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These Are the Best Towns in Tennessee to Celebrate the Holidays

Looking to have a tender Tennessee Christmas? These six cities put the holly and jolly into the holiday season.

By Emily Handy on December 21, 2021

Franklin TN
Franklin / Jeffrey S. Otto

Looking to have a tender Tennessee Christmas? (Cue Amy Grant.) Especially this year, we all could use a little extra holiday magic. From festivals celebrating the works of Charles Dickens to stunning light displays and everything in between, these six magical towns in Tennessee go all out celebrating the holidays. Grab a glass of eggnog and read on for the best places to spend the holidays in the Volunteer State. 

1. Franklin

Downtown Franklin is perhaps the most charming place in all of Tennessee during any season. But around the holidays, Downtown Franklin somehow becomes even more picturesque. In fact, it is so magical that people from all over the world flock to Franklin to celebrate Christmas. Last year, Franklin ranked number 3 on Big 7 Travel’s list of the 25 Best Christmas Destinations in the World — even beating out New York City.

Take a stroll down the architecturally stunning Main Street donned with holiday greenery and lights and you will understand all of the hype. Pop in some of the local boutiques or catch a showing of It’s a Wonderful Life at the historic Franklin Theatre and you’ll be hooked. 

Franklin TN
Franklin / Courtesy of Derek Bruff under a CC 2.0 license.

If you visit on the right weekend in December, you’ll be transported back to Victorian times during the annual fan-favorite Dickens of a Christmas festival. The festival features Dickens characters, carolers and dancers, authentic roasted chestnut and sugar plum stands, and even Father and Mother Christmas. Additionally, the shops along Main Street compete in a window display contest and dozens of arts and crafts vendors set up shop for all of your last-minute gifting needs. 

2. Gatlinburg

Grab your warmest coat and head to the Smokies for an experience full of Christmas cheer. Cozy log cabins tucked away high in the mountains offer the perfect setting for all your festivities. Many cabins come decked out in decorations already, so you can just walk right in soak up the cheer. 

This town is known for its annual Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade on the parkway that features floats, balloons, live music, and of course, thousands of lights.

Can’t get enough lights? Lights Over Gatlinburg at Skylift Park is lit up every year with more than 60,000 glittering lights, dancing Christmas trees, a 30-foot Christmas tree, and the famous 200-foot tunnel of lights, so, it’s no wonder it ranks as the most popular Christmas lights attraction in the whole state. 

But if you don’t want to leave the comforts of your warm cabin, we totally understand. Relax with your favorite hot beverage of choice and look out at the gorgeous Smoky Mountains, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a white Christmas.

3. Leiper’s Fork

Just slightly west of Franklin sits the quaint, rural village that is Leiper’s Fork. And, like Franklin, this village is not short on charm — especially at Christmas. Every year on the second weekend of December, the villagers put together the most magical and beloved Christmas parade that has been dubbed “Almost World-Famous.” The parade features a float contest, antique tractors, horses and buggies, livestock, marching bands, and of course, Santa himself. 

You’ll get an authentic taste of Tennessee in Leiper’s Fork. Rolling hills, southern hospitality and good eats await you at every turn. Fire pits will warm your hands and warm comfort food dished out from Puckett’s Grocery or The Country Boy will warm your stomach. Although small, this village has a lot to explore. Be sure to stop by the art galleries and watch the artists at work or plan a tour at the Leiper’s Fork Distillery. Whatever you do, you’re sure to have a jolly good time.

4. Chattanooga 

The city of Chattanooga sits nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and along the Tennessee River, making for a picturesque place to spend the holidays with friends and family. The city boasts the Chattanooga Trail of Lights, a curated map of all of the magical places and experiences the city offers during the holiday season. Reindeer on the Riverfront is a fan-favorite featuring live reindeer, free pictures with Santa, and hot cocoa, followed by the annual Lighted Boat Parade and Fireworks.

Also on the Trail of Lights are the world-famous Rock City and Ruby Falls attractions, all decked out for the holidays. Visit Rock City and you can decorate a gingerbread cookie, visit Santa’s workshop, enjoy homemade fudge, and see the dancing trees in the Magic Forest. Experience the majestic Ruby Falls, and afterward, be sure to write a wish on an ornament to hang in the Forest of Wishes. 

And what’s a visit to Chattanooga without stopping at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum? Guests can take a magical journey to the North Pole aboard the North Pole Limited Christmas Train, where children and adults alike will experience the wonder with lighted displays, Christmas refreshments and storytelling. The museum is also offering a four-course, two-hour Christmas Dinner Train excursion aboard a vintage dining car that is not one to miss.

5. Knoxville

‘Tis the season to be jolly in the city of Knoxville! This Eastern Tennessee city does it right for the holidays. The charming Market Square downtown features gorgeous 19th-century architecture surrounding a lighted 42-foot Christmas tree. From November 26 to January 2, Market Square is also home to Knoxville’s very own open-air ice skating rink, so be sure to have your skates shined and laced if you plan on visiting.

The festivities don’t stop there. A Knoxville favorite, the WIVK Christmas Parade delights every year with lighted floats, live music, dancers, and Santa as it meanders down Gay Street.

If you’d rather participate in a parade, join in on the Tour de Lights, a family-friendly bike ride parade that winds through North Knoxville, Old City and culminates at Market Square. Participants don themselves and their bikes in lights and costumes and it’s not a sight to miss! 

And where else can you enjoy Christmas lights in a cave? Every year, Cherokee Caverns decks their (cave) halls with thousands of lights during Christmas in the Cave.  Visitors get to explore and meander through the lighted and glittery underground tunnels until they reach a Santa photo-op at the end.

6. Bristol

This city on the border of Tennessee and Virginia lands a spot on our list thanks to its dazzling displays of lights throughout the city. Hailed as the most significant holiday light show in the whole region, the Pinnacle Speedway in Lights is celebrating its 25th year and is more brilliant than ever. So pack your car with friends and family and head to the Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway, where you will drive on a 4-mile journey through more than 3 million lights. On your trek, you will even get to make a lap around the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” itself. 

For something a bit more low-key, downtown Bristol hosts an annual Christmas Open House, where businesses stay open later and offer special discounts. In addition, holiday decorations and lights are hung all along State Street to create Bristol’s very own Candy Cane Lane. And if that’s not magical enough, horse and buggy rides are offered to couples and families. 

Of course, it’s not a Christmas celebration without a parade. The popular Bristol Christmas Parade kicks off the holiday season every year with decorated floats and Santa, winding down State Street before ending at the stunning historic Bristol Train Station. 

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