East Tennessee’s tourism magnets are strong, getting more powerful and growing in number. As contradictory as it may sound, that situation makes the job of mapping an itinerary simultaneously easy and difficult.
Within a small radius are majestic mountains, a world-famous theme park, enjoyable cities, abundant entertainment and food destinations, plus the novelty of an Olympic sport venue and the spot where country music was born. Let’s explore.
Chattanooga — tucked into Tennessee’s southeast corner, touching Georgia and practically within rock-throwing distance of Alabama — is easy to enjoy.
Among its headline attractions is the Tennessee Aquarium, which celebrates its 30th birthday this year. It’s actually three attractions in one. The first is River Journey, which focuses on freshwater ecosystems (specifically the Tennessee River). The second is Ocean Journey, where visitors get to see penguins, seahorses, jellies and more. The third is an IMAX theater, where the films are guaranteed to impress.
“With two aquariums and the IMAX, we can spread groups very effectively,” said Thom Benson, vice president and chief communications and marketing officer. “It’s fun when they see gentoo penguins on the IMAX screen and then get face-to-face with them in Ocean Journey.”
The glass-topped aquariums are Chattanooga riverfront landmarks, and they offer easy access to the downtown portion of the 16.1-mile Chattanooga Riverwalk. From the Riverwalk, groups can stroll to the Hunter Museum and go just a few steps more to explore the Bluff View Art District (a family-owned district with restaurants, gardens, an art gallery, outdoor sculptures and great views of the river).
An alternate Riverwalk destination is the Chattanooga Northshore, easily reached via the 2,376-foot-long Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge. To the locals, it’s simply the Big Blue Bridge. On the Northshore are shops, restaurants and parkland with more views of the river and downtown.
A bonus for groups that enjoy wandering is Chattanooga’s free downtown electric shuttle system that links the Chattanooga Choo Choo area (hotel, restaurants, music) with the aquarium and the riverfront. Shuttles stop at every block on the 1.3-mile route and are convenient to hotels such as the Read House, the Westin, the Indigo and the DoubleTree.
Looking down from towering Lookout Mountains are three of America’s great visitor attractions.
The Incline Railway is a mile-long funicular rail system, whose bright red and yellow cars have been gliding up and down the ridge for more than 125 years. A five-minute walk from the upper station is Point Park in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
Less than 10 minutes by car from the Incline Railway’s lower station are Ruby Falls and Rock City. Ruby Falls is a groups’ opportunity to drop 260 feet inside Lookout Mountain (via elevator) and take a one-mile cave tour crowned by a 145-foot waterfall. Rock City is a multi-faceted attraction with ancient rock attractions, sculpted gardens and, as Rock City proclaims, a view of seven states, though squinting may be required to see Virginia and South Carolina.
Postcards from Knoxville
It’s a straight shot of only 125 miles to Knoxville, but the trip offers at least three great detours.
First is an outdoor destination, the Ocoee Whitewater Center in the Cherokee National Forest. It showcases the world’s first Olympic whitewater competition site on a natural river.
Second, especially if Ruby Falls whetted an appetite for underground activity, check out the Lost Sea Adventure, which offers a cave tour with a boat trip on a 4-acre underground lake that is a registered National Natural Landmark. Third is the Mayfield Dairy Farms Visitor Center, where an old-fashioned ice cream parlor awaits.
Knoxville is another Tennessee River city, this one made especially vibrant by being home to the University of Tennessee, one of only two universities whose football stadiums are reachable by boat. To get groups on the river, check out the Star of Knoxville for lunch, dinner or sightseeing cruises.
Downtown Knoxville has its own collection of attractions and diversions. Curtis Glover and other local artists have decorated multiple buildings with colorful murals, both indoors and outside. There’s even a murals walking tour (download an app or pick up a map at the visitor center on Gay Street).
The visitor center, which is decorated with the “Postcard from Knoxville” mural, offers the unexpected treat of live entertainment. A radio show, sometimes with A-list performers, on WDVX called “The Blue Plate Special” originates Monday through Friday at noon inside the visitor center. Admission is free.
Knoxville’s Market Square is a pedestrian space in the heart of town surrounded by shops and restaurants and regularly enlivened with special events. Among the events are outdoor concerts, summertime movies and “Shakespeare on the Square.”
Another dining and activity district is simply called the Old City. In its renovated buildings are boutiques, nightclubs, barbecue joints, craft cocktails, sushi, pizza and, in a college town, beer. Notable on that front is Pretentious Beer Co., which offers 16 craft beers and a twist. The twist is that part of the business is a glass studio, so groups can watch a glass blowing demonstration while downing cold brews.
Upcoming for the Old City is a $74.5 million multiuse 7,000-seat stadium, whose primary tenant will be the Double A Knoxville Smokies baseball team. The first pitch is planned for 2024.
Newer on the food scene is Marble City Market, a food hall with a collection of outlets with catchy names such as Penne for Your Thoughts, Seoul Brothers and Gekko Poke and Ramen.
On the cultural side, the Knoxville Museum of Art (free admission) is home to “Cycle of Life,” one of the largest figurative glass-and-steel works of art in the world. The artist is Knoxville native Richard Jolley. Another museum component is Higher Group, a permanent exhibition of works by east Tennessee artists.
Smoky Mountain High
Visible on the horizon from some spots in Knoxville is Tennessee’s biggest attraction: Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is big in size (522,427 acres) and popularity (14.1 million visitors in 2021, the most of any national park).
The Sevier County gateway communities of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg provide lodging, dining, entertainment and attractions that supplement the majesty of the mountains.
Entertainer Dolly Parton by far is the most famous personality born in Sevier County, and her impact is significant. There’s a statue of Dolly (great for tour group photos) on the square in Sevierville, and Pigeon Forge is home to the Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort, Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Attraction and Dollywood’s Splash Country water park.
Outlet shopping, especially in Sevierville, is perennially popular, and Pigeon Forge’s Mountain Mile is drawing attention. It’s a mix of retail, attractions and food. (An additional attraction, indoor, year-round snow tubing at Snow Pigeon Forge, is nearby.)
The Mountain Mile’s food component got a boost this spring when Downtown Flavortown opened. It’s a Guy Fieri establishment with a 300-seat restaurant, a 14-lane duckpin bowling alley and arcade games galore. Fieri also has his tongs in the fryer in Gatlinburg with his Chicken Guy! restaurant.
The volume of attractions and stage shows is difficult to describe. They include the Titanic Museum Attraction (where the devotion to the history of the ill-fated ship astounds visitors), the Alcatraz East Crime Museum (surprisingly entertaining and even educational), WonderWorks (a hands-on science attraction even adults enjoy) and the perennially popular Country Tonite stage show.
Of course, the Smoky Mountains themselves remain the core reason for the region’s popularity, and the Gatlinburg attraction called Anakeesta capitalizes on that.
For many, Anakeesta’s highlight is AnaVista, a modernistic-looking observation tower that offers 360-degree views of the Smokies’ rolling ridges. Climbing the 84 steps to the top for those views is exercise well spent. Below are meandering walkways through Anakeesta’s botanical gardens, along with restaurants, a canopy walk with 16 suspended bridges, a zipline and a rappelling adventure.
Gatlinburg adjoins Great Smoky Mountains National Park on three sides, and there’s even a well-trod trail from town to the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center. The National Park Service is famous for its videos, and the one here is among the best. It explains the park’s geology, Native American heritage, pioneer influences, how lumbering almost denuded the entire region, and how the people of Tennessee and North Carolina, along with some big benefactors, acquired the mountains and gave them to the nation.
Country’s Big Bang
Farther up the Appalachians is one more destination to consider plugging into an itinerary: the place where commercial country music came into being.
Scoot up I-81 to Bristol (where a line down the middle of State Street separates Tennessee from Virginia) to visit the Birthplace of Country Music. Bristol was the site of the “big bang,” a 10-day recording session in 1927 featuring people who became legends in country music. Among them were the Carter Family (the “First Family of Country Music”) and Jimmie Rodgers (the “Father of Country Music”).
The museum is high-tech, high-touch and high-emotion, and it lets groups wrap up an east Tennessee tour with a song in their hearts. The Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” is a good candidate.