All your friends may be planning a trip to Nashville this summer, but if you are visiting Tennessee, you shouldn’t leave without spending time in Knoxville. Cozied up next to the Tennessee River, Knoxville has everything you could want from a southern vacation: delicious food, live music, outdoor attractions, and the friendliest locals you will ever meet. Tell someone that it is your first time visiting the city and you’ll have five new friends faster than you can order a glass of sweet tea. So how are you getting there? You can fly directly into Knoxville or it’s a three-hour drive east from Nashville.
From the miles of paved greenway for bikers to the Italian food that will have you reminiscing of Rome, this city offers a little something for everyone. While visiting, I consulted with the ultimate Tennessee guide (Knoxville locals) and compiled their favorite things to truly experience the city. Read on for their suggestions!
The best way to experience Knoxville is to get outdoors…
Ijams Nature Center: Rope courses, hiking, zip lining, biking trails, paddle boarding, you name it! It’s the ultimate stop for experiencing the beautiful outdoors and getting your adventure fix in Knoxville.
Cade’s Cove: One of the most popular and scenic spots in the Smokey Mountains. If you go early enough or late in the day, you will probably see a black bear.
3 Rivers Rambler Train: You won’t find any locals on this train, but they all agree it’s a fun way to see the city.
Urban Wilderness: The Appalachian Mountain Bike Club has mapped out over 68 miles of trails. And if you don’t bike, you can still use the trails for jogging or walking.
Source: Outdoor Knoxville
House Mountain Natural Area: See the most spectacular views from this 2,100 ft. prominence. The West End Overlook presents views of the Cumberland Mountains to the north, the Smoky Mountains to the south, and a glimpse of downtown Knoxville on the horizon. The views from the East End Overlook feature the Clinch Mountain range, which runs northeast all the way into Southwest Virginia.
Sequoyah Hills (aka “The Boulevard”): Stroll down this beautiful road and take in the impressive historic homes. Parks are sprinkled along the route, making it an ideal outing for families with small children or a runner who is more interested in the view than time.
Paved Greenways: There are over 86 miles of paved greenway in this bike-friendly city. Take a walk or rent a bike and get a glimpse of what the locals enjoy every day.
…and you must get on the water.
Source: Corsa Convention
Tennessee Riverboat Company: While you won’t meet any locals riding this paddleboat, they all agree that taking a ride is the best way to see the city.
Tailgate during football season: Neyland Stadium is one of the only ones in the country practically on the water. This means that the tailgating extends past the parking lot and onto the river. You might not be able to make it onto one of the famous “Tennessee Navy” boats, but you can watch the spectacle from the shoreline.
White Water Rafting in the Smokies: Need we say more? This family-owned business will guide you through the most adventurous afternoon you could have in Knoxville.
Try to plan your visit around one of the local festivals.
Source: Roots Rated
When I stopped in Knoxville, I narrowly missed the Biscuit Festival. I was heartbroken to say the least. But don’t worry! I plan on coming back for it as well as the biennial Sunflower Festival. Check the town calendar when planning your stay. Apart from food-based festivals, you can choose from many genres including art, music, history, and outdoor recreation. And if you have a chance to visit during football season, do it! Snag a couple seats and throw on all the orange apparel you own. You’re in for a day-long event that can only be described as true southern football.
Stop in the local shops.
Wander down Gay St. to enjoy the historic architecture and visit the local shops. The most well-known spot is the Mast General Store for any souvenir or missing suitcase item you can imagine. If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll be especially fond of their barrels overflowing with all the candy you can imagine. But beware, it’s weighed by the pound! When you’ve finished walking Gay St., head to Market Square, which is full of local and chain stores (like Urban Outfitters) to shop. If you still want to pick up a few souvenirs stop at Rala, a small shop featuring local artists with affordable prints, t-shirts, and postcards.
Be baffled and stuffed by the local food scene.
Oli Bea: A neighborhood breakfast spot with locally sourced ingredients and comfort breakfast.
KBrew: A neighborhood coffee shop with delicious pastries and comfortable outdoor seating. Ask for the barista’s recommendation—you won’t be disappointed.
Old City Java: Tucked into downtown, this coffee shop is a dream for anyone looking for a quiet stop to work. Grab an espresso and a croissant and read the paper or work on your computer.
Sunspot: Their motto says it all: “where tie-dyes and neckties unite.” Go for weekend brunch and convince someone brave in your group to order the Rattlesnake pasta.
Three Rivers Market: Ask anyone in Knoxville where their must-see lunch spot is and they will all tell you: Three Rivers Market.
Tomato Head: A great lunch spot with fresh made food and plenty of options for vegans.
Cafe 4: This is where you stop for elevated southern comfort. We’re talking fried green tomatoes, lobster mac n cheese, pork-chops, and sangria.
Barley’s: A pizza place with plenty of options and voted the best beer selection in Knoxville. There are plenty of side dishes to order like fried green tomatoes, buffalo fingers, or chili cheese fries.
Source: Emily Denise
The Oliver Royale: Locals rave about this spot and for good reason. Even though you might want to try their version of southern food, order the pesto fettuccine and you will never want to leave the city. Finish with the gelato and you’ll be telling the waiter he’s your soulmate.
Emilia: A newly opened Italian restaurant with the ambiance of Rome and a southern approach to Italian fare.
Knox Mason: This is where you’ll get your southern fix at night. Order a cocktail, start with the deviled eggs, and make sure you add a side of braised collard greens to your meal. You won’t be disappointed.
Ye Old Steak House: A seemingly hole-in-the-wall steakhouse, this establishment is rooted in local history. Order the prime rib (for you and at least another person) and don’t forget to BYOB.
Calhouns on The River: Described as the place to get the “Knoxville feel.” The main attraction is the view, but don’t leave without trying the BBQ.
Spend a night enjoying live music.
Market Square: This is the area you want to stay in, concert or not. It houses some of the best restaurants, and has a different activity each day in the square. (Tuesday nights are jazz, Wednesday and Saturday hold the local farmer’s market, and Thursday night is reserved for variety music.)
Tennessee Theatre: If you can attend a concert in the Tennessee Theatre, by all means do it. Even if you don’t particularly like the band, the building alone is beautiful and worth the cost of admission.
Pilot Light: Tennessee may be known for its country music, but boasts many other talents and genres too. Stop by Pilot Light to see some local grunge and rock bands.
Stop in for a drink and meet the locals.
Source: Luxe Crush
I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned the warm hospitality of the locals. Regardless of whom I was speaking to, at the end of our conversation they would always invite me out for a drink at the end of the night. Their favorite spots? Suttree’s for a beer with friends, Preservation Pub for music and drinks, Knoxville Whiskey Works to support the local Tennessee whiskey movement, and Gatlinburg wineries and moonshine for a truly unique experience. I mean, what’s more southern than moonshine?
Retire for the night with one-of-a-kind Tennessee hospitality.
Source: Sunny Sundays
There are plenty of places to stay in downtown Knoxville, but the Oliver Hotel is by far the best. Located in Market Square, this eclectic stop is within walking distance to the best restaurants and nightlife. The hotel itself has two restaurants and a hidden speakeasy bar. I won’t give you any clues, but keep your eye out for the library. If you want to experience the biking culture of Knoxville but don’t have wheels, you can easily rent one from the front desk.