Festival season is upon us beckoning travelers in search of harvest, Halloween or holiday-themed events and the chilly weather charms that come with the turning of the seasons. Whether close to home in Georgia or more far-flung, here are 10 travel-worthy destinations for seekers of autumn and early winter festivities.
Dollywood’s Harvest Festival
One of the most popular attractions in Tennessee is Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, and one of the best times to visit is during the theme park’s Harvest Festival held each fall. It’s the same Dollywood but with more to see, do, eat and hear, all with a fall theme. And you’ll have more time to do it all since the park stays open longer than usual, until 9 p.m. A highlight of the after-dark Dollywood experience is Great Pumpkin LumiNights. This display with thousands of intricately carved and illuminated pumpkins, pumpkin sculptures and other harvest-themed iconography lights up the park, including the woodsy family-favorite hideaway spot of Hoot Owl Hollow. Live music permeates the park with a full schedule of bluegrass, country and gospel acts performing on multiple stages with the fall foliage serving as a backdrop and the scent of apple-cinnamon and pumpkin spice wafting through the air.
Sept. 20-Oct. 30. $89 and up. 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd., Pigeon Forge, Tenn. 800-365-5996, dollywood.com.
Fall For Greenville
Greenville, South Carolina, like many other mid-sized Southern cities, has undergone a downtown renaissance and the Fall for Greenville festival provides a good opportunity to check out the changes. Centered along revitalized Main Street, the focus of the festival is food, as Greenville has become a culinary hotspot. More than 60 food vendors will be serving up delicacies, most of them from local restaurants like Soby’s New South Cuisine. Enjoy culinary competitions, a beer garden, a wine garden, a kids’ area and six music stages. South Carolina blues legend Mac Arnold and the jazz/funk stylings of Philidelphia-based Dirk Quinn Band close out the festivities on Sunday evening.
Oct. 13-15. Admission free. Tastes $1-$8, Downtown Greenville. 864-467-4396, fallforgreenville.net.
Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival
Birding is the primary focus of Wings Over Water, headquartered at the Coastal North Carolina National Wildlife Refuges Gateway Visitor Center on Roanoke Island, but you’ll spot all kinds of wildlife on guided trips at six wildlife refuges and other nature sites throughout northeastern North Carolina. The Gateway Center will offer classes and workshops for amateur birders and caravan tours to nearby birding hotspots. Other guided tours include a reptile and amphibian hike at Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve; nature walks at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge; a sunset kayak tour of Kitty Hawk Woods, one of only three maritime forests remaining on the Outer Banks, and a sunrise kayak tour of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The festival is popular enough among wildlife enthusiasts that an encore version is offered in early December.
Oct. 17-22, Dec. 8-10. $20 and up for guided tours. Gateway Visitor Center, 100 Conservation Way, Manteo, N.C. 252-216-9464, wingsoverwater.org.
Natchez Balloon Festival
A hot air balloon race, balloon flyovers, tethered rides and evening balloon glows fill the sky on the third weekend of October in Natchez, Mississippi. The Natchez Balloon Festival takes place on the park-like grounds of the circa-1823 Rosalie mansion set on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in historic downtown Natchez. Aside from the colorful main attractions, the festival will also have carnival rides and games, food vendors, an arts and crafts fair and live music. Football fans needn’t worry about missing any games because a sports tent will show all the big college and pro matchups that weekend.
Oct. 20-21. $15 and up, day passes; $35 and up, weekend passes. 100 Orleans St., Natchez, Miss. 601-442-2500, natchezballoonfestival.com.
Americus Music Fest
The Americus Music Fest is a day-long celebration of multiple genres from rock and country to hip-hop and jazz, with a DJ spinning tunes between sets. But that’s not all. There will also be art and food trucks at the city’s train depot where you can catch a ride on a vintage railroad car along a historic rail line. The SAM Shortline train will offer wine and cheese excursions to nearby Plains allowing time to explore Jimmy Carter’s hometown before heading back to the festival. The 90-minute excursion features samplings from a local vineyard, a souvenir glass and a charcuterie board of meats and cheeses. For overnight accommodations, the historic Victorian-era Windsor Hotel ($142 and up. 229-924-1555, www.windsor-americus.com) is two blocks from the festival site.
Oct. 21. Free. SAM Shortline wine and cheese excursion train, $90 (21+ only). 329 S. Jackson St., Americus. 229-928-6059, visitamericusga.com/americus-music-fest.
Athens Storytelling Festival
The oral storytelling tradition has been a crucial part of Southern culture for generations, one celebrated at the Athens Storytelling Festival each fall. Taking place under a big tent on the campus of Athens State University in northern Alabama, 2023 marks the 17th year of this festival that helps bridge the generation gap through entertaining family-friendly narratives. Featured tellers at this year include the ministerial mountain stories of Donald Davis, the tall tales of Bill Lepp and multi-instrumentalist Josh Goforth. Athens is located along the I-65 corridor with numerous chain hotels at its exit and plenty of local dining options in the historic downtown district. A complimentary shuttle will provide transportation between the festival tent and downtown Athens.
Oct. 24-28. $40 single-day tickets, $70 and up weekend passes. Sandridge Student Center, 300 N. Beaty St., Athens, Ala. athensstorytellingfestival.com.
The Northern Ireland city of Derry draws more than 100,000 people during Derry Halloween’s four-day celebration held in the only fully-walled city remaining in Ireland. Nicknamed the “City of Bones” due to the skeleton on its official crest, Derry proclaims itself the “home of Halloween” and does a good job proving it each October. This is a street festival where the locals come out dressed as zombies, ghosts, witches and ghouls to celebrate the turning of the seasons in a haunting fashion. Visitors shouldn’t miss the Awakening the Walled City trail to learn about the folklore and history of Halloween and Samhain and see some dazzling special effects. This year will also include an academic symposium on zombie culture hosted by Ulster University. The highlight, though, remains the traditional parade on Halloween night followed by a grand fireworks finale.
Oct. 28-31. Free. Derry, N. Ireland. 028 7125 3253, derryhalloween.com. Derry Visitor Information Center, 1 Waterloo Place, Derry, N. Ireland.
Ozark Mountain Christmas
Each year the resort town of Branson, Missouri, gets a jump on the holiday season by decking itself out in early November for an Ozark Mountain Christmas and continuing the celebration into January. Highlights include the Trail of Lights, a drive-thru light display at the 160-acre Shepard of the Hills Farm, and An Old Time Christmas at the 1800s-style theme park Silver Dollar City, featuring parades, Broadway-style shows, millions of lights, seasonal foods and more. Nicknamed “America’s Christmas Tree City,” Branson sports more than 1,500 trees along its Christmas Tree Trail. The centerpiece is a 39-foot evergreen adorned with 6,000 lights next to the Branson Ferris Wheel in the heart of the theater and entertainment district.
Nov. 1-Jan. 7. Trail of Lights, $25 and up per car. An Old Time Christmas, $85 and up. Explore Branson Welcome Center, 4100 Gretna Road, Branson, Missouri. 800-296-0463, explorebranson.com/seasons/christmas.
Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival
For 11 days each November, the Gulf Coast’s beachside Flora-Bama Lounge tones down its party vibe to serve as the nexus point for the Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival. Named after the beloved former nightwatchman of the legendary state line establishment who died at age 93, the festival has been shining a spotlight on acoustic singer-songwriters since 1984. It’s grown a lot since then and now presents more than 200 performers at multiple venues along an idyllic stretch of the Gulf Coast between Pensacola, Florida, and Gulf Shores, Alabama. Expect to hear music in the folk and Americana genres along with Nashville hits performed by those who penned the songs sung by country stars. Some notable acts on the 2023 artist roster are Irish songstress Clare Cunningham, the roots-rocking duo Blue Mother Tupelo and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Walt Aldridge.
Nov. 9-19. Admission varies; many shows are free. Venues vary. Flora-Bama Lounge, 17401 Perdido Key Drive, Pensacola, Fla. 850-492-7664, frankbrownsongwriters.com
Garagiste Wine Festival
“No snobs allowed” is a mantra at this Paso Robles, California, wine festival spotlighting small-production winemakers producing less than 1,500 cases a year. The name “garagiste” comes from a derogatory term once used in the Bordeaux region of France to describe winemakers who produced out of a garage instead of on a chateau. Garagiste celebrates this micro approach. Festival-goers get to interact directly with the wine producers at the tasting table. It’s a chance for oenophiles to get their geek on in a casual environment without waiting in long lines for a taste because ticket sales are capped to minimize the crowds. The 2023 fest will have more than 60 micro-producers pouring hard-to-find wines from around the California wine regions. The main event is Saturday at the Paso Fairgrounds.
Nov. 10-12. $25-$159, $219 weekend pass. Paso Fairgrounds Event Center, 2198 Riverside Ave., Paso Robles, Calif. garagistefestival.com.