Tennessee stretches for 440 miles across the Southeast, evolving from a river plain to rolling hills to rugged mountains. What’s the best way to explore the Volunteer State? Volunteer to start in Memphis and work your way to the Smoky Mountains.
The Bluff City is Home of the Blues, but its most famous home belonged to the king of rock and roll. Graceland hosts tours 360-plus days a year, welcoming visitors into Elvis Presley’s opulent, authentically restored mansion. After touring his former stomping grounds, discuss your favorite rooms (ours is the jungle room) while you head downtown. Drive to the Lorraine Motel to learn about the tragic passing of Martin Luther King, Jr. The spot where he was assassinated is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum, and you can learn how the quest for equality has evolved since the 17th century.
When you’re done delving into history, dive into a plate of ribs at Rendezvous, perhaps the most famous barbecue restaurant east of the Mississippi (the river that skirts Memphis’s western border). Order a full rack of ribs and skip the sauce – Rendezvous is renowned for its finger-licking dry rub. Stay at the Peabody Hotel down the street, where ducks parade to the lobby fountain every afternoon – it’s a quirky but wildly popular ritual that dates back to the 1930s.
Early the next morning, venture east into rural Tennessee. Two hours into the countryside is the Shiloh Battlefield, where the Union won a vital victory in the Civil War. Tennessee was the site of several key battles in the war, and Shiloh’s visitor center will teach you about their importance. From there you’re an hour away from historic Natchez Trace Parkway, a serpentine road that snakes its way from Southern Mississippi to the outskirts of Nashville. Pick up the trail in Collinwood and trace your way up a route that’s been used for centuries by hunters and explorers. Exit when you see the sign for Highway 7 in Fly, Tennessee – you’re five minutes from the best Cajun food you’ll taste this side of Baton Rouge. Papa Boudreaux’s Cajun Café serves up sultry bayou specialties in a prefab trailer that’ll make you feel like you’re in the Louisiana backwoods. The restaurant is first-come, first-served and only accepts cash, but it’s worth the wait and the expense. If you’re lucky, you’ll be serenaded by an authentic Cajun singer.
With your stomach full, set your sights on Nashville’s Opryland Hotel. The mammoth resort houses atriums, restaurants and convention space. Get a room that faces one of the courtyards and get a good night’s sleep: The sounds of Music City await.
Wake up and bolt to Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant downtown. Originally a small corner store in rural Williamson County, Puckett’s is now a thriving local restaurant chain with vintage southern vittles. From there, walk down the hill to the Country Music Hall of Fame and immerse yourself in the rhythms of one of the largest music collections in the world. Take note: The museum is a must-visit even if you aren’t into country music. But get ready, because you’ll hear all kinds of country emanating from the honky tonks on Broadway a block away.
Leave downtown Nashville behind and eat lunch at Joey’s House of Pizza, the best place in Tennessee to grab a New York-style pie. It’s only open for weekday lunch and always packed…have your order ready when you get to the front of the line, and Stephanie will have your scalding slices ready in no time.
Now, journey toward the hills of East Tennessee. Knoxville is the region’s crown jewel. A college town driven by The University of Tennessee, it was also home to the 1982 World’s Fair. The Sunsphere is a quirky place to get a clear view of downtown and the Smoky Mountains beyond. Dine at Calhoun’s on the River and crash before your final day on the road.
The mountains beckon. Early the next morning, set your GPS for Gatlinburg. It’s one of Tennessee’s most popular mountain towns, and you won’t regret eating breakfast at Pancake Pantry (order the sweet potato pancakes and thank us later) before downing saltwater taffy for dessert while your new t-shirt gets airbrushed. Gatlinburg is a popular launching point for a journey into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited in the country. Carve your way up to Clingmans Dome, Tennessee’s highest point, for stunning views – as long as the Smokies’ namesake haze isn’t shrouding the hills below.
Gatlinburg offers bustle, but the best place to spend the night is at a cabin in the Peaceful Side of the Smokies. When you head down from the Smokies, travel to Townsend for a quiet night of reflection on your time in the Volunteer State. As you stare at the hills from the valley below, think about how far you’ve come – from flat riverside fields to a new high point in your road trip travel log.