Take a scenic drive down through the mountains, Blue Ridge to the east and the Great Smokies to the west, to reach Johnson City of East Tennessee. Johnson City oozes Southern charm and has the feel of a city much bigger than its size. If your visit is anything like mine, you will feel a connection right away. Johnson City has so much history (railroad, Civil War, and Revolutionary War) but doesn’t get lost in the past. It’s growing by leaps and bounds and one of the Tri-Cities (along with Bristol and Kingsport). Here is how to spend a perfect day in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Note: Much of my trip was hosted by Visit Johnson City. All opinions are my own.
Things To Do In Johnson City
Johnson City offers a city of around 66,000 people that is easy to drive and navigate, with a walkable downtown, excellent restaurants, and picturesque scenery. For your day here, consider walking a park, having tasty meals, shopping, sipping a craft cocktail or great beer, seeing eye-catching murals, visiting a museum, watching the sun set from Tannery Knobs, and finally, indulging in a relaxing body treatment.
Indulge In A Spa Treatment
The Carnegie Hotel is the premier Johnson City luxury hotel and houses a popular restaurant (Wellington’s) and the Austin Springs Spa and Salon. After reading about the spa and loving the products they used, I knew I had to go. My aesthetician was skilled and friendly and worked magic on my skin. I treated myself to an anti-aging facial where I was energized and saw a fine line reduction instantly. The Austin Springs Spa has a lovely relaxation room and sauna to enjoy before or after your treatment. You can also book a signature spa package and have a healthy spa lunch while you are there.
Pro Tip: Book in advance. The locals love the Austin Springs Spa, too, and it fills up quickly.
Explore Founder’s Park
Recently built as a stormwater retention project, Founder’s Park’s Sculpture Walk is a beautiful place to get outdoors and move. Parking is accessible at the five-acre water greenway, and walking the paved loop allows for exercise and pretty scenery. Along your walk, you’ll see a sculpture garden with stunning metal, steel, and wood creations to admire and photograph, along with the rushing water flowing in the midst.
Have A Prohibition Style Cocktail
The Windsor Speakeasy provides Johnson City’s only speakeasy establishment, serving creative craft cocktails with ingredients I was mostly unfamiliar with. I had the Arabian Nights, with Galliano, raspberry liqueur, and infused cherry vodka (plus several other things), and boy, was it fantastic. The smooth cocktail was made for great pictures, too, with the edible shimmer adding a glittery effect. Windsor’s bartender was friendly and good at her job; this is a cool place to visit.
See Gray Fossil Site
You are in for a unique offering at the Gray Fossil Site, a spectacular live dig site that has uncovered some of the most impressive fossils of our time. The backyard dig site is a full-time job for East Tennessee State University (ETSU) and paleontologists. At the same time, inside the Hands On! Discovery Center, visitors of all ages are welcome to experience learning about the Pliocene era.
An enclosure connects the buildings, but one is primarily Hands On! Discovery, and the other, ongoing research into the five million years ago treasure trove. So far, the unearthed artifacts have included a mastodon, rhino (yes, in the U.S.A.), tapir, saber-toothed cat, and short-faced bear. It’s pretty fascinating!
Drink Great Beer
Johnson City is home to Yee-Haw Brewing Co., one of Tennessee’s most popular and well-known breweries. Come to the fun tasting room to sample several of Yee-Haw’s great brews while enjoying the big-screen TV events, special programming, the cool outdoor fire pit, or games. Dunkel, their award-winning beer, and the Winter Porter were my favorites. You can even bring in food from White Duck Taco Shop next door, where the thai peanut chicken tacos and green chile black beans are a must. Yee-Haw is a family-friendly brewery.
Go Cycling Or Hiking
Thrillseekers and avid cyclists will enjoy Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like this in the country. Three skill levels of steep paths and rocks, 40 miles in total, are cut into trails for off-road bikers and hikers, similar to ski slopes. There is also a paved pump track, something I’d never even heard of, much less seen. Helmets are required.
Regardless of if you bike or not, the 360-degree views of Johnson City from this point are spectacular and make for great photo-ops. There are benches to enjoy sitting to absorb the scenery, too.
Pro Tip: For an excellent biking or hiking trail, try the 10 miles on what was once the tracks for the Tweetsie Railroad.
Explore Downtown And Murals
If you are familiar with the song “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show (or remade by Darius Rucker), you know that Johnson City is mentioned in the lyrics. I’ll admit that was one of the reasons I had wanted to see it for so long. A great downtown mural pays homage to that song, so a selfie was in order. There are many vibrant contemporary murals around Johnson City, and if you love free public art, as I do, you may want to seek out the Go All Out, Wildabout, and We’ll Always Be Together murals.
Also downtown are many local boutiques with really great selections. Johnson City has a noteworthy shopping scene, from upscale home goods and entertaining accessories to women’s fashion, lovely baby gifts, and sensational accent pieces. Reclaimed Inspired Goods was my fave.
Restaurants In Johnson City
I should never have doubted how good the food would be in Johnson City, seeing that it is a Southern destination. I was really impressed with these restaurants that wooed me with their food, ambiance, prices, and service.
Java Juice House
Get your coffee or tea fix at Java Juice House, or order that juice or smoothie and start a detox or cleanse you’ve always thought about. The acai bowls are out-of-this-world if you are hungry, but I preferred the goat cheese toast with cucumber, tomato, and olive oil. I also give the cold brew a big thumbs up.
Pal’s Sudden Service
When I drove into Johnson City, the first thing that caught up eye was a pale blue fast food joint with an enormous hot dog, hamburger, soda, and fries jutting out of it. I quickly learned that Pal’s Sudden Service is one of the area’s iconic eateries, with pronto speedy service, face-to-face ordering and pick-up, and tasty fast food at low prices. The biscuits are delicious, but the cheddar rounds are the most raved about.
A big surprise in Johnson City is that an authentic German eatery is one of their most popular restaurants. Freiburg’s looks like a typical American-style space, but the food is anything but. I had the smoked bratwurst with red cabbage and pan-fried potatoes with onions. They were excellent, especially paired with the side of beer cheese I used for the brats. Freiburg’s food, service, and prices were all to be commended.
An even bigger surprise to me was that Johnson City has one of the best Indian restaurants I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to nearly 100 around the states and abroad. Sahib has a (Monday-Friday) lunch buffet (from 11 AM to 3 PM) that is sensational … and around $10. I’m all about chicken tikka masala, and that, plus about 20 other choices, were available on the buffet.
Gourmet And Company
Gourmet and Company is an upscale dining spot for lunch or dinner with a fantastic Southern-inspired menu. You can’t go wrong with the Appalachian Cobb salad with Benton’s bacon, buttermilk blue cheese, avocado, and pickled eggs, but the tuna melt is the best I’ve ever had. Don’t forget Gourmet and Company’s signature apricot tea, available in sweet or unsweet, and something nearly everyone orders — it is that good.
One of Johnson City’s most stylish eateries is Label Restaurant, with appealing appetizers, fresh salads, and great selections of entrees and sandwiches. The Drunken Goat Burger with bourbon blackberry jam and bacon is awesome, as are the hand-cut garlic fries. Save room for a slice of Kentucky bourbon pecan pie.
The bakery famously featured on the Food Network, Cakebuds, is a do-not-miss in Johnson City. This small space serves up big flavors and beautiful creations, including cakes, pies, cupcakes, and cake pops. You’ll even find an excellent selection of macarons made at this local bakeshop.
If You Make It An Overnight
The beautiful, AAA Four-Diamond-rated Carnegie Hotel, beaming with charm, is your premier accommodations in Johnson City. This new but old-looking hotel sits adjacent to the ETSU campus, offers complimentary parking and Wi-Fi, and has a gorgeous lobby and common areas. Carnegie Hotel’s staff was friendly and helpful, while the rooms were spacious, took care of all my needs, and had excellent mattresses and linens on the beautiful sleigh bed. My room had a desk, a sitting area with a couch, and a marble bathroom with a deep soaking tub and separate shower.