When you think of Tennessee, there's a good chance that places like Memphis, Nashville, and Graceland immediately come to mind. While the state's most popular tourist sites are must-visits, no Tennessee vacation would be complete without dropping by some of their oldest and most unique municipalities.
Small-town communities are the best places to connect with what Tennesseans value, from the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains to the historic hamlets left behind by early settlers.
The history of Tennessee's oldest town began in the 18th century when Jonesborough was a stop along an old stagecoach trail. Head for the historic downtown and immerse yourself in the past by taking a Heritage Alliance guided tour of the oldest museums and historic sites. Then take a leisurely walk along picturesque Main Street to browse the quaint shops and local eateries. Check out the National Storytelling Festival if you're in town in October. Each fall, the event puts world-renowned storytellers onstage to captivate audiences of over 10,000 listeners.
With only 4,000 residents, Gatlinburg is a small town with a big personality and a long itinerary of things to do. Exploring the city is easy when you hop on and off the vintage trolleys; they follow seven routes exploring everything from downtown hotspots and restaurants to galleries and theaters. Still, you haven't experienced Gatlinburg until you visit the Smoky Mountains. Whether you hike the Appalachian Trail, cast your fly fishing line, or drive the Newfound Gap Road, the Smokies are sure to nourish your soul.
Spend some time downtown and explore the historic storefronts packed with quaint shops and unique restaurants. Then head to the WestSide, Cookeville's cultural district, to learn more about the 1850s boom town and to browse the retail shops. What makes Cookeville truly special is its access to outdoor adventure. Walk the trails at a natural area or one of six state parks, witness the deafening power of a majestic waterfall, or cruise the beautiful backroads and scenic routes on a motorcycle.
Franklin is a perfect fit for the traveler who prefers a more refined experience. The downtown area's main thoroughfare — which resides on the National Register of Historic Places — is like a postcard of classic Main Street, America. Window shop the trendy shops and art galleries, or download the self-guided walking tour to learn more about historic architecture. Finish your trip with a visit to The Factory at Franklin, a modernized shopping complex with boutiques, galleries, and restaurants.
Just outside of downtown Franklin, you'll find the charming village of Leiper's Fork. This beautiful countryside town isn't just a lucky find along the scenic Natchez Trace Highway. It's also a creative haven home to upscale boutiques, high-end art galleries, and a small-batch whiskey distillery. Satisfy your craving for BBQ and country music at the Fox & Locke, or sit in a rocking chair along the retail marketplace to slow down and appreciate the country vibes.
Bell Buckle is a charming, tree-filled village nestled among the picturesque farmlands and rolling hills of Tennessee country. The small town is about the size of a square city block, so pack your walking shoes and explore the historic city on foot. Bell Buckle's claim to fame is its abundance of antique shops along the main road. Each retailer claims its own brand of antiques, with something for every budget. Head for the small boutiques for something a bit more modern, then settle in at the Bell Buckle Cafe for some comfort food.
Lynchburg may be a small town, but it's home to one of the biggest and most recognizable companies in the U.S. The Jack Daniels Distillery — the oldest registered distillery in the country, is the only place that produces the renowned Tennessee Whiskey. Choose from a selection of tours and tastings, then stop by the Lynchburg Hardware and General Store for some memorabilia. The distillery sees a quarter million visitors a year, which means you'll find exceptional restaurants, bars, and an abundance of retail and antiques shopping downtown.
If you plan to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there's a good chance you'll find yourself in Townsend. The gorgeous mountain community is perfect for outdoor lovers, with hiking, horseback riding, fishing, cycling, and camping on the itinerary. If you're into scenic drives, set your GPS for Cades Cove, a lush valley in the Smoky Mountains. The 11-mile loop circles the landscape, which provides several locations to stop and see wildlife or get back in touch with nature.
Side trips are perfect for diving deeper into regional history, or for discovering niche communities and trendy new neighborhoods. Columbia is the best of both worlds. Downtown you'll find historic buildings among the shops and restaurants, and breweries or tap rooms to enjoy the atmosphere. A short walk from downtown takes you to the Arts District, an artistic haven where artists and artisans celebrate good food, good drinks, and contemporary art culture. It's no wonder why this vibrant village makes regular appearances on Top Small Town lists.
Crossville and Cumberland County are easily the golf capital of Tennessee. You'll find nine championship courses at this golfer's paradise catering to all skill levels, all with gorgeous views of the rolling green hills of the Cumberland Plateau. From the impressive Jack Nicklaus-designed course at Cumberland Mountain State Park to the luxurious greens at local resorts, Crossville is a golfer's dream. Afterward, head downtown to check out local museums, wine tasting, and shopping at the Antique Village Mall.
Historic Rogersville isn't just the second-oldest town in the state. It was also home to the grandparents of Davy Crockett, the American folk hero. Rogersville's founders settled along a well-traveled 18th-century stage road, building taverns and inns to accommodate passing visitors. Relive those days in the downtown district, which remains an homage to the era with its Federal-style architecture, brick sidewalks, and antique light posts. Museums and heritage sites tell the town's history while local shops and eateries dishing out Southern comfort food keep you in vacation mode.
Maryville is a rural retreat with a modernized vibe. Locals and visitors sip local brews and wines, dine on farm-to-table cuisines, and browse fresh produce at the farmer's market. The nightlife is equally exciting, with stage shows, art galleries, concerts, and drive-thru movies on the list. Either way, you can't miss the majestic Smokies in the distance. Maryville is at the doorstep of some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. Spend a day tubing on the Smoky Mountain River, driving on the Natchez Trace Parkway, or hiking along the achingly beautiful crest of Bote Mountain.
At first glance, Livingston's town square looks like it came from a classic, coming-of-age film. With its quaint architecture, neatly manicured main streets, and thriving retail storefronts and eateries, this historic gem is the quintessential portrait of Small Town America. Browse vintage goodies at the 1806 General Store or the antique markets, then stop by downtown for some local brews and delicious eats.
Pulaski attracts visitors with its beautiful historic architecture and breathtaking scenery. Historic downtown puts Pulaski's character on full display, with diverse local businesses and eateries contributing to the town's growth. Mingle with the crowds at the local wineries or the lush, 2,800-acre Milky Way Farm. Then dive into Pulaski's Civil War-era history by visiting the courthouse and museums. The Sam Davis Memorial Museum — which tells the story of a local Confederate soldier and houses many artifacts — is a good place to start.
Sweetwater is the perfect destination to marvel at East Tennessee's natural beauty. To get there, drive along the Cherohala Skyway, a National Scenic Byway with unbeatable landscape views. Then head for Main Street, the Sweetest Street in Tennessee, for shopping in the historic shopping district and the Main Street Marketplace. Main Street is also home to the Sweetwater Train Car, an original car that ran through Sweetwater on the Southern Railway between New York and New Orleans. Visit the Sweetwater Depot to learn more about the train's Civil War-era history.