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Legendary Status: Tennessee’s Top Attractions

The Grand Ole Opry, Elvis Presley and the Great Smoky Mountains: That trio of Tennessee travel treasures tops a list of destination prospects whenever you think of a Volunteer State tour.

These are just the highlights of a trip through Tennessee. Client-pleasing possibilities abound throughout this long and lean state. Let’s take a look at several of them, practically all with legendary status.

Start in Nashville

The 100th birthday of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 2025 is creeping up on the famous venue. The engineers who put WSM-AM radio on the air in 1925 never dreamed it would be possible their weekend program of down-home entertainers, some right off the farm, would be heard today through various media anywhere on earth.

The Opry, the longest-running radio show in history, has of course evolved since 1925. Its home most of the year is in the suburban 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House; but especially in winter, it offers broadcasts from the venerable Ryman Auditorium in the heart of Nashville’s entertainment district. Much of its fame grew there from 1943 to 1972.

Its history carries the names of legends — Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline among them — and its current roster features household names such as Keith Urban, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire and Marty Stuart. Every show’s lineup is different.

Whether or not your group experiences the Opry at the Ryman, the historic building is worth a visit. It opened in 1894 as an ecumenical church, and its amazing story is told with a video program and a walk-through tour that tells much of Nashville’s history. Today, it is one of the most popular small performance venues in the country. A-list artists who would otherwise never play a venue with only 1,700-seats eagerly book dates at the Ryman.

Just as the Ryman helps tell Nashville’s history, the nearby Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum explains what country music is and how it came to be. You don’t have to like country music to thoroughly enjoy this museum.

Early this year, the National Museum of African American Music opened next door to the Ryman Auditorium, providing one more portal into Nashville’s reputation as Music City. Its popularity is sure to blossom.

On to Memphis

Elvis Presley performed at the Opry only once. It was early in his career, and it was not successful. He didn’t hold that against Nashville; he recorded extensively at Nashville’s RCA Studio B, which is open to groups, while he made Memphis his home.

Home, of course, is Graceland, which has grown to pilgrimage-worthy status for millions of fans. And while Graceland hasn’t grown bigger, the Graceland experience has.

Make that “Graceland experiences.” Of course, the Graceland mansion commands center stage. Later stars may have built more palatial digs, but Graceland was a home. The tour includes Elvis’ living room, his parents’ bedroom, the TV room and the famous Jungle Room, which started somewhat as a lark.

Elvis Presley’s Memphis is the outgrowth of the Presley-mania that evolved after his death in 1977. It includes a career museum — the wall of gold and platinum records is a stunner— an automobile museum — check out his pink Cadillac— two customized Elvis airplanes and a collection of 10 immersive experiences that get you close to Elvis, at least in virtual and augmented-reality ways.

You can make Graceland your home base in Memphis at the 300-room Guest House at Graceland and get live entertainment at the 1,600-seat Graceland Soundstage or the more intimate 464-seat Guest House Theater.

Elsewhere, the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music deservedly are on many Memphis itineraries.

Think of the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum as an encyclopedia entry. The museum began as a short-term Smithsonian Institution project, and Memphis residents preserved it to help explain the city’s history and music. Country, gospel, soul and rock music coalesced in Memphis, particularly as 20th-century rural residents migrated to the city.

As a contrast, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music homes in on one musical style and the roller-coaster life of Stax Records. Stax started in 1957, and it was in 1960 that it assumed its internationally famous name, taking the first two letters of the founders’ names, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. Stax had a galaxy of stars: Among them were Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, the Mar-Keys, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye and the Staple Singers.

Perhaps Tennessee’s most famous historic hotel is the Peabody, known for its live ducks in a lobby fountain and an employee whose job title is duckmaster. Watching the ducks parade to and from the marble fountain is a treasured travel memory.

Off to the Mountains

Ever-popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park inspires many tours. The mountains have attracted generations of leisure travelers while inspiring the growth of three visitor-oriented communities. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville existed before the park, but oh, how they have changed.

Gatlinburg is hemmed in by the park and is the most walkable of the three. Some in your group might be tempted to walk the flat, 1.9-mile Gatlinburg Trail from the edge of town to the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center for one of the park service’s most informative videos. It explains the park’s geologic creation, Native American heritage, pioneer influences, wildlife diversity — salamanders outweigh bears in total mass — and how the park came to be dedicated in 1940.

Pigeon Forge, once a tiny farming community centered on an 1830 gristmill that’s still operating, is in a river valley and, therefore, has more open space than Gatlinburg. Its central parkway is lined with theaters, restaurants, hotels and a dizzying array of attractions. Among them are the Titanic Museum Attraction, which resembles the ill-fated ocean liner; a towering Ferris wheel; and a place for snow tubing year-round. Dollywood, Tennessee’s most-visited attraction, is inside the city limits barely three miles from the parkway’s action.

Sevierville, the county seat, became part of the visitor scene with outlet shopping, restaurants, more lodging, golf, an indoor water park and a statue of a famous local celebrity. No need to guess who: A country-girl Dolly Parton in bronze is one of Tennessee’s most popular selfie locations.

“The mountains are our magic,” said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “The Smokies bring visitors to our doorstep, and we are glad to entertain them, whether they explore deep into the national park or simply admire them from afar.”

Down to Chattanooga Way

Chattanooga is popular with tour operators and not just because it is so accessible via interstates 75 and 24. Its physical landmarks — Lookout Mountain and Moccasin Bend in the mighty Tennessee River — are just the start of its many appeals.

It’s difficult to think of Chattanooga without reciting the names of its three most notable attractions: Rock City, Ruby Falls and the Incline Railway.

Rock City — the attraction that nature created, a lover of European folklore enhanced and a barn painter made famous — has drawn visitors to the top of Lookout Mountain since 1932. Its claim of seeing seven states from Lover’s Leap is known far and wide. Owners Garnet and Frieda Carter designed the whimsical fairyland and commissioned Clark Byers to paint “See Rock City” on barns across 19 states. A tourism legend was born.

Nearby, but inside Lookout Mountain, is Ruby Falls, a massive show cave and underground waterfall. The cave, open since 1929, was one of the first to be commercially lighted, and owners label Ruby Falls the tallest and deepest publicly accessible waterfall in the nation. Visitors descend a 260-foot glass-front elevator to get the big view of the 145-foot-tall waterfall.

What the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway lacks in length, only one mile, it makes up for in scenery, a spectacular view of Chattanooga and the valley of the mighty Tennessee River. The funicular celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2020 by installing two new railcars with more window space, heating, new lighting and wheelchair accessibility. Build time into your schedule to take in the shops, restaurants and microbrewery tours in historic St. Elmo at the Incline’s lower station.

The Tennessee Aquarium opened in 1992 on the banks of the Tennessee River and is a youngster compared with its Lookout Mountain tourism cousins, but it is well on its way to treasured status as a group tour destination.

Back to the Hollow

Without doubt, Tennessee’s most famous export is an amber liquid in square bottles. Jack Daniel’s Whiskey is available almost everywhere in the world, but there’s only one distillery, and that’s in the tiny town of Lynchburg, 80 miles south of Nashville.

The Jack Daniel Distillery is exceedingly group friendly. For decades, visitors asked whether they could taste the product and were politely told that local law prevented that pleasure. A few years back, however, that changed, and you pick a dry tour only if that’s your desire.

After Jack Daniel birthed whiskey tourism in Tennessee, other distilleries began popping up, enough to inspire the 25-site Tennessee Whiskey Trail. If you wanted to, you could use it as a rough itinerary to visit tourism treasures all across Tennessee.

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