Gorgeous natural mountain scenery, Southern hospitality, historical attractions, family-fun activities, a compact downtown, a fairly temperate climate, and proximity to the most-visited national park in the United States make Knoxville, Tennessee a perennially popular vacation destination any time of the year. Set a course to southeastern Tennessee and explore everything this charming metropolis has to offer. Here are the best things to do during your Knoxville adventure:
The beautiful blue-tinged Smoky Mountains encroach on Knoxville from the east, offering hundreds of miles of wooded trails along with waterfalls, fishing streams, camping sites, wide-open spaces, and unforgettable vistas to enjoy all year long. You’ll have to venture toward Gatlinburg to reach the closest entrance, but Knoxville’s convenient proximity to the park makes it an appealing home base to splash out from and return to at the end of the day. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for native black bear sightings and the other indigenous wildlife that populates this wild and beautifully unspoiled region.
Brush Up on Your East Tennessee History
With a permanent collection that delves into local artifacts, decorative arts, textiles and quilts, furniture, paintings and Civil War memorabilia, this intriguing museum walks guests through the history of the iconic Southern region it calls home. Interesting traveling exhibits provide even more incentive to visit, and an extensive on-site genealogy research center appeals to historians who are interested in digging deeper into the roots of their own family trees. The facility also claims the East Tennessee Historical Society, the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collectionand the Knox County public records archive.
Take a Stroll Through World’s Fair Park
Anchored by the Tennessee Amphitheater and the sparkling gold Sunsphere tower rising 266 feet over downtown Knoxville, the former site of the 1982 World’s Fair is now a spacious park attraction that includes a lake, a performance lawn that’s bigger than two football fields, and lots of space for outdoor festivals and events. Summer visitors can admire the fountains throughout the park, while kids tend to gravitate toward the seasonal interactive play area at the Court of Flags Fountain to cool down when the weather forecast is hot. Stretch your legs with a scenic stroll along the walking trails that connect to the Second Creek Greenway, continuing on toward the riverfront and the University of Tennessee campus. And don’t even think about leaving the park without taking an elevator ride to the Sunsphere’s 4th level observation deck to appreciate breathtaking panoramic 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape.
Shop and Eat Around Market Square
Brimming with a lively collection of shops, boutiques, restaurants, bars, and cafes, this charming pedestrian-friendly enclave has been a favored community gathering spot since it initially began to take shape all the way back in the 1860s. More lately, it’s a one-stop destination that covers everything visitors need to shop until they drop, and then some. Throughout the summer months, outdoor concerts, vibrant festivals, Shakespeare in the Park performances, an open-air farmers’ market, spray-play fountains, and the adjacent Krutch Park green space add even more appeal to the district. While an ice-skating rink takes center stage in the winter.
See the City From the Water
Don’t miss the boat. Ride the Tennessee River in style with an excursion on the iconic Star of Knoxville. A leisurely way to see the city, Knoxville’s only real-deal paddlewheel riverboat ferries guests during a schedule of seasonal lunch, dinner and narrated sightseeing cruises, in addition to hosting a number of private charters, weddings, themed outings and other special events. With room for more than 200 passengers across two decks plus buffet dining, two bars and a dance floor, any river journey aboard the U.S. Coast Guard-approved vessel promises to be memorable and fun.
Get to Know Homegrown Artists at Knoxville Museum of Art
A showcase for works by artists who hail from Eastern Tennessee, this appealing museum caters to creative visitors of all ages and sensibilities with a varied blend of permanent and traveling exhibitions. The contemporary cubist-style façade sets the tone for the creativity on view within. A few highlights to hit — the massive steel-and-glass “Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity” sculpture by Knoxville artist Richard Jolley, the rotating “Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee” displays, regionally produced ceramics, a colorful collection of hand-crafted jewelry, and an interactive children’s area.Best of all, admission is always free, and so is parking in the lot across the street.
Step Back in Time at Blount Mansion
Take a deep immersive dive into the life and times ofWilliam Blount, one of the original signers of the United States Constitution, with a tour through the governor’s 1792 family home. Now a National Historic Landmark Site, the thoughtfully curated residence has been called the “birthplace of Tennessee” and served as the capital of the Southwest Territory under Blount’s leadership. These days, the preserved wood-frame house holds artifacts and recreated room vignettes that reveal just how the home might have looked and operated back in Blount’s day. Visits also allow access to the property’s lovely gardens, which have been reimagined to embody true 18th-century style.
Head to Zoo Knoxville
Wondering where the wild things are? Zoo Knoxville delights guests of all ages with opportunities to view (and sometimes even interact with) a wide array of animal residents from anteaters to zebras. Some of the dedicated habitats to explore include the Boyd Family Asian Trek, Grasslands Africa, Black Bear Falls and Chimp Ridge. And look for the new Clayton Family Amphibian and Reptile Campus — a.k.a. “the ARC” — to up the ante when it opens in April 2021, featuring a world-class 2.5-acre facility that houses Cuban crocodiles, wetlands and herpetologists busy at work. In the meantime, kids will continue clamoring to ride the Zoo Choo Train and the Fuzzy-Go-Round carousel.
Hike, Bike, or Zipline Your Way Through Ijams Nature Center
Studded with rugged stone quarries, this 300+-acre nature center maintains a natural oasis in the heart of the city just three miles from downtown Knoxville. Whatever your preferred style of outdoor adventure, Ijams stands ready to accommodate with hiking trails, mountain bike paths, a zipline course, birdwatching opportunities, water recreation, rock climbing, fresh-air space for exercise, and a visitor center with live animal exhibits and a gift shop. This idyllic territory was originally founded more than 100 years ago as a bird sanctuary and morphed into its current nature park status in the 1960s.
See Sports Legends at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
Hoop it up and pay your respects to the trailblazing coaches, players and officials who define women’s pro basketball through a Hall of Honor that recognizes annual Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductees. You can’t miss this landmark attraction; just look for the 30-foot tall Baden basketball (the world’s largest!) that marks the entrance. Once inside, the bronze Eastman statue welcomes visitors, exemplifying the organization’s goals to “honor the past, celebrate the present, and promote the future” of the sport. Think you’ve got game? After honoring the ladies of the court, you can test your own dribbling and passing skills and measure your vertical leap on three indoor courts.
Take a Train Tour Through Knoxville
If journeys by land are more your speed, book a reservation to ride the rails on the Three Rivers Rambler steam-powered tourist train. Two-hour, 11-mile excursions from downtown Knoxville skirt through bucolic farmland to the mouth of the Tennessee River, departing from the modern University Commons depot on the University of Tennessee campus. The festive Christmas Lantern Express is a particularly popular experience for young passengers.
Bring the Family for a Day of Science at The Muse Knoxville
Learn something new at this well-attended STEAM attraction where science, technology, engineering, arts, and math reign supreme. The Muse is geared mainly toward school-aged kids, but it’s hard not to be inspired at any age by these interactive state-of-the-art exhibits and hands-on activities within. Dig around in the augmented reality sandbox, spark your imagination with a puppet show in the book nook, bang a drum in the outdoor music garden, or marvel at the night sky any time of day with a show in the on-site planetarium.
Enjoy Some Fresh Air at Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum
This 47-acre outdoor attraction took root in the 1780s as the Howell Nurseries family-owned horticulture business, but it didn’t fully bloom into a full-on botanical garden and arboretum until 2001. Visitors are welcome to take their time and wander through eight showy display gardens, a butterfly meadow, and serene walking paths—all a magical backdrop for weddings and other special occasion events. The gardens stay open from dawn to dusk 365 days a year, and admission is free.
Learn About Small Town History at Farragut Museum
Named after the first commissioned admiral of the U.S. Navy David Glasgow Farragut, this fascinating repository enlightens and educates visitors about the Farragut and Concord communities through artifacts, photos, and other historical materials. Among the collections on display, guests can observe and admire Farragut’s original china, uniforms, manuscripts, scrimshaw, and a desk that was on board the U.S.S. Hartford during the Battle of Mobile Bay. Outside, historical markers—a life-sized bronze statue and Civil War cannons—grace the grounds of the Farragut Memorial Plaza.
Gawk at the World's Largest Rubik's Cube
A gift from the Hungarian government to adorn the country’s pavilion at the 1982 World Fair, the world’s largest Rubik’s Cube commemorates the legacy of Erno Rubik, the architecture professor who invented the beloved 3D puzzle in 1974. Now at home in the lobby of the Knoxville Convention Center, this whopping 10-foot tall conversation piece weighs in at 1,200 pounds with blocks that once turned by a hidden motorized mechanism. It's definitely worth stopping by for a quick selfie.