After you’ve exhausted the honky-tonks and legendary hot-chicken scene, a day trip from Nashville is definitely in order. Luckily, the nearby cities and towns are up to the task, full of natural and historical wonders and surrounded by glorious hills that only get more photogenic as the seasons change.
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 reachable by car in three hours or less from Nashville – perfect for your next getaway.
1. Soak up history and wine in Franklin, Tennessee
Travel time: about 30 minutes
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 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 St for boutique shopping and delectable Southern eats at Gray’s on Main before capping off the day with a bottle of honeysuckle wine at nearby Arrington Vineyards.
How to get to Franklin: Take I-65 south out of Nashville for about 18 miles, then exit onto Murfreesboro Rd, which runs straight into central Franklin.
2. See falls, mountains and rails in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Travel time: 2 hours and 10 minutes
Six miles from downtown Chattanooga lies a nature-based triple threat: Ruby Falls, Rock City and the Incline 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 700ft zip-line adventure through Ruby Falls, home of the world’s largest underground waterfall, before strolling through the diverse flora and fauna of 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 view from the Lookout Mountain observation deck.
How to get to Chattanooga: Take I-24 east out of Nashville. After about 130 miles, take exit 178 for US 27, which enters central Chattanooga. In total, Chattanooga is about 134 miles southeast of Nashville.
3. Explore Rock Island State Park, Tennessee
Travel time: about 1 hour and 45 minutes
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. The park is both majestically craggy and verdant, with a 30ft 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.
How to get to Rock Island State Park: From Nashville take I-40 and US-70 east to Smithville, then follow State Rte 56 south to where it intersects with State Rte 287. Turn left on SR 287 and follow it to the park entrance.
4. Sample whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee
Travel time: about 1 hour and 30 minutes
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 the 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 taste of rich Southern gastronomic history at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House Restaurant. And if souvenir shopping is on the list, the surrounding shops are stocked with a delightful assortment of handmade crafts.
How to get to Lynchburg: From Nashville, take I-24 east for 28.7 miles, then take exit 81A to US-231 toward Shelbyville. Head south on State Rte 82 out of Shelbyville until arriving at State Rte 55. Turn right and follow another 2.5 miles until arriving in Lynchburg.
5. Go spelunking in Cave City, Kentucky
Travel time: about 1 hour and 25 minutes
Families love the underground rivers, glittering crystals, jagged stalagmites and rare cave-dwelling wildlife of Mammoth Cave National Park, which 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 US national park through cave tours and experiences that range from 30 minutes 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 zip-lining through 53,000 acres of lush forest.
How to get to Cave City: Head north on I-65 out of Nashville. After about 90 miles, take exit 53 toward Cave City.
6. Space out in Huntsville, Alabama
Travel time: 1 hour and 53 minutes
Home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville is 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 US Space & Rocket Center. The Smithsonian-affiliated museum contains the world’s largest collection of space artifacts, including rocket and shuttle components. Kids and adults 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 in more than 150 studios, dip into one of the seven 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 or 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.
How to get to Huntsville: Take I-65 south out of Nashville and continue for about one hour and 10 minutes. At Ardmore, take the exit toward US-31 south and State Rte 53. Head south for about 30 miles until you reach Huntsville.
7. Delve into music and civil-rights history in Memphis, Tennessee
Travel time: about 3 hours
Clocking in at a little more than 200 miles, the drive from Nashville to Memphis stretches the definition of a day trip, but if you’re interested in learning more about a rock ‘n’ roll icon or the civil-rights struggle, it’s worth the extra hours in the car. You’ll probably only have time for one or the other though, so choose wisely.
Devotees of «the King» know that it’s all about taking care of business…in a flash, and there’s no 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-and-a-half hours, which still leaves you time to fill up on that transcendent low-and-slow Memphis pulled pork at Central BBQ before heading back to Music City.
Another significant Memphis site is the National Civil Rights Museum. Housed partly in the motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, the museum details the long and ongoing struggle for African American equality in the US.
Inside the former motel, two rooms have been preserved as they were on the day King was shot. Elsewhere, artifacts and multimedia installations detail key moments in the civil-rights movement, such as a replica of a bus from Montgomery, Alabama, that tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.
How to get to Memphis: Memphis is about 210 miles west of Nashville on I-40.
8. Visit an underground sea in Sweetwater, Tennessee
Travel time: 2 hours and 53 minutes
Tennessee may be land-locked, but that doesn’t keep the state from boasting its very own sea. Designated a registered natural landmark by the US Department of Interior and listed as «America’s largest underground lake» by the 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 4-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, the town of Sweetwater’s revitalized Main St offers a bakeshop full of indulgent Southern sweets, galleries and plenty of antiques shopping.
How to get to Sweetwater: From Nashville, head east on I-40 for about 140 miles. At Kingston, Tennessee, take exit 352 to head southbound on State Rte 58. Get off at State Rte 72, heading east until SR 322. Continue east on SR 322 until you arrive at Lee Hwy – take a right there to head into Sweetwater.