I was shopping at a locally owned used bookstore when I turned around and knocked several books off the shelf. I have been to used bookstores in other cities where I would have been scolded, even told to pay for those covers I accidentally folded, and I might have even been flogged. But in Knoxville, Tennessee, a kind gentleman immediately helped me pick them up and when an employee walked over she was more concerned if I was alright than the books. This city had won my heart.
I began with a list of 15 Things I Love About Knoxville, then whittled it down to 8, finally settled on 6. I realized as I began to write this story I was writing more of a love letter than a travel story. Nobody wants to read a love letter! I spent a week trimming, toning, and tightening the story, feeling a pang in my heart every time I removed something from the list. There were so many things to love about this city, but what you see here is the best of the best I have experienced. After writing this list, I want to visit again. Maybe you will want to visit, also?
1. It’s a Really Friendly City
Move over Charleston, South Carolina. You have competition for a great Southern friendly city. It seems almost every week some magazine or travel blog has given Charleston another award for “Friendliest City in the Galaxy”, but I think missing are really missing out on the charm, friendliness, and comfort of Knoxville, Tennessee.
As a travel photographer, there are really only two types of employees I meet at locations I visit: really friendly who offer me tips for the best photos and answer loads of questions, and really almost vehemently opposed to my very existence who threaten me three different ways and quickly shoo me off their property. I’ve come across both many times, but never have I visited a city where I only ever found one type of employee. Knoxville was that place.
My first real experience with the people of the city was at the Market Square Farmers’ Market. I did my usual walk through, taking note of all the local produce for sale (they’ve got everything including vegetables, fruit, baked and canned goods, and even plants so you can start your own garden) and locally made arts and crafts. I stopped at one particular booth featuring apple butter (anyone who follows me knows of my obsession with finding the most delicious apple butter) and chatted with the co-owner of the Fruit and Berry Patch, Jeff Fox. He gave me tips about the best time of year to find certain foods, gave me a free jar of apple butter (which turned out to be amazing), and then invited me to his farm north of Knoxville to visit anytime I liked. He even agreed to pose for a photo, although I couldn’t get a smile out of him! Trust me…he was a fun guy.
When I returned to Knoxville in December, I had a chance to take a glassblowing class with owner Matt Salley at Marble City Glassworks (pictured above). I had taken my first glassblowing class a month earlier during the Thanksgiving break, but this was the first time I really got hands-on. Sort of. It was more like my hands were on it, but Matt did all the work. Throughout the entire class he showed me the process from beginning to end, repeatedly, as I asked a thousand questions. He was never irritated, and I swear that smile never left his face. Okay, it was only a half smile. It still never left his face. He also made me feel like a fellow artist, rather than just a first year student in a general psychology class. I wasn’t a number, I was a person. I wonder if he remembers my name?
Every where I visited during my time in this city, people were friendly. They answered my endless questions. When I asked for tips on places to eat or shop, they looked up address and phone numbers, wrote them down on paper for me, and gave me directions. The cashiers, waiters and waitresses, restaurant managers, and store owners were pleased to meet me and always helped me get what I needed. I had never visited a place that always said “yes”. It was so incredibly refreshing, just like everything else in Knoxville.
2. It’s Also a Really Pet Friendly City
Within the first three hours of a week-long stay in Knoxville I saw three things that told me everything I needed to know about pets in Knoxville: plenty of pet stores and bakeries, lots of dogs on leashes throughout the city, and a woman bringing her two dogs into her hotel room. Of course I’ve seen some of these things in different cities, but never all three at once. Knoxville turned out to be one of the most pet friendly cities I’ve come across yet in the Southeastern United States.
One of my very first stops during this trip to the Marble City was the River Dog Bakery (5201 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, TN | 865-588-8100 | www.riverdogbakery.com). Yes, this is a bakery for your pets. I visited during December, so they were in the process of making small Christmas tree-shaped baked treats for pets. They had loads of other baked treats, but also the usual pet store items like leashes, bowls, clothing, and accessories. This wasn’t the only pet store I noticed while visiting the city. I’m not just talking about the standard PetSmart or Petco, but rather dozens of locally owned shops all around the city that cater specifically to the furriest member of your family (unless it’s No Shave November).
I visited Knoxville for the first time during a mini road trip through Northeast Tennessee. During this trip I visited the Market Square Farmers’ Market that Saturday (more on that later). I noticed something I’ve seen many times and many markets: people out shopping along with their dogs. When I returned to the city in December, I noticed even more people out with their pets. They were walking on the sidewalks, out in the parks, on scenic trails, they were even sitting in the outdoor dining spaces of restaurants. Don’t worry, though, pets aren’t allowed inside the restaurants; just the outdoor spaces in Market Square. What I noticed most was a lot of people with their pets were out of town visitors who brought their dog here because they could, because Knoxville is a pet friendly city. People also knew how to keep their pets on a leash and I never once saw a dog acting unwelcoming, violent, or annoying. It was really refreshing, which only made me want a dog again something fierce.
Finally, I noticed lots of dogs at local hotels. The hotel where I stayed, the Holiday Inn Knoxville Downtown (525 Henley Street, Knoxville, TN | 865-522-2800 | www.ihg.com/holidayinn/hotels/us/en/knoxville/tysec/hoteldetail) had recently undergone a massive renovation and allowed pets to stay there (with a one-time $35 fee). In fact, many of the local area hotels allowed pets to stay and frequently saw dogs coming and going, with their owners in tow of course. This is different, rare, and exciting all at once. I was moving from North Carolina to South Carolina about seven years ago with my sister’s dog with me. I remember spending three hours one night hopping from hotel to hotel, calling even more in between stops, scouring the internet, trying to find just one hotel in Wilmington, North Carolina that would allow pets. I found one, and then I worried all night my car would be gone the next morning. Knoxville is nothing like that, with plenty of fantastic hotels to choose from and most of them allowing pets to stay right along with you.
For all these reasons, Knoxville is the most pet friendly city I’ve visited yet in the Southeastern United States. You can easily bring your pet along with you during a trip, do some shopping for them and grab them a few treats, and then take them to dinner, but whether or not you feed them a $20 steak is entirely up to you. The city even has several dog parks dedicated just for your pets to enjoy for as long as you can enjoy sitting on a bench reading book. What book are you gonna bring with you and your dog?
3. Lots of Great Locally Owned Restaurants to Eat Your Heart Out
I love to eat just as much as the next person, and I usually eat about as much as the next person, too. I call it an occupational hazard of being a travel writer, but the fact is I love the variety, creativity, and taste of locally made foods. Even more than that, I love meeting the owners and chefs of these restaurants, usually the same person.
Knoxville has no shortage of great food of all types. If a visitor were to eat out seven nights a week, it would take months to visit all the restaurants Knoxville has to offer. The locally owned joints are spread throughout the city, so wherever you stay, shop, or play you are sure to find one nearby. I only write about restaurants I have visited, but you can browse this list on Yelp of all the restaurants listed in the city, read customer reviews, and see some photos. This is making me hungry.
Just Ripe (513 Union Avenue, Knoxville, TN | 865-851-9327 | http://justripeknoxville.com | $5-10) This little hole-in-the-wall place is great for breakfast or lunch, and also doubles as a food market for regionally-grown produce. They have a small menu, but it’s loaded with powerful foods. I tried the Country Biscuit: a buttermilk biscuit loaded with eggs, bacon, and cheese. It practically melted in my mouth. The small indoor seating area is fine for about ten people, but on warmer days I would recommend sitting outside on the wide sidewalk.
The Plaid Apron (1210 Kenesaw Avenue, Knoxville, TN | 865-247-4640 | www.theplaidaproncafe.com | $10-15) This is the place to be for Saturday brunch (and is the place I’ve been for Saturday brunch both times I’ve visited Knoxville). They have a large menu of great breakfast and lunch items and also a great menu for coffee lovers like myself. The space is wide open with large, beautiful windows for tons of natural sunlight to start off your day. They also have a nice outdoor seating area for the warmer days, or Canadians who don’t mind cold weather.
The Tomato Head (12 Market Square, Knoxville, TN | 865-637-4067 | http://thetomatohead.com | $10-20) With one location on Market Square, The Tomato Head is a place everyone should try lunch or dinner. They have a large menu of appetizers, soups, sandwiches, pizza, and burritos, all of which are delicious. The Market Square location recently underwent a renovation, combining it with the storefront next door to create a larger space to accommodate more patrons at once. This is good, because this a vastly popular place with the locals and stays pretty busy.
Pizza Palace (3132 East Magnolia Avenue, Knoxville, TN | 865-524-4388 | www.visitpizzapalace.com | $6-15) There aren’t a lot of drive-in food joints left in the country, so the list is short when I say this is one of the best. It’s a cute little place with parking for about 30 cars with an old fashioned backlit menu board and a woman who takes your order through a crackly speaker. The food is cooked to order, so the 20 minute wait to get fresh pizza is so much better than “Hot N’ Ready” pizza from any place else. Oh, and if you eat here, you absolutely must get the onion rings. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Calhoun’s on the River (400 Neyland Drive, Knoxville, TN | 865-673-3355 | www.calhouns.com | $15-30) Any Tennessee Volunteers fan will know about Calhoun’s on the River by the pre- and post-game interviews here with the athletics staff. Anyone who is not a Volunteers fan (hey, I’m a Hokie) will soon know this place by the food. Calhoun’s is a place for fantastic BBQ, but they have a large menu with so much more than that. It’s also located right on the Tennessee River in downtown, so you have a fantastic view day or night, especially of the football stadium just a half mile away.
Not Watson’s Kitchen + Bar (15 Market Square, Knoxville, TN | 865-766-4848 | www.notwatsons.com | $10-25) Not Watson’s is a cute, modern boutique style restaurant on Market Square. They have a great menu of burgers, steak, pork chops, salmon fillet, sandwiches, and salads. But if you have never heard of or had chicken and waffles, this is the place to get them. The atmosphere inside is cozy with a sports bar on the side and outdoor seating in the front.
Downtown Grill & Brewery (424 South Gay Street, Knoxville, TN | 865-633-8111 | www.downtownbrewery.com | $15-30) The Downtown Grill & Brewery is equally a brewery and restaurant, which I think just makes everyone happy. The centerpiece of the architecture is a gorgeous wooden bar with a few televisions for sports games, but they also have a sports bar with pool tables in the back. The second story balcony seating gives you a great view while enjoying the delicious food. They have a wide range of burgers, steaks, and pizzas you can enjoy with the beer crafted on-site.
4. Lots of Uniqueness
Knoxville’s tourism slogan is “KnoxRocks” and they’re absolutely right: Knoxville rocks! This major metropolitan center of Northeast Tennessee has a lot to offer for food, shopping, entertainment, and recreation, but they also have a lot to offer that is unique. Here is a list of unique things only to be found in or about Knoxville:
- The Sunsphere – An icon of the 1982 World’s Fair (the next to last World’s Fair to be held in the United States), the Sunsphere is a towering structure at the edge of the downtown district. You can ride an elevator up about a hundred feet to a circular observation deck, or go up another floor to the Icon Ultra Lounge for a drink with a stunning view of the city.
- Red Panda Capital of the World – More red pandas are bred each year at the Knoxville Zoo than any other zoo in the world. About every fourteen months these newborn red pandas are delivered to zoos across the country for your viewing pleasure. You can also view the families of red pandas a the zoo, where they really thrive and enjoy the cooler winter months. Read: Trading an Urban Jungle for an African Safari at the Knoxville Zoo
- The Marble City – Knoxville was home to a thriving granite industry at one point in time, shipping large slabs across the country for use in mansions, monuments, statues, and art pieces. Today you can visit an overlook to view one of those former granite production sites. You’ll also see this name used frequently for businesses in the region.
- Home of Johnny Knoxville and Kenny Chesney – It never occurred to me until the moment I heard his name: Johnny Knoxville chose that stage name because of his hometown. Now that I know it, I’ll never forget it.
- Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame – The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is the only hall of fame in the world dedicated to women’s basketball. It is also home to the World’s Largest Basketball, though it’s not a real basketball. A gigantic faux basketball sits atop one end of the hall of fame and lights up beautifully at night.
- Home of Mtn. Dew – At first I doubted this one because as a child growing up near Marion, Virginia, I remembered passing a sign almost every day that said “Welcome to Marion. Home of Mtn. Dew.” But that’s when I discovered the caffeine-loaded soda was actually invented in Knoxville, and Marion was one of the marketing test sites in the 80’s and 90’s.
- World’s Largest Rubik’s Cube – Well, it’s not an actual, functional Rubik’s Cube. I found this icon in the lobby of my hotel, the Holiday Inn Knoxville Downtown. It sits back in a corner near the gift shop, and it is rather large at about 8′ long on all edges, but it’s just a sculpture of the popular puzzle cube.
5. Kitchy Neighborhoods Abound in All Directions
Knoxville has neighborhoods like a patchwork quilt: they all look different, but fit together into one unit. This is one of the only cities I’ve ever visited that has a North, East, West, and South neighborhood named after the parent city. But it also has loads of smaller suburbs, communities, and neighborhoods with lots of unique flare and offerings for visitors.
Turkey Creek – This is the big box corporate chain headquarters for shopping and eating in the city. Turkey Creek is located along Parkside Drive just off Interstates 75 & 40 to the west of downtown. The enormous shopping center features all the popular places to shop like Best Buy, Ulta, Hobby Town, Gander Mountain, and so much more. You can also eat your heart out at places like Chipotle, Smoky Mountain Brewery, Calhoun’s, and Olive Garden. Along with the Regal Cinemas Pinnacle Stadium 18, this is a one-stop all-day destination for families or couples with lots of shopping to finish.
Bearden – Bearden is a little neighborhood located along the popular Kingston Pike just a few miles west of downtown. The neighborhood features places like Buttermilk Sky, Anthropologie (locals in Knoxville are so very proud to host this clothing store), The Shrimp Dock, and Nama Sushi Bar. This area is more grown over and corporate than the other neighborhoods, so be sure you don’t miss it along the way.
Happy Holler – This little neighborhood to the north of downtown is more than just a little holler in the middle of nowhere: it is a fantastic place to find some interesting shops and food. They have the Original Freezo, Relix Variety Theatre, Three Rivers Market, Hops and Hollers Craft Beer Store and Taproom, and Magpies Bakery. The main artery of the neighborhood is North Central Street, which will take you right through all these places and many more. It’s a beautiful little neighborhood, off the beaten path, but still vibrant with activity.
Old City – The Old City neighborhood has an interesting history of entertainment and relaxation. Today, this tiny neighborhood adjacent to downtown Knoxville is a great place for food, beer, and coffee throughout the day, but really comes alive at night with bars and clubs. It’s the home for popular restaurants like the Jig and Reel, The Crown & Goose, and Da Vinchi’s Pizzeria. It’s also home to Remedy Coffee and Old City Java for a break during the day. The narrow street and beautiful outdoor decor create a warm and welcoming atmosphere, especially for those on foot or bicycles.
6. Market Square is a Destination
I love it when I can visit a city, check into my hotel, park my car and not drive again until I leave. Visitors can grab a room at the Holiday Inn Downtown Knoxville, Hampton Inn Downtown Knoxville, The Oliver Hotel, or the Crowne Plaza, all situated around the downtown district. Once checked in, it is entirely possible to park the car and walk to everything you need for the next few days over a long weekend. The heart of all this adventure? Market Square.
Market Square is a wide open section pretty much near the geographical center of downtown. It is the site of the Market Square Farmers’ Market on Saturdays almost throughout the entire year (they take the coldest months of the year off) and also the Market Square Holiday Market for a few weekends in December. A stage at one end is the site of several musical performances throughout the year, and adjacent Krutch Park provides a beautiful green landscape to escape the urban jungle.
Surrounding the square along the outer edge are dozens of shops to keep just about anyone occupied for one or two days. You’ll find places to shop like Urban Outfitters, Bliss Home, The Peanut Shop, and Earthbound Trading Company. When you’re ready for something to eat you can visit The Tomato Head, Not Watson’s, The Stock & Barrel, Tupelo Honey Cafe, or Soccer Taco. If you’re ready for some entertainment, you don’t have to go far from Market Square to find places like the historic Tennessee Theatre, the Bijou Theatre, or Regal Riviera Stadium 8.
Of all the times to really spend some time at Market Square, I got to do it in December. During this time of the year the square comes alive as a centerpiece of Christmas holiday celebration in the city. An ice skating rink is set up in the middle of the square, lights decorate nearly every tree all the way through Krutch Park, and you can find the Market Square Holiday Market here on Saturdays. It’s an exciting, vibrant place to be during the weeks leading up to Christmas, and I was thrilled to spend a week right here.
It’s easy to access this section of downtown from just about anywhere in the city. If you drive in, you can use one of several parking garages (I always use the one at Clinch Avenue and Locust Street just two blocks away), one of several parking lots on ground level, and during the weekend and after hours you can park at the Visit Knoxville Visitor’s Center just a block away.
Knoxville, Tennessee is an exciting place full of opportunities for travelers, shoppers, families, couples, a place to spend a week or visit for a day. It’s certainly a place I have fallen for and plan to visit again in the years to come. I’m certain I could always find something new to do, a new place to visit, a new neighborhood to explore. Will you meet me there?