Photograph by Gregor Lengler, laif/Redux
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Street signs glow at night in downtown Nashville, Tennessee.

Photograph by Gregor Lengler, laif/Redux

The Ultimate Southern Adventure: Tennessee

Explore your favorite food, music, parks, and more in Tennessee.

Experience the Culture

Enjoy a three-in-one culture tour by sampling sites and festivals in Tennessee’s distinct regions: East, Middle, and West. Artifacts from more than 300 years of life in East Tennessee are displayed at the Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville. Middle Tennessee must-see cultural sites include Davidson County’s Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Clarksville’s Customs House Museum and Cultural Center, and Lynchburg’s Jack Daniel’s Distillery. Explore Nashville’s Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, a 19-acre (eight-hectare) outdoor classroom filled with interactive exhibits, such as the fact-packed Pathway of History. In West Tennessee, tour the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the Casey Jones Home and Railroad Museum in Jackson.

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Best Bets: Celebrate East Tennessee heritage at Gatlinburg’s Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival, Norris’s Tennessee Fall Homecoming at the Museum of Appalachia, and South Pittsburg’s National Cornbread Festival.

Insider Tips: Make your Middle Tennessee visit extra special by attending Columbia’s Mule Day in late March, Franklin’s Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival in September, or Clarksville’s River and Spires Festival in April. In West Tennessee, save room for the World’s Biggest Fish Fry in Paris and the Memphis in May International Festival, including the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Don’t Miss: Take in the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough in October.

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Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

 

See the Cities

Everything old is new again in downtown Knoxville and the adjacent Old City, Downtown North, and Happy Holler neighborhoods. Two of the newest kids on the city’s historic blocks are the Maple Hall urban bowling-and-bar experience and Shulz Bräu Brewing, a castle-looking complex housing a brewery, taproom, and authentic German beer garden. In Nashville, while music reigns, it isn’t the only thing that’s cool. Urban-hip neighborhoods—such as 12South, the Gulch, East Nashville, and SoBro (south of Broadway)—are lined with an eclectic mix of shops, cafés, craft breweries, and live music venues. In Memphis, historic buildings and former industrial sites are being repurposed in neighborhoods such as Cooper-Young, the South Main Arts District, Overton Square, and the Broad Avenue Arts District.

Best Bets: Taste your way around East Nashville or SoBro on a Walk Eat Nashville tour. In 12South, visit White’s Mercantile, a stylish dry goods store with an old-timey vibe that’s owned by singer-songwriter Holly Williams (daughter of country music star Hank Williams, Jr., and granddaughter of the legendary Hank Sr.).

Insider Tip: Register for Good Sport Night at the Central Collective in Knoxville’s Downtown North district. Held monthly, the nights are mystery events (such as an egg-drop competition off the roof of the building) designed to be fun and build community.

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The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park celebrates a rich history dating back to 1853.

Don’t Miss: Chattanooga’s NorthShore neighborhood and Bluff View Art District are both easy walks from the world-class Tennessee Aquarium.

Explore the Parks

Spanning the most visited national park in the nation to battlefields where the tide turned in the Civil War, National Park Service sites are found in every region of the Volunteer State. In East Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the most visited) straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. It is a crown jewel of the National Park System, which is celebrating its hundredth anniversary in 2016. In Middle Tennessee near Nashville, Fort Donelson National Battlefield commemorates General "Unconditional Surrender" Grant’s and the Union’s first major victory against the Confederacy. West Tennessee’s Shiloh National Military Park honors the nearly 110,000 American troops who fought in a Civil War clash resulting in more than 23,000 casualties.

Best Bet: Six Chattanooga-area locations are part of the 9,000-acre (3,642-hectare) Chickamauga and Chattanooga Military Park, a Tennessee-Georgia park preserving key Civil War battlefields and other historic and natural sites.

Insider Tip: Get off the beaten track by entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Greenbrier (between Cosby and Gatlinburg on U.S. 321), starting point for seasonal wildflower hikes and a trek to the park’s tallest waterfall, Ramsey Cascades.

Don’t Miss: Visit the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, portion of the new (established November 2015) Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a tristate park chronicling the events and science behind the building of the world’s first atomic bomb. (The other locations are in New Mexico and Washington.)

Hear the Music

Follow the Tennessee Music Highway (I-40 between Memphis and Nashville) to some of the nation’s most iconic music sites. In Memphis in West Tennessee, ride the Sun Studio Shuttle to Elvis Presley’s Graceland; the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum; and Sun Studio. Groove to live Delta blues, gospel, jazz, soul, and more in Beale Street clubs such as the Band Box and B.B. King’s Blues Club. Late-night Saturdays, the historic New Daisy Theatre hosts the Daisyland electronic music dance party. Learn about Nashville’s Music City heritage at the world-class Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Middle Tennessee. Nearby, stroll Broadway’s Honky Tonk Row, and take a tour or attend a performance at the historic Ryman Auditorium, celebrating 125 years in 2017. Continue east to Knoxville in East Tennessee where the new (opened April 2016) Mill & Mine and historic Tennessee Theatre regularly showcase regional acts. Attend jam sessions at Boyd’s Jig & Reel and the WDVX Blue Plate Special live-music radio show.

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The Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, was opened by Sam Phillips in 1950. Elvis Presley recorded here when he was 18 years old.

Best Bet: Download the free Nashville Live Music Guide app to see who’s playing at more than 150 venues.

Insider Tip: Between Memphis and Nashville on I-40, stop at exit 56 to visit the Tina Turner Museum at Flagg Grove School.

Don’t Miss: Check out the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in the Tennessee-Virginia border city of Bristol.

Eat Local

Biscuits, barbecue, and hot chicken are but a few of the delectable dishes to try on a Tennessee tasting tour. In upper East Tennessee, Johnson City’s Gourmet and Company serves such dishes as yee haw dunkel grilled pork tenderloin, cast iron skillet Sunburst Farms trout, and wood grilled Colorado Bison hanger steak. More nouveau Southern cuisine—such as cornmeal-crusted Mississippi catfish with creamy Shelton Farm grits, house tasso ham, and Tennessee chow chow remoulade—is what’s for dinner at Knoxville’s Knox Mason. In Middle Tennessee, the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, celebrating 150 years in 2016, offers tours and tastings. Savor southern hospitality at Nashville’s Biscuit Love, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, and the Loveless Café. In West Tennessee, Memphis is the place for Tennessee-style barbeque—pork dry-rubbed with seasoning and eaten wet (with sauce) or dry (without). Sample some at the Rendezvous restaurant or Central BBQ.

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Bacon sizzles at the Cruze Dairy Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Best Bets: Check out Nashville’s Music City Food and Wine Festival in September and Knoxville’s International Biscuit Festival in May.

Insider Tips: Get foodie favorite Benton’s Bacon directly from the source at Allan Benton’s roadside store in Madisonville. Further south in Chattanooga, enjoy a Tennessee classic combo—RC Cola and a MoonPie—at the MoonPie General Store. This famous Tennessee treat turns 100 in 2017.

Don’t Miss: Dutch Maid Bakery and Café in Tracy City, established in 1902 and the oldest family-owned bakery in the state.

Get Outside

Wherever you are in Tennessee, green spaces and adventure sport opportunities abound. In East Tennessee, tackle Ijams Nature Center’s 300 acres (121 hectares) of protected wilderness and 10 miles (16 kilometers) of trails, just three miles from downtown Knoxville. Chattanooga is an outdoor mecca for rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, white water rafting, hang gliding and more. In Middle Tennessee, head to the Upper Cumberland region to explore 16 state parks, including Fall Creek Falls—home to one of the highest waterfalls (256 feet, or 78 meters) in the eastern United States—and Rock Island, 883 acres (357 hectares) including the scenic Caney Fork Gorge. In West Tennessee the big draw is Reelfoot Lake, which covers about 18,000 acres (7,284 hectares) in the northwest part of the state. Get out on the water with a one- to three-hour scenic boat cruise captained seasonally by naturalists (call 1 731 253 9652 for reservations).

Best Bet: Take to the treetops with Ijams Nature Center’s Navitat, offering six different elevated trails and more than 60 aerial adventure elements such as zip lines, swings, bridges, nets, and elevated tunnels.

Don’t Miss: Before any adventure, gear up properly or stay overnight at the imposing Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid on the banks of the Mississippi river in Memphis. The 32-story, 535,000-square-foot (50,000-square-meter) steel colossus features a tank with 600,000 gallons of water and more than 1,800 fish, a cypress swamp that’s home to alligators and ducks, and a 103-room hotel featuring tree house cabins called Big Cypress Lodge.

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The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga at twilight. This aquarium boasts the most diverse collection of freshwater fish in the country.