I’d always fancied a road trip through Deep South USA and this May; I finally decided to go. Driving through the southern states from Louisiana into Mississippi, Memphis and Tennessee is a journey of discovery through diverse flavours, incredible music and splendid architecture.
Beginning with French-influenced New Orleans, you can listen to jazz in its birthplace while feasting on fresh seafood and fusion cuisine. Drive east, and you’ll encounter scenic countryside and pretty antebellum homesteads. Continue into Mississippi, and you’re in Elvis-territory - the home of rock ‘n roll, then before you know it, you’re in Nashville, and the historic home of live country music.
I travelled to the USA at the end of May and into early June, which is a brilliant time to visit. Airfares are good, the weather is perfect, and the roads are quiet which makes the driving easy and the sights aren’t crowded. Alternatively, autumn is an excellent season for a Deep South road trip, with gorgeous blazing leaves and mild weather.
Before this road trip, I began my holiday with a few days in Las Vegas from where we hopped on a 3-hour flight to New Orleans. When you arrive, you’re immediately aware this is a different type of heat to Las Vegas – the humidity is noticeably higher in the South that’s for sure!
For a first time visit and with just two nights, we opted for a hotel right on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter - the excellent 4 star Royal Sonesta Hotel. The food scene is fantastic, so we got stuck in straight away with oysters followed by beignets - while sitting in the sunshine listening to a live jazz band, enjoying a few frozen daiquiris.
It was the weekend, so the party crowd was out and about which made for great people watching. We headed to a local restaurant for dinner and came back to the hotel’s jazz lounge for some music and burlesque show after dinner.
For our full day of city touring, we just used the hop-on-hop-off bus, which is perfect to see the sights with some very entertaining live commentary. New Orleans has a fascinating mix of history and culture, some beautiful architecture and a rich history.
We hopped off at the French Market for a wander and a spot of lunch at St Cecilia’s. We tried the spicy oyster ‘po’boys’ and sweet potato fries with honey and pecans, and I recommend them all, they were so good!
That night we’d had a recommendation for dinner and headed to the hip Magazine Street area to La Petite Grocery for a modern take on Louisiana Creole cuisine. We tried the signature Blue Crab Beignets and Turtle Bolognese – yes turtle, yes it’s sustainable, and yes it was delicious! For more New Orleans foodie recommendations see our NOLA foodie blog.
At the end of our time in New Orleans we picked up the car - and because it was just two of us at this stage, we booked an economy four-door saloon with a decently-sized boot that swallowed up our expanding luggage without a problem.
As we’d planned a one-way journey to Nashville rather than a loop, there was an additional one-way fee to pay locally, but this was only $100 + tax of $27.50. Petrol is cheap here; we spent less than $100 for the whole trip, and the driving was very easy and relaxed. My top tip is to use your phone as a sat nav - this worked out much cheaper than renting a GPS unit from Alamo. Check your phone contract allows free roaming in the States (the Three Network does on some plans) - and you’re good to go.
On the way to Natchez, we visited Cajun Pride Swamp Tours which is not far from the airport where we picked up the car. As the name suggests, we joined a Swamp tour, which was a boat ride through the bayou (river marshes) for alligator-spotting and the chance to spot other native wildlife. We saw very cute families of racoons and some pretty menacing gators! The swamp tour is a great little trip, and it’s worth knowing you can make this trip out of New Orleans with transport included if you don’t have a car.
The drive up to Natchez is easy, totally stress-free driving. Natchez is known for its pretty antebellum homes which were the summer houses for the rich cotton farmers in previous times. The Americans seem to love them and come to visit from far and wide; I guess it’s a bit like their version of the UK’s stately homes. We had a tour of Longwood ($18 entry fee) which is an octagonal house that was never finished and with an interesting history. For me, one house tour was enough.
The town of Natchez itself is pretty, and sunset over the river is a beautiful scene. I’d say two nights here is with a day to see the sights is plenty of time. If you cross over the bridge back into Louisiana, you can visit Lake Bruin State Park for a swim in the freshwater lakes, and from here it’s an hour up to our next stop in Vicksburg.
We drove along Route 61, then took the Natchez Trace Parkway that allows no commercial traffic and is a bit like a British A-road through the countryside. It’s pleasantly quiet, has great scenery and interesting historical sights, including the Emerald Mound and the Windsor Ruins – we had both places all to ourselves when we visited in June! The Windsor ruins are the last surviving columns from the largest antebellum Gree Revival mansion in the state – quite a sight.
Vicksburg is a significant Civil War site. I must confess my knowledge of this era is limited, but a visit to the Vicksburg Military State Park (entry $20 per car) enlightened me somewhat and made me want to learn a bit more. Fortunately, things in Vicksburg are much calmer these days, and there’s a pretty town to wander around, with an excellent rooftop bar and restaurant for sundowners.
‘We’re going to Graceland, Graceland... Memphis, Tennessee’ as the famous Paul Simon lyric goes… today was the day I had been looking forward to the most!
The drive from Vicksburg to Memphis takes around 3.5 hours. We were so excited; we drove straight to Elvis’s mansion Graceland before checking in to our accommodation! We spent the afternoon here and opted for the touring that included the cars and planes ($64). It did not disappoint, so put it on your agenda and relive the 70s!
We stayed in East Memphis; a regenerated, slightly hipster area that I liked very much. It has lots of independent shops, great coffee and it’s just a 15-20 minute drive to Downtown and Beale Street.
Whilst you’re in Memphis, as well as a visit to Graceland, I’d highly recommend a visit to a few museums; the Stax Records museum (entry $13), the National Civil rights Museum (entry $16) and a river cruise ($20) to get a different perspective of the city. Music is everywhere as you’d expect, so be sure to check out one of the many bars and restaurants and listen to a live band.
From Memphis, you can take the I-40 straight into Nashville and be there in around 3 hours, but we took a detour back into Mississippi on a pilgrimage to Tupelo – the birthplace of Elvis! It takes around 1 hour 40 minutes.
A visit to the birthplace of the King and a fantastic barbecue lunch made it a worthwhile stop before we joined the Natchez Trace Parkway again for the 200-mile journey over to Nashville. The drive took just under four hours, but you see some lovely scenery and pass through some interesting spots along the way.
We stayed near Opryland in West Nashville, around 15 minutes by car into the city. We only had two nights here, and this just wasn’t long enough to do everything we wanted to, so definitely make it 3 or 4 nights if you can! Again, Uber rides are a cheap and easy way to get around, so we ditched the car to get into the city for a day and hopped on the bus tour.
In early June, it was music festival time, so the downtown area was buzzing, and the live country music was playing everywhere! There’s so much to see and do; you should visit the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Frist Art Museum, the Johnny Cash Museum, the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum - the list is endless!
My experience of the Deep South was amazing; I loved it! Even the things I thought were going to be great far exceeded my expectations and the driving was so much easier than I imagined. The locals are incredibly welcoming, and the food was truly fantastic – this trip has all of the perfect elements for a fantastic USA road trip that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
If you’d like to drive in the Deep South, we can tailor-make a USA holiday entirely to suit your taste, interest and budget. We can arrange car hire and talk you through the insurance and local charges, and find you fantastic places to stay along the way, plus plenty of route advice. We can even plan a multi-centre USA trip to include the Deep South with other exciting destinations in the USA or elsewhere. To start planning your trip – see our tailor-made USA holiday ideas.