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Traveler’s Guide to the Best Southern Festivals in America

Seafood boils, barbecue, jazz and blues, gumbo cook-offs and hillbilly hoopla thrill ears and tickle taste buds in America’s southern states. Here are a few Southern festivals to experience with the whole family.

Mardi Gras

Lake Charles, Lousiana

Everyone has heard of the traditional southern festival Mardi Gras in New Orleans. However, it has a reputation for being too crowded, crazy, and not always kid-friendly. For an alternative, drive over the Calcasieu River High Bridge to Lake Charles to take in the Mardi Gras parades and pageantry that look like they were transported from New Orleans to a more family-friendly location.
With more than 50 krewes, Lake Charles is second in the state for parade size. It has a rich tradition of krewes outdoing each other with royal courts, costumes, and floats. On Saturday, the Gumbo Cook-off showcases each krewe’s cherished gumbo recipe. This is followed by the Royal Krewe of Barkus parade with a hundred pups and dogs, some in carts, decorated and costumed, and competing for the Top Dog prize.
On Sunday, the Blue Dog Cafe serves up a brunch feast with live jazz. The Children’s Parade then begins at 3 p.m. with more than 50 floats, some elaborately decorated, others spruced up trucking rigs, showering children of all ages with coins, beads, stuffed animals, and other toys.
Monday’s Royal Gala is the only public access Mardi Gras gala in the U.S. For a five-dollar ticket anyone can see the spectacle of each krewe’s elaborately costumed royal court before they go on parade the next day. More families than dedicated party drinkers line the streets for the magnificent Mardi Gras parade.

Memphis in May International Festival

Memphis, Tennessee 

Memphis in May is a southern festival you cannot miss. Memphis, known as Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll, celebrates music and food all month long. The major events include the following:

  • The Beal Street Music Festival is a rain or shine, four-stage event featuring more than 60 top musical acts. With music booming on-stage, beating in bars, and the sweet sounds of sax on street corners, it is a total immersion experience into American music. In homage to the city’s Blues heritage, the festival has a two-thousand seat blues tent for touring and emerging artists and an outdoor performance area that presents the sounds of today’s Delta.
  • The World Champion Barbecue Cooking Contest brings 230 pitmasters and their teams from more than 25 states and several foreign countries to smoke the town and tantalize taste buds from a park that runs along the Mississippi River.
  • The Great America River Run includes a half marathon and a 5K. The half marathon races, walks, jogs, and sprints along the river while 5K runners dash through the city. A massive post-race party includes food, drinks, and Memphis’ legendary music and barbecue.

National Shrimp Festival

Gulf Shores, Alabama

More than 250,000 seafood lovers converge on this gulf-side town in mid-October to sample shrimp and other seafood cooked every which way and served by restaurants and vendors on the Food Board Walk. At this southern festival you can see and sample the wares of 300 exhibitors offering everything from edibles to arts and crafts. Continuous music features major national recording acts as well as all the local favorites. The Children’s Activity Village lets kids turn their creative talents loose, and a sand castle competition is enjoyed by everyone on the beach. The event includes a 10K run/walk and a golf tournament.

Hillbilly Days

Pikeville, Kentucky

Highlighting Appalachian culture and all things hillbilly, this unique southern festival in mid-April includes hillbilly music, local food, a cornhole tournament, quilt show, and shenanigans. Parade jalopies and trucks look like they drove out of the Dust Bowl or a movie set for the Grapes of Wrath. Beauty queen contestants vie for the most tattered overalls and bushiest mustaches. Missing teeth get extra points.
More than 300 vendors man booths throughout the city showcasing their products and homemade items. This is your chance to sink your teeth into a deep-fried Twinkie and place your bet on an authentic pig drop. Carnival rides, games, and dancing to live music performed on three stages add to the energetic vibe of this celebration of an iconic American culture. Be sure to dress down– way down. Find your hillbilly name here. The funds raised support Shriners Children’s Hospital.

Lowcountry Oyster Festival

Charleston, South Carolina

Shuck ’em and suck ’em in January at the world’s largest oyster festival for your personal pleasure or in competition to see who can shuck and eat the most oysters. The event is held at the Boone Plantation, just outside of Charleston and presented by the Charleston Restaurant Association. It attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world who consume 80,000 pounds of oysters. The event includes live music, a food court showcasing local favorites, as well as a children’s area.
The plantation dates back to 1743, and the massive live oaks dripping with moss were planted about that time. The estate is one of America’s oldest working farms. Visit the plantation mansion and walk through the nine original slave cabins for new insights into Black history.

Atlanta Dogwood Festival

Atlanta, Georgia

In April, celebrate spring in Piedmont Park while the trees are in bloom and stirring their sweetness in the air. Enjoy art and craft exhibits, carnival rides, and plenty of food vendors serving tastes of the South. Local chefs offer samples and breweries offer sips and swigs so people can vote for their favorites. The International Stage hosts 300 amateur and professional performers. They will demonstrate music, martial arts, drumming and more from 20 countries and cultures, including Arabian and Far Eastern. Booths provide additional information about the various countries and some hands-on opportunities.
Each region of the U.S. has a distinct flavor to it, and so do their festivals. In the South, tea is sweet, seafood is prized, gumbo recipes are family treasures, and barbecue is a major food group. Southern hospitality is known worldwide, so expected to be greeted enthusiastically when you visit for a southern festival.