Taking the long way to a destination has to be one of our favorite ways to travel. You get to discover all of the nooks, crannies, and historic points that make a region great! While the trip from Saint Louis to Memphis is normally a 4-hour interstate drive, we recommend taking your time. We love extending the drive to truly appreciate the place where the Mississippi River Valley becomes the Delta.
Here are a few of our favorite things to see, do, and eat on the way down to Memphis.
Saint Louis, Missouri
The Gateway to the West is where you’ll begin your road trip, and although this city is well known for its beer and baseball, there’s much more here worth exploring.
A quick spin around downtown could easily include the recently renovated Gateway Arch National Park; be sure to go all the way to the top in the egg-shaped trolley cars! Consider the city’s complicated history during a visit to the Old Courthouse, where Dred Scott argued for his freedom in a case that hastened the Civil War. The Old Cathedral, right across the street, is the oldest building and place of worship in the city. For a quick music fix, stop by the National Blues Museum, where the genre and its masters are celebrated. The city’s outdoor spaces are the perfect places to get your steps in, from the downtown Citygarden to Forest Park with its many free cultural attractions, including the Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis Art Museum, and Missouri History Museum.
For the perfect picnic with an international flair, head west of downtown to the South Grand District. Here, you can choose from any number of incredible restaurants (representing nearly a dozen countries!), grab takeout, and dine al fresco in the nearby Tower Grove Park. And while you’re in that area, make a stop at the adjacent world-famous Missouri Botanical Garden.
Read more about some Saint Louis hidden gems here.
From Saint Louis, head south on Interstate 55 for about 30 minutes and take the exit for Kimmswick. A 5-mile jaunt off the interstate will land you in the charming river village that’s known for its antique shops and massive sweet treats. Just 150 people live here now, but the tiny town was once a stop on the showboat circuit that cruised the Mississippi in the late 1800s. Its preservation renaissance started in the 1970s, and today many of the town’s original shops and homes are still in use and lovingly restored. It’s worth a quick stop here to shop, and be sure to grab a slice of pie — including the famous Levee High Apple — at The Blue Owl Restaurant & Bakery.
Saint Genevieve, Missouri
As you continue south on Interstate 55 from Kimmswick, you’ll soon find yourself at the coeur (heart) of Missouri’s centuries-old French legacy and culture. Sainte Genevieve, founded in the early 1700s, is the oldest town in the state of Missouri. Today, it still retains its European charm, with many examples of French colonial architecture, including the Felix Valle House State Historic Site.
Sainte Genevieve hosts several festivals annually that celebrate the town’s French roots. If you’re planning your road trip during the summer, think about stopping by for the French Heritage Festival in June or the Jour de Fete Arts & Crafts Festival in August.
The downtown truly feels like a part of the old world, with its charming cafes and boutiques. Be sure to check out the nearby Crown Valley Winery, Brewery, and Distillery for sweeping valley views, terrific sips, and small plates.
Cape Girardeau, Missouri
Another hour down Interstate 55, and you’ll arrive at the historic river town of Cape Girardeau.
Trail of Tears State Park memorializes the forced exodus and resulting deaths of thousands of members of the Cherokee nation. It’s a somber but beautiful place, with easy hiking trails, picnic areas, an educational visitor center, and incredible views of the Mississippi below.
Fort D is the last remaining of four forts that helped to protect the town of Cape Girardeau from Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. It was designed by German-American engineers from Saint Louis and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It routinely hosts living history demonstrations, and admission is free.
Southeast Missouri State University’s campus is worth a stroll, with its historic buildings and vibrant feel.
When you’re ready to grab a bite, head downtown to the riverfront, where you’ll find many cafes, eateries, galleries, and fun shops. Cape Girardeau also makes a good overnight stop; the Courtyard downtown offers renovated rooms in a central location.
New Madrid, Missouri
Another hour-long jaunt south on Interstate 55 will land you in a town known for its earthshaking impact on the state of Missouri: New Madrid. This is the spot where, beginning back in December of 1811, a series of three enormous earthquakes shook the eastern half of the United States with a violence and ferocity 10 times that of the 1906 quake in San Francisco. The New Madrid Fault is still one of the best-known seismic zones in the world, although the town is much quieter and more serene these days.
New Madrid’s town center has several historic buildings, including the New Madrid Historical Museum. The museum traces the area’s history back to the days when the Spanish first claimed the area and through the quakes and the town’s involvement in the Civil War. The observation deck and river walk to the Mississippi are worth your time, and you can spy the state of Kentucky right across the way.
The Snaggy Bend Cafe serves down-home favorites, in case you need to fuel up before hitting the road again.
For a quick, sweet pit stop, pull over in Sikeston. Right next to the town’s most famous restaurant, Lambert’s, is a small shop tucked into a gas station that you won’t want to miss. The Original Fried Pie Shop sells the classic Ozark dessert in a variety of fruit and cream flavors. Stop off to get one — or several — for the rest of your trip. Word to the wise: Our favorite is the chocolate!
Another 45 minutes, and you’ll cross into Arkansas. You’re entering the area where the Delta blues were born! Stop off in Blytheville. This place boomed as a lumber mill town, and the wealth generated at that time is evident in the many architectural styles, including Tudor and Gothic revival, on display downtown. You can’t miss the Greyhound Station, on the National Register of Historic Places for its sleek Art Moderne style; it also serves as a visitor center. Bibliophiles should make the extra effort to grab a latte and have a browse at the Blytheville Book Company.
Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, Historic Dyess Colony, Arkansas
Fans of country and classic rock and roll should consider one more stop before reaching Memphis — the place where the Man in Black grew up and first played the music that would make him a legend. The Dyess Colony was a New Deal project and social experiment that provided small farmsteads and homes to hundreds of families across Arkansas, including Ray and Carrie Cash. The home where they raised their son Johnny and his siblings still stands, and it, along with several other surviving buildings, is run and maintained by Arkansas State University.
You’ve finally reached Memphis! Head to Beale Street (of course!) for live blues, great bars, and a lively vibe, and of course consider a stop at nearby Graceland, where Elvis Presley hung his hat. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and is a must-see to learn more about the struggle for civil rights and racial equity.
But consider getting off the beaten path as well, and venture out to neighborhoods the locals love. Cooper-Young is a funky midtown area that has fun shops, bars, and one of the best pizza places ever — Aldo’s Pizza Pies. A drive around the Central Gardens National Historic District is a treat to take in the beautiful, historic homes.
When you’re ready to turn in for the night, the Hu Hotel is a perfect boutique option downtown with a great rooftop bar overlooking the Mississippi.
Read more about all Memphis has to offer here.
Pro Tip: It’s great to take your time to explore the spots listed above. This route has you staying on the interstate — for the most part. Keep in mind that traffic in Saint Louis and Memphis can and likely will be congested during the morning and evening rushes, and plan your stops and time spent on the road accordingly to make sure you’re not stuck in traffic.