The idea of packing up your car and hitting the road is infused with romantic wanderlust. Countless songs, books and films have immortalized journeys that take you across highways and back roads, through big cities and small towns. And in today’s age of immediate gratification, there’s something nostalgic about the slow ramblings of a scenic drive and the acknowledgement of the diverse scenery and vast vistas that make up our country.
With gas prices at a historic low, the call of the road also makes sense financially. According to AAA, about 69 percent of Americans are likely to road trip this summer. And, in Raleigh, we’re poised to take advantage of a central location with several different routes offering myriad of adventures that culminate in vibrant and exciting cities: Nashville to the west, Charleston to the south, Washington, D.C. to the north and Atlanta to the southwest.
We’ve created a travel guide to take you to each one of these destinations, but instead of concentrating on the end result, we focus on the journey itself, calling out all great, must-see pit stops along the way. Grab your keys, get your motor runnin’, and head out on the highway. You’re bound to enjoy this adventure.
It’s about the journey…
Nashville is simply one of the country’s coolest towns and if you’re lucky enough to be heading to Music City, USA, you may be tempted to get there as quickly as possible. But, life is a highway, and there are some incredible spots from here to the Grand Ole Opry so build in a couple of extra days, and enjoy this road trip that’s all about the journey.
1. Snappy Lunch in “Mayberry”
Andy Griffith is one of North Carolina’s favorite sons and his popularity shined national attention on our gift for hospitality and charm. Most poignantly, fame came to Mt. Airy, Griffith’s hometown, on which he based Mayberry for the Andy Griffith Show. You can find statues and landmarks celebrating the show’s success and though there are “tourist traps” thatcash in on the show’s success, the Snappy Lunch is the real deal. It is the only real Mount Airy business that Andy Griffith mentions by name on the show. Order the pork chop sandwich and plenty of napkins! 125 N. Main Street, Mt. Airy, NC.
Let your food settle on a 90-minute Southwest drive into the mountains and get ready to fly. What better way to stretch your legs than zipping across 1600 feet of line 300 feet above the gorgeous valley below? Just in case the incredible soar across the Big Mama line (or the other nine lines) isn’t enough, Sky Valley offers a cliff jump, a rope bridge and instructors who will not only make you feel knowledgable and courageous but entertain you with their ready jokes and open personalities. Maybe Sky Valley finds and trains the greatest personalities in North Carolina, or maybe there’s just something about flying around the mountain skyline for your job that makes you really cool and affable. 634 Sky Ranch Rd. Blowing Rock, NC.
3. Johnson City, a lyrical destination
Old Crow Medicine Show immortalized this destination with these words:
“Walkin’ to the south out of Roanoke
Caught a trucker out of Philly
had a nice long toke
But he’s a heading west from the
To Johnson City, Tennessee”
Despite the lyric being geographically inaccurate, when “Wagon Wheel,” comes on, this is sure to be sung by everyone in the room. Thanks to this road trip, now you can say you’ve been there. So whether you simply stop long enough for a photo-op at the train station, a hub so famous that Johnson City became known as “Little Chicago,” one of Al Capone’s favorite hiding spots during prohibition, or whether you want to experience the city and grab a key lime pie at Cootie Brown’s (2715 N. Roan St.), you’ll feel the history of this little town and know why it made it into the song in the first place. If you happen to be driving through Aug 11-12, the city comes alive during the Little Chicago Downtown Music and Arts Festival.
You know you’ve always been curious. What better way to
warm yourself up for Nashville than taking a stop by
Dollywood? The mother of all of our favorite southern quotes,
including “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” has created a country music lover’s dream in the Great Smoky Mountains. Whether music, rides, entertainment or good eats are your pleasure, Dollywood has something for everyone. And even if it doesn’t have something for you? Seriously, you can tell your friends in the north you went to Dollywood. Isn’t that enough? 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd., Pigeon Forge, TN.
5. Neyland Stadium in Good Ole Rocky To
Whether you love, hate or are ambivalent to the Big Orange, Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville is one of the top ten largest football stadiums in the country. Situated on the UT campus, you can’t miss it. Bonus points if you go in a nearby bar or restaurant and request Good Ole Rocky Top! 1600 Phillip Fulmer Way, Knoxville, TN.
Not for the faint of heart, but undeniably worth the hike, this 8-mile, well-traveled trail will lead you to a gorgeous encounter with nature that you do not want to miss. Grab a water and your phone (make sure you have plenty of memory), and the sight at the end of the hike will have you singing like Gavin DeGraw: “Waterfall, Waterfall, Waterfall, Waterfall, you’re beautiful.” Sparta, TN
Nashville has launched the careers of pretty much every single country artist that matters. A tour of the Ryman Auditorium and trying to catch a Grand Ole Opry show should be on any Nashville bucket list. But what makes Nashville truly the coolest town to visit is the fact that it is still launching the careers of some of the most talented acts in the country. Forget what you think you know about karaoke or ‘open-mic nights.’ Nashville’s bars and restaurants are packed with incredibly talented hopefuls who are working every note to turn the head of a record executive that might be nearby. You can walk down Broadway any time of day and hear crooning that’d make Blake Shelton turn his red chair. While on Broadway check out WannaB’s Karaoke Bar and stop by Merchants Restaurant for some Cheetos mac ’n’ cheese and duck fat tator tots.
Go Big or Go Home
Sure, you can get to Atlanta in a few hours, but then you’d be missing out on these countless wonders and fascinating pit stops along the way!
High Point is the “Home Furnishings Capital of the World,” and a don’t-miss stop for anyone who loves furniture shopping. Whether or not furniture is your passion, every road trip should start with a “world’s largest…” roadside attraction and photo opportunity—High Point doesn’t disappoint. The 38-foot-tall chest even has two giant socks dangling from one of its drawers as a nod to the city’s hosiery industry. 508 N. Hamilton St., High Point, NC.
2. Carolina Bar-B-Q, Best Barbecue in the State
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Carolina Bar-B-Q has earned the reputation as one of the best barbecue stops in the state. You’ll know you’ve found it when you see the large green roof with the name spelled right out in big white letters along with the image of a pig. A toy train trundles above the dining room and a balloon man creating balloon animals will keep kids entertained. 213 Salisbury Road, Statesville, NC.
One of the state’s most popular attractions, the Biltmore House is the largest privately owned house in the U.S. Built as a mountain retreat in the 1890s for George Vanderbilt (and still owned by his descendants), today, the estate is open year round for tourists to visit, as well as the grounds that include 8,000 acres. Stop for a tour of the home, take a stroll over two miles of manicured paths and gardens, or add a visit to the wineries and stay overnight at one of the luxurious inns or cottages to truly feel like a Vanderbilt for a night. 1 Lodge St., Asheville, NC.
Siri and Waze will both tell you to start heading South for Atlanta from your stop in Biltmore, but if you stay on 40 just a little while longer, you won’t be disappointed. Just 45 miles west of Asheville is a town called Sylva, NC. If you are a cat lover, it is likely that ‘Sylva’ is ringing some small bell in your brain; it’s because a month ago you were tagged in a social media post about the newest museum made just for you. The American Museum of the House Cat opened this year by cat lover Harold Sims and devoted to the history of the house cat, including over 10,000 artifacts. 4704 US Hwy. 441.
5. The Biggest Train/Bus Wreck from a Movie
Just around the corner from Sylva, in Dillsboro, remains both the train and bus from one of the most famous crashes in movie history. Much of The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford, was filmed in the mountains of North Carolina and the wreck, which freed Ford from bondage, still sits on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad property. You can see the wreckage from a distance, or stop at the property office for a permit to take a closer look. Dillsboro, NC
Lucille’s is a Bed and Breakfast that was purposefully built to accommodate smaller groups in the hope that each and every guest could enjoy a customized relaxing and luxurious stay. Choose from three types of rooms with breathtaking views of the mountains you just drove through and ease all your tensions away with a trip to a local winery or a massage at the on-site spa. With impeccable reviews from every site imaginable, Atlanta can wait one more day as you take in the big sights and big relaxation at this little Inn. 964 Rabun Rd., Sautee Nacoochie, GA.
Whether you love history, nature, art, music or food, there is something for everyone in Atlanta. If you haven’t been to the Georgia Aquarium , set aside a day for this incredible experience. This largest aquarium in the western hemisphere is 13 acres of breathtaking wonder. Enjoy a dolphin celebration that rivals shows at Sea World and wade through a 100-foot underwater tunnel where you can see a whale shark glide by. For outdoor nature, the Atlanta Botanical Gardens in Piedmont Park is a feast for all senses. Don’t leave without an inspirational visit to the original Ebenezer Baptist Church. History will come alive as you take a self-guided audio tour, which includes excerpts of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s sermons that helped change the course of history.
Undoubtedly, I-95 is the quickest way to Charleston but fast isn’t always best. The route lacks charm, and the only attraction along the way is the kitschy South of the Border that seems simultaneously abandoned and intriguing. Instead, cut across to Elizabethtown and head along the coast. Believe it or not, it’s only 20 miles longer!
Less than an hour southeast of Raleigh, stop at the legendary actress’s museum located in downtown Smithfield. You’ll be able to peruse film memorabilia, costumes and even a collection of the star’s never-before-seen personal clothing. True fans might want to also visit the Ava Gardner Heritage Trail, a self-guided tour to see the actress’s birthplace, the former Brogden Teacherage where she grew up, The Howell Theatre where Gardner first saw a movie and vowed to act, and her gravesite. 325 East Market Street, Smithfield, NC.
Halfway down the Cape Fear River and nestled amongst grapevines is this newly opened resort and winery. Stop by for a wine tasting, grab lunch or dinner at the restaurant or stay overnight in one of the lakeview cottages if you want to enjoy a more languorous journey. The charm of the resort extends to the grounds where you’ll find miniature horses, llamas and donkeys and a swan-filled pond. If you’re not staying the night, you’ll enjoy stretching your legs before getting back into the car. 325 East Market Street, Smithfield, NC.
Once you hit the coast, head south to Sunset Beach and rent a bike at Julie’s Rentals. Make your way to the beach and cycle across the broad expanse of hard sand to the Bird Island Reserve. The beach offers the only public access point to the barrier island reserve where you might spot nesting loggerhead sea turtles and countless rare bird species. If you see a black mailbox in the sand dunes, make sure to stop. It’s the Kindred Spirit Mailbox where thousands of visitors have written their thoughts, hopes and struggles down in spiral notebooks. You can read through the notes or share your own message. Intersection of 40th and Main Streets, Sunset Beach, NC.
If you happen to be driving through Myrtle Beach between the hours of 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., stop for dinner at this family-owned restaurant that’s been serving superlative German cuisine for 25 years. But it isn’t just the food that draws a crowd: The walls are covered with pictures and notes from all the visitors who have dined there. You are welcome to write your own message—or simply sign your name. Maybe write a note to your older self and return again in 10 years to see if it still rings true! 407 8th Ave N, Myrtle Beach, SC.
Even if you’re not a biker bar regular, this one is worth visiting, especially if you’re up for an adventure. Just south of Myrtle Beach, SBB (as it’s affectionately known by its patrons) is 40,000 square feet of beer, music, good food and motorcycles. In fact, you can ride your bike through the front door and straight to the bar. No bike? The place will offer hours of fascinating people watching and entertainment. 3393 US-17 Business, Murrells Inlet, SC.
A historical forest? You heard that right. This particular one is named after Revolutionary War hero Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, who tramped through the area with his soldiers protected only by the British Army’s fear of snakes and alligators. Marion and his crew were able to ambush the Brit’s supply line through surprise attacks. Today, the pristine beauty of the marsh and forest offers visitors a unique glimpse of the South’s wild landscapes. 2967 Steed Creek Rd, Huger, SC.
Just before reaching Charleston, embrace Low Country culture at this more than 300-year-old plantation on the banks of the Wampacheone Creek. One of America’s oldest working farms, the plantation once harvested cotton and pecans but now grows peaches, strawberries and tomatoes, which you can pick seasonally. Several tours of the house, the historic living quarters of the slaves, gardens and butterfly pavilion offer plenty to keep you engaged. 1235 Long Point Road, Mt. Pleasant, SC.
Charleston is known for its extraordinary cuisine, and there’s a long list of delicious options to choose from. However, do not leave town without a visit to 167 Raw for some of the best seafood on the eastern seaboard. The tiny oyster bar doesn’t take reservations and there’s usually a wait, but we promise you it’s worth it. While you’re in town, establish your home base at the modern Grand Bohemian Hotel. The central location makes it the perfect springboard for taking advantage of all of Charleston’s attractions; while you’re there, explore the fine art gallery and take a wine blending class. Currently, it’s the only hotel in the world that offers this unique opportunity and you get to bring home a personally custom blended bottle as a souvenir.
From N.C. to Shining D.C.
The country’s capital is just over four hours away so you can afford to meander on the route and enjoy some off highway attractions. You’ll be spending most of your time in Virginia, appreciating the history and beauty of the state. Make your way to the coast for a more scenic drive where seafood lovers can enjoy part of the oyster trail
After lying dormant for more than 50 years, the former Imperial Tobacco Company has been transformed into an expansive cultural complex. Catering to kids, the science center has a living marsh exhibit featuring a 2,800-gallon saltwater aquarium and planetarium. The arts center is focused on supporting visual and performing arts locally, and the gallery showcases rotating exhibits including “Backstage Pass,” a compilation of Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman’s images of legendary musicians. 270 Gay St., Rocky Mount, NC.
Grab breakfast, lunch or simply coffee (for less than $1) at this quaint diner that has been serving home cooking since 1953. Before heading back into the car, walk off your meal on the Roanoake Canal Trail, a seven-mile path that runs alongside the Roanoke River and pays tribute to the town’s historical canals. 123 W 10th St, Roanoke Rapids, NC.
Nostalgic travelers will appreciate this lakeside campground that harks back to a more wholesome time. You don’t have to cart your camping equipment in order to enjoy the water activities since the resort area also offers reasonably priced cabins for rent. Overnight guests can fish and swim on the 18-acre Lake Helen, play on water trampolines and slide down the AquaGlide. 200 Byrd Street, Suffolk, VA.
4. Old Towne
Take a landmark tour of this maritime city with one of the most historic seaports in America, where Captain John Smith first explored more than 400 years ago. Check out the Fresnel Lens (1 High Street), one of the largest and brightest lighthouse lenses in the U.S., valued at $1 million. Stroll by the statue of Colonel William Crawford, the founder of Portsmouth, on the corner of High and Crawford Streets, then visit the Lightship Portsmouth (at the foot of Water and London Streets), a decommissioned ship turned museum that will be celebrating its 101st birthday. Portsmouth, VA.
It may seem a bit off the beaten track, but it’s worth the diversion to learn more about Virginia’s oyster trail. Captain Chris Ludford will take you on a behind-the-scenes tour of the oyster farms along the Lynnhaven River. Whether it’s your first slurp or you’re a connoisseur, you’ll eat the freshest oysters available on a makeshift table set up directly in the water —don’t forget wine (pick up a bottle at the Mermaid Winery on your way)! For those wanting a more hands-on experience, you’re welcome to wade knee deep and pick up the oysters yourself. 3211 Lynnhaven Dr., Virginia Beach, VA.
Virginia is dotted with colonial towns and historic haunts, so you’d be remiss to skip one of the best ghost tours around. The fun, informative and entertaining Ghosts of Williamsburg candlelight tour takes you to the Peyton Randolph House, often declared the most haunted house in the U.S., where you might find two of the upper story windows glowing with an inexplicable light. Before communing with the dead, stop in for another kind of spirit at the Copper Fox Distillery. Named the best whiskey in Virginia by Esquire magazine, distiller Rick Wasmund drew upon his experience working at Bowmore Distillery on Islay, Scotland to craft a smooth blend. 345 W Duke of Gloucester St., Williamsburg, VA.
You don’t have to travel all the way to San Diego for a visit. In the anticipation of the upcoming East coast brewery and Stone World Bistro & Gardens, you can drop into the Company Store, a bottle shop and tap room featuring year-round beers, one-time releases and periodic-archived vintages in bottles, kegs and growlers. Grab a couple souvenirs for the brew head back home; soap, candles and jewelry are also available. 4300 Williamsburg Ave., Richmond, VA.
Virginia is rich in history—from the first settlers in Jamestown to the Civil War battlefields that have scarred its land. Any trip to Washington, D.C. should include a visit to one of these historic battlegrounds that remind us of the high price paid when a country stands divided. More than 85,000 were wounded and 15,000 killed on these hallowed grounds. Begin at the visitor’s center where you can view open-air exhibits and watch a 22-minute orientation film. Participate in a guided walking tour or hike one of the numerous trails. 120 Chatham Lane, Fredericksburg, VA.
As our country’s capital, the city is packed with important landmarks, extraordinary museums, delicious restaurants and enjoyable attractions. However, if you have the time, delve into the more unusual sites the city has to offer. At the Washington National Cathedral (the sixth largest in the world), try to spot Darth Vader’s helmet on the northwest tower. Once inside, check out the tiny piece of lunar matter ensconced in one of the stained glass windows. James Bond fans should pay a visit to the International Spy Museum, featuring both cinematic treasures (including a new exhibit on 50 years of Bond Villains) to historic artifacts and interactive spy experiences. Before leaving town, grab a pint at the Brewmaster’s Castle, also known as Christian Heurich’s house. The Guilded Age-mansion built by the German immigrant and brewer in 1892 was outfitted with the most modern technology of its time. Today, you can enjoy an hour-long tour of the house culminating in a beer tasting event.
Mandy Howard and Alexandra Drosu