as the location for commercial and corporate shoots, and PBS again chose the town for a segment of a six-hour documentary on blues great Skip James. With the site of the Nissan automotive plant located one mile south of the city, proposed plans for the Mississippi Film Complex, and the continued efforts toward preservation by the community, Canton's future is well assured.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Of course, Fort Lauderdale is famous for its beaches. But its downtown is hot, too. The meandering New River and an intricate canal system give Fort Lauderdale a Venice-like feel (complete with gondola rides). Both tourists and locals head to Himmarshee Village for shopping, live entertainment and locally owned restaurants and pubs. The picturesque Riverwalk serves as the cornerstone of the City's arts, science, cultural and historic district, which features the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Museum of Discovery and Science, Museum of Art and Old Fort Lauderdale Village and Museum. Downtown high-rises offer expansive views of the Atlantic Ocean, intracoastal waterway and saltwater lakes. More than 40,000 Fort Lauderdale residents live on yachts docked at the more than 100 marinas and boatyards, many of which are connected to downtown by sidewalks and bike paths covered by a canopy of trees.
Downtown Harrisonburg has changed dramatically in the past decade. Community members are investing in once vacant buildings, and historic renovation projects are attracting new businesses. A driving force in the transformation is Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR), founded in 2003. The agency’s mission is to develop and implement a vision and master plan that preserves downtown's historic charm while making it a destination for people to live, work, shop, dine and play.
In 2004, downtown Harrisonburg was designated an official "Virginia Main Street" community. The Main Street program is an initiative by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to promote the revitalization of small towns across the U.S. Future projects there include a new urban park, a hotel and conference center and even more restaurants, shops and attractions that should make Harrisonburg a cultural hub in the region.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock’s history has certainly captured the world stage in recent years for two particular markers: the opening of the Clinton Library, housing the papers and items belonging to President William J. Clinton, and the anniversary of the Little Rock Nine and their attempt to enter Central High School in 1957. The two attractions draw thousands of visitors from around the world.
Some of the “can't miss” things to do in Little Rock are in the River Market area. The Old State House (the current Capitol Building is downtown, too) and Heifer International call this area home. The Historic Arkansas Museum is located there as well. Visitors to La Petit Roche Plaza at Riverfront Park can even see the little rock the city is named after. Downtown also hosts the Arkansas Arts Center and the MacArthur Museum of Military History.
Downtown Little Rock is also becoming an area where more and more people are choosing to live. With the area flourishing from its recent and ongoing renaissance, it’s easy to see why.
Downtown Memphis is the oldest part of the city and is home to the city's renowned entertainment center, Beale Street. Many of Memphis's museums, including the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum and the National Civil Rights Museum, are located downtown. The trolley makes it easy to get around and see other popular downtown attractions including Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash recorded their music. Of course, a visit to downtown Memphis wouldn’t be complete without seeing the famous march of the ducks that parade through the grounds of the Peabody Hotel.
Rich in history, Southern hospitality and exciting attractions, downtown Montgomery and its riverfront have become one of the South’s must-see travel destinations. Revitalization of the area began in the late 1990s, leading to more than $1.5 billion of public and private investment in downtown redevelopment. As a result, old commercial spaces have transformed into swanky residential lofts, and the cornerstone of the entertainment district, The Alley, is home to vibrant nightlife, eateries, galleries and more. Numerous historic sites such as the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church are found near modern amenities like the four-star Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa, the 1,800-seat Montgomery Performing Arts Centre and a new $12 million multi-sport facility. Also taking root in the area are innovative initiatives like an urban farm that supplies produce to local restaurants. Every year fans flock to Riverwalk Stadium to see the Montgomery Biscuits baseball team. Tourists and locals alike also enjoy downtown’s unique establishments such as Aviator Bar, which pays tribute to the city’s aviation ties (the Wright Brothers’ first School for Powered Flight).
Mt. Sterling, Kentucky
Founded in 1792, Mt. Sterling is a small, friendly city steeped in the history of Kentucky. Located on the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and the edge of the Bluegrass Region, many sites and buildings in the town can be found on the historic registers. Mt. Sterling’s downtown is full of beautifully restored buildings, churches, and homes (some dating back over 200 years), and unique shopping and dining. A downtown walking tour begins at the History Museum located next to the Courthouse, and includes a dozen sites within a three-block area.
The Ruth Hunt Candy Factory is the official candy maker of the Kentucky Derby and the 2010 Equestrian Games. Visitors can watch as they make their famous pulled cream candy bars "Blue Monday" or sample their Woodford Reserve bourbon balls. . .a Kentucky tradition.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
During the past two decades, Oklahoma City has become a national and international model for revitalization. Today, the vibrant downtown area is home to a thriving business district as well as professional sports teams including the Oklahoma City Thunder and OKC Dodgers. RIVERSPORT Rapids, one of only six manmade white water courses in the country and one of the largest in the world, will open in 2016, adding another dimension to a flourishing Boathouse District, a tourist destination and a training site for U.S. Olympic and Paralympic rowing and canoe/kayak hopefuls. Other downtown attractions include the recently-renovated Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, 17-acre Myriad Botanical Gardens, Rocktown Gym, which is housed a converted grain elevator, and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, which houses one of world’s most comprehensive collections of Chihuly glass. As a result, OKC was named one of National Geographic’s must-see places in 2015.
A few years ago, Owensboro, Ky., decided to reinvent itself. In the midst of the great recession, this Ohio River town invested over $120 million in its waterfront, and the private sector soon matched it. The same designers who created the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas created signature fountains in Owensboro. A contemporary 92,000-square-foot convention center and two new riverfront hotels are also located there. Anchored between the convention center and its RiverPark Center (which hosts Broadway shows and a full-time symphony) is Smother’s Park, which boasts the country’s largest ADA-accessible outdoor playground. Within walking distance of the hotel are shops and local restaurants aplenty, as well as the International Bluegrass Music Museum (Bluegrass music was invented just down the road by Bill Monroe).
People hear you say “Roanoke, Virginia,” and they often ask, “Is Hotel Roanoke still there?” The answer is “yes”. . .after 133 years, it still anchors this historic downtown. Days there begin early at the open-air farmers’ market, which has operated since 1882. There are blocks of boutiques and wonderful museums of art, science, history and transportation. Mill Mountain is a 568-acre park with overlooks, 10 miles of trails, a zoo and a gigantic neon star. After-dark attractions include 60 restaurants and breweries, concerts and professional theater. Downtown Roanoke is gaining condos, apartments and residents like crazy. Strategic investment in key properties such as the City Market Building, Elmwood Park Amphitheater, Center in the Square, Downtown Public Library, and miles of urban greenway are making Downtown Roanoke a place for the future.