The Best of Knoxville, Tennessee

Having received what some locals call a bad rap as the "Scruffy City," Knoxville is, in fact, anything but. Often overlooked while traveling on I-40 west toward Nashville or east to Asheville, NC, Knoxville is tucked away in the rolling hills of Tennessee, less than 1 hour from the Great Smoky Mountains. The city's resurgence in the past 10 years has been something to write about. Look closely, and you'll find that it is full of a beautiful, rich history, a sprawling Urban Wilderness and audacious chefs such as Matt Gallaher at Knox Mason, who's serving up incredible bites of Southern charm that could easily give the ever-popular Hominy Grill in Charleston, SC, a run for its money.

Best Place to Find Local Artists: Gallery Nuance
gallery nuance, interior, art, knoxville, tennessee
Gallery Nuance Picasa

On the popular 100 block of South Gay Street, steps from Knox Mason, is the beautiful Nuance Gallery. Some of Knoxville’s most talented artists have their paintings and photography on display at this fine-looking shop.

  • 121 S Gay St
  • Knoxville, TN 37902 US
Most Adorable Boutique: Rala
rala, boutique, shop, knoxville, tennessee
Rala Picasa

Capture the pulse of Knoxville at the Rala boutique and consignment shop, located right off the main thoroughfare of Market Square. Rala is more than clothes; it prides itself on purchasing and selling unique, handmade crafts and goods by some of the city’s unsung artists.

  • 323 Union Ave
  • Knoxville, TN 37902 US
Best Boutique for Jeans: Marc Nelson Denim
marc nelson denim, jeans, boutique, shop, knoxville, tennessee
Rani Robinson

The newly opened boutique for men and women is run and operated by Knoxville’s own Marc Nelson. Whether you need a new pair of jeans or not, a stop at Marc’s shop is essential. Jeans come ready-made, or, if you’re looking for something really special, pull up a stool at the makeshift bar, pour yourself a glass of Tennessee whiskey, and watch Marc go to work customizing a pair just for you. Also available: whiskey-stained jeans. Just an FYI. *wink*

  • 700 E Depot Ave
  • Knoxville, TN 37917 US
Best Place to Get Away: Urban Wilderness
bike riding, urban wilderness, knoxville, tennessee
George Middlebrooks

Knoxville's official Urban Wilderness is less than 15 minutes from the city’s center. If you’re visiting for a short time, it’s a perfect backup to the Great Smoky Mountains. Indulge your outdoors man or woman with rock climbing, hiking and canoeing or kayaking on Mead’s Quarry Lake. All canoes, paddleboards and kayaks can be rented from River Sports Outfitters, Knoxville’s own REI, for a few hours or the entire day. The Urban Wilderness is 1,000 acres that include 10 parks, 40 miles of trails for walking and biking, 4 Civil War sites and many recreation amenities. If you have some time to burn, meet up with the local Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, which spearheads a weekly get-together. The organized bike ride provides patrons with either a 12-mile or 20-mile loop — and beer to top it off! Each Tuesday night at about 6, food trucks, beer trucks and bikers gather in the Mead’s Quarry parking lot for a good time. Stop by the Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center on your way to the Urban Wilderness for help planning your outdoor adventures.

  • 900 Volunteer Landing Ln
  • Knoxville, TN 37915 US
Best Place to See Nature: Ijams Nature Center
ijams nature center, knoxville, tennessee
Rani Robinson

Included in the 1,000 acres of the Urban Wilderness is the Ijams Nature Center, a 300-acre wooded complex that includes extensive nature trails, as well as outdoor and indoor areas for kids to play and explore, including exhibits where they can learn about the local wildlife — birds, turtles and more — up close. The annual Meadow Lark Music Festival also takes place at Ijams Nature Center. Other options for the family include history tours, haunted lantern tours, naturalist programs and Knoxville’s Original Owl Prowl, which is exactly what it sounds like: Ijams nature trail guides will take families on an exploration to find owls, coyotes and anything else that makes a sound in the wilderness. 

  • 2915 Island Home Ave
  • Knoxville, TN 37920 US
Best Attraction for the Kids: Knoxville Zoo
knoxville zoo, bird, tennessee
Rani Robinson

Stretching over 53 acres and housing 700 animals, the Knoxville Zoo has been carefully designed to cater to the smallest of human creatures — children. With eye-level exhibits, the zoo boasts some of the most adorable red pandas in North America. Knoxville, in fact, has officially been called “the red panda capital of the world.” More than 100 red pandas have been born at the zoo, more than any other location in the world. Other popular features include feedings of Jumbe (JOOM-bay) the giraffe; talking demonstrations by Einstein, the famous African grey parrot (featured on Animal Planet’s Pet Star); and Wee Play Adventure, an indoor area for kids that includes Khaleesi the Komodo dragon, named after the dragon princess in Game of Thrones.

  • 3500 Knoxville Zoo Dr
  • Knoxville, TN 37914 US
Best History Walking Tour: Cradle of Country Music
market square, knoxville, tennessee
Richard Cummins/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images Richard Cummins

This 1-hour tour, provided by Visit Knoxville, takes visitors through parts of downtown, where some of country music’s greatest got their starts. The walking tour includes 19 stops, including WIVK, where Dolly Parton had her radio broadcast debut at age 7, and the former location of Bell Sales Co. in Market Square, where Elvis Presley’s That’s All Right, Mama played over the airwaves. An RCA scout was in Knoxville at the time, purchased the demo and ultimately helped Elvis get his contract with RCA Records, which bought it from Sun Studios in Memphis, TN.

  • 301 S Gay St
  • Knoxville, TN 37902 US
Classiest Accommodations: The Oliver
the oliver hotel, room, knoxville, tennessee
The Oliver Hotel

Experience rich Southern living, if only for a weekend. The Oliver Hotel is beautiful, the staff is professional, and the rooms are lovely and incredibly spacious. When you first arrive, a large, all-glass door opens to a modest lobby, where the barely noticeable sliding "barn" door, accessible to guests only, leads to the hotel’s speakeasy, also known as the popular Peter Kern Library. The extremely cozy atmosphere features leather chairs and couches, a fireplace and a nice-size bar with plenty of options to meet anyone’s needs. You get what you pay for, and then some, at the Oliver.

  • 407 Union Ave
  • Knoxville, TN 37902 US
Budget-Friendly Hotel: Holiday Inn
holiday inn, downtown, exterior, hotel, knoxville, tennessee
InterContinental Hotels Group Denise Retallack

With its updated look and pristine service, the Holiday Inn is a good second choice (after the Oliver) when staying in Knoxville. (No surprise, since Tennessee is Holiday Inn’s home state — the chain was first established in Memphis.) The hotel is steps away from the World's Fair Sunsphere and boasts beautiful views of World’s Fair Park from its Windows on the Park restaurant and lounge.

  • 525 Henley St
  • Knoxville, TN 37902 US
Breakfast in the Old City: OliBea
olibea, breakfast, restaurant, knoxville, tennessee
OliBea

Named after the owner's children, Oliver and Beatrice, OliBea is a small restaurant with loads of character. Open only for breakfast every day from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., OliBea serves Southern comfort food that could one day easily rival that of Hominy Grill in Charleston, SC.

  • 119 S Central St
  • Knoxville, TN 37902 US
Best Soul-Food Diner/Takeout: Chandler's Deli
chandler's deli, fried chicken, knoxville, tennessee
Rani Robinson

Chandler's Deli, aka "Pink Taco Bell," serves Southern food that you’d normally find only at grandma's house. The completely unsuspecting restaurant in East Knoxville is owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Charles and Gwen Chandler, who opened Chandler’s after Charles retired. The couple work nearly every day at the restaurant, cooking for and serving their guests. Known for having some of the best barbecue in Knoxville, the Chandler’s menu is packed with lots of Southern love: fried chicken, ribs, fried green tomatoes and okra, collard greens, broccoli and cheese, macaroni and cheese, and lots more.

  • 3101 E Magnolia Ave
  • Knoxville, TN 37914 US
Tastiest Lunch on Market Square: The Tomato Head
the tomato head, restaurant, sandwiches, knoxville, tennessee
The Tomato Head Justin_Fee

One of the original restaurants on Market Square and also offers brunch, lunch and dinner. The décor is simple but homey, and the bread is baked fresh every day at the Flour Head Bakery in downtown Knoxville. Whether you’re a carnivore, vegetarian or vegan, the Tomato Head has something for everyone. Try the Oh Boy sandwich, served hot with fresh spinach, chicken, Benton’s bacon, sun-dried tomatoes and Monterey Jack cheese. It will get you through the rest of the day.

  • 12 Market Square
  • Knoxville, TN 37902 US
Best Dinner: Knox Mason
knox mason, fine dining, restaurant, knoxville, tennessee
Beall + Thomas Photography Heather Anne Thomas

Some go for drinks, but most go for the food, packed with Southern charm. This boutique restaurant, located in the 100 block of South Gay Street, is a Knoxville gem. Chef Matt Gallaher serves the best, pulling his inspiration from the likes of Michael Sandoval (Bouchon), Thomas Keller (The French Laundry), Grant Achatz (Alinea), Colicchio (Craft) and more, evident by the stacks upon stacks of cookbooks seen in the back of the restaurant.

  • 131 S Gay St, Unit 101
  • Knoxville, TN 37902 US
Best View: World's Fair Sunsphere
worlds fair, sunsphere, knoxville, tennessee
Visit Knoxville

One of the remaining structures from the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville is a can’t-miss: the golden dome of the Sunsphere. Although interesting to look at, the Sunsphere also includes an observation deck and the Icon Ultra Lounge. The observation deck is splashed with factoids on the World’s Fair and Knoxville. Learn interesting tidbits about "Knox"; for instance, did you know that the world’s largest Rubik’s Cube is located at the Knoxville Convention and Exhibition Center?

  • 810 Clinch Ave
  • Knoxville, TN 37902 US

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