So you heard Knoxville is a great place to visit? It is! Now you want to know what to do when you get here? Well, you know what they always say…Ask a local! Here is my itinerary for a great weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee.
As you are heading into town, start your visit 16 miles North of Downtown Knoxville at the Museum of Appalachia, just off Interstate 75. Some people thought John Rice Irwin was an avid collector, but his dream was to showcase items of early Appalachia to preserve a vanishing culture. His nationally acclaimed museum is now a Smithsonian Affiliate, and has been featured in National Geographic Traveler, Time Life Books’ Country Traveler, and Reader’s Digest Our Living History. In this picturesque setting, view over 30 log structures that have been moved here to be preserved, along with thousands of authentic artifacts from the early settlers and pioneers, and even the Cherokee Indians. Inside the gift shop and restaurant you’ll be able to view grazing farm animals while enjoying some traditional East Tennessee foods such as local staples soup beans and cornbread, garden vegetables, comforting casseroles, salads (lettuce and, yes, jello), or luscious desserts. The food is very authentic to the area, made just the way every little Mama and Grandma from around here would.
When you arrive in Knoxville, take a few minutes to drive by where it all began - the James White Fort and William Blount Mansion, both located on East Hill Ave., and Knoxville’s first and second homes, respectively. William Blount was a signer of the U.S. Constitution and most of the Tennessee State Constitution was written here, in his office, at this home.
It’s time for Knoxville Food Tours! It’s the best way to get acclimated to the city, learn its history, and have the opportunity to try several of Downtown’s finest restaurants in one afternoon. We’ll enjoy food tastings of signature and specially selected dishes at some of Knoxville’s best new and iconic restaurants featuring local products in Southern and Appalachian cuisine. You’ll also learn the history of the city, including special insights on local culture, art, and architecture. I began this tour in 2010, and it has run consistently through this intriguing time of revitalization and restoration of Downtown Knoxville. I’ve seen a lot of things come and go in the past few years, and I can answer your questions and provide information to you about this important era of development.
After your tour, you’ll want to chill out a bit. Head back to any shops you wanted to check out on Market Square or Gay St., or stroll down to one of our partners in the Old City area, Blue Slip Winery. The owners of this urban winery bought and restored the Southern Railway Station, where you can sample and purchase wine by the glass or bottle made from all Tennessee grown grapes. Take the Knoxville Area Transit free trolley out of the Old City for a short ride to observe more of the Downtown area. After checking in to your hotel to regroup (there are many nice hotels available Downtown at various price points), make your way down to Volunteer Landing, a one mile paved walk along the Tennessee River, which features historical markers, waterfalls, fountains, and benches, or head out Neyland Dr. to the University of Tennessee Gardens. UT Gardens is a national test site for leading commercial plant and seed companies where some 4000 plants are evaluated annually. It’s free and open to the public year round.
Catch some live jazz beginning at 9:00 p.m. at the Bistro at the Bijou at 807 S. Gay St. Located inside Knoxville’s 4th oldest building, dating back to 1816, this lovely space has been an eating and drinking establishment for most of its history, and has been visited by 5 U.S. Presidents. You may want to try owner Martha’s pimento cheese fritters with tomato jam, which was featured in Southern Living Magazine, or a delicious snack from her garden to table menu. Kick back and chat with the locals, that’s who you’ll find at this out of the way gem.
For a sweet ending to your evening, make your way up Gay St. to the Phoenix Fountain at 418 S. Gay St. for some hand crafted treats such as ice cream sundaes, floats, shakes or sodas.
One thing I love to do while visiting other cities is to check out all the different neighborhoods and explore the distinct styles of each one. Saturday morning head to Old North Knoxville, now sometimes referred to as Downtown North. This old industrial area was once home to manufacturing plants and clothing mills, but is now The Place for start up coffee shops, juice bars, bakeries, small and quirky restaurants, craft beer breweries, and specialty food shops like Knoxville’s local food co-op. Find a light breakfast and coffee along Broadway or Central Streets. I say light because, trust me, you’ll be wanting to eat again soon. Note - these locally owned shops pop up, and down, quickly, and sometimes have odd or unusual hours or sell out limited supplies early - email me the days you’ll be visiting and I’ll let you know what’s going on in the area that week. Now that you’re fueled up, have a bit of fun checking out the many vintage and antique shops in this neighborhood. Another note - when I’m in Old North Knoxville, I always find several tasty treats I want to take home to try later. So, if you are a real foodie like me, and you are traveling, I would suggest bringing a cooler to transport any goodies you don’t want to miss. There’s so much here to choose from, you’ll want to procure lunch or, ahem, second breakfast, before leaving this unique ‘hood.
On your way back through Downtown, make a stop at the Knoxville Museum of Art, at 1050 World’s Fair Park Dr. - free parking and admission are available daily. This 53,000 square foot building is sheathed in Tennessee pink marble and houses the exhibit Higher Ground, a permanent collection of works by East Tennessee artists from the mid-nineteenth to late-twentieth centuries. Another permanent exhibit, Currents, is intended to introduce new art and ideas and focuses on modern and contemporary art. The KMA also features the largest figural glass installment in the world, by nationally acclaimed glass artist, Richard Jolly. Tip - don’t pass up the gift shop, there’s always some piece of beautiful handmade jewelry wanting to make it in to My collection.
Want in on a great secret? There’s a million dollar art collection located through the concourse at the Knoxville Convention Center. Just walk over the bridge from the KMA to the convention center to view works by local, regional, national and international artists such as large scale paintings, sculptures in Tennessee black marble, and impressive work in tapestry, glass, wood and tile. Don’t miss the cheery piece by Joseph Delaney, Knoxville artist who was involved in the Harlem Renaissance, whose work is also held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of the City of New York.
So many people on my tours ask me how far it is to the University of Tennessee. When you leave the Knoxville Museum of Art, you are basically there. Continue West on Cumberland Ave., take a left on Volunteer Blvd. and you can drive through the campus and past our illustrious football stadium. Neyland stadium is the 5th largest stadium in the United States, and the 6th largest in the world. It has a seating capacity of 102,000 and generally sells out every game day. This massive stadium is named in honor of General Robert Neyland, a former brigadier general in the United States Army. As the head football coach at the University of Tennessee, Neyland holds the record for most wins with 173 wins in 216 games, 6 undefeated seasons, 7 conference championships, and 4 national championships. And that, my dear friend, is how you get a stadium named for you.
From Volunteer Blvd., turn back left on Cumberland Ave./Kingston Pike and keep heading West through Sequoyah Hills, Knoxville’s ritziest neighborhood. This affluent development began in the 1920’s as an area where Knoxville residents could escape the congestion and ills of city life. It is named for Cherokee Indian scholar Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee alphabet. Driving through Sequoyah Hills, you’ll pass some of Knoxville’s most historic and elaborate homes. You may want to turn down to Talahi’s ultra chic Papoose Park, at 1034 Cherokee Blvd. Here, American Indian myths are represented in an art deco style.
Just beyond the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood, you will be entering the Bearden District. This is Knoxville's premier destination for distinct and upscale boutiques, intriguing vintage and antique shops, and distinguished art galleries. It is also home to the new Everly Brothers Park, honoring the early rock and roll pioneers who moved to this Knoxville neighborhood during their high school years for the opportunity to perform on Tennessee’s first live radio shows.
For dinner, if you are in the mood for fine dining, head to Echo Bistro at 5803 Kingston Pike. Chef Seth Simmerman’s years of culinary experience add up to amazing flavors. For a more informal experience, try Hard Knox Pizzeria, in Western Plaza. Their traditional Neapolitan pizza, as one of my tour guests said, “Wouldn’t be any more authentic unless a little Italian grandma was sitting right beside you making it”.
After dinner head to McKay’s Used Books, the huge warehouse wonderland at 230 Papermill Place. Since 1985 McKay’s has been a favorite place for Knoxvillians to buy, sell, or trade books, cds, dvds, and even vinyl records. Take a treasure hunt for any genre and subject matter your heart desires. I’m partial to a .75 cent cookbooks find. (Yes, that’s a real thing.)
Sunday Brunch has to be at Copper Cellar West, on Kingston Pike. For over 40 years, Copper Cellar has been serving a stellar brunch buffet featuring bountiful breakfast favorites, including an omelette station and Belgian waffle station, along with - a soups and salads, fresh fruit, cheeses, tapenades, smoked salmon, build your own fajitas, prime rib, casseroles and vegetables, Italian/Creole/Asian dishes, and assorted pastries and desserts. Tip - when you arrive if there is a wait for seating, slip into the bar area where seating is first come first serve and grab a cozy table.
Before heading out of town, visit the East Tennessee History Center at 601 S. Gay St. Your admission is free on Sundays. In addition to a recreated pharmacy and full size street car, view award winning exhibits that feature the history of East Tennessee for the past 300 years. Pick up a souvenir historical book, print, recording, or a quality woven item, handmade soap, or set of notecards, to take home along with all your new knowledge of Knoxville to share with family and friends.
So there you have it – Paula’s picks for a great weekend in Knoxville, TN. I’ll see you soon.