Last month I took a six-day road trip from Atlanta to Montgomery to Jackson to Memphis and ended in Nashville. For those of you who live in the American South, this might seem uninteresting. But to a Yankee like me, it was a fascinating experience that I encourage any traveler to the United States to experience.
We flew in to Atlanta and rented a car at the airport and planned to wing it as we went. We had a hotel room booked for the first night in Atlanta, but that was it. Almost everything we saw, everywhere we stayed, was a last minute decision, allowing us to experience the South spontaneously.
Without further ado, here is my list of five things to see (or eat) in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, based on a very short time in each state.
We stayed in Midtown and went to the symphony to watch Midori play, whom we had seen perform in Denver last year. The building that the symphony is in is really lovely from the outside, but the concert hall itself reminded us of a high school auditorium. Unfortunately, the symphony doesn’t make the cut.
However, West Egg does.
West Egg is an incredible breakfast joint in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhood, where I had the first of what was to be many many meals centered around grits.
The restaurant was packed at 10am on a Friday morning — surprising considering it wasn’t officially the weekend yet. We sat on sofas and drank coffee from the coffee bar and bakery at the front of the restaurant while we waited for our table. Near the lounging area was a black and white photo booth, and painted on the side of the photo booth was an obligatory quote from The Great Gatsby.
When we sat down and ordered our mimosa and bloody mary, we were paralyzed by our options. Everything looked perfect. Finally I decided what I wanted to order: the Georgia Benedict, which was really just biscuits and gravy with a side of roasted garlic grits. I’m salivating just thinking about it.
My travel partner raved about her fried green tomato wrap, and we left the restaurant five pounds heavier, but happy.
I was excited to see the museum, to experience the incredibly important history of the Montgomery bus boycott which helped usher in significant changes in both law and practice throughout the country.
But I was not prepared for how groundbreaking the exhibition would be. After paying for your ticket, you walk around the side of the building to what’s called the Children’s Wing (a misnomer, as it’s not really for children). Every thirty minutes or so the tour opens and a group of tourists is ushered in.
They led us into a dark room, inside of which was a replica of a public bus, just like the kind Rosa Parks would’ve ridden in. After taking your seat, the bus tour goes back in time (led by a robot conductor), showing the entire history of the African-American civil rights movements.
You’re shown the history of Jim Crow laws, the incredibly brave journeys men and women made to escape slavery, and other pivotal moments from the past three-hundred years. These historical scenes are recreated by actors, shown on a screen on the bus and projected onto the walls 360 degrees around the bus; it’s an immersive experience.
The museum was one of the most well-done and unique history museum experiences that I’ve ever seen, built on the site where Rosa Parks boarded the bus and transformed the country.
As we drove in to Jackson, listening to the infamous Johnny Cash and June Carter duet, we didn’t know what to expect. Jackson has suffered immensely from the recession, which you can see in the crumbling and burned buildings and overall rundown infrastructure.
However, the city is still beautiful and worth the visit. Because we were there on a Sunday, almost everything was closed. We stood in front of the Eudora Welty house and played with a blind stray cat (since we couldn’t go inside). Happily we found what ended up being my favorite place in Jackson, which wasn’t closed on Sundays because, well, it’s a cemetery.
The Greenwood Cemetery was established in 1823, and contains “the largest collection of own-root, ever-blooming antique and modern shrug roses in a cemetery in the country.” There are trees, shrubs, bushes, and plants everywhere, and immigrants born in Europe in the late 1700s are among the generations of people buried there.
We spent more than an hour walking around the cemetery, reading headstones and admiring the statues — crumbling and forgotten as well as immaculately cared for.
One of the more interesting parts of the cemetery, at least for a northerner like me, was the Confederate Soldier Burial ground, which includes dozens of graves of mostly unknown soldiers who died during the Civil War; the cemetery also contains the graves of slaves. In Colorado and other free states, we rarely see the effects of the Civil War, but in the South you see evidence of the war nearly everywhere.
Unlike other southern cemeteries, both white and black residents were buried at Greenwood until the late 1800s; at that time more cemeteries were built to accommodate Jackson’s growing population.
You guessed it. My pick for Memphis is Graceland. As cheesy as it may seem, one of the biggest reasons I’ve always wanted to see Graceland is because of the Paul Simon album of the same name, which came out when I was seven years old. It remains one of the best albums of the 1980s, and I’ve listened to it countless times.
The Mississippi Delta is shining like a national guitar. I am following the river down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War. I’m going to Graceland.
We drove from Jackson to Memphis up the Mississippi Delta on the 1, the backroad state highway that runs parallel to the Mississippi River. Sleet blew across the highway and snow geese flew in frantic flocks (hey! alliteration!) over the wet rice fields, which were crusted over with ice. It was beautiful, strange, and bare.
For reasons I cannot explain there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland.
Once we got to Memphis we went straight to Graceland. It was a very cold day, and icicles were hanging off the banners welcoming guests to Graceland. I was prepared to be disappointed. I imagined Graceland to be one of those worn-down tourist traps visited by Elvis fanatics who made the trip once a year to leave flowers on Elvis’s grave and reminisce about the golden days of rock and roll.
Or maybe it would be a place that people like me feel obligated to see once in a lifetime — an American pilgrimage site that even those of us without true passion for Elvis need to visit to feel fully American.
It was a happy surprise, then, that I greatly enjoyed Graceland. We did the mansion tour, rather than paying for the VIP tour that gives you access to Elvis’s (full size) jets. Meh. Jets are jets. We wanted to see the house.
Instead of tour guides, they give all visitors to Graceland an iPad and headphones, which takes you on a journey through Elvis’s home and history. Like the Rosa Parks museum, I was surprised at how tech savvy Graceland was. I saw the house at my own pace, got a closeup view of each room on the iPad, and listened to fascinating details about Elvis’s life and career that I never would’ve gotten from reading descriptions or hearing a tour guide speak.
Go to Graceland, then spend some time sitting near the Mississippi River, which is a real treat for those of us from drought-plagued states.
This is a hard one, so first I’m going to talk about the one I didn’t pick.
I loved the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The building is incredible, and the exhibits are impressive. They have guitars, clothes, and other memorabilia from country music performers starting with Irish immigrants and up to Taylor Swift and beyond.
My favorite part of the museum was the listening stations. They’ve designed these acoustically exclusive pockets throughout the museum; you can only hear the music if you stand in a very specific spot, but when you’re in it the music is perfectly clear. This way each exhibit can include its own music without creating an unbearable cacophony throughout the museum.
But let’s talk about my pick for Nashville: the Union Station Hotel. It might seem strange to recommend a hotel as a tourist destination, but even if you don’t stay there ($400 a night), you should step into the lobby and admire it. Grab a drink at the bar and sit on the couches near the fireplace.
A golden Mercury, the Roman god of commerce and travel, stands on top of the building — a hint of the opulence inside. While it hasn’t been used for train travel in decades, the lobby has been immaculately cared for and remodeled. The ceiling is arched stained glass, and the fireplace and walls include beautiful statues and bas reliefs of other Roman gods and women who were influential in Nashville’s history.
I know that I missed innumerable sites during my whirlwind trip to the South. But if you decide to fly into Atlanta and fly out of Nashville, I highly recommend driving the backroads of this route. You’ll experience the beautiful landscape, fascinating history, and some damn fine food.