There’s so many places I can’t wait to see in the world, yet the top of my travel bucket list these days are the spots I went to when I was my daughter’s current age. My ancestry is from the Tennessee Valley, and I love how Tennessee tourism has created amazing ways for families to come visit and enjoy the gorgeous nature and musical heritage of the area. While there’s so much to see and do in this great state, our Gatlinburg attractions guide for families, from the best kid friendly Nashville restaurants to our Gatlinburg trail guide for family hikes, hopes to showcase what I love most about the area!
I’m so excited to partner on this post with my friend Christine, a Dallas turned Nashville girl (while I’m essentially the opposite, having grown up in the Nashville region before moving back to Dallas!). Christine’s family owns the wonderful Gaitlinburg-area family cabin rental, Little Bird Lodge, which I can testify is the perfect retreat from the abundance of diversions Gatlinburg has to offer!
Here’s a few favorite spots to check out in the area to get the most out of your family Dollywood trip!
NASHVILLE WITH KIDS
While Knoxville is the closest airport to Gatlinburg, Nashville continues to be an easy flight to catch into the Tennessee area while also offering a perfect welcome with its abundance of music history offerings! We loved this stop over to settle in and get into the spirit before driving straight west through the gorgeous scenery towards the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area.
Lilly: This is the first thing I need right off the plane! The downtown Nashville location is fast and spacious, making it a great kid-friendly Nashville restaurant – you may even catch a live act on their stage! Everything is good and even better washed down with an ice cold glass bottle of RC Cola.
Christine: As a Texas transplant I can second Lily’s love for Martins BBQ. Tennessee specializes in more of a pork based BBQ, but Martins also makes a great brisket! They only offer it until it sells out, so don’t miss out.
Lilly: Is there any place else to stay when planning a trip to Dollywood? This hotel in the Vanderbilt area impressed my daughter and I more and more at every turn, from the gorgeous yarn art homage to Minnie Pearl at check-in to the massive sculpture of Dolly herself on the roof.
While the hotel has an adult scene, our weekday stay helped us enjoy the rooftop pool (complete with French fries and mocktails adorned with fresh flowers). The rooms were chic and cozy with country accents, big beds and plenty of quiet despite the hotel’s popularity. The downstairs coffee shop had everything we needed before we hit the road in the morning!
Lilly: I could have stayed here for hours, while my seven-year-old definitely preferred a shorter visit! However, the nearly overwhelming amount of handwritten lyrics to iconic country songs and glittering costumes (especially those belonging to Kasey Musgraves’ whose special exhibit we came to see), were a huge catalyst in showing my daughter how some of the biggest songs we know today began as pen on paper. The interactive monitors brought it all to life! Don’t miss a stop into Hatch Show Print for the cutest souvenir posters and a peek at the letterpresses that have advertised some of the biggest gigs in country music. (Hatch Show Print also offers their own tours, if that’s your pick!)
Kid-Friendly Nashville Dining
Christine: For a great mix of Nashville cuisine that is kid friendly, the new Assembly Food Hall in downtown offers casual counter service from many of our local treasures. Coco’s Italian (don’t miss the handmade cannolis) and Prince’s Hot Chicken (a Nashville staple that has set the standard for all local hot chicken) are two not to miss.
If you ask my son, Five Points Pizza is the place to go! We love this local NY style pizzeria that has two locations. If you go during the week, I love the lunch special: a slice, salad & drink for $6.50. We think the west side location is more family friendly, but both are wonderful!
For sweet treats, head to 12 south to Five Daughters Bakery, a local family owned donut shop named after their five daughters. As you walk down 12th, you can shop & finish the day with ice cream from Jeni’s.
Christine: Nashville also offers some great hiking. Radnor Lake State Park & Percy Warner Park are two of our favorites. Radnor offers easier hikes to take kids along & there is great wildlife throughout the park.
More Things to Do with Kids in Nashville
GATLINBURG ACTIVITIES AND HIKING GUIDE
The three-town area of Gatlinburg, Sevierville and Pigeon Forge is the hot spot to take in the gorgeous Smoky Mountains, discover country hospitality and see Dolly!
Lilly: The glam of Dolly meets country charm in this quaint country cabin owned by Christine herself! The Gatlinburg area was high on my travel list for years, so I can personally assure you the lengths I went to in my searches to find a family cabin that brought in nature while still feeling in line with our needs and, yes, aesthetic (it’s our home away from home after all!). Two expansive decks with mountain views, plentiful bedrooms and a fireplace for fall and winter months made this the coziest place to come back and lay our heads after exploring mountain treetops and riding roller coasters. I hope it’s available for you to enjoy when you come visit this magical area!
Lilly: We only had half a day to explore the Gatlinburg area before our big Dollywood pilgrimage (the time change from Nashville to Gatlinburg will sneak up on you!). Ready to shake off the feeling of being in the car, we tried Anakeesta, the tree top “theme park.” Our day pass included lift tickets to the top of the mountains for incredible views, access to their natural play areas that kept my girl entertained for hours and walks through magical tree bridges. I loved the pretty places to sit and take in the mountains as kids play. For the adventure lovers, there’s also a mountain coaster and zip line course you can try!
Lilly: For us, this was the big show! Seven-years-old seemed like the perfect age for this park to still enjoy the rides designed for younger kiddos and catch some thrills as well. Right to the left of the park entrance is a spot for growing guests to have their height measured and receive a color wristband to know in advance what rides are in their height range – an amazing way to know what is worth walking to and set expectations! Live music is always going throughout the property, whether you find a bench to sit and enjoy it or dance your way by. Paired with the gorgeously maintained grounds, it’s simply magic. Do not miss Miss Lilliian, the hilarious traveling Bluegrass clown and the Chasing Rainbows Museum with Dolly’s *real* Coat of Many Colors inside – plus her tour bus parked next door!
Hiking in Gatlinburg
Christine: There is no shortage of hiking & outdoor activities to do in the Smokies! Here are a few of our favorites that are easily done with kids.
The Cades Cove area offers hiking, biking and camping. There are many trails and areas for overnight camping, either set up near your car or farther off trails. My husband and son did an overnight here and loved it. There is a large loop that offers flat biking which isn’t common in the mountains.
The Smoky Mountains National Park – Greenbriar trailhead starts just east of Gatlinburg. There is a visitors center (and restrooms) you can stop in before heading out onto the trails. The terrain is easy, and you can continue on the trail to a waterfall about 4 miles from the visitor center.
Smoky Mountains National Park – Wears Valley. This area is just south of Sevierville/ Pigeon Forge and is the eastern most part of the park. There are several pull offs for trailheads, and along the way there is a stretch of antique shops that have some great treasures!
Dining Around Gatlinburg
Christine: On your way back from Wears Valley, stop into Paw Paw’s Catfish Kitchen for amazing cajun food east of Louisiana. Casual and friendly, we always make a stop here for po boys and fried catfish. Check before you go, they aren’t open everyday!
Back in Sevierville/ Pigeon Forge, The Old Mill is a local favorite for southern cuisine. We love The Apple Barn for Apple Cider Donuts (go early) and they have two restaurants on site that offer southern cooking. There is an orchard on the property, and they have a small shopping center that makes fresh ice creams, baked goods and drinks.
The Local Goat offers American cuisine with ingredients sourced from local farmers. Make a reservation, as this spot is always busy.
If you are spending the day in Gatlinburg, check out a hidden gem Cheese Cupboard & Hofbrauhaus for authentic German sandwiches, pretzels and beers for the adults in your group. Check before you go, they open for the season in early May.
Lilly: Honey Bee Coffee Company was the cutest start to our Dollywood day and an easy stop while driving from Little Bird Lodge cabin to the Dollywood gates. I loved the gluten-free snacks and my fresh honey latte. The little shop is right next to Severville’s statue honoring their hometown hero, Ms. Parton herself.
Between my childhood favorites revisited and Christine’s local know-how, I hope you feel inspired to visit this gorgeous part of the country! What’s on your list to try first?