Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Vistas and Voices in East Tennessee

Long and lean Tennessee, stretching 500 interstate miles from Bristol to Memphis, divides itself into three regions — east, middle and west. But you don’t have to unfold the map past east Tennessee to have an overabundance of destinations for a multi-day tour. In fact, you can hug the state’s far eastern edge and do quite fine visiting Chattanooga, Knoxville, the Great Smoky Mountains and Bristol.



Chattanooga relegated its gritty industrial history to the past in recent decades and has evolved into an enjoyable and picturesque destination filled with attractions and opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities.

The signature location to view this city of 184,000 residents is atop Lookout Mountain at Rock City, one of America’s most recognized attractions. Red and black painted barns with the simple messages of “See Rock City” and “See 7 States” made this collection of ancient rock formations, sculpted gardens and the Lovers Leap overlook famous. On a clear day, you perhaps can see seven states from Lovers Leap, although you might have to squint to see Virginia and South Carolina.

Rock City has notable neighbors on Lookout Mountain. Ruby Falls is a waterfall inside the mountain — yes, inside. An elevator takes you 260 feet inside the mountain for a one-mile cave tour to and from a 145-foot waterfall. A rainbow of theatrical lights makes the waterfall all the more memorable and photo-worthy for distinctive tour group images.

Also on the mountain are the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, where the National Park Service recounts the story of the Civil War engagement called “The Battle Above the Clouds,” and the upper station of the Incline Railway. The bright red and yellow cars on this funicular rail system offer gentle, but quite steep, rides of about half a mile with a 1,450-foot elevation difference. Toward the top, the cars are at a 72.7% grade.

As you see from Rock City, a sweeping bend of the Tennessee River wraps around downtown Chattanooga, and the river was an inspiration for the top-rated Tennessee Aquarium. The first of its two glass-topped buildings opened in 1992 and was dedicated to freshwater ecosystems, using the Tennessee River basin as its example. Since then, it added an equally large aquarium dedicated to saltwater ecosystems and an IMAX theater.

Aquarium vice president and chief communications/marketing officer Thom Benson notes that his attraction allows groups to spread out and serve as a rendezvous point for exploring much of the city center. The aquarium is next to the 16.1-mile Chattanooga Riverwalk, and a short stroll takes you to the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Bluff View Art District, a compact area of restaurants, gardens, an art gallery, outdoor sculptures and more panoramic views of the river.

Two slightly quirky attractions add to Chattanooga’s group appeal. One is the Coker Museum, one man’s personal collection of 130 vintage cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses — plus three airplanes suspended from the ceiling of a 13,000-square-foot industrial space. The other is the International Towing and Recovery Museum, which makes sense given that the tow truck was invented in Chattanooga.


The biggest group events in Knoxville occur every fall when more than 100,000 people ease into Neyland Stadium for University of Tennessee home football games. But there are plenty of other — and decidedly smaller — group events and destinations in this city. Like Chattanooga, they evolved along the Tennessee River.

The city’s core is vibrant. Overlooking it all is the Sunsphere, the landmark structure of the 1982 World’s Fair. The superstructure of the towering building crowned with a golden sphere got a paint job in 2023 that recaptured the PANTONE Classic Blue color from the fair year. A new welcome center will be completed this year.

Nearby Gay Street has been an integral part of Knoxville’s development since the 1790s. Today, it is a visitor magnet with two historic theaters (the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou Theatre), retail (including a spacious Mast General Store), entertainment venues (an example is Maple Hall, an 11-lane bowling alley/lounge in what formerly was a J.C. Penney store) and a historic attraction (the Museum of East Tennessee).

Market Square, just a block off Gay Street, is another active district. It dates to 1854, when two businessmen donated land for public use. Today, it is an open space surrounded by shops, restaurants and entertainment and often filled with special events and a seasonal farmers market.

Visit Knoxville’s own visitor center offers the treat of a live music radio show, “The Blue Plate Special,” at noon five days a week. On Fridays, the free show goes to a bigger venue, Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria, in the Old City. The Old City neighborhood is an attraction itself with galleries, coffee shops, restaurants, breweries, distilleries and music venues. Nearby, construction of a multi-sport 7,000-seat stadium for minor league baseball, professional soccer, concerts, festivals and other events is on pace for completion in 2025.

In addition to its brick-and-mortar attractions, Knoxville brags on its opportunities to get active in the outdoors. Just three miles from downtown is Ijams Nature Center, 318 acres of forests, meadows, wetlands and creeks laced with 14 miles of trails and even a lake with rental kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. Other locations for outdoor activities include the UT Gardens and the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum.

Of course, you’re never too far from the Tennessee River, and there’s certainly a way to enjoy Knoxville on the water. That’s aboard the Star of Knoxville paddlewheel riverboat. Splash along for simple sightseeing trips or a lunch or dinner cruise.

Into the Great Smoky Mountains

There are some spots in Knoxville where the horizon in adjacent Sevier County is one of America’s premier attractions — Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In between are the three gateway communities of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, whose lodging, restaurants, entertainment and attractions complement the grandeur of the ancient mountains.

The champion attraction is Dollywood, the theme park inspired by local legend Dolly Parton. It is Tennessee’s most visited ticketed attraction. Live entertainment, homestyle cooking, mountain crafts and thrill rides (roller coaster names include the Tennessee Tornado, Wild Eagle and Mystery Mine) are fundamental to the theme park experience. Dollywood expanded its on-site lodging when it opened HeartSong Lodge and Resort (302 rooms) in 2023 to accompany the already popular DreamMore Resort and Spa (300 rooms).

New this year is the Dolly Parton Experience, a multifaceted attraction located in several buildings. Its exhibits examine Dolly’s life, from growing up in rural Tennessee to reigning over stages around the world. It is three times the size of the former Chasing Rainbows Museum, its predecessor.

Dolly’s spirit resonates throughout the region, and one of the most popular sites for groups to visit is a statue of the Country Music Hall of Fame member in downtown Sevierville. Group and individual photos with Dolly in bronze lock in memories of an east Tennessee tour.

SkyLand Ranch is a new attraction in Sevierville (the first phase opened in 2022). Components include a chairlift, a 1.25-mile mountain coaster called the Wild Stallion, live entertainment and a facility for personal encounters with miniature horses, donkeys, cows, goats and sheep. It’s a fitting touch for land that once was a 100-acre farm.

Gatlinburg, the original visitor destination adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, continues its appeal with tenured attractions such as the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts (the oldest craft school in Tennessee) and newer ones such as Anakeesta.

Anakeesta is a multi-component attraction best known for AnaVista, a modernist-looking observation tower. The payoff for climbing its 84 steps is a 360-degree view of the national park and surrounding countryside. Beneath AnaVista are botanical gardens, restaurants, a canopy walk with 16 suspended bridges, a zipline and a rappelling adventure.


Bristol is one of those cities with a bit of a split personality. The split is the state line between Tennessee and Virginia, and it’s usually difficult to tell which state you’re in. For example, without the line painted down the middle of State Street, you might have to ask whether you’re shopping in Tennessee or dining in Virginia.

Bristol is bustling now with new hotels, a casino on the Virginia side and big races at the Bristol Motor Speedway, but its enduring claim to fame is “the big bang of country music.” That’s the nickname given to a 10-day recording session in 1927 that marked the blastoff of commercial country music.

New York record producer Ralph Peer ventured into the mountains to find artists to record. He found legends, including the Carter Family (the “First Family of Country Music”) and Jimmie Rodgers (the “Father of Country Music”). That history is celebrated at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, which marked its 10th anniversary in 2024.

A tour stop there leaves your tour guests singing “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” or other classics and locks east Tennessee into their travel memories.