Street view of popular tourist city of Gatlinburg Tennessee

8 Breathtaking Towns to Visit in Tennessee

Tennessee is a Southern state with multidirectional charm. Its several-thousand-foot mountains evoke the monstrous ranges of the North; its lush foliage evokes the dense pine barrens of the East; and its moss- and waterfall-covered trails evoke the rainforests of the West. But it is Tennessee's small towns, with their soulful restaurants, bottomless bars, and quirky festivals, that ground visitors in good ol' Southern hospitality. Take Tennessee from all angles in these eight breathtaking communities.


Street view of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in the Smoky Mountains.
Street view of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in the Smoky Mountains. Editorial credit: littlenySTOCK /

Gatlinburg has only about 3,500 residents, but that is not representative of its grandeur. It also has the Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, Moonshine Mountain Coaster, Sugarlands Distilling Company, Hollywood Star Cars Museum, Gatlinburg SkyPark, Hillbilly Golf, Wild Bear Falls Water Park, and Gatlinburg Space Needle. If you have not already guessed, Gatlinburg gets pretty congested. Thankfully, a half-million-acre nature preserve, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is right next door. Gather your breath and then let it be taken by the park's numerous natural wonders, such as Cades Cove, Newfound Gap, Deep Creek, and Clingmans Dome, the last of which is the highest point in Tennessee (6,643 feet).

Leiper's Fork

Grocery and restaurant at Leiper's Fork in Tennessee
Grocery and restaurant at Leiper's Fork in Tennessee

Spelled with and without an apostrophe, Leiper's Fork is better served with an exclamation point. This unincorporated village is tucked between the farms and foliage of the Natchez Trace, which was once a forest trail used by explorers and Native Americans and is now explored by motorists along the 444-mile, multi-state Natchez Trace Parkway. Off the parkway, those who are lucky enough to discover "Tennessee's best-kept secret" can grab coffee at The RedByrd Coffee Shop, catch a show at Fox & Locke, and swig whiskey at Leiper's Fork Distillery. Wonderfully wasted in a verdant village, visitors can find sanctuary at the Full Circle Farm Inn on Sweeney Hollow Road or The Brigadoon on Old Hillsboro Road. Leiper's pillows are even better than his fork.

Tellico Plains

View along the town square in Tellico Plains, Tennessee
View along the town square in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, By Brian Stansberry - Own work, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Although the Natchez Trace Parkway is splendidly scenic, it pales in comparison to the Cherohala Skyway. Spanning 43 miles between Robbinsville, North Carolina, and Tellico Plains, Tennessee, the Cherohala is a portmanteau of the Cherokee and the Nantahala, which are two national forests it passes through while climbing 4,500 feet into the Appalachian Mountains. The road has no fewer than 15 points of interest, which provide access to landmarks like Hooper Bald, Huckleberry Knob, and Falls Branch Falls. Once in Tellico Plains, motorists can tour this tiny yet tantalizing town, stopping for a pastry at Tellico Grains Bakery or steak at Tellicafe, before replacing their vehicle with a bike, raft, or tent to truly explore the countryside. The grape soda-like smell of mountain laurels might never leave your mind.


Sweetwater, Tennessee: Historical section of the town
Sweetwater, Tennessee: Historical section of the town, via Dee Browning /

The sweet scents of Tellico Plains can be followed with Sweetwater, a 6,000ish-person "city" about 20 miles northwest. Appropriately, Sweetwater's top attraction is the Lost Sea, which is considered the largest underground non-subglacial lake in America and the second-largest in the world. It is four-and-a-half acres wide, over 70 feet deep, and 140 feet below ground in crystal-filled caverns. Tours by foot and boat are provided by The Lost Sea Adventure.

In addition to the underground lake, Sweetwater neighbors numerous above-ground lakes that are great for swimming, boating, fishing, and sightseeing. Moreover, it offers sweet drinks at Antojitos LaPatrona Snack Bar and sweet treats at the Sweet & Salty Eatery.

Tracy City**

Tracy City is one of the best places to trace the Cumberland Plateau, a portion of the Appalachian Mountains characterized by rugged yet breathtaking topography. The town's adjacent South Cumberland State Park preserves over 12,000 acres of the plateau and divides it into regions such as Denny Cove, the Foster Falls Recreation Area, and the Grundy Forest State Natural Area. Those were joined by the Savage Gulf State Natural Area until 2022 when it was separated into its own state park. Arguably the best of SCSP's present districts is the Fiery Gizzard Trail, which runs for 12.5 miles from Tracy City to a 60-foot waterfall over Pacific Northwest-esque terrain. Thank god that Hank's Corner Grille, La Ranchera Mexican Restaurant, and the Dutch Maid Bakery & Cafe are there to refuel parkgoers between excursions.


Fountain on the courthouse square in McMinnville, Tennessee, United States, with the Warren County Courthouse rising in the background
Fountain on the courthouse square in McMinnville, Tennessee, United States, with the Warren County Courthouse rising in the background, By Brian Stansberry - Own work, CC BY 4.0, File:Mcminnville-fountain-tn.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Tennessee has approximately 10,000 caves, which is more than in any other state. The largest of these subterranean spectacles (that are publicly accessible) are the Cumberland Caverns, which run for 27 miles underneath the small city of McMinnville. Do not confuse those caverns with "The Caverns," but do not overlook them either. "The Caverns" are located about 40 driving miles south of McMinnville and serve as one of the all time quirkiest event venues. It is a real cave that spans roughly 530 feet long and 180 feet wide, stays 59 degrees with 91 percent humidity, holds 850 people if they are sitting or 1,200 if they are standing, hosts state-of-the-art sound and light systems, and even has concessions with food, craft beer, cider, and seltzers. And that is just the stage area. The entire cave system stretches more than 8,000 feet and, like the Cumberland Caverns, can be explored. But be careful; they can literally take your breath away.


University Ave with a church and tower in Sewanee, Tennessee.
University Ave with a church and tower in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Sewanee looks like a little slice of heaven - which is appropriate because it revolves around a Christian college. The University of the South rules 13,000 acres atop the Cumberland Plateau and has almost as many students as Sewanee has residents. Beyond beautiful nature (Sewanee is also home to a section of South Cumberland State Park), campus residents and visitors can marvel at such astounding architecture as the medieval-style All Saints' Chapel and the 60-foot cliffside sculpture called The Cross. Sewanee is pretty pious, but not extremely. It is drenched in bars like Shenanigans, Shakerag, and The Blue Chair Cafe & Tavern.

Bell Buckle

Garden at the Bell Buckle Banquet Hall and Theatre in Bell Buckle, Tennessee
Garden at the Bell Buckle Banquet Hall and Theatre in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Image creditBrian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons

Bell Buckle is a portal into elegant Victorian times. This south-central community of around 400 people had over 40 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places for being "architecturally or historically significant," including the late-19th-century Robertson House and Ransom-Morgan House. If you thought that the town could not be any more decadent, its Victorian abodes are wrapped in dense foliage. Bell Buckle is the smallest "Tree City USA" in Tennessee.

But, as if throwing a pie into Victoria's face, Bell Buckle embraces its Southern culture with the RC Cola-MoonPie Festival. It runs in June and will make you unable to run (or even walk) by stuffing those two namesake Southern sweets into your belly. The festival serves the "world’s largest MoonPie."

It is easy to lose your breath within the diverse ecoregions of Tennessee. Although losing one's breath from healthy exercise or healthy amazement is wonderful, being able to regain it with good food, drinks, and people is just as important. Gatlinburg, Leiper's Fork, Tellico Plains, Sweetwater, Tracy City, McMinnville, Sewanee, and Bell Buckle can be both your access to and escape from Tennessee splendor.

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