Photo by Bob Carr/NPS
Tennessee is awash in history—it was critical to the development of several genres of music, from country and jazz to blues and bluegrass; home to some of the most important battles of the Civil War; and the site of many major events in the struggle for civil rights. Nashville and Memphis are two of… the most vibrant cities for live music in the country. Outdoor buffs can enjoy numerous hunting and fishing opportunities as well as several state and natural parks, including the most-visited national park in the country, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
What to know before you go to Tennessee
As in many Southern states, summers in Tennessee are muggy, with high humidity and temperatures that can make being outdoors pretty intolerable. Winters are comparatively mild—except for in mountainous Eastern Tennessee—though they can also be quite wet. Fortunately, the shoulder seasons of spring and fall are glorious, with wildflowers blanketing the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee in May and brightly colored leaves painting the eastern forests come October.
Many major airlines service Tennessee’s four largest cities, Nashville (BNA), Memphis (MEM), Chattanooga (CHA), and Knoxville (TYS), though some flights require connections through other hubs like Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte. Once you’re on the ground, three major highways crisscross the state, with I-40 connecting Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville; I-24 running between Nashville and Chattanooga; and I-65 bisecting the state north to south. These scenic freeways can get you anywhere in the state and offer views of the mountains in the east, the hills of Middle Tennessee, and the gradual flattening of the topography as you approach the Mississippi River on the western border.
Tennesseans love their cars, so urban cores can get crowded during rush hour and on-street parking can be hard to find. Consider, as the locals do, using a commercial garage. This dedication to personal vehicles also means that public transit options are lacking in the major cities, but rideshare services have become a popular alternative.
In Tennessee, the best food is based on home cooking. Restaurants like Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Mason and The Loveless Cafe outside of Nashville let southern staples like fried chicken and country ham shine in their humble roots, while spots like The Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland and Husk in Nashville elevate folksy recipes into gourmet Appalachian cuisine. Each region of the state has specialty foods worth a pilgrimage, including Memphis-style dry ribs, the infernally spicy Nashville hot chicken, and even the unusual vinegar pie from the Tri-Cities in the northeast corner of Tennessee. While not as prolific as Kentucky bourbon, Tennessee whiskey also occupies an important spot in the hearts of many locals.
Tennessee is generally conservative, though liberal sentiments are more common in urban areas. Music brings everyone together, with major festivals across the state including the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, the CMA Fest in Nashville, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and Bonnaroo, a multi-genre music and camping festival in Manchester that’s one of the biggest gatherings of talent and fans in the nation every summer. Visual arts are also important, especially in the major cities of Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga, where you can find many worthwhile museums and public art installations.
Tennessee is known as the home of several important musical styles, with shrines to each one that are well worth visiting. Elvis Presley’s Memphis home, Graceland, is a mecca for fans of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, while Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, known as “The Mother Church of Country Music,” still hosts live performances on its fabled stage. In Bristol, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum opened in 2014 with exhibits detailing the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions, during which recordings by icons like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family introduced the music of Appalachia to the rest of the nation.
Visitors to Tennessee need to think about covering their skin with sunscreen during the summers, bug spray for the mosquitos that can get a little intense around sunset, and layers of clothing in the fall that can be peeled off as the days warm from chilly to quite pleasant. The state also stretches across two times zones, so be cognizant of that fact if you’re planning to drive from Nashville to East Tennessee.
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Chris Chamberlain is a food, drink, and travel writer based in his hometown of Nashville. One of the rare unicorns actually born in Music City, he has lived there his entire life except for four years in California, where he studied at Stanford and learned how to manipulate chopsticks. He is a regular contributor to Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint, Sounds Like Nashville, The Local Palate, Thrillist, and Foodie Travel USA, and the author of The Southern Foodie, The Southern Foodie’s Guide to the Pig, and Nashville Beer: A Heady History of Music City Brewing.