If you’re one of the many travelers who believe the most visited of the United State’s national parks is either the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite, you’ve probably not visited Tennessee. You may be surprised to learn that the number one most visited US national park is the Great Smoky Mountains (or “Smokies”), an area of outstanding natural beauty, which attracts twice as many visitors each year than its nearest rival, the Grand Canyon. Much of the state’s popularity is due to its accessibility, sandwiched as it is between eight other states. It also has much to do with its astonishing natural beauty, rich history, and numerous first-rate attractions. Then, of course, there’s the music. From the rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis to country greats like Johnny Cash, Tennessee was the starting place for many of the country’s greatest artists and musical genres. Discover the best things to do in the state with our list of the top-rated tourist attractions in Tennessee.
There’s no better place to begin your Great Smoky Mountains National Park adventure than in the small town of Gatlinburg with its many big-ticket attractions, such as the excellent Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. From here, you can easily drive to the park’s most popular areas, or simply jump on the chairlift and head for the hills and the fun Ober Gatlinburg, a ski resort and amusement park offering year-round activities. Park highlights include a variety of flora and fauna, more than 900 miles of hiking trails, and the 6,643-foot-high Clingmans Dome, with its Observation Tower perched atop the mountain’s summit and offering 360-degree views. Popular day trips include Sugarlands, a beautiful valley and favorite destination for hikers, and the lovely Cades Cove, once home to settlers and now attracting tourists eager to see its picturesque meadows, pioneer homesteads, mountain views, and wildlife. For the truly adventurous, look into an overnight camping trip or a fun stay in a rustic cabin deep in the woods.
As popular as the White House in Washington D.C., Graceland and the Elvis Presley Memphis Complex is considered the top attraction in Memphis. Undoubtedly the most famous rock ‘n’ roll residence in the world, Graceland Mansion remains a place of pilgrimage to fans from far and wide, and tours of this fine, stately home provide a unique glimpse into the King’s life (nothing has been changed since he passed away there in 1977). The complex is also home to Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a vast warehouse-like structure that includes exhibits and displays of the star’s many outfits, his influences, and his rise to fame. Also worth checking out are the family tomb, an impressive collection of cars, aircraft, and memorabilia, and tours of his living quarters, including the music room, TV room, and Jungle Den. A variety of tour packages are offered, including accommodations at the luxurious Guest House at Graceland.
No US state can claim the rich musical tapestry that is evident everywhere in Tennessee. The center of the nation’s country music scene, Nashville is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame in the city’s famous Music Row, as well as the Grand Ole Opry, a name synonymous with the country-music-themed Gaylord Opryland Resort and the radio shows of the same name, broadcast from locations such as the Ryman Auditorium.
Then, of course, there’s Memphis, the home of gospel and blues, and famous for Beale Street, where the greats like Elvis got his big break. Highlights include: the Memphis Music Hall of Fame; WC Handy’s House, where the “Father of the Blues” lived and worked; the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, highlighting musical pioneers from the 1930s through to the 1970s; the STAX Museum of American Soul, with its replica of the original Stax Records studio; and Sun Studio, where stars such as Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, and Roy Orbison began their careers.
Named after country singer Dolly Parton, Dollywood has long been Tennessee’s most popular ticketed attraction, luring more than three million visitors per year. Located in the small town of Pigeon Forge, this always busy theme park provides family fun with its mix of folksy Smoky Mountains traditions and crafts, thrilling rides, and entertainment. All told, the site boasts more than 40 rides – including the Tennessee Tornado roller coaster – spread across 10 themed areas such as Timber Canyon and Jukebox Junction. Other highlights include live concerts and festivals, as well as an old steam railway, the Dollywood Express, which circles the park. Other Dolly-related attractions in this 290-acre site include Splash Country waterpark and the Dollywood DreamMore Resort.
Tennessee, perhaps more than any other state, has been shaped by war. Not only did this state provide more soldiers for the Southern cause than any other, it also contributed more troops for the North than any other Confederate state. As one of the most northerly of the Confederate states, Tennessee witnessed numerous battles during the deadly conflict, many of them commemorated by visitor centers, museums, and memorials. One of the best is Fort Donelson National Battlefield, site of the first major Union victory and home to a cemetery, visitor center, fort, and a much-loved pair of breeding eagles. A visit to Shiloh National Military Park is a sobering experience: it was the location of the first significant Civil War battle in the west and contains more than 3,500 Union graves. Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, the country’s largest military park, is also of great historical significance, as is nearby Point Park Battlefield, where the infamous “Battle Above the Clouds” took place. All these sites, as well as Stones River National Cemetery, are part of the Tennessee Civil War Trails program.
Just a few miles east of Nashville is The Hermitage, the plantation home of the seventh US President, Andrew Jackson, from 1804-1845. The current home was built in 1819, not long after Jackson was elected president, and is well worth the couple of hours needed to explore it. Highlights include the park-like gardens and woods, as well as the tomb where both Jackson and his wife were laid to rest. The mansion opened as a museum in 1889, and after a great deal of restoration, looks exactly as it would have in Jackson’s time, complete with numerous artifacts and documents relating to his presidency.
No visit to Nashville would be complete without visiting one of Tennessee’s most remarkable attractions, the huge Parthenon. Built in Centennial Park, just a short walk from the city’s downtown core, this life-size replica of the original Parthenon in Athens, Greece, was built to commemorate the state’s centenary in 1897. Made entirely of cement, the Parthenon doesn’t fail to impress with its vast dimensions, both inside and out. The building houses the city’s permanent art gallery, a collection of works by 19th- and 20th-century American painters, as well as a spectacular 42-foot-high gold-covered statue of the goddess Athena Parthenos.
The American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge offers a fascinating insight into the history of nuclear energy. Highlights include the story of Oak Ridge’s role in the development of the nuclear bomb and the Manhattan Project, including videos, photos, artifacts, and documents that help paint a picture of this once vast facility. Other displays focus on national defense and include models of weaponry, tools, and the protective clothing used at the site. There’s also useful information and exhibits delving into other energy sources, including fun hands-on displays of static electricity and robotics.
Tennessee has had a lengthy love affair with the railroad. Along with the mighty Mississippi, railways were of vital importance for the shipping of wood and cotton during peacetime and military supplies during war (the state was a vital link in the Confederate supply chain during the Civil War). Fortunately, much of this rich heritage has been preserved, from the original terminal and an engine from the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo to heritage trolleys and fancy Pullman cars restored as luxury accommodation. Perhaps the most ambitious project has been the Tennessee Valley Railroad, which offers hour-long steam trips as well as main line excursions, dinner packages, and the popular Tennessee Railfest. Finally, there’s even Casey Jones Village in Jackson, a museum dedicated to the legendary railroad engineer, John Luther “Casey” Jones.
The seat of the University of Tennessee (founded 1794), Knoxville is a good base from which to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The first capital of the state, its most noticeable landmark is the Sunsphere Tower with its observation decks and views over the downtown core. The city also played an important role in the Civil War, as evidenced in the Confederate Memorial Hall (also known as Bleak House after the Dickens novel), which recalls the siege of the city in 1863 and was used as the headquarters of Confederate General James Longstreet. Other downtown highlights include the Museum of East Tennessee History with its displays that tell of the region’s history and culture through artifacts and documents. Nestled in the heart of downtown, Market Square has been Knoxville’s favorite gathering place since 1854. Today, it’s home to a busy farmers market and numerous events and festivals, as well as unique shopping and dining opportunities.
Overlooking Chattanooga and offering some of Tennessee’s best views, Lookout Mountain makes for an excellent day or half-day outing. Getting there is half the fun, especially aboard the wonderful Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, a mile-long journey on trolley-style cars at an incline of 73 percent. Once at the top, you’ve got a number of excellent natural attractions to choose from, including Rock City with its dramatic cliffs and great views, and Ruby Falls, the deepest cave and largest underground waterfall in the US. Be sure to visit the excellent Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map and Museum with its displays regarding the epic Battle Above The Clouds, fought in and around Chattanooga during the Civil War, as well as Point Park, part of the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park.
Despite the fact that Tennessee’s connection to the RMS Titanic is perhaps a little tenuous at best, it shouldn’t stop you from visiting the world’s largest Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge. Just a stone’s throw from Dollywood, the building itself is spectacular, built in the shape of the ship and half the scale of the original. Highlights include more than 400 Titanic related artifacts in 20 unique galleries designed to create the illusion that you’re actually on the ship. Self-guided tours take approximately two hours, and its time well spent.
This large open-air museum focuses on the people who settled the Appalachian Mountains, dealing with such important aspects as their culture, livelihoods, and customs. One of the best heritage villages in the US, it’s a great way to spend a day as you explore the past through hands-on activities such as weaving and farming. The focal point is the museum itself with more than 250,000 artifacts in its collection. Also of interest is the annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming, a three-day event held in October, as well as events including antique shows.
In Sweetwater, 46 miles from Knoxville, is the spectacular Lost Sea, a huge cave system with the largest underwater lake in the US. A variety of guided tour options are available, including fun boat trips along this wonderful underground waterway with its many large caverns and tunnels. The attraction has a Civil War history of its own: Confederate soldiers mined the Lost Sea caverns for saltpeter, an ingredient of gunpowder. After the war, locals created a party room, called the Cavern Tavern. When you’re done exploring the Lost Sea, be sure to wander around quaint Old Sweetwater Village with its shops and authentic log cabins.
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