Tennessee is most known for it's capital city Nashville and country music. However, there are more connections with blues, gospel, jazz, and soul music in various parts of the state along with some scenic drives, water sports, and nature.
Highlights: Music, blues, soul, civil rights
Suggest Staying: 2-3 days
Stay Around: Beale St., Overton Square, or S. Highland St.
The second largest city in Tennessee is the claimed birthplace of rock n’ roll. The roots in country, blues, and soul music inevitably converged during the era of Elvis to become what was considered the birth of modern day rock n’ roll. Memphis was also the home to much civil unrest during the time of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I loved this city with its calm and soulful feel. Exceptional music history and live shows. Calmer with more blues and rock contrasted with nearby Nashville with it’s more lively energy and country music excitement.
See & Do
- Beale Street. Main strip of shops, restaurants, live music, bars.
- S. Highland St. Another nice walking area with nearby blues club.
- Blues Hall of Fame. Incredible history of blues artists dating back to the original artists in the 20’s writing songs in the cotton fields all the way up to modern day. This interactive museum is small, but has tons of tracks you can sample from your favorite artists, or those you’ve not yet discovered. Must see if you like the blues. Only $10 admission.
- Sun Studio. Original recording studio where artists like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbinson, and Johnny Cash recorded. Legendary spot you can take a quick guided tour through. See the original rooms and recording equipment. Tour starts every half hour.
- Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Another music museum, this one focused more on soul and R&B artists. I’m not a huge fan of this type of music, but the place is worth stopping by. Really interesting stories about various artists like Ike Turner and Isaac Hayes. Self-guided, $13 admission.
- Civil Rights Museum. Massive, exceptionally well done museum chronicling the history of the civil rights movement through American history. Located across the street from the motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The second part of the museum is the motel and recreated room where he stayed. Definitely a must see. Allow at least 2 hours, more if you want to read everything.
- Gibson Store and Factory. If you’re a guitarist and have a love for Gibson, or are just curious about the process of guitar manufacturing, you can get a guided tour through the factory where they make one of the Gibson models. Hourly tour costs $10. Last tour of the day has no workers. Update: This place has closed.
- Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid. If you’re an outdoors person, you must stop by this massive pyramid shaped outdoors store. Everything from fishing to camping to hiking to water sports. There is a fish pond at the base and restaurant at the top.
- B.B. King Blues Club. Located on Beale St. Great for blues shows. You can have a drink and even sit for dinner.
- Overton Square. Nightlife area with live music. You may even see a free show in the square.
- Cooper-Young. Another small, hip area.
- Edge Motor Museum. This relatively new establishment is a wonderful hidden gem. There are some rare and amazing cars that rotate and are donated or borrowed, often restored. Each car has a story and a history and you will marvel at the collection. The company focuses on original, American, unique cars.
- Bontanic Garden. Huge space with lovely variety. The main draw when I visited was an impressive Alice In Wonderland lawn exhibit.
- Crystal Shrine Grotto. Religious exhibit in a cave amongst beautiful set and setting that happens to be a cemetary.
- Mud Flats. Neat little park with information about and along the Mississippi River. Cool Memphis sign with the city skyline in the background.
Food & Drink
- Brother Juniper. Excellent breakfast.
- DejaVu. Excellent Cajun restaurant. Food tastes like you would find in New Orleans.
- Eclectic Cafe. Excellent breakfast.
- INSPIRE Community Cafe. Excellent breakfast.
- Saltwater Crab. Variety of seafood offerings.
- Chef Tams Underground Cafe. Really good local southern food with a cajun/NOLA focus. Featured on TV. The catfish and seafood sauce are outstanding.
- Central BBQ. Excellent BBQ right next to the Civil Rights Museum.
- My Cup Of Tea. Local tea shop offering lovely blends with an excellent mission.
- Graceland. Home to the legendary Elvis. There is his mansion, an auto museum, archives, and his private jet. It’s pricey and super touristy. Unless you’re a die hard Elvis fan, I would skip. It costs $10 for parking and then tiered tickets depending on how much you want to see. Starts at $40 and goes up to around $85.
- Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery. About 30 minutes southeast, actually in Mississippi, this is the largest Bonsai nursery I’ve ever seen.
2. Great Smoky Mountains
Highlights: Mountains, hiking
Suggest Staying: 2-3 days
Stay Around: Smokemont Campground
This free national park is a great scenic drive through North Carolina on to Tennessee, or vice versa. Spend the day, or ideally a couple days to do some hiking and take in the beautiful early morning mist-filled views over the mountains. The park is not huge, but some places take some time to drive out to due to the roads. After all it is the mountains.
See & Do
- Clingman’s Dome. Walk up to the platform overlook for panoramic views of the smokies. Early morning is best when you can see the mist over the mountains, presumably which give the great smokies its name.
- Cove Hardwood Loop. Old non-logged 0.75 mile forest hike. Located in Chimney’s Picnic area. Something a bit more serene and off the beaten path from the crowds.
- Cades Cove. One of the park’s most popular attractions where you drive a loop around several historical cabins/churches of old settlers as well as open meadows where you can see wildlife like birds, bears, deer, etc. The loop itself is flat, mountain driving only getting there. There is a slow speed limit though due to the roads and wildlife.
- Time Management. I would recommend 2 days if you want to see both Clingman’s Dome and Cades Cove. It takes 2-3 hours to get to and then drive the Cades loop. We left at 7:30am on a Sunday while the locals were at church and didn’t experience too much traffic, but afternoons are supposedly packed. There are also several hikes not really highlighted by the park that might interest you also.
- Clingman’s Dome. Go early in the morning to see the mist covering the mountains. A 30 minute drive from main road 441 and 1 mile roundtrip, very steep hike to observation tower. I would expect sunrise to be wonderful, but plan to reach the top before 8:30am when the mist disappears.
- Lodging. If you can’t secure a campground inside the park, stay in either Cherokee (more low key on the North Carolina side) or Gatlinburg (more touristy and attractions on the Tennessee side).
Highlights: Country music, nightlife
Suggest Staying: 2-3 days
Stay Around: Downtown or East Nashville
The capital city is a lively spot best known for being the home of country music. There is tons of live music around and something going on every night of the week. There are also a few parks and unique sites nearby. Even if you don’t like country music, this electric, exciting city is worth a visit. If you prefer something a bit more mellow, shorten your stay and visit Memphis.
See & Do
- Downtown. Broadway St. honky tonks, SoBro (south of Broadway), Bridgestone Arena, Country Music Hall of Fame, Grand Ol Opry, Ryman, Nissan Stadium, Johnny Cash Museum.
- The District (historic district). Broadway and 2nd Ave, nightlife, honky tonks.
- The Gulch. Upscale, trendy, Turnip Truck (groceries/smoothies), Two Old Hippies (shop).
- Midtown. Upscale dining, local favorites, bars, speakeasy, young professionals, college students, locals.
- West End. Centennial Park, Parthenon (life size replica of the actual Parthenon in Rome), Vanderbuilt University.
- 12 South. Popular, small, residential, young professionals, college students, families, locals, live music.
- 8th Ave South. Less touristy, antique/vintage (classic, modern), Zanies Comedy Club.
- Belmont. Belmont Boulevard, nice houses, near the university.
- Hillsboro Village. Fun, urban with mix of people, lively, popular pancake house, popular local coffee shop, boutiques, coffee shops.
- East Nashville. Artists, musicians, locals, live music (not country).
- Germantown. Charming and vibrant landscapes, loft apartments, tea/coffee.
- Music Row. 16th and 17th avenues, recording studios.
- Gibson Factory & HQ. Take a tour through the factory where Gibson makes there iconic solid body model electric guitars.
- Nightlife. Broadway, Cannery Row (Mercy Lounge, High Watt).
Highlights: Attractions, nature, mountains, rivers, music
Suggest Staying: 1-3 days
Stay Around: Southside Historic District or Northside
This very cool up and coming city is the perfect place if you want to see what cities like Asheville, Portland, or Austin looked like 10-20 years ago. They are building like crazy and nestled in the mountains along a large river. This makes for a great mix of hipster restaurants, live music, and natural wonders.
See & Do
- Downtown. Market and Broadway are the main streets with shops, restaurants, bars. North Shore across Walnut Bridge to Frazier St. worth checking out.
- Ruby Falls. Old time cave with interesting formations ending with a massive waterfall inside. Great views of the city outside at the observation deck. There is also a zip line outside.
- Rock City. Technically in Georgia, this attraction is atop the massive Lookout Mountain, this popular attraction is like someone put a Japanese Zen garden on a mountain that leads you into a fairytale land inside a cave. There is a waterfall on the mountain and stunning views to boot! I thought this was going to be tacky, but it was incredible.
- Chattanooga Choo Choo. This old historic railroad station has been converted into a hotel and outside there are sleeping cars in the old trains. The area is being renovated to add shops and restaurants inside the square.
- Songbirds. Very cool vintage 50s and 60s guitars with displays, audio, and a stage where you can actually play the guitar, bass, and/or drums. You can also get your friends on stage with you to play together. Don’t worry, it uses headphones.
- Warehouse Row. Shops and restaurants.
- Bluff View Art District. Really neat outdoor sculptures, art establishments, and places to eat.
- Arboretum. Mix of swamplands and forest with some rare rescue animals. Free with donations requested.
- Cloudland Canyon State Park. Beautiful park just outside the city with several waterfalls and forest hikes. Cherokee Falls is a nice (though steep set of steps) 0.3 mile hike. Hemlock Falls is about twice as long and more difficult (steep set of stairs on the way back). You can also catch Sitton’s Gulch Trail for some more waterfalls and a nice forest hike for 2 miles each way (or as far as you feel like).
- Ruby Falls and Rock City. Purchase tickets together to save money. You can also include Lookout Mountain Incline for views for a triple play. Leave about 2 hours for each attraction which includes the attraction itself and waiting in line. Ruby Falls has on demand tours which leave pretty frequently. Both can get extremely crowded so go early or during the week. Getting to these attractions require some steep and windy mountain roads. Not too bad, but just to be aware. Cost is about $40 for both. Ruby Falls is about 60 degrees inside the cave, so cool but not cold.
Cummins Falls State Park
Not far from Nashville, this canyon waterfall is spectacular. Not only does it look great and you can spend plenty of time taking pictures, but you can also swim at the base to cool off on a hot day. There are two trails, one to the base which I would definitely recommend, and one to the top. Supposedly it’s a loop, but I didn’t see how. It’s roughly a mile one way for each trail. The trail in the canyon requires walking over rocks and you’ll likely be ankle to knee deep in some parts when crossing is necessary, making it a really fun hike. It’s mostly dry and flat. The hike brought back fond memories of The Narrows in Zion National Park. A permit is required which you can purchase there or online in advance. If there is rain in the forecast, it might close temporarily or for the day due to potential flash flooding.
On the outer edge of the Great Smoky Mountains, this very touristy but fun town is a great place to stop for a bite to eat or to indulge your inner tourist. Even just driving through is fun. Kind of reminded me of Atlantic City, NJ with its restaurants and amusements, but without the beach and casinos. Pigeon Forge is also just up the road, which is home to Dollywood (Dolly Parton) and there is a massive strip of amusements from laser tag to bumper cars to arcades. Also tons of restaurants and a model of The Titanic. Reminded me of a place that would exist if Atlantic City and Las Vegas had a tiny baby.