3 Days in Knoxville, TN
Knoxville's downtown has come a long way since I was child when there was not much going on and buildings were often vacant. Like many cities, it is now experiencing an urban revitalization and business is booming as people have returned to the city to live, work, and play. Every day a new store or restaurant seems to open and there is always something going on, from a Broadway show at the Tennessee Theater to a festival in Market Square.
The downtown is fairly compact, although hilly, so it's easy to walk around or you can use the free trolley system. Its proximity to the Urban Wilderness (3 miles) make Knoxville a perfect place for the family to enjoy the great outdoors while also enjoying everything a city might have to offer.
Arrive and check into your hotel or Airbnb, then head downtown to eat and play. Pick from one of the many restaurants surrounding Market Square or stroll down Gay St and decide. See what shows are at the Tennessee Theatre, the Bijou Theatre, and the Mill and Mine. Find a movie at the Regal Riviera, go bowling, walk through Krutch Park, or just sit on Market Square with an ice cream and people watch.
This day should be spent outdoors if you can. Rent a bike and explore the greenways around Knoxville. You can do an easy 12 mile round trip, out and back section, or just do a few miles along the river if that's all you want. If you decide to stay on 2 legs, there is a great playground downtown, some interesting museums, and a view to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the top of the Sunsphere. You'll also find plenty of cool stores and tasty restaurants in town to hold your attention as well. In the evening, paddle through downtown on the Tennessee River and see the lights of the city from the water.
Continue to have fun in the great outdoors and head to the nearby Urban Wilderness and Ijams Nature Center. There is lots to do here: mountain biking, a ropes course, kayaking or paddle boarding, as well as some fun short hikes, especially suitable for those with younger kids.
The local airport is McGhee Tyson Airport, about 14 miles/ 20 min away from downtown on Highway 129. Pick up a rental car at the airport or take a taxi/ Uber/ Lyft ($20-30) from the airport. If you aren't planning on venturing outside of downtown (say to the Smokies or Dollywood), you won't need a car for this trip.
If you are driving, then you most likely will be on I 40 or I 75, both of which come right through downtown, making arrival pretty straightforward. At least until you exit the interstate. Like any downtown, there are some confusing one- way streets so use your GPS to get you to your lodging.
The 3 red P's on the map mark city parking garages (on State St, Locust St and Market Square) and they are your best bet. Parking is free after 6pm weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday. Otherwise it is $1/ hour to a max of $7/ day. The State Street Garage is my personal favorite. It usually has available spots and there is a pedestrian skyway from this garage over to Gay St, the main street downtown.
You'll also find a large free lot under the James White Parkway on Jackson Ave in the Old City. It is marked on the map to the right.
The W. Jackson Ave lot is marked with a blue P on the map and is near the 100 block of South Gay St. This is a city run lot so it has same prices as the parking garages (free after 6pm and on weekends).
Places to Stay
Insider tip: On UT football weekends, all of these recommendations and pricing will go out the window as everyone goes slightly nuts. Don’t get me wrong, I bleed orange and love it, but if you aren’t a football person, you might want to pick another weekend to visit.
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Hilton, Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, and Hampton Inn are the big chain hotels within walking distance of most things downtown. All 4 are fine but not exceptional. If you have points at one of them, or find a special deal, then go for it. I like the Hilton the best personally but I have stayed at all of them.
The Oliver Hotel is a boutique hotel next to Market Square on Union Ave if you want something a little different and part of Knoxville’s history. Some rooms are louder than others due to proximity to the downstairs bar so ask for a quiet one when booking. I would call rather than book online to make sure.
The Hyatt Place on Gay St just opened in Jan 2018 so it has the shiny and new vibes still. It is located in the historic Farragut Hotel and they did a beautiful job on the renovation. I haven't stayed here yet but I took a tour and it looks great. It is also getting great reviews on TripAdvisor.
1) Modern Loft Overlooking Downtown Knox
This 2 BR in the Sterchi building is in a great location on the 100 Block of South Gay St. and comes with parking. ($179 a night). Has huge windows. The minimum stay varies throughout the year.
2) French Farmhouse style directly on Gay St in Knoxville's Old City
This is 2 BR/ 1 BA is also on the 100 block of S. Gay St with great reviews. $185 a night during the week and $250 on weekends. Comes with one reserved parking spot.
3) Downtown 210 on Market Square
This 2 BR place has 1 loft BR up a spiral stair and the other BR has a futon. It overlooks Market Square though so the location is wonderful. ($175). If you are a light sleeper it might be a little too close to the action on Saturday night but there is a great rooftop deck available. 1 night minimum.
***These 2 are not quite downtown but are close. They are excellent options if you want a more space.
3) Historic Mid- Century Modern Gem is not downtown but is not far away (on Hwy 129,10 min drive). It is a 2 bedroom mid- century modern architectural house on the National Historic Register. ($240 a night). 2 night minimum. VRBO #780646.
4) Spacious Mid- Century Retreat Near UT and Downtown
This is a another mid- century modern house, run by Knox Heritage. It has 3 bedrooms and 3 baths in a 2 story house, decorated with authentic mid- century furniture. I have stayed in this one with some friends and can’t say enough good things about the space and the incredibly nice people at Knox Heritage. The greenway is just behind the house so this option is great if you are thinking of biking while here. It is 3 miles west of downtown on Kingston Pike. ($135 per night). 2 night minimum on UT home football game weekends. VRBO #967878
Where To Eat
Here's the general lowdown on some of the best restaurants in Ktown. Check out www.downtownknoxville.org/ for restaurants, bars, and current happenings in downtown.
These are just a few specific recommendations and all are kid- friendly, see descriptions below for details:
Happy Hour - Balter Beerworks (100 Block of Gay St), Downtown Grill and Brewery (Gay St)
Breakfast - OliBea (Old City), Sugar Mama’s (100 Block of Gay St), Pete’s Coffee Shop (Union Ave)
Picnic Lunch - Good Golly Tamale (Old City), Tomato Head (Market Square)
Market Square Restaurants
***If you here on a busy Friday or Saturday night, I recommend putting your name down early and then walk around for a bit or go have a drink somewhere else. Almost everyone in Market Square uses text message alerts when your table is ready so no need to wait at the restaurant.
Stock and Barrel. Specializes in burgers and bourbon. Excellent restaurant with a wait time that reflects that but the blue cheese burger and bourbon tasting flight are well worth the wait. No kids menu but we sometimes come here for the great shakes for the kids and a bourbon flight for the adults. On the left as you are looking at the stage at the north end of the square.
Tupelo Honey. Serving "New South food", this restaurant originally started in Asheville. It is also usually packed but the house biscuits that come with the meal are what keep me coming back. Has a kids menu that includes awesome sweet potato pancakes. On the corner of Union Ave and Market Square.
Cafe 4. A more traditional American food restaurant, this place has been around for awhile in a competitive market because it is just good stuff. Specializes in mac n' chz variations that both kids and adults will enjoy. On the right side of the Square as you are looking at the stage at the north end.
Tomato Head. A local institution. It was here when everybody left downtown for the suburbs and is still here now that they all came flooding back. Pizza, calzones, a kid's menu, and a bunch of vegetarian options make just about everyone happy. The Kepner Melt is one of those sandwiches that I can’t figure why it works but it does and I get it every time. On the right side of the Square as you are looking at the stage on the north end.
Soccer Taco. Good Mexican food and walls packed with soccer memorabilia. If you make sure to correct people about what is “real football”, this is your place. Beware (in a good way) of the margaritas, especially by the pitcher. Has a kids menu. On the left side of the Square as you are looking at the stage at the north end.
Union Avenue Restaurants
J.C. Holdway. Knoxville’s only James Beard winner opened this restaurant in 2016 and it specializes in Southern food cooked over a wood- fired grill. Open for dinner Tue- Sat and you will probably need a reservation on weekends. Absolutely delicious. Might be too fancy for younger kids.
Pete’s Coffee Shop. I used to have lunch here with my Dad as a kid and I am happy to say I still enjoy eating here as an adult. It is everything great about a diner: inexpensive and filling food with speedy and friendly service. Pete has been doing this for 30 years and has a very loyal following. There is a kids menu for lunch and breakfast has lots of small options. Open for breakfast and lunch, closed on Sunday.
South Gay St. Restaurants
Nama. This is not a traditional sushi restaurant as much as it is a fusion place. For instance, you can get a vegetarian "Marley" roll to go along with your sashimi. It is creative and delicious and probably my favorite place in all of downtown. Kids menu is free on 12-3 on Sundays with adult meal.
Downtown Grill and Brewery. This is a big restaurant and bar meaning you can usually find a table when other places are packed. The beer is good (they brew their own) and the menu is extensive. This is the place I come with friends and we order a bunch of appetizers to share while watching a game. It can get kind of loud so it is not the place for a quiet conversation but it also means that kids don't stand out. Happy Hour 4-8 M-F and all day Sunday means $2 beers and $3 margaritas.
Chivo Taqueria. Specializes in tacos (sorry that was obvious) and tequila. Mix and match the tacos and get a side of brussel sprouts or the street corn. They try to source locally and use the whole animal so you can chow down with less guilt. I love this place for lunch.
The French Market The place to go for sweet and savory crepes. A French exchange student friend swore by this place and said they were better than most places in France. This is also a big favorite of my nieces and nephews- I mean what kid doesn’t want a s’more crepe?
Five Bar. Everything works off the 5 theme here- 5 appetizers, 5 entrees, 5 desserts, etc. What makes up the 5 choices may change but it’s always 5. A great place for the person in your group who takes forever to peruse the menu. I love the baked avocado appetizer.
Restaurants on or near the 100 Block of South Gay St.
Sugar Mama’s. This is a bakery, pizza place, breakfast cafe and craft beer bar all rolled into one eclectic, tasty place. Good for morning, noon and night munchies. Kids love picking out something from the dessert case and pizza is always a crowd favorite.
Knox Mason. Another modern Southern restaurant with a hyper local menu in a cosy place. I go adventurous here because I always end up liking it even if I didn’t think I would. If it is a nice night, ask for an outside table. There are just 2 on the back porch but that makes it a great spot to hang out in. Open for dinner Tue- Sat. Might be too fancy for smaller children.
Sweet P’s Downtown Dive. This BBQ joint is just around the corner from Gay St and is a fast casual place with slow cooked food. The BBQ is delicious as are the sides. I love the tomato and blues salad if I am not feeling carnivorous. Has a kid's plate.
Balter Beer Works. The best happy hour 3- 630 M-F. Great deals on sliders and street tacos as well as other appetizers and, of course, their beer. The restaurant is in a renovated gas station which makes the architecture fairly unique but also means that there is plenty of outdoor seating. Even if you do not make it for happy hour, this place is worth a walk over for good food and beer. Has a kids menu. On the corner of W. Jackson Ave and Broadway.
Old City Restaurants
Barley’s. The huge beer selection (96 on tap) and huge pizzas make just about everyone happy. They have some of the best live music in town but if you want to just chill, the upstairs has pool tables and darts. It occupies a whole building so you can usually find a corner to grab, even when it’s packed. Kid- friendly (no kids menu but lots of pizza choices) till about nine or so, then becomes much more a drinking crowd.
Jig and Reel. A Scottish pub, this is perfect if you are craving some bangers and mash or stovies. They also have 742 whiskies and counting available. Reading the book alone is entertainment if you like whisky. There is live music usually every night, from Appalachian to Irish to Scottish, either a jam session with local aficionados or professional bands. Definitely different and always interesting. Kid friendly early in the night but no specific kids menu. Open 3pm- 3am.
Good Golly Tamale. This place may just change your mind about tamales if you are not already a fan. They started out as a food truck (bicycle actually) so their hipster vibes are genuine. They have meat- lovers, vegetarian, and vegan options and they make an excellent choice for a picnic. I like the simple yet awesome bean and cheese tamale. Open for lunch M- Sat and also dinner on Fri/ Sat.
OliBea. The place for breakfast right now in Knoxville, they win national awards for their biscuits and rightly so. Open until 1pm on weekdays and 2pm on weekends.
Restaurants By the River
Calhoun’s on the River. Calhoun’s has been Knoxville’s BBQ place since 1983, now with 9 locations around the area so they are clearly doing something right. I like this location as it is one of the few restaurants on the riverfront. Besides the tasty BBQ, I also love the pretzels with beer cheese and the white chili. They brew their own beer which is pretty good too. Has a kids menu.
Things To Do On Your First Day In Town
After checking into your lodging, head out to Market Square or walk down Gay St to find something to eat. Afterwards, here is a list pf possibilities:
- Maple Hall Bowling Alley. This is not your usual bowling alley. In the basement of a building on Gay St, think more craft cocktails and small plates. Family friendly until 9pm, it stays open till 1:30am.
- Get a great view over Knoxville (and even of the Smokies on a clear day) from the 4th floor observation deck of the Sunsphere. Just be forewarned that the elevator there might be the slowest known to man. There are interpretive signs to tell you what to look for in every direction once you do finally arrive.
- Check the schedule at the Tennessee Theatre , Bijou Theatre , and Mill and Mine for current shows.
- Blue Plate Special. Get lunch to go and walk to the Knoxville Visitor’s Center on Gay St at noon to watch a live performance, one hour, radio broadcast Monday thru Saturday from WDVX's stage. Performers range from bluegrass to folk to Celtic and (very) occasionally some big names like Bela Fleck or the Avett Brothers show up. Kid friendly and they invite you to bring food into the show. If you are here on the second Saturday of the month, then head down here at 10am for Kidstuff, a live show just for kids.
- Regal Cinema. A nice movie theatre right on the corner of Gay St and Union Ave. Regal Cinemas is headquartered in Knoxville and there have actually been a few movie premieres at this theatre. Perfect for rainy days.
- See a bit of pioneer history at James White Fort, the original settler who donated the land for the city of Knoxville. It is not very big but is nicely restored and the there are often blacksmith or spinning demonstrations. The kids are mostly fascinated with the pillory, imagining them as a "timeout" for grownups.
- See Day 2 alternative activities for more ideas.
Day 2: Greenway Tour of Knoxville
This is a biking day. Knoxville has some good greenways and you can do a 12 mile ride that is fairly flat, a rarity in hilly Ktown. You will travel 6 miles west for a lunch break and then head back. If you want to bike for a just a few miles, just head down to the Neyland Greenway by the river for a scenic ride.
Rent a Bike
Tennessee Valley Bicycles is a cyclist’s kinda of bike shop but don’t let that intimidate you if you have no idea what you are doing. They rent some really nice bikes. ($25/ half day or $40/ full day). They are in the Old City just across the RR tracks.
Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center rents, bikes, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. Easy to find next to Ruth Chris by the river and rents greenway cruisers for $16 for 2 hours ($5/ additional hours). Not open in the winter.
Ijams Nature Center. You can rent a greenway bike from their Visitor’s Center for $15/ 2 hours, $20/ 4 hours or $35/ day. Open 9-5 and is southeast of downtown Knoxville.
River Sports Outfitters. This huge outdoor store is west of downtown on Sutherland Ave and is near the Third Creek Greenway. Greenway bike rental is $20 for 4 hours/ $35 for the day.
***None of these places have kid's bikes listed on their websites.
This ride will start at the World’s Fair Park and head west, connecting the Second Creek, Neyland, and Third Creek Greenways. This is basically a 6 mile out- and- back trip that incorporates lunch at the half- way point to make 12 miles total for the day.
There are several tasty restaurants to choose from at the end of the Third Creek Greenway which is your turn- around. It will take you around 45- 60 min from downtown depending on how fast you can bike 6 miles and how often you stop for pictures. I would start the ride at 1030am or 1100am to arrive around lunchtime. There are some fun playgrounds on the way so you could leave earlier and allow for a play break if you want.
Bike back to downtown after lunch. You will probably return around 1:30 or 2pm, again depending on stops.
You can start the day a little earlier and add in the Knox Blount Greenway if you are feeling like something more challenging (it adds an extra 5.2 miles round- trip and a bit of a climb up to the bridge over the Tennessee River). Or you can add the James White Greenway (a flat, 3 mile round addition.) The details for these additions are given below.
Part 1: Second Creek Greenway (0.5 miles)
Start at the World’s Fair Park. You can’t miss it, just aim for the bright gold Sunsphere. This is our souvenir keepsake from the 1982 World’s Fair. Stop and take a very slow elevator ride to the 4th floor observation deck for a cool view over Knoxville and all the way to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park if it is a clear day.
Ride down Clinch Ave west (there is a bike lane), past the Sunsphere and away from downtown, and then take your 1st left onto World’s Fair Park Drive. That road will circle around down to the park and you will see a sign for the greenway on your right. (It is the red dotted line on the map.)
Hop on the Second Creek Greenway here and follow along the railroad tracks, heading towards the river. Before you cross the railroad tracks, look for the statue of Rachmaninoff on your right. This statue of the Russian composer/ pianist commemorates his last concert, which was at UT in 1943.
*** If you want a playground break, Fort Kid is an awesome wooden fort complex across the street from the Museum of Art and there is a more modern playground at the north end of the World's Fair Site. They are marked on the map to the right.
***If you want to add- in the James White Greenway, go left here to connect to it. You will ride 0.5 miles on the Neyland Greenway before you continue onto the 1 mile-long James White Greenway. This section is very scenic along the river and goes past a marina. It is also fairly flat which makes it an easy addition. You will then double- back to continue on the rest of the day’s ride. You will add 3 miles total to the day.
After the stadium, the Neyland Greenway crosses Neyland Dr (there is a pedestrian crosswalk and light here) to go along the river. Unfortunately, you will also go past an industrial part containing a sewage treatment plant and a cement plant but it is thankfully short. Then turn right onto the Third Creek Greenway just after you cross the bridge over Third Creek. The UT Gardens are here and worth a quick walk around if you have time. There is a small kids play area in the Gardens that was just rebuilt and a fun stone maze.
***Optional addition: You can keep going on the Neyland Greenway, past the UT Gardens and the Veterinary School, until it ends at the UT Visitor Center. You will have to cross Neyland Drive at the traffic light in front of the Veterinary School. Double back to the start of the Third Creek Greenway to continue on with the day. It will add 2 miles total.
Part 3: The Entire Third Creek Greenway (4 miles linear).
Third Creek Greenway is one of my favorite greenways as it not near a road and follows scenic Third Creek for much of it. There is a lot of shade on this greenway as well, plus it ends near some very good restaurants, convenient for the appetite you just worked up.
There is a large kids playground in Tyson Park, which is just after you cross under Alcoa highway. There are bathrooms here as well. After lunch at the western end of 3rd Creek Greenway, double back the way you came to get back to downtown (6 miles). See below for a list of my favorite restaurants.
***If you are wanting to bike a bit longer, you can add the Knox Blount Greenway, but I would do it before lunch if you are doing visiting in the summer. This greenway has no shade. It will add 4.4 miles round trip to your total for the day.
When you get to the end of the Third Creek Greenway, take a very short spur curving to the right, around the UT intramural fields. That will take you to Sutherland Ave and your lunch break. Turn right when you get to Sutherland Ave and go 400 ft to the next traffic light. The first 3 restaurants are across the street. There is a pedestrian crosswalk at the light and sidewalks on the other side so it is a kid- friendly crossing.
- Stock Burgers has great burgers, large salads, charleston- style seafood, and a good craft beer selection. I had some amazing pork belly last time I was there. Lots of outdoor seating.
- Red Onion serves pizza, subs, and Indian food. Perfect if you have only one person in the group who likes Indian. Closed on Sunday.
- Dead End BBQ is a Knoxville favorite. I live for the BBQ queso dip and the homemade banana pudding.
- El Charro is a Knoxville institution (32 years and counting) and is on its 3rd location. To get here, turn left when you get to Sutherland Ave and go 500ft. There is a sidewalk but it is small.
***Fun tip- If you have a fan of tanks with you, the National Guard Armory on Sutherland Ave (next to UT’s intramural fields) usually has some sitting outside by the large sidewalk. They are behind a fence so you can’t climb on them but you can get fairly close.
Optional Addition: Knox Blount Greenway (2.2 miles one-way)
This is a peaceful greenway, far from the road (once you get over the US 129/ Alcoa Hwy bridge) and goes through a beautiful meadow along the river. Caution in summer though, as there is zero shade in that beautiful meadow. It can also get a little buggy in the afternoon.
There is a bit of a hill to get up and over the Alcoa Highway bridge but the views are great over the river. On the bridge, the greenway is completely separated from the road by a concrete barrier and fence so it is safe even for small kids. Once across the bridge, the greenway diverges from the highway and follows along the river.
Day 2 Evening: What to Do
Head out downtown to one of the restaurants you didn’t get to last night, then maybe to a movie at the Regal Riviera or bowling at Maple Hall if you still have some energy. The movie theatre and bowling alley are both on Gay St.
If it is a Friday night in the fall, grab a chair or blanket and head to Market Square for a free movie that’s kid friendly. Last year’s movies ranged from Up to Ghostbusters. Check out the schedule here.
The Tennessee Theatre on Gay St shows classic movies on some Friday nights and Sunday afternoons during the summer so be sure to check those out too.
Pretentious Beer Co. This bar is next door to the Pretentious Glass Co where the owner started making beer glasses to complement his favorite craft beers. A brewing company of his own was an obvious next step. All craft beers, all with their own glass. You can get your beer and walk next door to watch them blowing glass. A great stop with kids and that makes it a very unusual bar. The Glass Co is open until 4 pm Mon- Th but 9pm on Sat and Sun (closed Sun) whereas the Beer Co. opens at 3pm Mon- Fri and 12pm Sat and Sun.
If you still want some more outdoor activity, rent one of Billy Lush’s SUP (stand up paddleboards) or kayaks and head out on the Tennessee river. They are a blast and no previous experience is necessary. You can rent for 1 or 2 hours. I have taken kids on this and they loved it.
In downtown, the river does not have a lot of boat traffic (outside of home football games) nor does it have much current so you really do not need to be an expert paddler. Or even a decent one. If you are here on a Saturday between Memorial Day and Labor Day, definitely do one of the night paddles. The lights of the city make this a fantastic photo op.
Other Activities For Day 2 (if you are not into biking)
Fort Kid and Knoxville Museum of Art
- These 2 free things are conveniently across the street from each other. See 2nd Creek greenway map .
- Kids love Fort Kid, as it is a huge wooden structure with lots of places for hiding and climbing up and down. It is particularly good for toddlers as it is fenced in.
- The Museum of Art may be small, but it has good traveling exhibits and the Richard Jolley glass installation is beautiful. The kid art room is usually a place I have to physically extract them from. The air conditioning is a blessing too after Fort Kid if you are here in the summer.
I always like going to the Knoxville Zoo and have spent many hours there with my nieces and nephews. Make a point to see Georgie the Gibbon (he is usually swinging around and likes to interact with the kids), Khaleesi the Komodo Dragon in the Wee Play Indoor Play Area, and the baby gorillas in Gorilla Valley.
Kids Cove and the Splash Pad are always popular with hot kids on a sweltering day as well. There are free changing rooms next to the Splash Pad.
The Zoo is about 5 miles east of Market Square and is conveniently located next to I40. It is about $7-10 Uber ride if you aren't driving. It costs $20 adult/ $17 kid and seniors/ $5 parking. If you have a membership at your Zoo at home, check their reciprocal list to see if you get discounted admission here.
McClung Museum is a wonderful, small, free museum on UT’s campus. There are permanent exhibits on Ancient Egypt (with a model temple from Karnak and some mummified animals), the Cherokee (including a great video), and human evolution among others.
It has free parking (just tell the attendant at the parking kiosk you are here for the museum) or you can ride the free Knoxville Trolley. The Orange line goes from downtown and has a stop at Circle Park just by the museum.
Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
A great museum combined with an indoor court so kids can practice their skills make the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame a fun way to spend two hours, especially if it is a rainy day. There are basketball goals and dribbling tests for kids to wear themselves out on, in addition to the cool exhibits on the history of women’s basketball. You can look at several Olympic gold medals as well as hear actual locker room halftime speeches by several coaches, including the GOAT, Pat Summitt. Closed Sundays (and Mondays in the winter.)
Three Rivers Rambler
Take a steam engine ride on the Three Rivers Rambler up river to where the Holston River and French Broad River join to form the Tennessee River. On special days in the summer there are all day excursions to vintage baseball games (Civil War era rules) that are great family- friendly events.
I am not a huge shopper but there are a couple of stores I love downtown.
Bliss and Tori Mason Shoes- Gay St- If my coolest friend dressed me, it would be with stuff from here. Good browsing too with funny coffee table books and small gifts. The baby section also has an excellent selection for that fashionable friend who is pregnant.
Union Ave books- Union Ave (obviously)- a small bookstore but well- curated. Lots of Knoxville books and they often have author signings. A kid’s corner and occasional appearances by Scout the Shopdog make this a great stop with kids too. The owner always has the perfect recommendation when I don’t even know what I am looking for.
Tree and Vine- Union Ave- I always thought expensive olive oil was just a pretension until I walked in here and am now addicted. Lots of olive oils and balsamics to sample which also makes it fun for the kids.
Nothing Too Fancy- Union Ave- A clothing store with Knoxville- centric items that is fun for a browse through. The T- shirts may be a tad expensive but they wear really well. I own several.
Mast General Store- Gay St- A store to get lost in. Really, make sure to have a meeting point in mind because everyone will drift off and find something to look at. I personally get lost in the big barrels of old school candy.
Pretentious Glass Co. - Old City- I own at least one of every kind of glass so far and never cease to get compliments. The Limestone glass is my go to for whiskey. The glassware is blown right in the back of the store and they have a small viewing area set up which is always a fun stop, especially with kids. For $40 on Friday nights and Sat afternoon you can blow your own Christmas ornament. Call to confirm this before going though as it changes. 865.249.8677
Day 3: Ijams Nature Center and the Urban Wilderness
The Urban Wilderness is a connected group of parks and wildlife areas in South Knoxville that together have over 1, 000 acres and 50 miles of trails. There are several trailheads providing access, but the best developed ones are at Ijams Nature Center and at nearby Meads Quarry.
There is lots to do at Ijams Nature Center, Meads Quarry, and in the rest of the Urban Wilderness - hiking, mountain biking, greenway riding, rock climbing, ziplining, paddleboarding, etc. There are plenty of kid- friendly hikes and Meads Quarry is a great place for anyone to try out paddleboarding for the first time. I have put my 4 year old niece (with a life jacket) on the front of the paddleboard and we had a blast just put- putting around the quarry.
Getting to Ijams: You can bike to Ijams Nature Center from downtown (about 5 miles) or drive/ Uber there (4 miles from Market Square). See the map at the beginning of this itinerary or down below. Meads Quarry is a short walk from the Ijams Visitor Center on a greenway or you can drive between the two.
How to plan your day: I like to hike/ bike in the morning and then paddleboard/ relax by the quarry with a beer in the afternoon. There is a changing room/ bathroom by Meads Quarry. This is of course a plan for the summer. In fall or winter, I like to just bike and or/ hike.
Mountain biking: If you are into mountain biking, then you will love the approximately 40 miles of trail in the Urban Wilderness. You can do a 12.5 mile loop (the South Loop) through all the different parks in the Wilderness or pick one and spend the day. See the full map for ideas. If you need a bike, contact River Sports Outfitters. They handle the kayak and SUP rentals at Ijams and occasionally do mountain bike rentals from that location as well. If not, you can always rent from their main store on Sutherland Ave (near the 3rd Creek Greenway.)
Try to bring some food with you. There are some snacks in the Ijams Visitor’s Center (ice cream, granola bars, sodas) and at Meads Quarry in the summer (granola bars, gatorade, beer) but no restaurants or food trucks yet on site. If you are driving, then there is an excellent place called SoKno Taco Cantina about 2 miles away from Ijams on Sevierville Pike. Really delicious tacos and tamales as well as an excellent craft beer list. Has a kids menu too. Other options are Trailhead Beer Market on nearby Sevier Ave, which often has a food truck after 5pm and is a great place to catch a beer after 3pm. Big jenga on the outside porch keeps the kids entertained. Also on Sevier Ave are Honeybee Coffee and Alliance Brewery, which also often has a food truck in the evenings. A pizza place across from Alliance Brewery should be opening in mid- 2018.
Ijams Nature Center
This 300 acre nature reserve is the legacy of the Ijams family and is the most developed of the parks in the Urban Wilderness. The Visitor Center is a good place to start, especially with kids, as there are a few animals to look at (hawk, snapping turtle, turkey vulture, fish) and good maps to get your bearings. Most of the trails start from here as well. There is a large frog pond out front that always gets the kids' attention and Jo's Grove is play area for kids that is next to the frog pond.
Hiking trails from the Visitor's Center (map):
I like the loop hike that incorporates the North Cove trail, the River Trail and Boardwalk, and the Tower trail (about 1.5 miles total). The Discovery trails around the Lotus pond are always interesting as well, especially if you want to see a snake. None of the trails are particularly strenuous, but the Tower Trail has a short climb.
If you are here in July then be sure to visit the Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area to see the huge fields of sunflowers. The parking area is on McClure Lane just down the street from Ijams. It is where Wyatt Way begins on the map. Walk down Wyatt Way, take a left on Dozer trail, and then turn right on the Will Skelton Greenway to circle back around. You can cut back to Dozer trail by walking along the last last field you pass before you get to the end of the greenway and the overlook. (It is not the trail marked Wild Briar on the official map, it is just a tractor path next to the sunflowers.) It makes an easy 2.2 mile loop and you see the best fields.
Biking the Will Skelton Greenway: Rent bikes from the Visitor Center ($15/ 2 hours, $20/ 4 hours, $35/ all day) and bike the very pretty Will Skelton Greenway that runs through Ijams and Forks of the River WMA. The greenway is 3.62 miles long with Ijams Visitor Center nearly in the middle (1.5 miles to the west end, 2.1 miles to the east end). The whole greenway is nice but if you have to pick a side, I would do the section east of the Visitor Center. It goes through Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area and has less hills than the section west of Ijams, save for one very steep one right by the Visitor Center.
The large, water- filled, Meads Quarry and its smaller neighbor, Ross Marble Quarry, were the source of some of the famed Tennessee marble used in buildings such as the National Gallery of Art and the JP Morgan Library in NYC. The quarries were abandoned by WWII and are now a part of the Urban Wilderness. Mead's Quarry is a short walk or drive from the main Visitor's Center of Ijams.
There is a kayak/ canoe/ SUP rental place by the parking lot at Meads Quarry. My family has had a great time renting paddleboards here. The opening hours can vary so check their facebook page of the company running it (River Sports Outfitters ) or call Ijams (865-577-4717 x110).
Yee- Haw brewery has a small stand in the parking lot of the quarry selling beers, soft drinks, and snacks. No food truck yet but hopefully soon.
For hiking around Meads Quarry (maps)
I like Tharp Trace (1.1 miles but steep in places) that loops you up to an overlook over the quarry and back to the parking lot.
You can also hike an easy 1 mile on Imerys Trail to the Ross Marble Quarry loop. The 0.25 mile loop around this dry quarry has a humongous keyhole that's more like a tunnel that you walk through to the other side of the quarry. There’s a hidden spring on the other side of the keyhole as well. This is a big hit with kids.
NAVITAT is a ropes course/ zipline adventure between Ijams Visitor’s Center and Meads Quarry. Park at Ijams Visitor’s Center and sign- up there. You usually get 2 hours on the course and there are varying levels, including a lower one for us scaredy cats
Look at UT’s football schedule before you plan your trip. The university is a big part of Knoxville and game days are a huge event that I personally love. It does alter just about every aspect of life downtown though, from restaurant wait times to navigating traffic.
UT basketball games do not cause quite the same amount of disruption (being that the arena only holds 20, 000 as compared to 109, 000 for Neyland Stadium) but are always fun if you happen to be in town. The Lady Vols are a national icon and we are rightly proud of them so check out their schedule as well as the men's team and see if you can catch a game. Or check out baseball, Lady Vols soccer, or softball schedules if you are a fan of those sports. Lady Vols soccer is free so it is a particularly cheap way to enjoy a game and they usually have a free kid activities such as a bounce house and face painting. The baseball stadium has its own playground by the upper decks so it is another kid- friendly place.
There are free trolley lines connecting downtown, UT and the Old City. They run Mon- Sat every 10 - 15 min.
What to Do on a Rainy Day
- Museums. There are a few in Knoxville that I really like. The Knoxville Museum of Art and the McClung Museum were covered in Day 2, but there is also the Museum of East Tennessee History, an interesting place right on Gay St, across from the Tennessee Theatre. They have detailed exhibits on the Cherokee, early settlers, Civil War, and the nearby Oak Ridge's part in the development of the atomic bomb. Costs $5 adult and free for under 16's so the price is right. Free for everyone on Sundays. Open 9-4 M-F, 10-4 Sat, 1-5 Sun.
- Movie. The Regal Riviera on Gay St is always good in a pinch to kill time during a summer thunderstorm.
- Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. History and a place for them to run around and be loud? Perfect. See Day 2 for details.
- Ride the trolley around. Hop on the free trolley and take a tour of the city. The Orange Line will take through UT's campus while the Green Line will take to the Old City.
- Go see an indoor game (winter/ spring). UT basketball has been covered under Trip Hacks but there is also the Ice Bears, Knoxville's minor league hockey team. The games are always loud and entertaining and they play at the Civic Coliseum downtown, walking distance from Market Square.
Big Festivals in Knoxville
Dogwood Arts Festival is held usually in March and April, this festival incorporates art shows, hikes, group bike trips, and music. The Chalk Walk is a personal favorite as is the Art Slam.
I mark my calendar early for the Rhythm and Blooms Festival and always find a new favorite band each year. It takes over the Old City with a huge stage at one end along with many other performances at bars and restaurants along Jackson St. It is associated with the Dogwood Arts Festival.
Big Ears Festival is all about new music in new ways. There is classical music like you have never heard before, alternative rock that doubles as performance art, and other music that defies any sort of genre characterization whatsoever. I never know quite what I am going to see or hear and even after the show I am sometimes still not sure. Always interesting though.
International Biscuit Festival is a whole day of all things biscuits. What could be better? Buy a ticket and sample some of the many kinds of biscuits vying for the People’s Choice Award. You can also watch the biscuit song competition or vote in the Mr./ Mrs. Biscuit Pageant.
Rossini Festival is a street fair, technically a fundraiser for the Knoxville Opera Co, so there are operatic performances throughout the day on various stages. When the Opera isn't on, there will be performances by just about everybody else in Knoxville, from middle school bands to local barbershop quartets. There’s a craft beer garden and wine tent and more craft booths than Etsy. Market Square is turned into a kid's FunZone courtesy of the local YMCA. It’s a great one- day street party.
First Friday- The first Friday of every month is an art celebration where all the galleries in town and the Knoxville Museum of Art stay open late and often have musical performances. There are quite a few galleries on Gay St so it makes for an easy tour.
Market Square Farmer’s Market- On Wednesdays and Saturdays (except Nov- April) there are vegetable, meat, coffee and craft booths all over Market Square and nearby streets.
To Blend in with the Locals
The nearby town of Maryville is actually pronounced “Mervul”. Anything else immediately identifies you as a foreigner.
Learn the words to Rocky Top. It is liable to come on at any point in a restaurant, bar, or on the radio while in Knoxville, particularly during football season. Or any season really.
Dolly Parton is a living icon and should be spoken of as such while Lane Kiffin should not be spoken of at all. Pat Summitt is the best basketball coach who ever lived and possibly the most inspirational Knoxvillian ever.
The nickname Scruffy City comes courtesy of the Wall Street Journal who called Knoxville a "scruffy little city on the Tennessee River" when criticizing its choice as host of the 1982 World's Fair. Locals have been defiantly making the name their own since.
Books and Movies about Knoxville or Surrounding Area
- Knoxville: This Obscure Prismatic City by Jack Neely. 2009. A great book by our leading local historian. Its short and eminently readable chapters highlight a piece of offbeat trivia or interesting stories from Knoxville’s history. Free on kindle unlimited.
- A Death in the Family. By James Agee. 1957. A Pulitzer prize winning, autobiographical novel about how a father’s death affects a family. I was thrilled in high school to find a required reading book that did not bore me to tears. It is a depressing portrayal of coping with death from a child’s perspective so be forewarned. I loved the descriptions though, and Agee’s improvisational, jazz- style of writing.
- Suttree, Child of God, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The author grew up in Knoxville and the first 2 books are set entirely in the area. The Road begins with a trip south from the Cumberland Gap, through Knoxville, and then over Newfound Gap into North Carolina as it continues on its way to scaring the bejesus out of you.
- The Body Farm series by Jefferson Bass. Written by William Bass, the scientist behind the creation of the real- life Body Farm at UT, and Jon Jefferson, a writer and documentary filmmaker. Mostly set in the area, the mysteries are engaging and the science is first- rate.
- October Sky. 1999. This movie is the true story of a son of a coal miner who became a NASA engineer. It may have been set in West Virginia but it was filmed mostly in Knoxville and Oak Ridge.
- Coat of Many Colors. 2015. The TV movie of Dolly Parton’s life. It’s a kid - friendly, heart- warming story of family struggle and togetherness. A bit over the top but it's Dolly so I love it.
- The Last Movie Star. 2017. A indie film about fame and growing old, it features Burt Reynolds and Ariel Winter and was filmed all in Knoxville, including on Market Square.
If you happen to be kid- free while visiting, here are some other suggestions to try........
J.C. Holdway Knoxville’s only James Beard winner opened this restaurant in 2016 and it specializes in Southern food cooked over a wood- fired grill. Open for dinner Tue- Sat and you will probably need a reservation on weekends. Absolutely delicious. On Union Ave.
Knox Mason. Another modern Southern restaurant with a hyper local menu in a cosy place. I go adventurous here because I always end up liking it even if I didn’t think I would. If it is a nice night, ask for an outside table. There are just 2 on the back porch but that makes it a great spot to hang out in. Open for dinner Tue- Sat. On the 100 block of Gay St.
Lonesome Dove. Chef Tim Love originally started this restaurant in Fort Worth Texas, opened a 2nd location in Austin, and then came home to his alma mater for his 3rd. It’s all about Texas cooking here so the steaks are top- notch but so are the veggies so don’t be put off if a giant steak isn’t your thing. The building is a local architectural icon as well. It opened as a saloon in 1888 by an Irish immigrant and it has been a lot of things since (bordello and ice cream store to name a few), but always has always been an anchor of the Old City. People were really happy to see it keep going in this new iteration, but they will still call it by its original name, Patrick Sullivan's, so don't be confused when they give directions.
Bars (most of these places have food too but I think of them as bars first)
Market Square and Union Ave
Preservation Pub/ Scruffy City Hall These 2 pubs are next to each other and have the same owner. Both are great places for live music and good beer. Both have a rooftop bar that is a must if the weather is good. Get a good seat for watching people in Market Square below. Be aware that Preservation Hall allows smoking on the ground floor but not on the second. Scruffy City has no smoking anywhere indoors. Both rooftops allow smoking.
Casual Pint downtown. This is a beer store with a bar in it. You can try something from the tap or buy something from the store and open it. A good place if you like European beers as well as American craft beer. No music but has TV’s and it is a great place to catch a game. Just around the corner from Market Square on Union St.
Peter Kern Library This speakeasy is located down an alley next to The Oliver Hotel on Union Ave. Look for the small red bulb and open the door. It is not as scary as it sounds I promise. It might however have a wait as they limit patrons to keep the setting quiet and intimate. Cocktails are expensive (think $10-20) but they are good and there is the insider only vibe to the whole place.
South Gay St
Clancy’s A fairly typical Irish pub but it has a cosy atmosphere, good bartenders, and a variety of Irish whiskies. One of my favorite chill bars on a weeknight.
Suttree’s Specializes in high- gravity and craft beer only, no Bud Light here. Beer list changes constantly and you can get a sampler flight of any you like. There will be a high proportion of men with beards here.
Sapphire’s If you are looking for a modern cocktail bar this is your best bet. Named because of its location in an old jewelry store, its signature drink is the sapphire martini that does actually come with a sapphire. I can’t speak to the tastiness of that one specifically, but the other martinis are pretty good. It gets incredibly crowded after 10pm on weekends and turns into a dance place.
Old City Wine Bar They have hundreds of wines to try, as well as a few beers, and some small plates to snack on. This a great place if you want to sit back with good conversation as there aren’t any TV’s and I have never seen live music there.
Pretentious Beer Co. Next door to the Pretentious Glass Co (founded when the owner started making beer glasses to complement his favorite craft beers). Making his own beer was an obvious next step. All craft beers, all with their own glass. Often the guys are blowing glass next door and you can watch how it all happens. And you can take your beer with you to watch which is so fun.
Breweries and Distilleries in town
Knox Whiskey Works This distillery hasn’t been around too long but it is pretty popular with the locals. You can take a tour ($10 and includes a tasting flight) which I found to be really interesting. It is not often you get to hear about what it is like to start a distillery from scratch and the employees are very enthusiastic. Or you can just visit the tasting room and try a flight of their specialty cocktails.
Schulz Brau is just north of downtown ($5-10 Uber ride from Market Square)) and is a little piece of Germany in the US of A. Authentic beer, large and authentic beer garden (they even shipped the benches and tables over), and authentic bands (sometimes) make this place a favorite hangout for lots of authentic locals.
Crafty Bastard Brewery is also just north of downtown ($5-10 Uber ride from Market Square). This is a nanobrewery that has some of the most creative beers in Knoxville, think fruity or a sour stout. Small place with an industrial vibe and frequently has live music. Alliance Brewery is on Sevier Ave in south Knoxville, just over the river ($5-10 Uber ride). Another cosy place, there are usually lots of bikes parked out front, due to its proximity to the Urban Wilderness. I like the Kolsch the best and that there is usually a food truck outside.
I truly hope you enjoy my hometown. Maybe you’ll even start to wear orange and hum some Rocky Top occasionally. (Hey it could happen!) I love it and have always looked forward to returning home every time I have lived elsewhere. Knoxville has changed a lot in the past decade and there are new places springing up every week it seems. If you find somewhere fabulous that you think other tourists would enjoy too, please let me know and I will add it to the guide. And if you have a great picture, please tag us, #simplyawesometrips, and we’ll post it on our instagram page. I love seeing people finding cool things in Ktown.
The End. Happy Trails!
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