Tennessee may not seem like your obvious first choice of destination for a family vacation. However, The Volunteer State has a lot going for it. There are so many amazing family friendly things to do in Tennessee from taking in the iconic music, beautiful national parks and of course food!
The state has been home to musical icons such as Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley, and is often considered the birthplace of country and blues. It has a rich well-preserved history and a range of fascinating museums and monuments. It’s also home to the Smoky Mountains and has a lot of natural beauty to offer.
All in all, there are a lot of great reasons to visit Tennessee. Below are just some of the best family activities to consider while on vacation in this state.
Explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of our favorite things to do in any destination is to check out the national parks. The go to thing to do in Tennessee for outdoor families is to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smoky Mountains are part of the Appalachian mountain range. They are a popular destination for hikers – the peaks of these mountains allow you to take in 360 views of the state from 6000ft up.
Some of the most popular viewpoints include Clingman’s Dome observation tower and Campbell Overlook. Getting up to the summit of these mountains isn’t too hard – in fact, you’ll find plenty of families with kids climbing the likes of Clingman’s Dome. Don’t forget to add Cades Cove Loop on your itinerary. No trip is complete without it.
Hiking isn’t the only way to explore the Smoky Mountains. Skiing is popular in the winter and there plenty of chairlifts for those that don’t want to climb up. Jeep tours are also popular across the Smoky mountains, helping you to cover a lot of distance. There’s even the option to zipline across The Smokies in Gatlinburg.
Many families choose to base themselves in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. There are lots of campsites in the area for those that don’t mind staying in a tent. Alternatively, there are more luxurious options such as cabin rentals with games rooms and hot tubs – you can click to read more about these types of accommodation here. You’ll also find family-friendly hotels in the area, including hotels catered specifically to skiing families in winter.
Check Out the Fun in Dollywood
Dollywood is an amusement park jointly owned by country legend Dolly Parton. This is a must-visit attraction for any family staying in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee – kids and adults are certain to enjoy the mixture of fun and folksy tradition on offer here.
The theme park contains over 50 rides including 9 rollercoasters. It also has an old steam railway and a water park. Visit at certain times of the year and you may also be able to catch concerts and theatre performances here.
You can stay on the theme park grounds or you can book accommodation nearby. Accommodation within Dollywood is more expensive but does give you the convenience of having all the rides on your doorstep.
See the Sights in Nashville
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage is one of its most popular historical landmarks. This large estate was home to president Andrew Jackson from 1804 until his death – it’s well-preserved and has some stunning gardens.
You can also visit The Parthenon in Nashville! This monument is an exact replica of ancient Parthenon in Greece and is a stunning piece of architecture.
There are also many attractions dedicated to Nashville’s musical past that are worth visiting. This includes esteemed venue The Grand Ole Opry and fascinating museum The Country Music Hall of Fame. Book your trip at the right time and you may even be able to see a live country performance in the city.
Ride a Steam Train Along the Tennessee Valley Railroad
The Tennessee Valley Railroad is one of the world’s most scenic and historic railway routes. On top of learning about the railroad’s past at the local museum, it’s still possible to ride an authentic steam train along this railroad – the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Kids and adults alike are certain to get a thrill out of this attraction.
For easy access to this attraction, it could be worth staying in the town of Chattanooga. There are several family hotels here where you can stay the night, while also taking the opportunity to explore the town itself.
Delve into the Past of Memphis
There are several museums and records studios here that are dedicated to Memphis’ musical past including Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. Sun Studio is also well worth a visit – the place where Elvis Presley recorded his first single at the age of 18.
Then of course there is Elvis’s own mansion, Graceland, located in Memphis. Here you can take a tour of the musician’s home, as well as visiting various museums dedicated to exhibits including his collection of cars and planes.
Apart from the musical past of Memphis, the city is steeped in the history of the civil rights movement that is well worth taking the time to explore. The National Civil Rights Museum is a must visit.
And of course, don’t forget to also try out the food in Memphis while you’re there. It is some of the best southern comfort food you can find anywhere!
Take a Trip to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge
We have visited the Titanic museum in Northern Ireland, but hey, why not also visit one here in United States! The real question is just why there is a Titanic Museum in Tennessee, but I can’t solve that mystery. However, if you can overlook its strange location, the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge is well worth a visit (and certain to be a highlight for kids). It’s the biggest Titanic museum in the world and is built inside a half-size replica of the boat itself in which you can get a real-life sense of what it was like to be on board this boat. The boat is even submerged in water to give you a sense that you are actually in the sea.
Pigeon Forge is a popular place to stay for those exploring the Smoky Mountains – the Titanic Museum could be the ideal attraction for those that need a break from all the outdoor adventures in the area.
Learn About Tennessee’s Military Past
Tennessee played an important part in the American Civil War. Many of the war’s volunteer soldiers for both the South and the North hailed from Tennessee (hence the name ‘The Volunteer State’). It was also the location of several significant battles.
Tourists can pay tribute to those that fell during the battle by visiting the various military parks in the area including Shiloh National Military Park and Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park. Fort Donelson National Battlefield is also a popular location to visit – at this location you’ll find an original fort, a visitor center and a cemetery memorializing those that fought in the war.
The military parks are spread out across the state. Those specifically wanting to visit Fort Donelson National Battlefield may want to stay in Dover or Nashville (you’ll find a greater range of accommodation in Nashville).
Explore the Caves of Sweetwater
Kids will love exploring the magical caves of Sweetwater. It is here you will find The Lost Sea – the largest underwater lake in the US. Boat trips are available across this lake where you can learn about the natural and historical significance of the caves (it was here that gunpowder was mined during the American Civil War).
There are many family-friendly lodges available to stay at in and around Sweetwater. The city of Knoxville is also within driving distance and could be another place to base oneself.
Go Back in Time at the Museum of Appalachia
This living history museum is a recreation of 19th century and early-20th century Appalachia. Thousands of historic exhibits can be found here, including various pieces of folk art and historic tools. Tours are conducted every day of the week – a southern style buffet is included with access.
This is a great attraction to visit while exploring the Smoky Mountains, giving you a chance to better understand its history.
Go Shopping and Dining in Knoxville
The historic town of Knoxville is also worth visiting while in Tennessee. It’s market square dates back to the 1860s and is home to many chic restaurants, cafes, bars and independent shops. Food tours are popular here too – this is a great chance to try some of the state’s best BBQ dishes. Kids won’t get bored as there are plenty of family-friendly restaurants.
You’ll find plenty of family accommodation in knoxville including hotels and rentals. The town could be a great base for seeing various other attractions within the state (The Smoky Mountains are only an hour’s drive away, while the Museum of Appalachia is only a stone’s throw away).
This just touches the surface of all the things to do in Tennessee, but gives you a good base to start planning your adventures.
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