If a vacation to Tennessee is in your future, you are in for a great treat. While it gets a bit more attention than some of its neighbors, travelers far too often overlook the Volunteer State.
While Tennessee may be best known for its country music scene, there is much more to do and see in this great state. From the Great Smoky Mountains in the east to Memphis and the Mississippi in the west, you won’t be short of places to visit in Tennessee.
Unless you’re just planning to enjoy the streets of Memphis or the Music City of Nashville, this state is best seen with a car. Some of the best tourist attractions in Tennessee are found in the mountains or in smaller towns, so consider renting a car or even an RV if you aren’t road-tripping.
We’ve put together the below list of Tennessee things to do, including historic places with rich history, places with natural beauty, fun attractions for the whole family, and more. Read on to see what you should do on your Tennessee vacation or why you should plan one now!
Table of Contents
- Best & Fun Things to do in Tennessee
- 1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- 2. Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
- 3. Lookout Mountain
- 4. Graceland
- 5. Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
- 6. Centennial Park, Nashville
- 7. National Civil Rights Museum
- 8. Grand Ole Opry House
- 9. Titanic Museum
- 10. Dollywood & Dollywood’s Splash Country
- 11. Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
- 12. Tennessee Aquarium
- 13. Bell Witch Cave
- 14. Memphis Music Hall of Fame
- 15. Stones River National Cemetery & National Battlefield
- 16. The Great River Road Along the Mississippi River
- 17. Discovery Park of America
- 18. Smoky Mountain Deer Farm & Exotic Petting Zoo
- 19. The Lost Sea Adventure
- 20. Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum
- 21. Beale Street
- 22. Sun Studio
- Do I need a car to visit Tennessee?
- Should you visit Tennessee in the winter?
- What are the best cities to stay in Tennessee?
- Is there more than just country music in Tennessee?
- Most significant landmark – The Country Music Hall of Fame
- Best park – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Best free activity – Lookout Mountain
- Best activity for kids – Dollywood & Dollywood’s Splash Country
- Best activity for adults – Graceland
- Best food – Wet Willie’s
- Best nightlife – Beale Street
- Best all-around accommodation – The Westin Memphis Beale Street
Best & Fun Things to do in Tennessee
If you’re wondering what to do in Tennessee, these are some of the top tourist attractions in the state. Don’t worry – even if you aren’t a country music fan, you will absolutely find something for you in this state!
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Let’s start with one of the most visited attractions in Tennessee and the most visited national park in the country: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, a subrange of the famous Blue Ridge Mountains, is located in the east of Tennessee and straddles the border with North Carolina.
The Great Smoky Mountains consist of more than 500,000 acres of rolling forests nearly untouched by humans.
That makes it a great place for outdoor activities such as camping, fishing, rock climbing, and wandering hundreds of hiking trails. In fact, a large portion of the famous Appalachian Trail runs straight through the park if you’re up for a real challenge.
The main Tennessee gateway to this national park is the town of Gatlinburg, where you’ll also find the park’s visitor center, in case you have any questions for the Park Service Rangers before heading off.
When it’s time to hit the park, it’s great to have a car to see everything at your own pace. Consider doing a Great Smoky Mountains National Park Self-Driving Tour to get the full experience. If you’d rather be a passenger, a Smoky Mountains Jeep Tour is great too.
Gatlinburg has some great places to stay if you spend a few days in eastern Tennessee.
One popular hotel is the Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg, which has just about everything you need to relax and enjoy. If you need more space or simply want more of a mountain retreat, check out this log cabin rental, which even has a hot tub.
See Related: Best Things to do in Nashville, Tennessee
2. Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
Located in downtown Nashville, Tennessee‘s most visited city, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is easily one of the most popular attractions in the state.
This is the place to be if you’re a fan of Alabama, Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, or one of the more than 100 country music stars inducted into the Hall. And honestly, it’s a great thing to do even if you’ve never heard of them!
This Hall of Fame is much more than a tribute to America’s greatest bands and artists. It consists of a museum full of artifacts like records, instruments, and photographs from country music history. It also hosts a research center and an educational program in honor of American vernacular music, its interpretation, and its presentation.
It’s not all about classics from decades ago, either. You can find exhibits on recent stars like Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, and Florida Georgia Line, along with other rotating artists throughout the year.
One of the hottest things to see at the Country Music Hall of Fame is Historic RCA Studio B. This recording studio is where titans like Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton stood to make their music and where Nashville’s reputation as a country music recording center was born.
It’s best to get your Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Tickets before your trip, so you don’t waste any time standing in lines. You can also get an RCA Studio B and Country Music Hall of Fame Ticket Combo if you want to see both, which is highly recommended.
Keep in mind that some of the best entertainment in Tennessee is located right in this area of downtown Nashville, which is full of honky tonk country bars with nightly live music. A great place to stay is the Moxy Nashville Downtown, where the party and nightlife fit right in with comfortable rooms.
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3. Lookout Mountain
Moving to southern Tennessee, you’ll find a little town called Lookout Mountain right on the border with Georgia, which has a town of the same name on its side as well! As you might imagine, it’s located on a mountaintop and just a 15-minute drive from downtown Chattanooga.
But, the most fun way to get up to Lookout Mountain is on the funicular railway that runs up its slopes. You’ll get to ride on a vertical gauge railway over a century old, and you’ll get to enjoy the awesome views along the way.
At the top, there are a ton of things to do. You’ll definitely want to see Ruby Falls, where water flows inside a cavern and drops 100 feet below. There’s a Civil War battlefield with memorials and historical information, as well as plenty of hiking trails.
You can take on the more difficult Sunset Rock trail for sweeping views of the Tennessee countryside or opt for the more organized Rock City Gardens, with its ancient rock formations and views just as scenic. Don’t hesitate to stroll through town to visit the adorable boutiques and cafés, either.
To taste the best of southern Tennessee, you can take a 2-Hour Walking Chattanooga Food Tour to see where the locals go.
See Related: Most Historical Landmarks in the USA
A visit to the home of the King himself, Elvis Presley, is the whole reason for a trip to Tennessee for many travelers. Elvis was such an iconic superstar that his Graceland home is on the National Register of Historic Places.
You’ll find the Graceland compound in Memphis, conveniently located on Elvis Presley Boulevard. The attractions are more than just his mansion: a museum of his cars, his two aircraft, his soundstage, a shopping center, a hotel, and the final resting place of the King himself.
Elvis’ home is open to visitors who want a glimpse of his personal life. You can explore the mansion via an iPad-guided tour, on which his only daughter, Lisa Marie, will tell you the stories of her father’s private life.
You can see Elvis’ planes, with their entire bedrooms, dressing rooms, and other luxuries, as well as his jeweled jumpsuits and golden records. His entire car collection of classics can be explored as well.
If you really want the full Elvis experience, book a room at The Guest House at Graceland, a five-diamond resort on site. And if you want even more of Elvis, you can take a Bus Tour from Memphis to Elvis’ Childhood Home in Tupelo, Mississippi, to pair with the Graceland experience.
5. Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
On the outskirts of Nashville, you can find a very unique activity that takes you into the personal life of one of the United States’ first leaders. President Andrew Jackson lived at his massive Hermitage property for most of his life.
Its Greek-style construction began in the early 1800s and slowly built up the 1,000-acre property as Jackson became more and more prominent as a businessman in the Nashville area.
While he served as the country’s seventh president between 1829 and 1837, the mansion was still an important place where he would go to see family, relax, and get work done.
The entire estate was turned into a museum in 1889 and has been operating as such since then. It has been meticulously restored and contains the real, original belongings of President Jackson.
The museum doesn’t ignore its dark past – there is an acknowledgment and tribute to the 100-plus slaves who worked on the property.
The historians there have gone through painstaking efforts to recover the biographies of those who performed forced labor there, which unfortunately has only led to just a few of their stories being revealed.
You can purchase an Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Grounds Pass in advance to be sure you get access to the estate, which also includes a discounted wine tasting at the Natchez Hills Winery.
It’s best to have a car to venture to this part of Nashville, although there is a public bus available for those on a budget.
6. Centennial Park, Nashville
If you are in need of some urban green space to relax after a night in the honky tonks of Nashville, Centennial Park is the perfect spot.
This giant park is where the famous Tennessee Centennial Exposition took place in 1897 in celebration of Tennessee’s 100th anniversary of admission to the Union (albeit one year late).
That celebration had Centennial Park full of exhibits on Tennessee’s progress in agriculture, education, arts, industry, and much more. There was also a large foreign representation, with a giant replica of the Greek Parthenon built, along with Egyptian pyramids and Italian gondolas in the lake.
The event was such a hit that its legacy lives on in the park today, where the Parthenon has been rebuilt, a performance area still stands, and gardens, museums, and trails line the grounds.
Whether you want to relax for a picnic or see historic steam engines and fighter jets, Centennial Park is the place to go in Nashville.
If you’re looking to stay near this peaceful part of town, the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt University is just across the street. There’s even a free shuttle service to downtown Nashville to get to the center of all the fun.
7. National Civil Rights Museum
In Memphis, you can face some of the nation’s darker history at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. And as much as the museum is a somber experience, it’s also an uplifting one when you see how far we’ve come and how much some individuals have dedicated to the civil rights movement.
Most famously, the Lorraine Motel, where the museum is housed, was the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. He was shot while standing on his room’s second-floor balcony, which is still available for viewing today.
There are plenty of other historic artifacts and stories housed in the museum.
Ranging from the time over five centuries ago that slaves were first brought to the country, to the Civil War era and the beginning of the resistance, to the gradual recognition of equal rights that took place during the horrible events of the mid-1900s.
The fight for civil rights for everyone continues today, and the museum exhibits what recent leaders in the movement are doing for the cause. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin’s car is still displayed, as is a recreation of the burned-out shell of a Greyhound bus that the Freedom Riders rode.
If you want to see the best of Memphis with a professional, along with an up-close look at the museum, consider a Private Memphis Tour with Entry to the National Civil Rights Museum. Even if a private tour guide isn’t necessary for you, don’t pass up this moving experience in Memphis.
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8. Grand Ole Opry House
Another icon of country music in Nashville, fans won’t want to pass up an opportunity to see the Grand Ole Opry House in person. Often called country music’s most famous stage, this venue is home to the world’s longest-running radio show.
Therefore, your trip just may coincide with some of the biggest names in country music having a show there. Check out their calendar to see who’s going to be playing and get your tickets beforehand.
Alternatively, the Grand Ole Opry offers a Backstage Tour both during the daytime as well as following shows. You’ll first get an immersive theater experience, then see where the stars hang out behind the scenes and where the famous radio show is broadcast from.
9. Titanic Museum
One quirky thing to do in the small mountain town of Pigeon Forge is the Titanic Museum Attraction. This massive, full-scale replica of the famous cruise liner serves as much as a memorial as it does as a museum of all things Titanic.
Your visit to the Titanic Museum Attraction takes place as if you are a passenger: you get a real passenger or crew member’s boarding pass, walk the halls as they did, and see what their staterooms really looked like. The museum is packed full of real artifacts recovered from the wreck, numbering in the hundreds.
Other fun things to do onboard are touching a real iceberg, feeling what 28-degree water really feels like, shoveling coal into the ship’s boiler room, and much more. There’s also a Tot-Titanic interactive area for the youngest of children.
At the end of your experience, visitors discover their passenger’s fate in the Memorial Room, where their stories are kept alive. If you’re ready for boarding, make sure to get a Titanic Museum Advance Purchase Ticket, so you don’t waste any time.
10. Dollywood & Dollywood’s Splash Country
The attraction that brings most people to Pigeon Forge, however, is the famous Dollywood theme park. Dolly Parton has created this Appalachian-themed property of fun packed full of thrilling rides and even a water park.
You can find just about any kind of ride in the main theme park, from rollercoasters to spinning teacups to Dolly’s real tour bus that’s now open for viewing. In the water park, you can plunge down some massive slides, float all day in the lazy river, or do it all!
Dollywood can be a full, multi-day experience, and there is on-site lodging available at the Dollywood DreamMore Resort & Spa. For those who want more of a Smoky Mountain experience, Dollywood also offers the Bear Cove Cabins, with great views and hot tubs as well.
Speaking of the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood can be easily paired with a visit to the national park, as Pigeon Forge is just a 20-minute drive to its entrance. If you want to pair them together, consider a full-sized cabin rental for maximum comfort and long-stay amenities.
11. Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
Whether you’re a railway enthusiast or not, a visit to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum is a very interesting thing to do in the southern town of Chattanooga.
This is the only place in Tennessee where you can ride on authentic, vintage trains and learn about how they played such an important part in the state’s history.
The museum was started over 50 years ago by some enthusiasts from the area who were tired of driving 200 miles to the monthly National Railway Historical Society meetings in Atlanta. They began by acquiring an old steam engine, and their project has been growing ever since.
A visit is much more than a ride on an old train. Each experience is specially themed, such as high tea on the rails, Dinner on the Diner, the Christmas Dinner Train, and much more. There’s even a Wine Train for those who want to say “all abordeaux.”
If learning about Chattanooga’s transportation history sounds like your kind of activity, consider a Trolley and Train Tour around the city and the rail cars. It also includes a train trip on the Missionary Ridge Local line at the museum.
12. Tennessee Aquarium
Are you surprised to hear that there’s a massive aquarium in landlocked Tennessee?
While there may not be any oceans nearby, Tennessee has some of America’s biggest rivers passing straight through it, along with all of the aquatic life that call them home. You can learn all about these river creatures at the Tennessee Aquarium, along with salt water sea life as well.
The River Journey experience takes you under the waters of Tennessee, Mississippi, and other major rivers in the state and around the country. You’ll encounter animals like river trout, alligator snapping turtles, American alligator, and much more.
The Ocean Journey takes you under the sea to discover reefs, jellyfish, penguins, and even sharks. All in all, there are over 10,000 animals at the Tennessee Aquarium. After you’ve seen them, there’s also an IMAX theater displaying 3-D shows from even further out to sea.
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13. Bell Witch Cave
Out in the countryside in the town of Adams, just 40 minutes from Nashville, you’ll find Historic Bell Witch Cave. This natural cavern is said to have been haunted for the past 200 years!
While there are many versions of the story, the prevailing one says that the witch is the spirit of Kate Batts, who was a neighbor of John Bell near the cave.
John Bell had a cabin there, and Kate felt that she was cheated by him in his purchase of land. She haunted and tortured John’s daughter for years in the cabin.
This ghost story is one of the best documented in the whole state and even caught the attention of President Andrew Jackson during his time.
Today, the cabin has been reconstructed with some of its original architecture and many of its original artifacts. Brave visitors can see what the haunting is all about and learn a cool piece of long-surviving paranormal history.
The cave itself is an interesting natural experience as well, with unique rock formations and stalagmites. There’s a lovely waterfall nearby as well.
14. Memphis Music Hall of Fame
There’s no doubt Tennessee has produced some of the most iconic musicians of all time, and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame is all about honoring the ones from their city. They proudly display everything about their inductees who shook the music world from Memphis.
Some of the most prominent inductees include Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Justin Timberlake. Museum highlights include the musical instruments, performance outfits, and photographs and stories of these superstars.
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15. Stones River National Cemetery & National Battlefield
About 30 miles outside of Nashville, in the town of Murfreesboro, is the Stones River National Battlefield & Cemetery. This National Historic Landmark was the site of an American Civil War battle that began on the last day of 1862 and is known as one of the bloodiest of the war.
The Union was the ultimate winner, and it was an important, symbolic victory that boosted national morale. But it wasn’t without major losses, as more than 6,100 soldiers are in their final resting places here. In fact, the identities of over 2,500 of them are not known.
Today, the Stones River National Battlefield has been preserved as a 500+ acre park memorializing the battle and those who were lost.
There are cannons, monuments, statues, and informative signs throughout its walking trails. There’s also a visitor center serving both the battlefield and the cemetery.
16. The Great River Road Along the Mississippi River
The Great River Road is arguably one of America’s most scenic drives, and Tennessee is one of the ten states it passes through.
The full road runs from northern Minnesota all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, and if you are planning a road trip anywhere along this route, you won’t regret taking this scenic byway.
The Tennessee portion passes by flatlands as far as the eye can see, lakes full of fish, typical Tennessee small towns, and the vibrant city of Memphis. It’s a great way to get an easy snapshot of some of the best Tennessee has to offer.
See Related: Best Things to do along the Great River Road
17. Discovery Park of America
In the northwestern corner of Tennessee are Union City and its famous Discovery Park of America museum and heritage park. The mission of this relatively new park, which opened in 2013, is to help people learn, discover, and inspire themselves through all kinds of unique things to do.
Things to discover at the park include a gallery on electricity and energy storage throughout history, a military gallery with real planes and Humvees, a Native American gallery with artifacts and a woolly mammoth skeleton, and much more. There’s even a space and science gallery with a Big Bang simulator.
The possibilities are endless at the Discovery Park of America, and it’s great fun for adults and kids of all ages.
If you don’t want to make this a day trip from Memphis or Nashville, there’s a comfortable Holiday Inn Express & Suites just next door with their always-free, hot breakfast.
18. Smoky Mountain Deer Farm & Exotic Petting Zoo
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of wildlife. But if you want to guarantee yourself a sighting and even be able to see some up close, the Smoky Mountain Deer Farm & Exotic Petting Zoo is a great choice.
The farm is in Sevierville, just 20 minutes from Pigeon Forge and 35 from Gatlinburg, making this an easy diversion from some of the most popular places to stay in the region. Once there, you’ll be greeted by friendly deer who are just waiting to be petted (and maybe fed).
But the fun doesn’t stop there: you’ll also be able to see exotic animals up close like zebras, kangaroos, peacocks, ostriches, and more. There are also horses available to take out on a trail ride and ponies for the kids to ride around the stables.
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19. The Lost Sea Adventure
Did you know the United States’ largest underground lake is in the Tennessee countryside? Roughly halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga, the Lost Sea Cave located in the Craighead Caverns is an amazing sight to see in Tennessee.
Your adventure starts with a leisurely walk down into the Lost Sea cave on sloped pathways leading deeper and deeper into the system. A knowledgeable guide will tell you all about the fascinating history and geology of the caverns.
At the end of the paths, you’ll embark on a boat ride on a lake – underground! There are few places in the world where you can do such a thing at.
The whole experience lasts a bit over an hour, and there is a Lost Sea Shopping Village at the surface, as well as some enjoyable nature trails for those who want to continue exploring. Be sure to get your tickets in advance as this attraction is a popular one that’s known to sell out.
20. Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum
If you haven’t noticed, Tennessee is packed full of things to do for music fans. The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is another to add to the list. The museum tells the story of how rock ‘n roll and soul music were born and developed in Memphis.
Visitors get to see how the unique sounds of these genres came about out in the hollers and crop fields of rural Tennessee, how Memphis became a booming capital for them in the 1970s, and how they spread across the globe.
It’s an interesting story about how these music pioneers overcame racial and socio-economic barriers for their love of music.
The museum is located at the corner of the famous Beale Street and the legendary Blue Highway, accordingly. As mentioned before, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is a great pair with the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and combo tickets for the two are available.
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21. Beale Street
While we just mentioned it above, Beale Street is really an attraction itself that should definitely be a stop for anyone in Memphis. This iconic street is a bit of an entertainment district packed full of bars, restaurants, and live music.
While there are countless places to eat, drink, and enjoy on Beale Street, some favorites are Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe & Honky Tonk, Wet Willie’s, and the Pig on Beale. Even if you aren’t there to party all night, you can still find some of the best Tennessee barbecue and cajun specialties along this street.
There’s even a Beale Street mobile app to show you all the latest performances and the available dining and shopping at any given time. For an in-depth look at America’s most iconic street, you can take a 1-Hour Beale Street Guided Walking Tour to really see it all.
The Beale Street area can be a great place to stay in Memphis. The Westin Memphis Beale Street has those heavenly beds and is just steps away from the greatest Memphis has to offer.
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22. Sun Studio
If you’re headed to Tennessee for most of the other music-themed attractions we’ve covered, then you’ll also want to make a stop at the famous Sun Studio. This Memphis recording studio is where Elvis and Johnny Cash recorded their hits in the 1950s.
The “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is now a tribute to the legends that made their music, complete with memorabilia and outtakes of recordings, providing an intimate look into where the magic was made. But besides preserving rock music history, the studio still functions as a recording studio after dark.
But unless you’re looking to record your first single in the same room that Elvis did, you’re probably headed there for the 45-minute guided tours taking place between 10 am and 6 pm daily.
You can also pair the Sun Studio Admission with a Memphis City Tour to really get the best of the music city.
Do I need a car to visit Tennessee?
The truth is, Tennessee is a place best visited by car in order to experience everything the state has to offer.
Kayak is always a good place to figure out car rentals ahead of time. If you just want to see the honky tonks, bars, and attractions of Nashville or Memphis, you can get away without renting a car.
Should you visit Tennessee in the winter?
If you don’t mind a bit of cold, Tennessee is actually quite beautiful in the winter. Indoor attractions like the museums and historical sites are, of course, still open, and the outdoor beauty of the waterfalls and mountain forests turns into a winter wonderland in the snow. You won’t find the country bars closed up, either!
What are the best cities to stay in Tennessee?
Favorite cities for tourist stays are, of course, Nashville and Memphis. Don’t overlook Gatlinburg for its easy access to the Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge for its famous Dollywood, or Chattanooga for some amazing views.
Is there more than just country music in Tennessee?
There is absolutely plenty more to do than just visit the significant places of country music and listen to it in a honky tonk!
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, underground lakes, multiple theme parks, and interesting museums are only a few of the diverse things this state has to offer.
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