By Corinne Minard
For those looking for a quick trip away Tennessee may be the perfect place to start. Just a couple hours away from Ohio, the state is home to many cities that are packed with a variety of things to do. From outdoor adventures and unique festivals to live music and immersive history exhibits all of these can be found in the following Tennessee cities.
According to Kristen Combs, director of communications and social strategies for Visit Knoxville, visitors are often surprised by how much there is to do without leaving the downtown area.
“I think a lot of people … don’t really have this conception of what Knoxville is so they are surprised by what we do have,” she says. “We’re a type of place where you come to your hotel, you valet or you park your car and you’re not going to see it for the rest of the weekend.”
Combs recommends travelers start with a visit to the Sunsphere, Knoxville’s answer to Seattle’s Space Needle. Built for the 1982 World’s Fair, the Sunsphere offers a 360-degree view of Knoxville. “I always recommend people to do that because you really kind of get your bearings and get a good feel for the destination,” she adds.
One of the first sites you’ll notice is a large forested area on the south side. Called the Urban Wilderness, the 1,000-acre site provides outdoor recreation lovers with 50 miles of hiking trails, lakes and quarries in which to kayak and paddleboard, a double-black diamond mountain bike trail, rock climbing opportunities and more within the city of Knoxville itself.
“It’s like 3 miles from the heart of downtown. You’re not having to drive half an hour, 45 minutes, and beyond to really get some outdoor adventure. You can go do that and come back downtown for lunch,” says Combs.
When families need a break from the outdoors, they can have find some indoor respite in Knoxville’s many museums. The Knoxville Museum of Art is a free museum that celebrates the art and artists of east Tennessee. The East Tennessee History Center delves into the history of the region, from the Cherokee to the 1982 World’s Fair. And Zoo Knoxville is home to dozens of animals, including red pandas.
In addition to its regular attractions, visitors to Knoxville can also enjoy many different festivals and events throughout the summer and spring, such as the Mardi Growl Dog Parade, the Chalk Walk and Bike, Boat, Brew and Bark. One of the most family-friendly festivals that Knoxville hosts, the Children’s Festival of Reading, will be conducted May 16 in World’s Fair Park this year.
“There will be arts and crafts, all kinds of different story telling, games and all sorts of fun stuff,” says Combs.
Nashville is known for country music, but just 15 miles south of the city is Franklin, a city that also embraces country music.
“If Nashville is the big full arena with electric guitars, Franklin is kind of the acoustic version,” says Matthew Maxey, associate director of public relations for the Williamson County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Walking down Franklin’s historic Main Street visitors can expect to find at least 30 places playing live music, from restaurants and performance venues to street performers and even dress shops.
“It really is you’ll be walking down the street and the spice shop might have a guitarist outside of it or buskers on the street that are just a few years away from being on your radio,” says Maxey.
Many country music stars like to escape the nonstop action of Nashville for the slower pace of Franklin, so it’s not uncommon to see big-name acts perform at the 300-seat Franklin Theatre. For example, on April 14, country fans will be able to see Sara Evans, Cherie Oakley and JP Williams perform together in an intimate show that’s raising funds for Franklin’s Holy Trinity Montessori.
“You’ll get Jason Isbell or Vince Gill playing on that stage that usually you have to go to a much larger venue [to see] and it’s just a really cool thing seeing them that up close,” says Maxey.
Even those who aren’t country music fans will find Franklin full of charm. Franklin’s Main Street is 16 whole blocks of local and one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants.
“You walk down Main Street and it really is like walking into a Norman Rockwell painting or the cities that Hallmark movies try to create—it’s the real life version of that. You don’t see people looking down at their phones. They’re just heads up enjoying it,” says Maxey.
Noteworthy stops on Main Street include Holly Williams’ White’s Mercantile shop, Scarlet Scales Antiques and restaurants like Red Pony.
For those interested in history, Maxey recommends visiting historic sites related to the Battle of Franklin, one of only a few Civil War battles that was fought in a downtown area instead of a large battlefield.
“We’ve got 300-plus acres of battlefield just outside the downtown square, three house museums on it that people can dive into history in as little as three hours or spend three days,” says Maxey. “Plus many of the buildings in downtown that were witness to the war still have markers. You can go deep into the battle if people want.”
Clarksville and Montgomery County are also worthy vacation spots for those who love history. Michelle Dickerson, director of media and marketing for Visit Clarksville, points to the area’s Fort Defiance Civil War Park (which features a well-preserved earthworks fort) and the Historic Collinsville Pioneer Settlement (home to 16 authentically period structures on 40 acres).
“It very much chronicles history from Native American times through before, during and after the Civil War,” she says.
History can also be found in nearby Dunbar Cave State Park. Recently reopened to public cave tours, the caves are home to 14th century Mississippian art. Cave tours take visitors through about three-quarters of a mile of the cave, which includes a chance to see the cave art. Dickerson recommends booking a cave tour in advance as they are often full.
But Clarksville isn’t all history. As home to Austin Peay State University and the 101st Airborne Division, the city has a dynamic and young population that has allowed it to host expansive arts and food scenes alongside historic sites.
“Troops retire from the military at 40 and they’ve lived all around the world, so they bring a lot of those ideas for coffee shops and craft breweries and restaurants serving authentic Korean barbecue or what have you here in Clarksville,” says Dickerson. “We definitely have traditional Southern catfish, barbecue, that sort of thing, but we also have a lot of the whole Asian realm and Italian and German and French and all that, which is really surprising to people. And it’s surprising that it’s all an affordable price point.”
No matter your interest, Dickerson recommends that you include Clarksville’s Cumberland RiverWalk in your trip.
“Downtown borders the river so the RiverWalk connects up to downtown. You’ll find locally run businesses, restaurants, breweries, a performing arts theater and the state’s second largest general history museum,” she says. The RiverWalk offers visitors a great opportunity to take some historic architecture, grab a bite to eat and even enjoy a free concert during the summer.
“We’ve really got a little bit of a lot of things. I think the one thing I hear the most is how pretty the place is with the river right downtown and the parks, the architecture and the history downtown,” says Dickerson.