City Hopping Across Tennessee
From west to east, road tripping across Tennessee takes you from the banks of the Mississippi River to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. It can also be a trip back through time as the state’s history unfolds along the way, from the grounds of the Lorraine Motel to the sit-ins at Nashville’s lunch counter to the site of the 1982 World’s Fair to the birthplace of country music. Tunes are a recurring theme along the way, as is the food—follow the trail for hot chicken, Moon Pies, farmers markets, cocktail bars, killer sandwiches, and breweries as you make your way through the Volunteer state’s major hubs.
Call it grit. Call it soul. No matter how you slice it, there’s something about Memphis. Get to know the story behind the city with a stop at the National Civil Rights Museum, which sits on the grounds of the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination. For a little music history, head to Sun Studio, the recording house of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, followed by some live tunes on Beale Street, where blues clubs line the blocks. Fill up at the Liquor Store, a diner for the Instagram generation, serving up a mean cuban platter: rice, beans, plantains, and a veggie topped with fried eggs. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken has locations around the South, but here you’ll find the flagship, where plastic gingham tablecloths and neon signs provide the perfect lowbrow ambiance for its sinfully crispy chicken.
A swing through Music City should involve plenty of tunes—and no visit is complete without a stop at Robert’s Western World, where homegrown talent belts out old country tunes and a cold beer and bologna sandwich are passed across the bar. For a cocktail, head to Bastion, which serves up a solid old fashioneds alongside plates of nachos—or, if you hit the right night, chef Josh Habiger’s whimsical coursed-out dining experience. And don’t forget Nashville’s signature fowl—Prince’s Hot Chicken is the original. Now located in South Nashville, the real deal maintains its old-school ways, dishing up deep-fried legs and quarters wrapped in a fiery crust. To stay, park yourself at the Graduate Nashville, which is not shy about paying tribute to Opry favorites like Minnie Pearl and Dolly Parton. Their rooftop restaurant, White Limozeen is a pink-frilled jewel box serving elegant bites like chicken liver pie and smoked trout fritters.
Downtown Chattanooga’s seen its share of incremental changes. Although nothing compared to the development of its music-focused neighbor to the north, Chattanooga now has its own Innovation District, known for startups and popular eateries—don’t miss the long-standing Pickle Barrel for cheddar-and-potato-filled pierogi and a pint, or Bitter Alibi for a bacon bloody mary. Nearby, the 90-room Edwin Hotel has made waves with its restaurant Whitebird where sous chef Khaled AlBanna reimagines Appalachian cuisine with a few Middle Eastern influences. Upstairs, rooftop bar Whiskey Thief honors Tennessee’s preferred spirit with classic cocktails and tasting flights. At Main Street Meats, you’ll find a sustainable butcher shop and restaurant led by chef Erik and Amanda Niel, who also co-own Easy Bistro and Bar. Their mantra is to use locally raised meat whenever possible, and to use the whole animal. A sure bet is the housemade pastrami sandwich into a reuben that gets loaded up with cabbage, gruyere, and russian dressing. For dessert? A Moon Pie, of course. Created by Chattanooga Bakery more than 100 years ago as a treat to fit into coal miners’ lunch pails, the chocolate-coated, graham cracker-marshmallow sandwich has since become the stuff of Southern nostalgia.
Plan a stop through this university town close to the weekend so you can check out the Saturday farmers market set along the length of Market Square—and be prepared for the throngs of orange-wearing fans if it’s a game day. The market is home to sorghum-makers, potters, and artists, along with farmers and foragers, and is surrounded by favorite local haunts, like the Tomato Head, Emilia, and Knox Mason. Or, make your way past the Old City and over the river towards A Dopo Pizza, where Blackberry Farm alum Brian Strutz puts out bubbly crusted wood-fired sourdough pies in a modern, airy space. Meanwhile, the Tennessean Hotel is the spot to stay. It sits across the street from World’s Fair Park and weaves together a story of Knoxville through its collection of historic maps. Inside the hotel’s second-story lounge, the Drawing Room, you’ll find elevated Southern small plates, like blackened scallops nestled with peach salsa, and smoked bourbon cocktails.
Johnson City, Tennessee
Wrap up your tour of Tennessee with a quick stop through Johnson City, which sits at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. Swing through one of the city’s breweries, like JRH Brewing for a crisp, Irish-style Henri’s Stout, or Johnson City Brewing Company, where you’ll find experimental brews, such as a raspberry mocha stout infused with habaneros. Or take a drive over to Bristol, Tennessee, to explore the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which celebrates the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings as well as the region’s rich musical history. For one final (and regal) night’s stay, look to the Carnegie Hotel, a baroque-styled resort where spacious rooms, outfitted with sleigh beds and Tiffany lamps, and an intimate spa will put the finishing touches on your tour of Tennessee.
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