Beale Street in Memphis TN
Photo Credit: Jeff Adkins, Journal Communications Inc.

Urban Cities in Tennessee You Have to Explore

Tennessee provides some of the best urban area experiences for travelers.

Each of Tennessee’s major cities has something interesting and unique to offer, from attractions and dining to music and family memories. 

East Tennessee


The Appalachian Trail cuts through the Tri-Cities, so it’s no surprise much of the fun in Northeast Tennessee centers around being outside. Kingsport has an 8-mile, paved Greenbelt Linear Park that’s ideal if you’re a cyclist or runner, as well as the 44-acre Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium if you’re curious to learn more about your surroundings through the observatory and animal habitats. 


Sevierville lays claim to a charming downtown square whose residents include floral and interior design shop D Garden, the restaurant Graze Burgers and the boutique Sweet Peas & Ivy. But it’s the ample outdoor opportunities – from horseback riding in the valley surrounding the Smokies to zipping over a deep canyon at Foxfire Mountain – that remain Sevierville’s biggest selling points. More can’t-miss stops: the Tennessee Museum of Aviation, Rocky Top Wine Trail and Sevier Distilling Company


With the nation’s most visited national park just beyond its borders, Gatlinburg sees millions of visitors each year who come for spring and fall foliage and a drive along Foothills Parkway or Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Sticking closer to town? Check out Ole Smoky and Sugarlands distilleries, get a short stack at one of the many pancake restaurants or shop all day at one of the unique stores. Don’t miss Anakeesta with its Chondola, dueling ziplines, Vista Gardens and Firefly Village; Ober Gatlinburg amusement park and ski area; or Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies for penguins, exotic fish and the fan-favorite glass tunnel. Last but not least, take in the view on the city’s new SkyBridge at Gatlinburg SkyPark. The bridge, at 680 feet, is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the U.S. 


Johnson City turned 150 in 2019 and is enjoying its time in the limelight, thanks to mindful downtown development and the growing popularity of Yee-Haw Brewing, which also has outposts in Nashville and Pigeon Forge and can be found in brew halls across the South. The taproom is located in a historic railroad depot conveniently close to the Tweetsie Trail, a rail-to-trail project that has repurposed a 10-mile stretch between Johnson City and Elizabethton into a greenway, biking and walking path. The downtown is vibrant with small-town charm populated by bike shops, antiques, locally made crafts, bars and restaurants. 


Race right into the area’s deep-rooted culture in music with a visit to Bristol and The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which showcases how the genre developed from the Bristol Sessions in 1927. Of course, no experience to the northeastern city is complete without a tour of Bristol Motor Speedway, which hosts NASCAR events throughout the year, the biggest being the Food City 500 every April and the night races in August. Plan to attend special events at Thunder Valley Amphitheatre at Bristol Dragway to hear some of music’s biggest names. 


Pigeon Forge is Dolly Parton’s domain, and aside from her eponymous Dollywood theme park – which features the new Wildwood Grove and the ethereal DreamMore Resort & Spa, her dinner show offerings have also grown with the addition of Pirates Voyage. Round out your weekend with indoor snow tubing at Pigeon Forge Snow, a Pink Jeep Tour that takes you through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and off-roading, a visit to The Mountain Mile or stop by these two fascinating museums – Alcatraz East Crime Museum and Beyond the Lens! Family Fun.


Explore the cool city of Knoxville.
Photo Credit: @caitlani9

The University of Tennessee has long been the epicenter of Knoxville’s social activity, but nowadays that can also be found along the Tennessee River in Market Square and the adjoining Old City, both of which have a plethora of new shops, restaurants and bars. That revitalization has now crossed the train tracks, as well, thanks to the addition of spots like The Mill & Mine, a concert and event venue; the Central Filling Station, a family-and-pet-friendly, full-service food-truck park occupying an old gas station; and a number of breweries such as Crafty Bastard, Elkmont Exchange and Schulz Bräu. 


Chattanooga is framed in a striking setting of limestone cliffs and a curvy stretch of the Tennessee River. Long known for Ruby Falls, Rock City, the Tennessee Aquarium and Lookout Mountain, this hip river town is a stronghold of outdoor attractions in addition to being a rich hub for the arts. The NorthShore and Bluff View neighborhoods offer galleries, independent shops and public art. Don’t miss the Southside Historic District, home to the iconic Chattanooga Choo Choo and a plethora of entertainment options on Station Street. 

Middle Tennessee


Franklin has hit its stride offering visitors a mix of history (Civil War sites like Carnton are a must), spirits (H Clark and Leiper’s Fork distilleries will keep your thirst quenched!), top-notch food (try 55 South, Gray’s on Main, and Red Pony), handmade goods (both Main Street and The Factory at Franklin are full of locally made treasures) and new development like the 231 Public Square Building and the Harpeth Hotel. For a sampler of Franklin’s artisan culture, take a trip down the Masters & Makers Trail, which winds its way through Leiper’s Fork, Franklin, Thompson’s Station, Arrington and Nolensville


The Murfreesboro area has added several new offerings such as Hop Springs Beer Park, a brewery concept with concert space, a disc golf course, a dog park, hiking trails and special events galore (like an ice-carving festival!). The city is also heavy on Civil War history, with sites like Stones River National Battlefield, a must-add to your itinerary, and green space such as Murfree Spring and Barfield Crescent Park. Want a taste of the days of old? Visit Historic Cannonsburgh Village, which re-creates a century of Tennessee life from the 1830s to 1930s. 


In warmer months, Clarksville is a mecca for outdoor adventures. The city is home to Dunbar Cave State Park, once owned by Roy Acuff, who hosted all the big bands of the 1940s for Saturday night dances – and it’s just 4 miles from downtown. Nowadays, the 144-acre park has year-round events like a hummingbird and butterfly festival, as well as guided tours and hiking trails. Clarksville also has an abundance of architectural gems, from grand antebellum homes to the art deco-style Roxy Regional Theatre, which is a great place to see films, plays and art exhibits. 


The Nashville of new has glitzy accommodations like the JW Marriott, Margaritaville Hotel, Noelle and Bobby Hotel that dot the downtown skyline. There’s no shortage of restaurants and bars (a number of them with a country star’s name attached to it) on Lower Broadway. Spend some time in other outlying areas in trendy neighborhoods like the Gulch, the Nations and 12 South to soak up the local vibe. Splashy street art can be found around every corner and alley, thanks to local artist collectives. 


Hey, cavers! Did you know thousands of caves are located within a 50-mile radius of Cookeville, especially surrounding Pickett and Rock Island state parks? If caving isn’t your thing, head out to Monterey, Tennessee's Bee Rock, a scenic overlook from where the Native Americans used to gather honey, or visit one of the area’s scenic waterfalls. Downtown, Cookeville’s Depot Museum tells the story of Putnam County’s railroad history. Before you head out for your adventure, fuel up in one of the many restaurants in the downtown district. 

West Tennessee


On the way from Nashville to Memphis, Jackson was home to rockabilly superstar Carl Perkins and is the site of The Legends of Tennessee Music Museum at The Carnegie, a museum dedicated to telling the story of how moonshine, blues and country fused together into the distinctly American sound of rock ’n’ roll. This quaint town, in addition to hosting free outdoor concerts at the Amphitheater at the Market (or AMP), was also the home of Casey Jones, a legendary railroad engineer who died in the days of steam-powered locomotion and now has a village in his memory with a museum and Brooks Shaw’s Old Country Store, which includes an ice-cream parlor and gift shop. 


Memphis turned 200 years old in 2019, and the new century of soul continues to bring a variety of musical options – from 50 free shows annually at the iconic Overton Park Shell to the blues clubs that line Beale Street. Arts lovers will want to get tickets to a play at Hattiloo Theatre and Playhouse on the Square or attend a dance performance at Ballet Memphis. Neighborhoods worth a visit include downtown, Overton Square, Midtown and Cooper-Young. Don’t leave town without exploring the mixed-use Crosstown Concourse, with its abundance of free public art and diverse food options, and the National Civil Rights Museum, which interprets four centuries of American civil rights stories.

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