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Although country music might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Tennessee, there are lots of other things to do and see in the “Volunteer State.” Tennessee vacations are attractive to visitors for a multitude of reasons, from the beauty and majesty of the Great Smoky Mountains to the ornate decadence of Elvis Presley’s Graceland. There’s something to be seen in every corner of the state. In fact, you might love these Tennessee vacation spots so much, that they may just become an annual tradition for you and your family.
The city of Nashville is probably best known as the home of country music and fans of this nostalgic genre will definitely not be disappointed during their visit. Besides the Country Music Hall of Fame, it’s also home to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center and the infamous Grand Ole Opry. But, it’s not just about music in Nashville. There are also walking and trolley tours of the city to explore, historic homes to tour and of course, several distilleries to visit for tastings including Jack Daniels. You’ll also find lots of dining options here from the local mom-and-pop spots, to fine dining and everything in between.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
People from all over the world travel to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Tennessee/North Carolina border. This large park has over 800 miles of hiking trails, waterfalls, forests, campsites, and wildlife and wildflower viewing opportunities. Everything from biking to horseback riding, fishing, auto touring, and ranger-led programs are available at the national park. Camping is available in developed campgrounds, out in the backcountry, in group campgrounds, and in small horse camps. Just keep in mind, however, that pets are not allowed on the national park trails.
For the ultimate family vacation, check out Pigeon Forge. This town in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains has everything you could possibly imagine all on one long strip. It’s like a family-friendly Vegas! In addition to tons of hotels and restaurants, you’ll find miniature golf, laser tag, all types of live shows like music and comedy, go-karting, shopping, museums and unique attractions like the massive Titanic attraction that will have you feeling like you are aboard the famous ship. Just a short drive from Pigeon Forge, you’ll find the entrance to Cade’s Cove – a beautiful 6,800-acre valley in the Smoky Mountains National Park that you can explore via an 11-mile one-way road that loops through the valleys and pastures and takes you past wildlife and historic buildings.
Just down the road from Pigeon Forge is another popular Tennessee vacation destination – Gatlinburg. Although it’s right next door to Pigeon Forge, the feel of this beautiful mountain is much different. The pace is slower, there aren’t any bright lights or flashing signs and the focus here is on the natural beauty of the area. Many of the buildings along the main street of downtown Gatlinburg have the look of a Swiss ski town and within them, you’ll find lots of unique shops, restaurants, and attractions like the Guinness World Records Museum and the Ripley’s Aquarium. You’ll also want to be sure to check out the views from the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle and take a trip up the mountain at Ober Gatlinburg where you can ski, ice skate, and go tubing.
Music lovers may also want to plan a vacation to Memphis so they can see the famous home of Elvis Presley – Graceland, as well as the Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum. While, history lovers may enjoy the National Civil Rights Museum, the Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange and the Mississippi River Museum at Mud Island. Plus, there are plenty of restaurants and shops to explore in downtown Memphis and, if you’re vacationing with kids, the Memphis Zoo and the Children’s Museum of Memphis for some family-friendly fun.
Sports enthusiasts, especially racing fans, know Bristol as the home to one of the fastest short tracks on the NASCAR circuit. But, there are also several other family-friendly attractions to visit here including the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol Caverns, and historic downtown State Street, where you can meander through a variety of shops and eateries, take in a show at the Paramount Theatre and even stand in two states at one time since the VA/TN state line runs right down the middle of State Street. While you’re there, make sure to also stop in at Blackbird Bakery (although it’s technically on the “Virginia side of town”) and try one of their amazing sweet treats like a pink almond cupcake or a coffee and crème brownie.
Rock Island State Park
There are numerous state parks in Tennessee, but one of the most beautiful and popular ones is Rock Island State Park. When you visit this park, you can spend your days hiking around the Caney Fork Gorge and seeing the waterfalls, swimming beaches, and lakes. The park spans 883 acres and is best known for the 30-foot horseshoe cascading waterfall called Great Falls. To make a full weekend or weeklong stay out of it, consider camping in the park in a tent, RV, or rental cabin. There are two campgrounds in the state park with 20 campsites open year-round and additional ones that are seasonal. Once you’re done at the park, things to do nearby include the Rock Island Depot, Falcon Rest Mansion & Gardens, and Fishlipz Bar & Grill.
Located in northeastern Tennessee, Johnson City is where Eastern Tennessee State University is located and is also a top spot for nature lovers. You can go hiking on the trails at Buffalo Mountain Park or go fishing at Boone Lake during your vacation. Johnson City is in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and is brimming with small-town charm. Local events that you may want to learn about here include the Meet the Mountains Festival, Lakeside Concert Series at Goulding Amphitheater on the lakefront, and the Johnson City Farmer’s Market.
The city of Chattanooga in Southern Tennessee is a great place to visit if you’re into history. First, you can explore the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and then stay the night in a guest room or a former train car at the historic former train station turned hotel, the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Other historic places to explore include the historic Civil War battle site at the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park and the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center. During your Chattanooga vacation, you can also visit the Chattanooga Zoo, The Tennessee Aquarium and take a ride on the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, a vertical railway that takes you up the mountain for some amazing views!
Located in the eastern part of the state, Knoxville is a quaint city on the Tennessee River. This is why the riverfront is one of the most popular spots in the city. You can take a relaxing walk or jog along the boardwalk here or sit down for a waterfront meal. While you’re down there, make sure you also check out Market Square – the heart of downtown – where you’ll find a variety of shops and restaurants, as well as live music and a farmers market on the weekends. If you’re vacationing with little ones, there are also some great family-friendly attractions here like Zoo Knoxville and The Muse, a children’s science museum and planetarium.
The primary reason that people travel to Lynchburg, Tennessee for vacation is to visit the famous Jack Daniel’s Distillery. The town is located in southern Tennessee and is home to the legendary distillery where you can learn how whiskey is made, take a tour and enjoy a tasting. Interestingly though, Lynchburg is in a dry county in Tennessee, so there are legal regulations about buying liquor in this area. Beyond just the distillery, Lynchburg has a nice downtown square, shops, restaurants, antique stores, vintage homes, and a peaceful countryside region for scenic drives.
If you’re looking for somewhere unique to visit in the Nashville area of Tennessee, consider the town of Franklin, which has a lovely Main Street to walk along and check out shops and galleries. Around the 16-block downtown, you’ll also find music experiences, festivals, and art. There are historic homes and buildings that you can tour here, as well as Timberland Park for hiking and picnicking. Top attractions are the Lotz House Museum, Carnton, Carter House, Leiper’s Fork, and the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge. During your Franklin vacation, you can visit local distilleries to try Tennessee whiskey and watch a show at the historic Franklin Theater for a fun night out.
History buffs will love visiting Murfreesboro, Tennessee because of the battlefield sites and historic mansions. When you take a vacation to Murfreesboro, you can visit Stones River National Battlefield, Oaklands Mansion, and Cannonsburgh Village. Other popular attractions are the Oaklands Mansion and the Discovery Center at Murfree Spring. There are some local events that you can attend here as well, such as the Uncle Dave Macon Days Festival, International Folkfest, and Backyard BBQ Festival.
Another fun place to take a vacation in Tennessee is Clarksville, which is by the Cumberland River and where you can check out the Civil War Trail. Dunbar Cave State Park is a nice spot for hiking in this area, and there are several local breweries where you can grab a refreshing beer after your hike. Meanwhile, the Clarksville Greenway is an ideal place for cycling, and Liberty Park and Marina offers opportunities for boating and fishing. Interestingly, two Olympic athletes have called Clarksville their home. Clarksville offers affordable accommodations and has a little something for everyone in your travel group.
The town of Columbia, Tennessee is about 45 minutes from Nashville and has many historic buildings to learn about. These include the Rippavilla Plantation and Athenaeum Rectory. You can hike or bike along the Natchez Trace Parkway during your trip and also go paddling and fishing at the Duck River Blueway. You’ll enjoy a touch of Southern hospitality when you visit Columbia and see the Columbia Arts District, The Mulehouse, and the presidential residence of President James K. Polk. There is also a farmers’ market, art walk, and other local events to embrace the vibes of Columbia.