From the birthplace of rock and roll to the land of the Great Smokies, Tennessee vacations for families are ideal for those who desire music knowledge, a living history lesson, outdoor adventures, and nature experiences. Here are our favorite fun things to do in Tennessee with kids on a family vacation.
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Tennesee Vacations for Families- The Best Things to do in Tennessee with Kids in 2023
1. See Tennessee By Water
Tennessee vacations for families should always include time on or near the water. Luckily there are great opportunties all over the state to admire its history and beauty from the water.
What better way to 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.
You can also 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.
If you would prefer something a bit more adventurous, go whitewater rafting near the Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg with a guided river tour down the Big Pigeon River that can be catered to your family. There are introductory whitewater trips as well as more advanced trips that are a great 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 that is suitable for kids eight and over.
If you prefer to stay dry but still enjoy the water, hike out to see the tallest waterfall (at 256 feet) in the eastern United States in Fall Creek Falls State Park which is north of Chattanooga.
Check out 15 fun things to do in Chattanooga with kids.
2. Experience Living History on Your Tennessee Family Vacation
Tennessee is a state rich in Southern history and there are several great places to tour throughout the state.
Franklin specializes in making history come alive by offering a plethora of tours and events that allow for interactive history lessons. Both the Carter House and Carnton Plantation host a variety of tours and events. some which include a chance to “meet” Abraham Lincoln. Visiting this plantation is a great way to 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 Andrew Jackson, The Hermitage, and be greeted by costumed historical interpreters that prepare you for your tour. Families might be especially interested in the horse-drawn wagon tour which explore what life was like on this cotton plantation for Andrew Jackson and his family as well as his slaves.
While in Nashville you can also roam the mansion and grounds at the Belle Meade Plantation. Costumed guides lead the tours, and specialty tours are available include tours that specifically cater to families with children.
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 and there are a multitude of outdoor activities to enjoy (like hiking, canoeing, and rock climbing) while learning about the region’s trememdous history.
3. Discover Chattanooga- Choo Choos, Falls, Parks, & Aquariums!
Visiting Chattanooga is one of the best things to do in Tennessee with kids. There are a wide variety of family friendly activities and the scenery is beautiful.
About six miles outside of Chattanooga (the fourth largest city in Tennessee), is Lookout Mountain.
Within this area is Rock City, where one can see SEVEN states from one viewpoint. Climb boulders and squeeze through rock formations as you reach the lookout.
Also in Lookout Mountain is Ruby Falls where visitors 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.
Get all the details about these attractions and more in our article covering our 10 favorite things to do in Chattanooga with kids.
4. Discover Tennessee’s Amazing Musical Past and Present
Tennessee is famous for its music. These days it is known widely known as the epicenter of Country Music but Rock n’ Roll was born here and even The King, Elvis Presley, called Tennessee home.
Graceland in Memphis is certainly the most notorious home of a music legend. and over a half million people make the pilgrimage each year to tour his home.
At Sun Studios, also in Memphis, take a tour of where Johnny Cash and Elvis began their careers. The studio has been turned into a one-of-a-kind museum with almost all the original equipment used back in the 1950s, including the microphone!
Discover all the best things to to in Memphis with kids, including where to eat some classic Memphis barbecue.
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, a must for any fan of “The Man in Black”.
Also in Nashville is the Country Music Hall of Fame. There 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!
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.
5. Head up to Gatlinburg and Experience Smoky Mountain Fun
At the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the charming town of Gatlinburg.
For year-round fun, take a tram up the mountain with breathtaking views along the way to Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and Amusement Park. At the top of the mountain is an indoor ice-skating rink, snow tubing, skiing, a wildlife encounter, mountain coaster, water slide tube, alpine slide, and more!
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. or, walk the Gatlinburg Trail, a 1.9 mile (one way) mostly-flat path through the forest with river views.
Trekaroo families also recommend the Ripley’s Aquarium and suggest that you do not miss the shark tunnel.
Discover over 30 things to do in Gatlinburg.
6. Find More Than Country Music in Nashville
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 is home to 3,000 animals representing 350 species. It is known for its Kangaroo Kickabout where 17 red kangaroos hop about and guests have the opportunity to pet them! There are also many behing-the-scenes experiences that allow you to get up close with some of the zoo’s animals.
At the Frist Art Museum, 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.
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.
If you are looking for a fun and educational place to play, the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park is a 19-acre public (free) park is worth exploring.
It has a granite wall detailing Tennessee’s history, the Rivers of Tennessee fountains which are especially fun to play in on a hot summer day, 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.
7. Visit These Two Parks in Western Tennessee
When checking out the top things to do in Tennessee with kids, don’t skip 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. There is also a giraffe feeding and petting zoo.
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 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.
8. Get Moving in Memphis
Sure Memphis is known for Graceland and the artists who came out of Sun Studios, but this Tennessee city has unique, family-friendly appeal.
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 zoos in the US that has pandas! It also has 4500 other animals in exhibits that focus on wildlife from North America, Africa, and Asia.
Definitely make time to 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 hang out 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.
What better way to enjoy the might Mississippi River and the Memphis skyline than on a riverboat cruise? Some cruises even include food and live music!
You can’t truly enjoy Memphis without having some great food. Have a classic Southern breakfast at Arcade, the oldest cafe in Memphis. Then, grab Memphis-style bbq at Central BBQ or Rendezvous and listen to music on Beale Street while eating at Rum Boogie Cafe or Blues City Cafe.
Find more great eats and things to do in Memphis with kids in our guide to Memphis.
9. Visit Dolly’s Hometown of Pigeon Forge
As the jewel of this beautiful mountain town, Dolly Parton has poured her heart into Dollywood, a theme park with superb roller-coasters and live entertainment shows. Dollywood also has Splash Country, a water utopia including 23 slides and water rides, and two children’s playgrounds for the little ones.
Visit during the holiday season and experience Dollywood’s “Smoky Mountain Christmas” with four million holiday lights and extravagant holiday decorations
Trekaroo families also love Dolly Parton’s Stampede show and dinner. Watch the North versus the South in a friendly competition, be amazed by horse riding stunts, and feast on a four-course meal while listening to some great bluegrass music.
Also in Pigeon Forge is popular Titanic Museum and Wonderworks which has 100 hands-on exhibits including an indoor ropes course, earthquake and hurricane simulations, and the chance to find oneself inside a bubble!
10. Get Outside at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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. Try the 1.4-mile hike to Grotto Falls where you can go behind a waterfall without getting wet! 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.
Read our full guide to the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to help yor plan your visit.
Featured Image courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto
From coast to coast, we’re determining the Top 10 Things to do with Kids Across America in each state and dozens of cities in our great nation.