Make Your Summer Rock in Knoxville
As the weather warms up, the fun in Knoxville heats up too. Summer is when this city that bills itself as an a “nature-loving-adventure-seeking-artsy-kinda-town” really rocks.
Whether you’re downtown at a beer garden, cooling off on the Tennessee River or just minutes away in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Knoxville checks all the boxes for your summer vacation. Even better, this East Tennessee city is within a four-hour drive of Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Birmingham, Louisville and Cincinnati, so you can make it part of an extended getaway.
Located minutes from downtown, Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness is a 1,000-acre outdoor adventure area where you can hike, bike, climb, paddle or just wander in the woods. There are more than 50 miles of trails to explore, like the network of trails at the Ijams Nature Center. Check out the Imerys Trail, which runs through the old hickory forest adjacent to the Ross Marble Natural Area. Here’s where you will find a man-made rock bridge known as “the Keyhole.”
If you like your nature a little more, well, contained, be one of the first visitors to the newly opened Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus, otherwise known as the ARC. Part of Zoo Knoxville, this 2.5-acre complex houses over 80 reptile and amphibian species and features a gallery of venomous and endangered species along with a greenhouse for the zoo’s internationally renowned turtle and tortoise collection.
If you’re like many people who have adopted a pet during the pandemic, you'll want a pet-friendly place to visit. You’re in luck in Knoxville as the town rolls out the red carpet for your four-legged friends. Several shops have dog bowls on the sidewalk and a number of restaurants and breweries across the city have pet-friendly patios. (We’ll explore how human-friendly these places are in a bit too.) You and your canine companion could go on a scavenger hunt to find all the statues of Smokey (the University of Tennessee's mascot) around campus.
While you’re in Knoxville, you might hear folks talking about the Tennessee RiverLine Initiative. Designed to be a collaboration among river communities stretching from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky, the end goal is a continuous system of paddling, hiking and biking experiences along the Tennessee River’s 652-mile reach. Right now, there are plenty of adventures to be had in Knoxville alone.
You can join the Knoxville Adventure Collective, a tour company that provides equipment and instruction to help people enjoy the East Tennessee waterways from a different perspective. Their downtown river trips start from a private dock; from there, you are provided with a personal flotation device as well as a kayak, canoe, hydro-bike or stand-up paddleboard and paddle. You might see some river otters or blue herons on your adventure.
If you prefer to relax while on the river, hop aboard the Star of Knoxville, the city’s authentic paddlewheel riverboat, for a sightseeing, lunch or dinner cruise (offered from April through October).
Another option just a few minutes south of downtown is to go paddling at the 25-acre Meads Quarry Lake; part of the Ijams Nature Center, this former quarry from the mid-1800s is now listed on the National Register for Historic Places. Note that on a sunny, packed day, the southwest corner is best for those seeking solitude and/or spotting caves.
Knoxville is home to more than 85 miles of greenways. If you bike the Neyland Greenway, you’ll be on the University of Tennessee campus, and after passing a few buildings, you’ll be rewarded with the UT Gardens, recognized as one of the official botanical gardens in Tennessee.
Knoxville is affectionately known as “The Maker City” due to its community of artists and crafters. While you’re strolling around, check out Rala (which stands for regional and local artisans), a retail shop in the Historic Old City neighborhood, which features original art, letterpress prints, greeting cards and contemporary jewelry and accessories. Jacks of Knoxville is another downtown shop offering locally made art, cards, home goods and stickers.
Just as there are plenty of ways to spend your time in Knoxville, there is something to delight all taste buds here. You’re on vacation, you might as well start with dessert first. Head for Phoenix Pharmacy, an authentic soda fountain, for mouthwatering options like their flagship sundae, the Streetcar, which has two scoops of vanilla bean ice cream, hot fudge or caramel, peanuts, fresh whipped cream, sprinkles and an all-natural Maraschino cherry.
For some classic Southern comfort food, turn to Jackie’s Dream; here you can feel like you’re part of the family by ordering things like Nanny Mary’s Fried Green Tomatoes or Cousin Ruby’s Meatloaf or Aunt Maimie’s Candied Yams. If you’ve got a hankering for barbeque, don’t miss out on Sweet P’s sampler, which includes a barbecued pork or chicken sandwich, a ¼ rack of ribs, beef brisket and three sides. Not only is the place home to a ton of memorabilia from the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville (Sweet P’s owns the trademark), but you can also pair it with one of their craft beers and dine outside in the beer garden. Raise a toast to the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Fair.
Speaking of beer, Knoxville’s Ale Trail includes more than 25 local breweries such as Xül, Balter Beerworks and Alliance Brewing Company. Book a Knox Brew Tour for a backstage guided tour of a few breweries along with tastings or start at Knox Brew Hub. For a unique experience, head to Schulz Bräu Brewing Company, designed to look like a German castle with a biergarten where the waitstaff are often dressed in traditional dirndls or lederhosen. Wherever you find yourself in Knoxville, raise a toast to yourself on picking an awesome vacation spot.
This year marks the 225th anniversary of Tennessee’s admission into the union as the 16th state, and there will be a month-long series of events in May at historic sites throughout Knox County, including open houses at several of the Historic House Museums of Knoxville. On June 1, also known as Statehood Day, Blount Mansion, a wooden frame house that is the city’s only National Historic Landmark, and nearby James White’s Fort (the federal territorial capital prior to statehood) will host the celebration.
If spectator sports are your speed, check out the USA Cycling National Championships (June 17-20). Thanks to its rolling hills and dramatic vistas, Knoxville is a well-known spot for cycling and has hosted these events for the past three years. It’s free for the public to attend.