Motown to Music City Road Trip : Atlas Obscura's - Atlas Obscura

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Motown to Music City Road Trip

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Detroit and Nashville are synonymous with two all-American music genres. It’s no surprise that visitors flock to these cities each year to get a feel for the places where artists such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton began their careers. A (relatively) straight, north to south route connects the two cities, as does musical heritage. Load up the RV, make sure your speaker system is in tip-top shape, and create a playlist filled with old-school Motown and Country hits. If you're not driving on the trip down south, you should be dancing.

Ouizi's vibrant mural.

1. Detroit’s Best Street Art

Begin your adventure at Eastern Market, a historic commercial district and the site of a year-round public farmers’ market located just north of downtown Detroit. The alleyways and industrial buildings of this area act as giant canvasses for some of Detroit’s most impressive murals. Many are created anew each year at “Murals in the Market,” a world-renowned festival held in September.

Grab a map, or simply wander around. With the most concentrated collection of street art in Detroit, it’s hard to pick favorites in this area. One showstopper is New Orleans’ “BMike” Odums and Detroit’s Rick Williams’ affecting collaboration depicting a young African American boy holding up a fistful of flowers on the corner of Adelaide and Orleans streets. Another is artist Louise Chen (a.k.a. "Ouizi")'s blue blooms on Orleans between Division and Adelaide streets.

Plan ahead and visit on Saturday, when the farmers' market is in full swing. Stock your RV's fridge with locally-sourced meat and produce. 

1357 Division St, Detroit, MI 48207

Bert's exterior advertises everything it has to offer.

2. Music With a Side of Barbecue

While you’re still in the district, head over to Bert’s Market Place, a restaurant, bar, and live music venue. Approach from Russell Street, across from the Eastern Market sheds, and you’ll be met by the sight and smell of ribs grilling outside. Inside, locals line up on bar stools to chow down and chat each other up. No matter the time of day, Bert’s is always buzzing. Don’t be afraid to talk to your neighbors here, because chances are they’ve been coming to Bert’s for years and have plenty of stories to share.

Owner Bert Dearing Jr. opened the Market Place in 1987, but he’s been running music venues his entire life. One main draw is Saturday morning karaoke. If you go, get there early. The room fills up quickly, and it’s no wonder–the talent on display here is truly something to behold. Many of the regulars are local legends who are clearly comfortable onstage.

Throughout the multi-purpose space, look out for memorabilia including Dearing’s personal photography collection of famous customers, historic maps of the city, and artwork by black artists.

2727 Russell St, Detroit, MI 48207

The lonely statue makes for a surreal sight.

3. Just a Giant Cow Head

If you can’t resist a good roadside oddity, drive about 15 minutes to the city’s east side and you won’t be disappointed. At the corner of Lenox and Mack streets, an oversized cow head sits atop a comparatively tiny former ice cream stand. Surrounded by overgrown lots and vacant buildings, it’s a surreal sight that’s worth a stop (and a photo) before you embark on the drive south, where the actual cows roam.

Despite the odds, the hefty statue has remained on top of the abandoned shop since 1955, when it served as the mascot for Ira Wilson & Sons Dairy. More recently, it was immortalized onscreen in the 2002 film 8 Mile. Having reportedly been purchased in early 2019, the Cow Head’s future is uncertain–all the more reason to check it out.

Now might be a good time to make your way outside of city limits to nest. There are a number of campground options just northwest of the city, but for a more bucolic experience, drive about 40 minutes south to William C. Sterling State Park–the only state park located on Lake Erie. Its beaches and lagoons offer a nice respite for a multi-day stay in Motown. 

13099 Mack Ave, Detroit, MI 48215

A peek inside Studio A.

4. The Place Where It All Began

You can’t visit Detroit without making a pilgrimage to the place where Motown as we know it was born. On West Grand Boulevard in the heart of New Center, the charming blue and white house advertised as “Hitsville U.S.A” is impossible to miss. Formally known as the Motown Museum, the building itself belonged to Berry Gordy Jr., who in 1959 founded the famous Motown record label.

Gordy’s sister, Esther Gordy Edwards, opened the museum in 1985. By then, Berry had moved his entire operation to Los Angeles and left almost everything as is, including the candy machine that always had Stevie Wonder’s favorite Baby Ruth bars placed in the same place (four in from the right), and the front desk where Martha Reeves answered phones before becoming one of the scene’s most sought-after vocal talents.

For many, the museum’s crowning jewel is Studio A, where hits such as “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Please, Mr. Postman,” and “Do You Love Me? (Now That I Can Dance)” were recorded. Seeing some of the original instruments played on such iconic recordings and observing the grooves in the floor of the control room (made by producers pounding their feet to the beats), it’s hard not to be moved by the history that surrounds you.   

2648 W Grand Blvd, Detroit, MI 48208

Workers inside the pressing plant.

5. A Famous Detroiter's Homage to Vinyl

Motown’s influence continues to dominate the airwaves today. Go see for yourself over at Third Man Records, in the city’s historic Cass Corridor. Upon entering the storefront, you’ll smell the vinyl wafting from the pressing plant located in the back. The facility is the first of its kind to open in Detroit since 1965. It primarily presses records from owner Jack White’s label in a distinctive yellow hue. Put on a pair of safety glasses, and you can even take a tour of the factory floor.

Most vinyl pressing plants are automated, but here, everything is done manually. Watch employees run the Third Man yellow Newbilt presses and create a vinyl record from scratch. You’ll need to book a tour in advance for the full experience but if you can’t make a reservation, you can still see the factory from inside the store through windows.

441 W Canfield St, Detroit, MI 48201

One of Cardoso and Corona's creations.

6. A Peaceful Spot with a Storied Past

Say goodbye to Detroit and hop on the highway to get to McCourtie Park. The main attractions at this pleasant green space are cement bridges made to look as though they were built from wood, and the remains of a notorious rathskeller.

The cement and oil tycoon W.H.L. McCourtie moved back to his home state and the current site of McCourtie Park in 1924, beginning construction of what the locals described as “a rich man’s hideaway.” In 1930, he hired George Cardoso and Ralph Corona, itinerant Mexican artisans, to construct the bridges. The men were experts at the folk art tradition of trabajo rústico, or “rustic work.” Facing the park, walk all the way to the right toward the road, and you can still see the artists’ names etched into the cement floor of the farthest bridge.

McCourtie’s “hideaway” was home to plenty of parties during the Jazz Age. The house has since been demolished, but its drinking den can still be seen through the windows of a garage that’s also survived. Take a quick peek through its windows for a view of the bar and a fireplace where gangsters like Al Capone were rumored to congregate.

10426 S Jackson Rd, Cement City, MI 49233

Inside a groovy 1960s-era camper.

7. A 100,000-Square-Foot Parking Lot Packed With Antique RVs

It's easy to take all of your RV's amenities for granted. You won't find stoves or refrigerators in the original campers, which rolled off the lot shortly after the very first automobiles. The RV/MH Hall of Fame is an enriching experience that will help you appreciate your camper all the more, whether this is your first  jaunt in an RV or your hundredth. 

The RV/MH Hall of Fame is home to more than 50 travel trailers and motor homes that date back to the early 20th century. Follow the exhibit’s “road floor,” beginning with the oldest recreational vehicles in the world: a 1913 “Earl” Travel Trailer and a 1916 Model “T” Ford Telescoping Apartment. Note the ingenuity of the design of these original RVs.

As you move forward in time, you’ll also learn about the formation of the first RV camping clubs, nicknamed the “Tin Can Tourists.” Despite the fact that transcontinental roads weren’t prevalent at the time, these groups congregated as early as the 1920s. By the 1930s, you’ll see the nascent aircraft industry’s influence on the vehicles’ design.

As you continue, you’ll have the chance to step inside some RVs from the 1950s and ‘60s. Aside from certain safety features, you won’t see many differences between these midcentury RVs and modern ones. The‘70s and '80s are a different story: camper decor trends from these decades include shag carpeting and don’t disappoint.

21565 Executive Pkwy, Elkhart, IN 46514

Visitors board boats like this one to take a subterranean tour.

8. Not Your Average Boat Tour

Continue your journey south, passing rolling hills, farms, and cattle pastures. The scenery may entice you to take a break from driving, and you’d be wise to do so at Bluespring Caverns, home to the longest underground navigable river in the U.S. Winding down the nondescript, residential road that leads you to the entrance, you may feel as though you’ve lost your way. But the attraction is well-marked once you arrive. Drive to the bottom of the hill to find the log cabin visitor’s center and sign up for a boat tour.

Discovered in the 19th century when this land was still privately owned, the story goes that one morning a farmer woke up to find his pond gone, replaced by a sinkhole that led to the cave system. Learn more about that fateful morning, along with facts about the cave’s rock formations and fauna. Keep your eyes peeled for salamanders, frogs, and crayfish.

1459 Blue Springs Cavern Rd, Bedford, IN 47421

Descending into the depths of the Mammoth Cave system.

9. Mammoth Caves That Live Up to Their Name

The exit to get to Mammoth Cave National Park is impossible to miss: it’s marked by a giant dinosaur statue advertising “Dinosaur World.” Pull over to take another photo to add to your album, and then follow the bends to reach Mammoth Cave Visitor Center. Part of Mammoth Cave National Park, these caves hold the distinction of being the longest known cave system in the world.

You’re spoiled for options when it comes to tours. There are historical tours, including one that takes you through an 1840s underground hospital built to treat consumptive patients, and another that leads you to “Gothic Avenue,” a peculiar passage with handwritten messages and makeshift monuments left by the various people who have worked in these caves over the past two centuries.

Whichever tour you choose, pay attention to the stairs you traverse as you make your descent into the caves. The 280-step, narrow staircase is an engineering feat. Until the 1960s, these stairs were wooden. Figuring out how to manufacture the metal stairs that are still in use today wasn’t easy. The company that cracked the code, somewhat unsurprisingly, specialized in submarines. It’s estimated that each metal stair cost about $3,000 to create–roughly $25,000 in today’s dollars.

As an added bonus, there's a developed campground just a quarter-mile from the visitor's center. Make sure to book a reservation early—spots fill up fast in the summer. 

1 Mammoth Cave Pkwy, Mammoth Cave, KY 42259

A year-long exhibition offers a glimpse into Hatch Show Print's 140-year history.

10. Hatch Show Print

Emerge from the underground and hit the road again to reach your final destination: Nashville. Head straight to the center of town to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where Hatch Show Print has operated since 2013. Founded by Charles and Herbert Hatch in 1875, the letterpress print shop was originally located behind the Ryman Auditorium (home to the Grand Ole Opry) and was hugely influential in the evolution of country music. Its presence in music posters and concert flyers can still be felt today.

The shop’s heyday coincided with the rise of the genre, and its clientele included luminaries such as Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline. But the business didn’t just cater to the country and western set. The Ryman auditorium also hosted plenty of jazz and blues entertainers in the 1920s, and Hatch Show created posters for those artists too, including Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, and Duke Ellington.

Still an active press, visitors can sign up for a tour of the floor. Alternatively, you can visit the shop as well as a special exhibition celebrating 140 years of the business, on display through 2020.

224 5th Ave S, Nashville, TN 37203

Warner Park also serves as a research facility and learning center.

11. Coffee for the Birds

After a night on the town taking in the sounds that waft from just about every bar and restaurant on Nashville’s main drag, wake up the next morning and grab yourself a cup of coffee at a surprising location: Warner Park Nature Center. On Saturday mornings, coffee chats are held here to educate visitors about the ecological benefits of shade-grown coffee and the unexpected reason you should be drinking it: to protect birds.

Many birds migrate south to Mexico, Central America, or South America—the places we often associate with coffee bean production. Clearing forests to grow coffee beans is detrimental to birds and other wildlife. But coffee can also be grown in managed shade forests that make space for both birds and coffee plants. Warner Park sells such blends, which you can sip on the center’s wraparound porch or take with you on a hike through one of the forest’s trails. Or, simply purchase a bag to brew in your home-on-the-road's coffeemaker. 

7311 TN-100, Nashville, TN 37221

The "Pickin' Corner."

12. Serenite Maison

You may have already reached Nashville, but for a true taste of the South, head deeper into the countryside, past 100-acre farms and historic estates. In the quaint village of Leiper’s Fork, you’ll find a shop called Serenite Maison.

Housed in a circa 1914 general store, the business is packed floor-to-ceiling with beautifully curated home goods, old and new. But the real draw of the shop is hidden in plain sight, to the right of the entrance. Old instruments that hang from the walls in the “Pickin’ Corner” include a 1944 D-28 Martin, a 1940s L7 Archtop Gibson, and a 1934 Gibson mandolin, to name but a few. Anyone is welcome to try them out, and the store is known for hosting both regular and impromptu jam sessions.

9520, 4149 Old Hillsboro Rd, Franklin, TN 37064

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The East Texas Bayou.

Gulf Coast Road Trip

The terrain along the Gulf of Mexico is sometimes called the “Third Coast,” but for an offbeat road trip, it’s second to none. Starting in Houston and ending in Pensacola Bay, this journey takes you through some of America’s most diverse landscapes. You’ll cross Cajun swamps, drive along sparkling white sand beaches, and even spend some time in the Big Easy. Take an RV and camp along the way to truly immerse yourself in this wondrous region. The world’s largest gulf, it turns out, holds some of America’s best-kept secrets.

Coachella Valley Preserve.

Hidden Coachella Valley

The Coachella Valley and its environs boom in the spring, when tens of thousands of music lovers flock to catch their favorite artists perform in front of a dramatic, mountainous backdrop. But this region stays wonderfully weird all year long. If the festival drew you to the area and you only have a day to explore, choose a direction: Either head north, toward Joshua Tree and Landers, or southeast to the Salton Sea and nearby oases for a blissful respite. If you can spare a couple of days, lucky you—go forth and see it all.

A view of L.A. from the top of Highland Park.

Highland Park

Los Angeles’ Highland Park is a diverse, eclectic neighborhood that Native Americans and Latinx communities have inhabited for centuries. Celebrated for its history, art scene, ethnic diversity, and cuisine, Highland Park is filled with surprising delights that more and more people are discovering every day. Exploring the neighborhood's nooks and crannies is one of the most rewarding ways to spend a day in L.A.

The heart of Venice.


Once referred to as “The Coney Island of the Pacific,” L.A.’s beachfront neighborhood of Venice has long been a popular tourist destination. Its colorful characters, quirky architecture, and carnivalesque atmosphere are well-known the world over. But take a moment to look past the kitsch, and you’ll discover a place where artistic ingenuity thrives more than a century after Abbot Kinney endeavored to bring a grandiose version of Venice to America. The bohemian beehive has always attracted artists and performers, and everyone is welcome to enjoy the show.

Artist Colette Miller's tribute to the City of Angels.

L.A.’s Downtown Arts District

The 1970s brought a wave of artists into this former industrial area in Downtown Los Angeles. They sparked a fuse of creative imagination that burned for years. Up-and-coming creators took advantage of the then-low rents and built a foundation for the creative mecca that exists here today. In its infancy, L.A.’s Downtown Arts District came to life behind-the-scenes, with artists mostly working in closed studios. Today, the art has spilled onto the streets in the form of colorful murals, attractive gallery spaces, and stylish storefronts. But the curious explorer can still find literal and figurative traces of the ‘70s. In addition to the more historic spots that remain, a creative, entrepreneurial spirit abounds.

The Whitehall Banqueting House is full of topsy-turvy views.

Hidden Trafalgar Square

Wedged between Charing Cross and Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square is known for the throngs of people flocking to its famous attractions. Weave around the tourists on the National Gallery stairs and dodge the crowds clogging the street corners. Instead, duck down dreamy alleys and pop into unique, overlooked museums and shops. There, a secret side of this busy area waits to reveal itself.

An elevator shaft in Tribeca opens to reveal a museum of small wonders.

Secrets of NYC’s Five Boroughs

Few cities on Earth are as well-trodden as New York–but as any intrepid traveler knows, the more you explore a place, the more wonders you find. You may not be able to discover all of these spots in a single trip, but that could be a good thing. No matter how many times you return, the city that never sleeps never ceases to surprise. Visit NYCGo to uncover more of the city’s secret spots.

Plenty of sweet treats are on offer at Pastelería Ideal

Mexico City's Centro Histórico

Anchored by the Zócalo plaza and the architectural splendor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City's historic center rightfully draws scores of visitors from around the world. If you look, smell, and taste carefully, you’ll also find a universe of culinary offerings that tells stories of immigration, adaptation, and imagination. With the help of Culinary Backstreets, we assembled a primer on eating and drinking your way through the district.

View of the Hollywood Sign from Babylon Court

Hidden Hollywood

Hollywood Boulevard is world-famous—for the Oscars and the Walk of Fame, for schlocky souvenir shops and crowded tour buses. But beyond the terrazzo stars and the occasional celebrity sighting, there’s plenty left to discover. Here’s how to make Hollywood’s acquaintance, whether you’re a visitor or a local who keeps a practiced distance from these busy, saturated blocks. Look closer and you'll find a neighborhood full of nature, history, and wonder.

A subway entrance in Times Square.

Hidden Times Square

There's the Times Square you know, full of blazing billboards, selfie sticks, and costumed characters. Then there's the less familiar one, beyond the lights—the nooks and crannies that most visitors to Midtown Manhattan overlook. They're not obvious, but surprises can still be found along this world-famous stretch of real estate.

Upper Hoh Road, Olympic National Park, Oregon.

Summer Radio Road-Trip

Follow along on our 2,200-mile adventure with NPR's 'All Things Considered.'



Forge your own path in this tourist magnet, toward places that are less crowded but no less wondrous.


Buenos Aires

Find faded grandeur and vibrant street life in Argentina's largest city.



Just when you thought you knew the Windy City, it finds new ways to surprise you.



Find secret vistas, labyrinthine bookstores, and eclectic public art.

The dome of Estrela Basilica in Lisbon.


In the homeland of explorers, your best bet is to keep looking.



Go beyond the beaches in the continental United States’ only truly tropical city.



New York City's most diverse borough is also its most rewarding.


San Diego

Southern California's second city holds plenty of sparkling secrets.



Find surprises around every corner in a U.S. city that embraces history like no other.