The 16th state admitted to the union stretches through the heart of the American south to the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, attracting a myriad of visitors to its charming smaller towns and cities.
Tennessee is best known for Memphis, with its Beale Street blues connection, and Nashville, with its country music hub. Although these big cities are the main draw to the Volunteer State, this land of Appalachian Mountains, 10,000 caves, and river-fed plains is home to hundreds of small-town wonders as well. To uncover these lesser-known gems, TravelMag asked more than 100 seasoned adventurers, travel writers and photographers, and industry professionals to name their top three most charming towns and small cities with populations of less than 100,000 people in Tennessee.
Below, in alphabetical order, we compile the top ten towns and small cities in Tennessee, along with what makes each place worthy of a visit, whether they are historic places, resort cities, or getaways in the state’s wilderness. The state is much more than a daytrip; use these towns to experience the range of what’s on offer.
Known colloquially as Muletown, Columbia’s scenic downtown offers shopping along a picturesque, shop and café-lined square with plenty of time to enjoy a beverage at Muletown Coffee. Columbia’s thriving art scene is centered around the Columbia Arts District, which was established as a haven for artists and artisans. The result is an eclectic mix of contemporary creative culture just blocks from the Town Square. Several hubs like the Columbia Arts Building, The Bunker, and Row & Co. provide artists and tourists with cool places to shop, cowork, and savor local flavors like brews from Bad Idea Brewing. For the historically inclined traveler, Columbia claims the home and museum of James K. Polk, who served as the 11th U.S. President from 1845-49. The home is part of the Tennessee Presidential Trail, a self-guided driving tour.
About an hour’s drive east of Nashville, Cookeville is a charming small town that flourishes with art and cultural events, unique downtown shopping, and a growing culinary scene with more than 100 restaurants. Foodies enjoy grabbing one of “Tennessee’s Best Donuts” at Ralph’s Donut Shop or refined southern cooking at Seven Senses Food & Cheer. Delicacies aside, Cookeville has quickly established itself in the new world of fitness tourism with access to hiking at Cummins Falls, Fall Creek Falls, and Burgess Falls State Parks. Bikers, climbers, horseback riders, and spelunkers travel to this area for outdoor adventure. With more than 10,000 documented caves, Tennessee has more than any other state. Cookeville is also the home of the World’s Fittest Man, four-time CrossFit Games champion Rich Froning.
Founded in 1799, part of the charm of any visit is discovering historic Downtown Franklin: a well maintained, 16-block district listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Great American Main Street. Victorian architecture on vibrant streets full of shops, restaurants, and antiques stores surround the town square. Franklin is known for its annual festivals and parades: The Main Street Festival in spring; Fourth of July in summer; PumpkinFest in October; the Veterans Day Parade in November; and Dickens of a Christmas in December. Franklin is also a destination for history buffs wanting to learn more about the American Civil War by visiting Lotz House, the Carnton estate, and Carter House. The Masters & Makers Trail runs through Franklin and the rest of Williamson County treating followers to wine, beer, and spirits via a physical or digital passport. Franklin is also part of the Craft Coffee Trail and the Sweet Treats Trail.
Located on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg sees more than 11 million annual visitors, despite being a town of fewer than 4,000 permanent residents. From white water rafting to roller coasters, Gatlinburg has everything needed for a fun, family outing. Bright attractions like food and fun at Fannie Farkle’s, outdoor excitement at Anakeesta, and year-round hauntings at the Mysterious Mansion quickly become cherished traditions for families returning year after year, while a 407-foot space needle provides a 360-degree view of the beautiful mountains. Gatlinburg’s first humble building, a log cabin planned by William Ogle and erected by his wife Martha, still stands in downtown Gatlinburg in stark contrast to the tourist attraction Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
Tennessee’s second oldest town, Greenville, is on the aforementioned Tennessee Presidential Trail. Visitors to the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site can tour the homestead and learn about the 17th US President. The Main Street: Greenville organization offers a 90-minute “Walk with the President” tour highlighting architectural treasures, stopping at the Old Harmony Cemetery, and providing photo ops at Tennessee’s oldest jail. Another famous Greeneville name is Davy Crockett, and visitors to the state park named in honor of the coon-skin cap wearing frontiersman can stop by a replica of his home. The world-famous Appalachian Trail runs through Greeneville on its way from Georgia to Maine and hikers, bikers, and horseback riders delight in several natural wonders on area trails.
Founded in 1779, Tennessee’s oldest town, Jonesborough, was inhabited before the state was recognized by the Union. The modern-day residents help to preserve historical buildings such as the Chester Inn, built in 1797, and the Christopher Taylor House, built in 1777. This dedication to preservation is highlighted by the listing of the Jonesborough Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Many people come to the town for the yarns; Jonesborough is marketed as the Storytelling Capital of the World, hosting the National Storytelling Festival every October. At the International Storytelling Center, listeners and “tellers” from across America gather to share big and small tales through a Teller-in-Residence program and a Storytellers Guild.
Morristown’s proximity to Douglass Lake and Cherokee Reservoir makes it a destination for water enthusiasts looking for a lesser-known area to boat and fish. The bodies of water were formed by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the early 1940s. The access to public boating areas, commercial boat docks, and lakefront resorts and campgrounds has helped make Cherokee Reservoir a vacation destination. The lake is also home to a sailing club, which hosts seasonal regattas. For land-active folks Panther Creek State Park is also considered the heart of the Disc Golf Capitol of the World. Named the Skymart District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Main Street features a second-story sidewalk of businesses.
Eiffel Tower Park is not in France. It’s in Paris, Tennessee, where the Eiffel Tower stands only 70-feet tall. Incorporated in 1823 as the seat of Henry County, Paris was given its name to honor American Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. Downtown Paris blends two centuries of history and architecture with today’s top retail and dining experiences. Another thing Paris, Tennessee and France have in common is wine. The Paris Winery, housed in a Venetian-style building on the rolling hillsides of West Tennessee, offers daily tours and tastings. Paris is also home to the world’s biggest fish fry, which has brought merriment to the area for 70 years. During the week-long celebration, more than 10,000 pounds of catfish arrives at the Robert E. “Bobby” Cox Memorial Fish Tent to be fried up for the more than 9,000 visitors. The all-you-can-eat catfish marathon runs alongside activities like a bed race, a carnival, parade, and a rodeo.
The mountain resort city of Pigeon Forge caters to country music fans and travelers looking to experience southern culture. The most notable attraction is Dollywood, a theme park named in honor of co-owner and country music singer Dolly Parton. The 150-acre attraction goes beyond thrill rides and includes Dollywood’s Splash Country water park, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa, and Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Attraction. More than 30 theatres, parks, museums, and other attractions call Pigeon Forge home delighting everyone from NASCAR fans to wannabe pirate adventurers. Some of the greatest lodging experiences in the American south are located in Pigeon Forge, from themed resorts to rustic mountain cabins.
Between Chattanooga and Knoxville sits a gem lost in time. The town of Sweetwater consistently appeared in the results we compiled of most charming towns and small cities in Tennessee. Visitors love to stroll the historic shopping district, browsing shops specializing in rare antiques, home furnishings and decor, art and fashion, and hard to find collectibles. Far enough away from the big cities and the mountain culture, Sweetwater just feels like a place sure of its own identity: the folks are welcoming, and the air is clean. The largest underground lake in the country—and second largest in the world—is located in Sweetwater. The lake, known now as The Lost Sea, is part of Craighead Caverns and it is possible to explore on boat tours and overnight cave adventures.