16 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Tennessee
If you're one of many travelers who believe the most visited national parks in the United States are the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite, you've probably never visited Tennessee. You may be surprised to learn that the number one most visited US national park is, in fact, the Great Smoky Mountains or "Smokies."
This area of outstanding natural beauty in the "Volunteer State" sees twice as many visitors each year as its nearest rival, the Grand Canyon. Much of Tennessee's popularity is due to its accessibility, being surrounded by eight other states. It also has much to do with its astonishing natural beauty, rich history, and first-rate attractions.
There's also the music. From the rock 'n' roll legacy of Elvis Presley to country stars such as Johnny Cash, Tennessee was the starting place for many of America's greatest artists and musical genres. Discover the top scenic and music-related attractions, as well as civil war sites and national landmarks with our list of top tourist attractions in Tennessee.
1. The Smokies: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a standout attraction in Tennessee that blends adventure with world-class scenery. From downtown Gatlinburg, you can easily drive to the park's most popular places to visit and things to do. Another option is to jump on the chairlift and head for the hills at Ober Gatlinburg, a ski resort and amusement park offering year-round activities.
Take the scenic drive to the Top of Old Smoky—6,643-foot-high Clingmans Dome—and walk the short, steep ascent to its Observation Tower with 360-degree views. If you are coming for hiking and sightseeing, the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains is spring until fall with winter a close runner-up.
Apart from scenic drives, park highlights include more than 900 miles of hiking trails and auto routes. For intermediate hikers, the trail to the top of Mont LeConte is a peak experience. For a more leisurely tour, drive around Cades Cove Loop to see picturesque meadows, pioneer homesteads, mountain views and wildlife.
Enjoy overnight camping in the park, or book a rustic cabin in the woods for your mountain getaway.
Visiting Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the top things to do in Tennessee. Be sure not to miss it.
Accommodation: Best Hotels in Gatlinburg, TN
2. Graceland, Memphis
As popular as the White House in Washington D.C., Graceland is one of the top attractions in the historic city of Memphis. The most famous rock 'n' roll residence in the world, Graceland Mansion is a place of pilgrimage to fans from far and wide. Tours of this fine stately home provide a glimpse into the life of The King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley. Nothing has been changed since he passed away at Graceland in 1977.
Elvis Presley's Memphis is a vast warehouse-like structure that includes exhibits and displays. You'll marvel at flashy costumes and learn about the influences on his meteoric rise to fame. Check out the family tomb where fans have been moved to tears. See an impressive collection of Elvis cars, aircraft, and memorabilia. Tour his living quarters, including the music room, TV room, and Jungle Den.
A variety of tour packages are offered, including accommodation at the luxurious The Guest House at Graceland. For those interested in a virtual visit, numerous fun interactive exhibits and online tours can be experienced on the Graceland website.
Address: Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis, Tennessee
Official site: www.graceland.com
Accommodation: Best Hotels in Memphis, Tennessee
3. Hello, Dollywood, Pigeon Forge
Named after country singer Dolly Parton, Dollywood has long been Tennessee's most popular ticketed attraction, luring more than three million visitors per year. One of the top attractions in Pigeon Forge, this thriving 150-acre theme park provides family fun with its mix of folksy Smoky Mountains traditions and crafts, thrilling rides, and musical entertainment.
Dollywood will has more than 50 rides—nine of them roller coasters, including the popular Tennessee Tornado—spread across 11 themed areas. These areas represent the culture and history of east Tennessee and include Timber Canyon, Country Fair, and Jukebox Junction.
Other highlights include live concerts, festivals, and an authentic coal-fired steam train—the Dollywood Express—that circles the park. Make a day of it at this 290-acre attraction and include Splash Country water park.
Address: 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Official site: www.dollywood.com
Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in Pigeon Forge, TN
4. Nashville: Music City USA
No American state can claim the rich musical tapestry that is evident everywhere in Tennessee. Nashville is home to important music-related treasures, including the Grand Ole Opry House and the Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman, built in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, is also known as the Mother Church of Country Music. It was the original Opry and setting for live radio broadcasts that put the Opry on the musical map.
The Country Music Hall of Fame (CMHF) and granite stars embedded in the sidewalk across the street celebrate famous celebrities in country music. These attractions are located within easy walking distance of the Ryman.
Take the tour of CMHF that includes a visit to RCA's Studio B on Music Row and the thrill of standing where Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson made recordings. Walk the "music mile" along Music Row and see the headquarters of the country music biz.
Accommodation: Best Resorts in Nashville
5. Home of the Blues: Memphis
Beale Street, located in downtown Memphis, is the home of blues music. This famous historic street is where Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and Memphis Minnie got their big break as performers. Beale Street highlights include the Memphis Music Hall of Fame; the Smithsonian's Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum; and WC Handy Home and Museum, a tribute to the Father of the Blues.
Be sure to add the STAX Museum of American Soul, with its replica of the original Stax Records studio, to your must-see itinerary of the most legendary music sites in Memphis. Another iconic attraction is Sun Studio, known as the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. Your tour guide will regale you with stories about Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, and Roy Orbison—all recorded here. This is where 18-year-old Elvis famously told music-maker Sam Phillips: "I don't sound like nobody."
6. The Titanic Museum, Pigeon Forge
A treasure trove of memories and artifacts from the RMS Titanic comes to life at the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge—the largest of its kind in the world. Entering the museum, you feel like you're boarding the original vessel; it's built in the shape of the ship at half the scale of the original.
Highlights include more than 400 Titanic-related artifacts in 20 galleries designed to create the illusion that you're actually on the ship. Self-guided tours take approximately two hours. Following Titanic events in chronological order, you learn about the ship's design and the 10,000 skilled craftsmen and laborers who constructed it. Marvel at rare photos of the Titanic setting out to sea on its ill-fated maiden voyage.
Address: 2134 Parkway, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Official site: www.titanicpigeonforge.com
7. National Museum of Civil Rights, Memphis
The National Museum of Civil Rights in Memphis is a national treasure and one of the most compelling attractions in Tennessee. The museum features hundreds of artifacts spread over two buildings, including the Lorraine Motel—the designated historic site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968.
Stand in the room where assassin James Earl Ray pulled the trigger that ended King's life. The history of these dramatic days, including motivational theories, will rivet your attention. View artifacts on display, and watch 40 short videos, oral histories, and interactive media. Plan to spend a minimum of two to three hours at this attraction.
Your self-guided tour of the museum covers five centuries of civil rights history, including slavery, reconstruction after the Civil War, Jim Crow segregation, 1950s Birmingham bus boycott and Rosa Parks protest, and 1960s marches and sit-ins. The museum is educational, inspirational, and an enduring challenge to achieve racial equality.
Address: 450 Mulberry Street, Memphis, Tennessee
Official site: www.civilrightsmuseum.org
8. Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga
The Tennessee Aquarium has been educating visitors about water creatures and ecosystems for 30 years. Situated on the banks of the Tennessee River, the aquarium immerses you in two experiences: The River Journey and Ocean Journey. These riparian and marine habitats are contained in enormous tanks, with the biggest one holding 618,000 gallons. Featuring more than 9,000 species, the Tennessee Aquarium is the largest in the state.
Staff engage visitors in hands-on learning. You will be thrilled—or repelled—when feeling the backs of stingrays as they glide by you in open touch tanks. Wave to submerged scuba divers who direct your attention to colorful fish and giant octopuses. Whether you are drawn to the river or the ocean, the Tennessee Aquarium is sure to enhance your passion for life in these magical environments.
Address: 1 Broad Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Official site: https://tnaqua.org
Accommodation: Best Hotels in Chattanooga, TN
9. Andrew Jackson's Hermitage
Just a few miles east of Nashville is Andrew Jackson's Hermitage, the plantation home of the seventh US President from 1804 to 1845. The current home was built in 1819, not long after Jackson was elected president, and is well worth the couple of hours needed to explore it.
Highlights include the park-like gardens and woods, as well as the tomb where both Jackson and his wife were laid to rest. The mansion opened as a museum in 1889, and after a great deal of restoration, looks exactly as it would have in Jackson's time, complete with numerous artifacts and documents relating to his presidency.
Address: 4580 Rachels Lane, Hermitage, Tennessee
Official site: www.thehermitage.com
10. Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga
Overlooking Chattanooga and offering some of Tennessee's best views, Lookout Mountain is an excellent day- or half-day outing. Natural attractions include the gardens and High Falls at Rock City just across the border in Georgia and Ruby Falls—the largest accessible underground waterfall in the United States.
Getting to Lookout Mountain can be half the fun when you take the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, a mile-long journey on a trolley-style car that travels at an incline of up to 73 percent.
Once at the top of the railway, Point Park of the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park is nearby. Visit Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map and Museum. Its displays relate to the epic Battle Above the Clouds, fought in and around Chattanooga during the Civil War.
Official site: www.lookoutmountain.com
Accommodation: Best Hotels in Chattanooga, TN
11. Tennessee's Civil War Heritage
Tennessee, the last state to join the Confederacy, was divided in its Civil War loyalties. The west and middle part of the state were allied with Confederate forces, while the east sided with Union soldiers. As one of the most northerly of the Confederate states, Tennessee witnessed numerous battles during the four-year conflict, many of which are commemorated by visitor centers, museums, cemeteries, and memorials.
Fort Donelson National Battlefield is the site of the first major Union victory and home to a cemetery, fort, and visitor center. Shiloh National Military Park comprises 5,000 acres on the site of the two-day battle that took place in 1862. The first significant Civil War battle in the west happened at Shiloh, which includes a cemetery with more than 3,500 Union graves.
Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, the country's largest military park, is historically significant in the Civil War. The 9,500-acre park was where the battle took place that signaled the end of the Confederacy.
Official site: https://www.civilwartrails.org/
12. Downtown Knoxville
Knoxville is a comfortable base from which to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The first capital of the state, its most noticeable landmark is the Sunsphere Tower. An icon of Knoxville's skyline, the Sunsphere is in the heart of the 1982 World's Fair Park.
Vibrant South Gay Street includes interactive exhibits in the Museum of East Tennessee History. This is also the place to catch headlining concerts in the elegant Tennessee Theatre—the Official State Theatre of Tennessee.
One block west of Gay Street is Market Square—Knoxville's favorite gathering place since 1854. Today, it's home to a busy farmers market, events and festivals, as well as shopping and dining. Adjacent to the square is Krutch Park, a quiet green space to rest and appreciate contemporary works of public art.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Knoxville
Read More: Best Things to Do in Knoxville
13. Chattanooga and the Tennessee Valley Railroad
Tennessee has had a lengthy love affair with the railroad. During the Civil War, the Southern Confederate Army relied on railways to transport military supplies. In peacetime, railways and rivers were vital for shipping wood and cotton.
The rich railway heritage of Tennessee has been preserved throughout the state. The most notable relics are the terminal and an engine from the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo. In Jackson, visit the museum dedicated to the legendary railroad engineer, John Luther "Casey" Jones.
One of the most ambitious restoration projects is the Tennessee Valley Railroad or TVR. The TVR offers tourist excursions in the countryside near Chattanooga and along the Hiwassee River in the Smoky Mountains. The Three Rivers Rambler in Knoxville uses a historic coal-fired steam engine locomotive to take you 11 miles along three rivers, including the Tennessee. Hop aboard one of these trains and take advantage of their ride-and-dine packages.
14. The Parthenon, Nashville
No visit to Nashville would be complete without visiting the huge Parthenon. One of Tennessee's most remarkable attractions, it is the centerpiece of Centennial Park, a short walk from the city's downtown core. This impressive life-size replica of the original Parthenon in Athens, Greece was built to commemorate the state's centennial in 1897.
Made entirely of cement, the Parthenon impresses with its vast dimensions, inside and out. The building houses the city's permanent art gallery, a collection of works by 19th- and 20th-century American painters, as well as a spectacular 42-foot gold-covered statue of the goddess Athena Parthenos. The Parthenon is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Address: 2500 West End Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee
Official site: www.nashvilleparthenon.com
15. American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge
The American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge offers a fascinating insight into the history of nuclear energy. Located 24 miles west of Knoxville, the museum highlights the central role of Oak Ridge in the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb.
View videos, photos, artifacts, and documents about this vast facility. Learn how it evolved over time as an important center for scientific research and innovation. Fun hands-on displays of static electricity and robotics engage visitors of all ages.
Address: 115 E Main Street, Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Official site: http://amse.org/
16. The Museum of Appalachia
This large open-air museum focuses on the people who settled the Appalachian Mountains and is one of the best heritage villages in the United States. The museum allows you to explore the past through hands-on activities, such as weaving and farming. You'll come away with enhanced appreciation of mountain culture, livelihoods, and customs.
With 250,000 artifacts in its collection spread over 65 pastoral acres, the Museum of Appalachia is 6.6 miles north of Clinton, one of the best small towns in Tennessee. An impressive array of baskets, home furnishings, musical instruments, folk art, and farm machinery await you.
Address: 2819 Andersonville Hwy, Clinton, Tennessee
Official site: www.museumofappalachia.org
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Clinton
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