Knoxville is a dynamic city with loads to brag about, including an energetic downtown, burgeoning arts district, fabulous historic architecture, and natural beauty all around. Tennessee’s third-largest city, after Nashville and Memphis, rolls out the welcome mat with urban amenities and a gracious ambiance.
A short orientation: Founded in 1786, Knoxville was the first capital of Tennessee. After the Civil War, the city rose and fell as a manufacturing and textiles center. The 1982 World’s Fair, which Knoxville hosted, injected new vigor into the city and set into motion a new era of revitalization that continues today. Arts and culture are at the center of it all!
Knoxville is located within the Tennessee River Valley in East Tennessee 180 miles east of Nashville and 250 miles south of Cincinnati. The city is served by McGhee Tyson Airport 12 miles south in Alcoa, Tennessee. The Gatlinburg entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is about 40 miles southeast.
Note: My visit was hosted by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development and Visit Knoxville, but all opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own.
Here are my fantastic experiences to put on your next itinerary:
1. World’s Fair Park And Sunsphere
As a welcome for global visitors to the 1982 World’s Fair, Knoxville constructed a 15-acre fairgrounds and exhibition center on the site of a former rail yard. The grounds were later turned into the World’s Fair Park, a public greenspace with a manicured festival lawn, small lake, landscaped walkways, water features, children’s playground, and veterans’ memorial.
Two signature structures that were built for the fair remain and both are popular — highly photogenic — attractions.
Referencing the fair’s theme, “Energy Turns The World,” the Sunsphere is a 266-foot structural tower crowned by a ginormous orb of golden glass that rises above the city. It’s the city’s most recognizable and iconic landmark, similar to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was built for the 1889 World’s Fair. Take a ride to the observation tower, and you’ll be rewarded with dramatic 360-degree views. On a clear day, you can see the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance.
Only slightly secondary to the Sunsphere is the Tennessee Amphitheater, a 1,400-seat, covered performance venue where concerts of all genres are on the agenda.
2. The Tennessean Hotel
Knoxville’s first luxury hotel, The Tennessean Hotel, opened in 2017 adjacent to the Sunsphere tower and World’s Fair Park.
Transformed from a former vacant office building, the boutique hotel exudes a sophisticated classical vibe. Furnishings of marble, brass, velvet, and modern art are interspersed with references to the mighty Tennessee River, which runs through the city. Among the amenities are a fitness center, multi-lingual staff, 24-hour concierge, and parking valet. Breakfast, afternoon tea, and dinner are served in the quiet elegance of The Drawing Room restaurant. Dog beds are provided on request, so feel free to bring Ruff or Max.
A subtle water theme flows throughout the hotel’s décor. Each floor is named after a Tennessee waterway, such as the Holston and Ocoee Rivers, as explained on small brass signs near elevators.
Awash in serene tans and blues, the 82 guest rooms are appointed with wave-patterned carpet and a framed close-up map of somewhere in Tennessee mounted above the headboard. The oversized bath is generously supplied with Molton Brown toiletries. At night, you’ll find a chocolate wafer placed on your pillow to wish you sweet dreams!
Pro Tip: Book well in advance if you want to stay during a University of Tennessee football weekend. Rooms fill up quickly!
3. WDVX Blue Plate Special Radio Show
Grab a seat around lunch time at the Visit Knoxville Visitors Center, where the main course is the “WDVX Blue Plate Special.” The live performance radio show specializes in Americana roots music, including blues, bluegrass, country, mountain, rockabilly, folk, gospel, and whatever other genre inspires the day. WDVX 89.9 FM is an independent public radio station that celebrates the musical culture of East Tennessee and beyond.
Hosting the Blue Plate Special is WDVX DJ Red Hickey, and the performers are a rotating roster of both well-known and up-and-coming musicians from the region. They play, sing, and chat from a raised corner stage between two walls of decorative blue plates imprinted with photographs of past performers. It’s the Blue Plate Special Wall of Fame. On the day I attended, singer-songwriter Anya Hinkle of Asheville, North Carolina, was the featured performer.
The free hour-long show starts at noon several days a week. Check the Blue Plate Special calendar to see what’s coming up.
4. Knoxville Museum Of Art
Always free to tour, the Knoxville Museum of Art focuses on the visual culture of the southern Appalachians from the mid-19th century to the present.
The first thing you’ll notice is the four-story circa 1990 building, a modernist stone structure of twin square-ish modules separated by a glass-paneled front entrance. The museum is clad in pink Tennessee marble, actually a type of limestone that blushes in the rain. The back of the museum, which is mostly glass, overlooks the city.
The museum’s permanent exhibitions include galleries dedicated to the art and artists of East Tennessee, modern and contemporary works, miniature historic interiors, glass, and an outdoor sculpture garden.
Notable artists whose work is found in the collections are Beauford Delaney, a mentee of writer and activist James Baldwin; and Charles Krutch, known for his paintings of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Krutch Park, which you’ll read about in another section, was named for him.)
The most dramatic attraction is a massive, 105-foot-long installation by Knoxville artist Richard Jolley. Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity is made up of thousands of blown glass birds, orbs, flowers, leaves, and other elements connected by tons of welded metal supports.
5. The Old City Neighborhood
Quirky and edgy, and teeming with entrepreneurial spirit, the Old City offers an alternative downtown experience. A former industrial and warehouse district dating to the 1880s, the historic neighborhood has undergone massive reinvention and restoration in recent decades. The streets are alive with trendy boutiques, eateries, coffee shops, galleries, nightlife, mural art, and upscale condominiums.
A few of my favorite stops include Honeymouth, a female-owned and -run emporium of stylish leather goods handmade from vegetable-tanned leathers. Watch the artisans ply their craft in the workshop at the back of the store. Rala, which stands for Regional And Local Artisans, is an emporium of handmade goods and gifts such as original art and prints, ceramics, jewelry, greeting cards, and more. Pretentious Glass Company is a glass-blowing studio and retail shop purveying unusually-shaped beer, wine, and cocktail glassware crafted on-site. Relax with a brew from the Pretentious Beer Company next door.
6. Market Square
At the heart of downtown Knoxville is Market Square, a hub of conviviality since the mid-1800s. It’s a tree-lined pedestrian mall, two-block square, and closed to vehicular traffic, and one of the city’s most popular spots for dining, imbibing, and shopping. The square, flanked by restored commercial buildings more than a century old, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A dozen or so local restaurants, with menus ranging from sushi to southern cuisine, await your presence. Most have canopied outdoor seating, which is perfect for people watching.
Market Square also is an outdoor venue for seasonal events, including art shows, musical concerts, movies, Shakespearean plays, and ice skating. A twice-weekly farmers market offers an abundance of regional produce and artisanal wares May through November.
Pause for a moment on the Union Avenue side of the square to admire the Woman Suffrage Memorial, a statue of three prominent female leaders in the suffrage movement. Tennessee was the final state in 1920 to ratify the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
7. Self-Guided Knoxville Mural Trail
As you meander the streets of Knoxville, you’ll notice myriad painted and photographic murals emblazoned on alleyways, staircases, and building exteriors. The murals, two dozen or so, have been made by local and visiting artists to depict iconic people, places, and events unique to Tennessee and Knoxville history. Among them are the arrivals of the railroad, music, Dolly Parton, and the Sunsphere.
Pro Tip: Download the free Visit Knoxville app on your Android or Apple phone. Scroll down to “Tours” and then “Knoxville Murals.” You’ll find mural images, descriptions, a map, and directions — you can guide yourself! Keep the app handy. You’ll also find information about other guided and self-guided tours, area attractions, free activities, lodging, and much more.
8. Charles Krutch Park
Named for a regional painter known for his ethereal scenes of the Great Smoky Mountains, Charles Krutch Park is a serene urban oasis in the heart of downtown. (Krutch’s work is on display at the Knoxville Museum of Art.)
A winding paved pathway leads you through lush gardens along a gentle stream to a small pond and cascading waterfall. The 1.16-acre park is enriched with eye-catching and thought-provoking sculptures and art works that rotate annually. They are installed as part of the Dogwood Arts “Art in Public Spaces Sculpture” program to bring character and beauty to outdoor spaces. Benches and picnic tables are plentiful for your relaxation and thoughtful contemplation.
Pro Tip: While you’re at the Visit Knoxville Visitors Center, shop for great local gifts. KnoxRocks t-shirts, food seasonings, books, pantry goods, and locally-made crafts are all available.
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