Must-Visit Attractions in Tennessee
With its world-renowned country music scene and highly rated BBQ food, it should come as no surprise that Tennessee is a state full of great things to do and see. From Nashville to Memphis and places in between, here are the must-visit attractions in the Volunteer State.
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’s father’s office. You can step aboard Elvis’s airplanes and pay tribute to the King in the Meditation Garden where he is laid to rest with other members of his family.
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 US. 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.
Chattanooga’s Tennessee Aquarium features two buildings that host all of the facility’s exhibits: River Journey and Ocean Journey. Visitors can learn about marine and freshwater 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.
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.
Nashville’s Centennial Park is a 132-acre (53ha) park featuring a 1mi (1.6km) 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 paintings by 19th- and 20th-century American artists.
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.
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 (341m) 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.
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 and a basement summer kitchen, and it 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 the former President and his wife are laid to rest on the grounds.
In 1807, John Harding founded the Belle Meade Plantation, which started as a single log cabin on 250 acres (101ha) and grew to a 5,400-acre (2,185ha) 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 (14ha) of the original property and homestead still in place.
Located in Pigeon Forge, Dollywood is the biggest ticketed tourist attraction in Tennessee. Jointly owned by legendary country singer Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Entertainment, 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.
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, giving the zoo the title of “hippo capital of the world.”
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.
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 (1,580sq. m.) 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.
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.
At 4,500 acres (1,821ha), Shelby Farms Park is one of the largest urban parks in the country, covering more than five times the area of Central Park in New York City. Located in Memphis, the park has more than 40 miles (64km) of walking, biking and hiking trails and more than 20 bodies of water. Shelby Farms Greenline, a 10.7-mile (17km) paved trail connects Memphis to the city of Cordova through 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.
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.
Get closer to the history of the world’s most famous ship at Pigeon Forge, a city in-between Knoxville and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Dedicated to the ill-fated Titanic, the museum features an exact replica of the Grand Staircase. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The museum is crammed with geographical and historical guides, and for entertainment, seek out the 26ft-long (8m) Titanic model built from 56,000 Lego bricks – it took 11 months to construct. How’s that for a science project completed by a 10-year-old boy from Iceland?
There’s no need to study an atlas to check if you’re going crazy; this is a replica of Greece’s temple dedicated to Athena. Built in 1897, the Parthenon lends itself to one of Nashville’s nicknames – “The Athens of the South.” Thousands of tourists flock to the site to take snapshots of its iconic classical architecture. Inside, it doubles as an art museum, with its most notable exhibition being the statue of Athena Parthenos, having taken eight years to complete. Combining Greek mythology with American history, the Parthenon ranks highly on the list of Tennessee’s most desirable locations.
Night owls head to Memphis’s premier entertainment thoroughfare for an evening’s dancing to a heady mix of frothy beer and blues-inspired live music. Enticing neon lights mark Beale Street out as a beacon of hedonism, although there’s a friendly vibe and an easy-going ambience that appeals to all. Grab a bite to eat at one of many authentic restaurants, with the rhythm of the Deep South blues always within earshot. Beale Street was a favorite amongst distinguished names as B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Louis Armstrong, so streets don’t come more distinguished for blues aficionados. Capture the sights and sounds for a treasured memory at the very core of Memphis’s musical history.
Call yourself intrepid? Forget the Blair Witch and instead venture to the tiny city of Adams in the north of the state for an utterly spooky encounter. The Bell Witch is claimed to be the ghost of Kate Batts, a cantankerous neighbor of John Bell, who believed she cheated him out of a piece of land in the early 1800s. The witch tormented Mr. Bell and his daughter, Betsy, and over a century later, many locals believed the eerie apparition never left the area. As the cave was owned by Mr. Bell, it’s well worth making the trip to test your nerves and partake in a spot of ghost-hunting. Oh, and the legend is still taught in schools – sweet dreams, kids!
Established in 1949 in an old cafeteria (it’s amazing where some prominent museums originate), the AMSE provides educational programs that focus on the country’s Department of Energy’s nuclear usage. War enthusiasts will be intrigued to note the AMSE played a large part in the Manhattan Project, which researched and developed the first nuclear weapons in World War II. Fascinating exhibits include Big Science, National Security and Environmental Restoration. The AMSE is essential viewing for budding scientists and is crucial to the country’s future.
Additional reporting by Jo Varley