I smiled when I was walking along the Tennessee River in Knoxville and saw a warning engraved in stone. James Weir, who arrived in the city in 1798, was sure the devil had found a home in this place where even women were singing, dancing and swearing. He penned this description in his journal, which ended up on the plaque: "The devil is grown so old that it renders him incapable of traveling and...he has taken up in Knoxville, and there hopes to spend the remaining part of his days…as he believes he is among friends.”
I’ll give the pious Weir this much. It's easy to feel among friends no matter who you are in Knoxville. I visited Knoxville for the first time for three days this summer. And while Nashville and Asheville are the more popular destinations for Sarasota and Manatee travelers, partly because of those easy nonstop flights from the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, I was smitten with this charming, midsize city and could see why anyone might want to spend the remaining part of their days in a place that offers the arts, a thriving food scene, beer and whiskey distilleries, and wilderness only a few miles from the center of the city.
But even if you only have a few days or a weekend, Knoxville is worth the trek. The city—home to 191,000 people—is compact, super walkable (cars do not rule here and I found the traffic light compared to our gridlock) and ringed by beautiful green hills with the Great Smoky Mountains not too far in the distance.
Knoxville is also coming into its own. From its beginnings as a frontier outpost and then a city of mining and manufacturing (it was once known as the “Underwear Capital of the World”), Knoxville’s biggest claim to fame used to be that it hosted the 1982 World’s Fair where the touchscreen made its debut.
Decades passed without too much change. But locals (everyone I met was friendly and still tolerates tourists) say in the last several years Knoxville has taken off, becoming a city that supports local artists, cherishes its history, is bringing people downtown to live and offering creative food and drink that I’d love to see restaurants offering in Sarasota and Manatee. You can feel the energy in this up-and-coming city that’s a mix of artists, beer and whiskey makers, innovative chefs, college students and entrepreneurs. You can also feel its proud Appalachian roots. Walking around downtown, I spied an old chocolate factory that had been renovated into residences; a 19th-century warehouse that is now The Daniel condo; a former brothel, which has been transformed into the Lonesome Dove restaurant; and a 160-year-old former bakery has been turned into the speakeasy Peter Kern Library (password required when you knock on the door in the alley).
If you want to get out of the city, drive five miles from downtown to Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, and you’ll find 50 miles of trails, riverside parks, quarries and a $10 million bike park. It’s rare to find nature so close to a city. The nonprofit Ijams Nature Center is part of this wilderness, and on my last day, a perfect sunny afternoon, I found myself kayaking on Mead’s Quarry, joining other happy locals on rafts and innertubes as kids did cannonball dives off the docks.
What to Do and Where to Stay in Knoxville
How to get there
It’s surprisingly easy. I drove 40 miles to St. Pete Clearwater International Airport in under an hour from downtown Sarasota and took a direct flight on Allegiant Airlines. You can find airfares under $200 round trip depending on when you fly, less than the roundtrip cost to drive with today’s gas prices. I also didn’t need a car. Knoxville is walkable but also operates free trolleys. If you’re visiting Nashville, Tennessee, and want to drive, budget three hours; a drive from Asheville, North Carolina, is about two hours.
Where to stay
The Tennessean Hotel is the perfect perch to explore Knoxville, since it’s close to the center of town. You can walk to the dining and shopping destinations of Market Square, Gay Street and Old City; stroll through the University of Tennessee campus; or hop over to the Neyland Greenway along the river (great for joggers and bikers) and Knoxville Museum of Art, which is just across a park from the hotel. The Tennessean was once the administration building for the World’s Fair, and the building has been smartly renovated into a personal luxury hotel. It has a beautiful lobby, a clubby lounge and restaurant called The Drawing Room and great fitness center. My huge classic king room ran about $229 a night, but rates depend on the season; don’t expect to get a bargain when UT’s Vols are playing.
What to see
I made a beeline to Market Square in the heart of downtown my first day there. It’s a mecca for restaurants more than shopping and you’ll see busking musicians, crowded sidewalk tables, pampered dogs on leashes and tourists. In fact, this is where I saw most tourists, or at least where they looked most obvious. Knoxville, for the most part, still feels like it belongs to locals.
Old City was once a seedy part of town, but city leaders have been busy turning it into a place for artists, boutique shops and new apartments in old buildings. Local makers and their studios can be found along these streets. Don’t miss Honeymouth Leather, Rala (loved the Dolly Parton merch in this gift and art shop) and Pretentious Glass Co. The latter is a workshop and showroom, and the glasses--both the utilitarian drinking glasses and the art pieces--are unique and beautiful. I bought two beer glasses for my husband’s birthday. Next door is Pretentious Beer, a craft brewery in a former saloon, which was founded and is run by the same glass company owner. All the beer is served in the glasses he makes next door.
The Emporium Center is a 28,000-square-foot flex space with multiple art galleries. The space housed a furniture company in 1898 and then had other lives before it reopened as a place for local artists, exhibitions and the headquarters of cultural organizations. I wish we had this much space in the heart of the city to give our own visual artists. Just a few steps from the Emporium is the Art Market Gallery, a coop of 60 juried East Tennessee artists. By the way, Knoxville also has historic theaters and its own opera and symphony.
Mast General Store is an old-timey store dating back to 1883 and filled with nostalgic and modern merchandise including a lower floor with a great selection of outdoor clothing and gear. But head to the candy section where you'll find bins with hundreds of old-fashioned sweets.
Knoxville Museum of Art is exceptional. Situated on the edge of World’s Fair Park, it’s a five-minute walk from the hotel. Designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, the museum is a four-story steel and concrete structure that also uses locally quarried pink Tennessee marble. Inside are galleries that celebrate East Tennessee artists from the mid-19th century to the present. The exhibits and collections are stunning and admission is free.
The city’s most prominent landmark is the Sunsphere, a 26-story structure that uses 24-karat gold in the glass panes and has been described--aptly--as a disco ball. The view from the top gives you a 360-degree view of the city. The day I was there, very few people were touring.
Ijams Nature Center. So close to The Tennesseean Hotel and yet so far from the noise, highways and high rises of the city. You can hike, bike, paddle, swim and climb.
Where to eat and drink
Note: This is not a definitive list. I was there for too short a time. Marc Rochelson, the publisher of Knoxville’s City Lifestyle magazine, says Knoxville’s “foodiness” reputation is partly enhanced by nearby Blackberry Farm, which has won national acclaim and big awards for its cuisine and wine inventory. Some of its chefs are now chefs and restaurant owners in Knoxville. Make sure to do a search when planning your culinary and distillery tours of the city. Here are some of the places I visited.
The French Market Creperie is a little bistro on a side street close to Market Square with a never-ending menu of intoxicating crepes. I ordered a "healthy" spicy vegetarian and hummus on a buckwheat crepe, which I gobbled up. I bet most people would prefer a blueberry, cherry cheesecake or Nutella on a traditional crepe.
Ruby Sunshine in Market Square has a great brunch, and there’s a long line of diners waiting at the door as evidence.
Curious Dog in Old City has a funky vibe, a massive cooler filled with beer and a giant chalkboard with more versions of a hot dog that you could ever imagine. Sandwiches, too.
Balter Beerworks describes itself as a “scratch kitchen brewpub.” Located in an old service station, they serve a killer bison burger.
The Drawing Room at The Tennessean is surprisingly good with a clubby atmosphere of couches and overstuffed chairs that will make you want to linger. (I also enjoyed The Tennessean’s tea service in The Drawing Room. It’s only offered a few times a year and on special occasions. Delicious tiny tea sandwiches and specialty teas served on Wedgewood with a signature linen napkin. It’s girly—but I heard that princesses everywhere try to snatch a coveted reservation.)
The Park Tavern is just a few steps from the lobby of The Tennessean and has a good menu in a great location. It's inside The Maker Exchange, a big indoor public space between the The Tennessean and The Marriott that showcases art by locals (which can be purchased) and hosts gatherings. There’s a beautiful bar and a luxuriously comfortable hearth room with fireplace at The Maker Exchange and you could spend a lot of time there with a cocktail or a cup of coffee.
Peter Kern Library is accessed in an alley behind the Oliver Hotel and after repeated banging on a metal door with a tiny window. The allure is its “secret” location and password. But everyone I met told me to go there, so the secret’s out. The atmosphere is an intimate library-like setting with cushy semi-circular banquettes. Craft cocktails are named after literary characters-Holly Golightly, Shug Avery or a Billy Pilgrim, anyone?—and are served on silver trays. The night I was there, bartender Josh was miraculously making six different cocktails simultaneously while holding a coherent conversation with patrons.
Knox Whiskey Works. I’m not a whiskey fan, but I loved the charm of this small-batch distillery, which claims to be the city’s first “legal” distillery. So much to choose from but my favorite was the Honey Habanero Flavored Whiskey.