Updated: May 28
An eclectic little city with cool art, trendy shops and intriguing history, this college town embraces all things University of Tennessee. There is a BIG sports team presence. Women’s basketball, baseball, and of course football draws stadium packing crowds from around the region. While UT has quite the reputation, the surrounding city has a renovated downtown area with tons of charm waiting to welcome visitors. Did I mention tasty food everywhere? (I do not consider myself a foodie by any stretch - but this place can feed me anytime!)
If you’ve been following my blog and travels (thank you!) then you know I love to experience places with my kids. I genuinely love to explore, and the teacher in me wants to share the experience and make a great memory for others as well. The discovery of Knoxville Tennessee came about through a series of work trips, and I am fortunate to have a coworker willing to let me plan some fun for us during the down times. My real thought about Knoxville is it's a picturesque city that feels safe, feels diverse and welcoming, and feels like there is underlying history just waiting for you to uncover it all. Let's go!
*Clicking bolded underlined text will open a link to the corresponding website.
Knoxville: Where is it?
Along the Tennessee River in Eastern Tennessee, this midsized city is at the Great Smokey Mountain Foothills. It's also an hour from Gatlinburg, just under two hours from Ashville NC, and 20 minutes from the nearest airport, TYS or McGhee Tyson Airport, which is 12 miles South.
Is Knoxville close to the Mountains?
From Knoxville to the Sugarlands Entrance of the Smokey Mountain National Park is an hour drive.
The Sugarland's entrance is an hour’s drive southeast of Knoxville on US 441. Gatlinburg is the busiest gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, it is quite a place to see! Full of souvenir shops, restaurants, arts and crafts shops, and kitschy attractions...think Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Gatlinburg itself is quite the tourist stop, the bustling town can be a sensory overload or a party rocking good time, depending on your vibe. There are a variety of lodging options, a grocery store and gear shops to choose from. Any trip to the smokies will cost you a minimum half-a-day. To get the view without the terrible traffic jams, Foothills Parkways is a great drive to get the views.
Where are the closest State Parks to Knoxville?
Some state parks near Knoxville, TN are Big Ridge State Park, Norris Dam State Park, Fort Loudoun Historic State Park, Red Clay State Park, Warrior’s Path State Park, David Crockett Birthplace State Park, and Harrison Bay State Park. Each of these parks are worth exploring, discovering the beautiful Tennessee landscape and experiencing some of the most natural beauty.
Big Ridge State Park and Norris Dam State Park are both within a 30-minute drive from Knoxville and offer hiking trails, camping, boating, and fishing. Norris Dam State Park is also split into two sections by the Norris Dam and has a museum that depicts life in Southern Appalachia. Cherokee National Forest is another option for outdoor activities, located 50 miles southeast of Knoxville and divided by the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
What is there to do in Knoxville?
The answer is SO MUCH. Read this to help you plan your trip!
Everything Knoxville you need to know:
Built around industry, history, education, pride for Cherokee roots, and being the gateway to the Smokey Mountains this upbeat city thrives. The arrival of the railroad in the1850's led to a boom in the city's population and commercial activity, making this a point on the map for decades, and multiple reasons. As industry boomed in Knoxville, more and more people lived and visited.
The obvious spots:
* Market Square *
Market Square is the central square of Knoxville in downtown. There are shops, restaurants, cafes, a park, and small stage for outdoor events. The live music and the sculpture garden will draw you in and next thing you know you never want to leave! Places to eat? Whaaaaat! Delicious food spots line both sides of the walkway and a variety of tastes are available. The square is open and nice to walk around with a beautiful little park at the end and some boutiques. A real city vibe with a cool, walk through the park feel to it. A good mixture of new/old fashioned mixed together into something that feels inviting. We've eaten at several places and enjoyed them all. Listed are a few we've tried so far.
Not Wason's Kitchen & Bar was our first experience. The food, drinks and service were all above average. Then we learned the story of the name. Watson's used to be a pharmacy and people still come to that place hoping to find it. This was a way to allow those navigating with GPS to see there no longer a pharmacy there, perhaps saving them the trip, while keeping the history alive.
Stock and Barrel is known for their high quality and huge burgers. My coworker and I both managed to finish about half of our burger.
The Tomato Head was also delish! Pizzas with all kinds of goodness (and more) along with friendly staff and a great atmosphere.
Emilia was able to squeeze in our party of 3, and every bite of the food was above expectations. I ordered the salmon which was outstanding, but even their bread and ricotta dip were over the top.
If you're looking for good drinks check out the Oliver Hotel's speakeasy- the Peter Kern Library. located in the alley behind the Oliver Royale (look for the red light).
* Gay Street *
It is unique in that it is a place of historical significance with so many cultural things to do just within blocks of one another. Gay Street spans ten blocks from the Gay Street Bridge to West Jackson Avenue and is a buzz of activity both day and night. Surrounding it is the historical downtown area. In 1854, Gay Street became Knoxville's first paved road. Politics have long known Gay Street, as many prominent figures through time have been connected to this strip of road. Civil rights and many accompanying policies played out here. Tennessee’s first sky scrapers were built here. Theatre, shopping and art have consistently boomed here. As the area blossomed adapting with time, people continued to come back. Also known as Marble City, the rock quarried from this area have been used not just to build parts of Knoxville, but also Grand Central Station in NYC, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Check out the Knoxville Museum of Art to see some of this local rock in action!
A warning about Gay Street, shops close by 5 pm or 6 pm nightly. I wish they were open later for those working all day who want to eat and still enjoy the art and shops. I think they'd make a killing if they did open a little later as there are always tons of people walking around the area as doors are closing.
Maple Lanes is an underground bowling alley which features 11 lanes lined with leather couches, a full bar, HD TVs, and relaxing lounge areas. The upstairs cocktail lounge features life-sized board games a full bar with top-shelf alcohol, and lovely patio area. They also offer fresh, made from scratch menu items that you can enjoy at the lanes, bars, tables, or cozy lounge areas on both levels.
Two historic theaters live on Gay Street, the Bijou Theater and the Tennessee Theater. The Bijou opened in 1909 as the Lamar Hotel. It served as a traditional theater, vaudeville theater, and movie house. It is now a performance venue, the Bijou hosts live music performances and theater events. The Tennessee Theatre opened in 1928 as a movie theatre. It operated that way until the 1970s when multiplexes became fashionable. The restoration in the 90's made the theatre a marvelous place to go for live performances.
Market Street can be found along Gay Street, and so are many other restaurants, shops and bars. Coffee and Tea shops along with spice and herb corners line the streets as well. Awaken coffee is a fun coffee shop, they always have unique art gallery displays. There are tons of free art galleries all along the Old City area. There is a great bookstore called Union Ave Books. Delicious beer and cool glass blowing, and glass art can be found at Pretentious Beer/Glass. There is a unique bar called Pour Tap Room where you load your card onto a wristband and then swipe the wrist band for all kinds of different beers, wines, and even mead, as much as you want at a time. A taco/tequila restaurant called Chivo (Gangnam Style is the best taco). All of these unique businesses have found their niche and developed their art with style and personality. It's great to find authentic places which are all close in proximity but stand so distinctive.
Strong Alley by market square has graffiti art! Many Murals around the city will draw your attention.
Do a murals walk – Its fun to scavenger hunt going around the city to see which murals you can find. In our first two trips we didn't manage to find them all, but I will give you some guidance so you don't miss the most popular ones!
The Welcome to Knoxville Mural - Location: 1141 N. Broadway, Knoxville, TN 37902
This is on the side of the Nothing Too Fancy T-Shirt shop across from K Brew’s. The mural itself features the Smokies with the Tennessee Riverboat in the “K” and “N”, a musician in Market Square in the “O”, UT Football in “X” and “V” (Go Vols!), the Sunsphere neatly in the ”I”, the Tennessee Theatre blade in the “L” and a mountain biker amongst the region’s beautiful dogwoods completes the final “L” and “E”. (Thanks for summing up all the things we need to see while we are here)
Dolly Parton Mural - Strong St, Knoxville, TN 37902
(aka Graffiti Alley), the alley sandwiched in between Gay Street and half of Market Square
Weaving Rainbow Mountain: 105 Cumberland Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37902
These stairs are one the main reasons why I wanted to embark on a Knoxville mural tour. The 43, 10ft-wide steps which are heavily used by pedestrians to segue between UT Campus and the World’s Fair Park I love all of the colors in this mural and the intricate design of the stairs. This is one of the most Instagramable spots in Knoxville.
Shopping for keepsakes or gifts? Find Knoxville shirts or memorabilia at Nothing Too Fancy - This little shop just sucked me in and made me smile at everything. Fun shirts, and certainly a Dolly Parton presence, as well as all things Tennessee! Great gifts and a little insight into the local culture.
Sweets eaters will rejoice with the freshly made options such as: Cruze Farm, (fresh churned ice cream cones), The Phoenix Pharmacy & Fountain (authentic soda fountain, old fashioned sweets), Kilwins (nostalgic caramel apple, hand-paddled fudge, truffles, ice cream cones) and Ham'n Goodys, a bakery opened just to serve their famous lemon cookies.
There are two rooftop bars, which melt your view into the mountains: Radius Rooftop Lounge (Top of the Embassy Suites) and Five Thirty Lounge (Top floor of the Hyatt). If you'd like to take advantage of a classy basement, formerly a bank, in a historic building, The Vault may be your style. Can be found under Vida Restaurant.
Another cool thing we found while exploring, is in the cooler months (through March) a couple of restaurants pull out the igloos to keep their customers happy. Definitely inquire with in.
530 South Gay Street
Knoxville, TN 37902
1029 Ebenezer Road
Knoxville, TN 37923
100 Broadway Southwest
Knoxville, TN 37902
* Historic Downtown *
Knoxville was named after Henry Knox, President Washington's War Secretary.
Knoxville is home to more than 20 museums and seven historical houses.
Gay Street was the site of the 1796 Constitutional Convention that resulted in the founding of the state of Tennessee and was a focal point for the early political activity of both the city and the state of Tennessee. On the eve of the Civil War, Gay Street was the site of simultaneous Union and Confederate recruiting rallies.
** Knoxville is home to more than 20 museums and seven historical houses **
There are many places that have been preserved or renovated to keep history alive for today's generation.
Make sure to find your way to Worlds Fair Park, where you can ride the elevator up to the SunSphere viewing area. Offering a 360-degree view of the original 1982 World's Fair site (now World's Fair Park), downtown Knoxville, the Tennessee River, the University of Tennessee, and the Smoky Mountains, this cool overlook gives you a bird's eye view of the city. There is a $5 admission charge, children 12 and under are free with a paying adult. Click here to purchase tickets to visit the Observation Deck. Access is limited to the double elevators facing the lake at the base of the Sunsphere and at the Convention Center level. We were quite confused while we were there and trying to ride up, it is always free to walk around the base level. The ticket booth does close - these are the hours:
Tuesday through Friday - 10:00AM -5:00PM
Saturday - 9:00AM -5:00PM
Sunday - 12:00PM -4:00PM
Closed on Mondays
Where should I stay?
I can recommend two places right in the heart of it all. My first work trip we stayed at the Embassy Suites. The second trip we were housed at the Cumberland House Knoxville Tapestry Collection by Hilton. Both have a distinctly different vibe and make a clean. comfy, cozy presence. At the Embassy we had large spacious rooms, with a free breakfast that is freshly made to order (in addition to an amazing buffet selection). In the Hotel itself is the Wake Foot Spa, Top Golf, and the Roof top bar, Radius. The elevators are fun to operate, gateways to different floors. I really liked my room. I had a kitchen bar not just a mini fridge but a sink and countertop space. (I travel with an electric kettle and a variety of room snacks, so I'm always impressed when there is space for my goodies.) The Embassy is centrally located on Gay Street, practically across the street from Market Square. We were heartbroken we were housed elsewhere on trip two.
However, the Cumberland ended up surprising us. Located off of White Street closer to the University of Tennessee and the World's Fair and Convention Center. Being a few streets over was not a set back at all, as the area is extremely walkable. There is a great pedestrian bridge and the whole area is very safe. Highlights of this location include feeling historical with their nightly 8:55 quick tribute to how the first train in 1855 greatly impacted the textile industry. With the train whistle blowing, everyone gets a free drink sample which is pretty good. The next drink is half off. The restaurant has a good menu and nightly specials. I had some amazing chocolate cake. Loved the ode to the textile industry as an original fine art major, in a Fashion School, this really felt satisfying to me. Rooms are clean and fresh, there is lots of storage (I had a closet and armoire cabinet) and the shower here made me feel like I was in a spa! There was a countertop area right inside of the entry way, however no outlet for my kettle in that spot.
Regardless of where you stay, book a reservation at the Wake Foot Sanctuary.
Why? You may not know you need this self-care treatment.
This serene atmosphere inside of this heavenly setting will help your physical body feel better. Mentally, you'll be renewed as well. Entering the sanctuary, you chose the type of foot soak that suits your needs. While you sit in this big comfy chair with a shoulder warming horseshoe, they bring in the big copper bowl full of herbs for soaking your feet. While the feet are in their bath, there is one of three massages to choose from. Hands and lower arms, feet, or shoulders. On this particular day I chose hands and lower arms, and I cannot stress to you how much stress and tightness drained out oof my body. Their music is made especially for them, and sets the tone for slipping off into the relaxation forest. Soft curtains flow around the room and the dim lighting also sets the mood.
What other attractions are in the vicinity?
Zoo Knoxville - Elephants, lions, red pandas, otters, giraffes, zebras, tigers, black bears, red wolves, white rhinos, so many animals and enclosures making it easy to view all of the creatures in their habitats.
Knoxville Botanical Gardens - walking trails, display gardens, unique & historic horticulture and over two miles of distinctive stone walls and timeless buildings, just five minutes from downtown
Ljams Nature Park - hike, bike, paddle, climb, learn, explore, or simply enjoy nature in Knoxville, TN. The grounds and trails are open every day from 8:00am until dusk
James White Fort - cool little fort in downtown Knoxville. The fort is a replica; however, the main house and kitchen are original buildings from the 1780s when James White settled the area. There is onsite parking, cheap admission, a small gift shop, and plenty of things to learn about the founding of Knoxville.
East Tennesse Historical Society - $10 entrance fee. Fascinating details about the history of east TN, from its beginnings as a British settlement through the civil war to mining and the transformative effects of the railroad, to entertainment and music, women's suffrage, prohibition, and finally through WWII and the part played in the making of the atomic bomb. Great historical overview with voice-acted narratives, documentary style video clips, pull-out drawers with items to touch, large books you could flip through, and spaces you could enter and walk through like an old pharmacy, cable car, or old log cabin.
While this was a work trip, where I flew in and met with a coworker, most of my travels are related to family fun! I hope to return with my family to share this experience.
Thank you for visiting, I'd love to hear your feedback, and favorite things to do!
Wherever your travels take you, be sure to keep your presence in the moment.
Enjoy where you are at. Be a little flexible with people and their navigation of time.
Let go of things you can't control.
Remember to put your people above things, and cherish the memories.
Do things that will make you proud of yourself when you remember the scenario.
Live more, in abundance and walk in your own footsteps.
A note from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip. I hope this makes it easier for your planning process.
Thank you for stopping by today! Please share your thoughts and experiences, we are all on this journey to live and love together. I welcome your travel tips & tricks :-)
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I specialize in helping families spend more time enjoying their quality time together and less time having to figure it all out. My four children have been my test subjects of how to plan a great family adventure for many years and now that my youngest is 18, many of my travels are work related, or grandma related! As time has changed, I've evolved but I still LOVE TO TRAVEL, explore, wander, visit, discover, learn and love. If nature is there, I can find my happy place. I use the term single not to emphasize my status but to signify that if I can manage some family fun on a limited teacher's salary with four children, anyone can do it. I am just very intentional in how I spend my time and earnings. I typically seek out budget friendly ways to enjoy my time, but will occasionally splurge for the right reasons :-)
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