In this road trip guide, we’ll be highlighting four stops starting in Nashville, the country music capital of the world, and heading east through the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains to Knoxville. Next, we’ll cross the North Carolina border and stop in Asheville before our last stop in the state’s largest city, Charlotte.
Nashville is the undisputed home of country music, and no place will give you a better education on country music than the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which is connected to the Omni Nashville Hotel. Explore hundreds of guitars, bedazzled jackets, cowboy boots and other memorabilia from decades of country stars and watch rare performance footage from all eras. And if you’re looking to get a taste of live music, head down to Robert’s Western World on lower Broadway where you’ll see some of the best musicians on stage from open to close. And if you like what you hear, be sure to put some money in the tip jar.
You have no doubt been exposed to Nashville’s most famous food, hot chicken, in your grocer’s freezer aisle or at major fast-food chains trying to cash in on the craze. All of these are pale imitations of the real thing. Prince’s Hot Chicken has been around since 1945, and they recently opened a food truck location near downtown. Go hungry and prepared to sweat.
There is plenty of nature to explore in the city limits. Radnor Lake is located 20 minutes south of downtown and has 1,400 acres of hiking trails and as a Class II Natural Area wildlife preserve, offers some of the best bird watching in the state. Cheekwood Estate and Gardens is located just east of Radnor Lake and offers guests the chance to have a curated nature experience in their botanical gardens and special exhibits (it is currently hosting an installation of world-famous glass sculptor Dale Chihuly through mid-January 2021).
Continue your road trip east from Nashville on I-40 for 180 miles until you find yourself in Volunteer country. Knoxville is home to the University of Tennessee, and its presence has drawn lots of dining and entertainment to the city. But one industry has seen a rise over the past decade: breweries. The city and the surrounding area are home to 20 local breweries featured on the Ale Trail. Make your itinerary or check out Knox Brew Tours to let their knowledgeable guides shuttle you to four breweries with beer tastings at each stop.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is less than 40 miles from Knoxville, which makes it the perfect spot to gear up before a camping weekend or even a day trip. But you don’t have to leave the city limits if you want to lose yourself in nature. The Ijams Nature Center is a 315-acre preserve with 12 miles of hiking and biking trails and lakes and rivers where you can rent canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, or go for a swim at Mead’s Quarry Lake. If you’re feeling adventurous and want an aerial view of the park, check out Navitat, also located at Ijams. Each adventure trail features various balance and strength training obstacles along with ziplining. And it’s not just for adults. Navitat’s beginner courses are designed for kids as young as seven.
When you come out of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’re just an hour away from the trendy mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina. In the 1920’s, celebrities and politicians enjoyed escaping to the mountains, and many stayed at The Omni Grove Park Inn. Today, the city has is often referred to as an “eclectic” and “funky” weekend getaway destination. Take time to explore Downtown Asheville and its collection of art galleries, boutique shops, farm-to-table restaurants, live music venues and local breweries. Just outside of town, the outdoor adventures are plenty. Enjoy hiking, biking, white water rafting or simply take a road trip down “America’s Favorite Drive” on the Blue Ridge Parkway. When you’re ready to relax, book an appointment at The Spa at Grove Park, ranked one of the country’s top spa resorts as ranked by Fodor’s and Travel + Leisure.
To round out your road trip, head east on Interstate 40 towards the Queen’s City. On the way, plan your drive to include sips and tastes of North Carolina’s local barbeque and wine. There are several options in Statesville, where Interstate 40 intersects Highway 77. As you pass through Morrisville, make a pit stop at Go Pro Motorplex go-karts. The safe, 11-turn track offers a thrilling experience with speeds up to 55 miles per hour, and it’s a great place for kids of all ages to experience North Carolina’s love for NASCAR (adults can enjoy the real thing at the NASCAR Racing Experience).
While Charlotte glitters as a banking and business hub, there are historical roots worthy of exploration by history buffs. Learn more about the city through a tour tailored to your interests. While you’re downtown, taste the local brews.
We hope this guide helps you plan your own road trip adventure through the south east. Get started packing with our Road Trip Essentials guide.