When I think of Tennessee, music meccas like Nashville and Memphis easily come to mind.
My recent weekend road trip in search of fall foliage and cooler temps led me to Eastern Tennessee for what was to be an enlightening vacation experience.
In just a few short days, I quickly learned that Tennessee’s natural beauty, history and down home hospitality reaches beyond the big name cites and the illustrious Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
My journey brought me to Knoxville, a college town best known for UT sports fanatics, a river walk, and its very own World’s Fair Park featuring a quirky observation tower offering 360 degree views of the city.
Knoxville, ranked the third largest city in Tennessee behind Nashville and Memphis, is still relatively small. The population is just shy of 200,000. But what Knoxville lacks in size, it makes up in soul, scenery and entrepreneurial spirit.
Nestled in a valley at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains and along the banks of the Tennessee River, Knoxville is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. Hiking, biking, hang gliding and family friendly sporting activities are accessible within minutes from the city center.
There is also a burgeoning arts and culinary scene.
Knoxville’s attitude reminded me of my time in Seattle in the late 80’s. Much like Seattle thirty years ago, the city is evolving.
Despite challenges over the years, Downtown Knoxville has a strong heart that keeps beating. The urban area has seen some tough times. But the residents have rallied with a mission to re-gentrify and renew.
I call it “Millennial-fueled Magic”. The economic explosion has given a whole new meaning to Knoxville Rocks.
Development is changing the city’s dynamic and identity. New business projects ranging from lofts to breweries are popping up on every corner. You can feel the energy. And, tourists and residents alike are reaping the benefits.
Market Square is a great starting point for exploring the city. It is Knoxville’s pedestrian friendly hub for nightlife and dining. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the square hosts a fabulous Farmers’ Market, a lively and popular event complete with music and food trucks. The Happy Envelope, a Jackson Avenue design studio, was my special farmers’ market find. Owners, Sarah and Ty, create letterpress designs that are beautiful fanciful works of art. The Knoxville city themed prints, posters and tea towels make wonderful gifts/souvenirs.
Just off the square, you will find Gay Street, a bustling business district with its share of restaurants and shops. A few distinctive attractions deserve your attention as you meander along the way. The historic Tennessee Theatre, the official state theater, is a must see. Hailed as “the South’s most beautiful theatre” when it opened in 1928, the Tennessee Theatre remains a Knoxville treasure. Step inside and you will understand why. The interior is stunning.
“Rolling Stone Magazine likened it to the inside of a Faberge Egg.”
Vaulted ceilings, Spanish-Moorish style accents, Italian terrazzo marble floors and fine crystal chandeliers make it an architectural masterpiece. The sound quality matches its beauty; the acoustics are said to be outstanding. If you are lucky to snag a ticket, you can enjoy a live performance during your visit.
Take in a bit of history and native folklore at the Eastern Tennessee History Museum located just across from the Tennessee Theatre. The museum exhibits follow timelines and topics that inform and engage. Themed displays focus on the Cherokee Indians, early settlers, the civil war, the railroad, mountain life, regional music and more.
Just few blocks south of the museum, another historic icon greets you – the beloved Bijou Theatre. The 100+ year old historic theatre is a charming intimate venue that has survived potential destruction many times over thanks to the city and community leaders. The Bijou, after extensive renovation, is back to its former glory as an entertainment center bringing in top talent from around the world.
From the Bijou, you can walk a few blocks to Locust Street and hop on a trolley to World’s Fair Park.
The park, adjacent to the Convention Center, is a manicured green space with fountains and an outdoor amphitheatre. World’s Fair Park is a top pick for a picnic or sugar fix c/o the Knoxville Chocolate Company. Be sure to check out the Sunsphere tower for elevated view of the city and the Knoxville Museum of Art for creative inspiration. Both are amazing and offer free admission.
You will need another full day to take in a few more must-see attractions. A tour the University of Tennessee campus, a boat ride or stroll along the riverfront and a canopy zip-line adventure or trail hike at nearby Ijams Nature Center are highly recommended.
For a little adult distraction, head to Knoxville’s Jackson Avenue on the edge of Old City. Here you will find Knoxville’s first (Legal) distillery, Knox Whiskey Works. Even if you do not partake in hard spirits, their Cold City Old City Coffee Liquor is simply too yummy to resist. Diva decadence: A generous pour over vanilla ice cream makes life oh so much sweeter. And, the “G” in gin just got gorgeous with the pretty pink packaging of Knox Whiskey Work’s Marble City Gin. It tastes as good as it looks.
Craft Beer aficionados can follow the Knoxville Ale Trail for a pint of pure joy. Seven local breweries and more on the way offer tastings and tours.
A favorite is Balter Beerworks, at the intersection of Broadway and Jackson Avenue. Balter brew house was built on the site of gas station. But, no pumps in sight today. Guests are treated to a beautiful outdoor patio, a fresh seasonal menu, and a robust selection of house craft beers. Balter’s Fried Green Tomatoes are so deliciously divine that you will want to order a double serving if you plan to share.
Best Bet Eats:
Downtown Brewery and Grill: A Knoxville institution. A popular watering hole with a full service bar featuring the brewery’s signature craft beers on tap. Menu runs the gamut on the grill – burgers, steaks and seafood. Special Jazz Brunch every Sunday. Open 7 days a week.
Olibea in the Old City: Farm-to table fixings featuring fresh seasonal ingredients with an eclectic southern flair. Top pick for a hearty and healthy breakfast. Soooo delish! The taste bud tantalizing memory of the Olibea Grilled Cheese, a rich and creamy creation, still makes my mouth water.
Pete’s Coffee Shop: Every town has that special diner where the experience is worth the wait. For 31 years, Pete’s has lived up to its celebrated reputation serving home cooked meals with a smile. Voted best breakfast spot year after year. Located on Union Avenue just north of World’s Fair Park.
Chivo Taqueria : The rustic and funky Day of the Dead- inspired Mexican décor gives this Gay Street eatery a unique vibe. The menu features taco dishes with a twist and an extensive 100% Blue Weber Agave Tequila selection that would rival any gringo bar north of the border.
The Tomato Head: A Market Square favorite. Relaxed atmosphere. Menu features artisan pizzas and sandwiches. Vegetarian and Vegan Friendly dishes also available.
Where to Stay:
Holiday Inn Knoxville-World’s Fair Park: Ideal location for access to all major attractions. Complimentary Shuttle Service within a 3 mile radius. Pet Friendly. Enjoy casual dining and attentive service at Windows on the Park Restaurant. Sous Chef, Misung and her talented team are always happy to create a customized dish with your dietary needs and discerning palate in mind.
Crown Plaza Knoxville: A short walk to Market Square and Knoxville’s Old City. In the heart of downtown business and entertainment district.
Coming in 2017: The Tennessean. A luxury condo-style boutique hotel overlooking World’s Fair Park.
Knoxville knows how to keep tourists happy and stress-free. Leave the car parked. Transportation is available via a FREE Trolley Service. Stops include hotels, Convention Center and attractions. Service until 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and extended hours on weekends.
For all your vacation planning needs, contact the Visit Knoxville tourism office. And, during your visit, stop in for the WDVX Blue Plate Special, Knoxville’s tradition of a midday radio show featuring Bluegrass and Americana music. Broadcasts are live from the Visitors Center on Gay Street, Monday through Saturday at 12 noon.
A Few Fun Facts for the Curious Traveler:
Knoxville celebrates 225 years of history in 2016. It’s not too late to plan a year-end adventure and join the birthday celebration.