How to spend 72 hours touring Knoxville, Tennessee
Check out Knoxville’s vibrant downtown. Courtesy Visit Knoxville
If we were tasked to play matchmaker, finding an undiscovered vacation spot ripe for a quick getaway, a few must-have traits would be considered. High on the list? An outdoor playground, delicious eats and equally great microbrews. Oh, and add to that a cool cultural scene.
Denver, let us introduce you to Knoxville, Tennessee. This charming city has a little something for everybody, and as Frontier Airlines includes a nonstop flight there from the Mile High City, it makes for an easy long weekend trip.
For foodies, the burgeoning culinary scene goes beyond barbecue and whiskey— though both are worth indulging in. For outdoor enthusiasts, Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness boasts 1,000 forested acres with 40 miles of multi-use trails for hikers, bikers and runners just outside of downtown. Museums, live music and a gorgeous theater with a Hollywood backstory round out this city that TripAdvisor has dubbed a vacation spot on the rise.
“Knoxville is a wonderful secret that really surprises our visitors,” says Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville.
The restaurant offerings range from gourmet hamburgers at The Stock & Barrel to Jamaican fare at Bar Marley. The number of craft breweries is steadily growing, and Knoxville expects to add roughly another half dozen (we’ll call it a six pack) this year, bringing its total to 16 to 18 by the end of 2016. The music scene is down-to-earth and, according to Bumpas, you can find live music on any given night.
“You feel like you’re in the middle of the mountains, and then you cut over and you’re right by a restaurant in downtown,” she says.
One thing Bumpas often hears from from tourists: “‘Y’all are like the Boulder of the East.’”
(Like Boulder, Knoxville is a college town, home to the University of Tennessee; has a pedestrian mall, Market Square, that’s reminiscent of Pearl Street; and is fitness-oriented).
Here’s how to spend 72 hours in this Eastern Tennessee city that’s sweetened with Southern charm.
EXPLORE THE TENNESSEE RIVER
Hop on a paddleboard and row, row, row your boat gently down the Tennessee River. “You can paddle right through the heart of the city,” says Carol Evans, executive director of Legacy Parks Foundation.
Rent a stand-up paddleboard from the Billy Lush Board Shop, which has a surfboard shack vibe and is housed inside the Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center, which sits alongside the Tennessee River and is a must-visit outdoor recreation hub with rentals and information.
Another watering hole unique to Colorado travelers? Paddle about in the peaceful and pristine blue waters that make up one of Knoxville’s quarry lakes, surrounded by high rock walls, Evans suggests.
TOAST SOME MOONSHINE
Order up a “Tennessee Smash” at Windows on the Park inside the Holiday Inn. (No secret handshake or code required). The drink is a Tennessee twist on a screwdriver, made with local orange Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, orange vodka, peach schnapps and orange juice.
The famous Tennessee Theatre makes this college town hum. Courtesy Nels Akerlund
VISIT THE TENNESSEE THEATRE
Catch a Broadway show, concert, symphony or other live performance in this gorgeous theater that originally opened as a movie palace in 1928. Desi Arnaz appeared on the Tennessee stage to promote the film “Too Many Girls” before his “I Love Lucy” fame.
Fun fact: Five, $250,000-a-piece chandeliers dazzle the theater and are named after the stagehands’ girlfriends: Molly, Suzy, Wendi, Gretchen and Angie, says Becky Hancock, the theater’s executive director.
“It’s been the heartbeat of downtown for almost 88 years,” she says, adding that she often hears stories from couples who had their first date at the theater.
MONKEY AROUND AT THE ZOO
Cue the oohs and ahhs. Zoo Knoxville is a fun spot for the whole family, where playful red pandas put on quite a show in the Boyd Family Red Panda Village. Zoo Knoxville is the top zoo in the world for the breeding of red pandas, an endangered species, says Tina Rolen, spokeswoman for the attraction. Also jockeying for attention in this animal kingdom are toddler gorillas Obi and Ubunto, half-siblings born in spring 2015. “They are becoming more independent, exploring their surroundings and interacting with each other,” Rolen says. Mama gorilla Kowali is expecting another baby in late-summer 2016.
And don’t miss the “Kids Cove,” designed to evoke the feel of a turn-of-the-century Appalachian farm. Kids can mingle amongst goats, sheep and miniature donkeys and the animals love the attention from their “zoo-going admirers,” according to Rolen.
CLIMB AMONG THE TREES
Delight your inner child (or your actual children) by ziplining, climbing and tiptoeing your way through the treetops in an adventure park that showcases Tennessee’s trees.
Navitat Knoxville’s Ijams Canopy Experience offers six “adventure trails.” Easier trails hover at about 10 to 15 feet, while the more difficult trails bring you higher in the treetops, about 30 to 60 feet high. You’re harnessed in while you work your way through challenges that include rolling barrels, tunnels, climbing nets and bridges.
TAKE A SWIG OF LOCAL BEER
The craft beer scene is flourishing in Knoxville. South College offers a craft brewing science certificate, local farms produce hops and handmade beer glasses are made for a broad range of craft beer at Pretentious Beer Glass Company, notes Zack Roskop.
Roskop is the owner of Knox Brew Tours, which is the perfect way to get a taste of the local beer scene with visits to three breweries. The bus ride between stops is a blast, with snacks, music and fun tour guides who will ask you to describe your “relationship status” with craft beer. (Are you in long-term committed relationship or really love whiskey and just dating beer on the side?)
DISCOVER THE ‘SECRET CITY’
A 30-minute drive from Knoxville, the American Museum of Science and Energy is a must-see for history buffs. Check out “The Story of Oak Ridge” exhibit, which is rich with historical photographs, documents and artifacts from this World War II-era secret city that was a production site for the Manhattan Project.
JAM OUT TO LIVE MUSIC
During the lunch hour Monday through Saturday, Knoxville dishes out free, live music. The WDVX Blue Plate Special is a live performance that draws performers from all over the world, and is broadcast on the radio. Grab some takeout from a nearby eatery (we recommend a savory smoked salmon crepe from The French Market Creperie) and enjoy your lunch during the live jam session.
WATCH A SUNSPHERE SUNSET
One of the first things you’ll notice in Knoxville is the sparkly gold Sunsphere along the city’s skyscape. Almost resembling a disco ball, the hexagonal Sunsphere served as a symbol of the 1982 World’s Fair held in Knoxville.
Take in a panoramic view of the city, the Great Smoky Mountains and the Tennessee River by making dinner reservations at Primo Ristorante Italiano, located on the fifth floor of the structure.
Knoxville, Tennessee, settled in 1791 and incorporated in 1815, is located at the foothills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is the state’s third-largest city (behind Nashville and Memphis) and is home to the University of Tennessee.