Tennessee is full of rich history, vibrant communities, and beautiful scenery. While larger cities in the Volunteer State are popular vacation destinations, such as Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee also provides Southern charm and family-friendly attractions in many of the state’s small towns. From amusement parks, such as Dollywood, to the natural beauty and outdoor activities throughout the Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee’s small towns are big on hospitality and entertainment. Plus, there are plenty of festivals, museums, and history to explore throughout the state. If you are looking for a great vacation spot in Tennessee, these are the coolest small towns to check out for a fun summer vacation.
Located between Nashville and Knoxville in Middle Tennessee, Cookeville offers scenic views and local gems for visitors of all ages. For outdoor adventures, there are over 150 waterfalls in the area to explore, along with hiking trails, canyon gorges, and City Lake. The town is also home to Cummins Falls State Park, where people swim, fish, and kayak.
In addition to the town’s beautiful scenery, visitors also enjoy exploring the town’s Historic WestSide Cultural District. The area offers vacationers plenty of antique stores to shop at and local restaurants to enjoy. The district also features the Cookeville Depot Museum which displays historical train depot artifacts, a 1913 steam engine, two cabooses, and two small track cars.
Although the town’s population is only 4,025, Gatlinburg welcomes millions of people in the summer. Nestled along the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains, the small town offers breathtaking views from the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park and the Gatlinburg Space Needle. More views take place at Anakeesta, a mountaintop adventure park that features zip lines, a single-rail mountain coaster, and a 16-bridge Treetop Skywalk. Inside the Smokies, there are plenty of hiking trails and whitewater rafting options, including Pigeon River’s rapids.
This small town also offers plenty of exciting indoor activities. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies boasts over 10,000 exotic sea creatures, including stingrays, sharks, jellyfish, and penguins. Visitors also enjoy the Hollywood Star Car Museum which houses more than 40 cars from TV shows and Hollywood movies. Plus, with sites for mini golf, arcade games, and laser tag, there are plenty of indoor adventures for all ages.
One of the oldest towns in Tennessee, Greeneville is full of history and charm. The town is home to one of Tennessee’s oldest churches, St. James Episcopal Church, built in 1850. In addition to historical buildings, the town was also home to Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Greeneville also offers many summer festivals and outdoor activities. Each year, the town hosts Juneteenth and the Fourth of July celebrations, as well as Greeneville’s annual summer Beef Day Celebration. The town is also located near the Nolichucky River, a scenic waterway that provides water activities for people of all skill levels. With pristine flat water, the river is great for kayaking, canoeing, tubing, and fishing.
The small town of Hohenwald offers vast natural beauty, deep history, and a unique animal sanctuary. The town is home to one of the longest wild rivers in the United States, the Buffalo River. Named for the buffalo fish in the river, people enjoy swimming and canoeing in the scenic river. Visitors also enjoy seeing the multiple waterfalls at Fall Hollow Falls and hiking along the trail. Plus, a short drive from the quaint downtown is the grave of Meriwether Lewis, Captain of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lewis died nearby while exploring the Natchez Trace in 1809.
However, what makes this town unique is that it is home to the Elephant Sanctuary, one of only two elephant sanctuaries in North America. Although visitors are unable to interact with the elephants, you can visit the Elephant Sanctuary Discovery Center and view live streams of the elephants in the sanctuary!
Located near the northeastern corner of the state, and founded in 1779, Jonesborough is Tennessee’s oldest town. Known for being a center of abolitionism in the 1800s, you can immerse yourself in local history by taking guided walking tours of the historic downtown. This area is also the site of Music-on-the-Square in the summer. Every Friday night from May to September, you can listen to local bands perform for free. The downtown also offers picturesque views of tree-lined streets and Jimmy Neil Smith Park. During the summer, visitors enjoy the wandering pathways and seasonal gardens.
The small-town charm of Jonesborough also extends to its nickname, the "Storytelling Capital of the World." Home to the International Storytelling Center, visitors can attend live storytelling events throughout the summer, including daily performances every Tuesday and Saturday from May through October.
Towns and cities throughout Tennessee are known for their music, and Lawrenceburg is no exception. The small town is "The Birthplace of Southern Gospel" because James Vaughan, "The father of Southern Gospel," called this small town home. Visitors can visit the Vaughan Museum in the public square to learn more about the town’s musical history. The picturesque town square also has several mom-and-pop shops, local restaurants to enjoy, and a lot of Southern hospitality.
Lawrenceburg has plenty of outdoor activities for nature lovers as well. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy spending time at David Crockett State Park which boasts ten miles of trails, more than 100 species of birds, and ample fishing in the park’s lake. Outside of downtown Lawrenceburg is Laurel Hill Wildlife Management Area, where people enjoy fishing, horseback riding, and viewing the animals throughout the park and on Laurel Hill Lake.
Although the population in this small town is only 650, Leiper’s Fork provides plenty of charm and eclectic art. Located 30 miles southwest of Nashville on the Natchez Trace Highway, this village has one main road with dozens of local businesses. These shops, such as Tin Cottage, offer items made by Middle Tennessee artisans. For art lovers, Leiper’s Creek Gallery is a must-see. Though the gallery is housed in a former gas station, you would never know it due to the fine art displayed in the studio.
Located next to the Harpeth River, Leiper’s Fork also provides visitors with easy access to the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail at Garrison Creek Park. One of the trailheads at the park leads to the War of 1812 Memorial on the Natchez Trace. This trailhead is a favorite of horseback riders and hikers.
The rural town of Paris in northwest Tennessee is home to Southern hospitality, parks and lakes, and even a replica of the Eiffel Tower. The 70-foot tower, located in the aptly named Eiffel Tower Park, provides spectacular views of the area and family-friendly activities including disc golf, volleyball, and swimming. Downtown Paris also offers many shopping, antiquing, and restaurant options by local entrepreneurs.
If you enjoy water sports and outdoor activities, a trip to Paris Landing State Park is a must. The 841-acre park spreads along the shore of the Tennessee River and is the perfect place for fishing, boating, and waterskiing. The park also offers plenty of cabins and campsites for guests to enjoy the great outdoors day and night.
Pigeon Forge is a little mountain town that offers rousing attractions in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. For thrillseekers, a visit to Dollywood is a must. This theme park is bursting with southern charm and award-winning roller coasters. Those looking for an adventure can also roll downhill at the Outdoor Gravity Park, free fall at Flyaway Indoor Skydiving, and climb an indoor ropes course at WonderWorks.
Pigeon Forge also provides scenic views, plenty of hiking trails, and outdoor adventures. For families looking for a quiet stroll in town, the Riverwalk Trail offers a paved path that runs alongside the Little Pigeon River. Also along the riverfront is The Old Mill, a gristmill that powered the entire town in the early 1900s. For the more adventurous outdoor enthusiast, there are over 800 hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with whitewater rafting.
Rogersville, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is a historic small town. Settled in 1775 by the grandparents of David Crockett, politician, and hero of the Alamo, the town’s Crockett Spring Park and Arboretum takes its name after the family. The peaceful park has several walking trails, a large spring, and 36 varieties of trees.
The town is also home to the Rogersville Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic district includes the state’s second oldest courthouse, the Hawkins County Courthouse, built in 1836. While visiting the district, guests also enjoy shopping at the local stores and enjoying a bite to eat on Main Street. This area also hosts several summer festivals, including the Vintage Market & Junk Jam Fair in June. Visitors can also attend the classic car show, Cruise In On the Square, held monthly from May to October.
Tennessee offers plenty of cool small towns for the perfect summer vacation. From theme parks and museums to natural beauty and plenty of American history to satisfy any history buff, the state provides something for everyone. Whether you live in the city and are looking for a small-town getaway or live in a rural area and want a change of scenery, Tennessee's small towns are sure to provide you with a memorable summer vacation.