Colorful neon signs at night on Beale Street
Natalia Bratslavsky/

Road trip from Chicago to Memphis

Published by Pat Dorri on February 27 2024

Pack your bags and get your favorite playlist ready! This road trip from Chicago to Memphis is an epic drive through the heart of the Midwest, past roadside Americana, historic cities, charming small towns with blues heritage, delicious barbecue spots, and relics of the legendary Route 66.

The 700-mile road trip from Chicago to Memphis will take 10 hours 50 minutes to drive. On the way, you can visit Lafayette, Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Cave City, Mammoth Cave National Park, Louisville Mega Cavern and Johhny Cash Museum.

This road trip will be full of adventure and cultural highlights around every corner. Read on below to learn more about our recommended routes, best places to stop along the way, best things to see, and the best seasons to travel.

How to drive from Chicago to Memphis

The map below shows two great route options for your Chicago to Memphis road trip. Click on the star icons for headline details, and scroll down for more information below.

* Always remember that drive times can be impacted by traffic, closures, weather and other conditions. It's best to double-check while planning and before starting out on your trip.

Comparison of road trip routes between Chicago to Memphis
RouteDistanceDriving Time
St Louis Route590 miles9 hours 20 minutes
Nashville Route700 miles10 hours 50 minutes

How far is Memphis from Chicago, and how long will the road trip take?

If you are planning on driving directly from Chicago to Memphis, you'd spend about 8 hours on the road, driving 530 miles. But this means missing out on all the fun and amazing places you can discover on the way.

The St Louis Route, a journey through the heart of the Midwest, covers approximately 590 miles and takes around 9 hours and 20 minutes to complete.

Hernando de Soto Bridge in Memphis during a cloudy sunset
Make your way from Chicago to Memphis, the birthplace of rock 'n' roll and home of the blues.
Sean Pavone/

Alternatively, the Nashville Route takes you on a slightly longer adventure through the stunning landscapes and musical heritage of the American South. This route spans about 700 miles with around 10 hours and 50 minutes on the road.

Given the rich cultural experiences and scenic beauty along the way, you'll want to spend 3-4 days on the road. This way, you can fully immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and flavors of the regions you'll pass through.

Best road trip route from Chicago to Memphis

Choosing between the St Louis and Nashville Routes from Chicago to Memphis depends on what you want to see and do the most. Both routes will make incredible road trips so you won't be disappointed no matter which option you choose!

The St Louis Route covers easy highways and interstates, and this route is perfect if you prefer to stick to well-maintained roads. You will also get to drive on sections of the world-famous Route 66 from Chicago as you make your way to St Louis on this route.

The scenery blends urban and rural views, agricultural landscapes, and charming towns that dot central Illinois and the Mississippi River. With a mix of small towns and major cities like Springfield and St Louis, you'll have plenty of options for dining, accommodation, and refueling.

This route is also rich in historical and cultural landmarks, from Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield to the iconic Gateway Arch in St Louis.

The Nashville Route weaves through the diverse landscapes of the Midwest and is similarly a straightforward drive. This route is perfect if you enjoy easy driving through rolling hills and delving deep into the musical heart of the South.

Despite the potential traffic in cities, the possibility to take a break and spend some time in cities like Indianapolis, Louisville, and Nashville will make your drive easy and pleasant.

This route has plenty of cultural and historical attractions, offering everything from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to amazing live music venues and museums of Nashville.

The St Louis Route

From Chicago, drive south on Interstate 55 (I-55) South. As you leave behind the skyscrapers, you enter Bloomington, Illinois, where the agriculture of the Prairie State's heartland begins to unfold.

Continuing south on the interstate, Springfield, the capital of Illinois, awaits. Here, you'll get to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and the historic Lincoln Home National Historic Site.

As you journey further, cross into Missouri to St Louis. This city is known for its iconic Gateway Arch, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the historic Soulard District. Crossing the Mississippi River provides panoramic views that are not to be missed.

Proceeding on I-55, you'll soon make your way to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, nestled along the bank of the Mississippi River. The charming downtown and riverfront offer pleasant strolls and a place to stretch your legs. Finally, continuing south, the route will guide you into Memphis.

Beautiful sunrise, photo taken from the bridge
You can visit Cape Girardeau and drive on the scenic Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge to cross from Missouri to Illinois on the St Louis Route.
Mean Shadows/

The Nashville Route

From Chicago, your journey begins on I-65 South, leading you out of the city into the landscapes of the Midwest. Your first major stop is Indianapolis, a city known for its sports culture and world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Continuing south, you'll enter Louisville, Kentucky. This city is full of American history and culture, with the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center being must-visits.

The route then takes you further into Kentucky and you will soon be able to visit the impressive Mammoth Cave National Park. After your visit, continue your drive towards Bowling Green. Known for the National Corvette Museum, Bowling Green is an automobile lovers' paradise.

Next, you'll proceed to Nashville, Tennessee, via I-65 South. Nashville, the heart of country music, is famous for its music scene, historic Ryman Auditorium, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. After getting your fill of Nashville, take I-40 West to your destination of Memphis.

Cove in Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park is one of the highlights on the Nashville Route.
Ko Zatu/

Best places to stop between Chicago and Memphis

With so many exciting places to check out on your way on this Chicago to Memphis road trip, you'll want to stop for the night at one of the exciting destinations below. This way, you'll get to enjoy the unforgettable highlights along the way while staying rested.

Visit the majestic Gateway Arch in St Louis

St Louis is a beautiful city nestled along the Mississippi River, located about 5 hours into the route that it lends its name to. Known for its iconic Gateway Arch, the city blends history with modern attractions that make it one of the most unique destinations in the USA.

Among the top places to visit in St Louis is the City Museum. This unique space is made from found objects and is a playground, funhouse, and art project all in one.

St. Louis, Missouri, USA with a view of the Gateway Arch in Missouri with pink flowers and blue sky.
Did you know that you could take a tram ride up the famous Gateway Arch?

Another must-see is the St Louis Aquarium at Union Station, where you can explore aquatic life from around the world. Nearby, don't miss some of the city's famous restaurants and bars.

For your stay in St Louis, the luxurious and highly rated 21c Museum Hotel St Louis stands out as a fabulous choice. This 4-star hotel is famous for its exceptional design and modern artwork, featuring a gallery space that's truly unique.

The hotel offers an indoor swimming pool, spa and wellness center, and fitness center, ensuring a relaxing and rejuvenating visit. With room service, a 24-hour front desk, and the popular Idol Wolf restaurant serving exquisite Spanish dishes, you'll be sure to have the stay of a lifetime.

The hotel's location places you within walking distance of several amazing destinations, including the Old Courthouse, Laclede's Landing, and the Edward Jones Dome. Nearby, the City Museum, St Louis Aquarium at Union Station, and St Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum offer enriching experiences just a short stroll away.

Follow in the footsteps of country superstars Nashville

Nashville, the heart of country music, is an essential stopover on the Nashville Route from Chicago to Memphis. This city resonates with the sounds of music history with landmarks like Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium.

In Nashville, the Johnny Cash Museum will take you on a journey into the life and career of the legendary "Man in Black," showcasing a vast collection of artifacts and personal memorabilia.

Huge guitars at Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville is a fantastic destination to visit to enjoy some live country music, and Grand Ole Opry is one of the best venues in town.

If you'd like to learn about another icon, the Patsy Cline Museum features personal belongings and rare artifacts that paint a picture of her legacy.

For your stay in Nashville, we recommend the highly-rated and beautiful Noelle. This hotel captures the essence of Nashville's unique charm with its beautiful architecture and elegantly decorated interiors.

You'll have a choice of three restaurants, including Makeready Libations & Liberation, which specializes in modern American cuisine. The availability of bicycles and car hire services offers convenient options for exploring the city, while the rooftop bar is the perfect place to unwind after a day of sightseeing.

Located near key attractions like the Johnny Cash Museum, Patsy Cline Museum, and Music City Walk of Fame Park, Noelle is perfectly situated if you're looking to immerse yourself in Nashville's musical legacy.

Where to stay when you reach Memphis

Memphis, another city steeped in musical history and culture, is the ultimate destination on your road trip from Chicago. Known for its pivotal role in the history of blues, soul, and rock 'n' roll, Memphis offers plenty of experiences, from lively street music on Beale Street to the solemnity of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Exterior of the historic recording studio on a sunny day
Visit the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, where the King himself started his singing career.

If you're ready to explore Memphis's unique blend of music, history, and riverside beauty, staying at the luxurious Big Cypress Lodge is an exceptional choice. The hotel is shaped like a giant pyramid and is one of the city's most iconic landmarks.

This stylish, outdoor-themed hotel features a 13-lane bowling alley to enjoy a game with your fellow travelers and two on-site restaurants and a bar that provide a range of dining options, from casual to fine dining.

The hotel is just a short walk or drive from the Fire Museum of Memphis, Magevney House, and the iconic Elvis Statue, placing you a stone's throw from some of the most interesting places to visit in Memphis.

Things to see on a road trip from Chicago to Memphis

There is so much to see and do along the way that planning this epic road trip from Chicago to Memphis may take some time. To help you out, we've included our top highlights below.

St Louis Route

  1. McLean County Museum of History - Housed in a historic courthouse, this museum offers a deep dive into the rich history of McLean County with exhibits that range from the prehistoric to the present day.
  2. David Davis Mansion - Located in Bloomington, Illinois, this mansion is a splendid example of Victorian-era architecture, offering a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle of the 19th-century American elite, set against the backdrop of beautifully preserved interiors and lush gardens.
  3. Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup - A family-operated business since 1824, Funks Grove offers visitors a sweet taste of pure maple syrup and a glimpse into the traditional methods of syrup production.
  4. Bunyon's Statue - This towering statue of a classic roadside giant, often referred to as a "Muffler Man," holds a hot dog and is a nostalgic nod to Route 66's era of quirky attractions.
  5. Atlanta's Smiley Water Tower - A cheerful landmark, the Smiley Water Tower brightens the skyline of Atlanta, IL, with its large, painted smiley face, symbolizing the town's friendly spirit.
  6. Lincoln's New Salem - A meticulously reconstructed village where Abraham Lincoln spent his early adulthood, offering visitors a chance to step back into the 1830s and explore Lincoln's life.
  7. Starhill Forest Arboretum - This private arboretum and botanical garden in Illinois is dedicated to the conservation of trees and offers educational tours about local flora and environmental stewardship.
  8. Air Combat Museum - Showcasing a collection of military aircraft and artifacts, this museum offers insights into the history of air combat and aviation innovation.
  9. Shea's Gas Station Museum - An eclectic museum filled with gas station memorabilia and vintage road signs, reflecting the golden age of American road travel on Route 66.
  10. Museum of Mirth, Mystery & Mayhem - This unique museum captures the imagination with exhibits on the quirky, the strange, and the outright bizarre, providing a fun and unusual historical perspective.
  11. Ariston Café - Recognized as one of the oldest restaurants on Route 66, Ariston Café offers a warm, nostalgic dining experience in Litchfield with a menu reflecting the rich history of the Mother Road.
  12. Cozy Dog Drive-In - Home of the original "Cozy Dog," this drive-in is a Route 66 icon where visitors can enjoy hot dogs on a stick alongside a slice of Americana.
  13. Route 66 Twin Drive-In Theater - Offering a double feature of nostalgia and entertainment, this drive-in theater invites guests to enjoy movies under the stars in a classic Route 66 setting.
  14. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site - A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cahokia Mounds is the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico, offering insights into the lives of the ancient Mississippian culture.
  15. World's Largest Catsup Bottle - This whimsical, 170-foot-tall water tower in Collinsville is designed to mimic a ketchup bottle, celebrating the town's history as a major producer of catsup.
Historic mansion in a garden on a sunny day
You can visit the opulent home of Judge David Davis, a close associate of Abraham Lincoln, in Bloomington on the St Louis Route.
Henryk Sadura/

Nashville Route

  1. Wolf Lake Boardwalk - This serene boardwalk offers picturesque views of Wolf Lake, providing a peaceful setting for walking, bird watching, and experiencing the natural beauty of the area.
  2. Tippecanoe Battlefield Park - A historic site commemorating the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, this park offers educational trails, a museum, and monuments dedicated to this pivotal event in American history.
  3. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum - Located within the famed racetrack, this museum celebrates the history of auto racing with an extensive collection of cars, memorabilia, and exhibits on the Indianapolis 500.
  4. Indianapolis Zoo - A leader in animal conservation and research, the Indianapolis Zoo offers an engaging experience with a wide variety of animals, interactive exhibits, and lush botanical gardens.
  5. Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum - Step back in time at this historic ice cream parlor in Columbus, IN, offering classic treats, a beautifully restored interior, and a museum showcasing American soda fountain history.
  6. Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center - This refuge provides a sanctuary for a diverse range of wildlife, offering trails for visitors to explore habitats, observe birds, and enjoy the tranquility of nature.
  7. Kentucky Kingdom & Hurricane Bay - A thrilling amusement and water park in Louisville that offers a wide array of rides, slides, and entertainment for families and adventure seekers alike.
  8. Louisville Mega Cavern - An underground adventure park offering zip lines, a ropes course, and tours exploring the history and geology of this massive man-made cavern.
  9. Swope's Cars of Yesteryear Museum - Located in Elizabethtown, KY, this museum showcases a remarkable collection of vintage automobiles from the early 20th century to the 1960s.
  10. Cave City - A gateway to exploring the wonders of Mammoth Cave National Park, Cave City offers unique attractions, lodging, and dining in a scenic and historic setting.
  11. Mammoth Cave National Park - The world's longest cave system, this national park in Kentucky offers guided tours, hiking trails, and a deep dive into the earth's geological and cultural history.
  12. Aviation Heritage Park - Located in Bowling Green, KY, this park honors military aviation history through the restoration and display of historic aircraft associated with local aviators.
  13. Johnny Cash Museum - This museum in Nashville, TN, celebrates the life and music of Johnny Cash with an extensive collection of artifacts, personal items, and interactive exhibits.
  14. Frist Art Museum - An art deco building in Nashville that hosts a diverse range of visual art from local, state, and regional artists, as well as national and international exhibitions.
  15. Casey Jones Village - A cultural and historical complex in Jackson, TN, featuring a museum dedicated to the legendary railroad engineer Casey Jones, with a replica of his home, train shop, and Old Country Store.
A male and female lion lying on the grass, staring into the distance
You will get to see and learn about fascinating animals if you visit the educational Indianapolis Zoo on the Nashville Route.

Best time to go on a road trip from Chicago to Memphis

A road trip from Chicago to Memphis will be full of endless experiences no matter which season you travel. However, keep in mind that whether you choose the St Louis Route or the Nashville Route, the timing of your journey can significantly influence what you get to see and do.

Summer on both routes is marked by hot temperatures and humidity, especially as you approach the southern states. That being said, this season is great for exploring the cities, air-conditioned attractions, dining outdoors, and enjoying the many music and cultural festivals.

In cities like St Louis and Nashville, you can escape the heat indoors, while evenings in Memphis are perfect for leisurely walks along the Mississippi River.

Summer events include Louisville's Kentucky State Fair in August, offering unique local experiences. Once you reach your destination in the summer, don't miss the Elvis Week in August.

Winter is generally snowy around Chicago. However, as you travel south, the weather will get milder and less snowy.

This season is perfect for indoor cultural experiences, such as museum visits and enjoying the rich music scenes of Nashville and Memphis. You'll also get to enjoy events like the Soulard Mardi Gras In January-February and the Bourbon Classic Festival in February.

Spring and fall offer the most comfortable travel conditions, with milder temperatures and less humidity. These periods bring blooming flowers and colorful foliage, especially noticeable in Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky.

Spring and fall are bustling with events like the Route 66 Red Carpet Corridor and Indianapolis 500 in May. You'll also get to enjoy natural attractions in Bowling Green and scenic riverfront walks in Cape Girardeau.