Even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, Graceland is a must-visit. It’s the second most visited home in America, and when you check it out, you’ll understand why. A tour of the mansion, via an interactive iPad tour hosted by John Stamos, takes visitors through the living room, the TV room, the Jungle Room, the kitchen and Elvis’ father’s office. You can step aboard Elvis’ airplanes and pay tribute to The King in the Meditation Garden where he is laid to rest with other members of his family.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Straddling the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains and part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S. The Appalachian Trail and the border between Tennessee and North Carolina run through the center of the park. There are also several recreational activities available, such as hiking, camping, fishing and taking in the sights of wildlife and waterfalls.
Once called the Carnegie of the South, and currently known as the “Mother Church” of country music, the Ryman Auditorium dates back to 1885 when evangelist Sam Jones led a tent revival attended by 5,000 people, including Nashville businessman Thomas G. Ryman. After becoming a Christian, Ryman dedicated his life and fortune to building the Union Gospel Tabernacle for Jones, and upon his death, its name was changed to the Ryman Auditorium to honor his legacy. The 2,362-seat live performance venue hosts weekly music shows and performances.
Memphis was once a thriving hub of the cotton industry, and the Cotton Museum now sits on the historic trade floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange. Admission to the museum includes a self-guided audio tour of Cotton Row, where the center of the worldwide cotton trade was located for generations. The museum also explores the way blues music played an important role in the lives of Southern slaves and field hands who worked on cotton plantations.
Chattanooga’s Tennessee Aquarium features two buildings that host all of the facility’s exhibits: River Journey and Ocean Journey. Visitors can learn about sea animals such as frogs, otters, turtles, catfish, jellyfish, penguins, and sharks. The exhibits at the aquarium celebrate the biodiversity of the Southeast and focus on restoring freshwater ecosystems in conjunction with the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.
Nashville’s Centennial Park is a 132-acre park featuring a one-mile walking trail, a band shell, volleyball courts, a playground, a dog park, and the Centennial Art Center. Several festivals and music events take place throughout the year at the park. It’s also the home of the Nashville Parthenon—a replica of the original Parthenon in Greece—which is an art museum with a permanent collection of 63 paintings by 19th- and 20th-century American artists.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
For more than 50 years, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which seeks to “collect, preserve, and interpret the evolving history and traditions of country music,” has been a downtown Nashville music staple adding to the growing artistic community in the city. The main exhibition is Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music, which uses artifacts, photographs, vintage video, and interactive touchscreens to tell the stories of country music’s origins and traditions.
National Civil Rights Museum
Established in 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum teaches visitors about the history of the American Civil Rights Movement and how its legacy continues to shape the global mission of cultural equality today. The museum is at the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and features exhibits that honor him and what he stood for, with several interactive exhibits exploring important issues and events covered during the Civil Rights Movement.
Visitors will find Ruby Falls, the country’s largest and deepest waterfall open to the public, at the end of the main passage of Ruby Falls Cave in Chattanooga. These limestone caves form when acidic groundwater enters subterranean streams, slowing dissolving the limestone and causing narrow cracks to widen. The waterfall, fed by rainwater and natural springs, lies 1,120 feet (341 meters) underground. Hundreds of gallons of water rush over by the minute, collecting in a pool on the cave floor, continuing through the mountain until joining with the Tennessee River at the base of Lookout Mountain.
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
In the city of Hermitage is the former home of President Andrew Jackson. The home, built between 1819 and 1821 by local carpenters, was originally a brick, Federal-style house. It had eight rooms, nine fireplaces, a basement summer kitchen and was decorated with French wallpaper. After the death of his wife, Rachel, Jackson decided to bury her in the garden on the property since it was her favorite place. Today, both Andrew and Rachel are laid to rest on the grounds.
Belle Meade Plantation
In 1807, John Harding founded the Belle Meade Plantation, which started as a single log cabin on 250 acres and grew to a 5,400-acre thoroughbred horse farm. It featured a Greek Revival mansion, a deer park, a train station and housing for enslaved workers. Today, there are 34 acres of the original property and homestead still in place.
The Memphis Zoo features several animal exhibits, such as Once Upon a Farm, Primate Canyon, Northwest Passage, and Animals of the Night. The zoo houses two giant pandas, Le Le and Ya Ya; it is one of four zoos in the U.S. to house these beautiful animals. It was also the home of the world’s longest living hippopotamus; Adonis, a male hippo who died in 1965 at the age of 54, gave the zoo the title of “hippo capital of the world.”
Memphis Zoo, 2000 Prentiss Pl, Memphis, TN, USA, +1 901 333 6500
Located in Pigeon Forge, Dollywood, jointly owned by legendary country singer Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Entertainment, is the biggest ticketed tourist attraction in Tennessee. It features 10 different themed areas that focus on the history and culture of the state, as well as Dolly Parton’s life. In addition to the amusement park, there are sister attractions including Dollywood’s Splash Country, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction.
Tennessee State Capitol
Designed by architect William Strickland, the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville opened in 1859 as a tribute to the people of Tennessee. When Strickland died during construction, he was buried in the north façade of the building. The tombs of President and Mrs. James K. Polk are also on the grounds. Statues honoring Sam Davis, Sgt. Alvin York, President Andrew Jackson, and President Andrew Johnson stand at the Capitol, which offers guided tours during the week.
Tennessee State Capitol, 600 Charlotte Ave, Nashville, TN, USA, +1 615 741 2692
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which is a replica of the Stax recording studio, opened in 2003. There are 17,000 square feet of videos, photographs, original instruments, stage costumes, and interactive exhibits. One of the only museums in the world dedicated to soul music, the museum honors the legacy of Stax Records and its artists, such as Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, and Albert King.
Grand Ole Opry
The world-famous Grand Ole Opry started as a radio broadcast in 1925. Once housed at the Ryman Auditorium, it took up residence at the Grand Ole Opry House in 1974. Some of the Opry’s first performers were Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, and Ernest Tubb, who helped the venue earn the name of the “country’s most famous stage.” It currently hosts shows featuring country music legends, as well as contemporary artists; they are all broadcast on Nashville’s 650 AM WSM, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, and on opry.com.
Opened by Sam Phillips in 1950, Sun Studio was originally called Memphis Recording Service and shared a building with Sun Records. After Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats recorded “Rocket 88” at Sun Studio in 1951, it earned the status as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. Music legends such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash recorded at the studio throughout the middle and late 1950s. In 1987, Gary Hardy reopened the original building that housed Sun Records and Memphis Recording Service and called it Sun Studio.
Shelby Farms Park
Mud Island is not an island. It is a small peninsula in Memphis surrounded by the Mississippi River to the west and the Wolf River to the east. It’s home to the Mud Island Riverwalk, the Mississippi River Museum, and a 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheater. The Riverwalk features bike trails, pedal boats, and a hydraulic scale model of the lower Mississippi River. The museum presents the history of the lower Mississippi River Valley, emphasizing the steamboat, of which there is a full-scale replica for viewing.
The Bluebird Cafe
Despite being one of the world’s top listening rooms, The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville is a small, unassuming 90-seat live music venue. The original owner was Amy Kurland, who sold the establishment in 2008 to the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI). She saw NSAI’s mission to celebrate songwriters as a way to keep the café connected to local songwriters and the Nashville music community. Most nights, The Bluebird Cafe hosts up-and-coming artists. Many of these artists go on to become well-known singers and songwriters.
The Bluebird Cafe, 4104 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville, TN, USA, +1 615 383 1461