Tennessee welcomes visitors with a variety of activities for all tastes. The cities offer a selection of museums, cultural attractions and events, including Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Murfreesboro, Clarksville, Franklin and Gatlinburg. Outdoors, Tennessee offers great activities for active visitors, including hiking, paddling, cycling, and horseback riding, all against a backdrop of mountain plateaus, waterfalls and rivers. Here are the best places to visit in Tennessee.
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Nashville is famous as the birthplace of Country Music and showcases an excellent variety of musical and arty cultural attractions. Music lovers can visit the Bridgestone Arena, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the TPAC, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, to hear some of the best music in the state.
Visual arts are equally well represented at several wonderful art centers and there are no less than four art crawls that you can join for a feast of art. History buffs can visit the Andrew Jackson Hermitage and several other historic sites and homes. Families can explore dozens of attractions, including the Adventure Science Center and the Nashville Zoo, and for foodies the Music City Food and Wine Festival in September is a must. Things to Do in Nashville
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In Memphis you can delve into the city’s famous musical heritage by visiting attractions such as Sun Studios, Graceland, and the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum, where the spirit of Elvis “The King” lives on. If you enjoy history, you can visit the Cotton Museum, the Victorian Village, and the Davies Manor Plantation for a glimpse of life during the 1800s. Art lovers will enjoy visiting the Dixon Gallery, the Belz Museum of Art, and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
Outdoor enthusiasts can visit the Memphis Botanical Garden or Shelby Farms Park, or go jogging and cycling in Overton Park. Families can enjoy hours of educational fun at the Children’s Museum of Memphis, the Fire Museum of Memphis, or the Lichterman Nature Center. Things to Do in Memphis
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3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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There is no better way to enjoy the great outdoors than by visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where you can pursue a variety of activities against the stunning backdrop of the Smoky Mountains. You can do some great wildlife spotting in Cades Cove, either by driving the scenic loop road or by exploring by bicycle or on foot.
Hiking is the main activity and there are trails to suit all abilities, including gentle family-friendly hiking trails and daunting back-country backpacking excursions. Every season brings its own charm and you can explore beautiful wildflower meadows, see the fall colors, go fishing and camping, join a fascinating ranger-led program, or visit some of the 90 historical log cabins, barns, houses, and other structures in the park. Read more
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4. Tennessee Destinations: Knoxville
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Knoxville is one of Tennessee’s best kept secrets, offering a perfect blend of outdoor attractions, culture, music, shopping, and impressive cuisine. You can start your visit by learning some Knoxville history on a Historic Downtown Knoxville Walking Tour featuring over 60 historic buildings, or learn about the city’s musical background on a Cradle of Country Music Tour.
There is a variety of great museums for all ages, including the American Museum of Science and Energy, the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge and The Muse hands-on science center. The Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville Botanical Gardens, and the Knoxville Zoo are other must-do activities, and foodies will relish a Knoxville Food Tour.
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Chattanooga is chock-full of exciting and unusual attractions for the whole family, including the enormous Lookout Mountain Cave and the extraordinary Ruby Falls, America’s largest underground waterfall. You can ride to the top of Lookout Mountain on the Incline Railway and try a zip-line adventure while you are there.
The 90-minute Chattanooga Sidewalk Tour is great for getting your bearings and learning some history, while a visit to the Hunter Museum of American Art in the Bluff View Art District will delight all art lovers. Families can take the children to Creative Discovery, the Railroad Museum, the Tennessee Aquarium, and the Chattanooga Zoo for hours of fun and entertainment. At the Tennessee Riverpark you can view the Walnut St. Bridge and go walking, boating, and hiking. Things to Do in Chattanooga
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Gatlinburg is one of America’s most popular mountain resort towns, nestled at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can get your bearings by strolling down the Downtown Parkway, which runs the length of the town and is filled with interesting attractions. Art enthusiasts can lose themselves along the amazing 8-mile Route 321 loop through the Gatlinburg Arts Community – you can drive the loop or take a historical trolley.
You can take the Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway from downtown to the Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area and Amusement Park, which offers year-round family fun. Other family-friendly attractions include Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster, and the Guinness World Records Museum. The adjacent Great Smoky Mountain National Park offers limitless outdoor activities all year round. Things to Do in Gatlinburg
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7. Tennessee Destinations: Franklin
Franklin is situated just 17 miles south of Nashville and boasts one of the most enchanting historical Main Streets in the country together with several gracious and historical homesteads, great music, and a thriving arts scene. Art lovers can join the First Friday Art Crawl (free trolley service provided) to visit some of the foremost galleries and working art studios in the city.
History buffs can learn about the Battle of Franklin on a tour of the Lotz House Museum, Carnton Plantation, and Carter House. For a break from art and history you can visit Timberland Park, where you can picnic or go hiking and wildlife watching. You can round off your day with some live theatre or a concert at the historic Franklin Theatre. Things to Do in Franklin
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Although Clarksville is the fifth-largest city in Tennessee, it still manages to have a great small-town feel. In Historic Downtown Clarksville you can see a collection of 1870’s buildings and visit the Customs House Museum and Cultural Center as well as the historic Roxy Regional Theatre.
Outdoor enthusiasts can visit Dunbar Cave State Park for some hiking or to go on a ranger-led torchlit tour of Dunbar Cave. There are several other parks and recreation areas to explore, including Clarksville Greenway for hiking, walking, and cycling, and Liberty Park and Marina, where you can go boating, hiking, picnicking, and fishing. Children can have fun at the splash pad in Edith Pettus Park and there is a lively farmers’ market to visit on Saturdays.
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Jackson is situated halfway between Memphis and Nashville, making it a great place to visit as you explore Tennessee’s famous Civil War and music heritage. You can get an insight into Jackson’s history and role in the Civil War by visiting the Lane College Historic District, Parker’s Crossroads Battlefield, Britton Lane Battlefield, and Riverside Cemetery.
For a lighter note you can visit the Casey Jones House and Train Museum and the Carnegie Center for Arts and History, while music lovers will enjoy the Rock A Billy Hall of Fame. For some outdoor fun, you can go hiking and wildlife watching at Cypress Grove Nature Park, visit Century Farm Winery and Vineyards, or take the kids to enjoy the corn maze, hayrides, and pumpkins at the Donnell Century Farm Adventure. (October)
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In 1998 the U.S. Congress recognized Bristol as the official “Birthplace of Country Music” and today visitors can learn all about the genre at the world-class BCM – Birthplace of Country Music Museum – which has fun and informative interactive exhibits for all ages. If the ballet or a symphony concert is more to your liking, you can find the like at the Paramount Center for the Arts.
There are several exciting outdoor activities, including tours of the Bristol and Appalachian Caverns and watching a NASCAR rally at the Bristol Motor Speedway. You can go hiking or boating in Steele Creek Park, do some shopping in the bustling Historic Downtown, or visit the State Street Farmers’ Market.
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Johnson City nestles in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and offers many and varied activities for outdoor enthusiasts as well as interesting historic and cultural attractions. You can take a stroll through bustling Downtown Johnson City to admire the unique shops and galleries and soak up the small-town atmosphere.
In neighboring Jonesborough, history buffs can walk in the footsteps of pioneers like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. You can go hiking, biking, or running along the 10-mile Tweetsie Trail or in Buffalo Mountain Park and Sycamore Shoals State Park, or try kayaking and rafting on the Nolichucky River. Great rainy day activities include visiting the Gray Fossil Site and Natural History Museum or going on a tour of some local craft breweries.
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Murfreesboro is situated just southeast of Nashville, which makes it an ideal base for visitors interested in exploring the history of the Civil War and enjoying some laidback small-town charm. To learn about the region’s role in the Civil War, you can visit the Stones River National Battlefield and Oaklands Historic House Museum.
Families can tour Cannonsburgh pioneer village and have hours of hands-on fun at the Discovery Center at Murfree Spring, and everyone will enjoy strolling around the historical downtown area. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, walking, or biking along a paved trail in the Stones River Greenway. In summer you can cool down at the Boro Beach Water Park.
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13.Tennessee Points of Interest: Oak Ridge
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During World War II, Oak Ridge was built in secret as America strove to produce an atomic bomb before the Germans did. The Secret City has a fascinating history and many interesting sites to explore. You can learn all about it on a visit to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which documents the life and times of Oak Ridge residents between 1942 and 1945 and includes the K-25 Virtual Museum.
Art Lovers can attend the Oak Ridge Ballet, the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra, or catch a production at Oak Ridge Playhouse. Outdoor activities include many miles of trails for hiking and biking in Haw Ridge Park, a variety of off-road adventures in Windrock Park, and excellent facilities for boating, paddling, rowing, and more on Melton Lake.
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14.Tennessee Destinations: Cleveland
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Cleveland is situated in Bradley County and has a rich historical legacy combined with excellent outdoor attractions. A great way to uncover some history is to set off on a self-guided tour of the Historic Downtown, where Victorian homes rub shoulders with antebellum churches and other historical buildings.
If you visit in October, you can join the Fort Hill Cemetery Walking Tour. To admire the beautiful landscape, you can go hiking along part of the Appalachian Trail in the Cherokee National Park or take a gentle hike in the Red Clay State Historic Park or along the Cleveland/Bradley County Greenway. Families can enjoy fun water activities on the Hiwassee River or on Parksville Lake.
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© Columbia, TN
Columbia is situated just 45 miles south of Nashville, offering a great base from which to explore the heart of Middle Tennessee. Historic Columbia Square is home to over 90 buildings that have already celebrated their 100th birthday – you can take a walking tour along the quaint cobbled streets to soak up the atmosphere and shop in the many unique stores.
A few of the must-see historical buildings to add to your itinerary include Historic Elm Springs, the Athenaeum Rectory, and the gracious Rippavilla Plantation. Outdoor activities include hiking or biking in Natchez Trace Parkway or fishing, paddling, and wildlife watching in Duck River Blueway. To really embrace the music and atmosphere of Columbia you should visit during the annual 6-day Mule Day Festival in March.
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16.Walnut Street Bridge, Chattanooga
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The historical (1891) Walnut Street Bridge dominates the Chattanooga skyline and is an irresistible draw-card for locals and visitors alike. The bridge is Tennessee’s oldest non-military bridge and after a series of renovations, the all-pedestrian bridge forms both a linear park and a vital link between bustling North Shore and the Bluff View Arts District.
You can join the locals as they walk their dogs, cycle, or push their strollers along the half-mile-long bridge, which offers sweeping views of the river and easy access to the Tennessee Aquarium, the Hunter Museum of Art, and the Creative Discovery Museum. The bridge has become a popular venue for festivals and events, including Wine over Water, Riverbend and Oktoberfest, to name but a few.
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17.Shiloh National Military Park
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On the 6th and 7th of April, 1862, the bloody Battle of Shiloh claimed over 23,000 casualties in one of the deadliest battles of the Civil War. Today, the Shiloh National Military Park pays tribute to all casualties and the more than 3,000 fatalities.
You can watch a film or see a display re-enacting parts of the battle at the interpretive center before doing the self-drive auto tour of the battlefield, which features 20 stops at historic sites. To get the most of your auto tour, you can buy a CD audio guide at the bookstore. Both adults and children can join ranger-led programs or attend one of the many Living History events held each year.
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18.Tennessee Points of Interest: Clingmans Dome
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Reaching an impressive 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is both the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and in the whole of Tennessee State. You can admire the wonderful views by taking a drive along Clingmans Dome Road, which has several pull-outs where you can just sit and drink in the vistas, before you proceed to the parking area at the end of the road.
From here you can follow a paved trail for about half a mile to reach the lookout tower, which offers 360° views of the magnificent hills and valley that make up the area. It is also possible to hike up to the lookout point or join one of several hiking trails that start at the parking area, including a section of the Appalachian Trail that crosses Clingmans Dome.
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19.Rock Island State Park
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Rock Island State Park is situated at the headwaters of Center Hill Lake and provides unlimited opportunities for getting back to nature surrounded by a beautiful landscape that includes waterfalls, lakes, pools, beaches, and the Caney Fork Gorge. Hiking enthusiasts can choose from several trails, which vary from easy to strenuous. For experienced hikers, exploring the Caney Fork Gorge is one of the most popular activities.
You can enjoy swimming off the natural sandy beach, do some amazing bird watching, or cast a line to catch your supper. There are several ramps where you can launch a boat, or you could try rafting or kayaking off Rock Island. You can pitch a tent or park your RV at the campsite or rent a cabin.
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If you think the Great Smoky Mountains are beautiful, you will be astounded by the beauty that lies hidden below the surface. The Tuckaleechee Caverns, located in Townsend just 18 miles from Pigeon Forge, offer visitors a unique glimpse of nature and geological forces in action.
You can explore the series of caves on a guided tour along a mile-long passageway that takes you past giant stalactite and stalagmite formations, narrow walkways, grand rooms, underground rivers, and the impressive 200-foot Silver Falls. The tour culminates in the impressive Big Room, which is more than 400 feet long and 300 feet across. The caves are believed to be between 20 and 30 million years old – a true wonder of nature.
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21.Foothills Parkway, Townsend
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Taking a scenic drive along the Foothills Parkway is undoubtedly one of the best ways to admire the awesome landscape of the Great Smoky Mountains. Driving this mountainous route will take you out of the valley and up above the treetops and foothills to see some of the best vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and beyond.
You can drive the route in a normal car and it is even suitable for RVs. Along the western section of the route, you can spot some beautiful lakes, including Lake Chilowee and Lake of the Sky. You can stop off to hike the Look Rock Tower Trail to the observation tower, which offers even more wonderful views. Try and time your visit for early morning or sunset when the light is particularly good.
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22.Burgess Falls State Park
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The Burgess Falls State Park lies roughly half-way between Nashville and Knoxville and protects a series of beautiful waterfalls along the Falling Water River. You will need to be fairly fit to hike the one-and-a-half-mile River Trail Loop, which will take you past four impressive waterfalls that vary in height between 20 feet and 136 feet, but you will be rewarded with great views of the falls.
You can skip the last section of the loop trail, which descends into the gorge and is very strenuous indeed. You can enjoy picnicking and fishing in the park, however camping is not allowed. Before you leave, spend some time in the Butterfly Garden adjacent to the main parking area to observe beautiful wildflowers, butterflies, and dragonflies.
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23.Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
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Situated near Oneida in south-eastern Tennessee, Big South Fork NRRA includes a whopping 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau and protects the wild and beautiful Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its many tributaries. Adventurous visitors can try a guided white-water rafting expedition or hike one of 14 scenic trails varying from one mile to about seven miles in length – choose one to suit your fitness level.
Horseback riding is extremely popular in the area and there are many bridle paths to follow and equestrian camping is available. You can explore the backcountry by mountain bike or join hundreds of eager rock climbers. For a change of pace, you can visit the coal mine at the Blue Heron Mining Community or ride the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.
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24.Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park
© Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, TN
Located in downtown Nashville, the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park provides a lasting tribute to Tennessee’s bicentennial celebration, which was held in 1996. In addition to providing a beautiful green space for locals and visitors to enjoy, the park offers a great view of the State Capitol building and is full of interesting historic markers.
You can do a self-guided walk along an easy paved trail which visits all the important features of the park, or go on a free ranger-led tour on Wednesdays, where you will learn all about the historical, cultural, and natural resources of the park and the State of Tennessee.
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25.Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook
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If you find yourself anywhere in the vicinity of Gatlinburg, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, you owe it to yourself to visit the Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook, located just outside town on the Gatlinburg bypass. From the overlook you can enjoy impressive views over downtown Gatlinburg against the backdrop of the beautiful Smoky Mountains.
The overlook is a great place to take some memorable family photos or to just relax and enjoy the changing light patterns. The scenery is wonderful all year round, but puts on a spectacular display during the fall when the surrounding forests are ablaze with color.
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25 Best Places to Visit in Tennessee
- Nashville, Photo: Courtesy of spiritofamerica - Fotolia.com
- Memphis, Photo: Courtesy of offfstock - Fotolia.com
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Photo: Courtesy of Carolyn Franks - Fotolia.com
- Tennessee Destinations: Knoxville, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Chattanooga, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Gatlinburg, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Tennessee Destinations: Franklin, Photo: Franklin/Facebook
- Clarksville, Photo: Courtesy of Picture-Factory - Fotolia.com
- Jackson, Photo: Jackson/Facebook
- Bristol, Photo: Courtesy of arthurhidden - Fotolia.com
- Johnson City, Photo: Courtesy of Robert Hainer - Fotolia.com
- Murfreesboro, Photo: Courtesy of James Becker - Fotolia.com
- Tennessee Points of Interest: Oak Ridge, Photo: Courtesy of Alexander Y - Fotolia
- Tennessee Destinations: Cleveland, Photo: Courtesy of aheflin - Fotolia.com
- Columbia, Photo: Columbia, TN
- Walnut Street Bridge, Chattanooga, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Shiloh National Military Park, Photo: NPS Photo
- Tennessee Points of Interest: Clingmans Dome, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Rock Island State Park, Photo: Courtesy of Josh - Fotolia.com
- Tuckaleechee Caverns, Photo: Courtesy of smolskyevgeny - Fotolia.com
- Foothills Parkway, Townsend, Photo: Courtesy of Jill Lang - Fotolia.com
- Burgess Falls State Park, Photo: Courtesy of Jim Vallee - Fotolia.com
- Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Photo: Courtesy of Phils Photography - Fotolia.com
- Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, Photo: Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, TN
- Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook, Photo: Courtesy of jonbilous - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of jonbilous - Fotolia.com