The Southern United States truly has it all—history, culture, and tons of fried food. And the best way to experience it? A road trip, of course! This action-packed drive from Houston to Washington, DC, will take you through some of the South’s biggest cities, as well as a few lesser-known (but equally awesome) ones. Whether you’re a history buff, an art enthusiast, or just a wander-luster looking to get out there and see a dynamic, diverse part of the country, we’ve got stops for pretty much every kind of traveler on this list… So, let’s get going!
“The Big Easy” is a little less than six hours west of Houston, and while we probably don’t even have to tell you why you need to stop here, we’re going to anyway… Because this is one southern city that you definitely don’t want to skip! Known for fabulous food, amazing nightlife, and music around every corner, New Orleans is a powerhouse travel destination that’s right on the way to DC. But even if you miss Mardi Gras, don’t despair—there’s still plenty to keep you busy. Some of the city’s highlights include New Orleans City Park, the National WWII Museum, the Audubon Nature Institute, and Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World. But while you’re in New Orleans, one place that you have to go is the French Quarter, specifically Jackson Square.
Known as “the Crown Jewel of New Orleans,” the French Quarter is a historic neighborhood where old meets new. Founded in 1718, the French Quarter is comprised of old-world architecture, classic attractions, and lots of can’t-beat cuisine! And overlooking the Mississippi River, right in the center of everything, is Jackson Square. Here, you’ll find landmarks like St. Louis Cathedral and the Pontalba Buildings (the oldest apartment buildings in the country!), as well as museums like the Presbytère and the Cabildo. Plus, the surrounding area has a variety of restaurants to choose from and a number of other attractions that you’ll want to stop by (like the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, the New Orleans National Jazz Historical Park, and House of Blues New Orleans).
The biggest city in Alabama, Birmingham is filled with opportunities to explore—and it gives visitors a chance to dive deeper into the history behind the American Civil Rights Movement. Among the most popular places to go in the city are the Birmingham Zoo, the Birmingham Museum of Art, McWane Science Center, and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. But, again, because Birmingham was so prominent during the Civil Rights Movement, you shouldn’t visit the city without engaging with this crucial piece of its past, and the Civil Rights District in Downtown Birmingham is one of the best places to do that.
Birmingham’s Civil Rights District consists of the Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Each of these components offers visitors something different. With a variety of informational exhibits, the Civil Rights Institute is a more formal learning experience, and while you do have to pay for admission, it’s well worth the price. Meanwhile, Kelly Ingram Park (previously known as West Park) takes a slightly abstract approach in paying tribute to the Civil Rights Movement. A public park, it features outdoor sculptures designed to honor civil rights activists, and free of admission charges, it’s an easy, budget-friendly way to touch on Birmingham’s history. Lastly, Sixteen Street Baptist Church, which was bombed in 1963, continues to serve as a symbol of Black perseverance, and its beautiful stained glass windows are sure to take your breath away.
In addition to being Georgia’s largest city, Atlanta is also the state’s capital. A couple of Atlanta’s biggest attractions are Centennial Olympic Park, Zoo Atlanta, the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, and the Georgia State Capitol. Another fun place to go while you’re in town is Piedmont Park, located in Midtown Atlanta and bordered by 10th Street, Moore Drive, and Piedmont Avenue.
While not as massive as Centennial Olympic Park, Piedmont Park still has ample green space and is home to a host of attractions, including the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Open daily from 6 am to 11 pm, Piedmont Park is considered Atlanta’s “Common Ground,” and it’s thrived as a city centerpiece since 1904. With playgrounds, basketball courts, tennis courts, picnic areas, fountains, and more, Piedmont Park is an ideal place to stretch your legs and enjoy the outdoors. In the surrounding area, you’ll find even more things to do, like the High Museum of Art, Museum of Design Atlanta, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and the Margaret Mitchell House.
Situated alongside the Tennessee River in the eastern portion of the state, Knoxville is always a fun place to stop when you’re driving through Tennessee. A couple of Knoxville’s top attractions are the Knoxville Museum of Art, Blount Mansion, the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, Ijams Nature Center, Zoo Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee Gardens. However, no trip to Knoxville is complete without a trip to World’s Fair Park in Downtown.
You’d never know it now, but the place where World’s Fair Park now stands actually used to be a railroad yard. As its name suggests, the park was built in preparation for the 1982 World's Fair, which was held from the beginning of May to the end of October of that year. The park’s most iconic landmark, the Sunsphere, was also designed for the international exposition, and it and the Tennessee Amphitheatre are the only two structures that remain from the World Fair. With two acres of green space, World’s Fair Park is an ideal part of the city to enjoy some fresh air—and while you’re there, you can’t leave without taking a trip up to the top of the Sunsphere and admiring the panoramic view of Knoxville from its observation deck.
Charlotte is North Carolina’s biggest city, and it’s full of delightful attractions and activities. Like pretty much every other southern city on this list, Charlotte boasts a rich history, which you can learn about at a number of museums, including the Levine Museum of the New South, the Charlotte Museum of History, and the Wells Fargo History Museum. But while you’re in town, don’t forget to check out a different kind of history that’s become a city staple… The history of NASCAR!
A self-described “shrine to the history, heritage, and future” of NASCAR, the NASCAR Hall of Fame not only features the sport’s best drivers, owners, crew chiefs, broadcasters, and other key influencers, but it also showcases vintage and modern cars as well as informational exhibits that will allow you to get up-close-and-personal with NASCAR and all of its moving parts (pun intended!). The Hall of Fame is every day except Tuesday from 10 am to 5 pm, and you can buy tickets ahead of time online or when you get there. There are different levels of access that you can purchase, but general admission costs $25 for adults, $18 for ages 4 to 12 (and military personnel), and $22 for seniors.
Located a little over two hours northeast of Charlotte, Durham is part of North Carolina’s “Research Triangle,” as it contains the renowned Duke University. The city’s best-known attractions include the Nasher Museum of Art, Durham Central Park, the Museum of Life and Science, the Duke Basketball Museum, and the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. But, if you’re an animal lover, there’s one place in Durham that you simply have to see—and that’s the Duke Lemur Center in Duke Forest, about two miles away from the university’s main campus.
Dedicated to protecting the most endangered mammals on Earth, the Duke Lemur Center has been serving as a sanctuary and non-invasive research facility for lemurs since 1966. With more than 200 lemurs from 14 species, the Duke Lemur Center houses the most diverse popular of lemurs in the world outside of Madagascar, the animals’ native country. The center encompasses 80 acres of land and is open for tours every day from 9 am to 4 pm. While the Duke Lemur Center is open to the public, you do have to schedule a tour in order to see it. There are a few different options when it comes to tours, but the cheapest one is $14 per person.
Richmond, Virginia’s capital city, is one of the country’s oldest cities, and with a wide variety of museums, historic sites, and other types of attractions, it’s an ideal place to stop before finally heading to DC—which is only about two hours north of the city. Some of the best places to go in Richmond include the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, the Science Museum of Virginia, Maymont Mansion, and the Virginia Capitol Building. And if you’re into American history, be sure to make a stop at the American Civil War Museum, a three-site facility that details the American Civil War from different historical perspectives.
The museum’s three locations are Historic Tredegar on the riverfront, the Whitehouse of the Confederacy in Court End, and the Civil War Museum Appomattox in Appomattox, Virginia, about an hour-and-a-half west of Richmond. Historic Tredegar is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, and it’s probably the most convenient of the locations to get to from Downtown Richmond. Because it’s also the newest of the locations, Historic Tredegar is still being developed, but right now, it’s core permanent exhibit is A People’s Contest: Struggles for Nation and Freedom in Civil War America, which uses multimedia galleries to depict the Civil War’s effects on American citizens.
Washington, DC, is more than just the nation’s capital city—it’s also an attraction-filled destination with a long list of things to see and do. Some of the top places to visit in the city are the US Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the Smithsonian museums, and, of course, the White House. But, just because so much is waiting for you in DC doesn’t mean that you have to rush there! Take your time driving from Houston, and schedule a few stops in some of the cities that are on the way. The South is waiting for you—have fun, y’all!