5 Ideas for Family Vacations in Tennessee

Beating the heat at splash park


Five Kid-Approved Adventures in the Volunteer State

Home to top-notch zoos where visitors marvel at creatures from all corners of the earth and hands-on museums that offer innovative ways to learn about the world, Tennessee's big cities—starting with Nashville and Memphis—are ideal destinations for families with kids. Opportunities to explore nature are plentiful throughout the Volunteer State, making it possible to cater to many different tastes in a single vacation.

Music City Memories: A Family Vacation in Nashville

Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, is synonymous with country music, but there are plenty of other attractions that will make Music City a hit with youngsters. Visit the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere (3777 Nolensville Pike, Nashville, TN), where kids enjoy petting goats and alpacas, interacting with kangaroos and releasing pent-up energy in the 66,000-square-foot Jungle Gym. More fun awaits at the Adventure Science Center (800 Fort Negley Blvd., Nashville, TN), where children calculate how much they would weigh on another planet and learn about the human body's immune system while playing laser tag. While in Nashville, be sure to grab a bite at the Aquarium Restaurant at Opry Mills Mall (516 Opry Mills Dr., Nashville, TN), where you'll dine surrounded by fish, rays and sharks.

Beyond Graceland: The Kid-Friendly Side of Memphis

Memphis is associated primarily with Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion, but it's not necessary to be a devotee of The King to enjoy Tennessee's second-largest city. At the Children's Museum of Memphis (2525 Central Ave., Memphis, TN), kids explore scientific concepts like air physics and learn about environmental conservation through what they'll consider playtime. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, cool off in the museum's H2Oh! Splash Park, an outdoor space with water slides, fountains and sprinklers. Make time—a half day or more—to explore the impressive Memphis Zoo (2000 Prentiss Pl., Memphis, TN), one of just four zoos in the U.S. that exhibit panda bears. Other residents include bonobos, orangutans and gorillas, as well as lions, tigers and wombats.

Wildlife and Waterfalls: A Fun-Filled Trip to Chattanooga

The riverfront city of Chattanooga in southeastern Tennessee brims with kid-friendly attractions that include the Creative Discovery Museum (21 Chestnut St., Chattanooga, TN) for children ages 0 to 12. While toddlers play in a tree house and toy kitchen, older visitors can try their hands at sewing and woodworking. A few blocks away is the Tennessee Aquarium (1 Broad St., Chattanooga, TN), home to a delightful cast of otters, penguins, sharks and other creatures. Set aside time to visit Lookout Mountain, which offers three attractions: the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, a scenic train ride; Ruby Falls, a 145-foot cascade beneath the mountain; and Rock City, a collection of gardens interspersed with ancient rock formations.

The Great Smoky Mountains: Outdoor Adventures in Gatlinburg

There's no admission fee to enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so you don't have to spend much to take the entire family hiking and picnicking in this beautiful wilderness. Instruct little ones to keep their eyes peeled for wildlife, including black bears, deer and rabbits. Plan a visit in the spring, when the region is covered in wildflowers, or in October to see stunning fall colors. The family-friendly town of Gatlinburg is the gateway to the park, where rental cabins accommodate groups of various sizes. Head to the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle (15 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg, TN), an observation tower that offers a 360-degree view of the region. If time allows, stop by Ober Gatlinburg (1001 Parkway #2, Gatlinburg, TN), an amusement park that offers rides and miniature golf during the summer, then turns into a ski resort in winter.

Nature and Nurture: Quality Family Time in Knoxville

The city of Knoxville in eastern Tennessee can easily seem like one big playground. Relish a day at Ijam's Nature Center (2915 Island Home Ave., Knoxville, TN), a wildlife sanctuary where families picnic, paddle on a lake and admire heron and other waterfowl. Little ones enjoy Jo's Grove, a play area made from natural materials. More adventures await at the Knoxville Zoo (3500 Knoxville Zoo Dr., Knoxville, TN). In addition to animal exhibits, the zoo offers a carousel and a bird show. Also visit The Muse Knoxville (516 N. Beaman St., Knoxville, TN), an interactive museum that offers a science- and technology-themed obstacle course, a phosphorescent wall on which kids draw with lasers and a planetarium.