Americans love our road trips, and there are so many amazing routes to take around the country. For an awesome road trip through Tennessee, USA, start by getting your fill of food and music in Nashville, then head for the scenic Great Smoky Mountains.
There’s no denying that Nashville, Tennessee is getting a lot of attention at the moment. The southern city is booming: it’s full of great restaurants, lively nightlife, and more people are moving in each day.
Music City really is a fantastic place to spend a couple days, but your time in Tennessee shouldn’t end there. Make sure you hit the road and head east to experience its picturesque landscape, particularly the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s about a three hour drive from Nashville to the Smokies. Up in the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll find outdoor recreation, great food, and wonderful views.
Here’s your travel guide for how to balance the city and the country on a road trip in Tennessee, USA.
In the City: Nashville
Where to Stay in Nashville
A great area to stay in Nashville during your Tennessee Road Trip is East Nashville. With East Nashville as your home base, you can easily see everything you’d like during your visit.
East Nashville is located just across the Cumberland River from the downtown area of Nashville. This neighborhood is full of hip shops, restaurants, and bars, so you’re bound to be within walking distance of some great spots.
While it’s not downtown, it’s close enough for you to easily hop over to the honky tonks and tourist attractions, without being right in the middle of the hustle and bustle.
What to Do in Nashville
Experience the Music
When in Nashville, experiencing the food and the music should be at the top of your list. Let’s start with how to get your fill of music during your Tennessee road trip. The city is brimming with it, truly living up to its “Music City” nickname.
Make your way over to Broadway and wander through the honky tonks and bars. Broadway is a street that starts at the river and continues through downtown. It’s lined with restaurants, bars, and live music venues, all bustling with activity.
While Broadway is a pretty touristy area, the number of music venues and performers are no less impressive, and it’s definitely worth a visit during your time in Nashville.
Two of the best places for a drink and a show sit at either end of the busy section Broadway.
One is Acme Feed & Seed, right near the river. This large, multi-level venue that serves a variety of cuisine and craft beverages along with its live music. The music venue and eatery opened in 2014, but it’s housed in a historic building that’s been a local landmark since 1890.
Acme Feed & Seed is open daily at 101 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37201.
Another honky tonk to visit is Robert’s Western World. Robert’s Western World is located on Lower Broadway and is known as “Nashville’s Home of Traditional Country Music.” The venue serves up bar food, drinks, and live music every day of the week.
Robert’s Western World is open daily at 416B Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203.
Check out the Record Stores
To experience more music in Nashville, browse its record stores.
While bar hopping on Broadway, stop into Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Founded by the country music pioneer, the shop specializes in hard-to-find country music and memorabilia.
Ernest Tubb Record Shop is open daily at 417 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203.
Not too far from Broadway is the Third Man Records store. The label and its adjoining shop were started by Jack White of The White Stripes. The sleek shop features local music, books, and decor.
Third Man Records is open daily at 623 7th Ave S, Nashville, TN 37203.
Finally, while you’re over in East Nashville, pop into your nearest shop, such as The Groove, for even more local flavor.
The Groove is open daily at 1103 Calvin Ave, Nashville, TN 37206.
See the Musical Landmarks
Another way to get your fill of music in Nashville is to visit its museums and landmarks.
One of Nashville’s most famous landmarks is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum right next to the Music City Walk of Fame Park. The Country Music Hall of Fame is dedicated to showcasing and preserving the sound and history of country music. It’s a great spot to visit for any country music fan.
Currently, general admission tickets for the museum are $25.95. However, prices vary depending on which experiences or exhibitions you want to see, and discounts are available for children, seniors, members of the military, and more. The Country Music Hall of Fame is open daily at 222 5th Ave S, Nashville, TN 37203.
Another famous Nashville sight is the Johnny Cash Museum. The museum features exhibits and memorabilia dedicated to the Man in Black.
General admission tickets are $19.95 with discounts for children, seniors, members of the military, and more. The Johnny Cash Museum is open daily at 119 3rd Ave S, Nashville, TN 37201.
Eat (and Drink)!
Now, onto the best part of any trip, the food. For some of the best food, you can stay local in East Nashville.
Sky Blue Cafe
For breakfast, pop into the Sky Blue Cafe. Their classic breakfast plates and breakfast bowls are a perfect way to start a day of exploring, and the trivia cards on the table make for a fun morning. Just make sure to get there early or you’ll find a long wait.
Sky Blue Cafe is open daily at 700 Fatherland St, Nashville, TN 37206.
For some delicious cocktails and innovative bar snacks, stop by Rosemary. This fairly new bar is in a converted house and is so unassuming from the outside that you’ll find yourself double checking the address (if not for the guy checking IDs outside, it might go completely unnoticed). Try the remake/remodel cocktail and the bao buns.
Rosemary is open daily at 1102 Forrest Ave, Nashville, TN 37206.
At some point, you’ll need some coffee, as most travelers do. For a serious caffeine fix, stop by Barista Parlor. This hip shop boasts some really, really good coffee. Opt for a classic latte or a plain ol’ cup of joe.
Barista Parlor is open daily at 519 Gallatin Ave B, Nashville, TN 37206.
Butcher & Bee
If you’re open to a trendy restaurant that’s on the pricier side, book a table at Butcher & Bee. The restaurant has been getting a lot of buzz lately, though for good reason. The menu is a selection of small plates, making it a great way to sample a variety of fare.
Butcher & Bee is open daily (but closed between 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.). The restaurant is located at 902 Main St, Nashville, TN 37206.
Finally, a last note about food, when in Nashville, you must eat hot chicken.
If you’re open to standing in line, you can stop by one of the famous hot chicken restaurants (like Hattie B’s), if you haven’t the time for that, grab some elsewhere. Just make sure you try some somewhere in town.
Getting Around in Nashville
Nashville isn’t a very large city, so it’s not too difficult to get around. The most convenient way to get around is by car. Nashville does have a public transportation system, but it currently only has buses.
If you plan to continue on a road trip from Nashville, you’ll probably already have a car with you in Nashville. However, you probably won’t want to drive around the city that much. Nothing is too spread out, so utilizing ride sharing apps like Lyft and Uber are a great way to get around. Plus, there are local taxis as well.
In the Country: The Great Smoky Mountains
After you’ve had your fill of the city, it’s time to hit the road and head east to the Great Smoky Mountains. To get to the Smokies from Nashville, you’ll take highway I-40 east.
The Tennessee landscape is truly scenic, making it the perfect road trip setting. You’ll see trees perched atop tall, jagged rock faces lining the roadway, rivers winding through clusters of trees, and mountains touching the wide, blue sky. (It’s just as Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”)
When in the mountains, your main goals are easy: relax and enjoy the scenery.
Where to Stay in the Great Smoky Mountains
There are several small towns around the base of the Great Smoky Mountains, including Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg. All these towns are fairly near each other and close to the mountains.
As far as accommodations go in the Smokies, choose stay in a cabin. In a cabin, you can really appreciate the atmosphere of the mountains.
There are lots of cabin rental companies in the area, but one good one is Volunteer Cabin Rentals. Whether you want a one bedroom or seven bedroom cabin, they’ve got options for all sizes and budgets.
Plus, plenty of cabins offer breathtaking views of the valley below. With a cabin you’ll have a relaxing place to call home while up in the mountains.
What to do in the Great Smoky Mountains
Make the most of your Tennessee road trip by taking in all the beautiful scenery. When it comes to enjoying the bucolic setting, you’ve got to choose your own adventure.
You may want to make your way up into Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hike its trails and explore all it has to offer. The park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and is full of hiking trails, wildlife, and beautiful views.
There is no entrance fee for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Just make sure to check any road closures and advisories before your visit.
On the other hand, you may elect to simply take in the view from your cabin’s balcony, drink and book in hand. Depending on your cabin’s location, this just might be the perfect vacation activity.
Whatever your method of outdoor recreation, the Smokies will fill you with a sense of peace and appreciation for this natural setting.
While most time is spent relaxing at the cabin, you’re bound to go out for a meal or two.
When you do, head to Elvira’s Cafe in Sevierville. They offer up flavorful, fresh food made using local ingredients. It’s best for breakfast or lunch and make sure not to miss out on the biscuits and gravy.
Elvira’s Cafe is open Tuesday through Sunday and closed Monday, but hours may vary by season. The cafe is located at 4143 Wears Valley Rd, Sevierville, TN 37862.
Getting Around the Smokies
The only way to get around in the Great Smoky Mountains is by car. There are some private bus tours, but there aren’t any nearby train stations.
So, to get the most out of your trip to the Smokies, you’ll want to drive. Plus, as it’s a road trip, you’ll have your own car anyway. This way you have the freedom to go wherever you want to go during your trip.
Road Trip Tip: Make Pit Stops
Don’t forget to make a pit stop at a classic southern restaurant during your road trip in Tennessee. There are plenty of southern staples, like Cracker Barrel and Waffle House, along highway 40 to keep you full throughout your journey.
In fact, take some time to pull off the highway for whatever catches your eye. Vantage point? Book store? Roadside attraction? Whatever it is, allow some time in your itinerary to enjoy the freedom of road trip pit stops.
Whether you fancy yourself more of a city cat or a country mouse, you’ll find enjoyment in the hustle and bustle of Nashville and the calm of the Great Smoky Mountains. This balance between the city and country will help make the most of your time in Tennessee. Cheers, y’all!