Southern hospitality, more than 225 years of history, a thriving downtown and a thousand-acre outdoor playground help make Knoxville, Tennessee one of those cities you’ll want to visit again and again. This city of nearly 200,000 sits along the Tennessee River in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains. Knoxville is home to the University of Tennessee and in 1982, hosted a World’s Fair. Here are five great ways to enjoy all that Knoxville has to offer.
Start at the Sunsphere
When the city was chosen to host a World’s Fair, a writer for one the nation’s largest newspapers called Knoxville, a “scruffy little city.” Instead of taking that as an insult, the people of Knoxville have embraced the moniker and helped prove that writer wrong.
While it’s not the tallest structure in the city, it’s hard to imagine Knoxville without the Sunsphere. The 266 foot high tower with its shiny golden sphere, embodied the “Energy Turns the World” theme of the 1982 World’s Fair.
Today, the free trips to the Observation Deck provide you with a 360 degree view of the city, the University of Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains. The Sunsphere is at the center of World’s Fair Park, a sprawling array of green space, the Tennessee Amphitheater (also built for the Fair), fountains, and a statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff, a Russian composer who gave his last concert in Knoxville in 1943. The Knoxville Museum of Art and the Knoxville Convention Center are connected to World’s Fair Park and the world’s largest Rubik’s Cube (a World’s Fair leftover) is in a nearby hotel lobby.
Market Square/Gay Street/The Old City
With its historic theaters, dozens of restaurants, unique shops and rich history, Downtown Knoxville should be on everyone’s list when visiting Knoxville. Market Square is a good place to start. This public square dates back to before the Civil War. Today, it’s still home to a thriving seasonal farmer’s market, great local restaurants, concerts and annual productions of Shakespeare on the Square.
From Market Square find your way through Krutch Park, taking in the unique public art displays, water features and sculptures and then take in all that Gay Street has to offer. This is the main thoroughfare through Downtown. The Tennessee Theater, the region’s grand entertainment palace has been around for nearly a hundred years. Catch a Broadway play, a movie or music from the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ.
The historic Bijou Theater is about a block away. This smaller venue with its old-fashioned box seats and balcony provides a more intimate setting for a performance, but one equally steeped in history. And if you’re looking for a state-of-the-art movie experience, check out the Regal Riviera Theater for whatever films are tops at the Box Office. (Regal Cinemas is a worldwide theater chain headquartered in Knoxville).
Just a few blocks away from Gay Street and Market Square is the Old City. Brick streets, unique architecture and late 19th Century charm make this a great place to grab a cup of coffee in the morning and come back at night for cocktails and dinner.
The Urban Wilderness
Back in the 19th Century Knoxville had the nickname “The Marble City.” Two quarries on the other side of the river from Downtown churned out top quality marble used in prominent local buildings as well as the J.P. Morgan Library in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Today those two quarries and the area surrounding them are part of a thousand-acre outdoor playground known as the Urban Wilderness. Take a kayak or paddleboard out onto the waters of Mead’s Quarry or hike back to check out the “Keyhole” an opening into the Ross Quarry where stark reminders of the city’s marble past surround you.
Bike and hiking trails, a nature center and a unique boardwalk along the Tennessee river help round out the fun you’ll find in the Urban Wilderness.
UT Football & The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame
There aren’t many places where you’ll find a 30 foot, 10-ton basketball that’s part of the city skyline. Knoxville is home to the six-time national championship Lady Vols of the University of Tennessee. That notoriety helped the city land the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame where you’ll find that giant basketball. Knoxville is a college sports town and while basketball is big, it’s football that’s the main attraction.
If you are here in the fall and you can score a ticket, there’s nothing like taking in a Tennessee Vols game at Neyland Stadium. The structure dominates the landscape along the Tennessee River and as the second largest college football stadium in the country, it’s something difficult to ignore.
Dogwood Trails and Beyond Knoxville
Spring time in Knoxville is magical as the Dogwood trees come into full bloom. In fact, the Dogwoods are such an important part of the city’s persona, there is a whole festival tied to them. The Dogwood Arts Festival in April is part art, part music and a whole lot of Dogwood Blooms as thousands of people head out for a drive on one of the city’s many Dogwood Trails.
Knoxville’s natural beauty extends well beyond the city limits and can be enjoyed all year round. There are more than half a dozen lakes, 5 National Parks and some of the best state parks all within a two-hour drive.
You can get to Knoxville in a day from most major cities in the Eastern U.S. and the city has a major airport that’s just 20 minutes from downtown. So come for a visit, enjoy exploring and be sure and cheer “Go Vols!”
About the author
My name is Clayton Hensley (a.k.a. the knoxdaytripper). I am an East Tennessee native who has always loved to travel. My wife and I have lived in Clinton, TN for more than 20-years and we have two kids, who like to travel with us (most of the time)! Follow my blog and on all of the socials @knoxdaytripper!