After you’ve explored the honky-tonks and legendary hot chicken scene, a day trip from Nashville offers an array of history, food, music, and fun.
The cities and towns that are just an easy drive from Nashville (between a half-hour and three hours) are full of natural and historical wonders that are ripe for a quick adventure. Whether you find yourself sampling some Tennessee whiskey from a powerhouse distillery or exploring the mysterious depths of an underground sea, here are eight of our favorite day-trip destinations.
All of these locations can be reached in three hours or less from Nashville via car. Just be sure to check their websites and/or call ahead of time for any weather-related closures.
1. Brush up on your Civil War history in Franklin
Drive time: 22 miles south of Nashville; 30-minute drive
What to do:Franklin has come a long way since its days as a Confederate stronghold and site of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles (The Battle of Franklin). Today, the small town manages to preserve its historic past while stepping into its new role as a welcoming, suburban city brimming with quaint, locally owned shops and lively eateries.
Start off by exploring three of Franklin’s most important Civil War sites – the Carnton Plantation, the Lotz House and the Carter House – through a local tour operator or venture out on your own on a self-guided tour. Later, head to downtown Franklin’s charming Main Street for boutique shopping and delectable Southern eats at Gray’s on Mainbefore capping off the day with a bottle of honeysuckle wine at the nearby Arrington Vineyards.
2. Drink some Tennessee whiskey in Lynchburg
Drive time: 75 miles south of Nashville; one-hour and 40-minute drive
What to do: Jack Daniels is practically synonymous with Tennessee whiskey, making Lynchburg – the home of Jack Daniels Distillery – a veritable mecca for fans of this storied brown spirit. Interestingly, the distillery is located in a dry county, but you can still sample whiskey drawn from individual barrels during one of their informative distillery tours.
The town of Lynchburg itself is also worth exploring. If wine is more your speed, pop into the Lynchburg Winery before indulging in a slice of rich Southern gastronomic history at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House Restaurant. If souvenir shopping is on the list, the surrounding shops are stocked with a delightful assortment of handmade crafts.
3. Go whitewater kayaking at Rock Island State Park
Drive time: 87 miles east of Nashville; one-hour and 40-minute drive
What to do: Within Rock Island State Park’s 883 acres, you’ll find a day full of nature excursions that cater to both laid-back explorers and adrenaline junkies alike. The park is both majestically craggy and verdant, boasting a 30-foot horseshoe waterfall that once powered the 19th-century cotton textile mill located above it. You can opt to hike past this powerful water feature on one of nine trails located below the dam, or, if you’re experienced with a kayak, you can take to the rushing stream and paddle your way downstream.
Fishing, swimming and birding are also popular options here, with osprey, belted kingfishers and great blue herons in the area.
4. Visit an underground national park in Cave City, Kentucky
Drive time: 93 miles northeast of Nashville; one-hour and 30-minute drive
What to do: With its underground rivers, glittering crystals, jagged stalagmites and rare wildlife, Mammoth Cave National Park provides shelter for some of the most unusual ecosystems in the world. But the 400-mile surveyed passageways also have their fair share of fascinating tales to tell – including the cave’s turn as a tuberculosis hospital and the prehistoric mummies that inhabited its depths. You can spend a day learning about this U.S. national park through cave tours and experiences that range from an hour-and-a-half to six hours.
After you’ve peeked at the blind beetles and eyeless fish inside the cave complex, go topside for an afternoon of hiking, fishing and ziplining through 53,000 acres of lush forest.
5. Explore space travel and breweries in Huntsville, Alabama
Drive time: 110 miles south of Nashville; one-hour and 53-minute drive
What to do: Home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsvilleis quite literally a town full of rocket scientists. As such, space-themed adventures are the order of the day, and there’s no better spot to explore the skies than at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The Smithsonian-affiliated museum contains the world’s largest collection of space artifacts, including rocket and shuttle components. Both kids and adults alike will get a kick out of a walk-through replica of the International Space Station and the resident G-Force simulator.
Huntsville has also come into its own as an arts and culture hub. Case in point: Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment, the nation’s largest privately owned arts facility. Inside this former cotton mill, you can watch artists at work from over 148 studios, dip into one of the six galleries or watch a performance in the facility’s theater.
After an afternoon of the arts, wind down with a beer inside one of Huntsville’s many up-and-coming breweries, like the Salty Nut Brewery, Yellowhammer Brewing and Straight to Ale. Certain areas around town are designated open container, making it easy to continue exploring Huntsville with a to-go cup in hand.
6. Ride the rail up to Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga
Drive time: 134 miles southeast of Nashville; two-hour and 10-minute drive
What to do: Six miles from downtown Chattanooga lies a nature-based triple threat: Ruby Falls, Rock City and the Inline Railway. It’s an all-day, all-ages adventure based in Lookout Mountain, a mountain ridge running through Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Start with a guided cave tour or a 700-foot zipline adventure through Ruby Falls, home of the world’s largest underground waterfall, before strolling through the diverse flora and fauna of the Rock City Gardens.
Wrap up your day with a mile-high ride on the Incline Railway, one of the world’s steepest passenger railways. At the top: a bird’s eye from the Lookout Mountain observation deck.
7. Navigate the Lost Sea in Sweetwater
Drive time: 170 miles east of Nashville; two-hour and 53-minute drive
What to do: Tennessee may be land-locked, but that doesn’t stop the state from boasting its very own sea. Designated a registered natural landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior and listed as ‘America’s largest underground lake’ by Guinness World Book of Records, the Lost Sea is a massive body of water located in a historic cave system known as the Craighead Caverns. The true size of this body of water is unknown, but you can glide across its four-acre surface and catch a glimpse of the crystal formations and colossal rainbow trout that inhabit the caverns on one of the daily boat tours offered.
Nearby, Sweetwater’s revitalized Main Street offers a bake shop full of indulgent Southern sweets, galleries and plenty of antique shopping.
8. Tour Elvis Presley’s stomping grounds in Memphis
Drive time: 215 miles west of Nashville; three-hour drive
What to do: Clocking in at just over 200 miles, the drive from Nashville to Memphis stretches the definition of a day trip, but if you’re a devotee of ‘The King’, you know that it’s all about taking care of business… in a flash. And there’s no other place that brings the legacy of Elvis to life quite like the kitschy and wonderfully bizarre Graceland. The full Elvis Experience tour takes about three hours, which still leaves you time to fill up on some that transcendent low-and-slow Memphis pulled pork at Central BBQ before heading back to Music City.
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