Things to Do in Tennessee
Taking you on a journey from a mountain stream to the sea, the Tennessee Aquarium is spread across two buildings—one focused on rivers and the other on oceans. In both, you can discover an array of exhibits highlighting habitats, native creatures, threats, and conservation strategies.
In the kitschy Smokey Mountain town of Gatlinburg, the family-owned and operated Mysterious Mansion is a haunted dwelling that has delighted in frightening visitors year-round since 1980. The three-story Victorian mansion on River Road, a block from the entrance road to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, incorporates antique shop finds, fake bloody skulls, live actors, fog machines and strobe lights to catch visitors off-guard. Tours of the mansion are always self-guided and not recommended for very young children.
The labyrinthine interior includes secret passageways, creaking staircases and rooms of gore carefully curated by the descendants of the house’s original owners. Visitors rave about the frighteningly passionate live actors, but lament that the scares don’t last longer – tours take an average of 15 to 20 minutes.
From Elvis Presley to Dolly Parton, Nashville's stars have earned the city its title as “Music City,” and you can dive into that history and culture at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Learn about the best of this classic American music genre with historic video clips, recorded music, and a menu of live performances and public programs.
Music City’s lively downtown doesn’t disappoint. Nashville’s entertainment hub is home to a who’s who of restaurants, hotels, and cultural hot spots, including the Frist Art Museum, Country Music Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium, and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. After dark, live music takes over the bars of Honky Tonk Highway.
Have you ever wondered what it was like aboard the RMS Titanic? Wonder no longer. At the Titanic museum, a two-story museum built half-scale (in a pool, to create the illusion of the big ship at sea), you can take a 2-hour self-guided tour designed to give you the sensation of being an original passenger on the ship’s 1912 maiden voyage. As you enter, you’ll be given a boarding ticket. Your ticket has the name and travelling class of one of the ill-fated ship’s actual passengers, whose story you will learn as you pass through the museum.
At the end of the tour in the Titanic Memorial Room you’ll have a chance to check if your boarding pass belonged to a shipwreck survivor, or to one of the less-fortunate passengers. Because more than half of the Titanic’s two-thousand-plus survivors perished, the likelihood of ‘your’ survival is fairly low. (Young children are issued boarding passes that belonged to survivors, as to not totally bum them out.) The museum, which is the largest permanent Titanic museum in the world, holds 400 pre-discovery artefacts (a.k.a. belongings that were recovered floating in the water) in twenty galleries. The personal natures of the items on display closely tie into the individual stories represented at the museum. In the interactive exhibits you’ll get a real feeling for what it might have been like as a passenger on that ship.
Known as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” Ryman Auditorium helped transform Nashville into a legendary music destination. Since 1892, the venue has hosted notable stars such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, and Minnie Pearl. Today, visitors can tour the 2,362-seat auditorium, visit the museum, or catch a live show.
Built around the former Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the National Civil Rights Museum immediately emits its cultural and historical significance to all who visit. Exhibits chronicle some of the most important episodes of the Civil Rights Movement, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Little Rock Nine, Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and the famous sit-ins of the 1960s.
From 1920 to 1940, artists descended on Beale Street to collaborate, creating a new music style that blended smooth jazz with hard-charging rock 'n' roll. This mix eventually gave birth to the blues, a new and distinctly American genre of music that gradually made its way into the United States' pop culture mainstream. A visit to today's Beale Street, now a U.S. National Historic Landmark District, allows travelers to check out the blues clubs that served as the launching sites for some of the most famous American blues musicians of all time.
A veritable icon of music and a Memphis landmark, Sun Studio is known as the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll. In fact, the very first rock single, “Rocket 88,” was recorded here in 1951, when it was called the Memphis Recording Service. The former recording studio’s musical heritage—made famous thanks to the superstardom of artists such as Elvis and Johnny Cash—and collection of one-of-a-kind memorabilia makes for an unforgettable stop in Memphis.
The second most-visited home in the United States (behind only the White House), Graceland was home to Elvis Presley during the height of his career. Although the rock ’n’ roll singer and pop culture icon died in the white-columned mansion in 1977 at the age of 42, touring the wacky rooms of this 17,552-square-foot (1,630-square-meter) estate offers insight into the mind of The King, who is buried in the estate's Meditation Gardens.
More Things to Do in Tennessee
Peabody Hotel has some unique permanent guests in the famous "Peabody Ducks," who live on the hotel’s rooftop and perform a march toward the Grand Lobby twice daily. The tradition dates to 1933 when the general manager returned from a hunting trip and placed several live duck decoys in the hotel’s fountain. The guests’ positive response prompted their stay.
No trip to Memphis, Tennessee—often called the birthplace of rock and roll—would be complete without learning about its music history, and the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum is just the place. Originally a Smithsonian Institute research project, the collection focuses not only on the music itself, but also the artists and socio-economic and racial struggles that led to its creation.
Nashville’s Riverfront Park was built in the early 1980s on the site where the area’s first settlers founded the city back in 1780. Today the sprawling green enclave on the banks of the Cumberland River is home to several attractions, including Fort Nashborough, Bicentennial Park, and the Ascend Amphitheater.
A. Schwab is a dry goods store that has become a local landmark and Memphis institution. Since being opened in 1876, the store has transformed from a men’s clothing and goods shop to a collection of seemingly every item imaginable. It is the only remaining original business on Beale Street.
With two floors of displays filled with everything from regional arts and crafts to historic books, records, and artifacts, it is only fitting that the Beale Street Museum, located on a small balcony above the first floor, is also housed here. A. Schwab even has quirky memorabilia such as love potions and corn cob pipes. The store’s creaky wooden floors, dim lighting and original architectural details keep the building’s historic feel, making a visit feel like a step back in time. Their motto is “if you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re better off without it.”
This one-and-a-half story historic red brick house was built in 1830 and once served as the home to Fountain Branch Carter. And while it once served as the residence and farm of this iconic local, it later became the sights of a truly historic battle.
Visitors who make a stop at this popular destination will learn about the transformation of this historic home into a civil war headquarters in 1864, when 20,000 Confederates attacked. Tours are available for travelers who want to witness history come to life, and include an inside look at the plantation, its grounds and the houses that are stationed within its borders.
Lavish cream and green marble floors and wall paneling, high ceilings with and cast iron doors surround guests with the art deco charm of the Nashville’s original post office completed in 1934. The historically significant building kept its original charm through a public/private partnership-driven revamp into the non-profit Frist Art Museum in 2001. The space now holds art exhibitions, interactive art workshops as well as a gift shop and café.
The Frist is a different kind of museum that does not have permanent collections. Instead, it sources a host of themed exhibits that roll through every six to eight weeks. Traveling national and international shows including classical pieces by Michelangelo and Monet have hung on Frist walls, as have collections of American folk art, modern photography, European classical works from the age of exploration and even an exhibit deconstructing Italian sports car design. The building’s 24,000 square feet of gallery space includes 30 interactive stations on the upper level for kids and families to get creative and make their own stop motion animation, printmaking, watercolor painting, etching, sculpture creation and more—some of these stations also rotate to match visiting exhibits. In the summer, Frist Fridays bring bands—also often tied to exhibit themes—to jam at the museum, and live music features year-round on Thursdays and Fridays in the Grand Lobby or café. Be sure to check what’s on before stopping by—it’s a new experience every time.
Though it is hundreds of miles from the coast, this large aquarium is home to more than 10,000 sea creatures and over 350 different marine species. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies’ large size makes it a main attraction for the area, and it is said that there are more fish in the aquarium than people living in Gatlinburg.
Oceanic habitats on view include coral reefs, open seas, tropical rain forests and lagoons, while specialty animal habitats were created for sharks, rays and penguins. There is also an interactive “touch a ray” bay, a discovery center for children and a systems control tour that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how the aquarium runs Live shows featuring scuba divers and animal feedings take place daily.
No trip to Nashville is complete without a visit to Music Row. This is the home of the country music industry, with a slew of record labels, radio stations, and recording studios working side-by-side. There are also live venues on or near Music Row, to check out established artists as well as up-and-comers looking to break through.
Like New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the lush green landscape of Nashville’s Centennial Park provides welcome refuge from congestion, crowds, and bustling city life. The most notable, and possibly most out-of-place, feature of Centennial Park is its impressive Parthenon replica.
The Tennessee State Capitol stands tall on Nashville’s highest hill as a symbol of its time, virtually unchanged since its construction in 1859. The structure is the masterpiece of notable architect William Strickland, who passed away during construction and was laid to rest in the building. The National Historic Landmark was built in Greek Revival style and is one of few state capitols without a dome. It was modeled after an Ionic Greek temple. Though classic in design, at the time it was considered innovative in construction.
The capitol building is beautiful to see and historic to visit, with statues of many important political figures as well as the graves of President James K. Polk and his wife. Its walls are lined with beautiful murals, frescoes, and paintings, while its halls are lit by ornate chandeliers. It is still in use by the Tennessee state government today. It is the oldest operating state capitol in the country.
Pigeon Forge visitors looking for dinner and a show won't be disappointed with the live musical performances at the Grand Majestic Dinner Theater. Choose from three tribute shows, which cover genres ranging from Motown to country, and upgrade your ticket to include a large all-you-can-eat buffet dinner before the show.
The Gatlinburg Museum is home to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium, where “truth is stranger than fiction.” The museum boasts a collection of bizarre artifacts from all over the world spread over three floors, 16 galleries and 12,500 square feet. Visitors will find everything from an authentic shrunken head to the world’s rarest egg, two-headed animals, a spinning vortex tunnel and other unique works of art. See a 12-foot Transformer statue created from scrap metal parts, or view the authentic 19th-century vampire killing kit. There are over 500 exhibits, artworks and interactive displays that celebrate the strange and exotic.
At Belle Meade Historic Site & Winery, you can experience a sanctuary of Southern hospitality. Located just west of downtown Nashville, Tennessee, this historic site now functions as a museum and is a popular food and wine destination.
First occupied in 1807 and continually expanded throughout the 19th century, Belle Meade became world renowned as a first-rate thoroughbred horse-breeding establishment. Though a variety of tours and experiences are offered, the history of Belle Meade is covered in two tours: The Mansion Tour tells a century of Belle Meade’s history through the eyes of the Harding and Jackson families as well as the women, men, and children who labored here and contributed to the preeminence of this site. The Journey to Jubilee Tour, invites discussion and focuses on the enslaved individuals, telling their story both before and after emancipation. Book your tour online to guarantee entry.
The Grand Ole Opry began as a radio broadcast in 1925 and is now a world-renowned stage show in Nashville, Tennessee, where hundreds of stars have begun their careers. It’s the longest-running radio show in the US, showcasing the genres of country, bluegrass, folk, comedy, and gospel both live and on the radio. Unlike a typical concert, the Grand Ole Opry presents six or more artists during each show, giving the audience a variety of great music to enjoy at one event. Superstars who have performed here include Patsy Cline, Blake Shelton, Willie Nelson, and Carrie Underwood.
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