Great American Road Trip
Our home team was playing baseball in Kansas City. One week later we needed to be in Cincinnati for a wedding. It could only mean one thing: Road Trip! We took a road trip through the heart of America including Kansas City, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, and Cincinnati and you should too.
We did this as a one-week trip including two weekends. You could easily take more time as there is much to see. We saw some baseball history, some civil rights history, some music history, some live music, a Corvette factory and we ate some great BBQ. What could be better?
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Kansas City, Missouri
We spent a weekend in Kansas City with the excuse of seeing the San Francisco Giants play the Kansas City Royals. Kansas City is sometimes called the “Paris of the Plains” because of its many fountains. The city sprawls over the prairie and I was surprised by how pretty many of the public spaces of the city are.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is a free museum with a nice art collection. Kids (of all ages) will particularly enjoy the collection of 4 giant badminton birdies as well as the glass labyrinth on the lawn. Inside the museum, I particularly enjoyed the collection of Egyptian are other ancient art.
Kansas City River Market
We had breakfast at Cascone’s Grill near the Kansas City River Market for a traditional American breakfast. The Market has some great shops and booths. We bought BBQ spices from one of the two spice merchants and loose tea from a tea merchant. All the while we were entertained by buskers. History buffs might want to visit the Arabia Steamboat Museum in the same complex which holds an old shipwreck.
Negro League Baseball Museum
One of the highlights of our Kansas City visit was a trip to the Negro League Baseball Museum which fit into both the baseball and civil rights themes of this vacation. The museum can be visited in an hour but is a must-see for baseball and history buffs. They set the tone for the visit with a video that starts with more modern baseball players celebrating victory. The players are black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. The video points out how natural it looks to us now but for many years there was a color bar that kept black players out of the Major Leagues.
I loved one of the quotes from a Dodger fan who was worried about the first game or two when Jackie Robinson started with the team. With Robinson came black fans and for the first game things were tense, by the second they were all Dodger fans, and by the end of the season, no one thought it was strange at all.
Near the Negro League Baseball Museum is also the American Jazz Museum but we did not have time to visit it on this trip.
The Kansas City Royals play at Kauffman Stadium which is a nice modern baseball stadium, but it lacks the character of Camden Yards or AT&T Park. Ticket prices have gone up in recent years when the Royals started to produce some teams that could contend.
Kansas City BBQ
My personal experience ordering Kansas City “burnt ends” was a bit disappointing. In two of the three restaurants where I ordered this famous BBQ dish, the meat was fattier than I have had elsewhere.
National World War I Museum
One museum that I still want to visit that I missed on this trip was the National World War I Museum located at the Liberty Memorial. I would also like to get to the Airline History Museum.
If you have been to Seville Spain, you might recognize this reproduction of the bell tower from the Seville Cathedral, the Geralda. It sits in the Country Club Plaza shopping area. The neighborhood around the tower has a number of great restaurants. We enjoyed the food at both Jack Stack BBQ and Gram & Dun.
Hear more about things to do in Kansas City in Travel to Kansas City (Kansas and Missouri) – Episode 380.
Where to Stay
Kansas City is not an expensive destination so I would spring for a hotel downtown near the Giralda or the Kansas City River Market.
Little Rock, Arkansas
The second stop on our road trip was Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock is not exactly on a normal route from Kansas City to Cincinnati but we had a college friend to visit there.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas
On the way down from Kansas City, we stopped just over the state line at Bentonville at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. This would seem like an odd place to put a museum with an impressive collection of American art until you realize that this is the home of Walmart and this free museum is supported by the Walton Family Foundation. Here you can find the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that you can find a copy of on the dollar bill, Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell, and other works displayed in a museum that is itself a work of art.
River Market District
In downtown, along the river is the River Market District of Little Rock. This area has been and is being redeveloped with interesting shops, restaurants, and live music spots. We ate out on the balcony of one of the many eateries with a view of the many bridges over the river. Some of the old railroad bridges have been turned into bike paths. The bridges are lit up with colored lights at night. A Farmer’s Market is held twice a week in the neighborhood.
Clinton Presidential Library
One of the highlights of Little Rock is the Clinton Presidential Library which is a short distance from the River Market District. The library contains the president’s papers, including his schedule day by day, hour by hour for the 8 years he was in the Whitehouse. It also has engaging interpretive displays of what the former president would like you to remember from his two terms. There is a great collection of videos from the time, although not so much some of the embarrassing moments.
The library also features a recreation of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, but no, you can’t take a picture of yourself sitting in the president’s chair.
When I was visiting the library also had a Chihuly exhibit in the temporary exhibition space.
Our local friend Nancy took us to the Big Dam Bridge on the Arkansas River to show off one of the nice hiking, biking, and walking paths in the Little Rock Area. A dam and series of locks span the river while a pedestrian and cycling bridge was built over the dam with great views of the landscape. The area around Little Rock has many hiking trails within half an hour of downtown.
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Next time I am through Little Rock I would love to get to the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. We visited a lot of civil rights sites on this trip but did not find the time to see the high school which was a major battleground in the forced desegregation that followed the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs the Board of Education. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to send in federal troops to enable 9 black kids to attend this formerly all-white public high school.
Hear more about things to do in Little Rock in Travel to Little Rock, Arkansas – Episode 450.
Where to Stay
I am not sure our friend Kathy will let you stay in her guest room so I would look instead for a hotel near downtown:
One of the highlights of our Great American road trip was Memphis. We spent less than 24 hours in Memphis but were able to see some great sites.
National Civil Rights Museum
The old Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot has been converted into theNational Civil Rights Museum which may be my favorite history museum in the entire country. The story that the museum tells is particularly poignant to someone like me who remembers the 1960s. It would be a significant museum even if it were not located in such an iconic location.
Like the Negro League Baseball museum we had visited in Kansas City it is very hard for me to get my head around the struggle for civil rights. I watched it on the nightly news but as someone who grew up in California instead of the South, I did not understand the hate then and still don’t understand it today.
The museum isn’t just telling a compelling story but it is telling it well. You can get on the bus with Rosa Parks as the bus driver is yelling for her to give up her seat. You can see a full size burned out Greyhound bus as you read about the freedom riders. The museum is filled with videos and compelling displays. The main part of the museum ends at Martin Luther King’s hotel room, seemingly untouched since the day he was killed.
We did not spend as much time in the new extension of the museum which focuses on that crime. That part of the museum is located in the boarding house from which the assassin’s shots were fired.
Rock n Soul Museum
My second favorite museum in Memphis is the Rock n Soul Museum which was built with assistance from the Smithsonian. This is basically two museums in one as the first half explores the origins of Rock and the second half the origins of Soul. Rock music history is closer to my heart.
You will need some time to explore this museum because you won’t just be reading the descriptions of exhibits but will be listening to the music of the city as they trace the roots of Rock music from the poor sharecropper music through the Grand Ole Opry and into early Rock and Roll.
If you can’t get enough of this history you can also tour nearby historic Stax Records and Sun Studio which are also now also museums.
Gibson Guitar Factory Tour
Across the street from the Rock n Soul Museum is a factory where Gibson makes all of the company semi-hollow body electric guitars. The factory tour is 45 minutes long and unfortunately does not include free samples. We enjoyed the mixture of high tech and handcrafted that makes these gorgeous guitars.
Music is not meant to be appreciated just in museums and factories so we went down to Beale Street for Dinner. We ate at BB King’s Blues Club which is filled with tourists. The entertainment we heard was a performer who was only singing songs written in, about or by somebody from Memphis. He had over 200 songs that met that criteria. Obviously, that included Rock classics from Elvis, a mixture of Soul, but also songs like Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline which he wrote in an hour “while staying in a hotel in Memphis.” Memphis is just filled with music.
Quirky and Quacky
The best-known hotel in town is the historic Peabody Hotel. The hotel may be as well known for the ducks that live in the lobby as any of its other famous guests.
Yes, we managed to get to Memphis and did not go out to Graceland the home of Elvis Presley. I would like to see it sometime but it was Elvis week when we were in town and I think we were just too chicken to go.
Here more about things to do in Memphis in Travel to Memphis, Tennessee – Episode 424.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Select Memphis – Downtown (Beale Street) which is across the street from The Peabody Hotel. I had some vouchers for a free night there. The location was great but the hotel was just OK. It was nice to stay within walking distance of Beale Street.
Our fourth stop on our Great American Road Trip was in Nashville Tennessee. On every road trip, you have to make certain choices. Our trip to Nashville on the Great American Road Trip was a quick one because of all the time we spent in Memphis. We had time for some BBQ, some music, and a presidential homestead.
It wouldn’t seem right to go to Nashville without seeing some live music. But we did not go see something at one of the better-known venues like the Grand Ole Opry, Opryland, or the Ryman Auditorium. We instead found that Lyle Lovett was in town that night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Surprisingly, we were able to get tickets for the evening’s show, even if it did mean we sat behind the band on stage.
While we waited for the show we took our own self-guided walking tour of downtown Nashville. We took the bridge over the Cumberland River to the other side from downtown to Nissan Stadium, the home of the Tennessee Titans.
We walked down to Printer’s Alley which is pretty quiet in the daytime but the home for a number of bars and clubs with live music at night.
We tried to visit the Big Bang Piano Bar which Geoff Smith mentioned on the episode of Amateur Traveler on Nashville. If you don’t recognize Geoff’s name, fans of the Amateur Traveler podcast will have heard his music as he wrote the Amateur Traveler theme song.
A highlight of our visit to Nashville was a visit to Andrew Jackson’s estate The Hermitage. On a road trip where we visited a number of civil rights sites and museums, it was strange to visit the home of one of America’s slaveholding presidents.
The Hermitage is maintained by a private foundation. The house and grounds are an easy drive from Nashville in the Tennessee countryside. We toured the house where knowledgeable docents filled us in on the history of Old Hickory. I would not say I am a big fan of Jackson’s politics or temperament, but he is a fascinating and interesting president and a visit to the Hermitage is a must for history buffs.
Jackson would, we are told, liberally entertain travelers and strangers so one wonders if he would be pleased that his home is still open for travelers today.
Jackson’s tomb is on the grounds in the gardens. Jackson was apparently more proud of being the hero of the Battle of New Orleans than of being the president of the United States as the inscription on his tomb is simply “General Andrew Jackson, March 15, 1767 – June 8, 1845”.
Grand Old Opry
I would like to visit the Grand Old Opry next time I am in Nashville as my daughter’s discovery of country music has rubbed off some on me.
We also did not get a chance to visit the full-scale replica of the Parthenon which is located in Nashville. Nashville was the one place I really wished we had stayed a second night.
I also did like the suggestion in the comments of the dinner cruise on the General Jackson Showboat.
Hear more about things to do in Nashville in Travel to Nashville, Tennessee – Episode 173.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Radisson by the airport during our stay. There are numerous hotels downtown if you want to stay instead in the heart of the city.
Our fifth stop on our Great American Road Trip was in Louisville, Kentucky. This was our most ambitious day of the trip. In one day we visited Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, toured the Corvette Factory near Bowling Green, and toured the world’s longest cave at Mammoth Cave National Park.
We had noticed that our route between Nashville and Louisville took us right by a Corvette Museum. If I was really a car guy I might have been more interested in that stop. The museum got a lot of national press in 2014 when a sinkhole opened under the museum and ate 8 Corvettes in their collection. Wise promoters simply added the sinkhole to the experience and added the destroyed cars to the exhibit.
But what attracted our attention instead was that just across the road you could tour the Corvette assembly line. My wife and I both have engineering degrees and this is just the geeky sort of thing we knew we would love. I had previously toured a Ford Truck assembly line near Detroit and am fascinated by the complexity, technology, cacophony of sound, and ballet of motion that is an auto assembly plant.
Corvette owners can pay extra to be at the plant when their car rolls off the line and be the first person to turn the key. Or they can pay $5000 for the privilege of assembling their own engine (something I would prefer to be done by a professional on my car).
Tours are free but allow for delays of 1-2 hours on busy days. Also know that you won’t be able to bring a camera or a cell phone. See the General Motors tour site for details.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world with over 400 miles of caves. We arrived in time for one of the last tours of the day. There are a number of different tours so your second trip to the park does not have to be the same experience. Mammoth Cave was not what I expected. If you are picturing lots of stalactites and stalagmites then you have the wrong picture. In many ways, the cave is plainer than caves like Carlsbad Caverns.
Portions of the cave are also going to be pretty claustrophobic. At one point on the tour, we had the option of backtracking or getting down on the cave floor and rolling into the next chamber. Joan and I chose to roll with it, but some of our group gave up at that point.
Tours of the cave used to be done by candlelight and you can still see where guides would write the names of visitors on the ceiling of the cave with a candle flame.
Louisville Slugger Factory
In keeping with the baseball theme of our road trip, the next day we visited the Louisville Slugger factory and museum.
I was surprised by how interesting they could make the simple process of turning a piece of wood into a baseball bat. The factory tour did not take that long but by the time we watched some of the videos and toured the museum, we may have spent a couple of hours at Louisville Slugger. The museum is a cross between the Hall of Fame for hitters and a hands-on discovery museum for kids.
We did not get out to Churchill Downs nor did we take the nearby Bourbon Trail which we talked about on the Amateur Traveler episode on Louisville.
Hear more about things to do around Louisville in Travel to Louisville, Kentucky – Episode 467.
Where to Stay
Louisville has a small downtown. We stayed a couple of blocks from the Louisville Slugger Factory.
Our final stop on our Great American Road Trip was in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati was our final destination so that we could attend a friend’s wedding. In fact, for listeners of the show, the bride was Melody who I interviewed on Travel to Hong Kong – Amateur Traveler Episode 233.
With the festivities, we did not get a chance to experience all Cincinnati had to offer but we did get a chance to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
This museum seemed like a fitting addition to a road trip that had included other civil rights sites, but I had not realized that the museum is like 3 museums in one.
First, the museum traces the terrible history of slavery in the United States. It looks at the origin and spread of slavery. The experience of the slave ships and the life of a slave. It traces the economic causes of the South’s “Peculiar Institution” as well as the role of the northern states and Great Britain in the trade as well. There is a recreation of a slave cabin in the lobby of the museum. The museum also made use of some of the history behind the recent movie 12 Years a Slave to tell its story.
Second, the museum looks at the underground railroad and abolitionists who worked to help slaves gain their freedom. Cincinnati was only a river away from a slaveholding state so the museum explained the role of local residents in the network of safe houses that constituted the underground railroad. The work was dangerous and illegal.
Finally, in the part of the exhibit that surprised me, the museum looks at slavery today. It looks at wage slaves and sex slaves and what various groups are doing to continue the fight against slavery. After you have just spent the last hour or two coming to grips with the evil of slavery, it is unsettling (as I am sure it is intended to be) to learn that it is an evil that the world is not yet done with.
I loved the Findlay Market area. This is the oldest continuously operated market in Ohio.
And of course, I wish we had had a chance to take in a Red’s Baseball game but the team was out of town when we visited.
American Sign Museum
I am intrigued also by the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati. I think I need to visit that next time I am in town.
Hear more about things to do in Cincinnati in Travel to Cincinnati, Ohio – Amateur Traveler Episode 511.
Where to Stay
We stayed downtown and the prices were reasonable. The downtown area is within walking distance of the Underground Railroad Museum and ballpark along the river.