You’re going to Tennessee. Your itinerary likely includes the Country Museum Hall of Fame, the historic Ryman Theater, Nashville’s bustling main drag, Graceland. But would you believe there is so much more to the Volunteer State than just sites Graceland and country music? There are dozens of underrated attractions here, which is why we put together our list of the 30 best overlooked attractions in Tennessee.
Adventure Science Center
There may be a ton to see and do in Nashville, but we’re still surprised that this fun museum is as underrated as it is. A favorite among locals, but practically unknown to visitors, the museum is chock-full of hands-on activities and fascinating exhibits on topics ranging from the human body to space. Best of all, it’s fun for all ages!
Bell Buckle is the type of small town that just bursts with southern charm. It’s worth a stop for a stroll down the main drag, which is lined with locally owned restaurants and an impressive collection of antique stores. If you’re around in June, check the calendar for the famous Moon Pie and RC Cola Festival — easily one of Tennessee’s best community gatherings.
The Bell Witch Cave
Fans of ghost stories and haunted sites won’t want to miss the Bell Witch Cave. This infamous cave, which has been called one of America’s most haunted places, offers tours to those who are brave enough to take a peek. Even if you don’t quite have the courage to enter the cave, the former Bell farm is still worth a visit — though they say the former cabins are haunted, too. The farm once belonged to the family of John Bell, who was apparently choked by the Bell Witch and then haunted when the spirit would drag chains through their house all night.
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is Tennessee’s answer to Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland area. Consisting of 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau, this beautiful park offers visitors a seemingly endless amount of beautiful scenery, including gorges, 10,000-year old sandstone bluffs, natural swimming holes, and of course, the river. Visitors can see what they want of the area by taking advantage of the park’s well-organized amenities, which include five campgrounds and dozens of trail options.
For those interested in experiencing a genuine slice of Tennessee, Bristol makes for the perfect stopover. Located near the Virginia border in the easternmost part of the state, the town of Bristol is home to a number of attractions including the Bristol White Sox, an R-league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox; King College; a number of sites associated with Bristol’s history as the “birthplace of country music”; and the Bristol Motor Speedway, a NASCAR short track and the 8th largest sports venue on earth.
Burgess Falls State Park
Situated along the Falling Water River, Burgess Falls State Park makes for the perfect spot for a picnic and maybe a bit of fishing. It’s also home to some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state. To see the most impressive of the falls, visitors can take the 1.5-mile moderately difficult River Trail, while the nearby half-mile Ridge Top Trail also provides nice views of the river itself.
Casey Jones Village
This charming “town” and overlooked attraction honors Jonathan Luther “Casey” Jones, the heroic railroader who became a legend when he sacrificed himself to lessen the impact of a train crash. Visitors to this historic village will find an interesting railroad museum and Casey’s little white house, as well as an Old Country Store, an ice cream shop straight out of the 1890s, and a gift shop.
Elmwood Cemetery is more than just a graveyard; it’s a 19th-century monument to the history of the city of Memphis. Of the many mass burial sites at Elmwood, No Man’s Land holds approximately 1,500 unidentified victims of a yellow fever outbreak that killed about 5,000 people in 1878, while another site has approximately 1,000 Confederate soldiers, and yet another acts as the final resting ground for hundreds of former slaves. The cemetery is a fascinating place to visit, and some time spent exploring will yield the final resting places of myriad blues musicians, governors, Civil War generals, and lots of impressive Victorian-era sculptures.
Don’t wait for a rainy day to visit The Frist Museum in Nashville. This beautiful museum is home to an impressive — and totally overlooked — collection that is worth a visit at any time of year, though it also hosts national and international exhibitions on a variety of topics. Interested visitors should check the calendar on The Frist’s website for upcoming events.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Head east and you’ll find the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which Tennessee shares with its neighboring state of North Carolina. Believe it or not, it’s the most visited national park in the United States, and a great place to spend a long weekend. The park is home to Cades Cove, a beautiful natural sight and worth the trek, as well as picnicking areas, hiking trails, cycling paths, horse trails, lakes for fishing, and campgrounds, among other things.
John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge
Though it’s one of Nashville’s most photographed sites, few people take full advantage of all the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge has to offer. Escape the hordes of people on Broadway and take a stroll across the bridge on a nice day. Not only does it provide for a beautiful walk, but the views of the Nashville skyline are postcard-perfect.
The Lost Sea is quite a sight, and not only because it’s the country’s largest underground lake. Visitors will start their tour above ground (check out the cool rocks), then head down a long tunnel into the cave. Over the course of a 3/4-mile walk, a knowledgeable guide describes the various features of the lake, including the cave’s unique “cave flowers,” before the group finally reaches what it is they’ve come to see. Once you’re out on the lake in your boat, get ready: when the lights go off, all you’ll hear is the splashing of fish all around you. If you’re really into caves, visitors can spend the night here and explore other parts of this magnificent place.
Head to this chic neighborhood off of West End for what might just be the best view of the Nashville skyline. The 360-degree view is a great place to take visitor photos, as you can see just about everything from up here: skyscrapers, forests, city sprawl, and all. Just be aware: the winding road up the hill is an adventure all on its own.
A view of seven different states all at once? It’s worth the trek up Lookout Mountain! Head up to Lover’s Leap on a clear day, and you’ll be rewarded with a view of seven southern states, including the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, and as far as Kentucky and Virginia. For the best views, you’ll have to cross the precariously named Swing-A-Long bridge, an experience in and of itself.
It’s been called one of the best zoos in the country, and yet the Memphis Zoo remains one of Tennessee’s best overlooked attractions. From its imposing Egyptian-inspired entrance to its charming residents (we especially recommend the lions and the pandas), the Memphis Zoo is a fantastic place to spend a day enjoying — especially if you’re in Memphis and have already visited Graceland.
Museum of East Tennessee History
If you see the name Museum of East Tennessee History and think snooze fest, we think you’re in for a big surprise. This fascinating museum has tons of artifacts from the United States’ earliest days, plus such unique finds as a Virginia Road Wagon, a 1903 Cadillac, an actual log cabin, and Davy Crockett’s rifle. There’s also an interesting exhibit about the heritage of Appalachian Tennessee.
National Civil Rights Museum
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, making Tennessee a great place to learn a thing or two about the Civil Rights Movement. Located in the Lorraine Motel, the place Dr. King was killed, the museum constructs an interesting timeline of the history of the Movement, as well as providing information about the lives of Dr. King and other notable figures.
The little city of Oak Ridge was founded by the U.S. government in 1942 as a headquarters of sorts for the Manhattan Project. Within three years, the city’s population was 75,000 employee residents, who lived with their families and enjoyed such utopian amenities as organized leisure activities, a community swimming pool, a library, a town orchestra, and even swing dancing nights. Though these citizens knew they were helping the war effort in some way, most of them did not realize exactly how until the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. Today, visitors can tour this oddly creepy place or enjoy the Secret City Festival that occurs every June.
The Pink Palace
The Pink Palace is probably not what you’re expecting. Rather, it’s a collection of museums including a nature center, a science museum, a cultural-history museum, a planetarium, two historic homes, and an IMAX theater. Fun and affordable, the Pink Palace is a fantastic place to spend a day or two exploring and learning with the family.
Rock City’s Rainbow Hall puts a fun twist on what it means to see a city. Through innovative uses of windows, colored gel, and other simple materials, visitors to Rainbow Hall can see what the city of Chattanooga and some of Tennessee’s other famous sites would look like with purple or green air, and other uniquely colorful features.
RCA Studio B
RCA Studio B is world-famous as the place where more than 200 hit records, including a ton by Elvis Presley, were recorded. But while most visitors to Nashville are content with simply driving by the studio on their way down its studio-lined street, those looking to get off the beaten track and partake in an overlooked activity can sign up for one of the tours. The guided tour is absolutely fascinating, and offers a rare look at Nashville’s earliest days as Music City.
Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center
The Arboretum and Nature Center is a massive park where Chattanooga locals and visitors in the know enjoy spending time. A visit can be as short as a picnic and a stroll, though those wanting to spend more time will find plenty to do. Myriad hiking trails meander their way throughout the park, while a lake makes for a nice place to canoe, and a horseback riding stable offers trail rides.
Rock Island State Park
Almost always included amongst the most beautiful places in the Volunteer State is Rock Island State Park. This truly beautiful 883-acre park is home to two main attractions: the Great Falls Gorge and Twin Falls, the latter of which consists of twin waterfalls and an underground cavern. Myriad trails of various levels of difficulty make Rock Island a great choice of stop for some hiking and nature.
When you stop at Lookout Mountain to enjoy the famous views (they’re advertised on billboards and barns for miles around), don’t skip Ruby Falls. This unique sight is more than just a roadside attraction, it’s the deepest public waterfall in the U.S. Visitors take an elevator more than 1,100 feet below the earth’s surface, then take a short trek through unique rock formations (bacon rock?) until they reach the 145-foot high titular waterfall.
Definitely one of the more unique places on our list of the most overlooked attractions in Tennessee, Rugby Colony was founded in 1880 as a Utopia for British expats living in the American South. The goal was to combine the very best of America with all the civilized aspects of England — though perhaps needless to say, it didn’t quite work out that way. After about a decade, a typhoid outbreak killed off a number of residents, the local tavern burned down twice, and financial trouble eventually spurred the town into bankruptcy. Visitors to Rugby today will be rewarded with the story of this fascinating endeavor, plus the still-standing church, library, school, and some houses.
Need to stretch your legs? There may be no better place to do so than Shelby Farms in Memphis. A whopping five times larger than Central Park, the beautiful Shelby Farms is hands-down the largest urban park in all of America. It features places to rent boats and bicycles, horse stables and riding trails, 20 lakes, 120 acres of off-leash area for dogs, disk golf fields, and a children’s Woodland Discovery Playground, along with so much more.
Tennessee State Capitol Building
Surrounded by more famous attractions, the Tennessee State Capitol Building is quite the sight to behold up on its hill. Go further than most Nashville visitors go and walk around the capitol’s pristine grounds, where there are monuments honoring such historic figures as former presidents Andrew Jackson (whose home is nearby) and Andrew Johnson. The views from here are pretty good, too.
Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
Kids and adults alike are sure to enjoy a visit to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. Located in Chattanooga, this family-friendly attraction features lots of interesting railroad memorabilia from the local area, plus an actual train on which visitors can ride. The museum hosts a number of special events, including its popular Dinner on the Diner and Railfest.
Tina Turner Museum
If you’re in Tennessee to experience all the music history, then a stop in Brownsville is an absolute must. Conveniently located between Memphis and Nashville, Brownsville is the home of Tina Turner (born Anna Mae Bullock) and the Tina Turner Museum. The museum is housed in the old Flagg Grove School, one of the first African American schools in the South and Tina’s old stomping ground. The museum includes lots of photographs, old yearbooks, some of her gold and platinum records, and even an impressive collection of the singer’s famously outlandish costumes.
World’s Fair Park
This gorgeous park is about all the evidence that remains of the fact that Knoxville hosted the 1982 World’s Fair. A favorite among locals, but often overlooked by visitors, the park is a great place to enjoy a stroll, partake in a picnic, or just let the kids run around and blow off some steam. On a hot Tennessee day, the park’s splash pad makes for an especially nice reason to visit.