1. Knoxville & the Smokies
Tourism in the central portion of East Tennessee is no small affair. But often when people venture to this section of the Volunteer State, it’s to stay in the tourism boomtowns of Sevier County, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Now look, Dolly Parton is a living saint and you should absolutely pay homage at her theme park, Dollywood. And beyond that, who doesn’t love a bit of mini-golf and souvenir airbrushed t-shirt shopping?
But other options remain. There is, of course, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And for a getaway that mixes that Smoky Mountain nature with a surprisingly urbane small city, consider staying on the western edge of the region in Knoxville.
Knoxville’s one of those small cities with cultural and entertainment offers seemingly of a city twice its size. The lively downtown centers around Market Square and Gay Street, and you’ll find everything from locally brewed beers to restaurants ranging from Middle Eastern to French to Mediterranean. Knoxville’s also a great music city, anchored by two beautiful theaters. If you get a chance to see a show in the larger Tennessee Theater or the smaller Bijou, it’s well worth it. Another well-worth-it live musical experience is the Blue Plate Special. Hosted by local Americana radio station WDVX, the intimate noon shows feature different live acts from around East Tennessee and beyond.
All the nature you’ll need is on your doorstep in the mountains, but more city-based nature is also worth a visit at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum. The 47-acre gardens sit on the site of a former nursery and feature grey brick buildings among a number of different styles of garden. But eventually, you’ll want to get out into the nature that brings people to East Tennessee. Knoxville’s a convenient base for hiking or other pleasures in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park begins just about due south of the city and sprawls east into North Carolina. US 321 offers a direct and scenic route from Knoxville into the park via Townsend, a town on the park’s border that’s popular with tourists without offering the sensory overload of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. (Townsend borders one of the park’s three main entrances; the others, near Gatlinburg and Cherokee, North Carolina, are surrounded by much more development.) Townsend is also home to the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, which includes a replica of an old Appalachian village.
Chattanooga is a tourist destination with some buzz around it. As well it should be – this city on the banks of the Tennessee River offers family fun, culture and spectacular scenery.
Art might not be the first thing that draws you to Chattanooga, but a visit to the Hunter Museum of American Art might change that idea. Its location is dramatic – on a downtown bluff overlooking the river – and the museum lives up to the locale. It is housed in several adjacent buildings including an impressive 21st-century hall and an early 20th-century mansion. And it’s fully a campus; in addition to the art, you’ll want to make time to stroll the blufftop grounds.
Chattanooga’s also a great live music city, with a venue-full downtown and plenty of concerts and festivals throughout the year. Check out Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant for Southern cuisine, laid-back vibes and cool bands most nights.
But some of the best days in and around Chattanooga come from combining its urbane qualities with its natural charms. The city’s Riverwalk path offers 13 miles of views and nature right in the city. Just a little ways out, you can find any number of vistas, including the famous Lookout Mountain. There you can ride the Incline Railway or do what so many signs across America tell you to do and See Rock City. (The destination’s ubiquitous roadside signs aside, it is an interesting destination atop the mountain featuring rock formations, gardens and a bit of fun tourist kitsch in the form of the Mother Goose Village and Fairyland Caverns.) The boast is that from the top of Lookout Mountain, you can see seven states – although once you’ve seen East Tennessee, you’ll have all you can handle in just one.
In Tennessee’s far northeastern corner, near the borders with Kentucky and Virginia, sits a region that, among other things, is known for helping birth American country music.
The tri-cities of the name are Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport. Tourism in the region is largely based around Bristol, thanks in no small part to the city’s role in the history of country music. In 1927, music producer Ralph Peer came through Bristol on a tour of the South. He was looking for musicians to record for the newfangled recording industry, and he found them in Bristol. A number of early country singers, most notably including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, recorded in Bristol. Today Bristol bills itself as the “Birthplace of Country Music,” an honorific bestowed on it by Congress in 1998.
As you might expect from a place with such a history, it’s got tourism options for country music fans. The Smithsonian-affiliated Birthplace of Country Music Museum features interactive exhibits and also hosts a radio station and annual music festival.
Johnson City also offers a fun, lively downtown and some unique history. The city’s nickname, Little Chicago, dates to Prohibition when it was a rail hub and useful middle ground between New York, Miami and, well, Big Chicago. Today you won’t see quite as much Capone-style bootlegging, although an annual Little Chicago Downtown Music & Arts Festival mixes that history with all sorts of fun events. Today’s grownup drinks are of the decidedly legal variety; the downtown boasts a number of breweries alongside independent shops and interesting restaurants.