When people think about traveling to Tennessee, Knoxville is usually not the first destination that comes to mind, and Knoxville is often overlooked in favor of more famous Nashville or Memphis. However, you may want to reconsider your travel plans next time you find yourself in the Volunteer State.
I just spent a few days in Knoxville and was surprised how many cool things to do I found in Tennessee’s third largest city. From whiskey to craft beer, hearty Southern cuisine to upscale dining, from street art to contemporary art, from historic architecture to local shops, from kayaking to hiking – there’s something for everyone in Knoxville.
If you have a couple of days to spare, spend two nights in Knoxville – and you’ll barely have enough time to get a little taste of everything the city has to offer. Read on for my guide on how to spend 48 hours in Knoxville – including where to eat in Knoxville, where to drink in Knoxville, where to shop in Knoxville, and what to do in Knoxville.
Day 1 (Friday)
3pm: Explore Downtown Knoxville
Start your explorations of Knoxville right in the heart of the city: the historic Market Square. This large, rectangular square was established in 1854 as a marketplace for local farmer and is now a pedestrian area with several independent shops and restaurants.
If you enjoy shopping, make sure to check out Earth to Old City, which has a fantastic selection of unique gifts, accessories, clothes, furniture and decorative items and Earthbound Trading, where you find clothes, jewelry, and some home goods like candles, soaps, glasses and artisanal body care products. Fizz is another shop right in Market Square that is worth a visit, a boutique selling women’s clothes and jewelry. If you happen to visit on a Wednesday or a Saturday, you can also visit the local farmers market and bring back local produce such as honey.
Continue your stroll to Charles Krutch Park, just south of Market Square, where you find a number of sculptures – almost like a sculpture garden. Every spring, many of the sculptures are replaced with new art installations, making this an interesting park to check out every time you visit Knoxville. From Charles Krutch Park, turn east towards Gay Street, the main street of Downtown Knoxville. In the mid-19th century, most of Knoxville’s commercial activity took place around here, and many historic buildings have been preserved.
Architecture lovers should take note of the Italianate-style Fidelity building (502 Gay Street), the historic Farragut Hotel (which now houses a Hyatt Place Hotel), the Tennessee Theater (604 South Gay Street), the East Tennessee History Center (601 South Gay Street), the Bijou Theater (803 South Gay Street), and the Neo-Classical building that used to house the Holston National Bank, built in 1913, which was the city’s tallest building for a long time (531 South Gay Street).
For a sweet treat, stop at Cruze Ice Cream Farms, a beautiful ice cream shop modeled after an old-fashioned soda fountain. This shop is worth visiting for the creative ice cream flavors, such as blackberry topped with lemon cookies and cheesecake bites, and drizzled with honey. They also have a couple of dairy-free options. Just across the street, a little further north on Gay Street, you find The Phoenix Pharmacy, which is an actual old-fashioned soda fountain serving house-made ice creams, milkshakes, floats and sundaes and is more of a sit-down place than Cruze Ice Cream Farms. The Phoenix Pharmacy is in fact an independent pharmacy in the back of the soda fountain.
If you are a history buff, you’ll want to continue your stroll further south towards the Tennessee River. Just one block from Gay Street on E Hill Street you find the Blount Mansion, designed by William Blount, a signer of the United State Constitution, who was also the first and only governor of the Southwest Territory and who played a significant role in Tennessee becoming the sixteenth state. The mansion is also known to be the first frame house built west of the Appalachians, and one of the oldest houses in the Southern interior, dating back to 1792. Blount Mansion is open Tuesday to Friday from 9:30am – 5pm (March through December) and Saturday from 10am to 2pm. Guided tours run hourly, but note that during the winter months tours are by appointment only.
Tip: If you are planning to tour more historic homes, consider buying the Historic Homes Of Knoxville Combo Ticket. For $25, you get admission to seven historic homes: Blount Mansion (1792), James White’s Fort (1786), Marble Springs (ca. 1797), Ramsey House (1797), Crescent Bend (1834), Mabry-Hazen House (1858), Westwood (1890).
If you prefer shopping to history, turn west on Union Avenue (south of Market Square) for some shopping: The Tree & Vine has an amazing assortment of olive oils and balsamic vinegar, spices, hot sauces and salsas, as well as kitchenware. The Casual Pint, right next door, is a craft beer market for beer lovers selling rare artisanal beers from small U.S. and global microbreweries, and Union Ave Books is a well-stocked independent bookshop. Coffee lovers should stop for a quick caffeine fix at Pearl on Union, right next door to Union Ave Books, which has amazing espresso creations, including Café Miel, a honey latte.
6pm: Get on the whiskey trail
For an aperitif, head to Knoxville’s Old City. At the northern end of Gay Street, turn right on W Jackson Ave and you’ll find yourself in what used to be the industrial hub of the city. The former Jackson Freight Terminal (205 W Jackson Ave) is now home to PostModern Spirits. The distillery has a small bar where you can sample handcrafted whiskey, gin, vodka and a liqueur made from natural botanicals, grains and fruits while watching them being made right next door in a large depot.
PostModern Spirits is one of two distilleries in Knoxville that are part of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, a group of 26 distilleries across Tennessee. You can choose between tastings (they have whiskey, gin and amaretto flights) or classic cocktails. I had my eyes set on a whiskey flight, but ended up going for a cocktail from the seasonal gin cocktail menu, because every single one of the gin drinks sounded divine (and my strawberry gin cocktail did not disappoint!)
7.30pm: Dinner – Burgers & Bourbon
For a hearty dinner, head back to Market Square. At Stock & Barrel, you can combine gourmet craft burgers (made with locally sourced ingredients) with bourbon. The whiskey menu is mind-boggling: in addition to Tennessee bourbon, you can choose from a large range of rye whiskeys, Japanese whiskeys, Irish whiskeys, and Scotch.
For a more upscale dinner, I recommend J.C. Holdway, which focuses on farm-fresh Appalachian dishes with a unique twist by James Beard award-winning chef Joseph Lenn. The sophisticated dishes – many of which are made using a wood-fire grill – are creative and unique, and I loved the bright dining room with large windows. If you enjoy cooking, sit at the counter facing the open kitchen to watch the chefs – an added treat to a memorable meal. I recommend reserving a table.
9pm: Live Music
Nashville and Memphis may be more famous for live music, but do yourself a favor and finish your evening with some live music – this is Tennessee after all! It is worth checking out a listing of live music events on the dates you’re visiting Knoxville, because there is live music seven nights a week, and many artists include Knoxville in their tour itinerary. I was lucky enough to catch Amy Ray live at the historic Bijou Theater, which was a great concert in a beautiful venue, but also check out this full list of live music venues in Knoxville and this Knoxville event calendar to see what is going on where.
For jazz, head to The Bistro At The Bijou, where you can listen to live jazz every evening Wednesday through Sunday while sipping on a handcrafted cocktail. This is one of things to do in Knoxville you shouldn’t miss.
If you want to skip live music, head to Peter Kern Library, a speakeasy bar accessed through a little alley next to The Casual Pint on Union Ave (the bar is located inside the Oliver Hotel). The library-themed bar has an exquisite cocktail menu that come in antique books with drinks named after literary characters such as Holly Golightly and Anne Shirley. I loved the intimate feel of the bar itself, which has a fireplace, cozy booths with comfortable couches and bookshelves filled with literary classics.
Day 2 (Saturday)
Head to The Bistro At The Bijou for a large breakfast in Knoxville’s oldest restaurant – there has been a dining establishment continuously since 1820 in this space, and the Bistro at the Bijou has been open since 1980. The menu combines classic brunch dishes and southern fare, and brunch cocktails are only $3.50.
10am: Time for art!
Knoxville has some fantastic art, and the Knoxville Museum of Art, which is free, is the best place to start your artsy morning. The art museum is located on the western side of the World’s Fair Park, which is just southwest of Downtown Knoxville. It focuses mainly on regional Tennessean art and has a small section dedicated to contemporary art.
You can combine your visit of the Art Museum with a stroll through World’s Fair Park, which is where the World’s Fair took place in 1982. The only two structures remaining from the World’s Fair are the Sunsphere, a 266-feet tall tower that houses an observation deck and the amphitheater. The Sunsphere can be visited for free – take the elevator to the top and enjoy a 360-degree view over Knoxville. The park is also home to several fountains and lawns, making for a pleasant stroll.
Tip: If you happen to visit Knoxville on the first Friday of the month, I recommend checking out the Knoxville ArtWalk. It takes place on each first Friday of the month, and art galleries, artists studios and art collectives offer special evening hours, open houses and artist exhibits. You can find more information here.
12pm: Explore Knoxville’s Old City
From the World’s Fair Park, head back downtown. The northern part of Gay Street is part of Knoxville’s Art District, and there are a number of galleries here. Don’t miss the Emporium – Arts & Culture Alliance, a spacious arts space showcasing art and photography by local artists. The University Of Tennessee Art Gallery, as is Jack’s Of Knoxville, a small shop focusing on locally made items, such as prints, mugs and cards – great for gift shopping.
From here, head further north to the Old City, the part of town that became Knoxville’s industrial hub when the railroad arrived in 1850s. Many of the old factory buildings that were abandoned after the city’s significance as industrial center have been renovated and over the past couple of decades, revitalizing the Old City. Most buildings are now home to cafes, restaurants, independent shops, boutiques and art galleries and were listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Southern Terminal and Warehouse Historic District.
Take a stroll along W Jackson Drive, where you find galleries and shops, including Rala (112 W Jackson Ave), which is worth a stop for its unique gifts by local arts, and Awaken Coffee (125 W Jackson Ave), which has tasty coffee creations in an artsy setting. Turn right on S Central Street, where you’ll find more restaurants and shops. If you love beer, stop at Pretentious Beer Company to sample some of their craft brews, and to watch them blow beer glasses. Pretentious Beer proud themselves or being the only in the world where you can drink beer made in-house, out of glasses made in-house. But Pretentious Beer would be worth a visit for the names of the brews alone – you’ll find beers with names like ‘Embrace Joy, Dammit!’, ‘Masturdate’, ‘Pillowy Fluff Fluff’ and ‘Basic Beach’ on the menu here.
1pm: Gas station lunch
If you are already hungry, I recommend having lunch in the Old City. There are a number of great restaurants around here, including OliBea (they focus on breakfast, but also have yummy bowls and tacos, and you can enjoy food from OliBea with your beer at Pretentious Beer next door) or Good Golly Tamale (they have different tamales, including several vegetarian and vegan options).
If you’re not hungry yet, continue your walk to North Knoxville. Walk north on Central Street all the way up to the Central Filling Station, a food truck park on the site of a former gas station. In addition to food trucks, there are games for kids and a large sitting area, and a bar that sells craft beers.
2pm: Craft Beer Crawl
Speaking of craft beer: there are two breweries right by Central Filling Station: Schulz Bräu, which is modeled off of a traditional beer garden, and Elkmont Exchange, which in addition to beer also has an extensive food menu. Both of these breweries are part of the Knoxville Ale Trail, which is why they make the ideal starting point for a beer crawl. There are around 20 breweries in Knoxville, and many of them are in walking distance of one another: perfect for a self-guided brewery tour.
The Knoxville Area Brewers Association developed a Knoxville Ale Trail Passport which you can get for free in any of the participating breweries and which also contains a map with all participating breweries. In each place you visit you can ask for your passport to be stamped and you can claim a reward at the end, depending on how many breweries you manage to visit: Four breweries get you a sticker, ten breweries a glass, and if you manage to visit all breweries, you’ll be rewarded with a T-shirt.
For a beer crawl, include the following breweries in your tour:
- Schulz Bräu
- Elkmont Exchange
- Crafty Bastard Brewing
- The Pretentious Beer Co
- Balter Beerworks
These are all within walking distance from Downtown Knoxville. A little further away, but easy to reach in an Uber, are Abridged Beer Company, Alliance Brewing Company and Last Days Of Autumn.
Alternatively, you can just hop on a guided craft beer tour with Knox Brew Tours – this way, you’ll get to learn more about craft beer brewing and you also get to experience some of the further away breweries.
Alternative afternoon: North Knoxville Antiques Shopping
If beer is not your thing, don’t worry! There are plenty of things to do in Knoxville that don’t require downing beers, and North Knoxville will satisfy shoppers, and especially antique aficionados.
You can start your afternoon with a sweet treat at Wild Love Bakehouse, in “The Happy Holler” district. The bakery sells French pastries, biscuits, cookies and other pastries – and everything is incredibly tasty.
Right next door are Mid Mod Collective, a shop for mid-century modern furniture and accessories, and The Book Eddy, a great used book store. Walk further south along N Central Street, and you’ll pass several other stores worth peeking inside: Chance’s Antique & Auction, Magnolia Records, Chance’s Antiques, and Friends Antique & Collectibles.
If you are a fan of antiques, you will love all of these, and make sure to also stop at Time Warp Tea Room, amazing vintage biker club / restaurant filled with motorbike memorabilia and old motorbikes – a must-visit for any motorbike fan. Across the street from Time Warp Tea Room is the excellent Central Flats and Taps, a restaurant that specializes in flat breads and has, as the name suggests, plenty of beers on tap.
On the way back to Downtown Knoxville, don’t miss Old Gray Cemetery. Old Gray was established in 1850 and is known for its grand monuments, Celtic crosses, Victorian-era marble sculptures (often angels), obelisks, elaborate carvings on many of the grave markers and headstones. The cemetery was created during a time when it became more popular to create larger, park-like cemeteries, rather than simply placing headstones next to a church. There are weeping willow trees and oaks, making for a beautiful, peaceful atmosphere. Look out for the Horne Monument – an almost life-size Confederate soldier guarding the graves of two Confederate veterans.
Saturday Night Evening Entertainment in Knoxville
For your evening entertainment, check out the This Weekend events section on the VisitKnoxville website to find the best events – there is always live music, or you could join a Paranormal Adventure Tour, join a sunset dinner cruise or, if you spent the afternoon brewery hopping, continue your craft brew tour.
For dinner, head to Kefi in the Old City for sophisticated Mediterranean food (with a focus on Greek food) or to Cru Bistro & Wine Bar on North Gay Street for a wide variety of wines and shareable small plates.
Day 3 (Sunday)
Head to Balter Beerworks for their scrumptious weekend brunch – they don’t only know how to make beer here, but Balter also serves a delicious brunch (some people say it’s the best brunch in all of Knoxville!). In addition to beer, they serve wine and cocktails. And did I mention $1 mimosas and a special $4 beer cocktail named “Baltering Mary”?
11am: Time to be active – Paddle, hike or zip across the woods
Knoxville has some great outdoors activities, and after eating and drinking your way around Knoxville, it is time to burn some calories.
SUP & Kayak: If you are a water enthusiast, rent a paddle board and do some stand-up paddling on the Tennessee River. I rented a board at Volunteer Landing Marina for $10 per hour, but Billy Lush Boards & Brew also rents paddle boards and kayaks (single kayaks / board are $20 per hour or $31 for two hours; tandem kayaks / canoes are $30 per hour or $41 for two hours). If you want to spend time out on the river with a larger group, consider renting a pontoon at Volunteer Boat Rentals – a half day rental (9.30am – 1.30pm or 2.30pm – 6.30pm) is $217.41; a full day is $272.03 and the boat fits up to ten people.
Hiking: Another great activity is the hike to Fort Dickerson Quarry. From Downtown Knoxville, this is just a 30 – 40 min. walk, and you can reward yourself with a dip in the turquoise water at the end (depending on the time of year you’re visiting). The hike is pretty year-round, offering scenic vistas over the quarry from a couple of viewpoints along the way.
The most extensive network of trails is a 10-min cab ride from Downtown Knoxville in the Ijams Nature Center. This Nature Center consists of forests, wetlands, an abandoned quarry, wildlife, and 40 miles of trails. No matter if you enjoy walking, kayaking, rock climbing or mountain biking: you will love Ijams.
Canopying: If you are an adventurous traveler, you will love Navitat Canopy Adventures, an obstacle course through the treetops. This is a fun challenge in a beautiful nature setting: you traverse ropes, balance over narrow elevated bridgeways (and some of them include a few hanging chunks of wood, to make it more difficult to get across), zipline between trees – all high up in the air. I thought a couple of hours here would be enough, but I could have easily spent all afternoon challenging myself to all six ample canopy adventure trails.
1.30pm: Lunch south of the river
Before leaving Knoxville, there is time for one more great lunch. I suggest venturing down to the south side of the river, where you find a number of great eateries (and a couple of breweries, if you’re still thirsty!) along Sevier Street. SouthSide Garage has food trucks and a well-stocked bar with local craft beers, South Coast Pizza has divine pies in a rustic setting, Landing House serves Asian food (with a focus on Cambodian and Vietnamese dishes),
Beer lovers will appreciate Alliance Brewing Company and Printshop Beer Company, as well as Hi-Wire Brewing, which just arrived from Asheville, NC.
For dessert, stop at Gelato Brothers, where you can indulge in flavors like lemon pie, mango or Belgium dark chocolate, or enjoy one of their unique coffee creations.
Where to stay in Knoxville
- The Tennessean – Elegant 5-star hotel in World’s Fair Park, just west of Downtown Knoxville. Named ‘The top hotel in the South’ by Southern Living. Rooms start at $179 per night
- The Oliver Hotel – Fabulous boutique hotel in a remodeled 1876 building; part of the Southern Living Hotel Collection. Rooms start at around $250 per night.
- Hyatt Place – Located right on Gay Street in the heart of Knoxville. Great rooftop bar. Rooms start at $195 per night
- Residence Inn by Marriott – In the center of town, one block from Gay Street. Large suites with a seating area and a flat-screen TV. Breakfast included in room rate. Rooms start at $178 per night
- Courtyard by Marriott – Shared building with Residence Inn, one block from Gay Street. Courtyard offers less amenities and smaller rooms than Residence Inn, slightly cheaper. Rooms start at $168 per night
- Holiday Inn – Solid budget choice, located right in World’s Fair Park. Rooms start at $145 per night
How To Get Around Knoxville
Both the Uber and the Lyft taxi apps operate in Knoxville, and I never had to wait long for a rideshare. But I opted for other modes of transportation more often than I requested a Lyft – because Knoxville also has bicycles and electronic scooters which make it easy to get around the city.
The Pace bicycles are the cheapest option, offering the first 30-minute ride for free and then only charging $1 for every half-hour ride. In half an hour, you can get pretty much anywhere in Knoxville. Download the Pace app and click on the map to find the closest bikes.
As for scooters, you can choose between two companies: Spin and VeoRide. I would’ve used either one – because in some locations I could only see Spin scooters, in others I spotted VeoRide scooters but no Spin scooters – but wasn’t able to take a Spin for a spin because I needed to upload a valid U.S. driver’s license to access the app, which I don’t have. To ride on a VeoRide scooter, a driver’s license wasn’t required.
The scooters are easy to unlock and use via each respective app, but be aware that they only work between 7am and 9pm, and that there are several ‘No Ride Zones’, where the scooters don’t work. Both companies charge $1 to unlock a scooter and $0.15 per minute during the ride.
If you enjoy walking, it is also possible to visit all of the places mentioned in this article on foot, except for the Ijams Nature Center, which may be a little far.For more ideas what to do in Knoxville, check out VisitKnoxville.com.