Tennessee Holiday Planning Guide
Divided by law, geography, and custom into three major regions, represented by the three stars on the state flag, Tennessee boasts a distinctive musical heritage that includes elements of bluegrass, country-western, and blues. With a countryside as diverse as its people, Tennessee features landscapes ranging from a mountainous east to the lowlands of the west, with gently rolling hills in the middle. For a well-rounded Tennessee vacation, you can hike remote mountain trails in the morning and explore the crowded bars of Nashville in the evening. Visit the urban attractions, such as Elvis Presley's former residence in Memphis, but don't miss a chance to spend some time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, situated in the eastern part of the state.
Places to Visit in TennesseePigeon Forge
: A tiny town big on tourist appeal, this "Center of the Fun in the Smokies" features everything from bars and restaurants to theaters, shops, and amusement parks—all just a short drive from one of the country's major national parks.Nashville
: America's undisputed capital of country music, thriving Nashville makes a rewarding base for your Tennessee holiday, offering a lengthy list of fine museums, music venues, art galleries, and historical attractions, all wrapped up in the city's palpable Southern charm.Gatlinburg
: Nestled in the lush woods of the Great Smoky Mountains, this alpine vacation destination draws nature lovers with a slew of outdoor activities, like hiking, rafting, fishing, horseback riding, and skiing.Memphis
: The "Birthplace of Rock" and "Home of the Blues," Memphis boasts a rich musical heritage and offers a range of music-related attractions appealing to backpackers, families with kids, and everyone else in between.Chattanooga
: Hugely attractive to visitors looking for relaxing Tennessee vacation ideas, Chattanooga features a pedestrian-friendly downtown packed with leafy waterfront trails, easily explored using the city's convenient bike share system or its free electric shuttles.Sevierville
: A friendly tourist destination with loads of small-town charm, Sevierville lies at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and provides an ideal base for active outdoor holidays.Townsend
: One of the three main entrances into the World Heritage-listed Great Smoky Mountain National Park, low-key Townsend remains little more than a glorified village. Its biggest attraction is a heritage center dedicated to preserving Appalachian history and culture.Franklin
: Include Franklin on your Tennessee itinerary to discover one of the state's most romantic cities, known for its Victorian architecture and a 16-block area of buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.Knoxville
: Knoxville lives and breathes music thanks to its many festivals and explosive art scene, largely responsible for the city's reputation as one of America's most culturally rewarding destinations. Greeneville
: Soaked in American history, Greeneville was named after Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, contains the burial place of President Andrew Jackson, and offers easy access to a state park commemorating the life of folk hero Davy Crockett.
Things to Do in Tennessee
Popular Tennessee Tourist AttractionsDollywood
: Owned by country singer Dolly Parton, this Tennessee tourist attraction features ten themed areas offering thrilling roller coasters, rafting, and toboggan rides, along with live shows and musical events.Graceland
: The former home of Elvis Presley, this 23-room mansion sits on a large estate that includes an iconic wrought-iron gate and a recording studio where the singer worked on his final two albums.Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
: Interactive exhibits and over 10,000 sea creatures draw visitors to this world-class aquarium, featuring a moving pathway through an underwater tunnel providing a close-up look at giant sea turtles and 3.7 m (12 ft) sharks.Grand Ole Opry
: Few music-related places to visit in Tennessee come close this famous venue, offering backstage tours and regular performances by some of America's best bluegrass, folk, gospel, and country artists.Sun Studio.
: Elvis Presley recorded his very first song at this studio, while Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and B.B. King made it a major institution on America's music scene in the 1950s.Titanic Museum
: A two-story structure made to look like the ill-fated ocean liner, this Tennessee attraction remains the largest permanent venue of its kind in the world, allowing visitors to discover what it was like to travel aboard the ship before it sank in 1912.Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
: This keyboard-shaped Nashville museum holds a collection of video clips and recorded music, brought together to preserve and illustrate the evolving story of American country music.Tennessee Aquarium
: One of the world's biggest aquariums, this Chattanooga institution offers behind-the-scenes tours and boasts numerous exhibits filled with bonnethead sharks, jellyfish, cuttlefish, giant octopuses, spider crabs, and many other strange and unusual marine creatures.National Civil Rights Museum
: Providing a look at the Civil Rights Movement and chronicling some of the most important moments in American history, this complex of historical buildings includes the former hotel where the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. took place in 1968.Ruby Falls
: Natural rainwater feeds this underground waterfall, located inside a deep mountain cave filled with striking geological formations, like stalactites and stalagmites.
Planning a Tennessee Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Tennessee with Kids
You may not think of Tennessee as a major international tourist destination, yet the state provides an ideal setting for a range of family-oriented itineraries. Made for outdoor adventures in the foothills of the Appalachian range, Tennessee allows you to hike rugged mountain tracks in the morning, and the spend the evening looking for the ghost of Elvis Presley in Nashville
. Few foreign visitors on holiday in Tennessee miss Great Smoky Mountains National Park
, home to over 1,300 km (850 mi) of trails and unpaved roads that make it one of America's most-visited natural attractions. Once your little hikers get their fill of Tennessee's great outdoors, take them straight to Chattanooga
, boasting one of the world's largest aquariums. Alternatively, head to Johnson City
to discover a vibrant university town known for its eclectic eateries, or visit Pigeon Forge
for some classic amusement-park thrills and laughs.
Things to Do in Tennessee with Kids
Tennessee boasts seven official state songs, a fact that proves music runs deep within its heart and soul. With such a rich musical heritage, it shouldn't come as a surprise that most of Tennessee's major attractions are in some way related to various music genres and their performers. Take the kids to Grand Ole Opry
to see one of America's most famous stages, where the likes of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams performed some of the biggest hits. Include Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
on your Tennessee itinerary to deepen the family's understanding of the region's musical roots. After that, you can move on to places like Carnton Plantation
and Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park
to learn about the state's history. Let the kids stretch their legs and get some fresh air by following Cumberland Trail, Prentice Cooper State Forest
, a steep but easily conquerable mountain route offering sweeping views of Tennessee's pristine natural wonders.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Tennessee
Featuring large urban centers and sprawling wilderness areas easily accessed by major roadways, Tennessee draws a growing number of international visitors traveling with kids. For the sake of your family's convenience, think about renting a car, which will allow you to get around quickly and comfortably--and on your own terms. Opt for a bigger city if you want a good selection of sleeping options and lots of family-friendly shopping and dining choices. If you're planning to add Great Smoky Mountains National Park
to your Tennessee tour, consider basing your visit in Townsend
, a laid-back town offering some of the most affordable hotels and restaurants in the area. You'll do lots of walking in this land of stunning scenic beauty, so make sure your little adventurers gear-up with good hiking shoes and weatherproof clothing.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Tennessee
Cuisine of Tennessee
An increasingly popular destination for culinary tourism, Tennessee is one of the best places to choose if you like informal dining and sinful pleasures like barbecue and country salt-cured ham, a statewide staple dating back to the pioneer days. If you want to eat like a local on your Tennessee trip, stick a piece of fried country ham into a flaky biscuit and pair it with a few bits of fried apple. Look for a wide selection of dining options in Tennessee's biggest urban centers, like Nashville
. These two cities offer fancy restaurants as well as offbeat "meat-and-three" eateries, where customers pick one type of meat and three side dishes from a list that often includes dozens of choices. Cornbread and sweet tea accompany lots of local specialties, though many Tennesseans and tourists choose to pair their meals with charcoal-mellowed whiskey, one of the state's signature exports. Spend some time exploring Tennessee's many whiskey bars, or join a whiskey-tasting tour at the world-famous Jack Daniels Distillery
Shopping in Tennessee
Surprising visitors with its diverse shopping options, Tennessee offers everything from big malls and outlets to busy farmers markets and small boutiques selling handmade leather goods. Advertising itself as the "Center of Fun in the Smokies," Pigeon Forge remains one of the state's best shopping destinations, boasting over 300 stores delivering bargains on souvenirs, toys, tools, furniture, clothing, and much more. If you're looking for authentic places to visit in Tennessee, consider shopping at Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community
, a 13 km (8 mi) loop featuring a series of shops, galleries, studios, and cafes. While there, you can observe the artisans at work and pick up unique gifts like willow baskets, woodcarvings, and handmade musical instruments. Good music-related shopping options include The Johnny Cash Museum & Cafe
and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
, two locations offering a slice of history along with a selection of popular recordings.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Tennessee
History of Tennessee
Originally inhabited by Paleo-Indians about 12,000 years ago, Tennessee saw its first Europeans in 1540, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto led a major expedition into this area. After explorations by Jacques Marquette and James Needham, both France and England claimed parts of Tennessee. Visit Fort Loudoun State Historic Area
on your Tennessee trip to discover one of the earliest British settlements, built in 1756.
The vast majority of settlers arriving through the 18th century were English and Scotch-Irish. Gradually taking over the area, these people often conflicted with the indigenous population. In 1784, the settlers formed the short-lived State of Franklin in an attempt to break off from North Carolina, which finally ceded the area to the federal government in 1790. Tennessee joined the Union in 1796, becoming the 16th U.S. state. You can learn more about this period at Tennessee State Museum
, offering more than 5,500 sq m (60,000 sq ft) of permanent exhibits.
One such exhibit deals with the state during and after the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Born in a part of North Carolina that joined Tennessee after the latter gained statehood, Jackson helped the state gain political prominence as the country expanded westward before the Civil War. Add Andrew Jackson's Hermitage
to your Tennessee itinerary to find out more about the life of America's seventh president.
Despite a great deal of pro-Union sentiment among its population, Tennessee remained on the Confederate side during the Civil War. The area saw extensive military action throughout the war, with many major battles won by the Union troops. The postwar Reconstruction period saw Tennessee become the first of the secessionist states readmitted into the Union. For an even deeper look at Tennessee culture during this turbulent era, explore the state's many historical plantations, like Belle Meade Plantation
and Carnton Plantation
A major episode of the early 20th century, the Great Depression deeply affected Tennessee's economy. The government responded by creating the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), responsible for providing electricity, flood control, and general economic development to areas particularly affected by the worldwide economic troubles of the 1930s. Thanks to a series of TVA projects, Tennessee quickly became one of America's largest suppliers of public utilities.
Today, Tennessee remains a predominantly industrial state, the majority of its population living in or around big urban centers. Don't miss American Museum of Science and Energy
on your Tennessee tour: you'll learn about the state's role in providing America with various sources of energy.
Landscape of Tennessee
Tennessee features three culturally and geographically distinct regions, known as the Grand Divisions and represented by the three stars on the state's official flag. East Tennessee encompasses the rugged landscapes of the western Blue Ridge Mountains. Home to Gatlinburg
, this region also includes Great Smoky Mountains National Park
, an area of stunning plant and animal diversity. The most prosperous section, Middle Tennessee contains Nashville
, a thriving state capital set against a backdrop of picturesque rolling hills. Western Tennessee includes Memphis
and the lowlands, swamps, and floodplains of the Mississippi Delta. Enrich your Tennessee trip by exploring each one of these regions, dividing your time between the state's virtually untouched wilderness areas and its thriving cities. Add Lookout Mountain
to your itinerary to experience traveling on the world's steepest passenger railway and visit Ruby Falls
, America's largest underground waterfall.
Holidays & Festivals in Tennessee
Local festivals provide an easy and entertaining way to discover Tennessee's impressive musical heritage and diverse cuisine. A two-day celebration of music and food, Memphis Music and Heritage Festival hosts 500 musicians, chefs, artisans, and marching bands. Memphis in May International Festival is a month-long event featuring live musical performances and barbecue cooking contests. Plan your Tennessee tour for October to attend the annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue, hosted by the city of Lynchburg
and jack daniels distillery
. You'll find more live music at the Grainger County Tomato Festival, a summertime event dedicated to family-friendly activities like fun runs, street dances, and Civil War reenactments. The largest event of its kind in Tennessee, Wilson County Fair in August offers everything from clown performances and cooking classes to photography contests and music concerts.
Tennessee Travel Tips
Climate of Tennessee
Most of Tennessee experiences a humid subtropical climate, characterized by hot summers and mild winters. Only the higher elevations in the Appalachians feature a distinctly cooler mountain climate with significantly lower temperatures throughout the year. Affected by the south winds from the Gulf of Mexico, Tennessee receives most of its precipitation during the winter and spring months. This period between December and April remains the least favorable time for traveling, as much of the state experiences frequent rainstorms and small-scale tornadoes. Plan your Tennessee vacation for the dry season, between August and October. This time of year offers arguably the finest traveling weather, with mild temperature and lots of sunshine.
Transportation in Tennessee
As with most American states, the car remains the primary and arguably the best way to get around and explore Tennessee. You'll find major airports in the state's big cities, which also offer decent public bus systems. Located on a railway route linking Chicago and New Orleans, Newbern and Memphis provide a good starting point for tours of areas along the Mississippi River. A network of interstate highways traverses the entire state, providing quick access to most major destinations and tourist attractions in Tennessee. If you wish to see the Great Smoky Mountains from a different perspective, consider riding the aerial tram at Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park & Ski Area
, providing 3.2 km (2 mi) of scenic views from downtown Gatlinburg.