I’m going to assume you’d like to experience the Essential Tennessee. Sure, you could spend a week eating, drinking, shopping, and sightseeing your way through all of NashVegas, and of course you’ll spend some time in historic Murfreesboro. But you want to see more than just Music City, delightful as it is. Right? Here are a few ideas (in no particular order) …
- The Great Smoky Mountains
Hop on I-40 headed toward Knoxville. Past Kingston, take highway 321 through Lenoir City, Maryville, and Townsend; make a reservation for the night at one of the area hotels. Then catch East Larmar Alexander Parkway and meander though the Great Smoky Mountains National Park until you get to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. You’re headed to Clingman’s Dome for a fabulous view from the highest point in the Smokies.
Go back to Townsend and the next morning—if it’s a weekday and not a holiday, otherwise the traffic can be unpleasant—stop at Cades Cove, a beautiful valley with a convenient loop for sightseeing. There’s lots of wildlife and lots of history, too: the National Parl Service says, “Scattered along the loop road are three churches, a working grist mill, barns, log houses, and many other faithfully restored eighteenth- and nineteenth-century structures.”
Alternate: I’ve always loved Norris Dam State Park, north of Knoxville.
- Two Sides to Historic Downtown Nashville
Take a stroll around the lower Broad area—where all the tourists hang—just to say you did. Do the Two-Sides Two-Step: take in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (duck into the historic—since 1879— Hatch Show Print while you’re at it), then “two-step” across the street and tour the state-of-the-art Schermerhorn Symphony Center (only on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1pm, but check first).
Hungry? Stroll up to the Arcade and grab a slice at Manny’s House of Pizza (New York style) then browse the art galleries. Keep going up to the Tennessee State Capitol building (construction completed in 1859), a National Historic Landmark and a lovely example of Greek Revival architecture. As you head back to Broad Street, check in with the Nashville Public Library and ask to see the Civil Rights Collection. Definitely worth your time.
End your day at the Ryman Auditorium—because you bought tickets for a show, didn’t you? It’s a spectacular place. First stop and have a drink at the historic Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge—just like all the musicians playing the Ryman used to do.
- The Natchez Trace Parkway
The old Natchez Trace was a footpath through the forest—approximately 440 miles from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee—created by Native Americans as they followed foraging bison, deer, and other large game. You can still walk this path if you’ve got the time. But the National Park Service maintains a highway (the Natchez Trace Parkway) along the route—and I get chills just thinking about it (because I love it that much). The Trace has been Designated an All-American Road by the US Department of Transportation. The scenery is simply spectacular.
You don’t have time to go all the way to Mississippi … but it’s just over a hundred miles to the Tennessee/Alabama border, and that’s doable. Here are some links to help you find points of interest:
You’ll need to eat, of course, so start—or end up (or both!)—at the much-beloved Loveless Café.
Alternate: Take a detour to see Shiloh National Military Park, site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Though it is 140 miles from Murfreesboro, the booms of the guns at Shiloh could be heard here. It is a sobering thought.
- Chattanooga Is More Than a Choo-Choo
Chattanooga is just about an hour and a half drive from Murfreesboro, and it’s lovely. Hop on I-24 and on your way, follow the signs to Lookout Mountain—from which you really can see [at least] three states. Don’t bother with Rock City or Ruby Falls (unless you’re a fan of kitsch, in which case knock yourself out), but do check out Point Park, a Civil War site.
Now head on down to the Chattanooga riverfront and check out the Tennessee Aquarium. It’s one of my favorite places to send visitors. There’s been a major expansion since I was last there, but the original River Journey is alone worth the price of admission.
You’re probably ready for something to eat—or at least a cup of coffee—so find your way to the Bluff View Art District, where you can eat, shop, and just admire the view of the historic Walnut Street Bridge. It’s a pedestrian bridge now, and has a spectacular view itself.
Alternate: There’s a lot of white-water rafting to be had just east of Chattanooga, if you’re up for it.
- Antiques, Whiskey, and Peach Cobbler
Murfreesboro once billed itself as the antiques center of the south, and there are still several well-stocked antiques malls in town. But to get your hands into one of those old-timey delightful junk stores, you’re going to have to go to Bell Buckle. We like taking highway 269, which is not far from our house.
Bell Buckle is home to about 500 people and Webb School. Around here we know it for the humongous arts and crafts fair that happens every year during the third weekend in October, and as a good Sunday afternoon drive. But it has a quaint downtown and lots of antiques stores. While you’re there, drop in to the Bell Buckle Café for lunch—or just cobbler and coffee.
Continue your jaunt by heading in to Shelbyville and thence to Lynchburg—home of the Jack Daniels Distillery.
Alternate: Head down I-24 to Sewanee, Tennessee, home of the University of the South. Be sure to visit the Sewanee Memorial Cross, which is a memorial to students who served in the US armed forces. The view is spectacular.
**Thanks to my friend Kevin Tucker who gave me many of these itinerary ideas.