The ultimate travel guide to America's Deep South: Where to go, what to eat and how to get there
A road trip from Washington DC across several southern states proves the holiday of a lifetime for Caitlin McBride
My mission was clear: a road trip across the southern United States, travelling on planes, trains and automobiles over two and a half weeks.
I was packed, with one suitcase on an expansive road trip covering eight states. It was the culmination of six months of planning, from thousands of miles away, and one which would become the holiday of a lifetime - and a rediscovery of the country I grew up in.
Our journey began with a direct, Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Washington D.C., and it was there that our road trip across the South kicked off - proceeding through Richmond, Virginia, Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina.
All the rumours you've heard about southern hospitality are true - and then some. We spent two weeks travelling the southern coast, crossing a number state lines in a matter of days on the open road and then hot-footing it on an internal flight to facilitate the next leg of our trip to Tennessee (flights cost an average of $100). From there, it was off to Nashville and Memphis with pit-stops through Birmingham, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi and a final farewell in the form of four days in New Orleans.
What to do
By the time we arrived in D.C., we had just over 24 hours to explore the nation’s capital and hit the ground running. Start off by doing your research in advance: most of the sights in the city are accessible free of charge, but they are located far from one another, so we invested in a tour company to transport us to A to B (in air conditioning).
We chose the DC Deluxe Tour package from USA Guided Tours, a five-hour tour which features guided walking stops, a very chirpy and informed tour guide and most importantly, a bus driver who wasn’t afraid to blast the aforementioned AC. It included trips to the Capitol Building, the Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial, among others (price: $89pp).
Other museums worth visiting are the Newseum, International Spy Museum, National Air and Space Museum or the Smithsonian. Finish off your day of exploration with a stroll along the National Mall. When that isn’t enough, think outside the box and try a baseball game. We booked our tickets to see the Washington Nationals the same day (prices vary per game and time of year), to see American sports showmanship at its finest: music, pyrotechnics and beers the size of your head.The US Bucket List: 30 things to do in America before you die
Where to eat
Le Diplomate: A loud, rambunctious homage to the classic French Brasserie featuring all the gallic classics. The Steak Frites and foie gras mousse are their staples however don’t overlook the signature cheeseburger.
Momofuku CCDC: Washington outpost of famed chef David Chang’s growing culinary empire. Inventive and modern Asian American food, try the spicy beef dumplings and famous, Instagrammmable pork buns (order off menu). Save room for dessert by going next door to Milk Bar and sampling the cereal milk ice cream.
Where to stay
The Hay Adams: The first leg of our trip began in the hallowed halls of the legendary Hay Adams Hotel, which is situated directly across from the White House. The building itself is 91 years old and a major DC power player. Price: Starting at $399 per night, plus tax (hayadams.com).
If you want to tour the White House, you need to apply well in advance (up to three months) in order for them to vet you. You can however, see the outside from a reasonably close distance and witness the mish-mash of people outside, be they protesters or political junkies coming for a peek.
Charleston, South Carolina
What to do
Simply walking around Charleston can be gift enough. The plethora of colonial buildings, especially the narrow single houses built in 18th-century style, are enough to invoke property envy, populating tree-lined streets that look straight out of a storybook.
History is rich in Charleston - it was one of the cornerstones of the early United States - and the city honours its past, with tours of plantations and stately homes like the Nathaniel Russell House or Middleton Place. Plantations in particular played a pivotal role in shaping Charleston past and present, and there is no shortage of options between Boone Hall, McLeod or Drayton Hall, which honour its sometimes dark history appropriately and sensitively.
We chose Magnolia Plantation & Gardens ($20 admission, plus $8 per specific element) which dates back to 1676. You can enjoy a tram tour with romantic gardens featuring whispering oak trees among 464 acres. It also homes the Audubon Swamp and the property's original main house, which remains in the ownership of the same family centuries later.
Afterwards, put your feet up during a horse-drawn tour of the Old South Carriage Company, which features certified tour guides showcasing a number of different parts of town ($236pp). There are alternative ways to view the city, whether it’s through a haunted ghost tour or by boat with Charleston Harbor Tours ($26).
Where to eat
The Grocery: Buzzy restaurant with an innovative, seasonal menu. Try the côte de boeuf to share.
McGrady’s Tavern: One of America’s most historic restaurants, has been open in different forms since 1778. Go for brunch and sample the Shrimp & Grits, the signature dish of Charleston.
The Darling Oyster Bar: Grab a stool at the 14 seat raw bar and try some of the best seafood in the south. The signature lobster roll is mind blowing.
Rodney Scott’s BBQ: Specialising in Carolina-style 'Whole Hog' BBQ, the pig is slowly cooked in the pit over charcoal for over 12 hours. Try his mixed boards so you can sample everything.
Husk: The most famous restaurant in the American South, it has been credited with launching the southern food renaissance. Try the pig's ears in lettuce wraps and the signature cornbread.
Miller’s All Day Kitchen: Fabulous brunch spot for a quick bite in between site seeing. Think Biscuits with sausage gravy, huge sandwiches and delicious desserts.
Lewis Barbecue: Texas style barbecue from pitmaster John Lewis who opened his own restaurant after years honing his skills at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, widely considered to be the best bbq in America. His cut to order Brisket is out of this world.
Where to stay
John Rutledge House Inn: Charleston is brimming with colonial era guest houses and chief among them is the John Rutledge House Inn, named after the American statesman who called the city home in the late 18th century. It’s a 19-room, three-storey property well-positioned near the must-see sights (and shopping). If the nightly cocktail hour doesn’t tickle your fancy, put your feet up and simply watch the world go by on the second storey balcony, which is particularly divine on a hot summer’s night. Price: Prices start at $300 per night, plus tax (johnrutledgehouseinn.com).
I am not ashamed to admit I'm a Reality TV junkie and being in the city set of Southern Charm was too tempting not to pay homage in at least a small way. For other fans, you can go bowling at The Alley, which Shep Rose co-owns, and pay a visit to Patricia Altschul’s house, which is a registered landmark and therefore significantly less strange for me to have taken a picture outside.
What to do
Can you really visit the home of country music without getting at least a little bit musical? The Country Music Hall of Fame or the historic Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry originated, are destinations in themselves, and both are just a stone’s throw away from the brimming bars of Broadway, where live music plays virtually all hours of the day.
If you want a break from getting a little bit country, you can hop on an Old Town Trolley Tour (tickets $21.80) which takes you around the city, including visits to the big hitters above and other sights slightly off the beaten track, like Belmont Mansion, Centennial Park or Vanderbilt University.
Where to eat
Arnold’s Country Kitchen: You can’t visit Nashville without eating Nashville Meat +3, a staple of local dining. You choose one meat and three side dishes, served cafeteria style.
Geist: Set in an old blacksmith shop in Nashville’s historic Germantown neighbourhood. Try the Steak Frites Tartare.
Monell’s Dining and Catering: Utterly charming all-you-can-eat comfort food served family style at communal tables in an old Victorian house. Make friends with your dining neighbours and pass along the green beans, mac & cheese and of course the ubiquitous fried chicken (served at every meal, even breakfast!)
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack & Hattie B’s: Hot Chicken is the signature dish of Nashville and Prince’s & Hattie B’s are the two best exponents. Prince’s invented the dish in the 1940s and draws legions of crowds daily to sample the orginal. Hattie B’s is the new interloper with a more modern aesthetic. Try both to contrast!
Martin’s BBQ joint: Pat Martin is the BBQ king of Nashville with multiple locations all over the city. Amazing pork, brisket and wings. Have everything from their huge smokers at the back of their outdoor seating area.
Shows at the Grand Ole Opry, about 25 minutes outside the city centre, take place twice a week on Monday and Wednesday and you never know what guest might surprise you. We bought seats in the nosebleed section for a relative steal at $45 the same day of the show.
Where to stay
Germantown Inn: This quaint 10-room inn, located in Nashville’s trendy Germantown district, away from the bedlam of downtown, is the epitome of Southern hospitality. The property, originally built in 1865, is one of those rare cases of hospitality which encapsulates the charm of a private home with the service of a five-star hotel. Price: Starting at $299, plus tax (germantowninn.com).
Union Station Hotel: For the last two days of our time in Nashville, we moved into the city centre, filled to the brim with bars, restaurants and music for days. The hotel itself is a former train station built in 1900 and most of the original details like the Italian marble, a 100-year-old prism stain glass ceiling 65-foot high with gold leaf medallions, which makes for a spectacular entrance in the foyer. Price: Starting at $249, plus tax (unionstationhotelnashville.com).
What to do
When you’re in the home of the blues, it’s only appropriate to kick things off in Beale Street. By day, you can visit BBQ joints for burgers and by night, the neon signs flicker on, when tourists and residents alike line the streets moving from club to club sipping on drinks as it’s the only place in Tennessee you can legally walk the streets, alcohol in hand.
After dark, it can be a little rough around the edges, but there is a heavy police force and tight security, so as anywhere, use your wits and you’ll be fine - and use Uber instead of walking.
On the other side of town, along Elvis Presley Blvd, is Graceland, both the perfectly-preserved former mansion where The King lived and its museum, hotel and entertainment complex for fans to stay. His home is remarkably kept in its original condition (so much so that Priscilla still stays there from time to time) and possesses a sense of gravitas that even if you didn’t arrive a fan, you will leave one (ticket prices start at $41).
A visit to the National Civil Rights Museum is a must: immerse yourself in an engaging exhibition documenting the right for racial equality, dating back centuries and see the still-preserved room where Dr Martin Luther King was shot in 1968.
What to eat
Charlie Vergos Rendezvous: A Memphis institution open since 1948 specialising in racks of ribs. A Greek style dry rub is the twist here.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken: A Memphis family business that’s grown into a national chain. Gus’s spicy, piping hot, crispy Chicken is pure taste of southern food.
Where to stay
The Guest House at Graceland: How could one go to Memphis and not fully immerse themselves in the heart of the city’s most famous ever resident? The 430-room hotel is still relatively brand new (it opened in 2015) and is across the street from Graceland itself and filled with diehard Elvis fans, with nightly performances from the in-house pianist who plays The King’s greatest hits at the Lobby Lounge cocktail bar. Amenities include a large swimming pool, 464-seat theatre for live performances and movie screenings, with shuttle services to Graceland and downtown Memphis. Price: Starting at $149 (guesthousegraceland.com).
Twice a day at 11am and 5pm, the Peabody Hotel, a five-star property smack in the middle of the action of Memphis, has a duck march - literally. A duckmaster, which is exactly as it sounds, delivers the ducks to the fountain from their rooftop home every morning and returns every evening, accompanied by just the right amount of showmanship for onlookers. It started back in 1940 and it’s every bit as adorable as it sounds.
What to do
Montgomery may be the capital of Alabama, but Birmingham is one of a vibrant, evolving city; one juxtaposed with its rich historical tapestry and its contemporary continuation. To delve into the city’s present, one must first visit its past: the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute charts Birmingham’s involvement in the national civil rights story and Bethel Baptist Church, which acts as a landmark to civil rights after a 1963 bombing.
On a lighter note, Negro Southern League Museum is a different way of exploring black players’ contributions to baseball and the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum is a five-storey ode to classic cars and motorcycles.
What to eat
El Barrio: Modern, sophisticated Mexican cuisine in Birmingham’s up and coming 2nd Avenue. Have the pork carnitas tacos and a killer Margarita.
Where to stay
Elyton Hotel: This brand new four-star hotel opened its doors just last year in the heart of Birmingham’s financial district, in the former Empire Building, a former bank dating back to 1909, which was, back in its day, Alabama’s tallest building at 16-storeys. It sums up Birmingham’s modern heart, with colourful interior design, a rooftop bar offering panoramic views of the city and modern, boutique-style rooms. Price: Starting at $189.00 (plus tax) per night (elytonhotel.com).
Insider info: Birmingham may be a bustling city, brimming with activity, but be warned that a lot of businesses are closed on a Monday, including popular restaurants and bars; so consider what day of the week you'll be visiting to maximise your time there.
New Orleans, Louisiana
What to do
New Orleans is a city best explored by foot - it’s easy to navigate the cobblestone streets, peering into all sorts of businesses, bars and people’s homes of varying sizes. We chose the Two Chicks Walking Tour ($25) for a two-hour exploration of the French Quarter learning about its best known creatives and its colourful past, beginning with a meeting overlooking the Mississippi River.
For something more adventurous, a swamp tour is an absolute must-do. The Cajun Encounters Eco-Tours ($56) is a two hour boat ride through the Honey Island Swamp and it was downright fun. It’s not for the faint of heart: our tour guide fed an alligator as near as you can get to being on the boat and we watched wild raccoons, snakes and owls in their natural habitat, which was equal parts nerve-wracking and beautiful. Plantation tours, cooking classes and airboat rides are all available if you can fit it in our itinerary. But most importantly, don’t forget your bug spray!
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I never thought I'd say how amazing a swamp was, but here I am hours later obsessing over how fun that bayou tour was! 😜A must-see in New Orleans for some serious alligator spotting🐊🐊🐊 . . . #cajunencounters #neworleans #swamptour #bayoutour #travelgram #travel #travelphotography
Where to eat
Shaya: They have an oven you can see cooking the most unbelievable pitta bread and everything from their signature hummus to baba ganoush is exceptional. That pitta bread (which doesn’t stop coming) is worth the trip alone.
Herbsaint: Buzzy upscale French-American bistro with some fantastic pasta also. Small plate cooking executed to the highest standard in a relaxed and fun environment. The cornmeal fried oysters with slaw and hot sauce are mind-blowing.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House: Maybe the most famous fried chicken in America. Willie Mae’s is in the Tremé area which was nearly destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. The fried chicken + Red Beans & Rice are their signature.
Galatoires: Open for over 100 years and maybe the most famous restaurant in New Orleans. Sample creole cooking by trying the shrimp etoufee.
Where to stay
Royal Sonesta Hotel: Located in the heart and soul of the action on Bourbon Street, it also hosts a number of rooms facing away from the action to allow a good night’s sleep. The Jazz Playhouse, adjacent to the lobby, hosts local jazz singers, which is complimentary for guests. Price: Prices are seasonal during summer and Mardi Gras, but start at $139 (sonesta.com).
The Ritz-Carlton: After nearly three weeks of travel, we finished off in unbridled luxury on Canal Street set within the French Quarter. Guests arrive via a private elevator the second-floor lobby, overlooking a courtyard, which takes inspiration from the city’s upscale Garden District. The beds were so comfortable, I bought entirely new bedding on my return home. Price: Starting at $349 plus tax (ritzcarlton.com).
It goes without saying that New Orleans gets hot. The best time to travel is April or September to October.
How to get there
Caitlin flew as a guest of Aer Lingus, which currently operates a four times weekly schedule to Washington from Dublin.
From March this will increase to a daily flight as part of the summer programme. Fares start from €229 including taxes and charges (for specifics, see aerlingus.com).
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