Updated: March 2021
The southern United States is unlike anywhere else you will ever go. Hot weather, warm smiles, and arguably some of the best grub in the country make up the foundation of this unique region. The best way to get to know the South is by hitting the road!
As a note, this loose itinerary is meant to serve as a guide and you can follow it in either direction! While I started in New Orleans, you could definitely flip it around and start off your journey in Georgia.
While I’ve laid out some of the highlights, but I think one of the best parts about a road trip is adding in your own special stops along the way! I like to use Roadtrippers to design the trip and map out where my “anchor” stops are, and then find fun stops in between.
Here’s the ultimate Southern USA road trip guide!
Southern USA Road Trip Highlights
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- Jackson, Mississippi
- Memphis, Tennessee
- Nashville, Tennessee
- Charlotte, North Carolina
- Charleston, South Carolina
- Savannah, Georgia
*If you wanted to extend the trip, you could add in Atlanta, Georgia, and make your way into Alabama. It just depends on how much time you have!
As you’re planning, make sure to check out these 10 essential tips for your road trip!
New Orleans, Louisiana
Kick-off your trip in New Orleans!
I fell in love with New Orleans when I went for Mardi Gras. While I’d love to go back for another Fat Tuesday, the city is equally impressive every day of the year. Just wandering the city, you’ll get a sense of New Orleans’ complex past and unique culture! Plus, there are tons of cool Airbnbs in New Orleans.
Top Things to See and Do in New Orleans
- The French Quarter never disappoints
- Get down and dirty on Bourbon Street or go for an upscale evening on Frenchmen Street
- Visit the oldest cathedral on the continent, St. Louis Cathedral, which was built in 1720
- Visit the Carousel Bar — yes, there is a carousel inside the bar!
- Go on a ghost tour and learn about the city’s many legends
Top Places to Eat in New Orleans
- Have a legendary brunch at both Commander’s Palace and Palace Café
- Brennan’s is where Banana’s Foster was invented
- Stop by Napoleon House for a cool atmosphere and delicious muffuletta
- Sampling beignets and chicory coffe at Café du Monde is a must!
- Explore the French Market for lunch fixings
- Grilled oysters at Acme Oyster House (it’s worth waiting in line!)
- Enjoy a classic Creole dinner at Muriel’s
Where to Stay in New Orleans
Detour: Take a Bayou Tour in Louisiana
On my trip, I took a couple of hours to tour the Manchac swamp with Wild Louisiana Tours! It was such a cool experience, there was a moment when I felt like I was in The Notebook.
You’ll see the logging ghost town of Ruddock that served as a passageway for historic New Orleans explorers as well as Iberville, Bienville, Ponchartrain, and more!
Detour: Learn About Plantations
During my Southern USA Road Trip, I was completely awestruck by the Live Oaks at the entrance to Oak Alley Plantation. I’d seen plenty of photos of Oak Alley, but it was even grander in person.
While Oak Alley is beautiful, it’s incredibly important to understand what the plantations mean in a historical context and today. For an in-depth look and to reflect on the atrocities of slavery and its lasting impact, make a trip to Whitney Plantation.
As a note, when I visited, my intention was not to glorify the past but to learn about everything that went on there. While much of the history is difficult to stomach — these were people’s lives — and I believe it’s important to educate ourselves — so we understand what went on and never repeat those actions
Take I-55 North from New Orleans to Jackson – 190 miles
Jackson is the capital of Mississippi and home to a funky arts scene, good bars and restaurants, and A LOT of live music!
Top Things to See and Do in Jackson
- Spend the day exploring the Civil War sites and the Civil Rights Museum
- Once you have worked up an appetite, indulge on turnip greens, cornbread, and black-eyed peas
- Craving some spice? Go for the locally beloved Miss-Mex (that’s Mississippi-Mexican fusion) for a culinary adventure
- Top your day off by exploring the countless blues and jazz venues
Where to Stay in Jackson, Mississippi
Detour: Oxford, Mississippi
This lively college town — home of Ole Miss — is a fun stop in between Jackson and Memphis. With the historic town square, James Beard-winning restaurants, and deep literary roots (the home of William Faulkner), this could make a great addition!
Take I-55 North from Jackson to Memphis – 210 miles
Memphis is all about rock ‘n’ roll and BBQ. You’ll never be able to eat at another BBQ joint after you try a proper Memphis-style BBQ platter. For more fun, check out the top 10 things to do in Memphis in two days.
Top Things to See and Do in Memphis
Where to Stay in Memphis, Tennessee
Detour: Visit Tennessee’s Wineries
Take I-40 East from Memphis to Nashville – 210 miles
For country music fans, singers, and songwriters from all over the world, Nashville is the ultimate destination. But Nashville isn’t just country music, it is a lively city, breaking out with new businesses, a dynamic food and cocktail scene, and bright lights!
Top Things to See and Do in Nashville
- Home to the Grand Ole Opry radio show, Ryman Auditorium is an absolute must-see and, whether you are a country music fan or not, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a fascinating spot
- To wrap up your musical day, take a tour of Music Row and RCA Studio B
- One of the most stunning buildings in Nashville, The Parthenon is the world’s only full-size reproduction of the Greek Parthenon in Athens, Greece, so plan on some time to visit the museum and art gallery to complete your tour
- Take a day trip to Jack Daniel’s Distillery
Top Places to Eat and Drink in Nashville
- Get drinks at The Patterson House
- Have a night out at Pinewood Social. It is a retro-style restaurant, bar, and coffee shop, and they have an extremely photogenic bowling alley, outdoor patio, and views of the city skyline
- Mas Tacos Por Favor dishes up an array of tasty tacos that are hands-down the best in Nashville
- Dig into the “New American” dishes at Rolf & Daughters, an industrial-chic restaurant with communal tables and some pretty crafty cocktails
- Craving some Southern biscuits? Go to Biscuit Love for a proper carb-filled brunch.
- From mild to very spicy fried chicken and iconic Southern sides, Hattie B’s Chicken is where it’s at!
- Find more top places to eat in Nashville here.
Top Photo Spots in Nashville
- Three Brothers Café – cool black and white patterned walled alcove
- 12th Avenue South – I Believe in Nashville Mural
- Madewell Wall – Looking Pretty, Music City
- The Gulch – “What Lifts You” Wings the colorful mural
*There are so many other murals around the city and cool spots — go on a treasure hunt to find them.
Where to Stay in Nashville, Tennessee
Charlotte, North Carolina
Take I-40 East from Nashville to Charlotte – 400 miles
This is over a half-day of driving, so leave early and make the most of your travel day!
Charlotte is mostly a business and banking town, but is made up of beautiful, historical neighborhoods, great museums, and awesome waterfront restaurants!
Top Things to See and Do in Charlotte
- Visit Levine Museum of the New South & the NASCAR Hall of Fame
- Cool down at the 29,000-square-foot Ray’s Splash Planet – this ultra-fun indoor water park is the perfect place to splash around on a steamy afternoon
- See Charlotte’s high-flying past at the Carolinas Aviation Museum
- Pan for a bit of gold at Reed Gold Mine
Where to Stay in Charlotte, North Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina
Take I-77 South from Charlotte to Charleston – 211 miles
With its weather in the upper 70s in the dead of winter, Charleston is the perfect place for beach lovers! It’s a quaint city, but there are tons of things to do.
Top Things to See and Do in Charleston
- Get moving and rent a bike to ride across the famous Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge
- Don’t miss the Angel Oak Park—one of South Carolina’s most remarkable sites—you’ll find a massive 1,500-year-old oak tree, which is a true sight to behold
- Prime places to stay in Charleston are the Wentworth Mansion, anywhere on King Street, or the Restoration Hotel (they offer in-room spa services)
- Rainbow Row is a series of thirteen colorful historic houses and is the longest cluster of Georgian row houses in the United States. It’s best to go here in the morning when there are fewer people and soft lighting.
- Mosey through the Waterfront Park — a gorgeous eight-acre park along the Cooper River.
- The City Market in downtown Charleston is a must — even if you’re just walking through (though you could easily spend all day here). Established in the 1790s, this historic market stretches four city blocks.
- Want to explore a truly Southern garden meets swamp? Head to Cypress Gardens for the 80 acres of blackwater bald cypress/tupelo swamp, surrounded with both boat and foot trails.
- If you’re taking this trip in the spring, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is brimming with azaleas!
- Not to be confused with the above, Magnolia Cemetary is worth visiting, too.
- Book a tour to get the history of the Gilded Age Calhoun Mansion
Top Places to Eat and Drink in Charleston
- Vendue Rooftop Bar
- You absolutely must dine at Husk Restaurant (make reservations well beforehand!)
- Head to Callie’s Biscuit for some of the tastiest award-winning biscuits, southern tea sandwiches, grits, and locally-inspired dishes
- Dinner at FIG is lovely — an elevated take on Southern classics
- Have dinner, or at the very least, cocktails at 5church (located in a former church, the interior is super cool!)
Detour: Folly Beach
Bring your bikini and lounge in the Carolina sun on Folly Beach during the better part of the year. Just south of Charleston, you’ll find Folly Beach Pier which stretches more than 1,000 feet into the ocean. Center Street is lined with the cutest surf shops and you’ll find tons of souvenirs.
Detour: Stop in Beaufort
Walk or drive around here. The Beaufort River wraps around this area and served as the location for many scenes from Forrest Gump and The Big Chill. It’s halfway between Savannah and Charleston and would make a great stop for lunch.
Where to Stay in Charleston, South Carolina
Take US-17 South and I-95 South from Charleston to Savannah – 108 miles
Known for manicured parks, tons of historic architecture, cobblestoned squares, and brilliant oak trees covered with Spanish moss, Savannah is a picturesque stop.
Top Things to See and Do in Savannah
- Head to Tybee Island for beach vibes (about 20 minutes from Savannah). There’s tons of history here too and a cute pier and pavilion.
- Wormsloe Plantation Historic Site is a must for photos. Try to get there slightly before it opens to snap shots without folks or cars.
- Exploring River Street is an absolute must. A mix of new buildings and old warehouses, there are tons of shops, galleries, restaurants, and pubs on this stretch of Savannah’s Waterfront
- Forsyth Park is a large city park in the historic district of Savannah. If you’re there on a summer Saturday, there’s usually a big farmers’ market going on!
- Savannah is said to be one of the most haunted cities in the US, go on a ghost tour or haunted pub crawl!
- The City Market is an open-air market dating back to the 1700s
- Prepare to find so many goodies at The Paris Market — a charming boutique with an eclectic range of antiques, housewares, and jewelry.
Top Places to Eat and Drink in Savannah
- Leopold’s Ice Cream on Broughton St.
- Have breakfast and coffee at The Collins Quarter on Bull Street
- B. Matthews Eatery — for classic and new American fare, this charming bistro in an updated vintage space is a go-to
- Vic’s on the River for dinner — located in a 19th-century warehouse, you can’t beat the food or the cool interior.
- While it’s very pricey, dinner at the famed Olde Pink House is a Savannah staple
- Mrs. Wilkes — Family-owned since 1943, this busy diner serves ample Southern-style breakfast and lunches at communal tables.
- For a cool, dark, and cozy vibe — go to the Mata Hari speakeasy. Heads up: you must have a key to get in! 😉
- Jen’s and Friends is an awesome martini bar with tons of martini flavors (seriously! From Bananas Foster to birthday cake)
- The Peregrin Rooftop Bar has great cocktails and an awesome view of the city
Where to Stay in Savannah, Georgia
And there you have it, folks! My ultimate guide to a Southern USA road trip! What places would you add to this list? Any hidden gems? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments below!