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.
Best Place to Find Local Artists: Gallery Nuance
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.
Most Adorable Boutique: Rala
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.
Best Boutique for Jeans: Marc Nelson Denim
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*
Best Place to Get Away: Urban Wilderness
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.
Best Place to See Nature: Ijams Nature Center
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.
Best Attraction for the Kids: Knoxville Zoo
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.
Best History Walking Tour: Cradle of Country Music
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.
Classiest Accommodations: The Oliver
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.
Budget-Friendly Hotel: Holiday Inn
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.
Breakfast in the Old City: 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.
Best Soul-Food Diner/Takeout: Chandler's Deli
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.
Tastiest Lunch on Market Square: The Tomato Head
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.
Best Dinner: Knox Mason
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.
Best View: World's Fair Sunsphere
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?