Visiting Bristol TN/VA means getting to explore awesome places in two states, because the Blue Ridge mountain towns‘ main street literally acts as a state boundary.
The town of Bristol is renowned for its history, beloved for its quirky location, and ideal for its proximity to natural beauty.
In short, Bristol’s activities and attractions are wonderfully diverse, with something to suit just about any traveler’s taste.
On our recent trip, we tried to hit up as many Bristol tourist attractions as possible, discovered things to see in Bristol that hadn’t made our wish list, and found a lot of free things to do in Bristol as well!
Read on for our in-depth guide to the best things to do in Bristol TN/VA, including the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol Motor Speedway, and other great places to see in Bristol.
READ MORE: 10 Best Virginia Mountain Towns to Visit
Best Things to Do in Bristol VA/TN Guide
- Catch a Show at the Paramount Center for Arts or Cameo Theater
- Enjoy Downtown Bristol Restaurants
- Explore the Birthplace of Country Music Museum
- Get Wet South Holston Lake
- Sample Spirts and Craft Beer in Bristol
- Sit under “The Resting Tree” at Sugar Hollow Park
- Spelunking at Bristol Caverns
- Toe the State Line to the Bristol Sign
- Visit the Bristol Motor Speedway
- Walk at Steele Creek Park
1. Catch a Show at Paramount Center For Arts or Cameo Theater
Bristol music history dates back 100+ years, and it’s still a happening spot to catch a show today.Downtown Bristol TN/VA has two retro theaters that host live music throughout the year.
Located at 518 State Street, the Paramount Center For Arts is a 1930s Art Deco movie theater-turned-music venue, and it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Paramount typically hosts multiple live music concerts each week, ranging from 90s grunge and mountain music to kitschy cover bands.
After being neglected for 40 years, it was almost torn down, but ultimately it was renovated and reopened.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Staunton VA
2. Enjoy Downtown Bristol Restaurants
There are lots of Downtown Bristol restaurants on or near State Street, including some excellent independent restaurants where you can have a unique Bristol meal.
Located on one of the downtown Bristol VA side streets, the Blackbird Bakery was our favorite place for breakfast (try the fresh-baked donuts).
For restaurants close to the Bristol Motor Speedway, we had a fun outing at a local favorite called Mad Greek, which is oddly more pizza-focused than Greek food.
3. Explore the Birthplace of Country Music Museum
If you visit Bristol TN/VA, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is an absolute must-see. Even if, like us, you’re not a huge fan of country music.
We found that the museum completely sucked us in once we got past our preconceptions. It was incredibly interesting, focusing on a single recording session in Bristol that changed the face of popular music.
This 1927 recording session included country music pioneers like the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers. But there was also blues, hillbilly music, gospel, and other genres, showcasing the region’s unique sound.
The museum features myriad interactive exhibits, original recordings, and the original recording studio (which still functions and broadcasts today).
4. Get Wet at South Holston Lake
Most of the lake is bordered by the Cherokee National Forest, the largest tract of forest in Tennessee (650,000 acres!).
This lake is one of the top places for outdoor activities Bristol has to offer. In our experience, it’s also one of the best places to visit near Bristol TN/VA!
READ MORE: The 10 Best Lakes in Tennessee to Visit
5. Sample Spirits & Craft Beer in Bristol
Located across from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, the Michael Waltrip Brewing Co is a relative newcomer, offering a racing theme and an in-house restaurant.
State Street Brewing has cool games to play, a bit of outdoor seating, and great beer. Elderbrew is the first small-batch brewery in Bristol, offering off-the-wall flavors and weekly changes to the beer menu.
Right below the Bristol sign, Lost State Distilling puts out high-quality whiskies and other spirits (try the Rye Whiskey). Tastings are free, and they definitely sneak up on you!
Sampling booze and beer in Bristol was tops among the fun things to do in Bristol for adults like me. We loved the fact that it was so easy to walk from one to the other.
6. Sit under “The Resting Tree” at Sugar Hollow Park
Sugar Hollow Park is a really nice 400-acre park that seems geared for local use, with sports fields, running paths, and picnic areas. It even has a playground and a pool.
We loved the fact that it’s outside of the main tourist area, so it’s not exactly on everyone’s “where to go in Bristol” list.
The park has 75 campsites, and the campground can accommodate all sorts of recreational vehicles. There are also two comfort stations, hot showers, a sewage dump station, and Wi-Fi.
We were particularly moved to see The Resting Tree, a massive white oak that enslaved people once used for shade (and many were buried beneath it).
It was a sobering and soul-stirring reminder of America’s Civil War past.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Campgrounds in Virginia
7. Spelunk the Bristol Caverns
Bristol Caverns is a privately-owned cave system located between Bristol and South Holston Lake.
These caverns have several chambers, and the number of geological features within them is noteworthy. There are plenty of the typical stalactites and stalagmites, as well as tons of other cool formations.
My favorite thing about this unique cave tour (and I’ve been on a few) is that it has a stream that runs through it, entering from above ground and eventually exiting back out.
8. Toe the State Line to the Bristol Sign
There are little brass plaques all along the street denoting which state is where.
State Street is the heart of downtown and runs east to west, with Bristol VA to the north and Bristol TN to the south. The twin towns are one city, but each of the states has governance over its section.
Apparently the pandemic regulations really illustrated this: One side of State Street would shut down completely, while the other was still kicking.
One of the most popular State Street activities is getting a photo of the awesome Bristol sign. I particularly enjoyed its plainly stated tagline, “A good place to live.”
9. Visit Bristol Motor Speedway
In addition to being the Birthplace of Country Music, Bristol is also home to the Bristol Motor Speedway, which is part of the NASCAR racing circuit.
The Bristol Motor Speedway hosts events weekly (if not more often) during the summer, including the Thunder Valley Nationals. There’s also a drag strip and Drag Tower for more racing fun.
This attraction has a massive collection of campgrounds where fans can set up for weekend events.
There are over 3 million Christmas lights in 250 displays along the 5-mile route, which is open from mid-November into early January.
10. Walk in Steele Creek Park
Steele Creek Park has a fantastic walking trail, the Lakeside Trail. It traverses the edge of Steele Creek Lake, where geese swim laps, beavers build lodges, and anglers catch fish.
We had a fantastic mid-morning stroll there, which proved perfect for working ourselves up to a tasty lunch at the 620 State Restaurant.
It’s an ideal place to get away from hustle and bustle of Downtown Bristol, and felt like a tranquil getaway from our weekend getaway. –by Jonathon Engels; all photos by Emma Gallagher unless otherwise noted