Nashville and Saint Louis are closer than you’d think. Because you travel across several states — Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee — the trip always seems like it should take much longer than it does.
If you’re looking for a road trip bookended by two great cities in the center of the United States, then Saint Louis to Nashville is absolutely a trip you should investigate. Having lived in Saint Louis for 25 years, I’ve driven this route at least a dozen times. There are many great stops along the way. Let’s discuss them, shall we?
Saint Louis, Missouri
To start your trip, plan to spend several days in Saint Louis. This is the place I call home, so I could easily give you two dozen things to do off the top of my head. If you’re only in the area for a few days, however, there are a couple of attractions you should prioritize.
All first-time visitors to Saint Louis should visit the Gateway Arch, the symbol of the city and a marvel of engineering. In 2016, the Arch Grounds (the 90-acre park surrounding the Arch) underwent a $380 million facelift. As part of that effort, the museum located beneath the Arch (and I mean beneath — it’s underground) was completely renovated. The new museum covers the entire history of Saint Louis as the gateway to Westward expansion. Visitors can also take in an engaging documentary on the construction of the Arch. After spending some time at the museum, finish your visit with a trip to the top of the Arch so that you can look out those tiny windows at the entire region.
After your visit to the Arch, you’ll want to experience more of what the downtown area has to offer — check out the sights on this list. When you’re ready to explore beyond downtown, make time for the city’s best-loved attractions and hidden gems. And for a taste of Saint Louis-style cuisine, consider a rib crawl or a visit to Imo’s Pizza.
Now it’s time to get started on our road trip. Let’s head southeast!
Rend Lake, Illinois
Just over an hour outside of Saint Louis, in Illinois, you might want to stop and stretch your legs. I’d suggest stopping at Rend Lake, a 19,000-acre lake in southern Illinois. From Saint Louis, you’ll drive east on Interstate 64 and then south on Interstate 57, and not long after that you’ll cross over a finger of Rend Lake (you can’t miss it — it’s a long bridge with a lake on either side). Take the very next exit, and you’ll be there.
I would suggest going to Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area to take your break. It’s a large state park with a resort area right on the water. From the exit, head west toward the lake and then turn right at the state park sign. That entrance road will take you all the way to the resort area. Once there, walk out on the pier, have a picnic by the lake, explore the resort, go for a hike — anything you want.
From Rend Lake, head south on Interstate 57 and then south on Interstate 24 toward Nashville. Just after you cross the Ohio River into Kentucky, you’ll reach Paducah.
Paducah sits at the junction of several major rivers. Downtown Paducah is located at the confluence of the Ohio River, a waterway that begins at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, and the Tennessee River, which travels south and east and through Muscle Shoals, Alabama; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Knoxville, Tennessee. To the north of this junction, the Cumberland River also joins the Ohio. The Cumberland takes you all the way to Nashville and points east.
For this reason, Paducah has a long river history. When travel along waterways was a big part of transportation in the U.S., Paducah was at the center of it all. The city claims to be “at the heart of America’s inland waterways,” and that’s certainly true.
As a result, it’s a great road-trip stop. This river-centric town offers quite a bit to do. Crafts and folk art are an important part of Paducah culture, and you’ll find plenty of shopping opportunities in the downtown area. Start at the riverfront and work your way up Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe Streets, and you’ll find all kinds of shops, restaurants, and art galleries. You could easily spend an entire afternoon here.
Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area
Two of the rivers mentioned above — the Cumberland and the Tennessee — have been dammed just outside of Paducah to form two lakes: Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. These long finger lakes are separated by a large peninsula known as the Land Between the Lakes. The peninsula is protected as the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
If you’re an outdoor lover, you could spend several weeks here. The national recreation area alone offers 170,000 acres of protected woodland. There’s more than 300 miles of protected shoreline, too, so every outdoor activity, from hiking to boating to fishing to skipping rocks — is available. Whether you spend a day or several days here, you won’t lack for things to do. Cabin rentals are readily available as well.
Whatever you do, you must at least drive the peninsula. Get off of Interstate 24 at Highway 453 and take that road between the Barkley Dam and Kentucky Dam out onto the peninsula. Your exit point for this road trip will be Highway 68, about halfway down the peninsula, but before you do that, enjoy all that the national recreation area has to offer.
Interstate 24 would take you directly to Nashville, but this is a road trip, so you shouldn’t be in a hurry. As you leave the Land Between the Lakes on Highway 68, you’ll cross over Lake Barkley toward Canton. But when you get back to Interstate 24, don’t get on — keep going east on Highway 68. This will take you to the city of Hopkinsville.
Hopkinsville is a surprisingly large city — it’s larger than Paducah. Once known as the Bowling Ball Capital of the World (60 percent of the world’s bowling balls were produced in Hopkinsville before the area’s plant closed in 2019), Hopkinsville is a classic Kentucky county seat with much to do around the downtown area.
If you spend a day (or more) at the Land Between the Lakes, you’ll at least want to see the historic Downtown Renaissance District and grab a meal. You’ll find dozens of options in Hopkinsville.
No, you don’t have to take the “Last Train To Clarksville” as The Monkees sang. You’re on a road trip!
Clarksville was recently named the best place to live in the U.S. by Money. You’ll see why: Some cities are too large, and some are too small, but Clarksville is just right.
Clarksville is located just across the border from Kentucky. On the Kentucky side of the border sits Fort Campbell, perhaps the most famous Army base in the U.S. Fort Campbell is home to the 101st Airborne Division, one of the best-known units in the Army.
There’s quite a bit to do in the area: The downtown is fun to explore, and there are a variety of parks to relax in, so be careful — you might spend several days exploring the city and forget that you’re almost to your destination.
The first thing I noticed on my last trip to Nashville was how much the city has grown. Everything seems new. Revitalized neighborhoods, brand-new neighborhoods — so much felt like it had just been built (or refurbished) in the last five years.
There are the old standards — the Grand Ole Opry, all of the famous bars and honky-tonks on Broadway — but there’s so much more to explore. Here’s what to do during a weekend in Nashville. If you’re looking for places to eat and want to hear some of Nashville’s famous live music, this article lists restaurants that serve up iconic eats accompanied by live bands. If you like going off the beaten path and are interested in checking out some of Nashville’s hidden gems, consider one of these spots.
For much more on exploring Nashville, visit this page. Trust me — it won’t be hard to find things to do in Nashville. You could spend a month there.
What To Know Before You Go
There’s a reason I didn’t advise you to stick to the interstates for this road trip. The drive between the Ohio River (the border between Illinois and Kentucky) and Nashville can get long and tedious. I remember long stretches without many services at the exits. Everything seemed concentrated around a few truck-stop exits.
So take the time to wander. The drive between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley is one of the best parts of the trip. And heading from Hopkinsville to Clarksville is a much better route to Nashville — even if it takes you a little longer.