Tennessee’s abundant natural beauty, rich history and music culture are just a few reasons to visit The Volunteer State. There…
Tennessee’s abundant natural beauty, rich history and music culture are just a few reasons to visit The Volunteer State. There are also incredible natural wonders, exciting outdoor adventures and top-notch attractions that beckon nature lovers and thrill-seekers. You might even discover hidden treasures in the small towns off the main highways and byways. During your visit, be sure to sample the state’s famous barbecue, sip a little whiskey and enjoy a healthy dose of Southern hospitality along the way. U.S. News compiled a list of the 23 top attractions to see and fun things to do across the state. (Note: Some tours and excursions may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions and parking reservation requirements. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
With more than 522,000 acres of forest, waterfalls and wildlife stretching across Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the U.S. The park boasts 850 miles of hiking trails across 150 paths. The 5 1/2-mile round-trip Rainbow Falls is one of the top hikes: The first mile is a challenging walk along LeConte Creek, followed by several miles sprinkled with footbridges. Hikers are rewarded with views of the falls. If you time your visit for the afternoon, you may see a rainbow (hence, the name of the falls) in the mist. Another popular hike, Chimney Tops, features a steep climb to the summit for sweeping mountain views. There are also thousands of species of animals and plant life, including elk, deer and black bears and more than 1,600 varieties of flowering plants. For a fully immersive experience, make reservations to camp in the park. Three of the recommended front country campsites are Abrams Creek, Deep Creek and Cades Cove. Cades Cove boasts a gorgeous valley with ample wildlife-watching opportunities. Explore the 11-mile route by car, bicycle or on foot. Not-to-be-missed is Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park — and in the state — at 6,643 feet elevation. At the Clingmans Dome parking lot, you could also take the Andrews Bald trail which travelers said boasts spectacular forest scenery.
Fans from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Graceland to visit the home of The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. The bustling entertainment complex in Memphis boasts 120 acres of museums and memorabilia dedicated to the legendary performer. You’ll need tickets to access everything, and consider splurging on the Ultimate VIP Tour. This package includes an intimate tour of Graceland Mansion, a self-guided tour of Elvis’ jets, full access to Elvis Presley’s Memphis Entertainment Complex (where you’ll find collections of Elvis’ cars, jumpsuits and other artifacts), a meal voucher for the on-site restaurant and access to a VIP-only exhibit, among other exclusive perks. Plan to stay at The Guest House at Graceland to enjoy all of the highlights, memorabilia, Elvis-themed events and live concerts. This hotel, one of the largest in Memphis, features rooms and suites inspired by the glitz of Las Vegas and the decor at Graceland and Elvis’ home in Palm Springs.
Country music fan favorites in Nashville include the Grand Ole Opry, Country Music Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium and the Johnny Cash Museum. You can also listen to up-and-coming artists at the must-visit honky-tonk bars like the famed Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway. But there’s more to Music City than its tunes. Reserve a room at The Union Station Nashville Yards — favored by visitors for its historic architecture and prime location near downtown — then bring your appetite to Assembly Food Hall. The building features international and locally inspired eateries, cocktails, incredible rooftop views and live music. Set aside time to visit some of the city’s museums, including The Parthenon, Frist Art Museum, Tennessee State Museum and National Museum of African American Music. Then, end your Nashville adventure with a dinner showboat cruise on the General Jackson.
Known as the Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Memphis is all about music. Top-rated attractions include Beale Street (where live music venues abound), the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Sun Studio, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and Graceland. Graceland is the biggest draw, but visitors also enjoy the guided tour at Sun Studio. They say that even though the building is small, there’s a lot of information in the former studio. Additionally, they say listening to the old music clips from music heavyweights like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis is priceless. Book accommodations at the historic Peabody Hotel and watch the famous Peabody ducks at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily as they strut their stuff down the lobby’s red carpet. It’s best to arrive early, or opt for a view from the second-story atrium as the lobby gets very crowded for the spectacle. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is another one of the city’s top attractions along with a riverboat cruise on the Mighty Mississippi. When it comes to Tennessee barbecue, grab lunch or dinner at The Rendezvous. This iconic spot located in a downtown Memphis alley has been serving up Memphis-style ribs since 1948.
This little mountain town at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains has kept families entertained with thrill rides, outdoor activities, music and dining and for more than 60 years. The town may be best known for Dollywood, but there are many other attractions, outside excursions and dining options worth exploring as well. Roller coaster enthusiasts will want to check out Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud Show and Adventure Park, where you’ll find the Flying Ox. This zip line-meets-rollercoaster hoists riders 80 feet in the air to zoom around a roller coaster track at 15 mph. The Island in Pigeon Forge is another family-friendly entertainment center that has rides, escape rooms, shopping and dining. Be sure to take a spin on the new SkyFly: Soar America. This indoor adventure soars high above the Grand Canyon, Alaska’s glaciers and other iconic American locations. While in town, plan to stay at The Inn on the River Hotel. Situated on 3 acres on the Little Pigeon River, this property is a traveler favorite for its close proximity to restaurants, shopping and top attractions.
Chattanooga sits on the banks of the Tennessee River in the Appalachian Mountains, bordering Georgia. The city boasts impressive museums, fun things to do, a vibrant downtown area and lively shopping and arts districts. Major attractions include the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Zoo, Lookout Mountain and the antique carousel at Coolidge Park. Coolidge Park’s beautiful 100-year-old Dentzel carousel features a calliope band organ, gold leaf benches and 52 handcarved animals. The waterfront park also has an interactive play fountain and a pavilion. What’s more, the venue hosts concerts, festivals and other events. Save time to explore the city’s railroad heritage, too. The Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel is one favorite. This historic beaux arts-style building was the first railway station built in the South. And at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, train enthusiasts can hop aboard a historic train for a ride (options last from one to eight hours, depending on the journey you choose).
Learn About Native American History
Native Americans have inhabited modern-day Tennessee for about 12,000 years. Many names like Chattanooga, Tullahoma, Sewanee and Nickajack are of Native American origin. It’s also believed that the name Tennessee is of Cherokee origin and means “where the river bends.” Today, you can explore Native American heritage across the state. Plan to begin your journey in the town of Vonore at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum. Located approximately 35 miles southwest of Knoxville, this museum is owned and operated by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation and pays tribute to a Cherokee by the name of Sequoyah. He was a silversmith, a soldier and statesman, but is best remembered as the man that created the Cherokee writing system. The Cherokee Memorial, where remains of Cherokees from the 18th century are buried, is also on-site. Afterward, plan to visit The Tansai Memorial, which is located 12 miles southeast of the museum and commemorates a Cherokee village. Part of the 5,043-mile-long Trail of Tears also runs through Tennessee. In the 1830s, the U.S. government forced Native American tribes across the southeast to relocate from their ancestral homelands to the west. The ensuing journey became known as the Trail of Tears. Along the trail, you’ll find the multiple places to visit to learn more about the horrific trek, including the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park in Birchwood. This is a multipurpose facility with informative history and memorial walls, an amphitheater and a wildlife refuge. Visitors to the park comment that it’s a beautiful and well-deserved memorial to the Native American people.
Titanic Museum Attraction
Owned and curated by the man that led the diving expedition to the Titanic in 1987, this impressive museum in Pigeon Forge brings the history of the legendary ship to life. The top-rated Titanic Museum Attraction has artifacts from the Titanic Historical Society and maintains more than 400 relics and memorabilia from the ship. The exterior of the building is approximately half of the size of the actual ship, but the interior recreated rooms are full-scale. Inside, you’ll find an exact replica of the Grand Staircase — which you can climb — as well as galleries filled with information about the ship and stories from survivors. There’s even a Memorial Room dedicated to the 2,208 passengers and crew members. Travelers suggest spending at least two hours in the museum so that you can listen to the emotional stories of the survivors and come away with a better understanding of what happened that fateful evening in 1912. You’ll need tickets to enter, which can be purchased online in advance.
The Lost Sea Adventure
Travel 140 feet below ground to see the largest underground lake in America. The aptly named Lost Sea is located approximately 50 miles southwest of Knoxville in Sweetwater. The 75-minute guided tour begins with a 3/4-mile round-trip walk on wide sloping pathways, and past travelers recommended that you wear comfortable, non-slip shoes. The guides explain the history of the cavern and you’ll learn how geological factors create the rare formations and cavern rooms. At the end of the tour, hop on a boat ride to see the clear waters of this 70-foot deep lake that covers several acres. A visit to Sweetwater could be a daytrip from Knoxville, but you may want to stay a day or two to explore the town and book a cabin or cottage vacation rental. Sweetwater’s historic district has unique shops and boutiques with rare antiques, collectibles and artwork. Don’t miss a visit to Sweetwater Valley Farm’s cafe to grab lunch and enjoy farm-fresh dairy specialties, such as grilled cheese sandwiches and creamy milkshakes.
Surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains — and with multiple downtown access points to the national park — Gatlinburg is the perfect base for outdoor adventure, but there’s much more to do while in town. Ober Gatlinburg offers year-round family fun with amusement rides, an aerial tramway, ice skating, tubing, skiing and other activities. Many patrons enjoy this attraction, though others warn that there can be a long wait for some of the activities and say that it’s overcrowded. You can also visit Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, walk a 680-foot suspension bridge at Skylift Park and zip to the top of Anakeesta theme park on a chondola (an open-air chair with safety bar). For an extended stay, make reservations at the Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg or The Lodge at Buckberry Creek, two of the top hotels in Gatlinburg. Then, wake up early to beat the crowds at the iconic Pancake Pantry, Tennessee’s first specialty pancake restaurant.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail in Tennessee
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail covers 15 states and more than 100 locations that were significant to the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll find 12 of these locales in Tennessee. In Memphis, visit five sites, such as the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel and Clayborn Temple. Then, travel approximately 210 miles northeast to visit Nashville’s six stops, which include Fisk University and the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library. In Clinton, located 174 miles east of Nashville, learn about the Clinton 12 at the Green McAdoo Cultural Center. These 12 Black students stepped inside an all-white public high school in August 1956, making this the first integrated school in the South. Visitors say the museum is very well done and expressed that their visit was a moving experience.
Tennessee Whiskey Trail
Tennessee has long been known for its whiskey, as the tradition dates back to pre-Civil War times. Today, there are more than 30 distilleries and over 800 miles of scenic landscapes to cover on the statewide whiskey trail. In fact, the trail’s official website estimates you’ll need 14 days to visit all the spots. There’s even a whiskey passport and an app you can download. The complete itinerary includes stops in and around Nashville, the Smoky Mountains, Knoxville and Memphis. Be sure not to miss the Lynchburg and Tullahoma area, home to the historic George Dickel and Jack Daniel’s distilleries. In between stops, check out Civil War battlegrounds, live music venues, local food favorites and hidden gems in smaller towns that include boutiques, historic homes and museums, and state parks with outdoor adventures. For accommodations in Memphis, consider staying at Big Cypress Lodge. This outdoor-themed pyramid-shaped hotel boasts a Bass Pro Shops, dining options, entertainment and views of the Mississippi River. The historic Hermitage Hotel is a top choice in Nashville and in the Knoxville area, The Oliver Hotel is a traveler favorite due to its close proximity to Market Square.
The Memphis Zoo
Located in Memphis’ Overton Park, the Memphis Zoo has been a major attraction since 1906. The zoo covers approximately 70 acres and is home to more than 500 species of animals that reside in various zones and exhibits. In Cat Country, you can view the elusive snow leopard and the endangered Bengal (Friday through Monday) or Sumatran tigers (Tuesday through Thursday). The China exhibit encompasses 3 acres and features Asian wildlife, including Francois langurs, Sulawesi crested black macaques and the visitor-favorite giant pandas. There are also seasonal exhibits and special events throughout the year, such as the KangaZoo Outback Experience and Zoovies, where you can watch a movie outside at the zoo. You can purchase tickets online. The admission price includes all permanent exhibits. Special events and experiences may be an additional cost. Visitors say that this is one of the best zoos in the U.S.
[See: The 30 Best Zoos in the U.S.]
Named after and owned by country star Dolly Parton, Pigeon Forge’s Dollywood offers 160 acres of family-friendly thrill rides, live shows, entertainment and plenty of Southern-inspired dining. Splash Country, the water park, features mountain views and exciting slides like Fire Tower Falls, Mountain Scream and TailSpin Racer. If you prefer, grab a tube and ride the waves in Mountain Wave pool or relax while floating down a 1,500-foot river on the Downbound Float Trip. Of course, you’ll want to stay nearby with so much to do, so reserve accommodations at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa or opt for one of the property’s luxury log cabins. Guests of the resort enjoy the comfortable accommodations, friendly staff, dining options, amenities and daily timesaver passes that are included with a stay. And if you ever need a break from the parks, Pigeon Forge’s other top sights are just 3 miles away.
[See: The 30 Best Water Parks in the USA. ]
The Hermitage is a 1,120-acre property and mansion that served as home to President Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel. Located about 15 miles northeast of Nashville, a visit to the property would be a perfect day trip from the city. Jackson lived at The Hermitage from 1804 — when he purchased the property as a 425-acre farm — until his death in 1845. Over the years, the mansion has undergone extensive renovations and additions. Today, the house features most artifacts from Jackson’s life. Several tour options of the mansion and its grounds are available, including two different tours that explore the lives of enslaved men, women and children who worked at The Hermitage. Travelers say the tours are a very informative and educational experience. They also appreciate how much history is preserved at the property. Don’t miss the exhibits at the visitor center and before leaving, be sure to sample wines from the property’s Natchez Hills Vineyard and Winery.
Knoxville is home to outdoor adventure, museums, history and a vibrant arts scene. Plan to stay a few days at The Tennessean Hotel, which is centrally located downtown. Then, walk over to Market Square, where you can explore the shopping, dining and entertainment options. Other highlights in the city include the Sunsphere at World’s Fair Park (from the 1982 World’s Fair), the East Tennessee History Center and McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture. For outdoor enthusiasts, visit what the city has dubbed its Urban Wilderness. The collection of outdoor attractions features 50 miles of trails, lakes and parks. You’ll also find the Ijams Nature Center & Quarry for hiking, biking and rock climbing. Finally, Civil War and history buffs can chart out a visit to battlefields like Fort Sanders or plot a driving tour of the area’s Civil War sites.
The Tennessee Aquarium
Take a journey across all kinds of bodies of water at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. In one building, explore the mountains of East Tennessee in River Journey, then travel to the sea in Ocean Journey (a building all its own). With more than 10,000 animals that swim, jump, fly and waddle, you can expect to see river otters, lemurs, penguins, sharks, colorful fish and octopus. In River Giants, see freshwater fish from around the world that grow to monstrous proportions. What’s more, the Turtle of the World gallery has the most extensive collection of turtles of any accredited zoo or aquarium in the U.S. Be sure to take in a show at the IMAX Theater, which features a wide variety of documentaries such as “Great Bear Rainforest” and “Into America’s Wild.” Some travelers say that the ticket prices are a bit high, but many enjoy the experience at the aquarium and recommend a visit.
Home to the TV series “Bluegrass Underground,” The Caverns touts itself as “The Greatest Show Under Earth.” This otherworldly cave system boasts more than 8,000 linear feet of passageways. During the day, take a guided tour of the caves, where you’ll have a behind-the-scenes tour of the concert venue and see one of the largest underground rooms in the world (it’s the size of about three football fields). For the more adventurous, book the Adventure Cave Tour, a true spelunking trip. At night, listen to top music acts in Big Mouth Cave, its underground concert hall. The venue even serves food and brews. It’s also accessible for music fans with mobility issues. If you prefer wide-open skies, there’s an outdoor music venue: The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater. Concertgoers interested in an extended stay can book a “Stay-and-Cave” package that includes lodging, transportation and other amenities. Reviewers say the underground concert experience is unique and fun. You’ll find The Caverns in Pelham, approximately 85 miles southeast of Nashville and 60 miles northwest of Chattanooga.
Discovery Park of America
Located in Union City, approximately 112 miles northwest of Memphis, Discovery Park of America will entertain family members of all ages. You’ll want at least one full day to visit this 100,000-square-foot museum and the surrounding 50-acre heritage park. Indoor exhibits include 10 galleries and interactive displays highlighting everything from technology and space to art and history. There’s also a 20,000 gallon aquarium, a theater and the tallest observation tower in northwest Tennessee. Outdoors, visit a replica of a circa 1800s frontier settlement or see a gristmill in action in an early 20th-century town. You can also wander through Japanese gardens and a train station complete with rail cars and a caboose. The park even has a river, waterfalls and a playground. Visitors say the museum is worth a visit and that it’s educational and great fun for families. General admission tickets and a VIP Discovery Package option are available online. When you need to refuel, take a break at one of two casual eateries, Sabin’s Cafe or Eats and Treats. If you have time, visit Union City’s historic downtown area or nearby Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge and Reelfoot Lake State Park in Tiptonville. For an overnight stay, reserve accommodations at one of several nearby hotels.
Museum of Appalachia
Located about 25 miles northwest of Knoxville, the 65-acre Museum of Appalachia in the town of Clinton is a living history museum — and it makes for a perfect daytrip from the big city. This Smithsonian Affiliate museum and authentic pioneer mountain-farm village features 35 log cabins, barns, churches and schools along with more than 250,000 artifacts, folk art and musical instruments. You can also walk around several gardens and watch free-range farm animals. Self-guided tours are available seven days a week to learn about Southern Appalachia’s history and heritage. Be sure to check out the indoor exhibits, including the Hall of Fame building, which honors individuals who have a connection to the Appalachians and houses a collection of Native American artifacts. Plan to spend several hours at the property and, while there, enjoy a lunch at the on-site cafe. Visitors are impressed with the informative exhibits and number of artifacts. They also come away with an appreciation for history and lives of the Appalachian people and their culture. After you tour, take a walk by the Clinch River, visit Clinton’s antique district and then head over to Hoskins Drug Store, where you’ll find an old-fashioned lunch counter and soda fountain.
Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary
Located approximately 40 miles northwest of Knoxville in Petros, Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was Tennessee’s first maximum-security prison. In operation for 113 years until it closed in 2009, the facility kept many of the state’s most violent criminals locked up for life, which helped earn the prison’s nickname, “The End of the Line.” The facility offers self-guided tours that cover 30 stations. Throughout the prison, you’ll find displays and descriptions of what happened in that particular spot. The attraction also screens an 18-minute documentary that runs every half hour. Guests can visit most parts of the prison, including the cell block, cafeteria, laundry room, exercise yard and the “HOLE,” where inmates were sent in complete darkness for up to 30 days as punishment for poor behavior. Former inmates and prison guards are stationed throughout the prison to share stories of life in Brushy. The more adventurous explorers may enjoy a nighttime or overnight paranormal tour. Most visitors find that the tours led by former inmates or guards are interesting and educational. At the on-site distillery, sample its End of the Line Moonshine, which comes in a variety of different flavors. Before you plan your escape, dine behind bars at their southern-inspired restaurant, the Warden’s Table.
Situated about 5 miles southwest of downtown Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain features three attractions that focus on the immediate area’s natural beauty. Located deep within the mountain, Ruby Falls is the tallest and deepest underground waterfall in the U.S. Tours take you through the cave and by the falls. After spending time underground, take a heart-racing zip line adventure through the treetops. The Incline Railway will also get your adrenaline pumping as the 125-year-old funicular railway climbs or descends Lookout Mountain at a steep 72.7% grade. The mile-long trek — known as “America’s Most Amazing Mile” — lasts about 15 minutes one-way. The last stop at Rock City boasts panoramic views of seven states, massive rock formations, a 180-foot suspension bridge and gardens with more than 400 indigenous plant species. Travelers say that the mountain is worth a visit and the views from the mountaintop are incredible. Tickets for the attractions must be purchased separately.
Belle Meade Historic Site & Winery
This historic Greek revival mansion and surrounding 5,400 acres highlight Tennessee’s history, architecture and equine heritage. During your visit, you can select two tour options. On the Mansion Tour, you’ll learn about the property’s storied history and the people who lived and labored here until 1904. The guided mansion tour includes a complimentary wine tasting and access to the grounds and outbuildings. The second option, Journey to Jubilee, offers insight into the lives of enslaved people who worked at Belle Meade. Following your tour, browse the specialty stores and wine shop. Then, end your visit with a traditional Southern-style meat and three lunch, which includes a choice of meat, three side dishes and a slice of cornbread or a biscuit. If you prefer a more formal meal and want to sample Belle Meade’s wines or bourbon, reserve a spot for one of Belle Meade’s culinary experiences. You’ll find Belle Meade about 10 miles southwest of downtown Nashville.
You might also like:
More from U.S. News