There’s no denying a weekend in Knoxville will give you a crash course into the new and progressive South, one rife in makers and full of entrepreneurial dreams realized. Knoxville is extremely easy to get around, it’s mostly devoid of traffic beyond standard rush hour, it’s affordable and—best of all—it’s family-friendly, pet-friendly and all about the outdoors. What’s not to love?
Here’s why a weekend in Knoxville is the perfect vacation this spring or summer, whether you’re traveling with kids, a partner, your parents or flying solo.
This post was last updated in May 2023.
Day 1 of your weekend in Knoxville
From our home, it’s under three hours to downtown Knoxville, so we typically leave after an early breakfast and arrive at lunchtime. And there’s always one place I insist on making my first stop: Sunspot. Sunspot occupies much fancier digs across the street from the original location I frequented in college, but it boasts the same healthy fare I came to know and love. There are plenty of options for vegetarians and also a hearty beer selection of both local and regional brews.
The day was sunny and hot so after lunch, we went to the shadiest area I know and drove out to Ijams Nature Center, which has gotten a complete makeover in the decade and change since I lived in Knoxville. Though it’s been around a century, Ijams was not quite the hopping spot in the early 2000s that it is now, thanks in part to the transformation of a pair of quarries and the addition of more family-friendly draws like the treetop adventures at Navitat.
Best of all, this watering hole, woodland forest and botanical garden is completely free of charge, though you’ll need to purchase tickets should you decide to opt into any of the canopy activities such as ziplining.
Before dinner, we made our way to World’s Fair Park to check into the Tennessean Hotel, which boasts 82 rooms in the space adjacent to the former Holiday Inn, now a luxury Marriott property. The rooms are airy and gorgeous with some stunning works of art, and we had a view of the park below us. We were also just a five-minute walk from Market Square, so we left our car valeted at the hotel for much of the week and explored Knoxville by foot.
Dinnertime was drawing near, and there is always a wait at Stock & Barrel. Know that going in—and that the restaurant doesn’t accept reservations—and arrive an hour (or more) before you’re ready for dinner, put your name on the list, then venture elsewhere until you receive a text that your table is ready. On this visit, we headed across the square to Emilia, Matt Gallaher’s concept that focuses on contemporary Italian from the Emilia Romanga region, and ordered a round of drinks and a round of appetizers while we waited for our call from Stock & Barrel.
When our table was finally ready, we settled in and ordered a pair of burgers and a few bourbon cocktails; not only does the restaurant do food well, but the bourbon selection is also mighty impressive. Just don’t forget to save room for a shake, which the server will give you in a to-go container upon request (I always opt for Nutella).
Summertime in Knoxville is the best time—OK, it doesn’t quite rival football season, but it’s a close second—and there’s always something going on in Downtown Knoxville and around Market Square. On Tuesday nights, that’s jazz, on Thursdays it’s variety. On the first Friday of every month, it’s First Friday. There are also many special performances, movie nights, and festivals like Big Ears in March and Dogwood in April.
The Pine Box Boys were playing at Preservation Pub that night, so we popped on in after the jazz had subsided. Not only has Pres Pub expanded in the (ahem) decades since I left, but its rooftop is one of the most charming little nooks in all of downtown. Bonus: It was a perfectly balmy summer evening, devoid of humidity, a rarity for this time of year.
Day 2 of your weekend in Knoxville
The goal of our second day in Knoxville was to rise early for yoga, but I’m not much of an early bird—especially when an hour ahead of my normal time zone. In reality, we woke just before 8am and took our laptops to Honeybee for a couple of lattes alfresco while we knocked out some work.
When our stomachs began to rumble, we headed to brunch at Olibea mid-morning, which has long been a favorite and now has an even larger location than its original to accommodate more brunch lovers. My order recommendation? Ask for the special of the day, no matter what it is—you won’t be disappointed.
My absolute favorite thing to do on weekends in Knoxville is go to the Market Square Farmers’ Market, which takes place every Wednesday and Saturday. There are vendors and food trucks galore, and the place is hopping with people skipping out of work to peruse the stalls or grab a bite to eat.
From the square, Gay Street is a stone’s throw away, as is the Knoxville Visitors Center. Why would you want to go there, you might ask? Well, other than to pick up maps, brochures and some cool uniquely Knoxville swag, the visitors center also hosts the daily Blue Plate Special, a live performance radio show that takes place every day but Sunday.
As I was leaving, out of the corner of my eye I saw a steady stream of bodies entering a storefront just across the street and found myself in Cruze Dairy Farm, the insanely popular red-and-white-checked dairy brand that now has multiple ice cream parlor locations across the area. Fun fact: The owner’s husband and I were good friends in high school!
It’s just a few minutes downhill to the Old City, where SVV and I found ourselves in the Pretentious Beer & Glassware Co. store to pick up some hand-blown barware. This artsy shop now has a brewery component, too, we stayed awhile and drank a flight.
You can also find kombucha, handmade sodas and seltzers, and beers from other craft breweries served from (what else?) but hand-blown glass taps.
Since we’d already started our beer exploration, we might as well keep going! The Old City is a 15-minute walk to Last Days of Autumn, brainchild of a self-taught husband-and-wife team of homebrewers-turned-pros, where we met up with my friend Hannah for salted caramel porters.
Hannah took us for dinner at one of her mainstays, J.C. Holdway, helmed by Tennessee’s first James Beard-winning chef, Joseph Lenn, a Blackberry Farm alum. Focusing on small, Southern-inspired, sharable plates in a casual atmosphere (the restaurant occupies a former photography studio), it was the perfect spot to dine with friends.
Day 3 of your weekend in Knoxville
We woke up to a bit of drizzle, so our SUP adventure was out. We were bummed as we love any excuse to get out on the water for a paddle, but it’s wet in the South in general, so always plan for a rain day. Instead, we did what we do best in times of rain—we shopped and we brewery-hopped!
But first, our morning began by venturing to north Knoxville to see what all the fuss was about with Wild Love Bakehouse, beloved local institution which AFAR magazine dubbed “the best bakery in America.” We had lattes and homemade pop-tarts.
Even better was the realization that located next door to Wild Love Bakehouse is my favorite home store in town, Mid Mod Collective, so we popped in to poke around (but sadly didn’t buy anything).
Out west, there’s plenty to do on a rainy day, and we added a little bit of everything to our agenda. We browsed the cute boutiques of Bearden and had one of the best Indian meals I’ve had in a long time at the fast-casual Tandur, then we tested our bouldering skills at the Onsight Rock Gym.
Rock-climbing is definitely not my strong suit, but this gym is so gorgeous that I couldn’t help but want to scamper up all the courses!
After sweating it out on the climbing walls, it was finally time to drink some beer. With more than a dozen craft breweries in Knoxville, we weren’t lacking for choices, but feeling more of a German beer hall kind of afternoon, we headed to Schulz Brau first for some hefes.
Next up, it was over to Crafty Bastard where a Cuban food truck and a repurposed radiator repair shop greeted us. This funky and gorgeously open to the second story roof brewery is doing fascinating stuff with their concoctions, with White Arrow Pine Ale being SVV’s favorite and the Barkley Stout being mine.
Our final stop was Balter Beerworks, which is not only a brewery with mighty fine beer, but also a restaurant. A couple of friends from my college days met us for dinner, and we noshed on potato chip nachos and chicken sliders while tasting some of the brewery’s best beers.
Note: We opted to take Lyft to get around, but did you know that the Knox Ale Trail also has a brew bus? From Thursday through Sunday, you can buy a day tour and experience a handful of breweries on the trail without having to worry about transportation.
That evening after dinner at Balter, The Maggie Valley Band was playing at Barley’s Taproom, one of my old college hangs, and our last full day wound up being the perfect fusion of Old and New Knoxville for me.
Day 4 of your weekend in Knoxville
On our final morning in Knoxville, we had several options for breakfast—Status Dough donuts always being a good idea, in addition to my regular, tried-and-true haunt, Tomato Head—but I can never resist the crepes at French Market, which, ultimately, won out in a battle of the breakfast foods. I still don’t regret that decision one bit!
Before packing up and hitting the road, SVV and I did some last-minute shopping for T-shirts (for him) and home décor (for me). For unique, locally-made items, Nothing Too Fancy right off Market Square and Rala in the Old City are my go-to spots, though the Farmers’ Market also has great wares, as well.
On the way out of town, I couldn’t help but get one last peek at the Sunsphere before we bid it adieu until football season; there were kids, young and old, shrieking and darting in and out of the fountains. It was so hot that morning, I was very tempted to join them.
I’m always sad when I pull out of Knoxville onto I-40, but am comforted by knowing that it’s one of the cities I’ll be returning to often for the rest of my life. Plus, the best part about Knoxville, to me, is that despite having lived there in the past, every time I go back there’s something new to discover.
What would you add to a weekend in Knoxville?
I grew up going to Knoxville for a month each summer, and you’re right — It’s changed A LOT in the last few decades. This makes me want to go back for a visit, ASAP!
I love that you love Knoxville as much as I do! I bet we crossed paths those summer months growing up there 😉
Wow, I knew there were some good breweries here, but I didn’t realize how many! Sounds like my husband and I have some work to do. What a bummer! 😉
So glad you enjoyed your weekend. You certainly found some great restaurants and venues for fun. Great shots of the splash pad with Sunsphere in background, by the way! Please come again. You’re always welcome in Knoxville!
You guys are my kind of people..always a craft beer in hand in your travel roundups 🙂
I’m glad to read a detailed day to day of the activities you did in Knoxville, and it’s really impressive the food and the places you visited and it’s definitely not a destination a lot of people choose but I think is totally worth it. I would love to go there some day!
these are all so amazing! especially the Ijams Nature Center! thank you for sharing these places! I will definitely have to check them out.