Whether you’re into music, history or adventure, the great state of Tennessee has you covered. Home to Elvis Presley’s mansion, notable Civil Rights landmarks and some of the most breathtaking natural beauties that the country has to offer, Tennessee is packed with fun and memorable things to do for all ages. Get ready to take notes, because here are 18 of the best places to visit in Tennessee.
Beyond the Music in Tennessee
When you think of Tennessee, one of the first things that may come to mind is rock ‘n’ roll and country music. After all, it is home to some of the most famous music venues in the world including the Country Music Hall of Fame, Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion and Dollywood, a theme park owned by the iconic Dolly Parton.
But Tennessee is home to so much more than just music. It’s also packed with rich history including some of the most important Civil Rights landmarks, including the National Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
And that’s not all! Tennessee is home to some of the most beautiful places in the eastern USA, including magnificent mountainsides, cascading waterfalls, stunning natural rock structures and some of the most incredible views you’ll ever experience.
Needless to say, if you’re headed to the Volunteer State, you’ll certainly want to plan ahead for all it has to offer.
Home to some of the most famous and well-respected music venues in the world, Nashville is the largest city and the best place to visit in Tennessee for visitors of all ages looking for good music, good food and good Southern fun.
From the Johnny Cash Museum to the General Jackson Showboat and SoundWaves water park, “Music City” offers Southern charm to everyone. Music envelopes the streets, the culture, even the economy of the Tennessee state capitol. Don’t miss a stop at the Goo Goo Shop, home of the Goo Goo Cluster.
The family friendly attractions run the gamut, from historic sites like the Hermitage and Ryman Auditorium to new fun things like the National Museum of African American Music. Nashville is where you’ll also find legendary venues such as the Grand Ole Opry House and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
A quick road trip from Atlanta or Nashville, Chattanooga occupies a prime spot along the banks of the Tennessee River. Surrounded by Lookout Mountain and Raccoon Mountain, this vibrant southern city is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee for family attractions, outdoor pursuits, intriguing history, enticing art and a tasty dining scene.
Writer Terri Marshall is a native of Chattanooga and recommends visiting for its number of family-friendly things to do as well as its scenic riverfront location and 13-mile Riverwalk surrounded by mountains. If you’ve got a train lover in your family, don’t skip Chattanooga. You can spend the night in a train car at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Historic Hotel. And ride the very steep Incline Railway at Lookout Mountain. Or go below to see an underground waterfall!
At the end of a busy day, head over to the Walnut Street Bridge to catch a stunning sunset. Erected in 1890, the Walnut Street Bridge stands 2,376 feet high and connects the north shore of the Tennessee River to downtown Chattanooga. It’s one of the longest pedestrian bridges in North America.
3. Lookout Mountain
Located along the southeastern Tennessee state line in Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee for adventure seekers and those looking to have an out-of-this-world experience among the state’s most natural wonders.
Some of the best attractions at Lookout Mountain include Rock City, which is literally a city of rocks high atop Lookout Mountain. Hold your tummy in as you pass through the Eye of the Needle and Fat Man’s Squeeze or head up to Lover’s Leap where (on a clear day) you can see the states of Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama.
Another classic attraction is Ruby Falls, which takes you along a cavern trail showcasing fascinating rock formations including a stunning 145-foot-tall underground waterfall. It’s the tallest and deepest in the USA that’s open to the public. There’s also ziplining, hiking (including a kid-friendly trail) and hang gliding, if you’re brave enough!
4. Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
If you have a train lover in your family, the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum needs to be on your list of places to visit. Not only is it a museum, but also an opportunity to hop aboard and ride in a vintage train car and take a ride through the Cherokee National Forest.
Located in Chattanooga, the Tennessee Valley Railroad is a moving museum that showcases the history of the railroad and its importance during the Civil War. Terri Marshall recommends the Missionary Ridge Local train, which takes passengers along one of the original railroad lines in Chattanooga, crossing four bridges and passing through pre-Civil War Missionary Ridge Tunnel.
5. Tennessee Aquarium
Located on Broad Street in downtown Chattanooga, the Tennessee Aquarium is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee for families and animal lovers. It is home to more than 12,000 animals and close to 800 species, offering one of the most diverse collections of freshwater animals in the USA.
Uniquely designed, the aquarium offers both a River Journey and an Ocean Journey. The River Journey traces the path of a single raindrop from the mountains to the sea. The Ocean Journey picks up the story showcasing sharks, stingrays, butterflies and those adorable penguins. And, in the River Journey, turtles, alligators and delightful river otters entertain the whole family. Scuba divers also interact with guests during scheduled shows. The aquarium also has an IMAX theater.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee for multi-generational travel, romantic getaways (or honeymoons), as well as family vacations. With miles of trails and mountains, as well as tons of attractions, shopping and dining, there are plenty of options to keep all ages busy regardless of its small town status.
Gatlinburg is a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a paradise for the outdoorsy. With over 150 different maintained hiking trails, you can spend the day hiking, enjoying the beautiful scenery. Or, get your dose of adrenaline with a ziplining adventure or whitewater rafting. For something more relaxing and low key, drive through the beautiful Cades Cove and get up close and personal with the wildlife.
Not a fan of the great outdoors? You have plenty of options in town to keep you busy. Spend the day at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, tour the Hollywood Star Cars Museum and Ripley’s Believe it or Not. If you’re over 21, tour the amazing Ole Smoky Distillery and sample their many different flavors of moonshine. Make sure to take the aerial tram to the top of the mountain and spend the day at Ober Gatlinburg.
Visiting in the winter? Try your hand at their many different snow activities (skiing, tubing, snowboarding and ice skating). If you’re not afraid of heights, ride the Gatlinburg Ski Lift or go to the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle for the most amazing views of the Smoky Mountains.
7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Straddling between the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee to see some of the country’s most beautiful plant and animal life, ancient mountains and South Appalachian mountain culture. Perhaps that is why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the USA!
Writer Jill Robbins considers the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a must-visit, whether you go for sightseeing, hiking or other activities. In her words, “Two of my favorite spots are Cades Cove and Klingman’s Dome. The latter is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. It’s a steep hike but the path is paved and there are plenty of spots to stop and rest.”
8. Cades Cove
Part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area. With an 11-mile loop through the mountains and several historic sites, it is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee for road trippers in search of a scenic drive, as well as visitors looking to catch a spotting of wildlife such as black bears, white-tailed deer, coyote and other wild animals.
SheBuysTravel contributor Heidi Gollub took on Cades Cove Loop with her family. “Our favorite part of this secondary adventure was actually the drive from the Visitors Center to the Loop, along Little River Road,” she said. “We stopped at several points to get our feet wet in the river, and practiced skipping stones.” Her only advice is to keep in mind that 11 miles on a one-way round can take quite a long time if stuck behind slow driving cars.
For those who don’t have as much time or would rather get out and move around versus tour Cades Cove Loop via car, hiking is also an option. The hike to Cataract Falls starts at the Visitors Center and is just under a half a mile, round trip.
9. Memphis: Elvis and the Blues
Birthplace of the blues and rock and roll, Memphis is one of the best places to visit for culture, American history and music. Memphis is home to major music landmarks such as Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Blues Hall of Fame and the legendary Sun Studio.
Families will love the Memphis Zoo and the new Shelby Farms Park, especially in the warmth of the spring or late fall. SheBuysTravel contributor Sarah Gilliland loved the Children’s Museum of Memphis, saying “We could have spent our entire trip in that one museum!”
Memphis is also home to the National Civil Rights Museum, as well as other iconic sites such as the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. You can see the motel as well as other major iconic sites with a guided tour of Memphis.
But Memphis isn’t just about the music. Writer Sarah Ricks advises visitors, “And better drop a few pounds before you arrive in Memphis. Because the food is delicious.” She also recommends staying in the downtown area to be within walking distance to the best restaurants, breweries, museums and the bustling Beale Street.
Here’s how to spend your time on a terrific Memphis weekend getaway.
If you’re a fan of the rock music legend Elvis Presley, Graceland will definitely fall on your list of best places to visit in Tennessee. A 13.8-acre estate located in Memphis, Graceland is where Elvis used to call home. Now it is a 200,000 square foot entertainment complex with museums, restaurants, gift shops and some of the most incredible photo ops.
Whether you visit on your own or decide to take a guided tour, you’ll have the opportunity to get up close and personal with his legendary costumes as well as other artifacts and momentos. You’ll also take a step into Elvis’ life including learning about his upbringing, walking his gardens, touring the aircraft he used to travel between shows and stepping foot inside the luxurious rooms where he spent his time. It is definitely a must-visit while in Memphis!
11. Pigeon Forge
It’s one of the best places to visit in Tennessee if you’re looking for a fun mountain town with tons to do for all ages.
Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood, the Appalachian-themed amusement park of the famous country singer Dolly Parton. Some of the other top things to do in the city include visiting the Titanic Museum and country music venues like the Smoky Mountain Opry. Feeling adventurous? Get up and close with nature with a thrilling whitewater rafting tour in the Smoky Mountains.
SheBuysTravel contributor Jill Robbins visited the area with her two tweens and found no shortage of fun, family-friendly things to do. In her words, “Now that we’ve experienced Pigeon Forge firsthand, we’ll definitely plan a return trip. The mountain scenery plus the many options for activities left us wanting more.”
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Dollywood is an Appalachian Mountain-themed amusement park owned by the famous Hollywood legend, Dolly Parton. With rides of all thrill-levels and sizes, it is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee for families looking to have fun together in one convenient place.
SheBuysTravel contributor Jill Robbins finds the park fantastic for tweens with a great balance between mild and terrifying. In her words, “The thrill rides were enough to keep my family’s interest but not so extreme that we couldn’t enjoy most of them together. There’s also a selection of rides geared toward younger kids that can accommodate grownups as well.” She strongly recommends purchasing the Timesaver Passes which gives you access to a special Timesaver line, bypassing the regular line.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, you’ll find plenty of food options including turkey legs, hot dogs, kettle corn and a sit-down restaurant that serves homestyle cooking family style (Aunt Granny’s).
In addition to the Dollywood theme park, Dollywood is home to Splash Country. A family-friendly waterpark with a separate parking area and entrance. The park is beautifully landscaped and has a wave pool, a lazy river, a children’s splash pad and several water slides.
Steeped with southern hospitality and tradition, Knoxville is an Eastern Tennessee gem that provides incredible budget-friendly cultural and historical family-friendly experiences for all ages and interests. It is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee if you’re a nature enthusiast, history buff, art fanatic or live music lover.
Located on the Tennessee River, downtown Knoxville offers mouthwatering Southern food, shops and art museums with interactive exhibits and Civil War artifacts. As a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, you’re just a short drive away from seeing one of the most beautiful places in Tennessee.
A must-visit in Knoxville is its one-of-a-kind Sunsphere, where you can get a breathtaking 360-degree view of downtown Knoxville, the Great Smoky Mountains and the Tennessee River. However, you’ll want to plan ahead to visit since the observation deck is closed on Mondays.
These are all of our favorite things to do in Knoxville.
A key site of the American Civil War, Franklin is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee for history buffs, art lovers and music lovers. Named after Benjamin Franklin, the city marks the location where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place. It is also a creative hub for major artists, photographers and world-class musicians.
The historic downtown Franklin area offers 16 beautiful blocks of Victorian architecture, historic landmarks, arts, antique shops, entertainment and restaurants. It’s such an incredible city that it is even listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a “Great American” Main Street experience. If you’re up for it, join a guided Civil War History Tour to learn more about the historic event as well as visit the other iconic sites involved in the Battle of Franklin.
15. Rock Island State Park
Known for its beautiful water and cascading waterfalls, the 883-acre Rock Island State Park is one of the best places in Tennessee for water lovers and adventurers.
With plenty of scenic overlooks, deep pools and even a natural sand beach, the park is great for water activities such as boating, fishing, swimming and kayaking. One of the most popular sights to see in the park is Great Falls, a 30-foot horseshoe cascading waterfall. The waterfall is located just below the cotton textile mill that it once powered more than 100 years ago. The park is also great for picnicking and camping, with two campgrounds and more than 60 campsites.
However, it is important that those taking on the waters in Rock Island State Park be aware that the rocks can be slippery and that the waters can rise quickly, have unknown depths and deadly currents. Always keep aware of your surroundings and get out of water immediately if the water starts to rise or you hear warning sirens.
16. Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
Also known as Big South Fork, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area encompasses 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau. Rich with both natural and historic features, it is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee for visitors who love outdoor recreation. In addition to its miles of scenic gorges and sandstone bluffs, the Big South Fork region also contains one of the highest concentrations of natural bridges in the eastern United States.
No matter what kind of outdoor activity you’re into, the opportunities are endless at Big South Fork. There’s hiking, horseback riding, swimming and camping. If you’re into nature, you can spend the day bird watching or admiring the native plants and wildlife. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there’s whitewater rafting, mountain biking and rock climbing. There are also several overlooks where you can catch an early morning sunrise or wind down the day with a beautiful sunset.
17. Burgess Falls State Park
Known for its four cascading waterfalls, Burgess Falls State Park is one of the best places to visit in Tennessee for natural beauty and spectacular views. Located on the Falling Water River, its waterfalls cascade down from more than 250 feet in elevation. The last of the waterfalls is perhaps the most breathtaking, plunging down more than 130 feet!
But Burgess Falls State Park is more than just its waterfalls. It is also one of the most beautiful places to hike for seasoned hikers, with a 5.4-mile roundtrip trail. The trail is considered to be difficult/strenuous and can take up to three hours to complete. Just make sure to start your trip at least 1.5 hours before sunset.
Bristol’s worth a visit since it straddles the Tennessee/Virginia border. And a must-do when you’re there is a trip to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. You might have so much fun you can’t get to all the other things to do! But do it anyway because this is all about experiences with music, not just looking at exhibits and reading displays.
Then go out and listen! The Museum’s in Bristol VA, next door to the Bristol Hotel. Walk a block hunting the neon lights of Bristol Paramount and The Cameo Theater and you’ll cross the state line and be in Tennessee on State Street.
SheBuysTravel writer Christine Tibbetts listened in to the history of the 1927 Bristol Sessions which “birthed” country music here and then explored the places where even more music plays today.
Live music every night is right to expect, in historic restored theaters and more intimate bars and restaurants.
Outdoor Bristol is lively too with NASCAR, dragways, the Cherokee National Forest and Steele Creek Park & Nature Center.