The American South has long had its own identity. Historically agrarian, it's known for maintaining traditional values, down-home hospitality, and a slower pace of life than other parts of the United States. The South is famous for its distinctive culture, accent, and music, and Southern cooking is so good a lot of visitors find themselves putting on a few pounds. If it's nature you're after, you can see huge swamps, ancient mountains, and historic plantations. So come on down, have some sweet tea, and see what it's all about.
Important historic sites in Montgomery and Birmingham, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, and genial, hospitable people.
The "Natural State" is famous for its scenery and outdoor activities, like hiking, boating, and hunting. Northwest Arkansas also features a growing arts scene.
With both small-town charm and urban appeal, the Peach State is a crossroads of the South.
Horse racing, bluegrass, caves, lakes, and mountains.
Cajun and creole culture, vast wetlands, festive New Orleans and a bastion for Roman Catholicism.
Though often overlooked as a destination, Mississippi has historic sites, music and literature, and antebellum architecture.
|North Carolina |
With mountains in the west and beaches in the east, North Carolina has both classic Southern charm and hip cities like Charlotte and Asheville.
|South Carolina |
Known for its shoreline of subtropical beaches and Southern cuisine.
Known for its music, with the country music capital of Nashville and the blues, rock 'n' roll and soul destination of Memphis, as well as the astonishingly beautiful Great Smoky Mountains.
The DC suburbs of Northern Virginia contrast with the firmly Southern character in other parts of the state. There's lots of history to see in places like Richmond and Colonial Williamsburg, as well as beach resorts in the east.
|West Virginia |
The only state in the USA to lie completely within a mountain range, West Virginia is rich in natural resources, physical beauty, and traditional culture.
Wikivoyage sorts some traditionally Southern states into different regions. While Texas and Florida are parts of the South, they are distinct regions in their own right. Oklahoma is often considered Southern, though it is on the Great Plains. Southern Missouri is Southern culturally, but the northern half and the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City are Midwestern in character. Eastern and Southern Maryland have a distinctly Southern culture, but the rest of the state falls firmly in the Mid-Atlantic. Although Illinois and Indiana are generally considered Midwestern, southern portions of those states are strongly influenced by Southern culture, with extreme southern Illinois especially so.
On the other hand, parts of the South (as defined here) are more culturally influenced by other regions. In Kentucky, Louisville has traditionally been a hodgepodge of Southern and Midwestern culture; much the same holds true in Northern Kentucky (i.e., the Cincinnati suburbs on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River). Northern Virginia (suburban Washington, D.C.) and the Richmond Metro region in Central Virginia are influenced by the Mid-Atlantic: Northern Virginia attracts many people from out of state, and Richmond has historic and modern-day ties with Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. The Shenandoah Valley shares some similarities with parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio. While West Virginia is generally considered Southern, the northern half of the state is more akin to the industrial Midwest, while its Eastern Panhandle is increasingly becoming a bedroom community for D.C.
These are some of the major cities in the South.
- 1 Atlanta — the largest city in Georgia; self-proclaimed capital of the New South, home to Coca-Cola
- 2 Birmingham — the largest city in Alabama; an industrial center dating back to an era when there wasn't much industry in the South
- 3 Charleston — a major city in the South during Colonial days, with much of that history preserved today
- 4 Charlotte — the "Hornet's Nest", this city will give you a "sting" with its magnificent architecture.
- 5 Louisville — "Slugger City", the largest city of the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, is home to many Bourbon tours and the famous Kentucky Derby
- 6 Memphis — largest city in Tennessee; home of barbeque and the blues; don't forget to eat catfish caught in the Delta, take a steamboat tour, and see Beale Street and Graceland
- 7 Nashville — "Music City, U.S.A."; the world capital of country and western music, with Opryland and the Country Music Hall of Fame to show for it
- 8 New Orleans , Jazz fills the streets of "Nawlinz", creating a highly happy ambiance.
- 9 Raleigh , the capital of North Carolina, emphasizing its Southern character
The South is much more a cultural region than a geographical one; states west of Texas are not considered part of "The South", no matter how far south they are.
The broadest definition of the South includes all states which had slavery until the end of the American Civil War in 1865, putting its definite northern limit of the South to the Mason–Dixon line between Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia) is usually considered to be the most archetypal region of the South. The Border States (Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware) remained in the Union during the Civil War.
The South was first settled by the British at Roanoke Island in 1585, and the first permanent British settlement was at Jamestown in 1607. Many of the early settlers in the South were indentured servants (that is people that had to work unpaid for a certain period of time and were free after that time — there were many white indentured servants who sold their future work to pay for the passage to America) and later, slaves. Many Revolutionary War battles were fought in the South, including the Battle of Yorktown which effectively ended the war. By 1800, the Southern economy focused on the growing of tobacco (in Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas) and cotton (elsewhere) as "cash crops", and did not industrialize in the early 19th century as the North did. At the time of the Civil War, one in three Southerners was a slave. Most of the others were farmers who were poor and owned no slaves, but a few owned large amounts of land and many slaves.
Most Indigenous Americans of the South were expelled during the early 19th century; see Trail of Tears.
The Civil WarEdit
- See also: American Civil War
Upset with a growing sentiment against slavery and desirous of greater state autonomy, eleven slave-holding states seceded after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, forming the Confederate States of America. Three border states even fought civil wars of their own; they each had two organizations, one Unionist and one Confederate, both claiming to be the state government. What ensued was a bloody five-year conflict that left the country bruised and battered but ultimately resulted in the preservation of the nation as a single unit, and the abolition of slavery. Most of the major battles occurred on Southern soil, and the South was devastated as a result of the war. The civil war still stands out as the last war fought in the mainland U.S. and the war with the most American casualties ever.
Texas and Florida also seceded from the union but are considered distinct regions today. Kentucky is considered part of the south despite never seceding from the Union. It did however allow slavery until 1865 and belonged to Virginia until the late 18th century and in the war it declared a tenuous "neutrality" that was violated by the South first, leading to a Union occupation and a small dissident faction establishing a secessionist government (and thus one of the more tenuous stars on the Rebel flag). West Virginia was formed from 50 counties of Virginia which repealed that state's secession act and was admitted to the union in 1863. Maryland and Delaware also allowed slavery but did not secede, and are today considered part of the Mid-Atlantic travel region, while Missouri, another slave state that did not secede but instead underwent its own bloody civil war between pro-secession and pro-Union factions, is covered as part of the Midwest.
While the intervening 150 years have done much to heal the wounds, the Civil War is still considered a defining moment in the South. Reenactments of battles are carried out all over the region and period reenactment is a very popular hobby. While Confederate battle flags (rebel flags) can be found in many settings in the South, visitors should understand that, outside of a historical setting, the flag is viewed by many as a symbol of hatred and/or treason. Other than Mississippi, all of the Southern states have removed the battle flag from their heraldry, however less ostentatious aspects of 1860s heraldry are still featured in some state flags.
Monuments to Confederate soldiers and generals are still common throughout the South, despite the opposition of the likes of Confederate general Robert E Lee to those monuments at the time. Many of those monuments date to the 1910s or 1960s when "round" anniversaries of the Civil War and racial tensions led many towns to erect such monuments. Today they are increasingly controversial and a political shibboleth is whether one opposes or supports their removal. Similarly, many roads in Southern cities are named after Confederate generals.
Reconstruction and Civil Rights MovementEdit
After the Civil War, people in the South struggled to cope with defeat. After a short period of "Reconstruction" that saw the South occupied by U.S. soldiers to ensure peace and guarantee the rights of freedmen, the old planter aristocracy regained control and by 1876 all federal troops had to leave, leaving the South under the firm control of Southern white Democrats (also called "Dixiecrats") until the 1960s. After 1876, Southern blacks were nominally "free", but in fact were treated as second-class citizens. They were often denied the vote, and many were forced to work the land as sharecroppers. Anti-black laws (variously known as "Black Codes" and "Jim Crow") were rampant in the South. In some cases the word "slave" had just been replaced by the word "negro" in the old slave codes. Segregation in the U.S. was firmly established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision, which ruled that existing and future segregation laws were legal as long as the divided facilities were judged to be "separate but equal." This was overturned in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which ruled that facilities reserved for "colored" people were inherently unequal. Many white Southerners fought against desegregation and equality for blacks until well into the 20th century. Some of them formed a group called the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized blacks, Jews, immigrants, Catholics and civil rights activists through lynching, intimidation and public rallies. African-Americans migrated to Northern cities in part in search of jobs and in part to escape racism in the South - though what they found in the North was not necessarily much better. This "Great Migration" was an important period in African-American history and arguably helped make civil rights into a national rather than a Southern issue. It also resulted in the spread of some staples of Southern cuisine such as fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, cheese grits and okra to other parts of the country.
While many Northern states were prosperous in the early 20th century, most of the south remained poor. The New Deal of the 1930s brought large investment in infrastructure, especially through the Tennessee Valley Authority.
New South and Sun BeltEdit
Since the 1960s, most of the South has become known as part of the Sun Belt, seeing immigration from both the North and Latin America, as well as a developing high-tech industry in many cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh. Many manufacturing companies have moved to the South in part due to a less strong Trade Union culture than in the traditional industrial cities of the North. In addition, with growing economies and greatly reduced levels of racism, large numbers of African-Americans have returned to the urban south since the 1980s, a phenomenon now called the "New Great Migration". While the standard of living has increased, rural poverty remains severe in parts of the region. Many parts of the South must regularly cope with tornadoes, hurricanes, drought, and floods. Politically the South transformed from a solidly Democratic voting area into a Republican dominated region. This transition took several decades and Southern Democrats like Carter or Clinton were able to win several Southern states in presidential elections they won. The South is still considered among the most conservative areas in the US, but demographic trends have turned states like Florida and North Carolina into swing states, and Virginia downright blue.
Southern culture is distinct from overall "American" culture as well as other regional cultures in the US in many ways. Evangelical Protestant Christianity, particularly Southern Baptism, still plays a huge role, and people who don't ever go to church are still something of a rare sight. While this fact is often derided by the media, and while stereotypes exist, if you are respectful you won't have any problem with the vast majority of Southerners, even if you are LGBT or of some non-Christian religion or none at all. Another aspect is that many Southerners feel a strong sense of patriotism either towards the South, their state or the US as a whole and don't take lightly to what they believe to be insults against any of these. But the South is also famous for "Southern hospitality" and the friendly spirit of its inhabitants. If you come with an open mind, you will discover the charm that has enticed so many travelers before.
The South is also a diverse region, however, with many unique traditions to be found if you scratch below the surface. Examples include the Cajun and Creole people in Louisiana, and the Gullah people of coastal South Carolina and Florida.
As with every other part of the U.S., attitudes do vary from area to area, and most major cities and college towns tend to stand out as pockets of liberalism in an otherwise conservative region.
- See also: Hot weather
The region's climate is somewhat varied, but has more in common than the climate variations of neighboring regions. Otherwise temperatures are fairly consistent throughout the South, with winter temperatures decreasing to the north, with only the southern limits of the region receiving truly mild winters. Summer is hot and humid, though the higher elevation of the Appalachians somewhat reduces summer temperatures. Other regions, which are typically low-lying, are in the subtropical climate category and rainfall totals are high throughout most of the South.
One of the most important identifiers of the cultural South is the dialect its people speak. Southerners from Maryland's Eastern Shore to Northern Florida, and as far west as Texas speak with a very distinct accent that is different from the rest of the United States. Contrary to popular conception, the "Southern accent" is not a homogeneous thing — spend a few weeks travelling the region and you'll probably start to pick up on some of the myriad differences between, for example, the laconic drawl of the Deep South, the French-inflected twang of the Cajuns in Louisiana, and the oddball Appalachian dialect. And that's not to mention the many residents of the region who don't speak with any identifiably "Southern" accent at all: the larger cities of the region are heavily populated with emigrants from elsewhere in the country who largely hold onto their general American accent, and even born-and-bred Southerners are tending to shun the local dialect as a means of avoiding the negative stereotypes associated with it (see below).
The pronoun "y'all" (a contraction of "you all") is a well-known identifier of the Southern dialect. Though often ridiculed in popular culture, it is quite useful: it represents the second-person plural (equivalent to "vosotros"/"ustedes" in Spanish, "vous" in French, or "ihr" in German) and is used frequently in casual conversation.
It is generally considered very rude to joke about the dialect unless you are from the area. There is a perception among people from the area that people from other regions look down on them as unintelligent and the Southern drawl is sometimes held symbolic of this. In general, they are very proud of their accent and appreciate when it is spoken of positively.
Other major airports include Charlotte/Douglas International, both Reagan National and Dulles International in Virginia just outside Washington, D.C., Memphis International, Raleigh-Durham International, Nashville International, and Louis Armstrong New Orleans International.
Most other Southern airports have flights to and from Atlanta, and many also have flights from Dallas, Houston, Miami or Washington.
The coast is served well by the East Coast superhighway: I-95, which cuts through Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia on its route between the megalopolis BosWash in the northeast and Florida to the south. I-20 leads through the Gulf coastal states through Birmingham, Jackson, and Atlanta between Dallas on the west and I-95 on the east. I-65 is the major north-south route going through the center of the region, leading up from Mobile through Birmingham, Nashville, and Louisville on its way up almost all the way to Chicago. I-55 parallels the Mississippi River, running down to New Orleans from Chicago via Memphis and Jackson. I-10 enters the South from Texas, and goes through New Orleans and Mobile. I-75 comes from Detroit and Cincinnati, and goes into Knoxville, Atlanta and Tampa. The South is also connected to other regions via the U.S. Federal Highway System and state routes.
There are several affordable Chinatown buses that travel from New York to farther south along the Atlantic coast, as far as the Carolinas. Greyhound from New York down the North Atlantic is relatively affordable, and a well traveled route. Traveling to and from Appalachia is less common, and Greyhound has a monopoly on bus routes to these areas. Greyhound routes to the less populous states can be quite expensive because Greyhound's operational costs per passenger for the area are higher because of the low volume of travel, and because Greyhound exploits its position as a monopoly. Most travel in the area occurs within the same general North-South corridor, rather than East-West, and bus is no exception, so you will have to deal with several transfers. To enter Kentucky for example, a Greyhound will go from New York to Philadelphia, PA to Pittsburgh, PA to Columbus, OH to Cincinnati, OH and then south from there. The same route will be followed if you are traveling to, say, Tennessee.
Greyhound buses are cheapest if booked months in advance. A single ticket booked a month in advance from New York to Memphis may cost as much as $140. If possible to do so safely, avoid depending on Greyhound for a large quantity of consecutive trips between individual cities in the South, as traveling between cities in the South by bus is often prohibitively expensive compared to intercity bus travel on the Atlantic or Pacific. (Traveling from Lexington, KY, to Louisville, KY, only slightly more than an hour away, will usually set you back around $50).
Although Amtrak does serve some of the South's major cities through long distance trains, this is one of the most underserved parts of the USA in terms of train travel, a country that already has few trains elsewhere.
Highway travel is by far the cheapest way to get around the South. Fast-paced interstate highways cover most of the region, and connect all major cities. Of course, there is also the option to fly from city to city; but in most cases this is considerably more expensive than driving. Similarly, there is a limited amount of rail transit available, but this is usually quite expensive and much slower than an airplane.
- See also: United States without a car
Do not expect to rely too heavily on public transit in most Southern cities. With only a few exceptions, cities in this region favor auto traffic. As a result, traveling beyond the core of a city is often difficult without an automobile. In all cases, it is best to do your homework before arriving. However, there seems to be a trend towards more public transport, and some cities are making an effort to make their downtowns walkable and accessible to people without cars.
The South abounds with historical sites, including colonial settlements, Civil War battlefields and Civil Rights landmarks. Visit Historic Jamestown in Virginia to explore the site of the earliest successful British settlement in North America (1607). Also plan to visit nearby Colonial Williamsburg, which presents a picturesque recreation of life in a colonial village, and includes 500 restored and reconstructed period buildings. From there, head down the road to Yorktown, where Lord Cornwallis surrendered to Gen. George Washington in 1781, effectively ending the American Revolutionary War.
Many Southern cities from the late colonial/early republic periods still retain much of their original charm. Notable among these are Charleston and Beaufort in South Carolina, Savannah in Georgia, and New Orleans' French Quarter in Louisiana. Many smaller towns boast quaint Neoclassical and Victorian historic districts, and many old boulevards in the Deep South are lined with ancient oak trees draped with Spanish moss. Antebellum plantations and famous presidential estates, such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, are popular attractions during the spring, summer, and fall. The nation's second oldest institution of higher learning, the College of William and Mary (1693), can be found nestled in the heart of Virginia's historic colonial district. Several of the USA’s oldest public universities can also be found in the South, including the University of Georgia (1785), the University of North Carolina (1789), the University of South Carolina (1801), and the University of Virginia (1819), a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The American Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in United States history, and in many ways, still defines the South up to the present day. Battles took place in every Southern state, and many of the most notable battlefields are maintained by the National Park Service, including Manassas (Bull Run), Fredericksburg, and Appomattox in Virginia; Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing) in Tennessee; Chattanooga in Tennessee; Chickamauga in Georgia; and Vicksburg in Mississippi. Many wartime forts are still in good condition, and are open to the public. These include Fort Sumter near Charleston (where the first shots in the war were fired), Fort Pulaski near Savannah, and Forts Morgan and Gaines near Mobile, Alabama.
Many of the most visible landmarks from the Civil Rights Movement are also in the South. These include Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas; Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 16th Street Baptist Church, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama; and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Georgia. Several interpretive centers have been set up to chronicle the struggle for equality, including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Georgia. The National Civil Rights Museum is in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
Other historic sites in the region include the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center in Alabama.
Many parts of the South flourish with natural beauty, and offer abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation. The southern Appalachian Mountains stretch from Alabama to West Virginia. Hiking, camping, rafting, fishing, caving, and rock climbing are among the most popular outdoor activities in this region. Many public recreation areas can be found here, including the country’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the Tennessee/North Carolina border, as well as Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The Appalachian Trail stretches the length of the chain, from Georgia through West Virginia, and offers backpackers a unique view of one of America’s most diverse ecosystems. There is also the Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Missouri. This is the old travel route that boatmen and traders took back North after bringing their trade to the ports in Natchez and New Orleans. The Natchez trace has Indian mounds and lots of historic sites along the way.
For those more inclined to enjoy the view from the road, the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia offers up stunning vistas from the comfort of your vehicle, and provides easy access to the colossal Biltmore Mansion, as well as such mountain towns as Asheville and Boone, NC. Other popular recreation areas include Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, as well as a multitude of rivers, lakes, streams, and marshes.
During the winter, ski resorts in North Carolina and West Virginia draw large regional crowds, usually with the help of artificial snowmaking devices. The ski trails aren’t as steep or as high as those in the Western US, but they’re still good for a bout of weekend fun.
The South’s coastal areas are among the most scenic in the country. Sunbathing, swimming, parasailing, and fishing are among the most popular activities here. The most popular seaside resorts include the upscale Hilton Head Island, as well as Myrtle Beach, in South Carolina; and Gulf Shores in Alabama. The region also boasts many barrier island chains, preserved in their natural state, many of which are accessible by ferry. These include Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi, The Eastern Shore of Virginia, as well as North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Most of the USA’s greatest contributions to popular music originated in the South, and this is reflected today in vibrant music scenes in many of the larger cities. Fans of American music can visit Beale Street in Memphis, Lower Broadway in Nashville, or Bourbon Street in New Orleans for a taste of the South’s continuing musical legacy.
Fans of traditional American sports will also find plenty to do all across the region. College football is by far the most popular sport in the South (except in Kentucky, where college basketball is more popular), and sends mammoth crowds flooding into university towns nearly every Saturday during the fall. Stock car racing is also extremely popular, and NASCAR events draw large crowds to tracks for much of the year. College basketball also enjoys a significant following, but in most areas is less popular than college football (with Kentucky and, to a lesser extent, North Carolina as exceptions). The Kentucky Derby, held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, is an iconic American event, and brings in spectators from all over the world. NFL football, Major League Baseball, NBA basketball, and NHL hockey games are popular events to attend in the largest cities.
The South is well known for its wide variety of regional cuisines. At the core of the diet is "standard" Southern food — often known as "soul food" in other regions of the country. Specialties of the region include fried chicken, catfish (served deep-fried with a breadcrumb coating), barbecue (not unique to the South, but best and most common here), sweet potatoes (sometimes called "yams", though it's a different vegetable than the ones native to Africa), black-eyed peas (actually a type of bean), grits (a cornmeal or hominy paste traditionally served as a breakfast side with seasonings that may include salt, pepper, hot sauce, and butter), cornbread, okra, and watermelon.
Due to its cultural diversity (especially at the coasts), the South is home to a number of unique culinary traditions. Perhaps the most famous is Cajun food, a zesty diet found in the Acadiana region of Louisiana. The crawfish, a lobster-like shellfish, is a hallmark of this style of cooking, as is gumbo — a stew of seafood or sausage, rice and okra. Creole food from the city of New Orleans is another distinctive cuisine, featuring dishes like beignets, jambalaya, étouffée and po' boys. You may also encounter Low-country cuisine, which hails from the coastal area of South Carolina and Georgia and focuses on seafood, particularly shrimp, crab, fish, and oysters, while the African-American communities in the same region have their own distinctive Gullah-Geechee cuisine. A more recent addition to the Southern palate is the arrival of Latin food, especially in Florida and the region's larger cities. Barbecued pork is a staple on many Carolina dinner tables, often served with vinegar and cole slaw.
Fast food is also plentiful and several chains only exist here.
For the most part, beverages in the South are the same as in any other American region. There are a few distinctions:
- Sweet iced tea is common in most parts of the region. In fact, an order for "tea" will be assumed to mean "sweet iced tea"; if you would like hot or unsweetened tea, you may need to ask for it specifically. The sugar content of a glass of sweet tea is about the same as a glass of soda, and it has a similarly sugary taste. It is also sometimes served with lemon or lime wedges, raspberries, or apple or peach slices or juice as flavoring.
- Many soft drinks originated in the South. Most notable is the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, including the Coke Museum associated with it. Coca-Cola's main rival, Pepsi-Cola, was originally produced in North Carolina, though it has since moved its headquarters to New York. Mountain Dew originated in Tennessee. Most soft drinks are generically referred to as "coke," and are rarely, if ever, called "soda" or "pop." In metro New Orleans, they are referred to as "cold drinks."
- The South is largely conservative by American standards, and many areas still retain blue laws – longstanding ordinances against alcohol consumption. These vary widely from one community or county to the next, and range from a universal tolerance to an outright ban on alcohol sales. It is worth researching in advance to see if there are restrictions in the area you will visit. Not all members of the communities actually follow those blue laws, and the stated goals of these laws may be inconsistently applied with bootleggers and mail-order wine sales bypassing local laws. A telling innovation is the beer barn where drivers -- presumably from 'dry' towns and counties -- can drive into a large structure, out of public view, and fill their cars' trunks with beer and other forms of alcohol. Nonetheless, it is unwise to presume that in an area or at a time of day where liquor sales are prohibited, that a local will violate those laws for you or notify you of any people willing to do so.
As is the case in other regions of the United States, common sense is enough to keep you safe. Be aware of situations that are obviously dangerous -- unlit or isolated locations, rough bars, and impoverished neighborhoods. If you are an international traveler, keep your passport secure and handy at all times; passport theft is uncommon, but identification is important if you need help from the authorities.
Gun ownership is relatively common in the South, especially in rural areas, but it is still unusual to see a gun in everyday life. The likelihood of encountering one is remote, but still a possibility. Gun owners are generally responsible with their weapons, but it's still worthwhile to exercise caution in places like nightclubs, where shootings are not unheard of. Do not approach or cut through a stranger's property at night if you are in a rural area or the outskirts of a city: most people who have bought a gun have done so for protecting their family and property.
Outside of a few big cities, it is likely that people will realize that you aren't a local. Whether you hail from Cleveland or from Uganda, some will stare in curiosity, especially in small towns and villages where visitors are rare. Relax.
Despite common stereotypes, the targeting of non-whites or ethnic groups for serious harassment is rare. While the Southern states historically had laws against interracial marriages, in modern times, you are unlikely to face harassment if you and your partner do not have the same skin color. If you feel threatened or intimidated, immediately seek assistance from the police. Use your best judgment to protect your safety along with your civil rights. In some rural areas and smaller cities, non-white, especially Asian visitors are still a rare sight, and you may receive some extra attention from the locals. The best thing to do is to just take it in your stride; this is usually out of curiosity and not malice.
If you encounter police (e.g. during traffic controls), keep in mind that they often deal with armed, violent criminals, and make sure none of your movements are misconstrued as reaching for a weapon or threatening. If you want to get your ID or driver's license, tell the police officer where it is and ask whether you may reach for it or let him/her retrieve it. While police shooting unarmed people is rare, it does happen and unfortunately victims are often members of minority groups.
The South had traditionally been socially conservative regarding homosexuality. However, such negative attitudes towards gays and lesbians are changing and diminishing and now vary depending on where one travels (rural areas hold more conservative views towards homosexuality). Regardless, the South is relatively safe for gays and lesbians, as violence against them is rare and the South does offer several gay-friendly destinations such as New Orleans, Nashville, Louisville, and Atlanta.
Old-fashioned rules of politeness are stronger in the South than in much of the country. Try to say "ma'am" or "sir" when you answer a question from someone older than you—as in "Yes, sir" or "No, ma'am" instead of just "Yeah" or "No".
The Civil War – sometimes called "The War Between the States" or even the tongue-in-cheek "The War of Yankee Aggression" in the South – is still very much present in the public consciousness. Confederate monuments abound, and to a lesser extent so do Confederate flags. If you want to talk about the issue, tread with caution, and don't assume someone feels a certain way about the Civil War just because they're from the South. While views on the war tend to align with party lines (ironically these days Republicans are more likely to make excuses for the South) and the South is overwhelmingly conservative, the stereotype that everybody believes the "Lost Cause" propaganda they were fed by questionable history textbooks oversimplifies things.
As mentioned above, gun culture is strong in the South, and gun rights absolutism is prevalent in rural areas. As a visitor, you are advised to avoid discussing gun politics with residents, as it arouses strong feelings for many Southerners.
The South forms most of the Bible Belt, an area where Protestant, especially Evangelical Christianity has a particularly strong influence. Most locals may be puzzled by a suggestion that you are an atheist, due to the strong influence religion has in the social and cultural life. Church attendance is high, and religious references, advertisements, music, and television are popular. Other than Wal-Mart and gas stations, many places are closed on Sundays, especially outside major cities.
Avoid making jokes that reference stereotypes about the South, which includes making fun of the local accents, as the locals would have heard these countless times and will likely get irritated about being subject to such ridicule time and again.
Traveling northward out of the Southern coastal states will bring you to the Mid-Atlantic region, a culturally distinct area stretching from Maryland to New York. Going northwest will bring you to the Midwest, and heading west will deliver you into the large state of Texas.