Knoxville Will Knock Your Socks Off
Knoxville has been the destination for many a road trip, as the home of the University of Tennessee’s massive 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium. But Tennessee’s third-largest city is more than just a college town. From a number of outdoor adventures to a lively craft beer scene, there are plenty of options to fill a fun weekend getaway in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Located on the eastern side of the state near the junctions of I-40 and I-75, Knoxville is less than a four-hour drive from Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Birmingham, Louisville and Cincinnati.
Editor's note: Whether you plan to go now or later, travelers can feel safe in the guidelines Knoxville has set forth regarding COVID protocols.
Read on to see why Knoxville should be your next getaway.
There's a fun energy downtown
Despite a storied history, Knoxville has a youthful energy. The walkable downtown features plenty of unique dining options (more on that later), boutique stores like Glitterville Studios (stop in for unique ornaments and gifts) and the Pretentious Glass Co., as well as local artisan shops like RALA and Jack's. These and many others have given Knoxville the moniker of "The Maker City".
Several shops and restaurants in this pet-friendly city have dog bowls on the sidewalk, so bring your four-legged friend along as you explore the downtown mural walking tour. For another artistic treat, visit during Dogwood Arts Festival (April 23-25), when Knoxville plays host to a number of regional artists at World's Fair Park.
Venture over to the northeastern corner of downtown, near the railroad, to check out Knoxville’s Historic Old City. This one-time home of saloons, a stockyard and red-light district is now known for a variety of shops, restaurants, coffee houses, art galleries and breweries. Plan a dinner at Lonesome Dove and enjoy the game-centric menu (think venison and quail) curated by celebrity chef and UT grad Tim Love.
As you get closer to the banks of the Tennessee River, you’ll come to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. For all of the traditions surrounding Tennessee football, one of the most revered sports figures in university history is former University of Tennessee Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, a Tennessee native who kept her team at the pinnacle of the sport for nearly four decades. Her legacy, and that of many other women’s hoops pioneers, is honored here.
Other popular museums include the East Tennessee History Center and the Historic Homes of Knoxville (seven homes including log cabins, frame houses, stately stone mansions and James White's Fort, known as the birthplace of Knoxville). At the Knoxville Museum of Art, visitors can see internationally acclaimed artist (and East Tennessee resident) Richard Jolley's Cycle of Life, one of the world's largest figurative glass and steel assemblages on permanent view.
You won't go home hungry (or thirsty)
When a destination uses the term “beercation”, then you know this is the right spot for craft beer enthusiasts. From a German castle to the Pretentious Beer Co. (yes, they’re related to the glass company; right next door, in fact), Knoxville’s Ale Trail directs visitors to more than 25 local breweries. The city is also home to two stops on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail — Knox Whiskey Works and PostModern Spirits.
While individual food trucks tend to be at various spots along the Ale Trail, there are also three food truck parks — Central Filling Station, Southside Garage and 35 North — where you can try a variety of cuisines in an outdoor setting, usually with some live music.
Head over to the Graduate Knoxville Hotel and grab a drink at Saloon 16 Bar, a partnership with UT great Peyton Manning. The menu items give a nod to Manning’s time at UT, with Rocky Top Pork Rinds, Helton’s Chili and Frito Pie and Cutcliffe’s Crinkle Cut Fries.
Thanks to an eclectic group of talented chefs, Knoxville's food scene branches out from Southern favorites to international and alternative flavors mixing in. Vegan and vegetarian restaurants like KoPita and Tomato Head coexist with places like Vida, serving Pan-Latin cuisine (be sure to visit The Vault cocktail lounge below), and Yassin’s Falafel House. The latter, a Syrian refugee-owned restaurant, earned a nod as the “nicest place in America” from Reader’s Digest in 2018.
Adventure is minutes from downtown
With the Tennessee River running through the city, and mountains, lakes and quarries surrounding Knoxville, the city is well-positioned for an active vacation. Located just minutes away from downtown, Knoxville's Urban Wilderness is a spectacular 1,000-acre adventure area where you can hike, bike, climb, paddle or just wander in the woods. Over 50 miles of trails connect Ijams Nature Center, historic Civil War sites, spectacular marble-lined quarries, five city parks, playgrounds and a 500-acre wildlife area that is home to Baker Creek Preserve, where skilled mountain bikers can take on the region's only double-black diamond mountain bike trail.
Choose your own tree-based adventure at Navitat Knoxville (located at Ijams Nature Center), where you can navigate various trails set up in the canopies either with the sun at your back or under strings of lights and the night sky. Each adventure trail consists of 10-12 challenge elements to help you move from tree to tree; the trails range from beginner to difficult.
For a different kind of outdoor adventure, head to the Knoxville Botanical Garden & Arboretum. Just five minutes from downtown, this popular spot features walking trails and display gardens, including Knoxville’s Secret Garden, which bears some resemblance to the fabled one Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote about in her children's novel. (Burnett was living in Knoxville when she began her writing career.)
For a day trip, note that Knoxville is only 29 miles away from Sugarlands Visitor Center, a main entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, renowned for its plant and animal diversity, ancient mountains and the remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture.
The fun lasts all day (and all night)
Historic Market Square in downtown Knoxville is a good place to start the night (and probably finish too). Start the night in Bernadette's Crystal Gardens for aptly-named cocktails like the Garnet and Amethyst. Then head next door to Preservation Pub, a three-floored venue with live music seven nights a week, everything from up-and-coming local bands to national acts. Just next door you'll find three more floors of live music at Scruffy City Hall, plus a rooftop bar.
Staying with the rooftop bar theme, here are two more downtown spots to visit on nearby historic Gay Street. Take in views from 10 stories up in the indoor and outdoor bars at Five Thirty Lounge, located on the rooftop of the Hyatt Place Knoxville Downtown. (Impress your drinking buddies with the trivia nugget that the famous SEC football conference was founded here — when the historic building was called the Farragut Hotel.) Nearby, you can enjoy a sunset drink at the swaggy Radius Rooftop Lounge atop the Embassy Suites, looking out at the city's iconic Sunsphere and the mountains in the distance.