Things To Do In East Tennessee : A Local’s Travel Guide

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things to do in east Tennessee

Things To Do In East Tennessee

East Tennessee is obviously the eastern third of the state of Tennessee in the United States – consisting of 33 counties located within the Appalachian Mountains.  While I was born in middle Tennessee [Nashville], I’ve spent a lot of time in East Tennessee as well.  This guide is meant to highlight some of the best cities, events and attractions that East Tennessee has to offer.

Knoxville

Knoxville has a gorgeous backdrop made up of mountains and water with the perfect mixture between city, urban life and small town, Southern charm.

University of Tennessee

While I didn’t graduate from here, I did go to school here for the first two years and consider myself more of a UT student than where I actually graduated from.  My blood bleeds orange.  Besides the fact I went to school here though, the University of Tennessee campus is really beautiful.  The Volunteers football team plays at Neyland Stadium which is the nation’s fourth largest stadium.  In my honest opinion, the best time to see the campus and most of East Tennessee is in the fall.  It’s way too gorgeous with all the colors to not see it at this time of year.  And, while my opinion may be biased, you’ll never find tailgating quite like Tennessee Football tailgating.  Get ready to hear ‘Rocky Top’ one too many times, see a sea of orange and white, drink a lot of beer and play way a million games of cornhole and beer pong.

Ayres Hall – Gorgeous building even if I had to take a math class in it.

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things to do in east Tennessee
Neyland Stadium and UT Campus on the River

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Museum of Appalachia

Do you like farms and history?  Then you will definitely like the Appalachia Museum about 20 minutes away from Knoxville.  This museum covers everything from historic pioneer buildings and artifacts that have been collected from the Southern Appalachian mountain folk.  The museum maintains one of the nation’s largest folk art collections and has traditional Appalachian music performances and demonstrations every year.

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Market Square District

Knoxville has the perfect Market Square that offers both a small town and urban feel to it.  You can shop at the Farmers Market, try out the different culinary options, go on a shopping spree or enjoy live music.  The Market Square is also home to several festivals including the International Biscuit Festival (that’s the South for you!), Dogwood Arts Festival and Sundown in the City.

things to do in east Tennessee

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Oak Ridge

Oak Ridge has several nicknames including “the Atomic City,” “the Secret City,” “the Ridge,” and “the City Behind the Fence.”  The reasoning behind these nicknames is due to Oak Ridge being established in 1942 as a production site for the Manhattan Project which was the massive operation that developed the atomic bomb.  Three of the four major facilities created for bomb production still stand today and the site is currently used by the Department of Energy to run nuclear and research establishment and perform national security work.  You can even tour the original facility during the summer months [only open to American citizens].

Every year, Oak Ridge hosts the Secret City Festival to commemorate the incredibly unique history of this town.  The festival includes live music, entertainment, WWII activities and demonstrations, arts & crafts, food and more.

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Gatlinburg

This small yet booming mountain resort city is surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and more than 11 million people visit every year from all over the world.  Gatlinburg has so many random activities to offer it’s difficult to even try to describe it.  From the skylift to its own version of the Space Needle and from the Guinness World of Records Museum to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Gatlinburg is seriously endless on activities.

things to do in east Tennessee

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Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery

This is Tennessee’s first legal moonshine distillery [we’ve been doing it illegally for ages].  Directly in the heart of Gatlinburg, you can sample this Tennessee moonshine that dates back to the late 1800’s – they have around 10 different flavors to try [and, yes I tried them all].  Want the closest thing to true moonshine?  Try the ‘White Lightnin’ variety.

Pigeon Forge

Pigeon Forge is the [in my opinion] less glamorous sister city of Gatlinburg – only a few miles away from one another.  Pigeon Forge is primarily a tourist destination with numerous outlet malls, music theaters, restaurants and more go cart race tracks than your heart could ever imagine.

Dollywood

Dollywood is a theme park owned by Dolly Parton.  While Dollywood, of course, offers thrill rides, it also features traditional crafts and music of the Smoky Mountains area.  In addition to the theme park, there is also Dollywood’s Splash Country – a water park.

America’s 1st Wing Coaster

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Dixie Stampede

Also owned by Dolly Parton is Dixie Stampede – a dinner theater show.  The show is a modern-day Wild West routine that includes cast members, horses, pigs and chickens [you’re in the South – what do you expect?] and the food includes chicken, biscuits, potatoes, corn, soup and much more.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most visited national park in the nation and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in East Tennessee.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

This trail is a narrow one-way road that is open to vehicular traffic in the Spring, Summer and Fall.  Along the trail, you’ll find historic districts, overlooks and lots and lots of forest scenery.  The entrance to the trail is in the heart of Gatlinburg.

things to do in east Tennessee

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Cades Cove

Cades Cove is an isolated valley located in the park that is the single most popular destination for park visitors.  A one way, eleven mile paved driving loop around Cades Cove is very popular but should be started very early in the morning as it can take hours depending on the amount of tourists.  This is one of the best places in Tennessee for black bear sightings.

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Appalachian Trail

Hiking the entire length of the Appalachian is very high up on my bucket list.  It spans fourteen states with Tennessee being one of them.  If you find yourself in Tennessee and want to hike a section of the Appalachian, check out these options.

things to do in east Tennessee

Johnson City

Johnson City is a small town with a lot to offer including unique history, arts, music and outdoors.  President Andrew Johnson and frontiersman David Crockett have tons of history in this part of Tennessee.

The Blue Plum Festival

The Blue Plum Festival is a free art and music festival in which many acclaimed musical artists perform – mostly bluegrass, folk, and Americana.  It also includes an “Urban Art Throwdown” where graffiti artists paint contemporary murals.

Bristol

Bristol is on the state line of Tennessee and Virginia and is the twin city of Bristol, Virginia.  Bristol is actually known for being the “Birthplace of Country Music” due to being the site of some of the first commercial recordings country music including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

Races

What Bristol is most known for though is the Bristol Motor Speedway – a NASCAR short track.  It is among the most popular race tracks due to many distinct features that I won’t even begin to understand.  The Speedway is the 4th largest sports venue in America and the 8th largest in the world  – holding up to 165,000 people.

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Chattanooga

Chattanooga is located on the southeastern side of Tennessee right next to the Georgia state line.  I love Chattanooga and is both outdoors friendly with many climbing, caving, hiking, and paddling opportunities and urban-friendly with many arts, music and culinary options.

Chattanooga Choo Choo

The Terminal Station has been transformed into a 24-acre hotel and vacation resort where you can sleep aboard an authentic railcar room.

Ocoee River

Just a few minutes north of Chattanooga is the Ocoee River – the whitewater site for the 1996 Olympics.  There are wonderful climbs, hikes, biking, and of course Ocoee river rafting adventures here too

things to do in east Tennessee
Ocoee Scenic Byway

Have you ever visited anywhere in East Tennessee?  Which of these cities sounds the most exciting to you?

Ashley Hubbard

This Post Has 40 Comments

  1. L. Dragon

    Tennessee is a beautiful and diverse state. I have visited the Eastern part but many more possible excursions. Thanks for sharing Tennessee

    Experts

  2. Anabel

    I don’t know any of the cities you mention – we stayed in Townsend when we visited the Smokies. And yes, we saw a bear in Cade’s Cove! Also got very good service from a waiter who insisted on driving us back to our motel when a storm started while we were eating dinner. Happy memories.

  3. Calli

    Great post Ashley – full of great information. My dad drove through this part of the southern US a few years ago and I remember him going on and on about the Smoky Mountains and Chattanooga. Your pictures are lovely, I’d love to visit someday πŸ™‚

  4. Birgit

    I have heard that Tennessee is beautiful and I would love to visit there one day and hike on that trail. We have the Bruce Trail here and it is also very long but not sure how long it is compared to yours

  5. Heather

    I love the Dixie Stampede! I went to the one that used to be in Myrtle Beach at least half a dozen times. And I’ll be driving through Tennessee in June so this is a very timely post!

  6. Sammi

    Looks fabulous. The more I read about Tennessee here on your blog, the more I want to visit πŸ™‚

  7. Chrys Fey

    I wish I could have your traveling life, sadly I wouldn’t be able to, but one day I would love to visit Tennessee. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful piece. πŸ™‚

    1. Ashley Hubbard

      I hope you’ll get to visit TN one day too! Thanks so much Chrys!

  8. Chris Boothman

    Ashley, I love how you are incorporating so much local ‘Southern’ culture into your posts! It’s great to give some coverage to these southern states because honestly they don’t get as much as they deserve (I know this is probably a little hypocritical given that I frequently complain about there being nothing to do here in Arkansas!).

    I really haven’t ventured beyond Nashville/Franklin in terms of out East in TN. We passed through Chattanooga once and went to Ruby Falls but I know there is a bunch of things going on in the Smoky Mountains and Knoxville. This is a really great post that I will likely use in the future when we head out that way to remember exactly what we need to see there.

    1. Ashley Hubbard

      Y’all really must get to the Smoky Mountains soon! You’re too close not to πŸ™‚

  9. conny

    Go Vols!!!! I grew up in knoxville and went to college in chattanooga. I know and love many of the places you mention. In face, my a to z ‘c’ post was about chattanooga. πŸ™‚

  10. Corinne

    Ashley, Gorgeous photos of a fantastic place. I’ve got to go!

  11. Lisa from Lulu's Big Adventure

    I’ve never been to Tennessee at all, unfortunately! Yet, anyway. I hope to get there someday.

    Also, American college life sounds so interesting – I think it’s quite different from Canadian universities. The only reason I know what tailgating is is from watching Gilmore Girls haha.

    1. Ashley Hubbard

      I love Gilmore Girls! Think that tailgating x 100 though haha πŸ™‚

  12. We have yet to explore anywhere in America but after reading so many of your posts I think we might need to start planning a trip! πŸ™‚

  13. Bob R

    The only thing I’ve ever known about Tennessee was Smoky Mt National Park – been there about half a dozen times, but not since 1988. I imagine the area, at least Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (ew! πŸ™‚ ), have change quite a bit.

  14. Marilyn Jones

    Excellent and very comprehensive article on Tennessee. Your photo selections were excellent too! The article brought back a lot of memories for me from my Tennessee ramblings!

  15. Eli

    Thanks for a great virtual tour to an area I did not know a lot about! Gorgeous pictures and so much information. And there is a Dollywood??! Ha ha – Thanks for sharing and good luck with the rest of the atozchallenge:-)

  16. Paul Scoropan

    Really nice guide. Thanks for that!

  17. This is a fantastic list of things to see and do. I’ve had Tennessee high on my list to visit for a while and will be saving this for reference. My husband and I are both NASCAR fans so we would love to go to the Bristol Motor Speedway. So much to see, I can’t wait. I’m even more excited to hearing about your hike on the Appalachian Trail… I know you’ll do it someday! πŸ™‚

    1. Ashley Hubbard

      Thanks so much Daidri! If you’re NASCAR fans, this is definitely the place to be πŸ™‚ And, you’re right, I’ll definitely be hiking the AT!

  18. Pingback: F is for Festivals of the World #AtoZChallenge – A Southern Gypsy's Adventures

  19. Steve

    i’ve never been to Tennessee (i think the closest i’ve been to is south carolina) but i’ll be sure to refer back to this when i eventually make it over there!

  20. Stephanie

    I’ve lived in East Tennessee for the past five years and it really is beautiful!

  21. Tim

    In June I heading out on a road trip to Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In Alabama I will be focusing on the delta region but wanted to know what your thoughts were on the other states. Thanks.

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