Fun Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee

Kathleen Walls Avatar

The Sunsphere has Knoxville photos along its interior walls.
The Sunsphere has Knoxville photos along its interior walls. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

Knoxville is a delightful mix of a big city and a natural mountain country. This East Tennessee treasure is often overshadowed by more well-known places like Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Memphis, or Nashville.

Knoxville has something in common with those places. Nashville and Memphis have a strong music culture. Knoxville is the Cradle of Country Music. Many musicians got their start in Knoxville. You can follow their trail with the markers on the Cradle of Country Music Walking Tour.

Like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, part of Knoxville’s charm is the gorgeous Appalachian Mountains that surround it. It’s just a short drive to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

On my visit, I found a mix of attractions in Knoxville from history, art, and nature, combined with great food and many breweries and distilleries. These are my favorite things to do in Knoxville.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Ames White’s Fort
James White’s Fort is the place to get a free for the history of Knoxville. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

1. James White’s Fort

I always like to get a feel for the history of a city. Why is it where it is and who is responsible? I found my answer to that at James White’s Fort.

A tour of the fort is a step back in time to the early 1780s, when James White, a Revolutionary soldier, settled his 100-acre land grant and built a two-story log cabin. He enclosed it with a stockade fence to protect his domestic animals from predators.

In 1791, he partitioned his land into lots and sold them to new settlers founding the town which he named for Henry Knox, President Washington’s Secretary of War.

For sports fans, the fort is just across the street from the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Original portion of mansion.
Original portion of the William Blount Mansion. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

2. William Blount Mansion

Another residence you’ll want to visit to learn about Knoxville’s early years is William Blount Mansion. William Blount was one of the founding fathers and a signer of America’s Constitution. Washington appointed him governor of the Southwest Territory, and he became the first senator from the new state of Tennessee.  

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Mansion's bedroom after it was added onto by Blount’s brother.
Mansion’s bedroom after it was added by Blount’s brother. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

My guide, Penny, didn’t try to sugarcoat it. William Blount was a scoundrel. He “mislaid” money when he was a paymaster in the army.

After Tennessee was a state, he profited from land speculation/ When he feared the American control of the Mississippi River would cause him to lose money, he committed treason and conspired to have Britain take over Louisiana and Florida.

He was impeached and expelled from the USA Senate but still revered in Tennessee and became a state senator.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Kitchen at Blount Mansion
Kitchen at Blount Mansion. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

The home shows how it grew from a small but prosperous-looking dwelling that was enlarged when his brother, Willie Blount, lived there.

We visited William Blount’s office and the separate kitchen where we saw an unusual rotisserie used on the fireplace to roast chickens, and many other antique items once considered necessities in a prosperous household. Outside, they have the only botanical garden in the central part of the city.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Exhibit at museum with Roy Acuff’s fiddle.
Exhibit at the East Tennessee History Center with Roy Acuff’s fiddle. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

East Tennessee History Center

The history center showcases Knoxville and East Tennessee’s story. It’s small but showcases interesting artifacts such as country music star Roy Acuff’s fiddle, the red dress Dolly Parton wore when she was just getting started, and Chet Atkins’ original album covers.

Another music exhibit here is “They Sang What They Lived: The Story of Carl and Pearl Butler.” They were local country musicians who had the number-one hit, “Don’t Let Me Cross Over.”

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - World's Fair Park
World’s Fair Park. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

3. Cradle of Country Music Walking Tour

Knoxville earned the title “Cradle of Country Music” because so many famous musicians got their start here.

The East Tennessee History Center was originally the Old Custom House and a popular place for musicians to gather. It’s stop number one on the Walking Tour because Fiddlin’ Bob Taylor used to play there. He became governor and later U.S. senator.

The old Market House auditorium on Market Square is another place where he used to play and was the temporary home of WNOX’s “Midday Merry-Go-Round” before it moved to a permanent headquarters on Gay Street.

Market Square has a fun splash pad and is the site of the Market Square Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays from May-November.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Home of KNOX Radio station.
Home of WNOX Radio station. Photo Credit: Kathleen Walls

Another marker on the tour is the Andrew Johnson Hotel. Its claim to fame is twofold.

It was the original home of WNOX’s “The Midday Merry-Go-Round” which was where Roy Acuff played in the early years of his career. The hotel also was the last stop for Hank Williams, who checked in to rest on New Year’s Eve, 1952, before he continued the tour he never lived to complete.

The hotel was an office building for many years and is being converted back to a luxury hotel due to open this year. Like the old hotel, the new one will have a rooftop lounge and several music venues.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Tennessee Theater
Tennessee Theatre. Photo Credit: Bruce McCamish Photography from Visit Knoxville CVB

4. Tennessee Theatre

The Tennessee Theatre, in downtown Knoxville on Gay Street, is the official State Theatre of Tennessee. It first opened on October 1, 1928, and played motion pictures. In 1932, it was the site of Roy Acuff’s first public performance and is a stop on the Cradle of Country Music Walking tour. It is still an active theater showing Broadway shows and live music events.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Cycle of Life at Museum
Cycle of Life at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

5. Knoxville Museum of Art

This is the kind of art museum that has something for everyone. Cycle of Life, thousands of cast and blown glass elements, and welded steel, one of the largest figural glass-and-steel assemblages in the world, command your attention as soon as you enter the building.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Children's section at museum
Children can make their own art at the art museum. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

There’s a children’s section where kids can make their own art right by the entrance on the second floor.

There are works like Joseph Delaney’s Macy’s Parade, a colorful acrylic and pastel on canvas, which gets across what it’s like watching the parade in New York.

Rudolph Ingerle’s Smoky Mountains shows the beauty of the mountains. There’s Catherine Wiley whose oils ranged from beautiful natural paintings like Woodland Scenes to people in Young Woman with a Parasol Reading.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - A pioneer kitchen in Thorne Miniature Rooms
A pioneer kitchen in Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

On the first floor, I loved the miniature dioramas in Thorne Miniature Rooms, a group of nine-period rooms by Mrs. James Ward Thorne. Outside there is a sculpture garden, and on the third floor, there are revolving collections.

When I visited, they were showing Jane Cassidy’s Drink up the Moon, showing moonlight on choppy seas on two giant screens.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - View of the Sunsphere from distance
The Sunsphere is the highlight of World’s Fair Park. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

6. Sunsphere

The Sunsphere is the highlight of World’s Fair Park, built when Knoxville was chosen as a host city for the 1982 World’s Fair. It’s next to the Knoxville Convention Center and the Amphitheater on the Tennessee River. From its fourth-floor observation deck, you have a 360-degree view of Knoxville.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Augusta Quarry
Augusta Quarry. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

7. Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness

Knoxville has a natural side which is captured in multiple areas in its Urban Wilderness on Knoxville’s south side. If you’re looking for outdoor activities, this is your place.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - A mountain biker goes airborne at Bakers Creek
A mountain biker goes airborne at Bakers Creek. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

8. Mountain Biking

Baker Creek Bike Park is the gateway to Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. I watched in amazement as young riders raced over a rolling track and kept their bikes airborne for seconds. It’s not the only place to bike. The Urban Wilderness has more than 60 miles of trails for biking and hiking.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Remnants of the old Fort Dickerson
Remnants of the old Fort Dickinson. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

9. Fort Dickinson

Fort Dickinson is the remnants of an old Civil War fort where Union and Southern soldiers clashed when the Confederate Cavalry attempted to capture Knoxville in November 1863. We viewed the beautiful Augusta Quarry there with its 350-foot-deep lake. It’s a popular spot for swimming and non-motorized boats.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - A little girl is admiring an exhibit at Ijams Nature Center.
A little girl admies an exhibit at Ijams Nature Center. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

10. Ijams Nature Center

Whether you’re biking, driving, or hiking, nature lovers will want to stop and visit Tiger, a red-tailed hawk, and Zoe, a turkey vulture, at Ijams Nature Center. Both birds have injuries that make it impossible to survive in the wild, so they have a forever home here.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Shellene’s home at Ijams Nature Center
Shellene’s home at Ijams Nature Center features a message from Dolly Parton. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

 Inside the center, I saw one of my favorite animal ambassadors, Shellene, a female common snapping turtle, who was found at Ijams. Shellene is blind in one eye. There’s a picture of Dolly Parton and a sign saying, “Shellene, Shellene, Shellene, Shellene. It’s not good for you to eat people’s trash. Shellene, Shellene, Shellene, Shellene. Please don’t eat it just because you can.”

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Navitat Canopy Adventures
Navitat Canopy Adventures. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can take a canopy tour and zipline at Navitat, located next to the visitors’ center at Ijams Nature Center.

Or, you can hike the Pink Marble Trail and visit Meads Quarry or any of the other miles of nature trails.

Mead’s Quarry Lake has a River Sports Outfitters station where you can rent kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, or tubes or go swimming in the historic marble quarry. There are other places along the river where you can launch your own kayak or canoe.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - My favorite mural
My favorite mural showcases Knoxville’s Cradle of Country Music history. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

11. Downtown Murals

I had some time to drive around downtown and loved the murals. Officially, there are 18 murals downtown and many more around the city. There is a Mural Walking Tour, but my favorite is one that doesn’t seem to be listed. It’s near the river and showcases Knoxville’s Cradle of Country Music history.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Chef Robert at Bistro by the Tracks
Chef Robert at Bistro by the Tracks. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

12. Dining and Drinking in Knoxville

Knoxville has some unique dining spots. One cute bistro I loved is Bistro by the Tracks, in the Happy Holler Historic District. Chef Robert McDonald III visited with us and told us about his favorites and how they decided on menus.

He likes to buy from local farmers when possible and told us about the lovely display of jars of peppers and other produce on shelves behind the glass wall dividing the kitchen from the diners. He said since the growing season is limited, they would pickle fresh items like peppers for later use.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Desserts at Bistro by the Tracks
Desserts at Bistro by the Tracks. My favorite is the Creme Brulée. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

My Bouillabasse with mussels, shrimp, scallops, and smoked salmon, served in a well-seasoned tomato sauce, was delicious. For dessert, my favorite is the Creme Brulée. There is a well-stocked bar.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - 71 South, you can see remnants of the old church.
71 South, you can see remnants of the old church. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

71 South, in the heart of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness in the Baker Creek Preserve, is housed in a nearly century-old former church. It serves a more casual menu, lots of sandwiches and burgers. I had the Buffalo Bites, a large serving of chicken chunks served with buffalo sauce, and some celery and blue cheese or ranch dressing.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Potchke Deli
Potchke Deli Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

Potchke Deli in Old City was an interesting breakfast experience. It’s a Jewish deli. Potchke is the Yiddish word for “Fuss” meaning here to fuss around in the kitchen, to waste time. The dishes are all typical kosher-style food. I enjoyed the Motzoh Ball Soup with organic chicken in a tastily seasoned broth. The large matzo ball was topped with a generous serving of dill.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - One of the vaults at the Vault.
One of the vaults at the Vault. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

For nightlife, you have lots of choices as well. I sampled two. Vida is an upscale dining restaurant, in what was once the Holston Bank on Gay Street, that crosses Pan-Latin food with Asian influence. You have choices like Peruvian Chicken, Swordfish, or Fisherman’s Stew.

The Vault downstairs is housed in what was once the bank’s vault area and you can see the former vaults. It’s the spot for lively nightlife.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - The Five Thirty rooftop lounge
The Five Thirty rooftop lounge. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

Five Thirty Lounge is a rooftop bar atop the Hyatt. Besides the great drinks, the view is fantastic.

The two breweries we visited are totally different but equally fun. At Schulz Brau Brewing, we entered a Germanic-looking castle into an old-fashioned German beer hall. The beer is German and so are the food choices. Like many European places, it’s pet-friendly. You can bring Fido and take him into the beer garden.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - The hall at Schultz Brau Brewing
The hall at Schultz Brau Brewing. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

Outside in the yard, it’s an authentic German Biergarten as well. Even the tables and benches are imported from Germany.

Ben Oliver, the sales manager, told us, “The idea behind Schultz Brau Brewing is to make German beer as close to the way it is made in Germany as possible, so we kind of flipped the import model. Instead of importing a finished product, we import grain, hops, yeast, everything we can so when we produce our product, you get something as fresh as if you were actually there.”

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - Taproom at Ebony and Ivory
Taproom at Ebony and Ivory. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

Ebony and Ivory Brewing is ultra-modern. I’m not big on high hops beers, but I loved the Pina Colada Hard Cider. One of the first of the staff we met was Finn, the resident pooch. He’s a sweetheart and so friendly.

We met with Mitchell Russell, co-owner with Chico Dupas. As Mitchell pointed out, “I‘m white, and he’s Black.” They just opened about a year ago and are striving to create diversity in what were formerly white-owned companies. This is just the second Black-owned craft brewery in Tennessee. Most of the beers are brewed on-site in a small brewing section in the taproom.

More Fun Things to Do in Knoxville

There were some other fun things I would love to have had time to do. Zoo Knoxville is one I want to get back and see. Besides just viewing the animals, there are many experiences you can take part in like feeding a giraffe or creating special treats for the bears.

Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum is a walk through 47 acres of natural beauty.

McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture is on the campus of the University of Tennessee and focuses on natural history, archaeology, anthropology, decorative arts, and local history. All good reasons to return for another visit to Knoxville.

15 Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee - My room at the Hyatt
My room at the Hyatt Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

Where to Stay: Hyatt Place Knoxville

This historic hotel is a great base while you visit Knoxville. I love the touches of history in the building, once Hotel Farragut, named for the Union Admiral famous for shouting “Damm the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” during the Civil War Battle at Mobile Bay.

I also loved that my room had all the modern amenities. The hotel serves a wholesome, free breakfast in the morning.

Kathleen Walls, former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, GA, is originally from New Orleans, she currently resides in Middleburg, FL but travels extensively and loves to write about history, agritourism, music, and food and drinks. She is the author of travel books, Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms, Hosts With Ghosts, and Wild About Florida series, and many novels. She’s a proud member of International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers (IFWTA) & Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) Websites: katywalls.com and www.americanroads.net
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