Who says getting up at 4 am can’t be fun, especially on a Sunday? Actually it isn’t so bad when you’re kicking off a road trip into some unknown states. My boyfriend and I rolled our butts out of bed early on the last Sunday in June to begin our fourteen hour road trip through five states. It’s hard starting your day when it still looks like night out. We were full of anticipation and that was a good thing because this turned out to be one of the most amazing summer vacations I’ve had in a long time. And that 4 am wake-up call was worth it when the Nashville skyline rose into view later that night.
Our idea of a Tennessee vacation emerged out of a list of possible spots and wasn’t even a strong contender at first. But after a little digging we found that it was an affordable destination with plenty to do and just within our acceptable driving distance. It’s hard to find somewhere this affordable for a one week vacation and we looked at many tropical locales. Who doesn’t like a tropical vacation? But unfortunately, unless it’s all-inclusive or the dollar is stronger, it can get pretty pricey. So Nashville fell in our laps as an acceptable alternative. While it was a bit of a ride (14 hours!), my car gets great gas mileage and we don’t mind life on the road. What really sealed it was Nashville’s title as Music City, a bit draw for two music lovers. And Memphis was only three hours from Nashville? After fourteen hours in the car and the chance to visit the King, what were three more hours?
The best part of planning the trip had to be the road trip part. We were able to find two routes by using Google Maps. Going to Nashville we were able to hit six states going from my house in NJ to Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and finally into Tennessee. On our way home we looped back through Eastern Tennessee into Virginia, a little bit of Maryland, Pennsylvania then finally home. It was a whirlwind of states and curving highways, rolling hills and endless mountain ranges. We got a glimpse of America that we would never have had if we simply hopped aboard a plane.
Nashville, music city, home of country music and cowboy boots. It’s a phenomenal place that I would love to return to. We found that there was plenty to do no matter what your age, even if the family is in tow. As it was the end of June, we did melt a little in the summer heat but with plenty of fluids (some provided by the bars of Broadway) and ducking into air-conditioned sights, we survived. We loved the music that poured into the streets nearly everywhere, the barbecue food and the southern hospitality. My boyfriend just wasn’t used to such niceties where he’s grown up. It was wonderful to introduce him to good ol’ Southern manners.
Memphis was a different vibe altogether. It was more gritty and layered in history, just like the blues music that cuts through the downtown air. It’s not as flashy a city as Nashville (despite being home to Elvis and other stars) but it has it’s own defined character of classic mixed with soul. I loved the retention of 1940s, 50s and 60s architecture and signage; they brought out my preservation nerdiness. One of the most incredible sights was to watch the pink sun sink below the horizon, its reflection shimmering across the Mississippi. There’s plenty of good eats that are traditional Memphis favorites, adding to the feeling that this city clings tightly to its roots. I did enjoy Nashville more than Memphis but it was still a city that begs to be explored.
In the seven days of our road trip through Tennessee, my boyfriend and I did so many things and ate until we were ready to roll down the road home. I absolutely loved exploring that part of the country and strongly advocate for a trip to the Volunteer state.
Top Ten “To Dos” in Tennesee:
1. Broadway: Broadway is the central party area of Music City and has plenty of music to go around. The bars play music from 10am to 4am and you can stroll down the street in the middle of the day, pop in anywhere, sip a beer and maybe here country’s next great star. Our favorite bars are Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and the Stage, though you can’t go wrong at any of them. Did I mention that there’s no cover at most? Oh and I almost forgot that you can take a break from those bars and drop some dough on some of the cutest cowboy boots this Northern girl has ever seen. Though I’m sure the prices might be better elsewhere, it’s all about the fun of the Broadway experience.
2. Jack Daniel’s Distillery and Lynchburg, TN: It’s Tennessee whiskey so you can’t pass up a trip to visit where it all comes from. Located just an hour south of Nashville, it’s in a dry county so there’s no taste testing but you get to see how that tasty stuff is made which is pretty awesome. Don’t leave without heading into town which has a population of about 361, give or take a few births and deaths. Coming from an area with no small towns, it was great to see what small town America really looks like. On it’s great town square you can also visit the official Jack Daniel’s store and maybe by an authentic cask used for aging the whiskey. If you want a true experience, visit Miss Mary Bobo’s boardinghouse. Neither my boyfriend nor I were prepared for such southern hospitality but it was definitely an experience.
3. The Country Music Hall of Fame: You can’t visit Nashville and not pay tribute to country music. It’s all around you but you must visit its shrine at the hall of fame. It’s a truly spectacular building and its exhibits give a lot of history on country music, which is great if you’re not well-versed in things like Roy Acuff and Carl Perkins. They also have a really great bar and restaurant in their atrium with live music so stop and have a cool drink.
4. The Grand Ole Opry: in Music City, this was by far the best experience of true country music. There is so much incredible history for this musical genre all contained under one roof. Of course there is the Ryman (which we didn’t get to see), the original home of the Opry, but the Grand Ole Opry is an incredible music venue. I also loved the short informational video they played before the show got started and gave a run down of the history. There were a few old time performers that I didn’t know but it was a great time and fantastic music.
5. Graceland: I wasn’t going to visit Tennesee and not see the home of Elvis Presley, and neither was anyone else. The number one question about my vacation has to be, “Did you see where Elvis lived?” Yes, yes I did. Despite being the priciest activity, it was a pretty exciting place to visit. I’m not going to say the price tag was justified but Graceland is a pretty important piece of American rock and roll history. And I got to see the infamous Jungle Room so there you go. But stay at the Days Inn at Graceland so you can park there instead of paying the $10 to park in Graceland’s parking lot. Plus you can swim in a guitarshaped pool.
6. Music Row: this might seem like a strange addition to my top 10 list but I thought the business area of Nashville was pretty fascinating. As we strolled by the major music offices, I imagined someone’s career jumpstarting at that moment. It’s also pretty cool to see the labels boasting about their hit songs and great writers.
7. The ducks at the Peabody hotel: they are only ducks that stroll out of the elevator and hop into a fountain but there is something so cute and fun about that. It is simply a must see if you are in Memphis, I don’t care what anyone says.
8. Elliston Place Soda Shop and the Arcade: located in Nashville and Memphis respectively, these two restaurants are throwbacks to a cooler time. Elliston Place Soda Shop is virtually unchanged since it was opened and, though a bit rundown to maintain its authenticity, it serves one of the best milkshakes I’ve had anywhere. The Arcade is the oldest restaurant in Memphis and is also known for being a top movie making spot, just check out the official placard out front. Their food and atmosphere is a bit newer than Elliston Place and you have a chance to be in the same spot as starts like Orlando Bloom, Joaquin Phoenix and Norah Jones.
9. Barbecue food: Okay, this isn’t a must see place necessarily but I will advise you that you cannot visit Tennesee without stopping for barbecue somewhere. Memphis is known as the barbecue capitol of the world and that might just be true. Try the ribs at the Rendezvous and your tastebuds will love you for the rest of the year. It’s also pretty amazing to watch them open the smokers up and pull out a huge rack of ribs cooked to perfection. There are great little BBQ joints all over the city and while they might seem questionable, take one bite and you won’t be questioning anything anymore.
10. Corvette Museum, Bowling Green, KY: while this isn’t necessarily in Tennesee, it’s so close I’m going to make it count. If you like cars, you have to go here and drool over some of the best. It’s not a whole lot of reading so you can feast your eyes on these beautiful pieces of American automotive history.