Northeastern Tennessee’s Tri-Cities region consists of Bristol, Johnson City, and Kingsport, just north of the Cherokee National Forest and close to the borders of both Virginia and North Carolina. This region of Southern Appalachia, between the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, is filled with green rolling hills, small towns, and a preservation of tradition ranging from country music to storytelling. The hills are alive with folklore, small-town festivities, well-kept hiking trails, award-winning wineries, and endless opportunities to appreciate natural beauty.
Bristol is famous for its racetrack and being recognized by Congress as the "Birthplace of Country Music," while Johnson City is the subject of many songs, like Old Crow Medicine Show’s classic “Wagon Wheel.” This area was also the U.S.’s first frontier—a congregating spot where pioneers would decide whether they’d venture westward by land or water. With its deep-rooted history and its sprawling geography, much can be experienced in just 48 hours. Here’s how we recommend spending two days in the Tri-Cities area.
Begin your day in Bristol—the northern edge of the Tri-Cities triangle. Being that this pocket of the country is considered an important origin of country music, particularly of the Appalachian variety, it’s only fitting to start at the Birthplace of Country Music, a partner of Smithsonian Institute. BCM is made up of a museum celebrating American roots music, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots music festival, and Bristol Radio, which is a network of radio stations that celebrate Americana, roots rock, and country music. Through exhibits and interactive galleries, take your sweet time exploring the stories of the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings and how their success impacted recording at large.
Next, mosey on down to Elizabethton, just 30 minutes south of Bristol. Elizabethton is a sleepy mountain town, with a main street lined in brick storefronts and one of the state’s last covered bridges—Elizabethton Covered Bridge. Built in 1882 over the Doe River, the bridge is part of the National Register of Historic Places. A remnant of days long past, it’s a reminder that history is not only cherished in these parts—it’s alive and well.
Just ten minutes away, head to Johnson City next and go for a hike at Buffalo Mountain Park. There are both
that criss-cross Buffalo Mountain, which towers over the city from below. In the springtime, keep your eyes peeled for blossoming Pink Lady’s Slippers and huckleberries, which make for a great trail snack. Alternatively, you can take a walk or bike ride along the
—a 10-mile path connecting the communities of Johnson City and Elizabethton, following along an old railroad corridor. Being a mostly flat trail, it’s a gentle path, so go as little or as far as you’d like. Just be sure to be back in time for dinner.
Tennessee is known for its barbeque, so if BBQ is part of your palate, have dinner at The Firehouse, an old firehouse converted into a down-home restaurant. If you prefer a more diverse and eclectic menu, head over to Cootie Brown’s, which features everything from pizza to house-made tamales. After dinner (or before, too, if you prefer), have a beer at the local favorite Yee-Haw Brewing Co. Once you’re satiated, rest up for day two.
In the morning, have breakfast at Johnson City’s Tupelo Honey Cafe, a restored train station-turned-cafe, and is much admired for preserving the historic building. What was once the Clinchfield Train Depot now houses a locally-loved cafe with responsibly-sourced Southern fare. Featuring farm-to-table dishes the cafe is a great showcase of local produce and craftsmanship. We recommend the sweet potato pancakes, the "shoo mercy" shrimp and grits, and the fried green tomatoes. You are in the South, after all.
After breakfast, head 20 minutes west to the beautiful little town of Jonesborough (Tennessee’s oldest), where you’ll spend a good bit of time. Tt’s said that a storytelling revival began here, which is why you should visit the International Storytelling Center—the only* facility *in the world with a sole focus on the craft of storytelling. Experience the center’s exhibits while absorbing the history of one of the most iconic elements of Appalachian heritage. If you happen to be passing through between May and October, there’s live storytelling every day.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, have a gourmet sandwich and a cup of soup at Main Street Cafe, just a few feet from the museum. Save room for dessert because Earth and Sky Confections is nearby, and we recommend picking up locally made chocolates for your drive north to Kingsport, which will be your next stop.
With 38 miles of trails, you can take a hike at
(chocolates in tow, of course), Tennessee’s largest city-owned park at almost 4,000 acres. You can also visit the park’s planetarium and natural habitat exhibits. Check the events calendar before visiting, and if you’re lucky you may find yourself at the planetarium alongside the Bays Mountain Astronomy Club, who are eager to share their knowledge of the nighttime sky.
You can also take a walk along the 1.8-mile Heritage Trail through Historic Downtown Kingsport. Be sure to take a ride on the Kingsport Carousel, a much-admired carousel with ornate, hand-carved wooden animals. If you’re in town between May and October, visit the Downtown Farmers Market for an introduction to local produce from this region of the South. After you’ve worked up an appetite from the afternoon’s explorations, treat yourself to dinner at the Riverfront Seafood Company. If it’s a nice day, have a seat on the deck that overlooks the South Fork Holston River, and try the fried clams or fish and chips.
When you find yourself exhausted, hopefully after the sun sets over the river views, call it a night at The Netherland Inn, a historic inn and farm restored in the late ‘60s, now housing cozy rooms and playing host to its annual Lo Country Boil (each August). No doubt you’ll sleep tight after two days spent hiking and exploring one of Tennessee’s most charming regions.