5 awesome road trips you can take from Nashville
Editor’s note: Please check with every facility when planning your trip. Some may have limited hours or even be closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, my kid and I decided to drive from Baltimore to San Antonio to shelter with our family. On the way, we spent the night in Nashville at the Kimpton Aertson. I’ve spent many work-related trips in Music City, which has become a hot spot for bachelorette parties, sporting events and even New Year’s Eve celebrations.
But as nice as Nashville is, you may be feeling a little stir crazy as the pandemic drags on. Thanks to its central location, locals and visitors can reach a variety of destinations north, south, east and west of Nashville that are great for road trips. If you're in Music City, consider making at least one of these five trips.
Related: 10 tips for anyone taking a road trip right now
Distance from Nashville: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Louisville is far more than the Kentucky Derby and bourbon. Named after King Louis XVI, the city was founded by George Rogers Clark in 1778. It’s where the cheeseburger was invented and Kentucky fried chicken was born. Right now, the city is selling custom face masks to benefit the Louisville COVID Relief Fund and The Black Artists Fund.
What to do: Louisville has the Urban Bourbon Experience™, the world’s only city-wide trail filled with award-winning micro-distilleries, exhibits and craft cocktail destinations. You can also visit Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Derby Museum. Baseball fans will want to make the pilgrimage to the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory and get a custom bat. The multicultural Muhammad Ali Center is an award-winning museum dedicated to the life and legacy of the beloved championship boxer, who hailed from Louisville. You can even have locals create a custom list of things to do while in Louisville.
Where to stay: If you can’t afford to stay at The Brown Hotel -- the historic property where the Hot Brown sandwich was invented -- at least have a cocktail in its famous Lobby Bar. Families may enjoy staying at the Homewood Suites by Hilton Louisville Downtown, with its indoor pool, free breakfast and full kitchens. For those on a budget, consider the Holiday Inn Express and Suites Louisville Downtown.
What to eat and drink: Despite being known for mint juleps, Louisville is where the classic cocktail, the Old Fashioned, was invented in 1881. During the first two weeks of June, the city even celebrates Old Fashioned Fortnight with bourbon events, cocktail specials and National Bourbon Day on June 14. Feast BBQ is the place to go to get your fix of delights including pulled pork and brisket. Local favorite Jack Fry’s is known for its shrimp and grits, and you can’t leave Louisville without trying Kern’s Derby-Pie®, best described as a chocolate-pecan pie. Because it’s trademarked, most local restaurants serve their version of it, usually called Chocolate Pecan Pie or some variation thereof. Try the one served at Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen.
Related: 5 American road trips to take with the family
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Distance from Nashville: Start your drive in Louisville, which is roughly 2 hours and 30 minutes away.
This famous trail highlights where some of the world’s best bourbons are distilled. It comprises 18 distilleries, including Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Angel’s Envy and Bulleit. You can even memorialize your drive on the trail with a passport that you can either pick up at the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center at the Frazier Museum in Louisville, at your first distillery stop, or download it online and print it in advance. There are plenty of distilleries in Louisville, so that may be the best place to start. And if you need help planning your trip, the Kentucky Bourbon Train website is there to help.
What to do: Drive south to Shepherdsville to check out the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. An hour away is the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto. After spending the night in Loretto, take a quick 45-minute drive to the Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville. Then, drive north to Wild Turkey Bourbon in Lawrenceburg and also visit the Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles. Finish with a final swing to Shelbyville to see the Bulleit Distilling Co.
Where to stay: If you want to stay in full bourbon mode, consider a stay at Bourbon Manor in Bardstown, the first bourbon-themed bed and breakfast in the U.S., featuring a bourbon-themed breakfast and a spa. After visiting Woodford Reserve, book a room at the Holiday Inn Express and Suites Lexington W - Versailles. And the Country Inn and Suites by Radisson in Shelbyville is a solid option after your tour of the Bulleit distillery.
What to eat and drink: If I’m going to be sampling adult beverages out on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, I may as well eat at the distilleries. Have lunch at Star Hill Provisions, located at Maker's Mark Distillery, which serves bourbon cocktails and premium, farm-to-table fare without the pretense. The Jim Beam stillhouse is home to Fred’s Smokehouse, which features dishes such as Devil’s Cut™ pulled pork barbecue sandwiches and chocolate bourbon pie topped with Graeter’s Jim Beam Bourbon ice cream. And Woodford Reserve’s chef-in-residence served bourbon-flavored food including barrelhead brie, turkey brined in bourbon and Kentucky butter cake.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Distance from Nashville: 3 hours, 15 minutes
The park, nestled between North Carolina and Tennessee, was founded in June 1934. Six years later, it was formally dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Each state transferred deeds for 300,000 acres to the federal government to create the park. Start your trip by going to either the Sugarlands Visitor Center, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, North Carolina, to get the latest information on attractions.
What to do: You’ll never be bored here, since the park is home to auto tours, walking and cycling trails, camping, fishing, waterfalls, horseback riding, scenic overlooks, Park Service Ranger-led programs and historic areas to explore. A pandemic-friendly activity is to do a car tour of the park’s 384 miles of road, including the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Take a hike on the Rainbow Falls Trail or go fishing in one of the park’s 2,900 miles of streams, including one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern U.S.
Where to stay: The only on-site hotel in the park is the Le Conte Lodge. Located on the crest of Mount Le Conte, it can only be reached by hiking. If you want to stay, advance reservations are required. To reach the backcountry campsites, you'll need to hike several miles. If your heart is set on staying in the park but you’re not quite up for a hike, you also have your choice of three other campsites:
- Frontcountry: RV and tent camping in a developed campground that has restrooms.
- Group Campgrounds: Large front-country campsites suitable for groups of eight people or more.
- Horse Camps: Small campgrounds, accessible by vehicle, that offer hitch racks for horses and primitive camping facilities.
If camping or hiking to a hotel isn’t your thing, there are plenty of hotels, cabins and bed and breakfasts in the area. Consider the Mountain Laurel Chalet Rentals in Gatlinburg, the Black Fox Lodge Tapestry Collection by Hilton in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee or the Quality Inn and Suites in Robbinsville, North Carolina.
What to eat and drink: There aren't many places to eat inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cades Cove Campground Store has a snack bar that serves breakfast items, hot and cold sandwiches and wraps, soups and chili, pizza, soft-serve ice cream, fountain drinks and other items. After that, you’re relegated to scavenging at vending machines. The Old Mill Restaurant, which serves massive portions of Southern comfort food, is a popular eatery in Pigeon Forge. And Gatlinburg’s The Peddler Steakhouse gives you a great steak and a nice view of the Little Pigeon River.
Related: 9 things to know about visiting a national park right now
Asheville, North Carolina
Distance from Nashville: 4 hours and over 30 minutes
With its eclectic mix of lovingly preserved architecture (including Art Deco, Beaux-Arts and Neoclassical), downtown center with locally owned shops and art galleries, a hot restaurant scene and lively entertainment spots, Asheville is a vibrant city nestled unassumingly in the Appalachian Mountains. It boasts more breweries per capita than any other U.S. city, and there's also plenty to do for visitors who love the great outdoors.
What to do: No trip to Asheville would be complete without a visit to the Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt's 250-room (35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces) French Renaissance castle. Tap your inner artist and check out Roberto Vengoechea’s Visions of Creation Gallery, where you can take a one-day workshop to make your own custom silver ring. Drive along the 469-mile scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, known as “America’s favorite drive,” and the gateway to outdoor adventure in Asheville, including hiking, biking, birdwatching, fishing and tubing down the French Broad River.
Where to stay: After visiting the Biltmore Estate, why not stay at the Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate? It features hotel rooms and more family-friendly studios and suites with a living room and two bathrooms. If you're more of a downtown person, book a room at the AC Hotel Asheville Downtown, which is within walking distance of all the city’s hot spots. Or enjoy the hospitality at the Hill House Bed and Breakfast, which serves guests coffee from Javataza, fresh fruit juices, and eggs, cream, breads and cheeses.
What to eat and drink: For great barbecue washed down with a local brew, you’ll want to have a meal at 12 Bones Smokehouse. If you’re a fan of farm-to-table fare, The Blackbird’s menu features the bounty of local farmers, fresh seafood from the Carolina coast, local microbrews, craft cocktails and American wines. For more upscale dining, enjoy gourmet cuisine — including harissa-spiced rack of lamb, pumpkin spice and rye-crusted salmon and cold water lobster and spaghetti — at the Biltmore Estate’s The Dining Room.
Related: Coronavirus tourism done right: A visit to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina
Little Rock, Arkansas
Distance from Nashville: Just over 5 hours
This capital city, which is on the banks of the Arkansas River, is in Pulaski County, the largest in the state. In the heart of Little Rock is the popular River Market District, home to the city’s best restaurants, shops, bars, nightlife, museums and hotels. Outdoor enthusiasts also have plenty to do, with city parks offering running and walking trails, bike paths, fishing, private and public golf courses, sports facilities and picnic areas.
What to do: You must visit the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, home to the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum and the Clinton School of Public Service. Want to see some historic sites? Check out the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, where nine African American students made history in 1957 as they integrated the schools. Take the kids to the Little Rock Zoo to see the animals and experience the restored historic Spillman Engineering Over the Jumps Carousel. For some outdoor time, visit Pinnacle Mountain State Park, west of Little Rock. There are great views of the city, plus you can enjoy nature trails and even take a hike.
Where to stay: Book a room at The Empress of Little Rock, an award-winning bed and breakfast built in 1888. Amenities include a majestic double stairwell, candlelit breakfasts, hydrotherapy massage jet showers and distinctly decorated guest rooms and suites, all with private bathrooms. The Burgundy Hotel, a Tapestry Collection property by Hilton, is Little Rock’s first boutique property, offering double and king studio suites, two-room double and king suites, king whirlpool suites and board room suites. For travelers who prefer camping, there’s the Maumelle Recreation Area and Campground, about 20 minutes outside Little Rock. The park is on Lake Maumelle and the Arkansas River and has reservable and walk-in campsites with water and electricity, picnic shelters, playgrounds, showers, flush toilets, a dump station and a boat ramp.
What to eat and drink: Locals swear by Big Orange, known for its craft burgers (white truffle and pecorino, anyone?), amazing salads (such as the Border Town Wedge) and whimsical milkshakes (I’ll take a dulce de leche, please). If you want to go more upscale, then Cache Restaurant, in the center of downtown Little Rock, is the place. It’s known for using locally sourced vegetables and meats to create three- and nine-course meals, along with vegetarian options. Beer lovers will love the city’s microbrew scene, including Stone's Throw Brewing, Lost Forty Brewing and Diamond Bear Brewing. All three serve the pub food you’d expect at a brewery.
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As the pandemic wears on, there’s plenty of time to hit the road for a nearcation or schoolcation. These five destinations are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to places to see on your next road trip from Nashville.
Related: Opening America: State-by-state guide to coronavirus reopening