I recently moved from my hometown of Franklin, TN to the big city of Philadelphia. This has been a huge change for me and has resulted in some culture shock. While I love Philly, I find myself sometimes feeling a little homesick. Especially the other night when I went out to dinner with some friends, and realized that Philly does not know how to make shrimp and grits correctly. 🙂 I thought to cure my homesickness, I would create a Tennessee travel guide, as an attempt to get you, our readers, to visit a place that I am very proud to be able to call my home. So, pack your bags and get ready to visit the Volunteer State.
Tennessee is, of course, located in the South. It is bordered by eight states with the Appalachian Mountains marking its eastern border and the Mississippi River marking its western border. Tennessee is a much bigger state than people realize and it impossible to take it all in in a just few days. The state is split up into 3 different regions, as represented by the three stars on the state flag. There is East Tennessee, with its flagship city being, depending on who you talk to, Knoxville or Chattanooga. Middle Tennessee with its flagship city, Nashville, and West Tennessee with its flagship city being of course Memphis. Each region is unique and has a different flavor and a different sound. Tennessee natives will have no trouble telling you what region they are from. I for example am from Middle Tennessee. Let’s take Tennessee region by region.
Knoxville. Knoxville is the third largest city in the state and is mostly known as the home of the University of Tennessee (UT). UT is the largest university in the state and more than 28,000 students are currently enrolled there. UT is a proud member of the SEC (Southeastern Conference). The SEC is religion in the South, especially in the fall when it is officially football season. If you are in Knoxville, make sure you take in a game at Neyland Stadium (if you can score some tickets…it’s very popular). And by all means, make your way over to the Tennessee River adjacent to Neyland Stadium and witness what might be one of the coolest traditions in the SEC, that being the Vol Navy. Essentially it’s a giant tailgate party on boats as hundreds of UT faithful arrive for the game! It’s pretty cool. I’ll be honest, I’m a Big 10 girl myself (Go Blue!), but if you want a taste of southern football, grab yourself a beer and join the tailgate. Just make sure you are wearing the right color orange.
Also my All-American basketball player mother, would be very upset with me if I didn’t mention that the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is located in Knoxville. It’s actually a very apropos place to locate such a museum. Perhaps the greatest women’s basketball coach of all time coached the UT Lady Vols for 38 years. Pat Summitt won 1098 games and won 8 national championships. She is truly a remarkable woman and you can even see a statue to honor her on the UT campus. Unfortunately Pat Summitt passed away in 2016. She is truly a Tennessee legend.
Chattanooga. Chattanooga is located in the southern most part of East Tennessee. Most notable for the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Chattanooga has some of the most amazing outdoor adventures in the state.
Lookout Mountain. With amazing views of the Chattanooga Valley, Lookout Mountain is one of the most naturally beautiful locations in the world. While there ride the incline railroad, one of the steepest passenger railroads in the world. At the top of Lookout Mountain is Rock City, located 1700 feet above sea level. On clear days you can see SEVEN states from Rock City. Don’t forget to venture inwards and see Ruby Falls, America’s largest underground waterfall. That’s not all you can do at Lookout mountain, there is also ziplining, Civil War history, and some amazing hiking.
Pigeon Forge. Pigeon Forge reminds me of the boardwalks and beach towns located throughout the East Coast. While there is no ocean, there is lots of family fun, from dinner shows, putt-putt golf, go-carts, and ferris wheels, Pigeon Forge is not to be missed. While this might seem like just a fun weekend trip for locals, Pigeon Forge is filled with hidden gems.
- Dollywood. Dolly Parton is the greatest Tennessean to ever live (in my humble opinion). She grew up right here in the Pigeon Forge area (Sevier County). While the Appalachian region of the U.S. is one of the most naturally beautiful, it is also one of the poorest. Dolly wanted to do her part to give back to her community and opening Dollywood was how she did it. Dollywood is a theme park and it comes complete with seven rollercoasters. The theme of the park is the American South. Beside rides for families of all ages, in this park are one of a kind shows, festivals, crafts, the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame, and of course a Dolly museum complete with her tour bus. It is also one of the cleanest and well kept amusement parks you will ever visit. I recommend coming in the fall and seeing the Harvest Festival with the Great Pumpkin LumiNights. If you do come during the summer, don’t worry, Dollywood also has its own waterpark, Splash Country.
- Alcatraz East Crime Museum. Blink and you’ll miss it. The Alcatraz East Crime Museum, once located in Washington D.C. as the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, now calls Pigeon Forge its home. Alcatraz East tells the history of crime in the United States. Filled with such notorious artifacts as the white Bronco from the OJ Simpson chase and Ted Bundy’s VW Beetle, it is also a very interactive museum complete with its own CSI lab.
- Titanic Museum. I am a huge history buff and one the stories that has fascinated me since I was a child is the story of the Titanic. Any time I am in a place with anything Titanic related, I have to stop and go. I have been to several exhibits and took a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland just so I could see where the Titanic was built. It feels kind of strange to say, but this is one of the best Titanic museums I have been to. This museum puts you inside the ship, from third class to first and of course a journey up the grand staircase. It is filled with many artifacts from the shipwreck and even some from the 1997 movie “Titanic.”
- Dolly Parton’s Stampede. This might be the most American dinner show you will ever visit. The show has changed a lot since I was a child, but what still remains is the family fun. While the food might not be the greatest in all the south, it is very good considering you really go for the entertainment. You get a taste of the South with this show and I promise you won’t be disappointed. Just know that this is the Old South and in the Old South, you are expected to eat with your hands.
Gatlinburg. Up here in Philly, summer vacation is spent at the shore, down in Tennessee, we go to the mountains. No trip to East Tennessee is complete without seeing The Great Smoky Mountains. So, go rent yourself a cabin and spend the week in one of the most beautiful locations on Earth. In addition, Gatlinburg is not far from Pigeon Forge so you can easily do both in one weekend. Gatlinburg is where you go to really experience the Smoky Mountains, just keep an eye out for bears.
- Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I don’t think anyone can really be prepared for the beauty that is the Smoky Mountains. Bring your hiking shoes and a sense of adventure. See wildlife from black bears, elk, fireflies, and woodchucks. Experience wildflowers in the summer and fall foliage in the Autumn. You can go horseback riding, bike riding, camping, fishing, whitewater rafting, and even stay in a log cabin. Also in the mountains are mountain slides and the ability to stand in two states at once. Newfound Gap marks the Tennessee/North Carolina border.
Lynchburg. Lynchburg is a sleepy little town around 90 minutes south of Nashville.
- Jack Daniel’s Distillery. There is no whiskey better than Tennessee whiskey and if you’re drinking Tennessee whiskey, it better be Jack Daniel’s. Jack Daniel’s is brewed right here in Lynchburg and a visit to the distillery is well worth the hour and a half drive from Nashville. Just know one thing, Lynchburg is in a dry county (Moore), which means you can’t buy alcohol, so to purchase some of that whisky from the distillery, you are going to have to cross the border into Bedford County.
Nashville. Welcome to Music City! The Tennessee state capitol, the home of country music, the Athens of the South, and the greatest city south of the Mason/Dixon line!
- Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Let’s start with the obvious. If you aren’t taking in the sounds of Nashville you are doing it wrong. The Hall of Fame is a great way to start. The museum a two story journey through the history of country music. Learn about legends like: Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and the Queen herself, Dolly Parton. There is also plenty to see from current stars like Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban to name just a few. There is something for everyone here, even those that don’t particularly enjoy country music, although a couple hours in Nashville should take care of that. While there think about boarding the bus to Historic RCA Studio B. This is where that famous Nashville sound was created and you won’t believe the famous names that have recorded music from within this tiny studio.
- That Nashville Sound. You are probably waiting for me to bring up the Grand Ole Opry. Well the Opry House is not actually downtown, it’s over in tourist hellville also known as OpryLand. I would only recommend going there if you are determined to see the Opry show. If you are looking for the history, go to the Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman was the original Opry house and every winter the show moves back there. The Ryman is right off of Broadway and is known as the “The Mother Church of Country Music.” If you have a chance to see a concert in the Ryman, do it. It is the greatest place in the world to see live music performed. Also around downtown Nashville are several museums dedicated to some of Country’s greatest legends. If you are up for it, check out the Johnny Cash Museum, Patsy Cline Museum, or the George Jones Museum. And of course for a week every June is the CMA Fest. A country music festival and all out Nashville party that should be on everyone’s bucket list. (For music festival lovers, Bonnaroo calls Tennessee home)
- The Hermitage. If you are looking to take in a little American history, the Hermitage is the place for you. The home of President Andrew Jackson, the Hermitage tells his story, both the good and the bad. And if history is not what you’re into, not to worry, the Hermitage sits on 1000 acres and the scenery alone is worth the price of admission.
- The Parthenon. Fun fact, Nashville is known as “The Athens of the South” and even has its own Parthenon. Located in Centennial Park, Nashville’s Parthenon is an exact replica of Ancient Greece’s Parthenon complete with a 42 foot statue of Athena (the Greek goddess of wisdom, handicraft, and warfare). Underneath the Parthenon is Nashville’s art museum with 63 paintings by American artists.
Franklin. The cutest little town anywhere, Franklin, located just 20 minutes south of Nashville, is my home sweet home.
- Carter House & Lotz House. Many people consider Franklin to be suburban Nashville. True homegrown Franklin residents don’t like that because Franklin has plenty of history in its own right. The Battle of Franklin was the five bloodiest hours of the Civil War. In addition, the Confederate Army lead a charge here that was bigger than Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. Most of that battle was fought right in front of the Carter House. This tiny house is now open for tours. Right across the street from the Carter House is the Lotz House. The Lotz Family hid with the Carter’s in the basement of the Carter House during the battle. Both houses show signs of war, between the bullet holes in the bricks of the Cater House and a cannonball indent in the floor of the Lotz House, you will travel back in time to one of the most turbulent times in our Nation’s history.
- Carnton Plantation. Staying on the Civil War theme, when visiting Franklin, one must check out Carnton Plantation. The Plantation was the home of the McGavock family. Ever heard of the best selling novel “The Widow of the South?” Well, that novel is a very loose interpretation of Mrs. McGavock’s life. What is true is that, after the Battle of Franklin, the Confederate Army used the plantation as a hospital. You can tour the house and still see the outline of a doctor’s feet in blood. Outside the house is a Confederate graveyard, the largest privately owned military cemetery in the United States. Mrs. McGavock made it her life’s mission to identify every person (Confederate person) that died in the battle and was buried on her property.
- Festivals. Franklin has the most beautiful main street in of all the world (fight me!) and we regularly like to show that off to locals and tourist alike. No matter what season, there is always a festival going down on Main Street. The most popular and best are the Main Street Festival always toward the end of April, Pumpkinfest in the fall, and Dickens of a Christmas, usually early December. Each festival fills Main Street with local vendors and food. Make sure you get some kettle corn!
Memphis. I don’t care what anybody says, Memphis is the birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll (I’m talking to you Cleveland!). The second largest city in Tennessee, Memphis is a unique southern city with real American history, it’s own style of music, and the best BBQ in the world (Rendezvous is my restaurant of choice for the ultimate taste in Memphis BBQ).
- Graceland. No trip to Tennessee is complete without a visit to see the King. Graceland is the home and final resting place of Elvis Presley. His house is a time machine and will take you back to the 50s, 60s, and 70s. You can easily spend an entire day at Graceland as there is so much to do. The house itself is an experience. Elvis has a unique way of decorating and his jungle room is complete with an indoor waterfall. Outside the house are the graves of Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother, a pilgrimage for any true rock ‘n’ roll fan. The house is not the only thing to see on the grounds. Graceland is filled with museums dedicated to the King. You can see his famous jumpsuits, his private planes, and even his pink Cadillac.
- Sun Studios. You want to see the true birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll? Than you have to visit Sun Studios. While it is not very big, it is worth the trip. In this historic studio, not only did Elvis record some of his best music, but Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, and Roy Orbison all recorded within these hallowed walls.
- Peabody Hotel. If you go to Memphis you have to see the ducks at the Peabody. The Peabody is a five star hotel located in the heart of downtown. Inside the lobby there is a fountain where live duck swim. Every morning and every evening, the hotel rolls out the red carpet, literally, to guide the ducks to and from the fountain. And if you’re lucky you may even catch a celebrity guiding the ducks to their destination.
- Beale Street. Beale Street is one of the most famous streets in Tennessee, maybe in the country. A historic street which has some of the best BBQ (Make sure you get pork ribs!) around, one of a kind shops and live music every hour of everyday. It is best to go to Beale Street at night when all the lights are on and the party has only just started.
- The National Civil Rights Museum. Memphis has seen its share of heartache and no place represents this heartache and the South’s shame better than the Civil Rights Museum. This museum is located at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 assassination. This is one of the most educational and moving museums I have ever been to. The museum tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement, it shows the struggle, how far we have come, and just how far we still have to go.
I’m sorry that this post does not include more food, I am just not a foodie. However, I can definitely give restaurant recommendations if you would like some.
I hope you guys take a road trip to Tennessee! It’s a beautiful state with beautiful people and I am a proud Tennessean. I hope that all of you will fall in love with my home sweet home.