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30+ Best Things to Do in East Tennessee: Fun & Unique Activities

Looking for the very BEST things to do in East Tennessee? We’ve got you covered, with over 30 suggestions in this epic guide!

This region seamlessly blends natural beauty, outdoor adventures in all four seasons, quaint historical towns, and rich cultural experiences. So, it should come as no surprise that there’s no shortage of things to see and do!

Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, history buff, foodie, or thrill-seeker, East Tennessee has something for everyone.

Without further ado, let’s dive into this list of fun things to do in this captivating part of the Volunteer State!

Fun & Unique Things to Do in East Tennessee

1. Take a Scenic Drive Through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

road through the smoky mountains surrounded by fall foliage
Fall in the Smoky Mountains via Unsplash

Enjoy breathtaking views of the Smoky Mountains with a drive along the Foothills Parkway.

This scenic, winding byway is one of the best things to do in East Tennessee, with numerous overlooks, each providing a different perspective.

The parkway comprises several individual sections, but one of the most scenic is the 33-mile stretch from Sevier County to Chilhowee Lake — great for a road trip on a crisp fall day in your car or motorcycle.

2. Visit Cades Cove

woman biking through cades cove in the smoky mountains
Biking early in the morning on Cades Cove Loop

Taking a scenic drive around the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop is a given, but don’t stop there.

Hike or bike through the picturesque valley surrounded by mountains (& wildlife!), which shows off completely different scenery in all four seasons.

Also, you won’t want to miss out on the abundance of wildlife in the area. When we visited, we saw a couple of bears, many deer, turkeys, and even a fox!

One of our favorite waterfall hikes in the Smoky Mountains, Abrams Falls, also starts from Cades Cove.

Additionally, you can explore the park’s highest concentration of preserved historic cabins, churches, and a grist mill.

3. Hike to Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls waterfall hike near Gatlinburg in GSMNP

Also located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, another of the best things to do in East Tennessee is to hike to Laurel Falls.

The 2.5-mile round-trip hike leads to an 80-foot waterfall that’s gorgeous year-round.

It’s also wildly popular, so be aware that you won’t have the trail to yourself, even while visiting the smoky mountains in winter!

4. Explore the Historic Town of Jonesborough

Woman standing outside the Corner Cup Coffee Shop in Historic downtown Jonesborough Tennessee
Corner Cup in Downtown Jonesborough

Step way back in time while wandering the charming streets of Jonesborough — Tennessee’s oldest town.

The storytelling capital of the world boasts beautiful historic architecture, quaint shops, and a vibrant arts community.

You can also tour the Tennessee Hills Distillery, another fun thing to do in the area and on our list of best things to do in Jonesborough.

5. Visit the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

the birthplace of country music museum in bristol
Credit: Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Bristol TN-VA, proudly claims its spot as the “Birthplace of Country Music.”

Visit the museum, the site of the famed 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings that made country music mainstream!

The museum is also home to the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival every September — hosting over 100 acts of live music on more than a dozen stages in downtown Bristol!

6. Experience NASCAR at Bristol Motor Speedway

aerial view of the Bristol motor speedway
Credit: Bristol Motor Speedway

Speaking of Bristol, another fun thing to do in East Tennessee is to catch a race at the iconic Bristol Motor Speedway.

Known for its stadium-like construction and high-banked turns, race fans affectionately call the speedway the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.”

If you’re looking for even MORE things to do in Bristol, also read: 20+ Best Things to Do in Bristol, TN-VA: The Birthplace of Country Music

7. Attend a Home Game at Neyland Stadium

Neyland Stadium at University of Tennessee Knoxville
Neyland Stadium at University of Tennessee Knoxville

Home to the University of Tennessee Volunteers (“Vols”), visiting this iconic stadium in Knoxville is an experience in itself! The fans “bleed orange” after all!

It has a mind-boggling seating capacity of over 100,000, making it one of the biggest college stadiums in the country.

Don your orange and white and get a first-hand taste of SEC football’s contagious energy. And if you can, go to a pre-game tailgate party!

8. Wander Through Market Square in Knoxville

people ice skating in downtown Knoxville on Market Square
Market Square Ice Skating / Credit: Downtown Knoxville

Knoxville’s historic Market Square is a vibrant hub of activity. Enjoy a huge variety of shops, eateries, and bars, plus seasonal festivals and other events, like ice skating.

Market Square is right downtown and close to everything, including Neyland Stadium. So, you’ll be able to check off several things to do in Knoxville in East Tennessee!

9. Explore the Sunsphere in Knoxville

the the sunsphere in front of the lake in knoxville tn
Knoxville Sunsphere

Situated in World’s Fair Park downtown, the Sunsphere is hard to miss!

Originally built for the 1982 World’s Fair, the shimmering golden sphere offers 360-degree views of the city and the Smoky Mountains from its observation deck.

It’s even a unique place to watch the fireworks for New Year’s in Knoxville!

10. Cruise the Tennessee River on an Authentic Paddle Wheeler

The Tennesssee Riverboat on the Tennessee River in Knoxville TN
Credit: Tennessee Riverboat Company

Experience the nostalgia of river travel by embarking on an authentic paddle-wheeler cruise on the Tennessee River in Knoxville.

Tennessee Riverboat Company offers lunch, dinner, and sightseeing cruises, in addition to special holiday and seasonal cruises.

Keeping true to its roots, the paddle-wheeler offers live entertainment, a dance floor, and two full bars.

Also, if you’re looking for something romantic to do in Knoxville, this may be it.

11. Visit Bay’s Mountain Park & Planetarium

woman sitting on bench at bays mountain park overlooking the water
Bays Mountain Lake

Bay’s Mountain Park & Planetarium is a nature lover’s haven and is a fun thing to do in Kingsport, TN.

Not only does it have 40+ miles of hiking and biking trails, but it also has a picturesque lake, wild animal habitats, a zip line course, and more.

Of course, there’s also the state-of-the-art planetarium, hosting a variety of programs and theater productions year-round.

12. Hike to Tennessee’s Tallest Waterfall

Fall Creek Falls, TN surrounded by greenery and blue skies

Discover the awe-inspiring natural beauty of 256-foot-tall Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee’s tallest waterfall.

Choose from several hiking trails that lead to the falls, but don’t miss some of the state park’s other highlights.

There are other waterfalls to see, including Cane Creek Falls and Piney Falls. Also, there’s a canopy adventure course, an Olympic-size pool (summer only), and a golf course.

Fall Creek Falls is right on the line of Middle Tennessee & East Tennessee. If you’re in the area, check out our other Middle Tennessee Guides!

13. Ride the Tail of the Dragon

Tail of the Dragon road with fall foliage

For adrenaline junkies, road trip enthusiasts, and motorcyclists, conquering the Tail of the Dragon is a popular thing to do in East Tennessee.

This uninterrupted stretch of U.S. Route 129 passes through the Smokies near the Tennessee-North Carolina border. It’s renowned for having 318 tight curves in just 11 miles and is known for being one of the most popular motorcycle and sports car touring roads in the world!

Please be cautious, however, as the Tail of the Dragon can be very dangerous and has resulted in multiple deaths over the years.

14. Ride a Mountain Coaster in the Smokies

Alpine Mountain Coaster going up the track surrounded by trees
Going up the Alpine Mountain Coaster

Mountain coasters can be found (almost) everywhere you look in the Great Smokies, offering one of the more thrilling things to do in East Tennessee.

The gravity-propelled coasters pass through scenic landscapes and allow you to control the speed as you twist and turn.

Some of the best mountain coasters include:

15. Go Boating on Norris Lake

Norris Lake map showing marinas
Credit: Scott Dickman via Norris Lake Marinas

As the largest reservoir along the Tennessee River, there’s a lot to see and do at Norris Lake. One of the most popular activities is going boating.

Rent a pontoon boat for the day or a houseboat for the whole weekend.

Explore over 4,000 surface acres and more than 800 miles of mountainous shoreline, with endless possibilities for fishing, water skiing, and camping.

16. Take a Thrilling Zip Line Tour at Foxfire Adventure Park

People ziplining together at foxfire adventure park
Credit: Fox Fire Adventure Park

Unleash your adventurous spirit with a zip line tour at Foxfire Adventure Park in Sevierville.

Soar through the treetops on some of the longest and fastest zip lines in the country, reaching speeds of over 60 mph and spanning over 1/3 of a mile!

There’s also a 60-foot climbing wall and a swinging bridge to cross (on foot), so there’s something for everyone here. Even Fido, as Foxfire is dog-friendly!

17. Visit Cosby to Learn About the History of Moonshine

In tiny, sleepy Cosby, the rich history of Appalachian moonshining lives on.

This small town in Tennessee was a major hot spot for bootlegging during Prohibition, with the caves and hollers providing perfect hiding places.

One of the most legendary moonshiners of all time, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, was from Cosby. His assistant and close friend still lives here, and may or may not make ‘shine at Adventure Distilling Company. Stop by to sample some as it’s been made for well over a century.

18. Follow the Tennessee Whiskey Trail

Bottles of whiskey and bourbon at Lost State Distilling in Bristol TN/VA.
Lost State Distilling in Bristol, TN

If you want to learn more about bootlegging, one of the best things to do in East Tennessee is visit a few distilleries.

Check out the official Tennessee Whiskey Trail, which includes nearly 15 distilleries in the state.

Each offers something a little different, but expect samples and retail sales, as well as optional tours.

19. Lookout Mountain

views of the Tennessee River from Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga in fall
Lookout Mountain overlooking the Tennessee River in fall

Overlooking Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain offers so much more than sweeping views.

This amazing destination is home to Rock City, the unique underground Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway, and more — all fun things to do in the scenic city of Chattanooga!

You could easily spend weeks here trying to see and do everything, making it one of the best things to do in East Tennessee for anyone.

20. Discover the Lost Sea Adventure

Video of the Lost Sea from CBS This Morning

Head to Sweetwater (just over an hour from Chattanooga) to explore the vast underground marvel known as the Lost Sea.

It’s America’s largest underground lake!

To see it, book a guided boat tour through the caverns.

21. Step Back in Time at the Museum of Appalachia

The heritage of Appalachia is arguably one of the richest and most interesting.

Learn all about it at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, north of Knoxville. This living history museum, comprised of dozens of well-preserved historic buildings, celebrates the region’s cultural and pioneer traditions.

22. Float the Nolichucky River

Sisters floating the Nolichucky River on tubes
Floating Down the Nolichucky River

The Nolichucky River, which flows from North Carolina to Tennessee, is very popular for white-water rafting as it has class III-IV rapids!

It’s also on our list of one of the best things to do in Erwin, TN — just 20 minutes from Johnson City.

Read our guide on Floating the Nolichucky River to learn more!

23. Tennessee Aquarium

Penguins at the Tennessee Aquarium
Credit: The Tennessee Aquarium

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is one of the top-rated aquariums in the country and is home to over 10,000 animals!

In addition to showcasing marine life from river ecosystems and ocean depths, the aquarium also has an IMAX theater.

You can also book a variety of behind-the-scenes experiences such as the Feeding Frenzy tour, where you can assist in feeding the sharks and other marine animals!

24. Explore the Obed Wild and Scenic River

For outdoor enthusiasts, the Obed Wild and Scenic River may be one of the most fun things to do in East Tennessee.

The unspoiled natural area provides endless opportunities for rock climbing, bouldering, hiking, fishing, and camping.

Also, thanks to Class II, III, and IV rapids, the Obed is a renowned whitewater rafting destination. Notably, it’s more for experienced rafters and not for beginners.

25. Discover the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail on Jane Bald Mountain trail surrounded by Rhododendron blooms near Roan Mountain TN
Appalachian Trail via Jane Bald Trail obtained from Canva

For avid hikers, stepping foot on the Appalachian Trail is one of those bucket list items!

Luckily, the AT passes through the eastern part of the state, including right through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — hike a section of it right near Clingmans Dome.

It also passes through parts of Unioci County near Erwin, Roan Mountain State Park, and even along the shores of Watauga Lake!

26. Sip Your Way Through the Rocky Top Wine Trail

a bottle of "Dolly Llama" Wine from the Rocky top Wine Trail in Sevierville TN
Credit: Rocky Top Wine Trail

Is wine more your jam than whiskey? Head to Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, where you can visit five wineries on the Rocky Top Wine Trail.

Book the VIP shuttle tour or simply visit the wineries on your own. If you visit at least three, you’ll get a special prize. And if you visit all five, you’ll get another one!

27. Bike the Historic Tweetsie Rail Trail

man riding a bike on the tweetsie trail in johnson city and tri-cities
Biking the Tweetsie Trail

One of our favorite things to do in Johnson City is riding our bikes on the Tweetsie Trail which runs from Johnson City to Elizabethton.

The scenic 10-mile trail passes through picturesque landscapes and historical sites. Bring your own bike, or rent one right across the street from the trailhead at Local Motion Cyclery.

After you’re done, head back to that same area to Crankys Pumps n Pints for a cold beer.

28. Take a Guided Caving Adventure at Worley’s Cave

Just outside of Bristol in Bluff City, Worley’s Cave offers a unique underground adventure.

Instead of the commercial caves that are scattered across the state, this is a living, wild cave. With that in mind, you don’t book guided tours. Instead, simply pay to park and then explore the cave on your own!

29. Harvest Festival at Dollywood

pumpkin tower at dollywoods harvest festival in pigeon forge tn
Dollywood Pumpkin Tower

Dollywood is always worth a visit, but Harvest Festival is on another level.

The autumn decor is over the top and the weather is typically gorgeous, but the real star is the food. Think pumpkin-infused everything, including bison chili, mac and cheese, pizza, and churros.

Insider tip: get the Harvest Festival Tasting Pass, so you can sample a little of everything.

30. Hike the Tri-State Peak Trail in Cumberland Gap

Have you ever wanted to stand in three states at once? On the Tri-State Peak Trail in Cumberland Gap, you can! At the overlook at Tri-State Point, stand in Kentucky, Virginia, and, of course, Tennessee — all at the same time.

Cumberland Gap is also loaded with plenty of other viewpoints and historic sites, so check out some of the other things to do in East Tennessee.

31. Go Fishing in the Hiwassee River

Anglers will find true paradise in the Hiwassee River, known for its excellent year-round fishing opportunities.

The river is stocked with trout, making it an especially popular destination for fly fishing.

32. Witness Seasonal Dogwood Blooms at The Dogwood Arts Festival

entrance to the dogwood arts festival in knoxville tn
Credit: Dogwood Arts Festival

Gorgeous dogwood tree blooms blanket East Tennessee come springtime. At Knoxville’s annual Dogwood Arts Festival in April, you can witness the best of these blooms.

The festival is unlike any other, featuring a combination of private gardens, dogwood trails, and vendors.

33. Visit the American Museum of Science and Energy

Did you know that this small East Tennessee town was one of just three in the US created to build the atomic bomb?

The American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge offers a fascinating look into this world, with interactive exhibits showcasing some of the science and technology.

What do you think about this list of things to do in East Tennessee? Looking for MORE? Also Read: 22 Awesome Places You Need to Visit in East Tennessee: Cities, Towns, & Attractions