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