There’s no need for a fancy introduction or a clever opening paragraph. Here it is: I freaking love Knoxville. This place is absolutely amazing. While it’s still the third largest city in Tennessee, Knoxville feels more like a tight knit community where you’re likely to run into someone you know at the local grocery store or cozy up to a new friend at the bar and share an order of biscuits. (Yes, that’s totally random – but I actually witnessed it during my visit.)
For years, I’ve been visiting the Smoky Mountains and driving right past Knoxville – totally unaware that this is a true gem of a destination. If I can somehow find a time machine, I’d like to go back and veer off the interstate during all of those road trips to spend a little more time here.
One look at the beautiful Tennessee theater marquee downtown or a glance up at the iconic Sunsphere globe that pops along the Knoxville skyline – and you’ll immediately fall in love with this place.
So what is there to do in Knoxville if you’re looking for a weekend visit or a place to stop en route to another destination? As it turns out – quite a lot! From amazing restaurants to outdoor adventure, or museums, music, and history – Knoxville has you covered.
Here are some of the things I really enjoyed during my recent visit.
2022 is the 40th anniversary of the iconic Knoxville Sunsphere. The gigantic golden globe was built for the 1982 World’s Fair and overlooks downtown, World’s Fair Park, and the University of Tennessee. An elevator takes you to the observation deck for a 360 degree view. The structure stands 26 stories tall and each pane of glass is made of 24-karat gold.
Admission is only $5.00 to enjoy the views.
Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness
Unlike most cities, in Knoxville you can actually hop in your car or ride your bike to “the great outdoors” in just minutes. There are plenty of places to have an enjoyable nature hike or perhaps something a bit more challenging. I had no idea what Navitat Canopy Adventures was before I started suiting up under a tent near the Ijams Nature Center a few miles from the Hyatt hotel downtown. As it turns out, this place is more than just zip lines in the woods – it’s an entire obstacle course that really tests your endurance and mobility. Don’t worry – you’re strapped in for the entire experience so you can focus on the tasks at hand instead of worrying about falling out of the sky. I went to experience one of the courses and actually had so much fun, I did a second one. There are various levels of difficulty so it’s great for a family outing.
While you’re in the area, take in an easy hike to the river or down to the Meads quarry. At the quarry, you can rent kayaks and paddleboards to enjoy a peaceful outing on the water.
Downtown Knoxville is like something out of some perfectly orchestrated romantic comedy film – it’s almost too perfect! The stunning Tennessee Theater marquee, adorable coffee shops and a soda fountain. Most of the dining options were local. A nice little walking trail winds through a sculpture park to a pedestrian friendly courtyard with a fountain here and there. One day I spotted an artist drawing with chalk on the pavement. The next day, a guy playing the violin.
I spotted a sign somewhere around town that joked about the town’s mix of hippies and cowboys. It’s not really farfetched. Amazingly, people seemed to co-mingle just fine.
Eat! Eat! Eat!
I’m definitely not an authority on food or fine dining – which is why I try to go where locals go as much as I can. And, during my visit – I didn’t have a single meal in Knoxville that wasn’t fantastic.
Favorite spots? I enjoyed SoKno Taco Cantina one afternoon for lunch. Reasonably priced and totally filling. (I hate when some taco places hand you a taco that’s gone in two bites.) Special shout-out to Catherine who was nice enough to read the entire menu to me when I realized I had left my glasses in the car.
I also really liked Barley’s Tap Room and Pizzeria which was also a lunch spot. I’ll be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for this place when I walked in. I just assumed it was a typical place for people to get drunk and watch big screen TV’s with overpriced fried food. They offered calzones on their menu – and I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to calzones. The bartender said they were good and I probably rolled my eyes. Turned out – she was right. It was fantastic.
Knoxville is lucky to have such a great variety of places to eat for a city its size. Here’s a list of other great places to dine while visiting.
Overall – it was a wonderful visit to Knoxville and I plan to come back as soon as I can. This is one of those places that I can totally see myself settling down when I’m finished with all of this full-time traveling stuff. Until then, don’t change a bit, Knoxville!