Need help planning the best route to experience the Southern US.
February 18, 2010 4:19 PM   Subscribe

Need help planning the best route to experience "the South"


My wife and I are Canadian and are wanting to fly into somewhere on the east coast (N/S Carolina?), grab a one-way car rental and head west towards Texas (or not?) where we'll fly home.

The key for us is to really experience "true southern culture". What does this mean? I'm not sure, I've only seen stuff in the movies. Plantations?

Could MeFi point me in the right direction such as ready made guides and stuff to for sure check out or to avoid.

posted by jevy to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Should also say that I assume that driving from the Carolinas to Texas qualifies as I the south. No idea
posted by jevy at 4:22 PM on February 18, 2010

Without a doubt, you need to check out Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans.
posted by hollygoheavy at 4:24 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you happen to come through Roanoke, VA, I've heard tourists like the downtown area. We are trying to spruce it up with an art museum and so on...and the Science Museum gets people from New Jersey pretty much everyday, so we apparently have something going for us.
As far as what "southern culture" know, you could probably find that here. People say "excuse me" and "reckon".
If not, I just read in the newspaper that West Virginia has a train ride through a park. I would be all over that.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 4:24 PM on February 18, 2010

If your trip is in the fall, go to a college football game featuring two SEC teams playing each other. I'm partial to The University of Alabama Crimson Tide (here's the 2010 schedule). The game vs. Florida should be especially good and LSU, Tennessee and Auburn are always good bets.

This is not your old school idea of The South with plantations and all, but football is a huge part of Southern culture. To make sure you get the full experience, plan on tailgating at the quad a few hours before the game.

Make sure to get BBQ at Dreamland and a meat and 3 at City Cafe.
posted by StimulatingPixels at 4:32 PM on February 18, 2010

I'm a southerner (in Memphis) obsessed with southern culture so I'm really excited to help you out with this. I'm at work right now so I'll have to find you some more resources/links later on this evening, but for now I'll say this:

You absolutely have to do the Mississippi Blues Trail ( If you can't do the whole thing, at least check out Clarksdale, MS which is about 1-2 hours south of Memphis. It's got the infamous "crossroads" where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil. You'll probably want to head east through Tennessee so that you can hit Nashville and Memphis, so if you do that, Clarksdale wouldn't be too far off your path. If you go there, stay at the Shack-Up Inn (my web filter at work severely limits me, or I'd post a link).

And you should definitely come to Memphis! We've got tons of great "southern" stuff here: Graceland, The Stax Museum of Soul, The National Civil Rights Museum, Sun Studios, and tons of other great little off-the-beaten path things.

Memail me in the meantime if you have any specific questions but otherwise I'll be posting a follow-up a little later.
posted by a.steele at 4:33 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Charlotte, NC is the functional headquarters of NASCAR if you're interested in seeing what that world is like. Asheville, NC is a very lovely, artsy town that has the opposite of that NASCAR flavor. I love both. Asheville is in the mountains and you can spend some time on the Blue Ridge Parkway or check out some mountain waterfalls.
posted by bristolcat at 4:35 PM on February 18, 2010

Seconding lhude sing cuccu, come to Roanoke! Also I would suggest couchsurfing as a great way to meet people along the way. We had a surfer stay with us recently who was walking from upstate New York to New Orleans! His blog might give you some ideas.
posted by headnsouth at 4:38 PM on February 18, 2010

Oh yeah! It will happen this coming June and will last two weeks.
posted by jevy at 4:42 PM on February 18, 2010

If you do go to Roanoke, which is where I have family, and had family live for decades, you can always cruise down highway 11 to Bristol, the home of Country music. Granted, Roanoke won't fit any mythologies of magnolia and moonlight.

Unfortunately, the South encompasses a vast area and different cultures. You have the Southern Appalachians, which Roanoke will get you toward the edge of, and you have the great historic centers like Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah (examples). Essentially, unless you're ready to take a very circuitous route, you'll get most of either the Upper South or the Deep South, which can have their own different idiosyncrasies. The Deep South is probably most often memorialized in the media, but it's just one part of a region.
posted by Atreides at 4:49 PM on February 18, 2010

Charleston-->Savannah-->Atlanta-->Memphis-->New Orleans-->Houston

Yeah you miss VA and KY, but, ah well.
posted by jckll at 4:55 PM on February 18, 2010

"true southern culture"

Originally a Yankee and having lived 10 years in Atlanta Georgia (now many years ago) I can assure you that there is no one "southern culture." The people in South Carolina have about as much in common with the people in Alabama as they do with people in Western Pennsylvania. I was surprised (although I shouldn't have been) to discover there are dozens of "southern" accents as different from each other as someone from Cape Cod and Brooklyn.

You want rural Beverly Hillbillies south - drive through Eastern Tennessee. Go to Sevierville (Dolly Parton's hometown) Eat at the Cracker Barrel off the Interstate.

You want Gone with the Wind south - Charlestown South Carolina or Savannah (with a huge preference for Charlestown - one of America's gems - especially across the river in Shem Creek.) The she-crab soup is to die for.

You want the modern South - Atlanta is your place.

Texas, for me, is like another country. Florida is full of immigrants from other states.

One common element though to all of these places - I have not met a more friendly bunch of people anywhere in the world.

Enjoy your trip.
posted by three blind mice at 5:08 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's nowhere Deeper South than the Florida panhandle. My granddaddy grew up in DeFuniak Springs, the small Southern town to end all small Southern towns. If you want big oak trees, wrap-around porches, and accents you can cut with a knife, that's the place to go.

And while you're in the area, make sure to eat at a Waffle House at least once. I don't know about father west, but in the deep South they're all over the place. I happen to like grits and bacon, but even if you don't, it's worth it for the atmosphere.
posted by Commander Rachek at 5:08 PM on February 18, 2010


How about Austin? It may not be "old South" if that really exists but it's got great BBQ, Mexican and music. Would be a good place to end the trip, I think. If you are looking for plantation homes and plan to do Mississippi you could check out Columbus or go to the campus of Ole Miss in Oxford and visit William Faukner's home which is not too far from Memphis.
posted by amanda at 5:11 PM on February 18, 2010

A.Steele's suggestion of the Mississippi Blues Trail is worth seconding. Memphis itself is an awesome enough city to save a couple days for, or more if you add day trips to outlying areas.

The more of the Mississippi you can trace, the better, from St. Louis on down to New Orleans.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 5:15 PM on February 18, 2010

This is really really good stuff crew. I'm Google mapping and Wikipedia-ing it all as it comes in.
posted by jevy at 5:24 PM on February 18, 2010

Eat at the Cracker Barrel off the Interstate

Ugh. Miserable restaurant. And it's a chain with locations in states all along the Canadian border, so if you and your wife really want to poke at flavorless food some time in the future, it's just a day trip away.

Definitely hit up Chowhound before making your way through the South. There's good eats here. And there's a whole section of forums devoted to the South!
posted by SpringAquifer at 5:27 PM on February 18, 2010

I am from NYC and did a long road trip a couple years ago. This was by far the best segment, and a route that I think will give you a great sampling of various flavors of the American South, its history, and its great food, music, and architecture:

Nashville -> Memphis -> Vicksburg, MS -> New Orleans -> Biloxi, MS -> some coastal FL panhandle town to break up the drive -> Savannah -> Charleston -> Richmond, VA.

I don't know what the major highways in Canada look like, but many in the U.S. are horribly ugly and barricade drivers from views of the scenery. We used this book to map out the smaller interstate routes and it made a huge difference - the drives through inland Mississippi and the Gulf Coast are just gorgeous.

In particular, check out Route 61, which will take you from Memphis to New Orleans and Route 90, which runs along the Gulf Coast. I've spent a lot of time on the beaches of the East Coast and California, but man, Gulf Coast sand is like talcum powder.

Good luck; typing this out made me very jealous!
posted by lalex at 5:37 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know a couple people have recommended it, but to be honest, I would skip Atlanta on your trip. It's not going to be that much different than the cities you are used to.

It is, of course, good to remember as I'm sure you do, that us inhabitants of the South are not a mass of stereotypes, and that we do live in modern regular ole' cities. If you want to see an example of one of those cities, go to Atlanta. But there's not as much history there as you'd expect since the city was burned to the ground during the Civil War.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 6:00 PM on February 18, 2010

Another vote for Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC.

I would recommend getting off the interstates as much as possible. There are a lot of small towns that make boastful claims such as Claxton, GA "Fruitcake Capital of the World" or Dothan, AL "Peanut Capital of the World." You should also seek out local events such as shrimp/sweet potato/peach/white squirrel festivals as these will attract a mix of locals and tourists.
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 6:07 PM on February 18, 2010

Lived in Savannah while at school there. Definitely, definitely hit up Savannah, GA.
posted by InsanePenguin at 6:17 PM on February 18, 2010

Stay off the interstates. The state roads are great and you'll be able to stop at the fun places it sounds like you are looking for. Make sure you listen to the radio in Alabama long enough to hear Sweet Home Alabama. I'm pretty sure it won't take too long but you'll feel great when it happens.
Stop for peanut brittle and boilded peanuts at a local stand. If there is a gambling component to it, don't play. Fruit and vegetable stands abound and southern farmers take righteous pride in their food. You can buy great jerky too.

Wear your bathing suits and jump in a lake.

If you weren't driving a rental car I could suggest "Don't have bumper stickers that say I believe in things you don't." Which was the best advice I got before I went south.
posted by mearls at 7:05 PM on February 18, 2010

Leave Texas for another trip. It isn't really South, it's really a different world. Concentrate on the other states, and have a great time!
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:19 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also chiming in to recommend Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans and Memphis. There have been a lot of Memphis posts on ask.mefi. You can also order a great guide called "Lowlife Guide to Memphis" for $5 or pick it up in person.

I would skip chain restaurants like Cracker Barrel, but Waffle House is a unique slice of life and Chick-Fil-A has an amazing fried chicken sandwich. Even if you don't stay in Atlanta, stop at The Varsity for a hotdog if you pass through.

This BBQ road trip thread may be helpful.
posted by Frank Grimes at 7:39 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I lived south of New Orleans for 3 years and used to go driving around all the time all over in bayou and backwoods Louisiana and Mississippi, both alone and with my future wife (She's Canadian and would go on drives alone too when she was at LSU). Southerners love to talk and are extremely friendly. This increases the farther you get from the main roads. The movie trope of isolated backwoods meanies is exactly wrong in my experience. So my advice is to take back roads, don't try and do too much, stop and say hi (I can't emphasize this enough), and be prepared to be called "honey" "sweetie" "babe" "m'baby" and "darlin".
Of course use your instincts and cities are cities everywhere but I've been in places where I was so out of place it was ridiculous and everything was just fine for this Yankee. (I think they are partial to foreigners.)
And as others have indicated above your itinerary might be a bit ambitious.
God I wish I could take you on a tour.
posted by vapidave at 9:50 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

What are you most interested in?
US Colonial History?
US Civil War "?
US Civil Rights "?
The Blues?
Southern Literature?
Soul Food?
Theme Parks?

I've roadtripped through LA, MS, AL (these pre-Katrina), VA TX, AR (the latter, Houston and my most recent trip to NOLA with swine flu related bronchitis!) and the Carolinas, and spent a spring break in Atlanta with day trips to Plains (Jimmy Carter's hometown) and Athens.

My focus on these trips was art, literature (including poking through [the now mostly gone]used bookstores on the spring break trip in '94) , local food, US presidents, Civil rights and US Colonial history, with a bit of music and US Civil war.

Roadfood is an excellent resource.

The Carolinas was my most recent trip and I definitely want to go back as several places were being redone or were about to open.

AL is the best for civil rights history; VA for US colonial.

If you pass a pecan farm with a store, make a U-turn and stock up.

Charleston and Atlanta are my favorite deep-south cities.
posted by brujita at 12:57 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

By and by, avoid the interstates as much as possible. Try and navigate everywhere by highways, and by that, nothing bigger than one lane going each way. The interstates were designed for speed and efficiency and some how, that meant avoiding everything beautiful that is America.

You might want to try and catch a Civil War re-enactment while you're down south as well. You'll definitely get a chance to see some of the Confederate subculture, which is dominant throughout the South (i.e. you'll find it in nearly every state - not that a majority of people are waving Confederate flags and talking about the South will rise again).

I like brujita's approach, pick out themes or areas that you want to see or experience, and let that guide your map.
posted by Atreides at 6:41 AM on February 19, 2010

How about flying into Charleston, SC. Drive to Savannah, Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, then TX. Also, get a guidebook on best places to eat to experience the South.
posted by bunny hugger at 7:42 AM on February 19, 2010

Another Memphian here. Don't skip us, we're the real deal. I also really like Natchez, MS for southern atmosphere. Clarksdale, MS if you're in to blues music at all.
posted by raisingsand at 9:30 AM on February 19, 2010

Houston and Austin are both fine for Texas, but if you want "TEXAS" I think you've got to go to Fort Worth. Specifically, the stockyards. They drive the cattle twice a day at 11:30 and 4. There's Cattleman's Steakhouse, which is about as good as a steakhouse can be, and across the street are several real live honky-tonks. Line dance at Billy Bob's if you want. Willie Nelson, Heart, Cheap Trick, or someone like that will be playing. Also, a surprising number of Japanese tourists.

In addition, there are incredible museums, including the cowgirl hall of fame. A show of the last decade of Warhol just opened at the Modern. Angelo's is one of those barbecue joints that people claim is the best in the world, and I've never tasted a solid rebuttal to that claim. Mexican food, both "real" and tex-mex. Downtown has always been great, but it's getting better and better.

Music. Blues. yes, there's great music in Austin, but Fort Worth is where Texas Blues is. There'll be someone good at the Flying Saucer downtown, but there are much better dives where there'll be some old guys getting drunk on stage and rocking the shit out of you.

If you can't tell, i grew up there. If you want to know anything else I'd be happy to give more specific recommendations or tell you anything you'd like to know if you memail me.
posted by cmoj at 11:05 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm from Asheville, so I got to represent Appalachia.

Nashville - Asheville - Charleston - Savannah - Atlanta - Montgomery - Mobile - New Orleans - Houston/Dallas.

I used to drive from Asheville to Tallahasse a lot, using a lot of backroads, and would see a lot of towns that look like scenes from Easy Rider when they get into Texas/Louisiana. Being a long-haired freak at the time, it was kind of scary! That's what I think of as "true south." And barbeque. And tricked out cars.
posted by Ultra Laser at 12:39 PM on February 19, 2010

There are a lot of great answers here!

I won't vouch for any of the cities I've never seen, so my suggestions for the ones you can't miss would be New Orleans, Memphis, Clarksdale and Oxford. I'm also going to suggest skipping Atlanta, given your time frame. I've also known folks from Asheville, NC and Savannah, GA and heard wonderful things about both.

I was thinking a lot about your question about what southern culture really is, and like everyone else has said, it's much too nebulous to really pin down. It's a lot of things to a lot of people. The only way I can think to approximate it would be to do what the locals do. In whatever city you're in, whatever it happens to be. Like someone above said, people down here love to talk, so introduce yourselves to people and ask them, "What's going on around town tonight?" I bet you'll get invited to a lot of really fun things you would never find otherwise.

I also suggest sticking to the back roads, like others have said. This is where you'll find the best scenery and the most interesting roadside stores and stands. Someone suggested checking out the in-between cities and I couldn't agree more. Take your time and don't focus too much on the "attractions" of the places you're in. Just drive around and find places that look interesting and you'll have a great time.

That's not to say that there aren't some attractions you shouldn't see, though. In Memphis, you have to check out the National Civil Rights Museum and the Stax Museum, if nothing else. Only do Graceland if you really like Elvis. If you really like Elvis, drive to Graceland Too in Holly Springs, MS, arguably the weirdest place you'll ever go. Actually, you know what? Skip Graceland and go to Graceland Too regardless of how you feel about Elvis. You won't be disappointed.

Memphis isn't the kind of place where you can stay downtown and walk to all the cool things, unfortunately. There really isn't a whole lot going on downtown, but I definitely suggest walking around the South Main District, where you'll find the Civil Rights Museum AND my favorite bar in Memphis, Earnestine & Hazel's. This place used to be a brothel, so there's lots of little rooms upstairs to hang out in. They have the best jukebox in the city (some say it's haunted, I say it's just really old) and serve nothing but "soul burgers," which many claim are the best burgers in the city. Seriously. Go there.

You have to go to Clarksdale if for no other reason than to stay in the Shack Up Inn. While you're there, check out the Ground Zero Blues Club (owned by Morgan Freeman, who you'll often find hanging out there) and the Delta Blues Museum.

Again, memail me with any questions. I could go on and on about things to do in Memphis, but I don't know specifically what kinds of things you're into. I've also got suggestions for New Orleans and Oxford, if you decide to stop by either of those places. Have fun!
posted by a.steele at 2:12 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

That's not to say that there aren't some attractions you shouldn't see,

D'oh! Double negative. There are attractions you should see, to be clear.
posted by a.steele at 3:21 PM on February 19, 2010

As a former Mississippi Delta resident, I third visiting the Delta, but I'd suggest checking out the brand new B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center either in addition to or instead of the one in Clarksdale. As far as eating in the south, a couple good places to check out are Fat Baby's Catfish House in Shaw (lots of fried catfish and a buffet of other southern fare, from fried okra to hushpuppies) and Doe's Eat Place in Greenville or franchised out to other places (famous for their steak and tamales!).

You might also want to check out one of the blues festivals occurring in June. MeMail me if you have any questions about the Delta!
posted by karyotypical at 4:28 PM on February 19, 2010

I'd second the suggestion to wait and do an all-Texas trip another time. The distances within Texas are just massive, and I'd think that any Texas trip that's worthwhile would include visits to the Panhandle, the Gulf Coast, and West Texas/Big Bend - which means you'd be looking at a week or a week and a half, minimum, within one single glorious Lone Star State.
posted by AngerBoy at 9:17 PM on February 19, 2010

If giving Texas its own trip is on the table, I'd support that too. Because yes, it's big. A long day's drive across. But mainly because, Texas isn't really The South. It's Texas.
posted by cmoj at 11:01 AM on February 20, 2010

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