“Ten years ago, this place was a ghost town.” That’s a popular refrain among Knoxville residents who, in the past decade, have watched their home outgrow its “Scruffy City” nickname. (The city adopted the moniker in response to negative feedback it received when it was selected to host the 1982 World’s Fair.) Today, the city is polishing its edges, particularly around Market Square; in the late 19th-century, the now-popular plaza was home to a market hall, which was converted into a pedestrian mall in the 1960s. At one time, a chain sandwich shop was the neighborhood’s only restaurant, and today there are dozens of eateries within a mile radius of the square.
The city has doubled down on outdoor recreation too, developing the network of forests, parks, and pristine lakes that make up the Knoxville Urban Wilderness. The green space is galvanizing the city’s southside, where gear rental shops now stand shoulder to shoulder with hip craft breweries and taco joints.
Nashville and Memphis may be Tennessee’s headline makers, but Knoxville, on its eastern edge, deserves another look. Here’s where to go knocking around.
Stay somewhere classic
Now a mainstay of Market Square, the 1876 building housing the Oliver Hotel has spent past lives as a bakery, an ice cream shop, a drugstore, and a dance hall. In 2011, two developers relaunched the space as a sleek boutique hotel with two restaurants, the Oliver Royale and the Tupelo Honey Cafe. And while the hotel’s hidden bar, the Peter Kern Library, was inspired by speakeasies, it’s one of the most talked about cocktail spots in town. Bookcases line the walls and deep leather booths provide places to sit a spell and sip cocktails named after literary characters.
The Tennessean, another well-known Knoxville hotel, enjoys an enviable central location next to the most iconic building in the city’s skyline, the Sunsphere. The aptly named monument to the 1982 World’s Fair is a towering, 266-foot-high steel-truss monolith topped with a 75-foot gold glass globe and featuring a fourth-story observation deck open to the public. With its proximity to such a landmark, the Tennessean celebrates its city inside, too. Large historic maps of the Knoxville area complement modern decor in the hotel’s 82 high-end guest rooms.
Taste the contemporary South
Knoxville native Joseph Lenn, owner and chef of J.C. Holdway Restaurant, is a ringleader of the city’s culinary revival. He’s an alumnus of the renowned Blackberry Farm—a luxury resort in the Great Smoky Mountains—and his bona fides also include a 2013 James Beard Award for “Best Chef Southeast.” Lenn’s menus feature refined takes on southern favorites, such as cornbread with sorghum butter and wood-oven-roasted shrimp with grits. The restaurant sources ingredients from more than a dozen local farms and purveyors, including Cruze Farm dairy.
Opened just off Market Square in August 2018, Cruze Farm Ice Cream swirls milk and cream from the family-owned dairy into decadent soft-serve in flavors such as chocolate, lavender honey, and blackberry. With servers sporting red-gingham dresses, kerchiefs, and bright-red lipstick, the shop’s retro vibes make it one of the city’s most Instagrammable spots.
Knoxville’s dining scene takes an international turn at Yassin’s Falafel House, where diners enjoy the Middle Eastern menu. The restaurant has become a “K-Town” institution thanks to friendly owner Yassin Terou, a Syrian refugee, and even earned a nod as the “Nicest Place in America” from Reader’s Digest in 2018.
Transformed brick warehouses in Old City, a former industrial neighborhood along the railroad tracks a few blocks north of Market Square, now house trendy restaurants and artist studios. These collide at Pretentious Glass Company, where Matthew Cummings hand-blows glassware and brews craft beer. It’s the only known place in the United States where both the suds and the glass in which they’re served are made on site. The menu is kinetic; Cummings and his team never return to a flavor they’ve brewed.
SoKno Taco Cantina is among the businesses cropping up around the Knoxville Urban Wilderness in South Knoxville. Outdoorsy folks love this genial neighborhood joint that specializes in Southern California–style street tacos and house-made margaritas—the latter are kept on tap along with a rotating selection of beer. In the summer, the cantina organizes Wednesday-night group trail runs or mountain bike rides at the Knoxville Urban Wilderness that segue into happy hours benfiting local outdoor nonprofits.
Play around town
Music in Knoxville is as ubiquitous as rhinestones on a Dolly Parton stage outfit. (The singer got her start here and her eponymous amusement park, Dollywood, is some 30 miles south.) Each spring the Rhythm N Blooms Music Festival takes over Old City, raising its main stage under an overpass. And year round, local radio station WDVX hosts Blue Plate Special—a throwback performance radio show with toe-tapping up-and-coming musicians; Monday through Thursday, music fans can drop in for the free shows, which take place at the central Knoxville Visitor Center.
Most of the bold-faced names that pass through the city perform at the landmark Tennessee Theatre, an opulent Spanish-Moorish-style theater built in 1928. Bedecked with Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers and Italian terrazzo flooring in the lobby, its design is as notable as the acts on stage.
Knoxville is less than an hour away from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the Knoxville Urban Wilderness, established in 2009, is within two miles of downtown. Some 50 miles of trails carve the sprawling, forested, 1,000-acre recreation area, which connects historic Civil War sites at Fort Dickerson Park, the Ijams Nature Center, the family-friendly Baker Creek Play Forest, and the waters of Mead’s Quarry Lake, which kayakers and swimmers use. Runners follow a 12.5-mile outer loop, mountain bike riders pedal the region’s only double-black diamond trail, and rock climbers clamber up the walls of a former marble quarry. Maybe Scruffy City is keeping a bit of its unpolished side, after all.
>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Tennessee
Ashley M. Biggers Ashley M. Biggers is an award-winning freelance journalist who has contributed to CNN, Lonely Planet, AFAR, USA Today, and Fodor’s Travel, among many others. As author of 100 Things to Do in Albuquerque Before You Die and Secret Albuquerque, she’s an expert on her hometown’s marquee and off-the-beaten-path destinations.