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Tennessee offers a lively tradition of music, history, modern marvels, and stunning natural attractions. Whether you’re planning a family vacation, a honeymoon, a group getaway, or a solo excursion, the Volunteer State has the whole crew covered with activity choices from the misty Smoky Mountains to the mighty Mississippi River and every corner and mid-section in between.
Boasting a background famous for BBQ, blues, country, and rockabilly, Tennessee overflows with natural attractions, urban aesthetics, and small-town charm that includes the Tennessee River, the Cumberland River, caves, caverns, and the rhythms of Beale Street, Broadway, and Bristol.
Add a heaping spoonful of American history, a dash of railroad legends, a shot of Lynchburg’s smooth spirit, and a touch of Athens and Rome, and you’ve got a full menu for a unique itinerary.
- Best Things to Do in Tennessee
- 1. Explore the Great Smoky Mountains
- 2. Do All the Things in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg
- 3. Live Like a Volunteer in Knoxville
- 4. Race into Bristol and Stay for the Songs
- 5. Go Up, Over, and Underground in Chattanooga
- 6. Sip and Savor in Lynchburg
- 7. Delve into American History in Murfreesboro and Franklin
- 8. Dance into Nashville
- 9. Hit the Dirt Track in Hurricane Mills
- 10. Railroad Legends and Rockabilly Roots in Jackson
- 11. Explore American History in Shiloh
- 12. Go Walking in Memphis
- Where to stay in Tennessee
- How to Get Around in Tennessee
- Travel Tips for Visiting Tennessee
- Travel Insurance
- Travel Products
- Make Reservations Ahead of Time
Best Things to Do in Tennessee
1. Explore the Great Smoky Mountains
As the most visited national park in the United States, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers spectacular scenery to back up its walking, hiking, biking, and driving trails. Popular trails include Cades Cove Loop Road, the Foothills Parkway, and the Newfound Gap Road.
Visit pine-filled forests, ragged peaks, and historic structures throughout the Cataloochee Valley, Clingmans Dome, and the Roaring Fork Nature Trail. The park is approximately 522,427 acres and divides its statehood between Tennessee and North Carolina just about evenly.
2. Do All the Things in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg
Whether it’s Dollywood, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, the Titanic Museum, the Hatfield and McCoys Dinner Show, mountain roller coasters, a ghost tour, year-round Christmas shops and ski lifts, or a winery tasting event, you’ll find it all in this area.
It can be overwhelming when first driving through Pigeon Forge and seeing all the area has to offer. You’ll want to do it all!
3. Live Like a Volunteer in Knoxville
Home to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, founded in 1794, Knoxville portrays the bright and sunny orange aura of its favorite team. Students, locals, and visitors take games seriously at the Volunteers’ home base at Neyland Stadium.
Along with the on-campus Thompson-Boling Arena basketball stadium, it hosts conventions and concerts by performers such as Kenny Chesney, Johnny Cash, Kid Rock, The Jacksons, and many more.
This East Tennessee town holds a unique piece of history known as the World’s Fair Park. It was the site of the 1982 World’s Fair and is home to the Tennessee Amphitheater and the Sunsphere, a 26-story tall observation tower with 24-karat gold glass panes. Get 360-degree views of the river, downtown Knoxville, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Both attractions were originally built for the fair. Don’t miss shopping and dining among 19th-century buildings in the Market Square district, regional art, Civil War exhibits at the Museum of East Tennessee History, or boating excursions on the Tennessee River that winds around town.
4. Race into Bristol and Stay for the Songs
Fans of NASCAR will want to head to Bristol Motor Speedway. Built in 1960, the short track is nicknamed the Last Great Colosseum. This is partly due to its Roman-inspired architecture and those epic car battles. The unique aspect of the track is that it’s a true amphitheater (it’s completely enclosed with seating). It holds 146,000 people and has the largest seating capacity of any NASCAR track. Hard to believe but true. The track also hosts Thunder Valley Nationals drag strip racing.
Come to town for the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion music festival (Bristol is actually the birthplace of country music – read up on the 1927 Bristol Sessions). You can also learn about the musical past at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, go underground at Bristol Caverns, and stand in two states simultaneously (Tennessee shares Bristol with her sister Virginia).
5. Go Up, Over, and Underground in Chattanooga
Chattanooga sits along the Tennessee River in the Appalachian Mountains of southeast TN. Ruby Falls is a 145-foot underground waterfall discovered in 1928 under Lookout Mountain. To get there, you’ll start in the charming town of St. Elmo. Take the Incline Railway trolley to the top of Lookout Mountain, which offers terrific views, parks, and activities. Then, you can take a glass-enclosed elevator 260 feet down to this natural wonder.
6. Sip and Savor in Lynchburg
A Tennessee tradition awaits in Lynchburg. Jack Daniels’ Distillery, founded in 1866, is a top destination for fans of fine Tennessee whiskey. Take a tour to explore the distillery, learn about the process, and check out the tasting room. For more unique TN attractions, visit the Tennessee Walking Horse National Museum or enjoy the outdoors at Short Springs Natural Area and Tims Ford State Park.
7. Delve into American History in Murfreesboro and Franklin
If it’s history you’re into, it’s history you’ll get in the Volunteer State’s middle region. Stones River National Battlefield and Stones River Cemetery (more than 6,000 soldiers are buried there) are popular stops on history tours of Murfreesboro. Additionally, Cannonsburgh Village has a regional history from the 1830s to the 1930s (along with a schoolhouse and a general store). Oaklands Mansion is a former plantation with gardens and an arboretum.
In nearby Franklin, structures from the 1864 Battle of Franklin include the Carter House and Carnton Plantation (along with the McGavock Confederate Cemetery). Visit the 1858 Lotz House and its collection of 19th-century furniture or snap photos of restored Victorian buildings along downtown’s Main Street.
8. Dance into Nashville
Nashville. What more do we need to say? Plenty! Music City is home to the iconic attractions of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry House, and an incredible selection of bars, clubs, honky tonks, and music venues. Nissan Stadium is home to the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and major concerts.
Check out the only replica of Athens’ Parthenon, the Nashville Zoo, Frist Art Museum, Vanderbilt University, and the General Jackson Showboat. One of the largest showboats ever built, it offers dining and theater performances along the Cumberland River.
9. Hit the Dirt Track in Hurricane Mills
Loretta Lynn’s Ranch is more than the former home of the country queen. It’s considered the Holy Grail for motocross riders … the likes of which include Ricky Carmichael, Mike Alessi, Ryan Dungey, Travis Pastrana, and Carey Hart.
Located along Hurricane Creek, the event venue and campground feature a motocross track where all the above greats and more have raced. Loretta’s is a final stop for amateurs before going all pro.
The racing ranch started in 1982 when Loretta and her husband wanted to add racing to their repertoire. The property has 6,000 acres of land for racing and tent and RV camping. There’s also a concert pavilion that entertained fans before the racing ever started.
Events at Loretta Lynn’s include the Tennessee Motorcycles & Music Revival, spring chuckwagon races, the Tennessee TrailJam, horseback trail rides, and tons of off-road races.
10. Railroad Legends and Rockabilly Roots in Jackson
Johnny and June sang about going to Jackson. Sounds like a good plan to us. Located halfway between Nashville and Memphis, Jackson blends the sounds of Lower Broadway with the blues of Beale Street. This mix of country and rock became rockabilly in Jackson.
Tina Turner, Eddy Arnold, and the first Hard Rock Café (opened by local Isaac Tigrett) were born there. Don’t miss the Legends of Tennessee Music Museum.
Jackson is home to the Casey Jones’ Home and Railroad Museum. Part of the Casey Jones Village, the site also features a broad array of family-friendly fun with historic buildings, full-size train replicas, the original 1870s home of train engineer Casey Jones, Brooks Shaw’s Old Country Store, and Southern eateries such as the Old Country Store Restaurant.
11. Explore American History in Shiloh
Located along the Tennessee River, Shiloh is a destination for the history buff in your crew. It’s home to Shiloh National Military Park (it’s one of the best-preserved battlefields in the U.S.) and the circa 1830 Cherry Mansion.
The mansion was the headquarters for Ulysses S. Grant during the 1862 Battle of Shiloh. The battle was a Union success and a crucial turning point in the Union Army’s advance into the Mississippi River region.
12. Go Walking in Memphis
Situated along the Mississippi River in West Tennessee, Memphis has appeared in songs by Marc Cohn, Pam Tillis, Chris Stapleton, and Chuck Berry to The Pixies, John Fogerty, and Justin Bieber.
Aside from the obvious – that would be Graceland and The King – Memphis holds a huge collection of historic and musically inspired attractions.
Pay a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum, Sun Studio tours, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the I Am A MAN Plaza, and the clubs, restaurants, and tunes of Beale Street.
Where to stay in Tennessee
Wondering where to stay in Tennessee for a family vacation, romantic getaway, or group trip? You’ll find a variety of luxury, mid-range, and budget hotels, inns, and resorts around the state.
- Margaritaville Island Inn – Pigeon Forge
- Baymont by Wyndham Gatlinburg on the River – Gatlinburg
- Graduate Knoxville – Knoxville
- The Bristol Hotel – Bristol
- Lynchburg Country Inn – Lynchburg
- Hilton Garden Inn Murfreesboro – Murfreesboro
- Hotel Fraye Nashville Midtown, Curio Collection by Hilton – Nashville
- Holiday Inn Express Hurricane Mills Waverly, an IHG Hotel – Hurricane Mills
- The Guest House at Graceland – Memphis
- Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Jackson – Jackson
How to Get Around in Tennessee
You’ll definitely want a car to get around while visiting Tennessee. If you’re arriving by plane, book a rental car to explore. Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers 384 miles of scenic roadways with panoramic views, historic structures, and native wildlife.
Buses, trolleys, and other public transportation systems can get around cities like Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. Additionally, cities like Chattanooga are incredibly bike-friendly. Major airports in Tennessee include Nashville International Airport (BNA), Memphis International Airport (MEM), Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport (CHA), and McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS).
Travel Tips for Visiting Tennessee
Once you’ve picked a region, or two or three, to explore, it’s time to start the planning. Here are a few tips to make planning a trip to Tennessee easier.
It might seem unnecessary expense … until you need it, and then it can be the best thing you ever did. Travel insurance covers canceled flights, missed connections, medical emergencies, and more.
While Tennessee sits in the South, it can still get chilly in the fall and winter. That mountain air is refreshing, but you don’t necessarily want to be cold.
Make Reservations Ahead of Time
With families, couples, and groups visiting regions all over Tennessee, it’s a good idea to reserve ahead of time. Dollywood, dinner shows, and attractions like museums, ski lifts, and mountain activities are especially popular in the spring and summer.
Fall is popular with seasonal activities and leaf peeping. Campsites in the national park fill up months, if not a year, ahead of time. Save yourself the stress and book ahead.
- About the Author
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Sandy is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her specialties range from hotels, dining, beaches, and yacht charters to theme parks, urban settings, mountain getaways, and other fun spots. She loves Nashville, Las Vegas, and Williamsburg, Virginia – but you’re most likely to find her on the beach. In addition to ViaTravelers, her work appears at AFAR, PierShare, Cozymeal, and more.