Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City

The New Knoxville: Food, Art, Music & the Great Outdoors

Knoxville in 2017 is very different than Knoxville in 2005 when I graduated from the University of Tennessee. Back then, Market Square was practically vacant; today, every storefront is brimming and every night—in summer months, at least—there seems to be a reason to pack up your lawn chair and join the masses for live music.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Knoxville Street Art and Murals

My grandparents both grew up in Knoxville, so prior to attending college there, it was already a place I visited with some frequency as far back as the 80s. And yet, it wasn’t until the past decade that I’ve felt Knoxville was a place I could live long term (no, I’m not listing my house just yet … but hey—a girl can dream?).

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Gay Street in Downtown Knoxville

So what’s just so great about Knoxville anyway, you might wonder? Well, last month, I made it to Big Orange Country twice, and I can’t wait to share with you why you should add it to your vacation list.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Ijams Nature Center

The Nature

Knoxville is a nature lover’s paradise. With urban wilderness galore—and one little ol’ national park, the Great Smoky Mountains, within a 45-minute drive—it’s no wonder that outdoors lovers flock here, particularly in the summer months. Knoxville’s centerpiece, the Tennessee River, offers ample water sports, as do the surrounding lakes, and there’s more than 50 miles of multi-use trails in the city alone.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | The Riverfront at Knoxville

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Ijams Nature Center
Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Ijams Nature Center

But one of my coolest places to go, hands down, is Ijams Nature Center. Spanning more than 300 acres and boasting 10 miles of hiking trails, this outdoors attraction is FREE (I know, right?) and epitomizes summer. We watched zip liners soar through the canopy above us, drank Yee-Haw brews in the beer garden, then cooled off in the glassy waters of Mead’s Quarry. Had this area been fully developed while I was still in college, I would have been a regular visitor, particularly in the sweaty months of summer.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Ijams Nature Center

The Music

It seems as if Knoxville rivals Nashville in terms of music offerings. My college haunts, Barley’s Taproom and Preservation Pub, are still leading the pack, but several other spots like the three-year-old Scruffy City Hall have since joined the fray. Visit Knoxville offers a free noon show daily (except for Sundays) out of its Visitors Center, and the Bijou Theatre and historic Tennessee Theatre are both stately venues to see bigger acts.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | The Tennessee Theater in Knoxville

Summer may even beat football season in terms of my preferred time to visit Knoxville, and that’s thanks to the ample musical offerings along Market Square. There’s jazz on Tuesdays, a variety show on Thursdays and a number of other events and acts cropping up throughout the warmer months.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Free Music at Market Square

The Dog Scene

Knoxville loves its canine inhabitants, and Ella (and her parents) in turn loves Knoxville! While there in early June for a wedding, we happened to overlap with a Visit Knoxville event, Bike Boat Brew & Bark, and Ella pranced around Volunteer Landing with 100 or so other dogs who came out for the spectacle.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Knoxville's Riverfront and Where to Take Your Dog

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Knoxville's Riverfront
Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Knoxville's Riverfront

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City

But even beyond special events, Knoxville could not be friendlier to pups. All the businesses downtown have water bowls and other pet amenities at the entrance of their establishments, and not a single place told us we couldn’t come in with her. After visiting cities like Denver where dogs are all but banned from being in public, Knoxville is a breath of fresh air. And you can tell its residents genuinely adore dogs, too—Ella had an extra pep in her step, as everywhere we went, people were stopping and asking to pet her, telling her she was pretty.

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Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Pet-Friendly Knoxville
Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Pet-Friendly Knoxville
Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Pet-Friendly Knoxville

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Pet-Friendly Knoxville

A car full of college boys even pulled over on the side of Gay Street to coo to SVV, “Awwww, your dog is adorable!” Knoxville, as if we didn’t already love you enough, you’ve won us over for life with your acceptance of our fur friends.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Pet-Friendly Knoxville

World’s Fair Park

Mere months before I was born, Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair in 1982. The team built a striking piece of art, the Sunsphere, that stands 266 feet tall and gives the skyline a pop of color. It still serves as the Knoxville icon today, drawing people off of I-40 to see what this glowing ball is all about. The surrounding park is still a great place to spend a couple hours or break up a long drive on a road trip, and the 360-degree view from the observation deck of the Sunsphere (open free to the public) is absolutely breathtaking.

 

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City

I previously lived just two blocks from the park, so these were my former stomping grounds, but new to the area is the Tennessean, a delightful 82-room boutique hotel that joined the lodging scene just a few months ago.

SVV and I stayed here for three nights and were in awe of the hotel’s art, which as its name implies, channels the state’s topography. And there’s no denying the location can’t be beat.
Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Knoxville's Newest Boutique Hotel, the Tennessean

Plus, in true Southern fashion, the hospitality was above and beyond. The Tennessean now ties the Oliver as my favorite place to stay in town, and the rooms are beyond gorgeous.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Rooms at the Boutique Hotel, the Tennessean

The Coffee Shops

Knoxville’s java scene has positively exploded; in my college years, I camped out at Starbucks to study, but now there’s no need with all the local cafes that have cropped up in recent years. Our first stay last month was in a loft in the Old City right above Awaken, which I visited three times in one day (that honey latte is to die for).

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Coffee Shops in the Old City

On the second visit, we camped out at Old City Java around the corner to do a little work and also headed to Honey Bee Coffee for some fuel. Of course, the most popular of all at the moment is Wild Love Bakehouse; we ventured into North Knoxville to see what all the buzz was about, and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house—and on a rainy Thursday morning at that! Knox residents love their coffee.

A Weekend Guide to Knoxville: What to Do, Where to Go, Where to Stay in Tennessee | The Best Donuts in Knoxville at Status Dough

The Top-Notch Food Landscape

A few years back, I wrote a story about Knoxville’s epicurean scene. Back then, I was impressed. Today, I’m gobsmacked. The city has come so far since the days the Bistro and the Tomato Head were the only places to eat (though both still viable contenders for best restaurant in town and totally worth checking out).

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Healthy Lunch at Sunspot on the Strip

Blackberry Farm alum and Tennessee’s only James Beard-winning chef, Joseph Lenn opened J.C. Holdway, focusing on Southern cuisine cooked over a wood-fire grill. Matt Gallaher, whose pig-loving, farm-to-table Knox Mason is one of the best eats in town, recently opened Emilia, a casual Italian restaurant on the Square. Austin celebrity chef Tim Love turned one of the saloon-style buildings in the Old City into Lonesome Dove, a Western bistro. There are so many restaurant and bar options now, you truly need a week to eat your way through Knoxville.

A Weekend Guide to Knoxville: What to Do, Where to Go, Where to Stay in Tennessee | Cocktails at Emilia on Market Square

On a sweet note, Knoxville has not one but two of what Nashville is missing, and that’s amazing artisan donut shops. So much for sticking to gluten-free; I couldn’t pass up on treats from both Status Dough and Makers. I’m hoping if I put it out there in the Universe, one of these donut shops will open a second location in Music City! If not, I’ll continue to drive to Knoxville when I need my donut fix. What’s two-and-a-half hours in the car for a cause such as this?

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | Knoxville's Best Donuts at Status Dough

The Ale Trail

Like everything else in town it seems, in the past three years, the beer scene in Knoxville has been on the rise and is straight-up killing it—so much so, that there’s now a full-blown Knoxville Ale Trail, which launched in 2016. Boasting more than a dozen stops, this comprehensive tour of the local craft beer scene is a fun way to kill a few days, and there’s even a brew bus as a transportation option. We only made it to four breweries—this time—but I fully intend to return during football season and drink my way through the rest of them.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | On the Knox Ale Trail at Schulz Brau

That Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

What I love most about Knoxville, though, is its lack of attitude. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s a college town, or maybe it’s the proximity to the Smokies and the realization that, at its core, Knoxville is very much a bohemian sort of place, full of peace-loving hippies, passionate outdoor enthusiasts and intellectual thinkers who all live in harmony.

Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City | The Downtown Farmers' Market

Whatever it is, I can’t get enough of my former town, and I’m hoping it’s now on your radar, too.

This post was in partnership with Visit KnoxvilleTN Vacation and Travel Mindset.


 

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Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City
Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City
Visit Knoxville: What to See, Eat, Do and Drink in Knoxville's Most Underrated City
COMMENTS
  • August 7, 2017
    Audrey Arthaud

    Yes, yes, and YES! I’ve been waiting for your post about Knoxville and it didn’t disappoint! I love my newly adopted city and can’t wait to share this post with friends and family to show them why, since you definitely say it better than I can!

    On a donut note, Honeybee Coffee just started making their own artisan donuts too, and they look amazing. Great coffee and donuts in one place is a win in my book!

    • August 8, 2017

      Another one coming tomorrow, Audrey! I’m so glad you love it there. It’s amazing, and it’s changed so much since I left in 2005! We did make it to Honeybee, and I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t love their donuts. But Status Dough and Makers are winners!

      • August 8, 2017
        Audrey Arthaud

        Oh, what a bummer! Makers is already a favorite donut place of mine, but I haven’t tried out Status Dough yet. I’ll have to give them a try. Hopefully Honeybee can step up their donut game to compete!

  • August 8, 2017

    I really need to meet you for a trip one day. Dogs and delicious looking food seem to follow you around! I need that in my life 😉
    Dominique recently posted..Berlin – Visiting Hohenschönhausen: A Stasi PrisonMy Profile

    • August 14, 2017

      Anytime you want! Just say the word =)

  • August 8, 2017

    Man oh man, this looks like a great getaway spot! I had no idea Knoxville had such a strong food & drink game. I should get to planning a trip!

  • August 8, 2017

    I had no idea that Knoxville was so close to great outdoor adventure and love that! Your photos always inspire me to want to buy a ticket and get to that location… as they did on this article!
    Justin Walter recently posted..4 Must-See Parks When Hiking Observation Point ZionMy Profile

    • August 14, 2017

      If you love Chattanooga, you’ll LOVE Knoxville. Similar vibe, but totally different aesthetic. Better yet: Come to TN for a few weeks next summer and I’ll show you ALL the best parts!

  • August 8, 2017

    I’m obsessed with Knoxville now. My sister in law lived there for 4 years and I’m not sure she even knew how cool it was! Will have to share with her too!
    Jade recently posted..Rock Climbing vs. Ice Climbing: How I One-Upped My Winter trip to Mammoth LakesMy Profile

    • August 14, 2017

      We should probably play tour guide and show her!

  • August 9, 2017

    OMG! Beautiful views!

    • August 14, 2017

      Prettiest city in Tennessee, I think 😉

  • August 9, 2017

    Pictures describe the beauty of this wonderful place, from coffee shop to the nature, everything just seem perfect. Credit also belongs to you for capturing such wonderful moments of your outdoor experience. Bravo!

    • August 14, 2017

      Thanks, Arun! It really is a wonderfully diverse city.

  • August 9, 2017
    Pam

    Haven’t been to Knoxville for awhile. Thanks for the update. Reading your post makes me want to go….now! Thanks for sharing.

    • August 14, 2017

      I bet you’ll find it a very different city than when you last visited, Pam!

  • August 11, 2017

    The last time I was in Knoxville I was 7. I’m now 47 so clearly I’ve missed a lot and need to get myself back there STAT!

    • August 14, 2017

      It’s been just a couple years, and a wee bit has changed 😉 Girl, you need to put some Tennessee travel on your calendar!

  • August 12, 2017

    Knoxville sounds like my type of place if it’s a university town, bohemian, outdoorsy and open to intellectuals.

    Yeeeeees! Sign me up!
    Victoria @The British Berliner recently posted..How I met the future king of England – Prince William, Kate & the Many-Faced God!My Profile

    • August 14, 2017

      I feel like I know you (I mean, I do kinda, right?) and I feel like you would DEFINITELY dig it =)

  • August 12, 2017

    These photographs made me to smitten with Knoxville, It seems that you had a good time there. Keep enjoying the life in the way you are doing.

  • August 14, 2017

    Good day,

    Thank you so much for entertainment you provided with this picture article. This looks like a heaven for dog lovers as well as food lovers not leaving down those who love water adventure sports. Photos are really very beautiful.

    Regards.
    Kumar Rahul recently posted..Top Hot Air Balloon Destination in IndiaMy Profile

  • August 19, 2017

    I loved Chattanooga when I was there last year and get the feeling that Knoxville is similar. Definitely have to add Knoxville to the list!
    Christian @ Say Hello To America recently posted..The Art of the Brick: A Must-See Exhibit for LEGO LoversMy Profile

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