- Great Smokey mountains National Park
Situated south of Gatlinburg on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers 800-plus miles of hiking trails, including some that take you to breathtaking waterfalls like Abrams, Grotto and Laurel falls. America’s most-visited national park also provides ample opportunities to fish, bike, ride horses and camp (weather permitting). But remember, the Smoky Mountains are home to nearly 2,000 wild black bears, so stay alert, keep your distance and properly store your food at all times.
Gatlinburg makes a great base for travelers looking to spend their vacation outdoors. Nestled within eastern Tennessee’s section of the Great Smoky Mountains, this town boasts proximity to multiple hiking trails and ski slopes. For some of the town’s best panoramas, climb aboard the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway, head to the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle or walk across the Gatlinburg SkyBridge (the longest pedestrian cable bridge in North America). Save time for Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, too. And when it’s time to dine, Gatlinburg offers hearty restaurants to sate any appetite.
Nashville’s ties to the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers, its 70-plus recording studios and its prevalence of honky-tonks are only a few reasons why the destination is called Music City. Country music fans flock to the Country Music Capital of the World to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and see big-name musicians perform at the Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium. The city also boasts an excellent dining scene featuring Southern staples and Nashville hot chicken (a fiery local favorite), so save time for a food tour.
4. Pigeon Forge
If you want your next vacation to be unlike any you’ve had before, visit Pigeon Forge. This mountain town 8 miles northwest of Gatlinburg is home to some of Tennessee’s most unique attractions. You can roll down a hill in a giant inflatable ball at Outdoor Gravity Park or mine for gems, feed goats and more at Goats On The Roof. Additionally, Pigeon Forge is where you’ll find Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park and the interactive Titanic Pigeon Forge museum. To wind down, visit the area’s wineries on the Rocky Top Wine Trail or taste moonshine at a local distillery.
5. Big South Fork National river and Recreation area
Sitting on the northern border of Tennessee and stretching into Kentucky, the 125,000-acre Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is the perfect escape for nature-loving travelers. Hiking is the most popular pastime here, with trails taking visitors past geological wonders like the Twin Arches – two sandstone arches spanning 93 feet and 135 feet – as well as waterfalls, rock shelters and farmsteads. Explorers can view the Big South Fork gorge from above at the East Rim Overlook or descend to Leatherwood Ford, which features riverside boardwalks. Meanwhile, more adventurous travelers can test their limits while rock climbing or whitewater paddling.
Chattanooga’s most well-known attribute may perhaps be Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, the country’s oldest and largest Civil War park. But there’s more to this city than its rich history. Travelers can enjoy incredible views of the Scenic City from Lookout Mountain, which houses Ruby Falls (America’s tallest underground waterfall accessible to the public) and Rock City Gardens (where visitors can cross the 180-foot Swing-A-Long Bridge or see seven states from a platform located 1,700 feet above the ground). Plus, families will find kid-friendly attractions like the Tennessee Aquarium– one of the world’s largest freshwater aquariums – and the Chattanooga Zoo within city limits.
Tennessee’s third-largest city perfectly blends outdoor recreation with urban amenities. In the 1,000-acre plot of forested land that comprises Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, visitors can explore 50-plus miles of trails, swim in glassy lake and get an adrenaline rush while zip lining, among other activities. For a more leisurely dose of nature, head to the University of Tennessee Gardens. Additional must-dos include visiting the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Zoo Knoxville and the Knoxville Museum of Art. Plan to stay in the Market Square area to be in the center of it all, including some of Knoxville’s best restaurants and breweries.
A trip to Cookeville offers equal parts adventure and charm. Outdoorsy types can connect with Mother Nature and hike to some of the area’s 150-plus waterfalls at nearby parks like Cummins Falls State Park and Burgess Falls State Park. Back in town, antique shops, bookstores and boutiques beckon to shopaholics, and history lovers can see artifacts from the Tennessee Central Railway at the Cookeville Depot Museum. Make it a memorable getaway by staying at a quaint bed-and-breakfast, cabin or luxury treehouse.
Memphis played a significant role in developing the blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll musical genres, so much so that artists like Elvis Presley, W.C. Handy and Otis Redding recorded songs here. Today, the musical city offers a taste of this history at many of its top attractions, including Graceland, Sun Studio and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. Memphis is also known for its ties to the civil rights movement. Visit the National Civil Rights Museum, which occupies the former Lorraine Motel (where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated), to learn more about this important period in American history.
Although images of Nashville may first come to mind when you think of country music, Bristol should also be on your radar. This northeastern Tennessee town – which is a twin town of neighboring Bristol, Virginia – is where the musical genre was born. Bristol celebrates its musical history at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum. The town is also known for its world-famous Bristol Motor Speedway, a sprawling sports venue that hosts multiple racing events throughout the year. Plus, Bristol features several parks and lakes where outdoor enthusiasts can hike, bike and go fly-fishing.