There’s no denying Knoxville is Tennessee’s most underrated tourist destination. It’s extremely easy to get around, it’s mostly devoid of traffic beyond your 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?
SVV and I spent two long weekends in Big Orange Country earlier this summer, and I consolidated those trips into a single itinerary in an effort to give you the best restaurants, bars and attractions that you can tackle in a three-day getaway to Knoxville.
From our home, it’s under three hours to downtown Knoxville, so we typically leave after breakfast and arrive at lunchtime. And there’s always one place I insist on making my first stop: Sunspot. Nowadays, Sunspot occupies much fancier digs across the street from the original location, but it boasts the same healthy fare I came to know and love (and has plenty of options for vegetarians, too). It also has 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 just opened in April next door to the Holiday Inn. 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 (and no reservations accepted); know that going in 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 discovered Emilia, a new spot opened by Knox Mason owner Matt Gallagher 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 rival football season, but it’s a close tie—and there’s always something going on in Downtown Knoxville and around Market Square. On Tuesday nights, that’s Jazz on the Square, free music put on by Marble City Five. On the first Friday of every month, it’s an ArtWalk. There are also festivals, Shakespeare performances, movie nights and more.
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 decade 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.
The goal was to rise early for TVB Yoga at 6am (*gulp*), 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 is always a treat. My recommendation? Order 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, so I was more than stoked to find that it also occurs every Wednesday from 11am to 2pm, as well. 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, so I went a bit closer to see what was attracting people by the swarms. Lo and behold, Cruze Farm has a pop-up ice creamery in an old storefront on Gay Street! I was friends with the owner’s husband in high school and had ogled their perfectly branded dairy farm products via Instagram for years, so I couldn’t wait to try a scoop of that ice cream goodness for myself (it was awesome).
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; as of last year, however, this artsy shop added a beer component, so we stayed awhile and drank a flight (naturally).
There’s already a master brewer on site, though Pretentious Beer Co. isn’t brewing its own stuff just yet—it’s in the works, though—so at the moment you can find kombucha, handmade sodas and a dozen local brews from Alliance, Hexagon and others 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, where we met my friend Hannah for a couple rounds. Of all the breweries we tried while in Knoxville, this one might very well be my favorite, despite it being a bit off the beaten path (it’s just around the corner from Saw Works). These self-taught husband-and-wife homebrewers opened their own place a year ago and are already brewing up 14 different beers like a Berliner Weisse and salted caramel porter (YUM); their sons also work on site in the tap room.
Hannah took us for dinner at one of her mainstays, J.C. Holdway, helmed by Tennessee’s first (and currently, only) 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.
We woke up to a bit of drizzle, so our SUP adventure with Billy Lush Paddle Board was out. We were bummed as we love any excuse to get out on the water for a paddle, but it’s been a wetter summer than most for Tennessee as a whole, so we sort of expected rain at some point. 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, which AFAR magazine dubbed “the best bakery in America” (bold claim!). We had lattes and homemade pop-tarts, and I can’t disagree with their love for this charming spot.
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. The Knoxville Ale Trail is so new that I only recently learned about it on this visit, and I’m not one to say no to such an endeavor, particularly as it boasts more than a dozen stops. There was wax attack at Hexagon Brewing, but we were feeling more of a German beer hall kind of afternoon, so 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.
On our final morning in Knoxville, we had several options for breakfast—Makers donuts and Status Dough being two worthy contenders (and spots you absolutely must try if you have a sweet tooth), in addition to my regular, tried-and-true haunt, Tomato Head—but I can never resist the crepes at French Market, which has relocated from Gay Street to the other side of the square and, ultimately, won out in a battle of the breakfast foods. I still don’t regret that decision one bit!
Before packing up our Jeep 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.