If you love a road trip, one of the best driving vacations I’ve done was our 10-day Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans music road trip.
I wrote this itinerary based on our hugely fun family road trip starting in Nashville for a couple of nights, then Memphis for a couple more and finishing in New Orleans (which I’ve now visited 7 times!) so you can follow it if you’d like to with my mum, dad, husband and me.
We called our New Orleans road trip the Music Tour and spent 10 nights in total with a playlist that included Willie Nelson warbling “on the road again” as we hurtled down the freeways from Nashville to meet my brother, his wife and daughter from the Cayman Islands (where they live) for a reunion in New Orleans.
Fats Domino serenaded us with “Walking to New Orleans”, John Butte “At the foot of Canal Street”, and we finished with one of my favourite NoLa musicians, Kermit Ruffins, singing “Drop me off in New Orleans!” (And here’s a tip, you need to see Kermit perform live on Monday nights at his own bar, Mother In Law Lounge).
I cannot recommend these three cities highly enough!
The entire route between Nashville and New Orleans is about 665 miles (1070km), so the first day’s drive to Memphis was only about three hours, but from Memphis to New Orleans you need to allow a whole day for driving.
Let’s get on the road!
Day 1 : Nashville
Where to stay in Nashville : Loews Vanderbilt Hotel
(For the best rates at the Loews, visit their listing on Booking.com>>)
Our 8pm departure from LAX to Nashville had us flying through the night (although we were still on Hawaii time so it wasn’t too bad) and arriving at 5.30am local time. Yes in the morning! That was bad.
BUT I had cleverly thought to book a room for the previous night so we had at least one to check into when we arrived. As it happened both rooms were ready so we decided to have a short nap and shower then we were off to Honky Tonk Row to check out Nashville’s famous music scene and find something to eat.
I really loved Nashville! I was so surprised by the amazing music scene with live music everywhere. It’s called Music City for a very good reason! Yes it’s very “country” but you’ll find other venues doing your favourite genre and girls in sundresses and cowboy boots walking everywhere added the colour and fun to this city. Them, and the hilarious booze trolly bicycle…
Things to do in Nashville
The Johnny Cash Museum had opened the day before we arrived and people had lined up round the block. Fortunately the hype had died down today and we strode right in (buying some souvenirs on the way).
This is a huge collection of Johnny memorabilia. Photos, outfits, hand written lyrics, his collection of framed gold and platinum albums, interactive sound and visual booths. It really is a must for Cash fans.
The jetlag hadn’t yet kicked in so as my dad is a fan of piano bars, and duelling pianos even more so, we pottered around the many bars with live music and popped in and out of souvenir shops until 6pm when the duelling doors opened.
It was ridiculously early I know, but we were a bit knackered.
The crowd was small at this early hour at The Big Bang but the sound was huge. The entertainers were brilliant: young hot looking guys in T-shirts and jeans bashing out hits on their grand pianos with the lids open!
We were encouraged to write song choices on a piece of paper and give it to them. If they liked it they’d screw it up and toss it to the other piano. I chose Billy Joel’s Piano Man. The guy on the right even nailed the harmonica intro…
We didn’t get to the Grand Ole Opry, which I regret. I would suggest you pre book tickets to a night of live music, even if just to say you set foot in the hallowed hall.
Day 2 : Country Music Hall of Fame, Studio B and Loveless Cafe
I was surprised to find how many great musicians have their roots in country music – and The Country Music Hall of Fame is filled with memorabilia including Elvis Presley’s very cool car that is fitted with a huge TV and old fashioned telephone.
We added a tour to Studio B only because someone at the Johnny Cash Museum said it was great, and so it was. A must-see.
I sat on the piano stool where Elvis Presley recorded about half his catalogue of hits and learned how he was all about lighting and ambience when he recorded and for one song even had his musicians playing in the dark. Then the guide turned the lights red and told us what Elvis had recorded under the sexy red lights and played the actual recording.
Where to eat in Nashville
There are lots of great places to eat in Nashville, but this was our first time here so we were all about grits and biscuits and fried chicken and barbecue and all mid-west America!
Loveless Cafe is about 25 minutes drive (17 miles) from downtown Nashville through beautiful countryside and huge houses with rolling front lawns. They’ve been open since 1951 and have a huge reputation for their smoked hams and bacon (made on site) their hot biscuits (like a savoury scone to us non-Americans) and serve a mean weekend brunch – including grits.
We’d been recommended by nearly everyone we met to come out here, so as we had a car and were always up for a good nosey at how other people live, we set off. Couldn’t get my dad to try the grits though! But the fried chicken and mac and cheese and juicy smoked meats were winners.
Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant is another institution. They serve traditional Southern food like Loveless Cafe, but are located in the heart of town so easy to get to. They also sell their jars as glasses (yes I managed to squeeze one home) and other kitchen wares.
For more great music venues in Nashville, click here to VisitMusicCity.com
You might also like my LA to San Francisco road trip in 5 days >>
Day 3 : Drive Nashville to Memphis
Drive time: It’s about three hours drive from Nashville to Memphis – (driving distance 212 miles).
We found drivers to be so courteous on American multi-lane roads too, they pull over a lane when you’re entering the highway on the on ramp (so we did likewise) and all the huge container-carrying trucks keep right (in the slow lane). Unlike in New Zealand where people drive like it’s a race and cut you off!
Driving to Memphis is pretty much all we did today after taking our time leaving Nashville. Dad had researched a Golf Shop en route so that was our stop along the way, then we hit the road arriving in Memphis with plenty of time to check out iconic Beale Street.
Where to stay in Memphis : The Peabody Hotel
(For the best rates at the Peabody, visit their listing on Booking.com>>)
Day 4 : Memphis – Visit Graceland and Beale Street
The Peabody Hotel is only two blocks from famous Beale Street, and was ideally located for strolling down and back again without needing a car.
It is the iconic hotel in the city and is famous for its ducks living on the roof who come down in the elevator every day and walk on a red carpet to swim in the fountain in the lobby before being returned with pomp and ceremony at 5pm under the flashes of a dozen cameras!
It has a beautiful, luxurious lobby with intricately decorated high ceilings, a bar at one end, grand piano at the other (which can magically play itself when the pianist is away!) and sumptuous couches to sink into or tables and chairs for coffee or cocktails.
But we were excited to stroll down Beale Street to find some more live music and great food. To be honest I was a bit disappointed (and even more so after comparing it to New Orleans’ Bourbon and Frenchman Streets).
Beale Street was grubby and the cool bars with live music were few and far between. But a highlight was the BB King Cafe where we stayed for dinner and tapped our toes heartily to the band on stage. My husband was here many years ago when BB himself walked in and began jamming with the band. He thought it was normal and only learned later that this happened once or twice a year!
Graceland was cool though and you should allow a good three-plus hours here. You might like to read my Peek Through Graceland post here >
Expect to see Elvis Presley lookalikes roaming around the souvenirs and if you have about $3000 you can buy a replica Elvis onesie. On one side of the street are shops and museums all dedicated to the King – and is where you buy your tickets to tour his house.
(We didn’t pre-book and got on the next tour). Then you’ll get on a bus to drive you across the road and up the driveway. About 50 metres. But you know what they’re like in America – someone would sue if they got hit crossing the road!
Day 5 : Memphis – Central BBQ and Martin Luther King’s memorial
I’d really wanted to try Memphis BBQ so Googled the best places in Memphis and found Central BBQ. Good choice!
This store is so popular they now have three of them. I had emailed them from New Zealand and had a plan to go in Monday morning to meet the manager and learn how to make pork sliders – which you can read by clicking that link).
By now I had my American family who’d dashed out from Delaware for a couple of nights to meet us in Memphis so suddenly we were six who all rocked up and got to sample the most delicious fall-apart pulled pork I’ve ever had!
Then we went back for dinner and tried the rest of the food 😀
Right across the road from Central BBQ is the infamous Lorraine Motel -now part of the Civil Rights Museum where Martin Luther King Jnr was shot and killed.
It’s now a memorial and the motel room has not been touched since the day he was shot down by a guy with a gun in the bathroom of the hostel opposite.
Eerily the bathroom – and building – is now part of the Civil Rights Museum where you can track the time line (and sight-line) of both protagonists until the moment of that fatal shot. Read my post “A shot rings out in the Memphis sky” about visiting the Civil Rights Museum.
Other cool things to do in Memphis
Visit Al Green’s gospel church. It is about 10 miles out of town but we got Ubers. Sadly, even though the crooning preacher was on the order of service to preach that morning (service starts at 11am), he didn’t show up. We still enjoyed the gospel choir though!
Go to a Memphis Grizzlies game! I brought a small group of friends to Memphis in 2019 and we had planned it especially around an OKC Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies game – which is played at FedEx Forum, just a short walk from the Peabody and Beale Street.
Visit Sun Studio, the birthplace of rock and roll, and take a tour. You’ll be immersed into the history and stories of young musicians, like BB King and the young Elvis who came in to Sun Studios to cut an audition track. This is the “discovery location of musical legends and genres of the 50’s from B.B. King and Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis; from Blues and Gospel to Country and Rock’n’roll.”
Day 6 : Drive Memphis to New Orleans
Where to stay in New Orleans : French Quarter boutique hotels
Drive Time: It’s a good six hours to drive from Memphis to New Orleans (395 miles).
We set off straight after brekky and took a little detour to Vicksburg for lunch because I’d visited a cool gallery (Attic Gallery) here a few years ago. Alas this time they had no art I particularly wanted and it just made a long day longer.
My advice for staying in the Big Easy is to stay IN the French Quarter which means you can walk everywhere, including along the banks of the Mississippi River and pop back home when you need some peace or to rest your weary feet.
I love this city for its food from poboys and gumbo to classic traditional dishes through to a new fusion food scene. The music in New Orleans is unquestionably the highlight whether they’re professional bands in bars and clubs or buskers on the streets, you’ll love the vibe here. Keep a few dollar notes with you to drop into guitar boxes and buckets around town.
Read my post on 6 great hotels to stay in the French Quarter >>
Days 7-10 : New Orleans – Jazz and play time!
There are so many great bars serving live jazz in New Orleans and you’ll find all the tourists along Bourbon Street. But for the places where locals go read this post on my top 3 places for live music in NOLA.
Hint: if you are here on a Monday you need to check out Kermit Ruffins Mother in Law Lounge out in Treme for live music and BBQ. I’ve written all about it in the link above.
Other things to do in New Orleans include a Cemetery Tour, learn to cook gumbo, eat sugary beignets at Café du Monde, buy paintings from artists around Jackson Square and try and find these awesome buskers singing A Closer Walk with Thee on the trombone… (cue goosebumps).
How far is Nashville to New Orleans?
This whole road trip from Nashville to New Orleans via Memphis is bout 665 miles (1070 km) and would take about 10 hours. But unless you were in labour, why would you do it one go?!
How far is Nashville to Memphis?
The distance from Nashville to Memphis is about 212 miles (340km) and will take about 3 hours 20 on the I-40. It’d be about an hour longer if you got off the main highway and took US-64.
How far is Memphis to New Orleans?
This is the longest driving day. The driving distance from Memphis to New Orleans is 395 miles (635 km) and will take about six hours without stopping on I-55 S. Of course you’ll need to stop along the way, so allow 7 or more hours to ensure it’s a leisurely drive.
I have also stayed at a beautiful plantation, Houmas House, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans and this would make a fantastic addition to this road trip.
If you love a USA road trip as much as we, jump over this great list of the 55 best small town road trips in America >>