16 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Tennessee

Written by Catherine Hawkins and Colin J. McMechan
Updated May 11, 2023

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."

Mountain view in Tennessee
Mountain view in Tennessee | Photo Copyright: Colin J. McMechan

This area of outstanding natural beauty in the "Volunteer State" sees nearly three times 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 sites, 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
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 850 miles of hiking trails and auto routes. For intermediate hikers, the trail to the top of Mount 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. The road trip takes between two and four hours, depending on how many other cars are out there.

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.

Address: 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, Tennessee

2. Graceland, Memphis

Graceland, residence of Elvis Presley
Graceland, residence of Elvis Presley | Rolf_52 / Shutterstock.com

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 for 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. Much of the property is the same, or restored to, as it was when 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: 3717 Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis, Tennessee

3. Dollywood, Pigeon Forge

Dollywood | Michael Gordon / Shutterstock.com

Named after country singer Dolly Parton (who owns the park), 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 160-acre theme park provides family fun with its mix of folksy Smoky Mountains traditions and crafts, thrilling rides, and musical entertainment.

Dollywood 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 and include Splash Country water park.

Keep in mind that Dollywood closes from January through mid-March to prepare for the upcoming season, so plan your visit accordingly.

Address: 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

4. Nashville: Music City USA

Grand Ole Opry House
Grand Ole Opry House | Photo Copyright: Colin J. McMechan

No American state can claim the rich musical tapestry that is evident everywhere in Tennessee. Nashville is home to important music-related attractions, 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 and Museum 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 the hall of fame 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.

You can continue to feel the rhythm of Nashville at its other musical attractions, including the Johnny Cash Museum, Glen Campbell Museum and Rhinestone Stage, Gallery of Iconic Guitars at Belmont, and Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.

Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Nashville

5. Home of the Blues: Memphis

View over Beale Street in downtown Memphis
View over Beale Street in downtown 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. Highlights on and around Beale Street 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 attractions 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

Titanic Museum
Titanic Museum | Photo Copyright: Colin J. McMechan

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

7. National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis

Lorraine Motel, National Museum of Civil Rights
Lorraine Motel, National Civil Rights Museum | Photo Copyright: Colin J. McMechan

The National Civil Rights Museum 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

8. Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga

Tennessee Aquarium
Tennessee Aquarium | Photo Copyright: Colin J. McMechan

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 around 800 species, the Tennessee Aquarium is the largest in the state.

Staff engages 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

Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Chattanooga, TN

9. Andrew Jackson's Hermitage

Andrew Jackson's Hermitage
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 before 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, making it one of the country's first presidential museums. After a great deal of restoration, looks exactly as it would have during Jackson's retirement, complete with numerous artifacts and documents relating to his presidency.

Address: 4580 Rachel's Lane, Nashville, Tennessee

10. Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga

View over Chattanooga from Lookout Mountain
View over Chattanooga from Lookout Mountain

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 tallest and deepest accessible underground waterfall in the United States.

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
Lookout Mountain Incline Railway | Photo Copyright: Colin J. McMechan

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 Battlefield 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.

Read More: Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Chattanooga

11. Tennessee's Civil War Heritage

Shiloh National Military Park
Shiloh National Military Park | Photo Copyright: Colin J. McMechan

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 one of the first major Union victories and home to a cemetery, fort, and visitor center. Shiloh National Military Park comprises 6,000 acres on the site of the two-day battle that took place in 1862. The first significant Civil War battle in the Western Theater 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.

12. Downtown Knoxville

Sunsphere Tower, Knoxville
Sunsphere Tower, Knoxville | Photo Copyright: Colin J. McMechan

Knoxville is a comfortable base from which to go sightseeing and explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The first capital of the state, its most noticeable landmark is the Sunsphere. An icon of Knoxville's skyline, the Sunsphere is in the heart of the 1982 World's Fair Park. Catch impressive 360-degree views of downtown Knoxville and the mountains from its observation deck on the fourth floor.

Vibrant South Gay Street includes interactive exhibits in the Museum of East Tennessee History. This is also the place to catch headlining concerts and Broadway-style shows in the elegant Tennessee Theatre—the Official State Theatre of Tennessee. It was dubbed "the South's most beautiful theater" when it opened in October 1928.

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.

Read More: Best Things to Do in Knoxville

13. Chattanooga and the Tennessee Valley Railroad

Tennessee Valley Railroad
Tennessee Valley Railroad | Photo Copyright: Colin J. McMechan

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

The Parthenon, Nashville
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 over the course of 10 years, opening in 1931.

Made of brick, stone, and concrete, 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

15. American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge

Oak Ridge: American Museum of Science and Energy
Oak Ridge: American Museum of Science and Energy | Brian Mooney / photo modified

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

16. The Museum of Appalachia

Museum of Appalachia
Museum of Appalachia | Photo Copyright: Colin J. McMechan

The Museum of Appalachia is a large open-air attraction that 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 an enhanced appreciation of mountain culture, livelihoods, and customs.

With more than 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.

When you're hungry, you can tuck into Southern Appalachian country cooking at the museum's restaurant.

Address: 2819 Andersonville Hwy, Clinton, Tennessee

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