Most famous for its music scene and the Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee is an intriguing destination in the Southeastern region of the United States. Nashville and Memphis are the most popular cities to visit, but many will also fall in love with the charm of small towns like Gatlinburg and the folklore of Davy Crockett.
Whether you’re a big city explorer or eager for a great outdoor adventure, there are plenty of attractions to suit any tourist. Tennessee’s top attractions include the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Graceland, and Dollywood as well as various historic sites throughout the state.
With a reputation for having great Southern hospitality, visitors will feel right at home as they travel around Tennessee. Millions of tourists travel each year to explore the culture, music, and attractions, so get ready to join the crowds and find out what makes this state so great.
Livin’ La Vida Tennessee
History of “The Volunteer State”
Tennessee’s pre-history is traced back to Paleo-Indians who lived in the state about 12,000 years ago. Evidence of early human habitation has been found in the form of a mastodon skeleton with cut marks and early villages. The Icehouse Bottom was one of the first villages in the state, while the Old Stone Fort was a ceremonial structure.
The first European exploration of the area occurred during the 16th century in the form of Spanish expeditions. Afterward, both the British and French sent explorers on expeditions to the New World, which included parts of Tennessee.
Although there were many communities of settlers living in the area by the late 1700s, Tennesseans still lacked a central government so the territory was ruled by North Carolina. On June 1st, 1796, Tennessee became the 16th state in the Union. One of the state’s most famous historical residents and folk heroes was Davey Crockett.
Growing up in East Tennessee, Crockett served in the state legislature before being elected to the U.S. Congress. Losing re-election a few years later, Crockett took part in the Texas Revolution and died at the Battle of Alamo. Since his passing, he has been accredited with many mythical acts and was immortalized in tv shows, films, animations, and the song “The Ballad of Davey Crockett”.
Regarded as perhaps the most well-known time in Tennessee’s history are the Antebellum years and Civil War. Prior to the beginning of the war, it was estimated that of the 1.1 million residents in 1860, about 25% were slaves. During the Civil War, the state was divided by West and East.
East Tennesseans were against seceding from the Union, while many plantation owners in Western Tennessee relied on slave labor. Ultimately, residents voted for secession and in 1861 it became the last state to join the Confederacy. There were many battles throughout Tennessee as well as Virginia, making them the two states where most of the fighting took place.
However, Nashville was always a stronghold for the Union. As a result, Tennessee was the first Confederate state to rejoin the Union. Since then, the state diversified its economy as it moved from relying solely on agriculture to developing new industries and investments.
Capital City of Nashville
The capital and largest city in the state is Nashville with a population of 689,447 people as of 2020. Called the “Music City”, Nashville is a major hub for the music industry. Although there are many musical genres, it’s most famously associated with country music.
Well-known music-related landmarks and attractions in the city include the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry, the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Beyond its lively music scene, there are dozens of spots to sightsee, visit, and explore in the city.
Family-friendly activities include the Nashville Zoo, Nashville Shores, The Hermitage, and Cumberland Park. Adults will love Broadway, which sits in the heart of Downtown Nashville and features tons of shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs.
Prior to earning its reputation as the “Music City”, most people knew Nashville as being the home to many colleges and universities. Once called “the Athens of the South” because of its many educational institutions, a replica of the Parthenon was built to serve as a museum and cultural center.
Around the city, there are multiple green spaces where visitors can relax and enjoy time away from the busy streets. Additionally, destinations like Long Hunter State Park, the Honeysuckle Hill Farm, Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary, and Radnor Lake are all great places to visit.
Memphis, “Home of the Blues”
Supporting a population of 633,104 as of 2020, Memphis is the second-largest city in Tennessee. Another music-oriented city, people call this place the “Home of the Blues” and it’s the place where the Memphis blues sound was created.
Beale Street is a nearly 2 miles long stretch located in Downtown Memphis that’s world-famous for having historic music venues and clubs. Another iconic music spot is Sun Studio, which is where many artists started their careers. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, and others have recorded in the building and to this day, it’s still an active studio.
Although many attractions are related to the music industry, Memphis has plenty to offer including family-oriented activities like the Memphis Zoo, Children’s Museum, and Shelby Farms Park. Travelers can easily explore the city on their own or arrange to take a sightseeing tour through private companies. Along the way, there will be plenty of places to shop and dine too.
Knoxville, “The Marble City”
Knoxville was the first capital of the state before it was moved to Nashville. Home to 190,740 people as of 2020, the local economy boomed in the early 1900s when it was a major hub for marble distribution. Now, the city is more famous for its Appalachian culture and proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In general, the city is divided into five sections: Downtown, North Knoxville, South Knoxville, West Knoxville, and East Knoxville. Of the many attractions, some of the best places to visit are the World’s Fair Park, Zoo Knoxville, Tennessee Theater, Old City, and the Knoxville Botanical Garden.
While exploring the city, visitors must check out the local restaurants. Knoxville has a great food scene and there are even specially curated tours that focus just on culinary delights. Delicious food that is famous throughout the area includes fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, barbecue, and other southern classics.
Chattanooga, “Scenic City”
A principal city in East Tennessee with a population of 181,099 as of 2020, Chattanooga is known as the “Scenic City” because of its location on the Tennessee River. Although there is a major urban area, much of the city has been revitalized to showcase the riverfront area.
Chattanooga’s top attraction is the 13-mile-long Riverwalk, which includes shops, restaurants, parks, and various attractions. Surrounding the Riverwalk, Downtown Chattanooga offers visitors plenty of things to do.
Perfect for a weekend getaway, visitors won’t want to miss visiting the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Zoo, Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, or taking a duck boat tour. An all-encompassing destination, the downtown area also has hotels, restaurants, and shopping.
Gatlinburg, “Gateway to the Smokies”
With a mere population of 3,944 people, Gatlinburg is a small town in East Tennessee and it sits 39 miles to the southeast of Knoxville. Often described as “resort-like”, this town is more famously called the “Gateway to the Smokies” because of its close proximity to the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Though many people travel to Gatlinburg to see the national park, there are plenty of attractions around the town to explore too. Theme parks, museums, and theaters are great for families, while the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community attracts many artists from around the world.
Just outside of town, the Ober Gatlinburg is Tennessee’s only ski resort, although there are 7 others nearby, and its aerial tramway gives visitors the best views of the city by traveling to the summit of Crockett Mountain.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of the most visited national parks in the United States is the Great Smoky Mountains, which is situated in both Tennessee and North Carolina. Two park entrances, Gatlinburg and Townsend, are located in Tennessee.
Boasting a diverse array of flora and fauna, the national park is also famous for its idyllic scenery of which, 522,419 acres are protected by the US government. Highlights of the Great Smoky Mountains include the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Grotto Falls, Clingmans Dome, and Chimney Tops.
Most people visiting the park are eager to hike, camp, or climb. Additional activities include fishing, horseback riding, and biking. Of the 850 miles of hiking trails, 70 miles are part of the famous Appalachian Trail that extends through the Eastern United States.
Visitor centers are a great place to learn more about the park. Protecting more than the land, there are more than a dozen historic districts and sites throughout the park including Cades Cove, Roaring Fork, Elkmont, and the John Ownby Cabin.
With more than 14 million visitors in 2020, during busy visiting times, the national park can get quite crowded. June, July, and October are the most popular months, however, guests can experience less traffic during spring and winter.
Dollywood is the most visited theme park in the state. Located in Pigeon Forge, the park is famously owned by Dolly Parton and the Herschend Family. With 160 acres, this theme park is beloved for its southern charm and great entertainment.
More than just a beautiful park, visitors can enjoy thrilling rides, signature food dishes, and family-friendly entertainment.
Each year, the park has new attractions and expansions. One of the newest sections that were added in 2019 is Wildwood Grove, which is great for kids because of its whimsical and gentle rides. However, visitors of all ages have fallen in love with the park and it is a great place to make new memories.
Bell Witch Cave
Tennessee has many famous and well-known attractions, but for some travelers, heading off the beaten path is the preferred way to enjoy a vacation. For those that are attracted to oddities, strangeness, and lesser known destinations, there are a few places that you might want to see while visiting the state.
The Bell Witch Cave has inspired Hollywood movies and legends. Located on the Bell Farm, the legend of the cave tells the tale of a witch who terrorized a family and led to the demise of the patriarch. Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, the caves are an eerie and interesting destination.
Ghost towns are famous throughout the US and Tennessee’s Lost Cove Settlement has gained popularity as an obscure destination. Deserted in 1957, this town still has falling ruins and a historic graveyard. Now, those eager to learn more about the past have helped put Lost Cove back on the map.
Finally, the Crystal Shrine Grotto in the Memphis Memorial Park Cemetery has become a much-discussed destination because of its deep cavern that is decorated with thousands of quartz crystals. Originally built by Dionicio Rodriguez in the 1930s, the cave is a massive piece of art.
Although man-made, people still love walking through the cave, as well as viewing the nearby meditation garden, wooden bridge, fountain of youth, and wishing well.
No matter where you travel in Tennessee, you’re bound to find great food. The state is famous for its southern cuisine, which includes staples like sweet tea, fried chicken, mac and cheese, and barbecue. Visitors can indulge in insanely delicious meals at high-end eateries or family restaurants.
A few of the most famous restaurants throughout the state are Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Loveless Café in Nashville, Sweet P’s BBQ in Knoxville, and Alcenia’s in Memphis. Small towns are also great places to eat and visitors won’t have to worry about ever going hungry.
When most people think of Tennessee the things that immediately come to mind are music and southern charm, which are integral parts of the local culture. Looking beyond the surface and most famous features, this state is also awe-inspiringly beautiful. From the big cities to quiet corners of the Tennessean wilderness, you can’t go wrong with a vacation the Volunteer State.
Add a few of the wonderful natural springs in Tennessee to your Lone Star State itinerary.