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Roadtripping is what the state of Tennessee is made for. Landlocked and diverse, it’s a gem of the southeastern United States, an area of contrasting landscapes and inspiring music. Elvis lived and shined here, Dolly Parton was born next to the Great Smoky Mountains, Aretha Franklin sang in the venues of Memphis, and the western Delta of Mississippi gifted the world with the blues. Needless to say, it’s an exciting and irresistible state full of places to visit for a vacation, with many hidden spots and unexpected perspectives, cuisine infused with Southern soul, and that notorious Appalachian authenticity. It’s the charming small towns of Tennessee where you should go looking for The Volunteer State’s soul, concealed in the mountain valleys, gracing the Mississippi shores, and greeting travelers in the central plains. All of the destinations on this list are worthy of your exploration.
You shouldn’t spend a fortune on an intercontinental flight to see Paris. It has always been right here in northwestern Tennessee. And don’t worry, you will have a chance to take selfies with the Eiffel tower; the town has taken care of this aspect of the journey to the City of Love too. It might be slightly shorter than its French counterpart at just 70 feet tall, and less glamorous too, but how cool is it to tell your friends that you’ve been next to the Eiffel Tower, pause, and then add “in Paris, Tennessee.” It’s definitely one of the most original small towns you’ll find in the state. The town is a genuine Paris, too, incorporated in 1823 and named in honor of the American Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. To make the immersion even more French-like, there is the Paris Winery where you can treat yourself to the drink of the gods.
Comfortably located between Knoxville and Nashville and easily reachable from both, Cookeville is one of the best small towns in Tennessee for a leisurely break. Set among the picturesque nature of Highland Rim, it offers a wide array of cozy cafes, family restaurants, and lively bars, all spiced with the good times atmosphere of Central Tennessee. And hard beverages are respected in Cookeville, too. You can go to Tennessee Legend Distillery for a tasting session and try beers at Red Silo Brewing Company. For a fun museum experience, pay a visit to Cookeville Depot Museum, with its cool vintage trains and exhibits that feature the history of the Tennessee Central Railway. Cane Creek Park is also a great option for the ultimate in outdoor relaxation filled with beautiful walks and places to picnic.
Before gracing endless T-shirts and baseball hats, being an essential item in bars and clubs around the world, and becoming the favorite drink of Frank Sinatra (who was arguably buried with a bottle), the iconic Jack Daniel’s “Black Label” Tennessee Whiskey had to be created. This magical moment of alcoholic perfection put the small town of Lynchburg, Tennessee on the map as one of the best places to visit in Tennessee. It’s where the distiller Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel started his production in 1875. The original distillery is still up and running, and you can visit it to see its creation first-hand and tell everyone that you’ve been to the hometown of Jack Daniel. Curiously enough, Moore County, where Lynchburg is located, is a dry county meaning that alcoholic beverage sales are prohibited.
Clarksville is ideal for a day trip from Nashville. Hugged by the Cumberland River, it has everything you would expect from a relaxing Tennessee break. Explore the many antebellum mansions downtown and pay a visit to the 1947-built Roxy Theatre, the filming location for the music video for Sheryl Crowe’s 90s hit All I Wanna Do. Also, you’ve got prime outdoor spaces right next to the city’s center. Just a few minutes by car and the Dunbar Cave State Park awaits, full of fresh air, hiking paths, and of course, the impressive ancient cave itself. For riverside fun, head to Liberty Park with its pretty marina and scenic water views as well as a dog park, King’s Run Bark Park.
Steeped deep in American Civil War history, on the one hand, Murfreesboro is quite a future-oriented town on the other. It’s among the best day trip destinations from Nashville, located south of Tennessee’s capital city. Murfreesboro boasts landmarks such as Stones River National Battlefield and the adjacent Stones River Cemetery that retells the story of the Civil War. Then there’s the intricate Oaklands Mansion with its renovated historic interiors and a large park that surrounds the mansion. Cannonsburgh Village is a charming piece of Tennessee’s traditional way of life told through lovely wooden architecture and a reenactment of the local crafts. If you’re coming with the kids, Discovery Center at Murfree Spring is a must, mixing interactive science exhibits with outdoor activities and an opportunity to meet some animals.
The Great Smoky Mountains come alive in Gatlinburg, which is among the most spectacular small mountain towns in Tennessee and likely the whole US. A perfect destination to visit during every season, it takes you into the mountains, unforgettable vistas included. Elevate the experience by ascending the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway, try the slopes at the only ski resort in Tennessee, take a stroll through the vibrant downtown shopping area filled with pretty wooden houses, and enjoy the unparalleled Great Smoky Mountains National Park panoramas from the top of the 407-foot contemporary Space Needle observation tower. And that’s just the beginning, mountain adventures are easily accessible from here, and the vast expanse of outdoor grandeur is all yours to discover in Gatlinburg. So get your hiking boots on and enjoy an active adventure here.
Very close to Nashville and perfect for a day trip or weekend getaway, Franklin is among the most interesting small towns in Tennessee. Its historic heart is located on and around Great American Main Street and is exceptionally scenic; you can spend hours browsing the pretty colored houses, exploring the mansions, and admiring the antebellum architecture. The Battle of Franklin took place here, and American Civil War history enthusiasts will be delighted to discover more about the event at such sites as the bullet-covered Carter House, the Carnton Plantation, which used to serve as a hospital during battles, and the well-preserved Lotz House. On the beverage side of things to do, there’s Arrington Vineyards for any wine lovers and Leiper’s Fork Distillery for artisan Tennessee whiskey. Don’t miss a chance to visit The Factory, an impressive industrial unit-turned-shopping hub with everything from boutiques to a theatre and artisan market.
There’s a reason Jonesborough was our pick for Tennessee’s most charming town. Although very tiny, Jonesborough has two titles that are unrivaled in Tennessee. The first: it’s regarded as the oldest town in the state, which automatically means that you can find lots of intact historic buildings scattered around the local hilly terrain, some dating back to 1777. The second: Jonesborough is “the storytelling capital of the world.” It has long been a venue for the National Storytelling Festival, an event that gathers storytellers from around the globe every October. It’s quite an original and unique happening that you won’t encounter anywhere else. The atmosphere in Jonesborough has a distinct, Appalachian flavor, and the mountains are never far away. To learn more about the town’s history, head to the Chester Inn Museum, set in the beautifully preserved, and oldest, commercial building in Jonesborough.
With a kaleidoscope of brick and wooden houses dating back to the 19th century and excellent outdoor adventure possibilities, Dandridge is a lovely gem of eastern Tennessee. The lake rules here. This town is entirely hugged by the shores of Douglas Lake and is a fantastic place to base yourself to explore the numerous hiking trails and fun water activities. Stroll through a small but charming downtown area, have a meal at one of the lakeside restaurants, and camp in one of the sites along the lake’s waterfront.
An idyllic small-town escape awaits you in Savannah. Located on the banks of the Tennessee River, it’s a beautiful amalgam of history and nature that makes for a great day trip. Check out the cozy cafes in the picturesque houses downtown, learn more about the region at the boutique Tennessee River Museum, and see the 19th-century Cherry Mansion along the Savannah Historic District Trail.
Appalachian culture abounds in Pigeon Forge, the ultimate mountain destination in Tennessee and one of the most charming small towns there is in the state. Fun runs in the DNA of this Great Smoky Mountains destination, and the considerable number of amusement parks in the area helps to keep it that way. Dollywood is here; the universally loved theme park owned by the one and only Dolly Parton should be visited along with the adjacent Dollywood’s Splash Country Water Park. The restaurant-packed and amusement parks-filled Parkway Street leads you directly to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so don’t miss an opportunity to conquer the peaks and test the hiking trails. And check out Sevierville nearby, another pretty small Appalachian town that boasts lovely old architecture and the statue of Dolly Parton. In short, you’ll never run out of things to do in charming Pigeon Forge.
Tullahoma is the quintessential small town of middle Tennessee where you find painted old buildings downtown, a stillness in the air, long distances between country houses, and bits of Americana-infused nostalgia. In other words, it’s an ideal weekend trip. The town is famous for the magnificent Beechcraft Heritage Museum that tells the story of the Beechcraft aviation company founded by Tennessee native Walter H. Beech. It’s an excellent place for a family trip with all the vintage planes and small-town museum charm. Another terrific outing in the vicinity of Tullahoma is Tims Ford State Park. There, you’ll find a scenic lake with some of the best campgrounds in the state and myriads of outdoor fun. Also, the Short Springs natural area is a great spot to visit for waterfalls.