Tennessee is a state of many titles. From the birthplace of rock and roll to the land of the Great Smokies, Tennessee is a travel utopia for families who desire music knowledge, a living history lesson, outdoor adventures, and nature experiences. These are our choices for the top fun things to do in Tennessee with kids on a family vacation.
Fun Things to do in Tennessee with Kids
10. See Tennessee By Water
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Explore the mighty Mississippi on the Memphis Queen Line Riverboats. Take a 7 to 10-mile round trip cruise on a Paddlewheeler along the downtown Memphis Riverfront and experience a bit of Memphis history. Enjoy a daytime cruise on the General Jackson Showboat along the Cumberland River in Nashville. This 19th Century, 200-foot riverboat entertains as it shows off the Music City from a water perspective.
Just west of Pikeville is Fall Creek Falls State Park. Hike out to see the tallest waterfall (at 256 feet) in the eastern United States. Go whitewater rafting near the Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg areas with a guided river tour down the Big Pigeon River that can be catered to your little one with introductory whitewater or fit to challenge the older kids in your group.
Chattanooga has rafting down the Ocoee River for the adventurous type, but for more of a “water stroll” choose a guided kayak tour for kids 8 and over.
9. Experience Living History in Tennessee on a Family Vacation
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Making history come alive, Franklin, TN offers a plethora of tours and events that allow for interactive history lessons. Carnton Plantation hosts “Blue and Grey Days,” which includes a chance to meet Abraham Lincoln, watch a blacksmith, and learn about the Civil War era.
“Franklin on Foot” offers a Classic Franklin tour to learn the history of the town, a Civil War tour that shows the war “through the eyes of civilians and soldiers,” and even a Haunted Franklin tour in the evening for those looking for a little scare.
In Nashville, visit the home of President Jackson at The Hermitage and be greeted by costumed historical interpreters that prepare you for your tour. Try the new multimedia tour or allow the “historical interpreters stationed throughout the house tell you about Jackson, his family, and his home and answer any questions you have.”
Roam the mansion and grounds at the Belle Meade Plantation. Costumed guides lead the tours, and specialty tours are available, such as The Lemonade Tour that concludes with the southern specialty drink and mini desserts.
Chattanooga boasts Chickamauga Chattanooga National Military Park, the oldest and the largest military park in the nation. Civil War vets from both sides helped establish the park in 1889. The park spans across both Georgia and Tennessee (Lookout Mountain in Tennessee is one of the most pivotal points of the war), and 2013 brought the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.
8. Chattanooga – Choo Choos, Falls, Parks, and Aquariums!
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About six miles outside of Chattanooga (the fourth largest city in Tennessee), is Lookout Mountain. Visiting this town is one of the best things to do in Tennessee with kids!
Within this area is Rock City, where one can see SEVEN states from its’ perch. Climb boulders and squeeze through rock formations as you reach the lookout. Also in Lookout Mountain is Ruby Falls; travel 26 stories underground in an elevator to see the 145-foot magnificent falls.
While in Chattanooga, be sure to explore the Tennessee Aquarium with three living forests and ray and shark touch pools. The aquarium also has a 3D IMAX theater. The Creative Discovery Museum offers hands-on dinosaur excavation, music making, and lessons with pulleys and levers at the Rooftop Fun Factory.
Ride back into history on a restored vintage train at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. This “moving museum” is a regularly scheduled and full-sized train experience. The Chattanooga Choo Choo is a 24-acre complex that includes an antique trolley ride and model railroad museum. Stay at the old train stationed converted into the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel and get the chance to sleep in a rail car. Coolidge Park beckons a cool down time with water fountains and a spin on a 100-year-old restored carousel. Cross the world’s largest pedestrian bridge (Walnut Street) to go explore downtown Chattanooga.
7. Learn More About Music Legends
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Tennessee is famous for its music. Although it is known widely for its country music, rock n’ roll was born here, and even The King made it his home. Graceland in Memphis, TN, the most notorious home of a music legend, allows you to tour the mansion of Elvis Presley, his car collection, custom jets, and new for 2013, a Vegas and Hawaii concert collection.
At Sun Studios, also in Memphis, take a tour of where Johnny Cash and Elvis began their careers. Kids 5 to 11 are complementary, but children under 5 are not allowed on the tours. Take a free shuttle from Graceland to the studio.
A collection of Johnny Cash’s guitars, handwritten lyrics, awards, and pieces of his former home are on display in Nashville at the Johnny Cash Museum. Kids 5 and under get in for free.
Also in Nashville is the Country Music Hall of Fame. Displayed here are exhibits focusing on oral traditions, still images, and country music artifacts. Past exhibits have included a wide range of women in country music from Taylor Swift to Tammy Wynette. Several times throughout the year, the Hall offers the Musical Petting Zoo, where children can try out different instruments used in country music!
One Saturday a year, families have the chance to participate in learning about tracking, mixing, and mastering: the three basic phases of recording. Take a daytime tour at the Grand Ole Opry in Music City, Nashville or see a performance Tuesday, Friday, or Saturday. Walk where the most infamous of country stars have walked as they prepared to perform on THE country music stage.
6. Enjoy Gatlinburg’s Goings-On on a Tennesee Family Vacation
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At the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains is the town of Gatlinburg. Take a tram up the mountain with breathtaking views of Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and Amusement Park. At the top of the mountain is an indoor ice-skating rink, along with a Wildlife Encounter, water slide tube, and Alpine Slide.
During the winter, skiing and snowboarding are available higher up the mountain. Explore the Smoky Mountains by zipline with Ziplines Family Adventure. Trained guides take you through the treetops overlooking Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky National Park.
An optional 26 element ropes course and 30-foot free fall are available as well. Another option is to view the mountains by trail on a well-trained horse with an experienced guide at the Smoky Mountain Riding Stables.
Try your hand at Hillbilly Minigolf. This putt-putt differs from other mini-golf courses because it’s on the side of a mountain under the trees.
Trekaroo families recommend the Ripley’s Aquarium and suggest that you do not miss the shark tunnel. Walk the Gatlinburg Trail, a 1.9 mile (one way) mostly-flat path through the forest with river views. Stroll the Riverwalk to explore downtown Gatlinburg.
Discover over 30 things to do in Gatlinburg.
5. Find More Than Country Music in Nashville
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Known mostly for its output of stellar country music, Nashville also is a city for families. At the Nashville Children’s Theater, kid-friendly shows expose children to the joy of theater. Classes, workshops, and camps are also available.
Discover the planetarium with a star or laser show at the Adventure Science Center. Feel what it’s like to walk on the moon in the Space Chase exhibit. Children 3-5 can join the Center’s Little Labs Program, which has age-appropriate crafts and lab activities.
The Nashville Zoo highlights Down Under with their Kangaroo Kickabout where 17 red kangaroos call this zoo home in this 4500-square-foot Australian landscape.
At the Frist Center for the Arts, children under 18 are always free. In the Martin ArtQuest Gallery children can explore 30 hands-on activities. The Frist Center “seeks to be family-friendly” encouraging questions and sketching of the pieces of art displayed. The Kids Club Program is for budding artists ages 5 to 10.
In lieu of traveling to Athens, The Parthenon in Nashville is a full-scale replica of the original in Greece. Located in Centennial Park, the 42-foot Athena pulls focus in this extravagant 1897 structure, and the art museum inside only adds to the glory.
The Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park is a 19-acre public (free) park that has a granite wall detailing Tennessee’s history, the Rivers of Tennessee fountains, and a bell tower with 95 bells that chime Tennessee songs at the top of the hour.
Heading to Nashville without the kids? Check out this itinerary for a 3-day weekend getaway in Nashville.
4. See the Best Things to do in Western Tennessee
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When checking out the top things to do in Tennessee with kids, don’t skip the West! Tennessee is split into three parts-the East, the middle, and the West. Two parks in the west bring exciting experiences for a kid-friendly travel.
The Tennessee Safari Park in Alamo, TN, has more than 400 animals, where kids can feed, pet, and take photos of the animals as they are traveling within the drive-thru safari tour. The park is located on Hillcrest Farms, a farm given as a land grant to settle the south from President Andrew Jackson. Agricultural land since the 1860s, the farm still produces cotton, along with the variety of animals that call the farm/safari park home.
The Discovery Park of America in Union City, TN gives visitors a “world-class educational and entertainment experience” in this 50-acre complex. The exhibits include log cabins, a 110-year-old church, train station, a theater simulation of the 1811-12 earthquakes, and a 20,000-gallon aquarium. Encompassing nature, science, technology, history, and art, this park brings learning through fun all together in one place.
3. Get Movin’ In Memphis
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Sure Memphis is known for Graceland and the artists who came out of Sun Studios, but this Tennessee city has unique, family-friendly appeal. The Pink Palace has a museum that chronicles the cultural and natural history of the South, along with its own planetarium.
With an Earthquake Simulator, Honeybee Hives, and Bookatorium, The Children’s Museum of Memphis helps kids learn through interactive exhibits. The Memphis Zoo is one of the only three zoos in the US that has pandas!
Come watch the historic Duck March at the Peabody Hotel. At 11am and 5pm, the Peabody Duckmaster leads the ducks on their duck march down the red carpet. Performing since the 1940’s, the ducks reside in the marble fountain inside the hotel lobby when not marching.
Enjoy the Main Street Trolley by taking the Riverfront Loop route along the Mighty Mississippi. These vintage trolleys have been restored to their original beauty and are a fun and economical way to see downtown Memphis.
The Crystal Shrine Grotto located in the Memorial Park Cemetery is a man-made crystal cave. Admission is free to see the crystals form frames of scenes that depict the Nativity, the Last Supper, and the Resurrection, among other stories of Christ. While there, discover the fountain of youth, a wishing well, and Abraham’s Oak, a fake oak tree large enough to walk through.
2. See Dolly’s Home Town in Pigeon Forge
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Pigeon Forge, TN boasts the chance to see the great Dolly Parton as the Grand Marshal of the local parade once a year. As the Jewel of this beautiful mountain town, Dolly has poured her heart into Dollywood, a theme park with superb roller-coasters and live entertainment shows.
The nation’s first dual-launch family coaster, the FireChaser Express, blasts riders forward AND backward. Dollywood’s Splash Country is a water utopia including 23 slides and water rides, and two children’s playgrounds for the little ones. Experience Dollywood’s “Smoky Mountain Christmas” with four million holiday lights and extravagant holiday decorations
Trekaroo families love the Dixie Stampede show and dinner. Watch the North versus the South in a friendly competition, be amazed by horse riding stunts, and feast on a 4-course meal, all while listening to some great bluegrass music.
Also in Pigeon Forge is The Titanic Museum with a yearlong tribute of 133 stories for the children on the Titanic. Wonderworks is as much family fun as one can get with 100 hands-on exhibits including an indoor ropes course, earthquake and hurricane simulations, and the chance to find oneself inside a bubble!
1.The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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Family-friendly hikes abound in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of the most popular is a 2.6 -mile hike to the 80-foot high Laurel Falls.
For the chance to go behind a waterfall without getting wet, try the 1.4-mile hike to Grotto Falls. The Metcalf Bottoms Trail is an easy 1.4-mile nature walk that ends at the Little Greenbrier School, built in 1882.
For a more moderate hike and a spectacular view, the 1.3-miles to the Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains at 6,643 feet. Although the last half-mile is very steep, the tower at the top offers a 360-degree view of the Smokies.
The lowest pass through the Great Smoky Mountains is Newfound Gap at 5,046 feet. The trees (such as the evergreen spruce-fir) along the Newfound Gap Road are similar to the New England forests. Ideal leaf-peeping happens mid-October to early-November.
Cade’s Cove is an 11-mile driving loop that passes the churches, barns, and homesteads of the original settlers. There are 159 campsites along this route and wildlife, including black bears and white-tailed deer, abound.
To see nature in her full glory, plan your trip in June to witness the Synchronous fireflies. Tens of thousands of fireflies (more accurately beetles) blink their lights at dusk in synchronized patterns.This mating ritual lasts for about two weeks. A reservation system controls the large crowds trying to get into the park to see it, but if you’re willing to walk, hike into Cades Cove to see the magical night show.
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From coast to coast, we’re determining the Top 10 Things to do with Kids Across America in each state of our great nation.