The Best Things To Do In Jonesborough, Tennessee

Jonesborough is the Tennessee town where your story is waiting to be written.

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It’s hard to walk through Jonesborough without bumping into a story, and it’s hard to leave this small Tennessee town without it becoming a part of your own. 

In 1973, local teacher Jimmy Neil Smith placed a farm wagon outside the Jonesborough courthouse—a town focal point constructed with red bricks, white columns, and a high-reaching, domed clock tower—and about 60 people gathered to listen to fellow residents’ stories. Today, the annual event attracts an average of 10,000 visitors from around the world. 

Main Street, Jonesborough, TN

Whitney Williams / Jonesborough Tourism Department

Jonesborough is Tennessee’s oldest town, founded in 1779, and puts to rest the idea that small towns are insular. Tucked in the hollers of the Appalachian range, Jonesborough thrives by weaving together the diverse tales of how its residents, business owners, and travelers found their ways to its brick sidewalks. From publishing the first periodical exclusively devoted to abolishing slavery in 1820 to welcoming Jewish immigrants and their business in the 1850s when they were discriminated against elsewhere, Jonesborough’s history has leaned toward putting out the welcome mat. Its eclectic yet traditional aesthetic today is the result.  

In 1969, the town's iconic historic district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Thanks to early adoption of historic preservation and a cadre of passionate locals, Jonesborough’s Main Street and its offshoots have been well cared for and appear less prone to the vacant storefronts that haunt some small towns. 

Jonesborough is our nostalgia for vibrant main streets realized. It’s like walking into a Hallmark movie about coming home. Its buildings range from the 18th to 21st centuries with architectural styles that include Federal, Victorian, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Craftsman. In addition to its prevalence of brick, the wooden railings of second-story porches and decorative arches of former inns are intricately carved and painted in colorful, yet muted tones. Green spaces snake their way through the city blocks, offering ample opportunities to rest and appreciate the town’s reminder to pause and take good notes.

Eureka Inn, Jonesborough, TN

Whitney Williams / Jonesborough Tourism Department

Where To Stay

“Ever since I was little, I’ve been fascinated by old things and old people,” says 82-year-old Dr. William Kennedy with a gentle chuckle from the second story of the Historic Eureka Inn. It seems he has come to live these passions through this bed and breakfast built in 1797. Dr. Kennedy was appointed to the town’s Historic Zoning Commission in 1980 and was instrumental in restoring the building. He knows the tales of every floorboard based on the width of the wood. He can describe the in-depth process of selecting custom wallpapers to match the different eras of the hotel’s construction. He can explain why the Jury Room—the largest available accommodation—is so called: it once served as housing for a sequestered jury of 12 during local trials. While Dr. Kennedy is stepping back from operations, the Historic Eureka Inn is expected to continue offering lodging. If you have the opportunity to stay in this historic gem right on Main Street, don’t miss it. No detail has been spared in its restoration, and you’ll love its patterned walls, expansive courtyard, and old bones.

Jonesborough is also home to unique Airbnb experiences that provide their own slice of living history. Consider booking a stay in the Crescent Harbor Train Car, a 1950s restored passenger car that once hosted famous names like Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Marty Stuart during the railroad’s heyday. As a bonus, your stay benefits the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society & Museum.

The Historic Stone Cellar Suite is another wonderful option. This cozy nook offers a private stay on the lower level of one of the town’s oldest homes. Built in 1836, the home once served as a boarding house for Jonesborough’s first female college. The cellar’s walls are formed with original hand-cut limestone and you’ll see old-growth American Chestnut beams on the ceiling. The suite is atop a small hill directly behind Main Street with a beautiful view of the courthouse and an easy walk to all the places you’ll want to explore.

Main Street Cafe

Courtesy Jonesborough Tourism Department

Where To Eat

Stop by The Corner Cup for breakfast to grab a freshly baked strawberry scone, egg sandwich, and any espresso beverage your heart desires. While you’re there, you’re likely to see the owner Deb Kruse, a military veteran, former park ranger, Wyoming native, and champion of women entrepreneurs. Ask her how she found her way to town and she’ll begin her tale with, “Well, I moved to Jonesborough for a horse.” It’ll end with the kind of stories about a community coming together that will give you misty eyes in no time.

The perfect spot for lunch is the often bustling Main Street Cafe & Catering, founded in 1982 by a husband-and-wife team and now on to its second generation of owners, their son and daughter-in-law. The restaurant is located in the 1930s building of the former post office, with an original pressed-tin ceiling, oak hardwood floors, and hanging globe lamps. Try their grilled veggie or reuben sandwiches with a side of curry fries.

Boone Street Market

Whitney Williams / Jonesborough Tourism Department

End your day with dinner at Texas Burritos and More, where owner Myra Cardenas has pulled together over 50 years worth of family recipes to bring the flavors of West Texas to Jonesborough. The restaurant mirrors the way she remembers sitting in her grandmother’s kitchen, watching her cook enough to feed 40 people and learning how that brought everyone together. Start with an order of queso and opt for the chicken sour cream enchiladas served with rice and cowboy beans, a house specialty. The restaurant also features drinks from Jonesborough-based Tennessee Hills Distillery and Depot Street Brewing.

Need groceries or some quick snacks? Stop by Boone Street Market, a local spot that stocks goods from farmers and other vendors within a 100-mile radius of Jonesborough.

Jonesborough Town Tour

Whitney Williams / Jonesborough Tourism Department

What To Do

There’s so much history dripping from every corner of Tennessee’s oldest town that you could stay forever and continue learning new things. To dip your toes into Jonesborough’s tales, take a historic walking tour, where a guide dressed in late 19th and early 20th century-style clothing will escort you through town. Tours leave from the Chester Inn State Historic Site and Museum.

You’ll also want to stop by the Chuckey Depot Museum, which pays homage to the region’s railroad history. The museum is housed in an original 1906 Southern Railway train depot station from the town of Chuckey about 15 miles down the road. It was methodically dismantled and re-erected in Jonesborough’s historic district. While there, visitors can tour a restored Southern Railway caboose and meet retired railroad workers like Ralph Clarke and Mike Tilley, whose stories of life on the trains will have you romanticizing your next Amtrak escape.

Chuckey Depot, Jonesborough, TN

Whitney Williams / Jonesborough Tourism Department

Make sure to set aside time to peruse downtown’s many shops. Gift stores like the Crafty Peddler, Mauk’s, and Jonesborough Antiques & Artisans will leave you feeling like you stepped into your grandparents' house, with endless trinkets, folk art, jewelry, kitschy wall signs, garden decor, and more. Pick up a new journal at the International Storytelling Center Gift Shop and find the perfect handmade wooden fountain pen at Paul’s Pens Odds & Ends to begin etching your own Jonesborough story. You can embrace the region’s creativity with stops at Mill Spring Makers Market to view more than 65 local artists’ crafts and the James Griffin Fine Art Studio to savor large-scale paintings of the area.             

If you’re looking to explore the great outdoors or take your dog for a run, you can catch the eastern trailhead of the 3-mile Lost State Scenic Walkway in downtown Jonesborough. This paved, multi-use trail passes through Persimmon Ridge Park, which has 130 acres of green space, including hiking trails through Appalachian forests, an 18-hole disc golf course, a playground, and a seasonal waterpark. 

Persimmon Ridge Park, Jonesborough, TN

Whitney Williams / Jonesborough Tourism Department

When To Visit

Jonesborough maintains a robust calendar of events and festivals. If you’re looking to attend the famous National Storytelling Festival, it occurs the first full weekend of October each year. You can also attend Storytelling Live!, which features afternoon storytelling concerts from May through October. 

The Made Around Here Market happens in November, a chance to start some holiday shopping with more than 100 local crafters. Winter brings Doggone Christmas in December, a chance to get festive with your favorite pooch in tow, as well as other holiday events.

Sample sweet treats come February at the Jonesborough Chocolate Fest, tour gardens during the June Garden Gala, participate in a patriotic Moon Pie eating contest during the Jonesborough Days Festival in July, and appreciate topline quilting at a three-day summertime QuiltFest. 

Ultimately, there’s no bad time to visit Jonesborough. It’s charming year-round thanks to its robust history, welcoming atmosphere, and walkable town. While exploring, remember to take good notes, talk to the locals, and leave with a heart richer for having been there. When you return, perhaps you’ll be ready to perform the story you’ve written from your visit.

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