Tennessee is a deceptively large state.
People have a basic understanding of scale when talking about Texas or California or even Florida. I think most people understand that it’s a long way from Jacksonville to Miami.
It’s thin, but it’s wide. Sure it’s a short drive from Kentucky to Georgia, but if you want to get from Pigeon Forge to Memphis? Be prepared to saddle up and get real familiar with I-40.
Tennessee is separated into three “Grand Divisions,” East, Middle and West. The only thing the three really have in common is an arbitrary border created by people whose main concern was trying not to make it too hard on the cartographers.
Because of this geography, the question of what is there to do in Tennessee isn’t terribly relevant unless you plan to vacation like an insane person.
“We’re going to Tennessee on vacation!”
“Yay! You’re going to see the mountains?”
“Well, yeah the mountains and the Mississippi River and the Opry. Chattanooga and Lynchburg and Johnson City and Bristol and …”
“That’s not a vacation. That’s an invasion.”
Still, if you’re coming to Tennessee on vacation – or hopefully multiple vacations – let somebody who has been all over the state help you out.
Things to do in Memphis (West Tennessee)
West Tennessee is dominated by Memphis with its amazing history, music and culinary traditions. To my mind, Memphis and West Tennessee qualify as the Deep South.
But if you’re talking longitude and latitude it’s not much further South than my home in the mountains. It’s just that Memphis has a lot more in common with its neighbors Mississippi and Arkansas than it does East Tennessee.
Still, if you come to West Tennessee, and you should, there are some things you absolutely have to do:
1. Beale Street (Memphis, TN)
This area of Memphis is the mecca of the blues and barbecue ribs. There are dozens of places up and down Beale Street to have a beer and listen to great blues music, but the absolute best place to go for ribs is a couple of blocks over at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous for the dry rub. It’s majestic.
You can actually order Rendezvous ribs to be delivered to your home anywhere in the country. It’s not cheap, but it makes a great gift. I sent some to my dad in North Carolina last year, and they were a huge hit.
If you can’t get into Rendezvous – or if it’s Monday and they’re closed – I’m a big fan of Blues City Café up at the top of Beale Street. You have to try the ribs but also get an order of their self-billed “World’s Best Tamales.”
2. Graceland (Memphis, TN)
Mama always said she got my middle name from Elvis Aaron Presley, and so I’ve had a special kinship with the King.
It’s hard to explain the lure of Graceland all these years after Elvis died. You’d think it would be a gathering point for his aging fans, a dusty relic visited by dusty relics. But it’s so much more.
First of all, the appeal of Elvis and Graceland is a draw for young and old alike. I’ve been to the Biltmore. I’ve been to some of the most famous castles in England.
Somehow, Graceland reminds me most of Versailles – the palace of the opulent last kings of France outside of Paris. It’s a testament to the ability of nearly unlimited wealth and power to create something both incredible and somehow incredibly tasteless at the same time.
If King Louis XVI had been born 200 years later and could shake his rear a little? He’d have been eating fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and shooting at the Duke of Edinburgh every time he popped up on the TV like Robert Goulet.
There are several different Graceland tour options available that typically range in prices from $47 to $190 per person.
3. The “Mighty” Mississippi (Memphis)
My dad’s people all come from Missouri, not far from the confluence where the Ohio and Mississippi River meet.
I’ve always liked the power and the majesty of the big muddy river. Throw in an American education for a boy with a strong penchant for reading and a love of humor and how could I not enjoy the works of Mark Twain?
And so, anytime I get to spend some time near a river, I make it a point to go and let my imagination run wild. In Memphis, you’re lucky. Keep driving west on Beale Street and you’ll hit the fantastic Tom Lee Park and Riverwalk.
There’s more to do just down the water a little at Mud Island Park, but I like the less crowded Tom Lee Park better.
Things to do in Nashville (Middle Tennessee)
The second Grand Division, Middle Tennessee, is dominated by Nashville, one of the most popular cities in the USA.
Known as the capital of country music, Nashville is an interesting and diverse city with a truly massive amount of things to do. You could do multiple vacations in Nashville and not get it all done.
1. Ryman Auditorium (Nashville)
A music fan must do several things when they visit Nashville. Check out the buskers downtown (preferably while hopping from bar to bar), visit the Grand Ole Opry and check out the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The Opry is the epicenter of country music, a stage graced by the biggest names in the genre for the last 50 years. Radio shows broadcast from the Opry carried on airwaves across the South and formed the beating heart of country music for generations.
But in many ways, the Opry is a relic of the past kept alive, a relic of tradition and the important place it holds in music history. The Ryman – every bit as historic as the Opry in its own way – seems more alive, more vibrant, more relatable than the Opry.
It is music’s Mother Church, a cathedral where congregants come to worship in large wooden pews, a wide variety of music that rattles off the stained glass and threatens to turn non-believers into acolytes.
A great concert at the Opry touches your heart and your mind. A great concert at the Ryman touches your soul.
2. Jack Daniels Distillery (Lynchburg)
About an hour and a half south of Nashville, sits tiny Lynchburg, Tenn., home to one of the mightiest brands on the face of the Earth: Jack Daniels. To tour the Jack Daniels Distillery isn’t just to learn about the making of Tennessee Whiskey.
It’s a trip through the nation – and the South’s past. Jack Daniels learned the art of making whiskey in 1864 from Nathan “Nearest” Green, a slave hired out to work on the farm of a preacher who took young Jack under his wing.
Daniels – who died from injuries sustained when he kicked a safe he couldn’t open in 1906 – hired Green after emancipation and made him head distiller. You can follow the company’s history through prohibition to today.
There are several different guided tours of the distillery. They vary in price from $20 to the Taste of Lynchburg, which includes a two-course meal for $125, at the time of this writing.
3. Opryland Hotel (Nashville)
A city within a city, the Opryland Hotel is a destination in and of itself.
The theme park that the hotel was built to accompany, Opryland USA, has long since gone the way of the Dodo, but the magnificent Opryland Hotel remains with its wonderland of atriums, fantastic restaurants and the Soundwaves indoor/outdoor waterpark.
We stayed at the Gaylord Opryland Resort two years ago, and at least twice a month my son asks when we’re going back.
Things to do in the Smokies, East Tennessee
Dominated by the mountains and a national park, East Tennessee is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
I almost feel a little silly telling you some of the vacation musts for the region. But in case you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting, here are a few things you should do on your first visit.
1. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Gatlinburg)
Look, this is the reason that tourism in the region exists. The wonder, the natural beauty, there are few places on Earth as popular as the Great Smoky Mountains for a good reason. It’s a great park and it’s free.
2. Dollywood (Pigeon Forge)
Again, I don’t want to be Captain Obvious, but Dollywood is really great. I’ve been to many of the best amusement parks in the Eastern half of the country, and Dollywood holds a unique place in theming and attractions.
The park is consistently honored among the best in the country, if not the world. The 30-year or more improvement campaign began when Dolly Parton bought in during the 80s. If you have a chance, be sure to check out the park at Christmas time.
The lights and the festivities are nearly unmatched.
At the time of this writing, Dollywood tickets are $79 for a single-day adult. Discounts are available for multi-day passes. Child and senior pricing is available. Be sure to check Tripster for discounts when you book.
3. Tennessee Aquarium (Chattanooga)
Chattanooga is sometimes forgotten by those unfamiliar with Tennessee. Maybe they’ve heard of Rock City – which is technically not eligible for this list because it’s just across the state line in Georgia – or they’ve heard the song about the famous choo-choo.
But in reality, Chattanooga is one of the most amazing American civic success stories in the last 50 years.
Not that long ago, Chattanooga was dirty, pollution plagued and something of an eyesore along the I-75 corridor to Atlanta. For much of the 1900s, industrialists used the region as a profit center with not enough concern for environmental issues. However, a civic campaign has turned Chattanooga around.
Today, it is a clean, modern city, friendly to tech companies and start-ups with a thriving downtown. The Tennessee Aquarium is one of the city’s many jewels.
It has dozens of animal exhibits which include otters, penguins, alligator snapping turtles and lots more. The aquarium is a terrific family destination that also features one of the region’s few IMAX theaters.
Tickets are $34.95 for adults and $21.95 for kids (at the time of this writing). They are sold on a timed entry basis, so you need to go online and book your tickets in advance. The IMAX theatre is separate.
Anyway after you get done with all that, holler back. Then, we can talk about Bristol and Johnson City, Knoxville and Jackson. There’s a lot of Tennessee left to see.
What are your favorite areas to explore in Tennessee? Let us know in the comments.