In Eastern Tennessee, perched in the foothills of Appalachia, Knoxville is surrounded by beautiful nature, while its central streets showcase a long and storied history. Since the days of James White, Knoxville has grown into a modern and diverse city. Travelers can experience mouthwatering Southern cuisine as easily as they can venture into the surrounding mountains or explore the many local museums.
Knoxville is for all types of travelers, from couples to families and foodies. Find a wide range of things to do in Knoxville that are easy on the wallet and great for kids. When the sun falls, couples can enjoy a thriving downtown scene, including the amazing Tennessee Theatre.
12. Old City
A historic district in Knoxville, the Old City, is one of the most interesting parts of town to explore on foot. During the day you can wander by beautiful architecture, especially at the juncture of Central Street and Jackson Avenue, to get a look into the city’s storied past and diverse culture.
At night, the cozy cafes and art galleries make way for a vibrant nightlife with an enviable selection of local restaurants to pick from, along with bars and a fantastic live music scene that lights up the Old City.
11. House Mountain State Natural Area
Just ten minutes from downtown Knoxville, residents and visitors don’t have to venture far from some hiking and time among nature. Featuring the tallest peak in Knox County, the natural area has many trails coursing through, some of which lead to wondrous views that will have you feeling a world away from civilization. The three main trails connect at various points, allowing you to easily explore the park.
The good news is that House Mountain, which gained its name by having two roof-like summits, is a year-round destination. There’s plenty of shade along the trails in the summer while the blooming wildflowers in the winter add further beauty to a captivating landscape.
When the World’s Fair was hosted by Knoxville in 1982, an extravagant geodesic sphere was constructed. Known as the Sunsphere, the golden ball is set on a tower and stands at 266 feet above the ground. Only one other development from the fair remains, but the Sunsphere continues to be a popular attraction some four decades later.
You can venture up into the sphere for 360-degree views of the World’s Fair Park (listed below), the Knoxville skyline, University of Tennessee, and the immense Smoky Mountains. The Sunsphere is open between 9am and 9pm every day and is free to visit, making it a great attraction for those on a budget.
9. James White Fort
Thanks to his efforts in the Revolutionary War, James White received a land grant of 1000 acres. He then embarked on an expedition to find the site that would eventually become the capital of the then Southwest Territory and later Knoxville itself. The two-story James White Fort was built in 1786. Almost two centuries later, it was reconstructed in downtown Knoxville and is open to visitors.
Today you can explore the historic building and discover what frontier life was all about through cooking, spinning, and blacksmithing. All around the fort are also exhibits explaining the development of Knoxville. Finally, the James White Fort features an open house at Christmas and a variety of ghost tours.
8. East Tennessee History Center
Showcasing the rich history of the region, the East Tennessee History Center brings the events of yore to life. Through the array of exhibits and programs, you can take a journey back three centuries to the foundation years of Tennessee, learning about the key events that helped to shape the Volunteer State.
The history center has won several awards for the quality of its displays. Despite what has been a complex history, the East Tennessee History Center does a wonderful job of making the displays accessible for kids. With everyone engaged, it makes it so much easier to immerse yourself in the 300 years of history. If you’ve arrived in August, come by to experience the East Tennessee History Fair.
7. Neyland Stadium
Knoxville is where you’ll find the University of Tennessee and on any given Saturday in the fall, Neyland Stadium will flood with fans cheering on their beloved Tennessee Volunteers. The stadium is one of the biggest in the United States and can seat up to 102,000 fans. A landmark of college football, Neyland Stadium was named after iconic coach Robert Neyland, whose statue now stands at the west entrance.
Going to a game is an amazing sporting experience. But arrive early to see the boats tailgating along the Tennessee River. If you haven’t arrived during football season, there’s no reason to miss out on the immense arena. Visitors can book a tour and explore Neyland Stadium, including the locker rooms, media center, and the West Club.
6. Zoo Knoxville
A home for over 900 different animals from all corners of the globe, Zoo Knoxville makes for a great family day out. Over 100 red pandas have been born in the zoo, more than any other facility in the world. This zoo has since received awards for its conservation work in relation to the pandas and other exotic species, including the resident Komodo dragons.
A great way to experience the various habitats, especially if you have young ones in tow, is to jump on the Zoo Choo Train. Venture between enclosures to get up close to the animals with the chance to also ride camels and feed the giant giraffes. The zoo also offers a selection of nature programs for some fascinating educational experiences.
5. Knoxville Museum of Art
Celebrating the art of East Tennessee and the artists behind the work, Knoxville Museum of Art is focused on splendid homegrown talent. The selection of permanent and temporary exhibitions showcases the artists that have called Knoxville and eastern Tennessee home. The museum complex features an exterior laden with Tennessee marble, a sight that will draw you in long before you enter the halls.
The museum’s permanent exhibits put on display works from the 20th century to now along with a new installation called the Cycle of Life. The enormous glass exhibit is the largest of its kind on earth. Temporary exhibits are borrowed from private collections, providing fresh experiences for each visit. Stick around for Alive After Five, to explore the museum along with live music and local eats.
4. Tennessee Theatre
The historic Tennessee Theatre was immediately beloved by residents upon opening in 1928. A marvelous piece of Spanish-Moorish architecture features a beautiful facade and an intricate interior of ornate Czech chandeliers, a classic terrazzo floor and detailed drapes. The theatre was later added to the National Register of Historic Places while earning the title as the Official State Theatre of Tennessee.
Over the years, it lost some of its characteristic style, but was restored in 2005. Today, you can experience the Tennessee Theatre much as it was in the Roaring 20s. Settle in for a night of off-Broadway performances, vintage movies, and music ranging from classical to rock. Speaking of classical music, the theatre is the home of the Knoxville symphony Orchestra and the Knoxville Opera.
3. World’s Fair Park
In 1982, the old Knoxville fairgrounds played host to the World’s Fair. Since that day, the land has been known as World’s Fair Park and continues to be a wonderful place to bring your partner or spend the day as a family. The public park still features two structures from the famous fair, the Sunsphere and the Tennessee Amphitheater.
From the Sunsphere observation deck, you can take in the spectacular views of the nearby Great Smoky Mountains and the surging Tennessee River. From there you can embark on a stroll down the accessible walkways by gorgeous constructed lakes and flowing streams. Along with the Tennessee Amphitheater, several spacious lawns host a variety of concerts and theater shows.
2. Ijams Nature Center
For over a hundred years, residents of Knoxville have been exploring the sprawling wildlife sanctuary. The center was created by Harry Ijams, who had a vision for a bird refuge. Over time, it has developed and grown into a well-rounded reserve featuring an environmental learning center. Just three miles out of downtown Knoxville, you can explore the expansive Ijams Nature Center via a series of trails and boardwalks that showcase the beautiful environment.
Begin at the visitor center where you can grab a map and plan out your day. Aside from the ten miles of walking trails, you can venture out onto Mead’s Quarry Lake aboard a canoe or standup paddleboard. Or head up the cliff-side at one of the few natural rock climbing sites around Knoxville.
1. Market Square
In the 1860s, a part of Knoxville that would go on to be the cultural hub of the town opened. Market Square is a historic open-air center lined with restaurants, cafes, boutique shops and bars. Attracting a large number of residents and visitors alike, the square also purveys a sense of festivity. Market Square hosts a variety of events from concerts and movies, to live Shakespeare.
One of the top attractions in the square and at the forefront of the Nourish Knoxville project is the Market Square Farmers Market. The market helps to foster a mutually beneficial relationship between farmers, artisans and the Knoxville community. Here you can browse the many stalls selling seasonal produce, bakery treats and craftwork, with each item or food connected directly to the vendor.