Road Trip! Your Madison to Nashville Travel Guide
I’ve never been a fan of road trips. At least I don’t think I have. In my mind, I make up stories about how crazy long and boring the drive will be. Envisioning the sheer horror of a road trip until I convince myself that flying is for sure the better option, regardless of price.
My husband Eric and I have been together for nearly 13 years now. And we have taken exactly one road trip together previously.
That trip wasn’t my doing either. He impulsively bought tickets to a Jack White show at Red Rocks in Colorado. Which took place two months after we got married.
It seemed irresponsible to me at the time, given that we had just dropped a boatload of money gettin’ hitched. Then honeymooned in Jamaica immediately after. However, my guy is a bit impulsive like that. He just figured we’d drive out there and make it work. Which we did. And it actually wound up being one of my favorite trips we’ve taken together thus far.
Denver was about a 15 hour drive from Madison. Which is totally doable. However, driving will just never be my first choice for getting somewhere.
Especially with a small child.
When we booked our annual Spring Break trip to Florida, my husband suggested driving this year., in order to save some money. Because, as you can imagine, buying plane tickets for three people is much less affordable than two.
I reluctantly agreed, but found the idea of 20 hours in a car with a three year old quite daunting. So, I also set up alerts on Google Flights for every possible flight combination from Madison, Milwaukee, Rockford and Chicago, to anywhere within a 60 mile radius of where we were headed.
Since my son has only ever driven as far as Door County or Minneapolis, we figured we’d get as far as Nashville on Day One and stay somewhere in that area for that night. Effectively breaking our very long drive into two 9 hour segments.
Three days before we were set to hit the road to Daytona Beach, however, my son came down with a fever.
I took him into the doctor’s office right away that morning. Partially to figure out if putting him in a car for 20 hours a few days later was really a good idea.
It turned out that he had strep throat. Which didn’t show up on the rapid strep test, but grew on the 48 hour culture. So, the day we were scheduled to leave, we got a call saying he had strep and needed a 10 day course of antibiotics. Fun.
Given that the forecast in Daytona was looking like mid-60’s and rainy all week, we took that as an additional sign that we needed to pull the plug on driving all the way to Florida.
Lucky for us, my mom was able to very easily cancel our time-share reservation, without any fees. So we figure we’ll try again later this year.
Rather than miss out on a Spring Break entirely, though, we decided to spend a few days in Nashville instead. A city both my husband and I have been wanting to check out for years.
Since our schedule was entirely flexible at that point, we picked a random day to leave; booked a hotel room via Hotwire Sunday night; packed on Monday; and hit the highway Tuesday morning for our first big road trip as a family of three.
As it turned out, it was a pretty easy drive. Not that I drove at all. My husband did all that. But I found it totally doable. And the kiddo road-tripped like a Champ.
If you and your family are looking to take a trip, here are my tips for road-tripping from Madison to Nashville and back:
Recommended route and pit-stops
You do not have to drive through Chicago to get to Nashville. So that’s a bonus. Because we all know Chicago can be a traffic nightmare.
We left our house around 9:15 a.m. on a Tuesday (at least an hour later than we had originally planned) and hit Interstate 39 S/I-90 E towards Janesville/Rockford. Past Rockford we exited over on I-51 S towards Bloomington/Normal.
51 took us through Champaign, IL which is where we stopped for lunch. There isn’t a whole lot to see between here and there, aside from a bunch of wind farms and a lot of flat land.
Thanks to this blog post I found when searching for information about driving to Nashville from Madison, we decided to stop at Freddy’s Frozen Custard in Illinois for burgers. Though we chose the Champaign location instead of Mattoon. We had been on the road for about 3 1/2 hours by then, so it was a good point to stop. And was just past our exit to jump on I-57 S towards Memphis.
Freddy’s makes a great “fast food” burger and we all enjoyed their shoestring fries and special “fry sauce”, particularly the jalapeno version. As an added bonus, we each had a frozen custard treat. I opted for the Chocolate Nutter Butter ice cream sandwich, which was a .99 add on to my meal I could eat in the car.
After lunch, we hopped on the Interstate towards Memphis and rode another 3+ hour stretch before our next break. Again, thanks to that Steemit post, I knew to stop in Metropolis, Illinois. Which is the last town before you cross the Illinois/Kentucky border. I wanted to see the giant Superman statue and thought it would be a fun break for the kiddo.
Superman Square in Metropolis was a quick 3 mile detour off the beaten path. Not only did we get a few great pictures with the statue, but the whole downtown area was Superman/Superhero themed. We wandered into the Super Museum and Gift Shop as well. And picked up a few little souvenirs for the kiddo.
I remembered then, what fun these little roadside attractions can be. Which are the quirky things you miss when you fly instead of drive.
After a good 45 minute break in Metropolis, we were back on the road.
Once we crossed into Kentucky, we saw our first exit signs towards Nashville. Interstate 24 took us all the way into the city.
We arrived to our hotel around 7:30 p.m.
There is no time change between here and there, which was helpful. Though we got there right at bedtime. We were all hungry and tired, but also excited to finally be there.
Right after we checked in, Eric placed an online order with Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which had a location about two blocks away from our hotel.
After about a 25 minute wait, we had a full spread of delicious food in front of us, which included Nashville style “hot” chicken, pimento mac & cheese, greens, baked beans and black eye’d pea salad. We ate in the hotel lobby before turning in for the night.
Where to stay
Since we were both completely unfamiliar with Nashville, we didn’t have a good sense of where to stay. However, we knew we wanted to be close to some of the popular downtown attractions. Without actually staying on Broadway. Because kids.
I poked around quite a bit on Hotwire to get a sense of some of the options prior to booking. They had a map that was zoned by neighborhoods/districts, so it was easy to see where hotels would be in relation to downtown.
While we would have preferred to have a pool, it looked like most hotels with an indoor pool (since it was still early Spring after all) were lower budget chain hotels out by the airport.
So, once I narrowed in on a price point and location, I went with a “Hot Deal”, which is a “you wont’ know where you are staying until after you buy” type of situation.
I selected 3.5 star boutique hotel as our preferred deal, along with the West End/Music Row/Vanderbilt University area, and then let the system choose for us.
We got The Hayes Street Hotel.
The Hayes Street Hotel was a great location, that was a quick drive to several of the sites we visited. There were also several great restaurants within walking distance. And breakfast was included. Which is a bonus when you are feeding a family.
The rooms were recently renovated and the lobby area was nicely appointed, with porch swings inside, along with a little Library nook. It did the trick for us for a few nights. Though when traveling with children, sharing a room with two full beds is tough. Especially when bed time rolls around.
While they offered Valet Parking for $30/night, you could also park on the street directly across the hotel, for free. So, that’s what we did. Since we were there mid-week when the hotel wasn’t as busy, we were able to easily find a spot on the street each night.
For our next visit, I will probably look for a hotel with a suite option, or an AirBnB that might allow us to spread out a bit more. And put the kid to bed without having to turn the TV off and lay down too in order to get him to sleep…Plus, he let us know he missed not having a pool. So, we’d probably book a hotel with a pool next time too.
What to do and where to eat
DAY ONE: After breakfast in our hotel the first morning in Nashville, we headed straight for Centennial Park. The park has a mile long walking/running path on Lake Watuga, a large green space, a nice playground area for kids, and a full size replica of the Parthenon.
The Parthenon is the centerpiece of the park and is truly a site to see. Particularly for those of us who have not been to Athens to experience the real thing.
There is an art museum inside, which we did not visit. Mainly because there was a large school field trip visiting that day and it seemed a bit crowded. Plus taking a 3 1/2 year old to an art museum is a little risky.
It was absolutely beautiful that morning. Clear blue, sunny skies and a high of 68. Which was most welcome after the 30-40 degree days here in Madison.
After checking out the Parthenon, we took a walk around the lake and then let the kiddo play on the playground for about an hour. We were all just so happy to be outside in the warmth and sunshine!
From there we drove over to Marathon Village, which is a cool shopping center housed in an old motor works. Eric was interested in visiting Antique Archaeology, which is owned by the guy from American Pickers.
We didn’t know when we went there that it was part of a neighborhood of shops. So, that was a nice surprise. After we checked out the Pickers store, we walked through the rest of the center, which has lots of small boutiques, a couple of restaurants, a winery, distillery and more. All with a cool, industrial vibe.
Before we left, we stopped in to Grinders Switch Winery to do a tasting of their Tennessee wines and grabbed a bottle to take back to the hotel with us.
From there, we decided it was time for lunch. Since we were close to Broadway, we headed that direction, parked the car, and walked around until we found something that looked decent called Jack’s BBQ. (Turns out it was just that – decent. Nothing special.)
After lunch, we walked down by the Cumberland River, which was quite high after Nashville got pummeled by rain in February. Then decided to head over to Third Man Records since my husband is a big Jack White fan, as noted above.
We poked around the store a bit and met a band outside who was playing in downtown Nashville the next night. Little E even scored a new book from the Little Free Library outside of the store.
From there we drove over to 12 South, the up and coming residential neighborhood with a growing shopping district near Belmont University. Reese Witherspoon’s store Draper James is located there, along with several other cute boutiques and restaurants.
I popped in Draper James, where I was offered some sweet tea to drink while I shopped. The iconic “I Believe in Nashville” mural is in the alley right next door. So, I snapped a quick photo there among several other visitors doing the same thing as well.
By then we had had a very full day and the kiddo was clearly over-tired. He doesn’t nap anymore. Not even at school. So, we knew he wouldn’t sleep. However, he was in near meltdown mode and obviously needed a break.
We drove back to our hotel and cracked open that bottle of wine we bought, while we kicked our feet up and relaxed in our room for a bit.
Once dinner time rolled around, it was time to finally listen to some of the free live music Nashville is known for. We walked over to The Row Kitchen & Pub, which was less than 5 minutes from our hotel.
The artist we saw that night was Paige Rose, which I really enjoyed. As a singer/songwriter, she played a mix of her own songs, along with popular songs like Black Horse and a Cherry Tree by KT Tunstall and The Middle by Jimmy Eats World.
She invited folks to sing-a-long to the songs they knew. Which much to Eric’s chagrin, I took her up on. Even the kiddo enjoyed it. He was dancing along to the music throughout dinner.
That was a fun way to wrap up our first day in Nashville. From there, we went back to our room to crash. And watched Sweet Home Alabama on Freeform.
DAY TWO: Despite the free hotel breakfast, I knew from other Nashville travel guides that I wanted to eat at the famous Loveless Cafe. So after we all got going that morning, we drove the 30 minutes outside of town to sample their Southern biscuits and country ham.
The Loveless used to be a hotel as well. However, they converted the old hotel rooms into a variety of shops and event spaces. The wait was about an hour, but it passed quickly since we could peruse the shops and also play beanbags while waiting.
Once seated, they brought us a plate full of biscuits and three different types of homemade jam, which were all delicious. Eric got the Country Ham breakfast, which in all honesty was a little salty. I got the Country Breakfast Bowl, which was tasty, though the gravy was a little cold. Little E got a pancake, which is his go-to breakfast out. Pancakes are hard to mess up, so he was happy with that.
After our bellies were full, we pointed our way back towards Nashville. However, there are two State Parks located on Hwy 100 out by The Loveless Cafe – Percy Warner and Edwin Warner. We decided to stop at one of them to get some fresh air and walk off some of our breakfast.
We took a little hike through Percy Warner, which is nice and hilly. It also has specific trails dedicated to people horseback riding through the park.
Because of the hills, Eric wound up carrying Little E on his shoulders most of the time. Which is a feat since the kid weighs about 36 pounds. So, that got old fast and after about 30 minutes on foot, we got in the car and drove back to our hotel.
It was our last day in Nashville, so I didn’t want to spend the afternoon inside. While the boys chilled out in our room, I took a walk down to the Buffalo Exchange near our hotel to do a little shopping.
After a two hour “rest” in the hotel, we piled back in the car and drove out to Opryland, which is about a 20 minute drive from downtown. That’s where the Grand Ole Opry is located, along with the Opry Mills Outlet Mall.
We drove out there specifically to go to the Aquarium Restaurant, which has a 200,000 gallon tank full of sea creatures in the center of the restaurant. You can go in and check it out without actually sitting down to eat. It’s a really cool environment, especially for families with small children. I think Eric enjoyed looking at the aquarium just as much as the kid did. While I had planned to eat dinner there, Little E wasn’t interested.
After walking around the mall a bit, we decided to call it a night. We still had to eat though, so landed on Las Palmas, the Mexican restaurant right next door to The Hayes Street Hotel. Which was busy every time we walked by, so figured it must be decent.
It was delicious.
We rate Mexican restaurants almost solely based on their cheese dip. But the carnitas was good, and big enough for me and Eric to share. And the kids quesadilla was also quite good. It did the trick on our final night in Nashville.
DAY THREE: Before we hit the road out of town, we visited the Nashville Farmer’s Market, which was on winter hours and the vendors were limited. It’s a year round indoor market with a large food court. We ate lunch there and then walked around Bicentennial Capital Mall State Park which is right across the street. The park is beautiful and designed to teach you a lot about Tennessee’s history.
It was another beautiful day in Nashville, so it was hard to leave, but by 1:00 p.m. we knew it was time to settle in for another long drive ahead.
The road home
Since we didn’t HAVE to be home at any certain time, we decided to head to my sister-in-law’s in Chicago for a couple of nights instead of driving back to Madison at the end of our visit to Nashville.
Siri recommended a different route to Chicago, taking us through Louisville, Kentucky and Indianapolis, Indiana. However, I could see from the map that there was only an 11 minute difference between that and the route we took get there.
Since we had lucked out with zero construction or accidents on the way to Nashville, we opted to drive back that same way. Rather than risk getting stuck in traffic driving through two major cities on a Friday.
It was a good choice, because we had a similarly smooth drive to Chicago. The only difference in route being that we jumped on I-94 off of I-57 in order to jog over to the City.
It took us a little over 7 hours to get to Chicago. So, as you can see, road tripping to Nashville is actually quite doable. And it was worth the drive in order to explore a new city together as a family and enjoy a few days of warmth and sunshine.
Have you ever been to Nashville? If so, I’m curious to hear what you did! What are your must-sees and food recommendations in the area? Please share in the comments below.