There exists an endless list of sights to see and things to do in Tennessee, so let us whittle it down for you. Surrounded by some of the lushest and green landscape in the United States, this land-locked state is unique. Nashville offers culture and fun, along with individual neighborhoods to explore. Memphis offers some of the best BBQ and musical joints, along with a touch of Elvis Presley. Chattanooga borders Georgia and holds a special place in everyone’s heart who visits. Everywhere else in Tennessee - between the big, notable cities - small towns and communities offer interesting sites and activities to welcome visitors. So hold on to your Nashville-made hot chicken and your Lynchburg-distilled Jack Daniel’s, let’s plan the perfect vacation to Tennessee.
Nashville is located in the heart of the state, in what is called “Middle Tennessee.” It makes for a great starting point to tour the area. Stay at the Downtown Hilton - its strategic position behind Broadway and the honky tonks offers a quiet night of sleep after visiting the Country Music Hall of fame just across the grassy lawn. Sports fans can walk across the pedestrian bridge to check out the Titans stadium, or next door to the hotel is the Bridgestone Arena where hockey fans can catch a Predator’s game (Stanley Cup here we come!). For a great night of eating and drinking, head to the Gulch and check out Chauhan Ale & Masala House, owned by famed local and “Chopped” judge, chef Maneet Chauhan. Chef Maneet also recently opened an elevated Chinese restaurant nearby. The bars and many additional restaurants in this area are a sure bet for hungry visitors.
A bit south of the Music City, Civil War history comes to life with the stories that are told during the tours at this plantation in Franklin. Learn why the Battle of Franklin was significant at Carnton Plantation; travel up the wooden stairs to the second floor where it was said body parts of soldiers reached the second story window. The floors are still stained with these men’s blood. Take in some fresh air in the Garden at Carnton and extend your tour with a silent walk through the Carnton cemetery and the adjoining soldier cemetery. A trip the the Carter house will round out your Civil War tour; this modest brick home sat on the epicenter in the Battle of Franklin and the stories of the family and friends that hid in the basement during the battle will chill you to the bone.
To the west lies Memphis, home of the blues, birthplace of rock’n’roll, and arguably the best barbecue on this side of the Mississippi (and the other side too!). Journey down the mighty Mississippi on a perfectly scaled replica of the city’s river; twenty cities line the replica with markers that describe significant events in the River’s history. Memphis’ epic history comes into full view with a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum. Located at the Lorraine Motel where 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The museum is an important reminder of the past and current struggles for civil rights in our nation. Grab a lawn chair and some takeout barbecue from any one of the over 100 barbecue joints and enjoy a free concert under the stars at Levitt Shell; the site of Elvis Presley’s first concert, they offer over 50 free concerts a year.
On the other side of the state lies Chattanooga. This small city feels like mini San Francisco with that touch of country charm. A big college town, Chattanooga offers amazing attractions in a stunning revitalized riverside setting. Visitors can enjoy local breweries like Terminal Brewhouse and fantastic bars right alongside the historic attractions like the Chattanooga Choo Choo. A riverboat cruise highlights the rich resources of the Tennessee River Gorge, wildlife sighting, and the history of Chattanooga’s first inhabitants - the Native Americans.
Head to the Bluff View Art District for a dinner made for the history books. Not only is the food particularly memorable – including the homemade pasta at Tony’s, the creamy shrimp and grits of Back Inn Café or the light-as-air desserts at Rembrandt’s – but the setting is steeped in history. At the turn of the 20th century, Chattanooga was booming with wealth and industry. Some of the wealthiest citizens of the day built their homes in the Bluff View neighborhood, often referred to as “cliff dwellers” given their lofty location above the Tennessee River. In the early ‘90’s, Dr. Charles and Mary Portera set about revitalizing the abandoned buildings by creating what’s today the Bluff View Art District – a European oasis up the hill from downtown. Cap off the evening with an offbeat history lesson from Chattanooga Ghost Tours (the Hunter Museum of American Art is one of the most haunted sites in town) or a ride around town on Chattanooga Horse Trams.
Loretta Lynn brings tens of thousands of visitors to Tennessee each year, both due to her concerts, and to her appearances at the famed Ryman Auditorium. Her ranch is located an hour west of Nashville and is one of the most visited destinations in Tennessee. This coal miner’s daughter turned country music star offers the biggest full-service RV park in that state along with horseback riding, cabin rentals, camping, fishing, historic museums, gift shops and concerts. Avid equestrians like to bring their horses along with them for trail rides, lessons and arena skills. Plenty of other family-friendly activities abound, from campfire singalongs to chuck wagon races, as well as one of the biggest amateur motocross championships in the country. Hurricane Mills even has its own old-timey Western Town, which includes an 18,000-square foot museum of Lynn family memorabilia and an exact replica of Loretta’s childhood home.
The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton is a living history museum where you can “let the past touch your soul.” Visit a pioneer farm village that channels the voice of the South Appalachian folk through the artifacts and stories they left behind. Roam the 65-acres of picturesque land and experience a rural Appalachian community, complete with 35 log cabins, barns, farm animals, churches, schools, gardens and more. Discover a vast collection of folk art, musical instruments, baskets, quilts and Native American artifacts.
In Huntsville, visit the best kept secret on the Cumberland Plateau - a two-acre historical phenomenon that was recently designated as one of the top most child-friendly destinations in Tennessee. The museum built, curated and maintained by students, for students (and the general public) is making its mark on Scott County. Exhibits are vast, ranging from the prehistoric era to coal mining and a Pioneer Playroom where children can dress up and participate in “hands on” experiences. Couple that with historic structures and farm animals for a uniquely educational visit.
Dollywood in little Pigeon Forge is home to the world’s fastest wooden coaster and Dolly Parton alone is a big draw for visitors coming to Tennessee. Breaking coaster barriers are what Dollywood does best as the theme park is also home to Wild Eagle, America’s first wing coaster and FireChaser Express, America’s first dual-launch family coaster, launching riders forward and backward. But, If you think Dollywood is just about fast rides, you would be wrong. An experience at Dollywood is so much more! Everywhere you turn, there is live music, cultural attractions and interactions, along with extensive family-fun for the little ones who are too scared for the big-kid rides, and so much amazing food. Next door, you can cool off at Dolly’s Splash Country water park and sleep well under Dolly’s butterfly emblem (tastefully and discreetly found in every nook and cranny on site) at the stunning DreamMore Resort.
If you are driving anywhere in the Southeast part of America, you will most likely see barns, fences, and other advertisements for “See Rock City” in Chattanooga - you should probably buy into it. Rock City is special. You can be amazed at the sight atop Lookout Mountain, just six miles from downtown Chattanooga. Rock City is a true marvel of nature, featuring ancient rock formations, gardens with fun twists added, like suspension bridges, and a breathtaking panorama view of seven states alongside a 90-ft waterfall at Lover’s Leap. Don’t miss the underground waterfall, either; Ruby Falls will have you trekking 1,120 feet below the surface of Lookout Mountain for an amazing must-see attraction.
Tennessee offers visitors a chance to do it all: history, unique attractions, great music and even better food. From small town delights, and off-the-beaten-path wonders, to big city charm, this state is a wonderfully unexpected choice for your next escape. So, book your ticket, and tell the boss you are taking some time off for an historical, educational, and delicious Southern adventure through Tennessee.
East Tennessee History Center
The museum collection of the East Tennessee Historical Society consists of more than 13,000 artifacts that provide a foundation to preserve, interpret, and promote the history of East Tennessee’s 35 counties. It offers an active award-winning exhibition program that encourages visitors to return often. Brown Bag lectures are a phenomenal program at the museum. These lectures are free, open to the public and led by local professionals and historians sharing a vast range of history related to Knoxville and Tennessee.
East Tennessee History Center
601 S. Gay Street, Knoxville