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There are many places to visit in Tennessee, a state that keeps time in both the eastern and central zones, plus shares a border with eight states: Kentucky and Virginia in the north, North Carolina in the east, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi in the south, and Arkansas and Missouri in the west.

With a tangled historical past that involves colonization and forced removal of native Americans, the War of 1812, slavery, the Civil War, prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, the civil rights movement, and a lesser known contribution to developing the first nuclear bomb in the hills of eastern Tennessee, the state of Tennessee has played a pivotal role in US history. Add to that its reputation as the birthplace for much of American music, and it’s easy to see how pivotal Tennessee is to American history, once you start digging deeper into its roots.

This post focuses on the Knoxville and Great Smoky Mountains region, with an emphasis on active adventure, plus Nashville – areas all accessible in a one-week visit renting a car, flying in and out of Nashville, or on a road trip in the region using your own vehicle.

The Great Smoky Mountains Region – should be #1 on your places to visit in Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park should be at the top of your list for places to visit in Tennessee. The park is one of the most popular national parks in the United States, and for good reason.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park signage

The ancient mountains, hills and valleys bear a lot of history and secrets. The crest of the Smokies forms the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina, bisecting the park from northeast to southwest in an unbroken chain that rises to more than 5,000ft for more than 36 miles. Elevation in the park ranges from 875ft to 6,643ft at the peak of the lookout at Clingmans Dome, just up from Newfound Gap, marking the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The park’s iconic vistas of blue-green mountains topped by smoky mists are beautiful and comforting at the same time.

When to visit

While the summer is one of the most popular times to visit the Great Smoky Mountains, the shoulder seasons offer beauty and less crowds. Springtime brings wildflower blooms in April/May, with pleasant temperature to hike, and remarkably few if any bugs (uncommon in more northern areas during the spring). During the fall the area is blanketed in autumn color, offering clear and crisp air, and no absent of threat of snow or icy conditions that can exist at higher elevations during the winter.

Both Knoxville and Maryville are the perfect accommodation base alternatives to the busier Pigeon Forge or town of Gatlinburg, where accommodations are also more expensive. They call it the “quiet side of the smokies” for a reason! Plus both Knoxville and Maryville have history of their own, and a real Tennessee local town feel, that you’re unlikely to experience in more tourist heavy areas.


A three hour drive from Nashville to Knoxville will only take you two hours, since crossing from the central to eastern time zone technically knocks an hour off the journey. Of course, this is also something to be remembered if you’re returning a rental car or catching a flight out of Nashville. Knoxville is steeped in history, as the first capital city of Tennessee, a title relinquished to Nashville in 1826. But it’s definitely one of the places to visit in Tennessee. Knoxville sits on the banks of the Tennessee River, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Beyond its rich history, being home to the University of Tennessee, and also the cradle of country music and craft breweries, Knoxville is also the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains and where much of the fresh water and active outdoor recreation is based in the area.


Maryville is a bedroom community of Knoxville, and the perfect gateway to sneak into the Smokies and avoid the general hubbub, traffic, congestion, and more expensive accommodations of Pigeon Forge. It will take you an hour to get from Maryville into the Great Smoky Mountains, but along the backroads you’ll get scenic views, mountain air, and the ability to stop at the Townsend visitors center for a map and parking pass for Great Smokies National Park. Entrance to the park is free, but a $5/day parking pass is required if you intend to stop in the park. In addition to avoiding the congestion of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the Townsend park entrance also provides quick access to Cades Cove, a popular, must see stop in the Smokies.

Accommodation on the quiet side of the Smokies

I stayed at both of these places during a recent trip to Maryville. I based out of Luxbury Inn and Suites while embarking on outdoor adventure activities in the Smokies. But I also was a guest at RT Lodge in Maryville during a business retreat.

RT Lodge, Maryville

Front view of RT Lodge in Maryville

RT Lodge is an unexpected gem, tucked away on the wooded campus of Maryville College. Seemingly right in town, it feels miles away with its lush grounds and mature tree canopy. It’s a secluded luxury resort, close to the mountains at an affordable price. The lodge has beautiful gardens, a koi pond, huge fire pit with rocking chairs, and includes free bikes to ride around campus and an amazing breakfast included in your stay. Book direct or through Expedia.

Luxbury Inn and Suites, Maryville

If you prefer a more traditional hotel, but one that feels like a home away from home, offering 1 bedroom apartment style accommodation, with kitchen and living room facilities, Luxbury Inn and Suites on the edge of town is great. And it’s extremely affordable. With a full breakfast included in the already reasonable price, it makes an excellent base for several days touring in the Smokies. Book through Expedia, or using the accommodations map below.

What to see in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There are many must see places to visit in Tennessee, and the Great Smoky Mountains in particular. Here are some suggested highlights:

Cades Cove loop

Historical and natural attractions are found side by side in Cades Cove. A flat mountain valley on the Townsend side of the park, it was a popular area even before the Smoky Mountain National Park was established. There’s evidence that Cherokee and Native Americans used Cades Cove for hunting and a way to travel through rough mountain terrain. Early homesteaders came to the area in the 1820s and by 1850 the population was 700, evidenced by remnants of churches, a school, gristmill and homes. In the 1920s the government bought Cades Cove land for the park.

Cades Cove - turn-off places to visit in Tennessee

Access to Cades Cove is along an 11 mile one-way loop road. Traffic moves slowly, oftentimes with people standing on the back of trucks, safari style with binoculars, on the look-out for wildlife. All bets are off for traffic movement if a bear or Momma and her cubs are spotted. Expect to see horses, bear, dear, a fox or two, and wild turkeys – who all remarkably seem to live in harmony in the grass lands fields of the cove.

A Church in Cades Cove

Horses in Cades Cove

Wild bears in Cades Cove

A fox in Cades Cove

If you’re staying in Maryville, you can easily access Cades Cove via the Townsend park entrance, which will spare you the congestion of more busy entrances. Because you can “sneak in the backdoor” to Cades Cove so easily, it’s possible to drive the loop late afternoon/early evening, which is a great time to spot wildlife, and still return to Maryville before sunset during the spring, just a one hour drive from Townsend.

Newfound Gap road

The Newfound Gap Road climbs 3,000 ft, traveling through various ecosystems from the creek bed hardwood forest, to the evergreen spruce-fir forest at the peak. There are various lookouts along the way (Sugarland Mountain, Chimney Tops, Morton Overlook), but eventually you’ll hit Newfound Gap at mile 13. Traffic can get busy on this twisty road, and not all drivers are comfortable with the excessive turns, so practice patience. Spring is less crowded, as are early mornings.

Sunrise Creek in Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Places to visit in Tennessee

North Carolina Tennessee State Line sign

Clingmans Dome lookout

Just 0.2 miles beyond Newfound Gap is the entrance to the 7 mile road that will take you to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park. While it yet more twists and turns to drive, as you climb in elevation, it’s definitely worth the drive.

Clingmans Dome walkway - Places to visit in Tennessee

You can admire the view from the parking lot outlook at Clingmans Dome, but if you wish to officially be “on top of old smoky” (cue childhood song memories), you’ll need to walk/hike up the paved road to the cement lookout that projects above the canopy. The trail, while paved for access, is steady and unrelenting for 0.5 miles. The physically fit will cruise along with an elevated heart rate and sweaty brow, but those not used to activity will definitely need rest stops.

Clingmans Dome Lookout

Vista from Clingmans Dome

Hikes in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

There are 850 miles of hiking trails in the Smokies. Only Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks have more trails. Hiking is a great way to experience the grandeur of the Smoky Mountains, and is an absolute must do activity for your list of places to visit in Tennessee. You can feel, smell and breath the mountain air, see wildflowers (especially in the spring), visit historic structures, waterfalls and streams, and experience the enchantment of highland balds.

Plus, depending on the trail you choose, you can hike along part of the Appalachian Trail, a trail that traverses 2,197 miles and 14 states, between Georgia and Maine along the eastern US. I note the more popular trails in the park below, including a segment of the Appalachian Trail. It can be accessed from Newfound Gap parking area.

Chestnut Top Trail

This strenuous 8.6 mile hike includes 1486 feet of elevation gain. It’s a beautiful trail in the spring with wild flowers blooming – think trilliums, wild iris, violets, in April. And May through June brings a beautiful display of mountain laurel, rhododendron and flame azaleas. This trail head is close to the park entrance from the Townsend side. The beauty of it is, you can simply hike up for as long as you want, and then return, not needing to do the entire route. Done this way it makes a great 1 hour up and 1 hour return, introduction to the park if you wish.

Chestnut Top Trail sign

Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies. The pathway is paved all the way to the falls. It’s a 2.6 mile return moderately easy hike/walk.

Rainbow Falls

This 5.4 mile round trip is strenuous, but the pay off of the out and back hike is Rainbow Falls, the longest single drop waterfall in the Smokies.

Chimney Tops

This 4 mile round trip hike is strenuous but rewarding, since it takes you to the rock formations known as the Chimneys.

Appalachian Trail

There is a 6 mile trail (3 miles up, and 3 miles return) from Newfound Gap parking lot, which takes you to the Icewater Spring Shelter, allowing you to experience the Appalachian Trail as a day hike visitor. You’ll also get an appreciation for the folks who do multi-day treks along the AT, if you meet them along the way. Many multi-day hikers leave their large packs and provisions at the shelter during the day.

Appalachian Trail sign

(For more detail and photos from this hike, check out “Day Hiking in Tennessee on the Appalachian Trail”)

Planning your time in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

There are several visitor centers for the park: Sugarlands Visitors Center, south of Gatlinburg, and the Gatlinburg Welcome Center, between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, being among the busiest.

Brochures, guides and maps are available in hardcopy or online at You can also download a visitor guide at or as an app. Once the app is on your phone it works without cell service, which is important, since many areas of the park are out of range. However, I recommend getting a hard copy park map ($1 at the visitor center). Plus you’ll likely be stopping there for a parking pass anyway!

Beyond the national park: places to visit in Tennessee

Outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park there is no shortage of additional interesting sites to see. I note a couple “must see” below.

Tail of the Dragon

There’s no shortage of curvy roads to drive in the Smokies, but for the ultimate thrill along a road that seems built simply for the pleasure of driving it, you can’t beat Hwy US129 that runs from North Carolina to Tennessee.

motorcycles at Tail of the Dragon

The 11 mile run includes 318 curves, banked turns, switchbacks and a runnel loop. Popular with motorcyclists and sports car drivers, anyone can drive it for the thrill. Just be cautious of traffic, blind corners, and the lack of guard rails with steep rocky embankments on both sides of the road.

U.S. 129 Dragon Harley-Davidson sign

The Tail of the Dragon is 60 miles south of Knoxville, and if you’re accessing it from there, the drive out to Tallassee, through rolling hills, farmland and a lake, is lovely before you tackle the 318 curves! To avoid traffic, and truly enjoy the thrill of driving this road, accessing it early morning is best. The Tail of the Dragon is definitely one of those places to visit in Tennessee!

Oak Ridge – one of the secret places to visit in tennessee

I mentioned earlier in this post that the Smokies have some hidden secrets. But did you know there is a secret town in the hills of Tennessee that helped create the atomic bomb?

Oak Ridge didn’t exist before 1942. The town was created by the US Military after they joined WW2, with the intent to create centers to exploit nuclear fission technology as part of the Manhattan Project. The US Military site in New Mexico is the most known, largely due to the Oppenheimer movie, but there were two others – Washington state and East Tennessee. The isolated hills in Tennessee were chosen for the proximity to roads and rail lines, ample electricity grid, and most importantly isolation that made it hard for spies to discover. If you’re looking for cool historical places of mystery, this is one of those places to visit in Tennessee.

The US government at the time took over the land, compensating those who lived there, and built facilities and the rest of Oak Ridge City in less than a year. Many involved didn’t know what was happening until after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. There was of course a cost to developing a bomb that caused so much death, and Oak Ridge continues to grapple with its role in the war. It’s impossible to walk away from here without a different perspective on the US and its history. People still use “Secret City” when speaking of Oak Ridge.

K-25 History Center in Oak Ridge

Located 23 miles north west of Knoxville, Oak Ridge is a curious piece of history to take in. If you only plan to make one Manhattan Project stop, make it the K-25 History Center. The museum tells the story of who constructed and operated the K-25 uranium enrichment complex.

Y-12 Oakridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge

Prior to 9/11 visitors were allowed drop in tours of Y-12, the Oakridge National Laboratory. Today casual visitors are not allowed on the campus of the nuclear plant without advanced reservations, and presumably security clearance.

If you are craving a little country music, one of the most authentic venues to be found in rural Tennessee is The Station in Louisville, only a 20 minute drive from Knoxville.

The Station in Louisville – a secret stop on your places to visit in tennessee

The Station is a live music venue located in an old barn out in the rolling hills of Louisville TN. On a large expansive property, away from town and pretty much any neighbor who could complain about noise, this venue often attracts bigger name acts coming to Nashville, looking for a small venue to try out new material. It also attracts old rock bands, past their glory days but well recognized, still looking for a place to play. The likes of Dolly Parton have even graced their stage.

The Station in Louisville - Places to visit in Tennessee

Their Facebook page boasts that “The Station is the south’s most unique and incredible sounding listening room for live Americana music.” I couldn’t agree more. The venue is not licensed, so patrons BYO, and pot luck dinner out back on the patio before the show. Special events and private gatherings are hosted there, with a local guy, and the help of his kids, serving up pulled pork BBQ, with beers on ice in a cooler. Check out their Facebook page here for upcoming events or sign up for their email list to be notified of upcoming acts traveling through town. The Station is as down home and authentic as it gets.

A performance at The Station in Louisville, TN

The owner, a country music and rock fan, also happens to be the country judge, so there’s not much chance of a police noise violation either. Concerts often sell out quickly. I saw the Chillbillies, a local favorite there,  in April 2024 and they was amazing!

Nashville City

You can be forgiven for thinking you’re in Vegas after seeing countless bridal party girls in their 20’s, with matching pink cowboy hats and boots, day drinking and dancing on the back of open air trucks cruising through town. It seems Nashville has become the “it” place to go, second only to Vegas, for a weekend of music and good times. But there’s a lot more to Nashville than matching cowboy hats.

Where to stay in Nashville

Staying within walking distance of the downtown is ideal. That said, the further away from Broadway honky tonks and other attractions like the Country Music Hall of Fame, the less expensive things generally get. I stayed at the Comfort Inn Downtown Nashville, at 1501 Demonbreun St, which was convenient just off the freeway, and had ample parking if you’re arriving with a rental car.

Nashville is where America goes to make music. It’s where tomorrows hits are written, performed and recorded. It’s where you can hear them played live on stage, at the Grand Ole Opry, the longest running live radio variety show in the country. But it’s also where you might just catch an up and coming act at one of the cities countless honky tonks. Honky tonk bars and restaurants featuring live bands all day long, line Broadway, and many off Broadway suburb venues. Admission is free, the price of beer reasonable, so be sure to toss some money in the hat for the band before leaving.

Must see stops in Nashville as part of your places to visit in Tennessee tour

For a detailed one day itinerary LINK HERE to read “Nashville Itinerary in 24 hours,” which expands on the venues listed here, with suggestions and tips.

Country Music Hall of Fame

Learn about country music’s complex roots, meshed with history, media influence and memorabilia. It’s the #1 must visit stop when visiting Nashville, next to the Grand Ole Opry!

Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame - Places to visit in Tennessee

Johnny Cash Museum

It looks like a small storefront, but this private museum holds a wealth of information on all things Johnny Cash. If you want to add to your country music history intake, this is a great additional stop after the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library

This permanent installation and powerful exhibit tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement, and the events that took place in Nashville in the 1950s and 1960s. Overlooked by many visitors, this exhibit is free, and packed full of history.

Votes for Women Room at the Nashville Public Library

This room opened in 2020 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, allowing women to vote in the US. Tennessee was the state that cast the final vote for ratification. If you’re visiting the Civil Rights Room, this exhibit is right across the way on the second floor. Also free and packed full of history.

Broadway honky-tonks

Most honk-tonks put the band up front close to the windows. Since windows are generally open, it’s hard not to hear and see the band, and the good time inside. Honky tonks are not hard to miss all along Broadway, so grab a beer and be sure to drop some money in the hat for the band on your way out.

If time allows, or if you’re staying away from the downtown core, locals brag that the best honky tonks, with oodles of less known up and coming talent, are located outside the touristy downtown. The Station Inn, along the Gulch area is one to check out, and there are numerous Honky Tonks in the Music Valley area, if you’re venturing out to the Grand Ole Opry region.

The Parthenon

Built in 1893 and refurbished in the 1920s, today the Parthenon remains one of Nashville’s most iconic buildings, and monument to the creativity and energy of the New South at the time, and to Nashville’s distinction as the Athens of the South.

The Parthenon Museum in Nashville, Tennessee

The Grand Ole Opry

The Grand Ole Opry has been a broadcast show since 1925. You can attend a live broadcast show twice a week Friday and Saturdays, or get a backstage tour any day of the week. Besides touring the Country Music Hall of Fame, this country music variety show should be the one other experience to definitely plan for when planning your Nashville visit.

A performance at the Grand Ole Opry

Nashville Itinerary in 24 hours

Day Hiking in Tennessee on the Appalachian Trail

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