Visiting the Southeastern USA? No state in the region charms travelers quite like Tennessee. Famed for its rugged landscapes and rockin’ cities, Tennessee is one of the best travel destinations in the United States.
Outdoor enthusiasts will find bliss in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest. The two parks stun visitors with some of the finest natural scenery in the US Southeast.
Urban explorers will have their day, too. Cities like Nashville and Memphis are chock-loaded with history and culture. For country music lovers, Nashville is ground zero; for rock ‘n’ roll & soul, Memphis is the mecca. After more than half a century, each city still buzzes with famed live music venues. Even on a quick Tennessee trip, you can experience their musical past & present in their famous entertainment districts.
Not sure where to go in Tennessee? Start planning your ultimate trip with this quick & easy Tennessee Travel Guide.
Where to go in Tennessee
Don’t know where to start your Tennessee adventure? Get your bearings with a stop in Nashville. The largest city and capital of Tennessee, Nashville is the best urban introduction to the eclectic southern state.
Famed for its rich history & culture, Nashville teems with museums and art galleries. The city’s also home to a burgeoning food & drink scene. Around the city, you’ll find a ton of trendy coffee shops, restaurants, and brewpubs. Of course, though, the big draw in Music City is the chance to explore its musical roots.
For country music fans, Nashville is hallowed ground. To see Music City’s importance unfold, check out the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. Or visit venues like the Ryman Auditorium and Grand Ole Opry, where American music legends like Johnny Cash hit their stride.
Once you’ve tasted musical history, spend an evening with the capital’s present & future on Lower Broadway. Dubbed the “Honky Tonk Highway,” Lower Broad is jammed with raucous music bars & restaurants. In Music City’s famed entertainment district, the stars of tomorrow take their stab at fame & fortune.
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Next to the capital, no city belongs on your Tennessee wishlist more than Memphis. Famed for its rock ‘n’ roll & blues, civil rights history, and BBQ, Memphis delivers something for every style of traveler.
While there’s plenty to see around Memphis, many visitors journey here for its star attraction: Graceland. For fans of Elvis Presley, Graceland is holy ground. At this infamous mansion outside of Memphis, Elvis spent his final troubled years. The pilgrimage to Graceland is a must-do for any die-hard Elvis fan.
Besides Graceland, you’ll find a barrage of other attractions around Bluff City. Learn more about the city’s musical heritage at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and the famed Sun Studio.
Or get a lesson on 20th-century American history at the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is built on the grounds of the former Lorraine Motel, the assassination site of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s one of the most important museums in the United States.
After a day of sightseeing, don’t miss the chance to hang out on Beale Street. One of America’s premier entertainment districts, Beale Street is Memphis’s answer to Lower Broad. The street is jam-packed with historic music clubs, including the world-famous B.B. King’s Blues Club.
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Need more Tennessee trip ideas? Toss the mountain town of Pigeon Forge into your itinerary. Located in eastern Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge is one of the state’s top vacation spots. Whether you’re visiting as a couple or family, there’s plenty to experience in this quaint holiday town.
Pigeon Forge is most famed as the home of Dollywood. Founded by Dolly Parton, the Appalachian-themed amusement park is Tennessee’s top-rated tourist attraction.
Kids will love speeding along on Dollywood’s thrill rides. On hot summer days, cool off by splashing around in the park’s Splash Country water park. In the evening, the whole family can settle in for a night of Appalachian music and dinner at Dolly Parton’s Stampede.
Aside from its famed theme park and family-friendly attractions, Pigeon Forge teems with outdoor adventures. The vibrant resort town is the perfect base for exploring the Great Smoky Mountains region.
Hit up the area’s hiking trails to marvel at its scenic beauty. Or, for a more hair-raising experience, book yourself in for whitewater rafting or an ATV mountain adventure.
Like Pigeon Forge to the north, Gatlinburg is a favorite stop in Tennessee for families and outdoor adventurers. The mountain town is known as the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And its unique family-friendly attractions perfectly reflect the town’s mountain heritage.
Outside Gatlinburg, you’ll drop in on miles of hiking trails through pristine alpine forests. Along the way, you’ll spot towering waterfalls and historic cabins. Seek out their lofty viewpoints for spectacular vistas over the area.
Back in town, you’ll love digging into Gatlinburg’s kid-friendly entertainment attractions. Carve out time for a visit to the unique Gatlinburg Skylift Park. Dare to walk across the park’s Gatlinburg Skybridge. At 680 feet long, Gatlinburg Skybridge the longest suspension footbridge in North America! Test your resolve with a stop at the 140-foot-high midpoint. You’ll walk over 30 feet of glass, staring down into the sinking valley below.
In winter, head three miles east of town to Ober Gatlinburg. While it won’t compare to other top US ski resorts, Ober Gatlinburg is Tennessee’s only ski area. In true East Tennessee fashion, the ski resort doubles as an amusement park. If the slopes aren’t beckoning, careen down its Ski Mountain Coaster or say hi to Smokies native animals at the Wildlife Encounter.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Take one look, and you’ll agree: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most pristine natural escapes in the United States. The 520,000-acre national park hides 150 hiking trails covering over 800 miles of wilderness. For outdoor enthusiasts visiting Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must-see.
The most famous trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Appalachian Trail. Running from Georgia to Maine, the 2,200-mile hiking trail is the world’s longest. Although the park’s section is just 71 miles, it’s one of the trail’s most scenic stretches. It’s home to the trail’s highest point, Clingmans Dome, soaring at 6,625 feet.
Even if you don’t tackle the epic trail, there’s plenty more to experience in the park. Opt for one of its shorter trails like the Trillium Trail or the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. On the area’s day hikes, you’ll stroll through old-growth forests, spotting waterfalls and wildlife along the way.
Cherokee National Forest
Looking for more outdoor adventure? Soak up the scenery at Cherokee National Forest. Located in East Tennessee along the North Carolina border, the forest is one of the state’s top natural attractions. And in its whopping 650,000 acres, Cherokee National Forest offers activities for every traveler.
For most visitors, at the top of the agenda is tackling the park’s trails. Over 600 miles of pristine hiking trails criss-cross the Cherokee National Forest. Like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee National Forest hosts a section of the epic Appalachian Trail.
If day hikes are your jam, check out the Margarette Falls Trail. Located in the Bald Mountain Zone, the 2.7-mile out-and-back trail leads to its eponymous waterfall. At 60 feet high, Margarette Falls is one of the state’s most spectacular natural sights.
Wherever you hike in the Cherokee National Forest, keep your eyes peeled for the park’s wildlife. You’ll spot over 40 native mammal species, including black bears, white-tail deer, and raccoons.
Set along the Tennessee River near the Georgia border, Chattanooga is the state’s most surprising urban center. Like many riverside cities, Chattanooga got its wings as an industrial town. After decades of decline in the mid-20th century, it’s now one of the most exciting mid-sized cities in Southeast USA.
For military history buffs, there’s plenty to love in Chattanooga. With its strategic location, Chattanooga was a key battleground during the American Civil War. Visitors can delve into the city’s Civil War history at Point Park. Located on Lookout Mountain, Point Park is home to the Battles for Chattanooga Museum, recalling the fateful battle.
Even if you’re not interested in military history, riding to the top of Lookout Mountain is a must-do in Chattanooga. The Lookout Mountain Incline Railway traverses the one-mile route between St. Elmo Historic District and the peak. With a maximum grade of 72%, the funicular is one of the world’s steepest passenger railways.
Atop the summit, save time to visit Rock City Gardens. Stroll along the Enchanted Trail to admire its bizarre rock formations and colorful gardens. Along the way, stop at Lover’s Leap for a view of its 140-foot manmade waterfall. On a clear day, you’ll enjoy a spectacular vista over seven different US states.
More travel destinations in Tennessee
- Johnson City
When to visit Tennessee
The best time to visit Tennessee is in late spring and early autumn. In each of these shoulder seasons, you’ll enjoy great weather and smaller crowds.
In spring, you’ll love seeing the flora in full bloom. It’s also a festive time of year. Throughout the state several festivals kick-off, including the famous Beale Street Music Festival.
Fall is another great time to visit. In fall, you’ll marvel at beautiful fall colors. The Great Smoky Mountain region is particularly ablaze with color.
Summer is the definitive high tourism season in Tennessee. Between June and August, accommodation prices are often at their highest while availability is at its lowest.
The weather in summer tends to be hot and muggy. The one exception is the Great Smoky Mountains. Thanks to their elevation, summer temperatures in the area will be more reasonable.