The South’s Best Cities On The Rise 2024

The South’s Best Cities On The Rise 2024

According to the U.S. Census, the South is the place to be. Not only is it the most populous region in the country, it accounted for 87% of our country’s growth in 2023. Plus, the South is the only region that maintained population growth during the pandemic. Visit any of the places on this year's Best Cities On the Rise list and you’ll quickly understand why.

These reader-selected cities have excellent food scenes, cool yet quaint downtown districts, incredible natural beauty, thriving arts communities, and the warmth our region is known for. And they’re not done growing. Each one has exciting new projects on the horizon, like a minor-league baseball stadium in Spartanburg, South Carolina, entertainment districts in Huntsville, Alabama and Alpharetta, Georgia, and even economic development, like electric vehicle manufacturing in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

How did we come up with the list? Southern Living editors compiled a large list of cities based on research, reporting, and our own experiences. Then, our readers selected their top picks in our annual South’s Best Awards survey. The result is a diverse mix of large and small cities, and each one has something different to offer. Whether you’re looking for a new place to live or somewhere fun to visit, you’ll find plenty of options here.


25. Dover, Delaware


With a 300-plus year history, Delaware’s capital has changed quite a bit since its early days as the appointed court town for Kent County. It still houses the Delaware Supreme Court, but may be about to embark on its biggest season of change yet. In 2023, the Downtown Dover Partnership presented a redevelopment plan called Capital City 2030 that will transform the area with a proposed multimodal transportation hub, 100,000 square feet of commercial space, 20 acres of greenspace, 1,000 residential units, and a half-mile riverwalk to be built over the next decade. 


24. Edmond, Oklahoma


Part of Oklahoma City’s sprawling metropolitan area, Edmond has grown steadily over the years. With help from the University of Central Oklahoma, it now has the fifth largest population in the state. Murals, steel sculptures, and stained glass bring color to a walkable downtown that’s popular for shopping, dining, and frequent street festivals. Other major selling points include 47 miles of natural trails, 33 parks, and beautiful Arcadia Lake. 


23. Reston, Virginia


The expansion of the Silver Line on Washington, D.C.’s Metrorail system has made this town more accessible and appealing. Reston Town Center, a massive retail and dining hub, is even more of a draw now that it has its own station. Add to that 800 acres of woodlands, four lakes, and plenty of parks and outdoor recreation, and you’ve got a little something for everyone. 


22. Lake Charles, Louisiana


Southwest Louisiana was hit hard by hurricanes and other natural disasters in recent years, but Lake Charles has rebounded with exciting attractions. Port Wonder, a much-anticipated lakefront complex that will house a children’s museum, brewery, and more, is set to open this year. 


21. North Port, Florida


Soak in natural mineral springs, explore an entire state forest, or head to vibrant downtown Wellen with its parks, restaurants, shops, community events, and more. It’s no wonder North Port was ranked the second fastest growing U.S. city in 2023 according to a recent study.


20. Morgantown, West Virginia


Perennially recognized as a burgeoning area of West Virginia, Morgantown is home to a vibrant community bisected by the Monongahela River, whose shores are lined with parks. West Virginia University makes its home here, as do locally-owned coffee shops, bustling breweries, trendy new hotels, and restored buildings like the Metropolitan Theatre, all of which are helping the area thrive. 


19. Hattiesburg, Mississippi


Dubbed the Hub City due to its location at a crossroads of major rail lines and transportation networks, this southern Mississippi town has long been thought of as a stopover destination. In recent years, it has put that reputation to rest thanks to a strong showing of creative energy from two universities, unique local businesses, and a bustling downtown. 


18. Clarksville, Tennessee


For two years in a row, Clarksville has come out on top among Tennessee cities measured in terms of population growth. (It also ranked 30th in the U.S. between 2020 and 2022.) It’s shoring up its offerings for tourists and locals while making room for new businesses including The Emerald, an events space; a new distillery; the F&M Bank Arena; several hotels; and countless restaurants.


17. Gainesville, Georgia


While Gainesville has long been Georgia’s favorite resort destination, Lake Lanier is just one of its many draws. The lake’s sprawling footprint continues to welcome visitors and new residents alike, who seek fun in the sun and plenty of aquatic recreation along its 38,000 acres. Plus, there’s a boutique-filled downtown district and a spate of new restaurants that have opened up over the last few years.  


16. Fredrick, Maryland


More than 12,000 new residents relocated to Frederick between 2010 and 2020, making it one of the fastest evolving areas in its region. This continued growth means that there are several highly anticipated openings, including the Visitation Hotel Frederick, a boutique hotel; True Standard Distilling Company; and a new heritage center for The African American Resources, Cultural Heritage Society of Frederick County. 


15. Georgetown, Texas


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14. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


Experience everything from classic cowboy culture to cutting-edge museums to bohemian galleries housed in colorful Spanish Revival architecture in the area’s distinctive districts. The legendary western town is also home to one of the country’s highest concentrations of Route 66 landmarks, so a quick excursion to see them all is a must.


13. Palm Bay, Florida


Saltwater fishing and unspoiled nature have long been the draw of this sleepy Space Coast town. But big things are on the way with a major development project called Ashton Park that is projected to add thousands of homes and about 5 million square feet of retail and commercial space to the area.


12. Gulfport, Mississippi


Located on the Gulf of Mexico, the siren song of sandy beaches and calm waters have long beckoned visitors here. But natural attractions aren’t the only thing contributing to Gulfport’s tourism-driven economy. Plans for Gulfport Town Center, a forthcoming development that will include 200 apartments, a multi-use hotel, and a business district, located at the intersection of Highways 90 and 49, say otherwise. 


11. Covington, Louisiana


It’s been called “the North Shore’s best kept secret” and “North Shore’s Renaissance,” but Covington continues to get better and better. Over the past few years, it's been a magnet for new businesses and residents, and its “2030 Plan” aims to keep that momentum going while preserving its small town feel.


10. Bentonville, Arkansas


Often referred to as “the town that Walmart built,” this Arkansas hotspot is riding a strong and rising tide. It has become a veritable cultural center, with museums like the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and The Momentary. An expanding culinary landscape has fostered buzzy Onyx Coffee Lab and restaurants like Conifer and The Hive. It’s no wonder everyone’s talking about Bentonville


9. Alpharetta, Georgia


For years, Alpharetta has made regular appearances on lists of the fastest growing cities in the South, and it’s just getting started. Its revamped downtown district, which is known as the City Center, has become a walkable, family-friendly hub filled with restaurants and shops surrounding a central greenspace. The sprawling Avalon center–with a movie theater and 500,000 square feet of retail space–is also located nearby. Although it is part of the Atlanta metro area, it has a personality all its own.


8. Cary, North Carolina


The Research Triangle’s innovative energy has rubbed off on this once-small suburb. A thriving arts and culture scene, excellent restaurants, and ever-growing downtown make Cary a worthy standalone destination. The long-awaited and recently opened 7-acre Downtown Cary Park now provides a centralized gathering space, further adding to the reasons the city landed on Livability’s 2023 Best Places to Live list. 


7. Bowling Green, Kentucky


Home to Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green continues to attract students, residents, and even international companies. A Japanese electric vehicle battery manufacturer is set to open a $2 billion factory here in 2025. The riverfront has changes on the horizon too; plans include an outdoor adventure park, hotel, and brewery/restaurant. 


6. New Braunfels, Texas


Those seeking a slower pace in the Texas Hill Country have flocked to New Braunfels, which wears its natural wonders and German influences proudly. The Comal and Guadalupe rivers wind through town, giving a picturesque turn to the landscape, and the Gruene Historic District is filled with German architecture dating to the 19th century. Just a few years ago, it was named one of the fastest-growing cities in America, so you can bet its distinctive blend of old and new continues to resonate. 


5. Columbia, South Carolina


Home to The University of South Carolina, the largest university in the state, this capital is privy to an influx of energy as new students arrive on campus each year. In 2023, investments in the area surged to $2.37 billion. Plans for 2024 and beyond include a major renovation of the Blossom Street Bridge to make it pedestrian friendly, as well as continued momentum in the up-and-coming West Columbia neighborhood. 


4. Huntsville, Alabama


The Rocket City is on a roll. Now larger than Birmingham and Montgomery, there is much to love here. The Orion Amphitheater, a world-class music venue and live entertainment destination, opened in the summer of 2022. And most recently, it was named the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Place to Live for Families in 2023-2024. Up next, Huntsville will welcome Front Row, an 11-acre, $325 million mixed-use development that will include restaurants, a boutique hotel, retail, entertainment, and several public spaces.


3. Spartanburg, South Carolina


After coming in 12th on the US News & World Report’s list of fastest growing places for 2023 to 2024, Spartanburg released a new comprehensive plan to aim for further success. Coming in spring 2025: a state-of-the-art stadium for a relocating minor league baseball team and a 16-acre mixed-use development and plaza, right in the center of downtown. 


2. Franklin, Tennessee


No longer just a weekend getaway from Nashville, Franklin has fully come into its own as a city, and it’s easy to see why. One of the main draws is the thriving downtown area, which comprises 16 blocks of preserved and restored buildings, like The Franklin Theatre, as well as locally-owned shops and restaurants.


1. Wilmington, North Carolina


The beauty and charm of this historic port on the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River has made it a longtime favorite filming location for movies and TV shows, earning it the nickname Hollywood East. Over the past few years, Wilmington’s population has grown steadily, and a 2022 study found it to be the top place to move. Those visiting will have a riverfront outcropping of rentable houseboats, the anticipated opening of hotel Lela Wilmington, and a 55-room addition to Arrive Wilmington to choose between soon. 


Source: The South’s Best Cities On The Rise 2024 Southern Living (March 6, 2024) Southern Living Editors