Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- 1. James White’s Fort
- 2. William Blount Mansion
- East Tennessee History Center
- 3. Cradle of Country Music Walking Tour
- 4. Tennessee Theatre
- 5. Knoxville Museum of Art
- 6. Sunsphere
- 7. Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness
- 8. Mountain Biking
- 9. Fort Dickinson
- 10. Ijams Nature Center
- 11. Downtown Murals
- 12. Dining and Drinking in Knoxville
- More Fun Things to Do in Knoxville
- Where to Stay: Hyatt Place Knoxville
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.
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.
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For sports fans, the fort is just across the street from the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.