Things to do in Bristol TN (and VA), the Birthplace of Country Music

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Spelling with art is a thing to do in bristol tn va! One as a downtown mural the word LOVE looks this way: L is a washboard, O at record, V is two guitars and E is a mandolin topped by a music staph.
The word LOVE is posted all over Virginia with big letters and shapes telling a story of that specific place. Bristol is in Virginia and Tennessee. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Bristol is a music city with lots of other things to do too. I immersed in the downtown center music scene to see if a one-night stand could offer a robust evening — along with solid plans for a longer return. I found that there are many things to do in Bristol TN

Twelve real experiences, and two sets of plans for another time, felt energetic to me!

One of the things to do in Bristol TN VA is Inspect the brick-sized markers in the middle of the street declaring which side is Tennessee and which is Virginia.
Bristol is really in two states with the dividing line in the middle of a major downtown street. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Where Are You?

First, figure out where you are. Bristol is in northeast Tennessee and in Virginia and there’s action in the middle of State Street as well as along both sides of the five blocks I walked.

I think I slept in Virginia and ate dinner in Tennessee. I know I interrupted traffic photographing the brick-sized state markers in the middle of the busy main street.

Face one way and read a state name left to right. Face the other way to read a different state name. The border is right down the middle: the state line.

Most likely it’s OK to let the kids do this too—-traffic stopped for me at night, and local people say they’re amused by visitors, not annoyed, so the drivers pause.

Pink trousers and an embroidered pink jacket on a mannequin show how fancy some female country musicians have been. Brown leather boots with yellow daisy flower designs and a yellow cowgirl hat on a tall stool tell the story in Bristol TN VA.
Signature outfits distinguish many stars with stories filling the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Flat foot dancer Martha Spencer wore this pink suit. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Birthplace of Country Music Museum

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is a short two blocks from State Street and so worth more time than I gave it.

Lots in the museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, is hands-on fun-things-to-do interactive, like a sing along station. They’re soundproofed so better than singing in the shower no matter your pitch.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Head to the Immersion walk-through alcove called “The Unbroken Circle.” Think of Mother Maybelle Carter, and the Carter Family, and then immerse in many performances. Breathe in the floor-to-ceiling size film clips of many artists singing Can the Circle Be Unbroken, with music at a pleasing decibel level.

A visit now to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, right up to New Year’s Eve, 2023 holds added incentive with a stunning new exhibit. I hope it will travel to other top-quality museums.

I’ve Endured: Women in Old-time Music told me all sorts of wonderful new things about song catchers and tradition bearers, folk music and murder ballads (really!) and so many connections of music to family and faith.

Things to do in bristol tn va in the special museum exhibit includes posters and historic  photographs. Etta James is strumming her guitar as she sings in a poster of greens, brown, beiges.
Etta James plays a role in the “I’ve Endured: Women in Old-time Music” special exhibit open until Dec. 31, 2023. I’m broke and I ain’t got a dime she’s singing. Music where people come together is part of the exhibit focus. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Dolly Parton likes this exhibit too. Here’s what she says:

“These women were from the hills and hollers of the rural south, who helped plant musical seeds for all of us. My momma could have been in that exhibit.”

Family has a lot to do with country music and the Bristol experience. Learning an instrument or two to join the elders on the front porch was a key way to communicate—and still is.

That might be part of the reason East Tennessee State University in Johnson City offers degrees in Appalachian studies…even a master’s.

Things to do in bristol tn va can happen up above too in sunsets of pinks and blues stretching left to right as far as one might see.
Sunset seen from the rooftop bar in the downtown Bristol Hotel, next door to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Bristol Hotel

The Bristol Hotel was one key to making my night in downtown Bristol robust. Adjacent to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, the hotel has a rooftop bar. It’s a prime spot to watch sunrises and sunsets. In addition, it offers a broad view toward Virginia and northeast Tennessee.

One of 65 rooms, my space was modern with plenty of easy-to-reach plugs on desk and nightstand tops. Single cup coffee maker, two plush terry cloth robes, spacious walk-in shower, Gilchrist & Soames toiletries.

Great big lighted letters declare that Bristol is Virginia and Tennessee and that it’s a good place to live. The message is enormous and shines all over downtown.
Bristol does not hide the fact it’s officially part of two states. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Bristol Sign

The Bristol sign shines toward that rooftop gathering place, and in your window on one side of the hotel. It’s a stunning declaration that “Bristol is a good place to live.”

This is no new marketing ploy. The Bristol sign was erected in 1910.

Things to do in Bristol TN VA includes admiring performance spaces as much as the shows. Murals of lovers dressed to go to the concert in an earlier century are robust with delicate colors.
Murals are part of the beauty of the Bristol Paramount which opened in 1931. They fill the walls leading to the performance stage. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts


The downtown Bristol Paramount Theater is old too, and utterly gorgeous. Think art deco from its 1931 opening.

The marquee holds 1,967 bulbs so no trouble pinpointing the Paramount Center for the Arts. For 50 years this was a movie theater with a Mighty Wurlitzer organ accompanying those silent films of the Roaring ‘20s. Hundreds of live performances every year now headline in the 749 seat auditorium, including ADA sections.

Musical heritage matters here too.

Get a ticket or hope for a tour because the interior long, tall murals are romantic, light-hearted and calming. Find the Paramount on the National Register of Historic Places.

SheBuysTravel Tip: There’s still a Mighty Wurlitzer, and that’s special with only 25 remaining the America. Used to be thousands during the silent film era. This is the Paramount’s second: the original keyboard was given to King University which was already educating students in Bristol before the Depression. (Full disclosure: my father was one of them.)

A taller than people sized guitar props up outside the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and standing next to it is one of the many things to do in bristol tn va.
Guitars of many styles abound in Bristol, and the musicians who play them revere the 1927 Bristol Sessions – history influencing today they say. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Rhythm & Roots Reunion

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is the name of the music festival, and there’s deep musical heritage meaning behind each word in the title. More than a dozen indoor and outdoor stages fill several blocks on and around State Street for three days every September.

Longevity counts; 2001 was the festival launch.

Headliners often speak of their pleasure being in the birthplace of country music, and local folks like to say it was those stars who helped them realize they lived in the midst of something special.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Look for stages near Bristol landmarks like the lighted “fun to live here” sign, public library and country music mural.

Bristol Sessions

Johnny Cash calls the recordings made in 1927 in Bristol “ the single most important event in the history of country music.”

In two weeks the Bristol Sessions recorded 76 songs by 19 different acts. Heard of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and Ernest V. Stoneman? Of course, and each was part of this birthplace recording.

Today the Library of Congress says the Bristol Sessions are among the 50 most significant sound recording events of all time.

Another library to notice is the local one, first for its engaging arch signaling the entrance, and the sheer pleasure of reading.

Things to do in bristol tn va doesn’t always require going inside a building. The two-story former post office is bathed in flood lights at night
With some of Bristol in a different state from other parts, workers in this post office must have felt the challenge. It’s now an office building. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Believe in Bristol

Second reason to notice is knowing this is the first property to be co-owned by both Tennessee and Virginia—a Bristol distinction. That idea was the brainchild of members of a women’s club in the late 1920s.

Now there are lots of “first-ever” two-state partnerships. Main Street is another to be a duo, and they wrap their faith in collaboration in the slogan Believe in Bristol.

Some things to do in Bristol are old and new at the same time. King is a family name with lots of ties so go buy a jacket or pair of pants at L. C. King in downtown. Four generations of sewing here and your pants will be hemmed to specification, or your jacket altered.

Maybe Tennessee Ernie Ford did too. Lots of country music performers do so today.

Live Music Every Night

Live music is easy to find——just listen on a stroll of State Street. Ticketed performances in the Cameo Theater and the Paramount Center for the Arts are just one way. Bars and eateries with sidewalk seating, and sometimes open mic, are the others.

Seems to add up to every night of the week.

Neon lights illuminate the Cameo Theater, an event of things to do in bristol tn va without even going inside.
Once a movie theater, the Cameo is now the scene of live performances. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Cameo Theater

The Cameo Theater was revitalized in 2023 for performing arts, down the street from the Paramount Bristol. Once a movie theater, live performances are the norm now. But It’s A Wonderful Life shows once a year—-homage to the past.

1925 was the Cameo’s opening year, think about the Roaring 20’s. And then the Bristol Session four years later.

Musicologists call the sounds of 1927 in Bristol a “big bang of country music.”

Speedway and Dragway

More movies than the Cameo’s one are shown at the Twin City Drive-in Theatre, one mile north of the Bristol Motor Speedway. Find NASCAR here. And think dragstrip.

things to do in bristol tn va should include watching a chef up close as she plates food artistically in an open kitchen for all to see.
Union 41 is the Bristol restaurant where Hell’s Kitchen runner up Chef T. channels her Caribbean roots with Appalachian cuisine. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Hell’s Kitchen Chef T. at Union 41

Culinary energies burst forth when I chose Union 41 for dinner. Chef T, with Caribbean roots and runner-up credentials in 2015 from Hell’s Kitchen, sets a standard for smiling too.

The sous chef team exudes respect for her ever-watchful eye for details, and the plating process felt like choreography.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Request the lunch counter when you make a reservation. The building used to be a bus depot, and Chef T cooks her signature dishes in full view.

Don’t believe you know what a “snack” means. Mine was called Ham & Cheese—delectable braised brie topped with airy thin heritage ham, roasted grapes and peach hot honey. I could have shared it with a friend as I sipped a lavender haze gin cocktail with its smoke bubble.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines are her island home, and Torrence Gregoire her full name. Look for Caribbean hints on the menu, as well as staples from Appalachia, including corn.

The exquisite attention to tiny details too was clear from my lunch counter perch.

Things to do in bristol tn va include a meal of heritage ham, brie and roasted grapes at Union 41.
Roasted grapes added a delectable note to brie and heritage ham at Union 41. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

State Street Stroll

State Street with its center-line markers is also home to the state street farmers market. Bank is an adjoining side street, a stroll I recommend since the block is filled with murals by local artists.

I overheard sidewalk conversation of middle-aged people headed to the Tri-Cities Escape Game hoping they’d be clever. Other people seemed disappointed I’d be departing too early to experience the Blackbird Bakery in downtown.

There’s an ancient underground river and that means Bristol Caverns to explore just 15 minutes from downtown.

There’s also lore about Beaver Creek, an underground river flowing under Piedmont Avenue in downtown.

Bumper stickers declare the region to be pronounced app-uh-latch-uh. And neighbors like to think in threes: Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City. Tri-Cities is the airport.

Things to do in bristol tn va say “welcome” outdoors with a fanciful arch to walk under of imaginary characters on a child-size train.
The arch above the public library beckons people to imaginary worlds in a stately building. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Bristol Music Any Time

Check out 101.5 FM in town, or everywhere else. This is livestream music from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum 24/7 and the mobile app is free.

The radio station is a museum exhibit, with a big glass window for visitors to watch.

Ticketed concert broadcasts happen too from the museum theater, and quarterly the Farm and Fun Time show is broadcast from the Paramount Bristol.

text things to do in bristol tn va includes sunsets in bold yellow.
Wide open skies above the mountains frame early morning and evening outdoor activities in Bristol. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Outdoor Activities Nearby

Cherokee National Forest is an outdoor activities exploration beyond my downtown route, starting in Bristol and extending 640,000 acres all the way to Chattanooga.

Biking and kayaking are among the options.

The forest surrounds two-thirds of the shoreline of South Holston Lake, 20 minutes from downtown. The Holston River claims to have 10,000 fish per mile.

Thunder Valley Nationals get their name at the Bristol Dragway because of the noise; the 3,800 foot long track is located between two mountains so it’s live music acoustics of a different sort.

Steele Creek Park and Nature Center is a Bristol TN getaway with a golf course, paddleboats, walking trails, splash pad, disc golf. playgrounds and an amphitheater.

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