State Eleven Revisited – Tennessee

There are an elite group of just a handful of states that have been revisited on the Great Fifty States Quest. There’s an even more elite group of states that have been visited thrice. In fact, its a group of one – and Tennessee is it. Now, that is partly because being amongst so many other states TN is always a place we’re likely to criss-cross over. But its more than that, Tennessee is one of those states that always comes up in the “which is your favourite state” reckoning.

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In 2013 we swung by Memphis, a city that stole our hearts, for a second time but this year we decided to head back to Nashville for the first time since 2011. A couple of our friends had visited since and we just felt the urge to go back to a city we had a blast in to see what was new.

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We headed in to Tennessee from the north this time, having been in Lexington the night before. Before we really got settled at all in Music City we swung by Craft Brewed, a beer shop that Josh had identified and which didn’t disappoint. The Ballast Point red velvet cupcake stout was a particular highlight.

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After sharing a few brews we headed to our hotel…now…what you have to know about Nashville is that accommodation is expensive. We searched high and low for hotels coming in at less than $250 a night and our options were limited. We settled on the Capitol Hotel, which to its credit was less than $250 a night, but we weren’t exactly living in the lap of luxury. Its perfectly comfortable but its more of a renovated motel than a hotel. The walkways outside the windows make the rooms noisy (as do the busy road, the pedestrian crossing nearby and the ice machine outside our room!), but we had a fun time there and it is very conveniently located – right next to the Capitol building, in the grounds of which President James K Polk is buried (who doesn’t love a good Presidential gravesite?).

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After a brief walk around the Capitol (not the most impressive of Capitol buildings unfortunately) we headed into town, past the imposing and historic Ryman Auditorium and onto Broadway. Nashville’s Broadway is where we first really fell in love with this part of Tennessee with the raucous bars blaring out country, bluegrass and rock music and a sea of people stumbling from one venue to the next. It was still all of those great things, but it somehow seemed more commercial this time. Nashville has obviously gone from strength to strength and everywhere was very busy.

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We decided to head off the main drag a little to the Flying Saucer pub for a few drinks (the walls are covered in saucers, hence the name). The beer range was superb and the snacky pub-food was pretty good, though we were too nervous to eat much ahead of the final Clinton vs Trump debate (we all know how that ended…).

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The next morning we headed out to a Nashville legend, the Loveless Cafe. Its about a half hour drive to the west of Nashville so not in the city proper, but famous in the region for their hot biscuits. Kind of like what we’d call scones but a little more savoury – and equally delicious. So fluffy and light, but super tasty. The staff were fun and attentive, the gift shop was cool and they have that super-Instagrammable sign out front! Definitely worth the trip if you can make it.

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Since our last trip a lot of new Nashville places had opened up but one we had to make time for was the Johnny Cash Museum just off Broadway. We both love Johnny and the museum is a brilliant and often moving homage to a fascinating character. This kind of museum can often overdo the schmaltz, but this one really hits the spot – a great journey through his music and surprisingly extensive film career. After gorging on Cash memories we headed to Hatch Show Print‘s new location in the Country Music Hall of Fame and bought – you guessed it – a Johnny Cash poster.

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A part of Nashville that has changed beyond recognition in the five years between our visits is East Nashville. A part of town that barely registered on the tourist trail is now a haven of cool bars, restaurants and coffee shops. We hailed an Uber and headed first to the Wild Cow where we chowed down on tasty vegan food and then next door to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (or more accurately Jeni’s Splendid Sorbet for Hannah) for dessert. East Nashville doesn’t really have a centre as such, so there’s a lot of walking to be done. We’d heard good things about the Pharmacy Bar so we walked the twenty minutes or so there only to find a pretty average bar with below-average staff. We swiftly moved on and boy were we glad we did. The next two bars we hit up – 308 Bar on Gallatin Avenue and the Crying Wolf on Woodland Street were absolute highlights of the trip. Great drinks, even better bar staff, we could see why East Nashville had all the buzz.

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East Nashville’s only drawback is that its quite a distance from Nashville. So it meant a fairly liberal use of Uber which while perfectly efficient, was a bit of a pain and a small extra cost. In any case, we Ubered back to the city intending to have a bowl at Pinewood Social, only to find it completely booked up for hours. It sure does make for a nice photo though. Instead we headed for dinner at Martin’s BBQ followed but some bluegrass and beers at Layla’s Bluegrass Lounge.

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On two previous trips to Tennessee we’d still only taken in two cities – Memphis and Nashville. We decided it was only fair to sample at least one more so we had a date with the Eastern end of the state and Knoxville. Not before that though we had to stop in Cookeville to marvel at the magnificent mural of Ronald Reagan they have.

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A relatively leisurely morning meant that our journey into Knoxville was via lunch at the famous Litton’s restaurant. It is a super-traditional roadside, home country cookin’ kinda place and on a Friday lunchtime it was certainly popular. After a half hour or so waiting we got some very good grub. The coconut cream pie was particularly good, as were the waffle fries.

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After a hearty lunch we made our way to Knoxville and you can’t go to Knoxville without stopping to take in the piece de resistance of the city – the Sunsphere. Its an 81m tall tribute to the 1982 hosting of the World’s Fair, but disappointingly it isn’t full of wigs as The Simpsons would have you believe. You can go up it for free though, and not far from there is the World’s Largest Rubik’s Cube in the lobby of a Holiday Inn – what’s not to like?!

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Once we’d checked into our beautiful and very conveniently located hotel, The Oliver, complete with swanky speakeasy-style cocktail bar we went to explore our new surroundings – and couldn’t have been more impressed! We weren’t really sure what to expect from Knoxville, but right from the start we were taken with the wide open Market Place lined with trees and bars and restaurants, buzzing with people and full of life. The Tennessee Theatre just around the corner is a cool photo stop too. We had a few beers in a couple of the pubs before settling in for dinner at the fun and friendly Tomato Head which catered superbly for the vegans among us. A few more drinks at the beer shop next door to our hotel, The Casual Pint, and it was time for bed. Knoxville had more than lived up to the expectations set by her bigger sisters Memphis and Nashville.

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If we’d known how much we were going to love Knoxville we’d have stopped for two nights, but as it was we had to make tracks for North Carolina. The added bonus of this was that our destination, Asheville, was on the other side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Officially America’s busiest National Park, its one we’ve been to before but its so big that there was plenty we hadn’t seen. For example, on the edges of the park in Sevierville is a lovely statue of one of Tennessee’s most famous daughters – Dolly Parton. Lookin’ good Dolly!

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Once you’re inside the park traffic is always a problem, its pretty much two lanes throughout and funnily enough quite a lot of people fancy going there in the fall to see the landscape changing colour. But its worth getting stuck behind a campervan for 45 minutes because there’s literally a photo stop around every corner. The Great Smokies are a sight to behold.

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Once you get to the southern end of the park there are a few cheesy/dorky towns which cater almost exclusively to tourists. The bonus of this is that you get cheesy/dorky roadside attractions like the viewing tower at Maggie Valley which gives an impressive vista across the park, and the giant Indian muffler man outside of Cherokee. You can’t beat a good roadside attraction for breaking up a long drive.

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Tennessee is a worthy member of the elite Three Visits Club. Is it our favourite state? Too early to say – but it never disappoints. There is so much to see and do, scenery, history, food, music, they’ve got it all covered, and all delivered with a bit of Southern Hospitality.

Rate the State

10/10

Good for: food, music, history, scenery…it’s got the lot!

Bad for: There are no beaches in Tennessee…that’s about it.

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