There are some amazing towns and places to visit in East Tennessee! That should come as no surprise, in a region brimming with natural beauty and rich history.
We haven’t even mentioned Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the most visited state park in the country!
This part of the Volunteer State offers a diverse array of attractions for every type of traveler. Whether you’re a history buff, outdoor enthusiast, or simply seeking a relaxing getaway, you’ll find at least a few places to visit in East Tennessee.
In this guide, we’ll explore 21 awesome destinations in this picturesque region, ranging from well-known areas to hidden gems.
Places You Need to Visit in East Tennessee
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Let’s start with the iconic Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, this park is a paradise for hikers, with over 850 miles of trails. That includes a 70-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail, too!
It’s also one of the best places to visit in East Tennessee for wildlife sightings and chasing waterfalls.
First-timers should drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and visit Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome (the highest point in Tennessee).
Nestled at the doorstep of the national park, Gatlinburg is a bustling mountain town with endless things to do.
It’s one of the best places to visit in East Tennessee for families, with an abundance of large cabins, as well as delicious restaurants and fun attractions.
There are dinner theaters, amusement parks, water parks, and mountain coasters galore. Highlights include Anakeesta, Gatlinburg SkyPark, and Ober Gatlinburg.
3. Johnson City
You may have heard of it from the popular song “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show where everyone belts out at the top of their lungs “Johnson City, Tennessee!” If not, go give it a listen!
Johnson City is full of fun things to do, especially for those looking for outdoor adventures!
Not only are there plenty of outdoor activities, but this city is teeming with delicious restaurants — one of our favorites in particular is Juniper (check it out!). There are also a handful of great breweries as well as some cozy coffee (& tea!) shops!
It’s also one of the three cities that make up the Tri-Cities of Tennessee, as well as the city of Kingsport and Bristol (another one of our favorite places to visit in East Tennessee).
A stark contrast to Gatlinburg’s hustle and bustle, Townsend is known as the “peaceful side of the Smokies.”
This laid-back small town is known for its welcoming atmosphere, quiet park entrance, and proximity to Cades Cove.
In addition to Cades Cove, check out the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center. This small but very impressive museum offers hands-on activities like basket weaving, and also hosts a popular free summer concert series.
If you visit Townsend in the summer, you absolutely should go tubing or rafting! The Little River runs right through town, offering endless opportunities to get in and on the water.
And don’t miss the Great Smoky Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival every August.
Still need convincing that this is one of the best places to visit in East Tennessee? Townsend is one of only two Tennessee cities named among the 50 best travel destinations in 2024. The other city that made the list — Memphis.
On the opposite side of Gatlinburg, you’ll find Cosby, another tranquil small town. Believe it or not, despite its slow pace, Cosby’s roots are closely tied to the clandestine world of moonshine.
While most of the local shine traditions have transformed over the years, you can still immerse yourself in local stories and visit historically significant spots. Stop by Adventure Distilling Co., where you can sample moonshine that’s been made the same way for over a century.
Beyond its moonshine roots, Cosby has an entrance to the national park, along with one of the park’s best campgrounds (also called Cosby).
Also, stop into Carver’s Applehouse Restaurant and Farm Market for fresh fried apple pies!
We can’t talk about the best places to visit in East Tennessee without mentioning Dollywood.
Owned by country music legend Dolly Parton, who’s a Sevier County native, Dollywood is a theme park in Pigeon Forge with a distinctive Southern charm.
It has plenty of thrilling rides, of course, but the park is also known for its incredible food and amazing, over-the-top seasonal festivals. There are even resort-style onsite lodges, plus a water park in the summer.
The largest city in East Tennessee, Knoxville has a ton to see and do (and eat and drink!).
To begin with, Knoxville is home to the University of Tennessee. If you happen to be in town during football season, try to catch a Vols home game. Neyland Stadium is one of the biggest college football stadiums in the country, seating over 101,000!
The city also has a lively arts scene, interesting historic sites, vibrant nightlife, and endless outdoor activities.
Even if you have just a short time, visiting the Sunsphere in World’s Fair Park is a must. The one-of-a-kind glittering structure is a local icon! It’s also a short walk from Market Square, a fun entertainment district with tons of great restaurants, boutiques, bars, and coffee shops.
8. Douglas Lake
Just outside Sevierville, sparkling Douglas Lake is a haven for all things related to water recreation.
With over 30,000 acres of water surface and more than 550 miles of shoreline, it’s perfect for boating, fishing, swimming, paddling, tubing, jet skiing, wakeboarding, and more.
You can do it all here, but fishing is one of the stars at Douglas Lake. It’s actually rated as one of the best bodies of water for crappie and largemouth bass fishing in the entire country!
When you want a break from the water, Douglas Lake also has several sandy beaches and picnic areas.
As the oldest town in Tennessee, established in 1779, Jonesborough exudes historic charm. Simply walking down Main Street and admiring the well-preserved architecture is like taking a step back in time.
In addition to being the state’s oldest town, Jonesborough is also known as the “storytelling capital of the world.” For those who may not know, storytelling is a traditional and very special art form in Appalachia.
With that said, a visit to the International Storytelling Center is a must. And, if you can time your visit right, so is the Storytelling Festival every October.
Jonesborough is only 15 minutes from Johnson City — visit both while you’re in town!
10. Cherokee National Forest
A vast wilderness (and even more vast possibilities) awaits in the Cherokee National Forest.
This tremendous tract of postcard-worthy public land spans most of the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, starting near Chattanooga and going up to Bristol.
Every imaginable outdoor activity is available in all four seasons. To name a few, you can hike, camp, take scenic drives, or enjoy several lakes.
Some highlights include driving the scenic Cherohala Skyway or visiting the Ocoee Rafting Center, where you can experience world-class whitewater rapids.
11. Frozen Head State Park
Well off the beaten path north of Knoxville, Frozen Head State Park is a hidden gem among the best places to visit in East Tennessee.
The park offers excellent year-round hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, camping, and fishing.
One of our favorite trails is Emory Gap Falls, which shows off more than one waterfall. This is an especially great hike in the winter, with wide-open views.
Another popular route summits Frozen Head itself, passing an old fire tower lookout along the way.
12. Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
For a (MUCH) less crowded alternative to the Great Smoky Mountains, head north to Big South Fork. WAY north — this area straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
This lesser-known gem has surprisingly rugged gorges and amazing natural rock formations, including the impressive Twin Arches.
There are also several other arches, plus waterfalls galore, like Yahoo Falls —— the tallest in Kentucky.
13. Tellico Plains
Nestled in the foothills of the Smokies toward Chattanooga, Tellico Plains is another great place to visit in Southeast Tennessee.
The small town is considered the gateway to both the Cherohala Skyway and the southern portion of the Cherokee National Forest. So, unsurprisingly, outdoor recreation abounds.
Watts Bar Dam and Reservoir is a popular fishing destination, especially for walleye, crappie, and a variety of bass. Finally, don’t miss a stroll through historic downtown, which is just a few blocks from the skyway.
14. The Lost Sea
Less than 30 minutes from Tellico Plains, you can go on a unique underground adventure at The Lost Sea.
Tennessee has plenty of caves, but none quite like this. The Lost Sea is actually an underground lake — the largest one in America, in fact.
Take a guided tour through the caverns, first walking and then at the bottom, boating across the The Lost Sea itself!
For so, SOOO many reasons, Chattanooga is one of the best places to visit in Southeast Tennessee.
For a first visit, we recommend hitting the Tennessee Aquarium (one of the best in the country!), strolling across the Walnut Street Bridge, visiting Lookout Mountain for stunning views, along with many other things to do in the Scenic City!
Best known as the “Birthplace of Country Music,” Bristol straddles the Tennessee-Virginia border. Exploring the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is a no-brainer, but that’s only the beginning.
Bristol is also famous for being home to a NASCAR racetrack, Bristol Motor Speedway.
More recently in 2022, the town also got the Bristol Casino, the future Hard Rock Hotel (coming in 2024). It sits just barely on the Virginia side of the border and interestingly, it’s the state’s first EVER casino!
Bristol is only 25 minutes from Johnson City — consider visiting both cities!
17. Roan Mountain State Park
For a tranquil escape about half-hour from Johnson City, head to Roan Mountain State Park.
This hidden gem offers tons of hiking trails, the beautiful Doe River, and excellent camping. Choose from over 100 campsites or 30 fully-equipped cabins.
Wildflowers and fishing are both summer highlights at Roan Mountain, but don’t overlook winter, when many people tackle the trails on cross-country skis.
18. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Step into history at the famed Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where you can follow the footsteps of pioneers. Yes, it’s the very same Cumberland Gap in countless country, bluegrass, and folk songs.
This historically significant area was where countless people crossed the Appalachians headed West.
Explore the well-preserved Hensley Settlement for a glimpse into the past. This community never had a road or electricity, yet the last person to leave didn’t go until the 1950s!
You can also book a guided tour of Gap Cave, between April and September.
19. South Cumberland State Park
Not to be confused with Cumberland Gap, South Cumberland State Park is just outside of Chattanooga. It’s part of the Cumberland Plateau, known for stunning waterfalls and unique rock formations.
Most people come to South Cumberland for hiking and backcountry camping, but the park also offers excellent rock climbing.
The Fiery Gizzard Trail is a highlight, a challenging hike that rewards with breathtaking scenery. Buggytop Cave is another, open only in the summer months and requiring a hiking permit.
20. Red Clay State Historic Park
Immerse yourself in a somber but fascinating piece of Native American history at Red Clay State Historic Park.
This site, one of the most unique places to visit in East Tennessee, marks the start of the Trail of Tears. It was the last official seat of Cherokee government before 1830’s Indian Removal Act, when the US government forced Native Americans to move west.
Start by visiting the interpretive center, with several important exhibits. Hike the peaceful grounds, taking in the beautiful natural blue spring and a panoramic overlook of the valley.
21. Fall Creek Falls
Right on the line between Middle and East Tennessee, you’ll find the highest waterfall not only in Tennessee but in the eastern United States. It’s also one of the most popular waterfalls in Tennessee, at 256-foot-tall Fall Creek Falls is a must-visit!
Choose from several trails that take you to the falls, ranging from 0.3 to 1.2 miles. Depending on the season and recent precipitation, you may even be able to swim in the pool at the base of the falls.
The state park also offers rock climbing, boating, a fun canopy obstacle course, campsites, cabins, and even a golf course.
Perfectly positioned between Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Nashville, Fall Creek Falls is easily accessible from anywhere in the state.
22. Museum of Appalachia
Even if you’re not much of a museum person, the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton is one of the best places to visit in East Tennessee.
Visitors rave about how well-done the museum is, noting that it feels like an authentic step back in time. With over 30 historic buildings and exhibits, the “Living Mountain Village” offers a real glimpse into the daily life of early Appalachian pioneers.
The onsite restaurant also gets rave reviews, so come hungry!
What do you think of these places to visit in East Tennessee? If we had to choose some of our favorites, we would say the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Johnson City (we could be a little biased), and Chattanooga!
But, we think you should visit as many of these places on the list as you can and see what places in East Tennessee are YOUR favorite!
Let us know in the comments below where you love to visit in East Tennessee!