We are traveling around the USA to discover the REAL America.
To not only see the main tourist sites but to unplug the hidden secrets and ask you guys, our readers, to share your local tips and help shape our journey.
Our recent road trip allowed us to experience four of the best places to visit in Tennessee, and a lot of the cool experiences we had were thanks to you!
A partner for our America Unplugged road trip is Allianz Travel Insurance and their tagline is ‘How can we help?’ so today we want to help you by sharing all the great things to do in Tennessee and an itinerary for each place so you can replicate our trip!
As we keep saying, road trips are the best way for us to travel as a family and from our base here in Raleigh, North Carolina we headed along the I40 and spent a month exploring the best attractions in Tennessee.
You can, of course, fly into each of these Tennessee vacation spots, but with all the stress around flying these days it has never been a better time to go on a great American road trip and let the journey be as much fun as the destination.
So why not jump in your car and take a Tennessee road trip and discover for yourself all the beauty and adventure that the Volunteer State has to offer.
This is what we got up to.
4 Places to visit in Tennessee
Not sure about what to do in Tennessee? We’re here to help.
First of all, you don’t have to spend a month long vacation in Tennessee like us (though you should) and the below suggested itinerary totals 9 days.
But I would add on two extra days of travel and another day for some flexibility, so a good 12 days and you’re all set for your Tennessee road trip!
1. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and is the most visited National Park in the US and one of the top Tennessee vacation spots.
One reason is because of its raw beauty. The other is because it’s within an easy drive for over half of America’s population.
Looking for things to do in Tennessee that involve nature and wildlife? You can’t go past the Smokies.
This is what we got up to over two days.
Day 1 – Waterfalls and hikes in the Smokies
When you visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, why not start off by hiking up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies at 6,643 feet.
From the car park, it’s a relatively steep half-mile walk to the observation tower on the summit, but our kids handled it no problem and on a clear day you get spectacular 360° views of the Smokies and beyond – a great spot for sunrise and sunset.
But, as you can see from our experience, they don’t call it “Smoky” for nothing as our view was a white out, but hey, you’re 6,600 feet up.
To get here from Gatlinburg it’s a 21-mile drive.
There are endless options of places to eat in Gatlinburg, not a lot of healthy options mind you and for us as gluten free diners we struggled.
Our fall back option is usually Mexican, so we ate at No Way Jose’s Mexican Cantina which was pretty good!
We thoroughly enjoyed our hike to Grotto Falls, and excitingly on this hike we had our first bear sighting, at a safe distance off the trail and there was a ranger nearby.
The hike is a 1.3 mile round trip and our kids handled it easily. And the cool thing about this waterfall is you can walk right behind the falls.
To get to Grotto Falls take the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail 5 mile loop drive out of Gatlinburg.
Take a stroll around Gatlinburg, there’s plenty of quirkiness and amusement type activities going on if that’s your thing.
A popular place for dinner is the Smoky Mountain Brewery, but I thought the food was average.
Day 2 – Bike riding in the Smoky Mountains
Probably our favorite activity in the Smoky Mountains was cycling the Cades Cove Loop Road.
You can drive the 11-mile circuit, but we love our bike rides and so Caz and Kalyra cycled whilst daddy and Savannah followed in our vehicle.
Around the loop, you’ll see numerous historic buildings – cabins, churches, and workplaces of Cades Cove residents during the 19th and early 20th centuries – and several walking trails as well in case you want to stretch your legs.
And great wildlife spotting opportunities, we saw BEARS again, a momma bear and two cubs! Again they were at a safe distance and we had a range close by.
Hot Tip: do this bike ride on a Wednesday or Saturday morning between 7am -10am when the road is closed to traffic.
Cades Cove is an about an hour and a half drive from Gatlinburg. It’s a must do in the Smokies and one of the top places to visit in Tennessee!
Laurel Falls is another kid-friendly hike and one of the most popular places to go hiking in the Smoky Mountains.
And to be honest, I think we liked this waterfall better than Grotto Falls, there are several cascading levels, but both hikes are nice and easy enough for families.
Besides Clingmans Dome, a lovely spot to take in a Smoky Mountains sunset is from Mortons Overlook, about a 20-minute drive up from Gatlinburg.
You get a gorgeous view across the valley as the sun dips below the peaks in the distance.
Where to stay in the Smoky Mountains
We stayed at the Old Creek Lodge in Gatlinburg that had a great, quiet location just off the main road but within easy walking distance to all the restaurants, shops and activities in the town.
Knoxville is more than a College Football town, although they say game day here is like no other place in the nation and I plan to come back in the fall for a Vols game.
But what surprised us about Knoxville is the outdoor attractions, the food and drink, it’s family-friendly, the music scene, the friendly locals and the relaxed vibe.
Knox would top the most underrated list of places to visit in Tennessee. Here is how we would spend 2 days.
Day 1 – Knoxville markets and outdoor adventures
If you visit Knoxville between May – November, and can time your trip for a Wednesday or Saturday, start your visit at the Knoxville Farmers Market in historic Market Square.
We love a good local farmers market, and many of our readers suggested this as one of the best, and they weren’t wrong!
This market has an emphasis on local produce and community and everything is grown or made by the vendor in the East Tennessee region with an excellent range of products from delicious local food and coffee to artisan crafts.
We always do our best to shop local and if we lived in Knoxville we’d be regulars here!
(Wednesdays 11:00 am to 2:00 pm, Saturdays 9:00 am to 2:00 pm)
Whilst in Market Square, grab a burger at The Stock & Barrel. Again this place came highly recommended by our readers and my turkey burger and duck confit fries were delish!
We love getting outdoors, and in Knoxville there’s no better place than the Ijams Nature Center.
With 10-miles of trails, rock formations, lakes and stunning overlooks it is a much-loved sanctuary by the locals and only a 10-minute drive from downtown.
There’s a lovely relaxing short walk along the Tennessee River, then we upped the adventurous side and took on the Navitat Canopy Experience – a high ropes challenge consisting of 6 different courses and each course is designed with varying degree of difficulty from beginner to advanced.
And just down the road from Ijams is Mead’s Quarry, a beautiful place to go canoeing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding.
Take a stroll along the riverfront of the Tennessee River followed by drinks and dinner at Calhoun’s which has a prime riverfront location.
We visited here twice to sit outside on the deck and enjoy the fresh air and watch life on the river go by (kids and gluten free menu available).
Day 2 – Knoxville Zoo and Market Square
Another suggestion by our readers was to check out the Zoo which proved popular with our kids, they loved feeding the giraffes, watching the gorillas play (they had a baby when we visited) and getting up close to a tiger and elephants.
The zoo is one of the most family-friendly attractions in Knoxville and you can easily spend a few hours here.
Children ages 4-12 $16.95
Seniors ages 65+ $16.95
Children under 4 FREE
Another cool thing about Knoxville is their Ale Trail with 10 breweries currently in operation and more on the way, so if craft beer is your thing you’re in luck!
One brewpub we stopped in for a beer and a bite to eat at was Balter Beerworks which has a nice outdoor seating area.
Back home in Australia, we would only ever go bowling when it rained and had nothing else to do! In the US, bowling alleys are so fancy and popular.
Maple Hall bowling alley is located underground in the historic J.C. Penney building and is this super cool boutique bowling with a full-service bar, cozy lounge areas and even a VIP room.
And almost next door on Gay Street is Cruze Farm Ice Cream, a cool family story and of course their ice cream was a hit with our kids.
They milk their own Jersey cows and bottle whole pasteurized Jersey milk, as well as real churned buttermilk, light milk, and chocolate milk.
You might have seen their farm girls around town delivering milk in their striking red and white dresses!
If you don’t get a chance to experience the morning farmers market, visiting Historic Market Square is still one of the must do things in Knoxville.
It’s the heart and hub of downtown Knoxville and whilst it’s a cool destination at any time of day, it really comes alive in the evening and is the place to be for cafes, restaurants and live music on select nights.
A great place for dinner in Market Square is Tomato Head, they have yummy pizzas and a nice range of sandwiches, salads, and sweets.
Places to Stay in Knoxville
We stayed at the new and stylish Tennessean Hotel which has a prime central location downtown across the street from the Sunsphere and an easy 5-10 minute walk to Market Square.
Nashville is unlike any US city we have visited so far and a place we can see ourselves returning to over and over again. It’s fun, it has a soul, it has music and cool museums and pro sports and a growing food scene!
And music city has overtaken Vegas as the number one destination for bachelorette parties – it’s a HOT place to be right now!
This is what you can do with three days.
Day 1 – Country music Museum and Grand Ole Opry
If you’re a fan of Country Music or want to learn about its history and famous artists, then a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a must do in Nashville.
This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tennessee and one of our favorite museums to spend a few hours. There are four levels within the building, each sharing a different era and stories of the past.
Nashville has some great rooftop venues and one of our faves is the ACME Feed & Seed. It’s one of the best places to eat in Nashville for stunning views over the river and Broadway down below.
A fun and informational thing to do in any city is a Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus Tour. We like them as they are great for getting your bearings and for the expert commentary you get from a local in the know.
On this tour of Nashville we were shown Taylor Swift’s penthouse, the hotel Keith Urban stayed in before he was Keith Urban, and received lots of local tips for places to eat in Nashville and where to listen to live music.
Allow about 90 minutes for a loop.
Finish your bus tour on Broadway and take a walk around downtown, and maybe go shopping for some cowboy boots!
Broadway is vibrant and the place to be for people watching. Wander past all the honky tonk bars with cool music blaring, maybe take a horse and cart ride, pop into a candy shop, or jump on a pedal tavern – they are the thing to do in Nashville.
One of our favorite evenings yet on our travels in the US has been seeing a show at the Grand Ole Opry. This is the show that made Country Music famous and a night out you won’t soon forget.
The Opry started as a radio broadcast in 1925 and evolved into a live show. Each Opry show is still broadcast live on radio.
You get to see a wide variety of musicians and famous artists – new and old in one evening. We saw six performers in total and we also recommend doing a backstage tour to see behind the scenes and for a deeper insight into the Opry experience.
Book your Opry ticket before you go, so you don’t miss the show!
Even if you’re not in town on a show night, you can still visit the Opry on a tour – definitely one of the best places to visit in Tennessee!
Press play to see more of our Grand Ole Opry experience:
Day 2 – The Gulch and live music in Nashville
Grab a great breakfast and coffee at Fido Cafe in Hillsboro Village. You might even spot a celebrity here, it’s one of Taylor Swift’s favorite hangs and when we were there so was Lennon Stella, AKA Maddie from the hit TV show Nashville.
Then explore The Gulch, a district with an industrial history that’s been revamped into one of the hippest places to visit in Nashville with boutique shopping, a cool food scene, and incredible wall murals.
The “What Lifts You” angel wings mural is one of the most photographed places in Nashville.
If you need to be back downtown and fancy some ribs, a few blocks from Broadway is Martin’s BBQ Joint and we had the biggest rack of ribs we’ve ever eaten – cool venue too!
Back on the music scene and the Johnny Cash Museum is just off Broadway and is home to the largest collection of Johnny Cash items in the world that tells the story of his life. Well worth a visit, what a legend!
And upstairs is the Patsy Cline museum, another country music legend worth learning about.
Across the road is one of the best things to do in Nashville with kids (that does not involve music), and that is the Goo Goo Clusters store.
What is a Goo Goo cluster? A unique combination candy bar (chocolate, peanuts, caramel and marshmallow nougat), and Goo Goo Clusters remains a family owned Nashville institution!
From there, head to one of Nashville’s top rooftop bars for a drink and to prime yourself for an evening of Honky Tonk bars.
You’re in Nashville and you can’t visit music city without hitting up a few of the honky tonk bars!
Tootsies is world famous and is known for surprise guest appearances by some of country music’s hottest stars!
Got kids? Go before dinner time or check out the Wildhorse Saloon Bar, a 66,000 square foot live music, dance and dinner venue that is more kid-friendly.
Day 3 – The Ryman, Studio B & The Blue Bird – Nashville icons
Go behind the scenes at the famous Ryman Auditorium, recognized as one of the best live performance venues in the USA, and one of the most historic places to visit in Tennessee for music!
Known as the Mother Church of country music, this is hallowed ground and the original venue of the Grand Ole Opry Show. It’s also where Johnny Cash met June Carter, and where countless careers were launched.
If there’s a live show on here whilst you’re in town, do it.
Across the river, East Nashville and Five Points are hip and happening spots for lunch or dinner. The Wild Cow serves up delicious vegan and vegetarian food, The Pharmacy tops many lists as the best burger joint in town, or there’s Burger Up!
As part of your visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum, you can add on a Studio B Tour which takes you to Music Row, where all the artists record their music, and to Studio B, the most famous of them all.
It’s not much to look at from the outside, but behind the walls, Billions of dollars worth of hits have been recorded here, primarily when the studio was operated by RCA Records – Elvis recorded most of his number one hits here!
If you’re a fan of the hit Nashville TV series like us, you’ll be excited to visit the famous Bluebird Café.
This tiny and intimate music venue in an old strip mall launched the careers of some of the old and modern greats, think Taylor Swift.
The Bluebird has scheduled shows throughout the week, see this calendar for info and tickets, but on Monday nights they host Open Mic – we had to line up super early to get tickets, this place only holds 80 people.
If you can’t get into the Bluebird, The Listening Room Cafe comes highly recommend.
Places to Stay in Nashville
Accommodation in Nashville can be hard to find and expensive. The city has lots of events happening all the time.
We stayed in three Airbnbs while in Nashville. Two of them we loved and can recommend to you!
- East Nashville – awesome hosts, family friendly, great location close to Broadway
- Bright and Cheery House in East Nashville
We also stayed two evenings at the family-friendly Loews Vanderbilt Hotel located in Mid-town. Its location is near many restaurants including the famous Hattie B’s hot chicken, and also near Vanderbilt University.
We didn’t plan to visit Memphis on this road trip, but after experiencing the Grand Ole Opry Show and the Blue Bird Cafe in Nashville, we said to each other,
“let’s chase the music, let’s go to Memphis!”
Here is our two day itinerary.
Day 1 – Graceland, Sun Studio and Blues
One of the most popular places to visit in Tennessee would be Graceland. The home of Elvis Presley is the most famous house in the history of rock ‘n’ roll and the top attractions in Memphis.
It’s truly amazing that over 600,000 people still visit Graceland each year to tour the home of Elvis who died 40 years ago.
From the moment you enter his mansion, you go on a journey through the private life of Elvis and what it must have been like to be the king of rock!
We recommend the Elvis Entourage VIP Tour which includes an audio tour with headsets and an iPad, but the tour doesn’t stop at Graceland, across the road at the Visitor Entertainment Complex you can see his:
- car collection
- iconic fashion trends
- private planes
- and much more.
Before we arrived in the city, everyone kept raving about Memphis BBQ as one of the best in the country, and you have plenty of options.
Close to Graceland is Marlowes Ribs & Restaurant, and when you walk in it’s like you entered a museum about Memphis, Rock & Roll and the king himself.
I think we enjoyed the Sun Studio Guided Tour as much as Graceland, it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Memphis.
Originally called the Memphis Recording Studio, Sun Studio is now known as the most famous recording studio in the world and the birthplace of Rock and Roll.
Elvis recorded his very first song here, plus some of the great have recorded here like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis, even U2 and Bob Dylan.
Beale Street is the heart of Memphis, the place to be for live music and one of the most fun places to visit in Tennessee!
This three block radius of clubs and restaurants is a melting pot of delta blues, jazz, rock’n’ roll, and R&B. And if you’ve got kids like us, go late afternoon / early evening for dinner and music.
It’s hard to beat the original BB King’s Blues Club for cool music. We took a late afternoon stroll along Beale Street, followed by dinner and a top night at BB King’s!
Day 2 – Civil Rights Museum and Bass Pro (you say what?)
Step back in time and get your fix of eggs, pancakes, and biscuits at Memphis’ oldest cafe, The Arcade Restaurant.
This classic American diner was founded in 1919 and has that nostalgic feeling to it, Elvis once ate here, and you might recognize it from movies such as Walk the Line, The Client and Great Balls of Fire.
And you’ll need a full stomach because over the next couple of hours you’ll be spending absorbed in the National Civil Rights Museum, one of the best museums I have ever visited!
Located at the Lorraine Motel, this is the actual location where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and this museum walks you through his life, the tragedy of his assassination, and the history of the Civil Rights Trail and movement.
Visiting the Civil Rights Museum is one of the most moving things to do in Tennessee.
Before arriving in Memphis we asked our friend, a former Memphis resident, where do the locals go for Memphis BBQ? Central BBQ was at the top of his list.
From the outside, this place is nothing flash but the moment you walk in you can tell it is a locals fave, and he was right, the BBQ is tasty – take your choice of ribs, beef brisket plate, pork plate, chicken or turkey, BBQ nachos, hot wings and more!
Many of you suggested we visit the Bass Pro Shop. Why we kept asking ourselves, why? How could a fishing and hunting store be one of the top Tennessee tourist attractions??!
Turns out, it’s one of the most unusual places I have ever been inside of and one of the craziest places to see in Tennessee!
Located inside the giant Pyramid, this is not your ordinary fishing and hunting store, this place is home to an aquarium, bowling alley, and an award winning 5-star resort called Big Cypress Lodge!
Only in America lol.
Oh, and you can ride the world’s tallest freestanding elevator 28 stories to the top of the Memphis Pyramid, walk out onto the glass floor observation deck, and get the best views of Memphis and the Mississippi River from 300 feet above!
For another unusual experience, go see a parade of ducks walk down the red carpet in the hotel lobby of the Peabody Hotel.
The Peabody Ducks are one of the top attractions in Memphis. The Legend of the Peabody Memphis Ducks started back in the 1930s, and they still visit the lobby fountain at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day.
No joke, they hop out of the fountain, walk the red carpet, step into the elevator and ride to the rooftop.
Where to Stay in Memphis
If you want to stay near Graceland, you can literally walk there from the Guest House at Graceland. Designed with Elvis in mind, you’ll feel like you’re a guest of the King staying here!
But to be close to all the other attractions in Memphis I suggest staying downtown.
The Peabody Hotel ranks highly, and for a full list of places to stay in Memphis our partner Booking.com has over 90 properties to choose from.