Nashville is the country music capital and Memphis has all the blues, and millions of tourists flock to them every year for vacations. But in between these destinations lies Knoxville – a city well worth visiting.
Knoxville doesn't tout itself as a vacation destination as loudly as its neighbors, but it should. Located on the Tennessee River in eastern Tennessee, there is so much to see and do, guests will need several days to see it and neighboring towns thoroughly. A free trolley system makes it easy to get all around the city. Downtown, the Market Square district has 19th-century buildings with shops and restaurants. James White’s Fort, built by the Revolutionary War captain, includes the reconstructed 1786 log cabin that was Knoxville’s first permanent building. The Sunsphere, right in downtown, is a 266-foot-high, hexagonal steel structure, topped with a 75-foot, gold-colored glass sphere that served as the symbol of the 1982 World's Fair. The city is home to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and has the only Rachmaninoff statue in the western hemisphere because he gave his last concert in the city.
For a perfectly elegant and thoughtful stay, try theTennessean Hotel, just steps from the city's iconic Market Square. Owner Nicholas Cazana spared no expense when he purchased an empty state office building and turned it into a modern showpiece. The design theme of the hotel is based on the Tennessee River. Maps of Knoxville are placed throughout the hotel, from large canvases down to the custom-made napkins from France.
If you prefer a view of the Tennessee hills, try the adults-only Mountain Harbor Inn. Nestled in Dandridge, it has beautiful views of Douglas Lake and the Great Smoky Mountains. It's conveniently located near Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Knoxville. Owner Billy Inman is a master proprietor with boundless charm and cooks breakfast for hotel guests nearly every day.
A quaint bed and breakfast with history in every room, the Shepard Inn in Dandridge is situated in the second oldest town in Tennessee, named after President Washington's wife, Martha Dandridge Washington. There is history all around. The owners and workers are up to date on the history of the inn and the town.
Things to do
Unique to Knoxville, many visitors love Maple Hall Bowling – totally fun! It's a boutique, 11-lane bowling alley located in the historic J.C. Penney building in the heart of downtown. Downstairs from the street level, the establishment offers a full-service bar, small plates, cozy lounge areas, a live stage and a two-lane private VIP room, all surrounded by historic red brick walls.
Urban Wilderness is a spectacular, 1,000-acre outdoor adventure area five minutes from downtown, where visitors can hike, bike, climb, paddle or just wander in the woods with 42 miles of trails.
Ijams Nature Park is a great place to get outdoors, featuring wetlands and rock formations with 10 miles of trails plus bike and canoe rentals. Take the boardwalk all the way to the Tennessee River.
WDVX Blue Plate Special – What a treat! Drop in for the free live performance radio show held at noon, Monday through Saturday, at the WDVX studio inside the Knoxville Visitor's Center. Bring your own lunch and enjoy this delectable morsel of Tennessee music, going strong after 20 years.
Poke your head into the Tennessee Theatre, a 1920s-era movie palace, also located in downtown. Grand and opulent, admire Czechoslovakian crystals in the French-style chandeliers, Italian terrazzo flooring in the Grand Lobby and Oriental influences in the carpet and drapery patterns. The theater had a $30 million renovation and reopened in 2005. Tom Mix, Glen Miller, Helen Hayes, the Ziegfield Follies, Desi Arnaz and Frank Capra are some of the luminaries who have graced its stage.
Nearby, the Bijou Theatre traces its roots to 1801 when it was a hotel. Over the next 200 years, it was a vaudeville house, a bordello, a movie theater, and was briefly owned by a church. In 2006, the doors opened to a renovated theater that now showcases music, dance troupes and films, plus rotating local art. Some of the stars who played the Bijou include the Marx Brothers, Tallulah Bankhead, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Matthews and Sheryl Crow. Owner Martha Boggs says she does a lot of “chalkboard specials” of what she lovingly calls “foothills cuisine.”
Zoo Knoxville is home to about 800 animals and welcomes over 400,000 human visitors each year. This gem puts the spotlight on their three Sumatran tiger sisters.
The City of Oak Ridge was established under a cloak of great secrecy by the U.S. government in 1942 to serve as a home base to the Manhattan Project, which was designed to produce the world's first atomic weapons. Chosen for its remote locale, the entire city had to be built almost from scratch on 60,000 acres to handle the influx of employee/residents, which ballooned from 3,000 to 75,000 within three years, making it the third largest city in the state at the time – and it did not appear on any map! Very few of the employees, most of whom were women, knew what was being built at the time or exactly what they were getting into. You can get the full story at the American Museum of Science and Energy.
Bush's Beans Visitor Center – what a hoot! Have lunch and don't skip the pinto bean pie – then take in the fascinating history of this family-owned business. Have your photo taken with Duke, the golden retriever and star of Bush's TV commercials.
For history fans, there is a wealth of museums in and around Knoxville.
The Green McAdoo School in Clinton was the community's segregated elementary. Today, it is a center dedicated to the "Clinton 12,” an all-but-forgotten group of students who led integration of a Tennessee school more than 50 years ago. Ten of the 12 are still living, many in the area.
The Musuem of Applachia is in Clinton, 20 miles north of downtown, has a remarkable collection of hundreds of thousands of memorabilia crafted into a pioneer mountain farm-village that lends voice to the people of Southern Appalachia. Opened in 1969, there are many festivals and special events on the property throughout the year.
The Appalachian Arts Craft Center, very close to the Museum of Appalachia, is one of the oldest craft centers in Tennessee, offering the wares of more than 70 local artists.
Drop into the Coal Creek Miners Museum to learn about the rich history of the miners that lived, worked and died in Coal Creek, Fraterville and Briceville.
The Knoxville Museum of Art has a primary focus on Southern Appalachian culture and artists from the East Tennessee region. “Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee” is a permanent exhibition that highlights the works of noted native artists such as Catherine Wiley, whose stunning Impressionistic paintings are memorable.
The Museum of East Tennessee History has interactive exhibits plus regional art, textiles and Civil War artifacts.
There are more than 80 restaurants in downtown Knoxville alone and plenty of fabulous choices in the surrounding area. Here are a few options:
Bistro By The Bijou is a cozy restaurant with a seasonal menu.
Calhoun's on the River offers ribs, barbecue, craft beer and burgers – they have it all in a great setting.
Angelo's at the Point is a lovely spot featuring fresh seafood and steaks with a lakeside view in Dandridge.
The French Market Creperie in downtown Knoxville has a totally charming atmosphere in an historic building with terrific crepes, croissant sandwiches, omelets and wine – very French and lovely. Owners Allen and Susan Tate are fastidious on the details, using only flour imported from France and all local eggs from free-range hens.
If you have time, investigate the Knoxville Ale Trail. There are 15 breweries operating with more coming soon. The Great Valley Wine Trailis a group of four wineries located in the beautiful East Tennessee area.