The two U.S. cities that are perhaps the best-known for their signature sounds are just two hundred miles apart. You can get from Nashville’s cradle of country music to Memphis’ birthplace of the blues in a speedy three hours. But we don’t recommend doing it that way. The route between Nashville and Memphis is loaded with history, music, culture, and nature, and invites you to take it slow. Load up the car, download some appropriate music (we have a few suggestions here), and get ready for a rocking road trip.
Arrive in Nashville. Check in early to a swanky hotel, such as the historic Hermitage or the modern 21c Museum Hotel Nashville. Allow the exceptional staff to take your bags so you can make the most of your days unencumbered.
Set out on foot to the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library, where you’ll learn about the city’s role in the national movement. From there, take in the Tennessee State Capitol and then head down the hill for lunch at one of the many tasty, local choices at the Nashville Farmers Market.
You’ll need a walk after enjoying the market’s oven-fired pizza and butter cake: take one across the street at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park. After hearing the carillon bells play “The Tennessee Waltz,” check out the First Tennessee Park baseball stadium, and head back downtown.
Start the night off with drinks and dinner at Pinewood. Walk down the hill and spend the evening strolling, dancing, and drinking at Lower Broadway’s honky-tonks, or check out the show playing at the Ryman Auditorium or the outdoor riverside Ascend Amphitheater.
Hop in the car and drive through the historic Fisk University campus. Stop at both the Carl Van Vechten Gallery and the Aaron Douglas Gallery on campus.
Make your way to Arnold’s Country Kitchen for a late breakfast. Standing in line with a cross section of locals and tourists will whet your appetite. Sated with biscuits, head to bucolic Centennial Park and the majestic Parthenon. The replica is striking from the outside, but take the time to go inside and see the museum and the shining gold Athena sculpture. Grab a snack from one of the many food trucks that gather in Centennial Park.
Drive through Midtown, looking at the Vanderbilt University campus and Music Row, where you might spot celebs on their way to meetings with record label executives. Near the Vanderbilt campus shoppers will enjoy the boutiques in Hillsboro Village. Grab an afternoon pick-me-up from Fido or Biscuit Love.
Cross the bridge into East Nashville for your evening out. Choose to dine early at Butcher & Bee, where you can have both drinks and dinner in an open, high-energy environment. Then head across the river to Music Valley to catch the Grand Ole Opry in all its grand ole glory. If you were lucky enough to catch the Opry downtown the night before, then spend a more leisurely night enjoying East Nashville’s cocktails and culinary delights. Spread the love around No. 308, The 5 Spot, and Public House.
Up and at ’em! Fuel up both yourself and your car with biscuits from Loveless Cafe and gasoline from a nearby station, and get ready to start driving part of the scenic Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444-mile trek from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi. The Northern Terminus near Loveless is a prime photo op: the Double Arch Bridge.
Soon after you enter the Parkway, however, you’ll want to take a detour. Just 17 miles from Loveless is the charming town of Franklin, with its antique stores and charming boutiques, great restaurants, and fun entertainment options. Don’t miss the tour at Carnton, where you experience Civil War history (specifically the Battle of Franklin) from an intimate vantage point.
Have dinner at The Bunganut Pig and spend the night in one of Franklin’s many charming B&Bs.
Merridee’s Breadbasket will fill you up for your day on the road.
Head back to the Natchez and drive the 60 leisurely miles to the Meriwether Lewis Monument and Gravesite, a somber memorial to a man who helped the country expand. If you’re a camper, you can pitch a tent and explore the area on foot. If not, head 30 miles east to Linden, where you can eat and drink at the historic Commodore Hotel, complete with a speakeasy with delicious cocktails.
The next morning, rested and ready, backtrack 30 miles to Columbia, which is where you’ll find the James K. Polk Home & Museum, the former residence of the 11th president of the United States. The charming town is chockfull of art galleries, small boutiques, and eateries. Christy’s 6th Street Restaurant is great for a sit-down soul food lunch. CAB Café, inside the Columbia Arts Building, has seasonal food and a funky vibe.
From a presidential home to that of a member of country music royalty, it’s a 60-mile drive from Columbia to Hurricane Mills, the site of Loretta Lynn’s Ranch. This mega site includes her house (where that famous Crisco commercial was filmed in the kitchen), campgrounds, a museum, several stores, and other attractions themed around the coal miner’s daughter.
Continue heading west (72 miles) to Jackson, the largest city in between Nashville and Memphis. There’s plenty of kitsch here, including the Casey Jones Historic Home and Railroad Museum, the International Rock-a-Billy Hall of Fame, and Rusty’s TV and Movie Car Museum. You can grab a snack at the popular West Tennessee Farmers Market or at Diddy’s Bar-B-Que.
From Jackson it is a quick 21-mile drive to Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park, the largest Native American Middle Woodland Period mound group in the country. Explore more than 15 Native American mounds, hike on the scenic trails, and spend the night in one of the state park cabins.
Make a few stops on your way toward Memphis. First up is Billy Tripp’s Mindfield, just 40 miles from the state park. At first glance it looks like an electrical transformer station, but this acre of creations is a remarkable work of outsider art (that is, art produced by self-taught artists). Begun in 1989, the sculptures will continue to grow and change until Tripp’s death, at which point the site will be his place of internment.
Today it stands as tall as seven stories in some places, and includes messages of optimism and open-mindedness from the artist. There’s an opportunity to leave comments about your impressions of the works, which are largely made from reclaimed steel and other materials. Find the Mindfield off U.S. 70, one block away from the town square. After exploring, walk across the street to grab lunch at Mindfield Grill.
From there it is just 5 miles to Brownsville, which might look like just a sleepy gas stop off the Interstate. But the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center is a must-see, particularly to gain an understanding of the music and history of the delta region. The Flagg Grove School, now relocated to this site, was the childhood one-room schoolhouse of Anna Mae Bullock, better known as rock icon Tina Turner. Blues great “Sleepy” John Estes’ modest home is also at the site. In addition to the museums, Brownsville is the county seat of the largest cotton-producing county in Tennessee.
Drive your final 60 miles along I-40 to Memphis and check into a downtown hotel, such as the historic Peabody or the head-turning Big Cypress Lodge.
Stroll Beale Street, go treasure-hunting at A. Schwab, listen to the blues, and grab dinner in the Cooper Young neighborhood, either at Soul Fish or the Beauty Shop.
Go to the National Civil Rights Museum in the morning, eat lunch along South Main, and then go to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in the afternoon. Drive south to find Interstate Bar-B-Que for dinner.
Make it Elvis Day. Start early at Graceland to avoid the crowds, but plan to spend a good chunk of the day in the museums, in the mansion, and on Elvis’ plans. Then visit Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded his first hit. When you return downtown, eat a burger at Dyer’s on Beale Street in memory of the King.
Start out with the audio tour at Elmwood Cemetery (buy the CD in the office), a leisurely look at Memphis history in a bucolic, park-like setting. This is nature day, so after you are done exploring, drive east. Visit the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and lounge in Overton Park. Visit the Dixon and eat dinner in Cooper Young at the casual Young Avenue Deli or (if you didn’t earlier in the week) the contemporary Beauty Shop.
Head home with a head full of stories and tunes from Nashville to Memphis.