Knoxville today 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, there seems to be a reason to pack up your lawn chair and join the masses for live music. In fact, Knoxville outdoors may be the most attractive part of the city for travelers, particularly in the warmer months.
Mural by Greetings Tour. Post last updated in May 2023.
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 the outdoors in Knoxville anyway, you might wonder? Here are some of the many reasons you’ll want to add this Tennessee city to your travel list.
How to find nature in Knoxville
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.
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 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.
If you’re interested in going deeper into the outdoors of Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains are just 45 minutes down the road, and you’ll find many rafting and float tours there.
Where to see live music in Knoxville
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.
How to take your dog to Knoxville
Knoxville loves its canine inhabitants, and Ella (and her parents) in turn loves Knoxville! While there for a summer wedding, we happened to overlap with the annual Bike Boat Brew & Bark event, 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 more pet friendly. Many of 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. 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.
How to see Knoxville’s 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.
With public art galore, the surrounding park is 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 is a fun way to see Knoxville from a different angle.
Knoxville has a lot of great hotels, and one of my absolute favorites is the Tennessean, a delightful 82-room boutique hotel that lives directly across from the Sunsphere at the entrance to World’s Fair Park. It’s a great base for exploring the Knoxville outdoors, Downtown Knoxville and the surrounding neighborhoods like Happy Holler.
Plus, in true Southern fashion, the hospitality at the Tennessean is above and beyond. The Tennessean now ties the Oliver as my favorite place to stay in Knoxville, and the rooms—which channel the state’s rivers and topography—are beyond gorgeous.
Check rates on the Tennessean Hotel here.
Get your caffeine fix via these coffee shops in Knoxville
Knoxville’s java scene is lit; 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 is indisputably 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 James Beard-winning chef, Joseph Lenn is the mastermind behind J.C. Holdway, focusing on Southern cuisine cooked over a wood-fire grill, while Matt Gallaher brings a dash of authentic Italian food to Market Square via Emilia. 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 bars in Knoxville now, you truly need a week to eat your way through the city.
On a sweet note, Knoxville has much of what Nashville is missing by way of artisan donut shops and bakeries. So much for sticking to gluten-free; I couldn’t pass up on treats from both Status Dough and Potchke.
Try the local water via the Knoxville 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 has a digital passport for those looking to check them all off. 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 safe transportation option.
Why you should visit Knoxville
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 the Knoxville outdoors—and art, restaurants, bars, etc.—are on your radar, too.