The Absolute Best Day Trips for Getting Out of Nashville

Whether you're looking for beautiful parks or terrific breweries, there are plenty of good reasons to take a quick break from Music City.

It’s time to hit the road. Gas prices have moderated a bit, and the walls might just have closed in a little on you over the course of the past few chilly months, so a change of scenery from Music City, as fun as it is here, could be just what you need to shake the winter doldrums. Pack the Yeti with sandwiches and drinks, fire up the GPS, and set course to any of these fun driving destinations.

Dinosaur World, Kentucky
Dinosaur World, Kentucky

Cave City, KY

Distance from Nashville: One hour, 30 minutes
If you’re trying to escape from the hustle and bustle of Nashville, there’s no better place to get away than actually underground. Mammoth Cave is undoubtedly the main attraction and is definitely worth visiting. The world's longest cave system, with more than 400 miles of explored passageways, it really is one of the great natural wonders of the world. For a little kitschy fun, stop by Dinosaur World and take a selfie with a life-size Jurassican.
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The Cumberland County Playhouse
The Cumberland County Playhouse

Crossville, TN

Distance from Nashville: One hour, 45 minutes
Situated on top of the Cumberland Plateau, Crossville has all sorts of fun activities for an afternoon or a weekend trip. Wineries with some decent juice, plenty of hiking or golfing opportunities, and the renowned and recently reopened Cumberland County Playhouse are all destinations worth seeking out for live theater and music. More than one local spirits shop in town claims to be “Your Moonshine Headquarters,” so if you really need one of those, you’ve got choices. Crossville is also home to the state’s first Buc-ee’s, the massive truck stop/mega convenience store with a cultish following of stoppers and shoppers who are looking to pick up a tank of gas, some beef jerky and home furnishings in one trip.
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Gatlinburg, TN

Distance from Nashville: Three hours, 30 minutes
Sure, downtown Gatlinburg can get a little touristy with its shops offering sweet wines, flavored moonshines and enough candy shops to keep a diabetes clinic in business. However, the town is also one of the gateways to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its half million acres of natural wonder. Lodging options range from rustic to posh, and a short drive from the downtown strip leads to The Greenbrier, an upscale restaurant featuring dry-aged steaks and an impressive selection of whiskeys. The Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is a great rainy day activity, and Anakeesta is a sprawling complex perched high above downtown accessible by chairlift or by shuttle bus. The theme park offers ziplines, a mountain coaster, a swinging bridge walk high in the tree canopy, bars, restaurants and a stellar night walk multi-sensory experience called Astra Lumina.
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Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs

Louisville, KY

Distance from Nashville: Three hours
When you think of Louisville, horses and bourbon probably are the first things to come to mind. To be sure, Churchill Downs and the Urban Bourbon Trail of downtown distilleries and whiskey bars should be reason enough to plan a visit to Derby City. But don’t miss out on other fun opportunities like the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory with its 120’ tall baseball bat protruding from the sidewalk, the Muhammad Ali Center, a shrine to the athletic and social justice accomplishments of Louisville’s favorite son or the 4th Street Live! entertainment complex in the middle of downtown. Take time to dine at excellent eateries such as The Mayan Cafe, Top Chef alum Edward Lee’s modern Southern restaurant 610 Magnolia or Proof on Main in the wildly entertaining 21C Museum Hotel, a property that features a 9000 square-foot exhibit space filled with contemporary art that is free for the public to visit.
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Leiper’s Fork, TN

Distance from Nashville: One hour
Leiper’s Fork used to be considered “the boondocks” by the more metropolitan residents of Nashville. But now it’s become a bedroom community for Music City and the home to a host of famous country music stars and actors who are attracted to the slower pace of life, abundant hospitality shopping, eating and drinking opportunities, and beautiful rolling hills. Take a tasting tour at Leiper’s Fork Distillery, shop for art at the Leiper’s Creek Gallery and finish the perfect village day with dinner and some live music at Puckett’s Grocery. The new sustainable luxury resort, Southall, opened earlier this year after a long wait with a spa, cozy inn and farm-to-table restaurant.
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Big Bad Breakfast - South Pittsburg, TN
Big Bad Breakfast - South Pittsburg, TN

South Pittsburg, TN

Distance from Nashville: Two hours
If all you know of South Pittsburg are the roadside fireworks stands lit by neon so bright it’s probably visible from space, you’re missing out on a fun little East Tennessee town. Home to Lodge Manufacturing, makers of cast iron skillets since the 1800s, the Lodge factory store is a great place to shop for discounted cookware you’ll be able to pass on to your grandkids. At the back of the factory store is the Lodge Museum of Cast Iron, dedicated to the history of cast iron and featuring the world’s biggest skillet, 18-feet from handle to handle. (Take that, World’s Largest Ball of Twine!) The entertaining museum shares the history of the brand, its essential role in Southern food culture and high-tech exhibits to lead guests through the manufacturing process without the danger of having to be around molten metal in the foundry. Grab breakfast or lunch right around the corner at Big Bad Breakfast, where you can enjoy coffee or cocktails along with a menu of over-the-top morning meal classics.
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Bristol, Tennessee
Bristol, Tennessee | Nolichuckyjake/Shutterstock

Bristol, TN

Distance from Nashville: Four hours, 30 minutes
Perched on the TN/VA border, Bristol is best known for its hyper-competitive speedway, where 40+ cars rub bumpers at 120+ mph around a course so short it looks like a Trader Joe’s parking lot at closing time. When record producer Ralph Peer brought his microphone to town in 1927 to record The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in what would become known as “The Bristol Sessions,” it marked the birth of popular country music. The Birthplace of Country Music museum tells the story and explains the impact of that event in a fascinating display of artifacts and audio-visual exhibits. The town also boasts some great little craft breweries, including one right on the TN/VA state line.
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Muscle Shoals, AL

Distance from Nashville: Two hours, 45 minutes
When Lynyrd Skynyrd sang “Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers,” in their iconic Southern anthem “Sweet Home Alabama,” they were referring to the legendary group of backup musicians who played as the rhythm section on more than 500 recordings at studios in the area during the '60s and '70s. Acts like The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Wilson Pickett, and the aforementioned Skynyrd flocked to Muscle Shoals to record with these talented musicians and to work with the songsmiths of the area. Music fans should definitely make the pilgrimage to visit sites like FAME Recording Studios, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and Cypress Moons Studios to see where the magic was made. While you’re in the neighborhood, drop by the Alabama Music Hall of Fame to discover even more talent from the Yellowhammer State.
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All Saints Chapel
All Saints Chapel | Michael Stephens/Shutterstock

Sewanee, TN

Distance from Nashville: One hour, 15 minutes
Home to the Hogwarts-like University of the South, Sewanee offers opportunities to hike on miles of trails around the school on the accurately named Perimeter Trail. Or, visitors can enjoy indoor pursuits in the charming pubs like Shenanigans or The Blue Chair, art galleries, and the beautiful All Saints Chapel on campus. The nine-hole Golf Course at Sewanee features two par 3’s with infinity greens overlooking the valleys below and has been recognized as one of the top public courses in the state.
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Lynchburg, TN

Distance from Nashville: One hour, 30 minutes
Of course, the number one reason that most people travel to Lynchburg is to tour the world-famous Jack Daniel’s Distillery. Still the most popular Tennessee whiskey in the world ever since Frank Sinatra first told his fans that it was his favorite drink, Jack Daniels welcomes more than 300,000 visitors a year to tour the facility and taste their “brown water.” (You may have heard that Jack Daniel’s is actually made in a dry county that doesn’t have any liquor stores, and that’s true. However, you can taste the whiskey at the distillery and buy commemorative bottles from the gift shop.) Don’t miss out on the quaint town square of Lynchburg with its gift shops and down home restaurants, or go all out for a full family-style meal at Miss Mary Bobo’s Restaurant in the former boarding house where young Jack Daniels lived and which is still operated by the distillery.
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U.S. Space & Rocket Center
U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Huntsville, AL

Distance from Nashville: Two hours
If you’re a local, you probably visited the US Space and Rocket Center when you were younger, but now that you’re all grown up, Huntsville is definitely worth a return trip. With more than a dozen craft breweries in the area and an entertainment complex with restaurants and bars built in an old high school, Huntsville is fun for all ages. Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment is America's largest independent center for the arts, with scores of working artists plus shops, restaurants, and live performance venues.
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the freight house
the freight house

Paducah, KY

Distance from Nashville: Two hours
This quaint town at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers is a delightful surprise for folks who haven’t ever stopped halfway on the trip to St. Louis. With a 20-block downtown historic district, a vibrant arts scene, and a tradition as the center of the quilting universe, there are plenty of reasons to make the detour, like 2019’s Top Chef runner-up Sara Bradley who cooks her brand of elevated Kentucky cuisine at The Freight House. While their visitors’ center and tasting room is still on the drawing board, OH Ingram River Aged Whiskey is making some amazing products nearby in Wickliffe, aging whiskey in barrels in a floating rickhouse on the Mississippi River to take advantage of the rising and falling water level to agitate and expose the spirits to the oak of the barrel.
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Tennessee Aquarium
Tennessee Aquarium

Chattanooga, TN

Distance from Nashville: Two hours
Nashville urban planners could learn a lot from how our neighbors in Chattanooga developed their own riverfront. A 16-mile Riverwalk offers walking and biking access, and the easily walkable downtown district features gorgeous landscaping, all sorts of public art, the Tennessee Aquarium, Creative Discovery Museum, and the Bluff View Art District. There’s also a minor league baseball park looming on the bluff above downtown and plenty of fun drinking and dining options nearby—including Tony’s Pasta Shop and Trattoria for a hearty Italian meal or enjoy a cocktail and the classic bistro and seafood menu at Easy Bistro. Chattanooga Whiskey welcomes guests into their Experimental Distillery for tours and tastings of their new genre of whiskey they call “Tennessee High Malt.”
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Market Square in Knoxville, Tennessee
Market Square in Knoxville, Tennessee | Alizada Studios/Shutterstock

Knoxville, TN

Distance from Nashville: Three hours
Best known as the home to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville is still worth a visit even when the Vols aren’t playing. A vibrant culinary scene showcases the Appalachian cuisine of the region made using seasonal locally sourced ingredients. Market Square has been a popular gathering spot for shopping, dining, and drinking for more than 150 years. Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair in 1982, and the downtown park that hosted the event is still a fun place to stroll around and visit the fourth-floor observation deck of the centerpiece of the fairgrounds, The Sunsphere. The Graduate Hotel revels in its connection to UT with Volunteer Orange decor and a watering hole named Saloon 16, a partnership with former NFL quarterback and Tennessee football legend Peyton Manning. Or book an overnight at the historic Hyatt Place Knoxville Downtown, where you can take in the city views with an espresso martini on the rooftop bar.
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Memphis, TN

Distance from Nashville: Three hours, 15 minutes
While Memphis and Nashville may share a playful rivalry as the state’s two largest cities, there’s no doubt that the Bluff City represents the soul of Tennessee. We certainly have some great barbecue in Music City, but not nearly as many iconic joints as Memphis which boasts The Rendezvous, Cozy Corner, The Bar-B-Que Shop, Germantown Commissary, Interstate Bar-B-Que, and many others. You can even stay in a cavernous modern pyramid at Big Cypress Lodge built above a giant Bass Pro Shop. Music fans should carve out time to visit Graceland, of course, but don’t miss out on Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and the Memphis Rock & Soul Museum.
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Chris Chamberlain is a food, drink and travel writer based out of Nashville who is excited about the prospect of getting back on the road again! Follow his travels on Twitter @CeeElCee.