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A relatively small landlocked state bordered on the west by the Mississippi River and to the east by the Appalachian Mountains, Tennessee is perhaps most famous for its music. A massive cultural melting pot, the state is world-renowned for its importance in the development of blues, modern country and rock and roll.
The state capital, Nashville, has a musical heritage second to none, and is home to the Grand Ole Opry - America's centre stage of country music. Since the mid-1950s, one of Tennessee's main tourist attractions has been the legendary king of rock 'n roll, Elvis Presley. He may have died some four decades ago, but Elvis's legacy remains, drawing thousands of fans to his former home in Memphis, the famed Graceland.
Outside of the main cities, Tennessee, which is only 480 miles (772km) long and 115 miles (185km) wide, offers a surprising number of wilderness areas and natural attractions perfect for those adventurers who enjoy exploring the outdoors
In the eastern part of the state, a series of beautiful ridges and valleys rise up to the highest point of Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which Tennessee shares with North Carolina. The state is blessed with a vast system of reservoirs, including 29 lakes, often frequented by keen anglers and water-sports enthusiasts.
Tennessee also boasts a multitude of historic heritage trails, including the scenic Trail of Tears, which starts just east of Chattanooga in the south and stretches for 260 miles (418km) through Tennessee before spilling into Kentucky. Along this route, 13,000 displaced Cherokee Indians were forcibly removed to present day Oklahoma. Tennessee was also ravaged by the Civil War and witnessed many battles, and history buffs will delight in the fact that the state now preserves and maintains a number of these war sites, such as Shiloh and Lookout Mountain.
All in all, Tennessee is a big drawcard for musos looking to immerse themselves in one of America's music capitals, history nuts eager to delve into the country's rich war past, and those keen outdoorsmen and women keen to explore the South's natural splendour.
Found in Downtown Nashville, the Country Music Hall of Fame is one of the world's largest museums and research centres for American music. The core exhibit is Sing Me Back Home, a journey through the history of country music, drawing on the museum's rich collection of costumes, memorabilia, instruments, photographs and manuscripts. Temporary displays focus on individual Hall of Fame inductees, and the Archive Spotlight Series highlights specific themes from the main exhibition. There's a big assemblage of moving images, recorded sounds and photographs, as well as media on the development of recordings, filming and photography. Among the exhibits are Elvis Presley's gold-leaf covered Cadillac, Emmy Lou Harris' jewelled cowboy boots and Bob Dylan's autographed lyric sheets.
Built in 1892, the Ryman Auditorium is regarded as the founding home of country music, having hosted the world-renowned Grand Ole Opry radio show until 1974. Originally serving as an evangelical meeting hall, regular performances by gospel singers and choirs became more common with passing years, with music eventually becoming the building's main focus. Nicknamed the Mother Church of Country Music, superstars like Sarah Bernhardt, Patsy Cline and Elvis Presly have all taken to its stage. Now restored, it holds regular concerts while also operating as a museum, detailing its rich history and offering exhibits highlighting all the great names to have walked through its doors.
No visit to Nashville is complete without attending a show at the Grand Ole Opry, which has been going strong on the airwaves since 1925. From a vast 4,400 seat auditorium on Opryland Drive, the world's longest running radio show is still broadcast on the Nashville station WSM (650 on the AM dial), featuring new stars and legends of country and bluegrass music performing live on stage. From February to October, the shows are hosted by the new Grand Ole Opry House while the winter run from November to January is hosted by the Opry's former smaller home, the Ryman Auditorium.
Belle Meade Plantation is home to an 1853 Greek Revival mansion carefully restored to show off its original elegance. The plantation was founded in 1807 by John Harding, who brought thoroughbred horses for racing and breeding to Tennessee from the commonwealth of Virginia. Visitors to the plantation today can view the authentic Civil War bullet holes that riddle the old mansion's pillars. Among the outbuildings that survive on the 30 acre (12 ha) site is one of the oldest houses in Tennessee, a log cabin built in 1790. There is also a carriage house, visitor centre, tearoom and gift shop. Tours of the antebellum furnished mansion and grounds are given by guides dressed in period costume.
The centrepiece of Nashville's Centennial Park is the world's only full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Athens, complete with a re-creation of the 42ft (13m) high statue of Athena that stood outside the temple in ancient Greece. Like the original, the Parthenon in Nashville faces east to let in light as the sun rises. The Parthenon was originally built for Tennessee's 1897 Centennial Exposition, with direct plaster casts of the Parthenon Marbles and sculptures which adorned the pediment of the temple from 438 BC. The massive bronze doors measuring 24 feet high and 7 feet across come in two sets of two, making them the largest set of matching doors in the world. Today, the Parthenon in Nashville serves as the city's art museum, with a collection highlighting 19th and 20th century American artists.
One of the largest of its kind in the United States, the Tennessee State Museum tells the story of the region from prehistoric times to the modern day. Founded originally as a portrait gallery, the collection has grown to encompass anything from natural history, first peoples and the throes of independence to civil war, world wars and the Cold War era. Alongside these are numerous temporary exhibits, covering things such as the women's vote and Tennessee's musical heritage, as well as permanent displays of well-preserved artefacts . Also featured are recreations of a 19th-century gristmill, an 18th-century print shop and a Victorian painting gallery.
Once the home of the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley, Graceland is the second-most visited house in the United States after the White House. Thousands descend on Memphis to tour the icon's house and grounds, paying respects at his grave. Kept as close as possible to how it was then Elvis lived there, visitors can go on audio-guided tours of the home and trophy building. Guests are also privy to his massive collection of cars, including his renowned 1055 pink Cadillac, and two private jets. Along with general memorabilia and history, guests at Graceland can also order some 1950s and 1960s diner-style food, including the king's infamous deep-fried peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich.
Sun Studio is enshrined in musical folklore for launching legends like Elvis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison on the road to stardom. Visitors to Sun Studio are privy to a great deal of memorabilia, rare outtakes from recording sessions and can even touch Elvis' first microphone. It still hosts live sessions and recordings with current artists, while for peckish customers there's always the Sun Studio Café, a 50s-style diner and still a favourite musician hangout. Free shuttles are on hand to transport visitors to and from either Graceland or the Rock 'n' Soul Museum.
Put together by the Smithsonian Institution, the Memphis Rock n' Soul Museum is a collection of rare recordings, vintage films and interactive exhibits celebrating American musical pioneers. The building is located on the corner of the legendary Highway 61 and equally famous Beale Street, home of urban jazz and blues. From gospel to blues and rock, the museum displays memorabilia from performers such as Ike Turner's piano, B.B. King's guitar and some of Elvis's outfits. Each of its seven galleries has a specific focus, ranging from rural culture and music to the influential Sun Records. The Bravo Gallery focuses on the performers and industry players who contributed to a successful civil rights movement.
The Pink Palace Museum is devoted to culture and natural history. Visitors can also explore dioramas, exhibits and audio-visual displays tracing Memphis' past from the arrival of the Spanish explorers through to the Civil War and yellow fever epidemics. An award-winning medical exhibit highlights the city's development into a healthcare centre for the United States, while dinosaurs, fossils and medical history also feature. There's a planetarium at the Pink Palace, as well as an Imax theatre, nature centre and science centre. Nearby are two further houses of historical interest - the Magevney House, an 1830s clapboard house built by Irish immigrants, and the Mallory-Neely House, a 25-room abode built in 1852. Both still have their original furnishings.
Mud Island on the Mississippi offers fascinating insight into the famous river with a series of immersive and informative attractions. The Mississippi River Museum focuses on the history of the Mississippi, as well as the engineering, discovery and settlement of the river and its banks. There's also a display of the Memphis Belle, a famous B-17 bomber from World War II. But the highlight is the River Walk, five blocks long and representing a journey of 1,000 miles (1,609km) from Illinois to Louisiana, ending in a scaled down Gulf of Mexico. Visitors can rent paddle boats, canoes and kayaks, as well as mountain bikes, for exploring.
The delightful Memphis Botanic Gardens are found on a 96 acre (39 ha) site at Audubon Park. Each of 26 gardens are designed according to themes or species, ranging from the Japanese Garden of Tranquillity to the magnificent Municipal Rose Garden. Favourites include a children's garden, the Sensory Garden designed to be enjoyed by the disabled and the Iris Garden, at its best in April and May. There are also popular events such as the weekly farmers markets on Wednesdays from April to October, while there are evenings of wine tastings on Tuesdays from February to October. Three annual plant sales are hosted by the gardens, with proceeds going to various educational and horticultural programs. There are also live concerts in summer, perfect for picnics.
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music details the history of the most successful soul music studio in history. Continuing the legacy of Stax Records, the museum pays tribute to all the artists who recorded there, including the likes of Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and the Staple Singers. There's a rare and astonishing collection of two thousand interactive exhibits, films and artefacts, as well as general memorabilia and galleries. The museum also gives nods to other influential labels in the genre like Motown, Hi and Atlantic, with giants like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and the Jackson Five receiving praise despite not being part of the Stax stables. It's also important to realise Stax as a cultural phenomenon, starting out at a time when segregation will still a grim reality in the United States.
The Tennessee climate can vary greatly due to the state's diverse topography, but generally the climate is moderate, with warm summers and mild winters. Spring and fall tend to be the best time of year (early fall is the driest time of year), and therefore this is usually the best time to travel to Tennessee, as the summers can get hot, with high humidity, and the winters, though mild, tend to be wet.
The Sequatchie Valley, the Central Basin, and the Gulf Coastal Plain are usually the warmest areas, and Memphis (in the southwest) experiences an average temperature of 83°F (28°C) in the height of summer (July). The mountainous region in the east tends to experience the heaviest snowfall in winter, with the lowest temperatures in the state. Snow does fall in the rest of Tennessee, but tends to melt very quickly. The Smoky Mountains receive the highest annual precipitation levels in the state. The highest rainfall occurs in winter and early spring, with March being the wettest month and severe storms can occur, though usually infrequently.
East of Nashville on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina lies the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Covering more than one and a half million acres, the park is the largest in the eastern United States and most visited in the country. A designated International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, it draws millions of visitors every year with its panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams and uninterrupted forest. The mountains are home to a variety of plant and animal life, many of which are unique to the area. A symbol of the Smokies, the American Black Bear is probably the most famous resident, while rarer inhabitants include the river otter, elk and Peregrine Falcon. The park offers numerous outdoor activities and glimpses into early Appalachian farm life, with 77 historic structures like barns, churches and gristmills.
The fourth largest city in Tennessee, Chattanooga lies at the junction of four interstate highways and well worth a visit. The city has had a renaissance in recent years, redeveloping its riverfront and downtown area to offer an extensive greenway system and river walk through the historic art district and several beautiful parks. Main attractions in the city are the Tennessee Aquarium, Civil War battlefields, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and a Creative Discovery Museum, as well as the renowned Jack Daniels distillery. The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, named after the song, provides the opportunity to sleep in historically decorated train cars and to look at models of trains and trolleys used in the city over the years. The main destination for visitors to Chattanooga is Lookout Mountain, offering its historic Incline Railway, the steepest passenger railway in the world offering panoramic city views, and the Great Smoky Mountains 100 miles (161km) away. Lookout Mountain is also home to Battles for Chattanooga Museum, the underground Ruby Falls and Rock City Gardens, from where it's possible to view seven states on a clear day. There are zipline tours available from Ruby Falls, an adventurous way to take in both the falls and the beautiful mountains.
Visitors are treated to plenty of attractions in Knoxville, a three hour drive east of the more illustrious Nashville. Just a stone's throw away sits the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, while downtown Knoxville is home to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and the historic Tennessee Theatre. Home to the University of Tennessee, a ticket to a Vols football game is a must, with their fanatical orange-clad supporters and their monstrous 110,000 seater stadium. Lastly, the downtown area known as the Jackson Avenue Warehouse District is full of soot-blackened buildings, jazz bars and funky homestyle restaurants, immortalised by Cormac McCarthy's sprawling novel Suttree.
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