Though Knoxville, a dynamic city of approximately 186,000, is full of southern charm and close to its rugged pioneer roots, it is increasingly home to much more than chicken and dumplings and Americana music. Its sun-filled Market Square, a wide-open, pedestrian-only street in the center of downtown, is lined with upscale restaurants, homey cafes, and boutique shops. On warm days, locals sit in wrought-iron chairs near a lush patch of grass in the center of the square, and kids giggle in the nearby "play fountain," one of many in town.
Nestled just west of the Smoky Mountains, Knoxville was founded in 1786 by Revolutionary War veteran James White. Its position at the mouth of the Tennessee River and bountiful farmland made it a resourceful and well-connected spot for a settlement. Today, its thriving culture is so multi-faceted it sometimes seems paradoxical. Historical brick buildings butt up against parking garages, and a general store sells candy sticks alongside Teva sandals down the street from two world-class theaters. Since hosting the 1982 World's Fair, Knoxville has worked hard to tout itself as an arts and culture destination, pouring millions of dollars into the downtown area. Alongside this development, restoration efforts abound, preserving the dusty frontier-town charm of centuries past.
The winters here are usually mild, but Knoxville really comes alive in the warmer months. The month-long Dogwood Arts Festival jam-packs April with exhibitions and events; late June's Kuumba Festival celebrates African-American heritage; and Sundown in the City, a free outdoor concert series, features live music in Market Square every Thursday during the spring and summer months. For a more complete listing, check www.knoxville.org/visitors/festivals. Events like these are well-attended by locals, and this bolsters the already-strong sense of community here. Knoxvillians are an active, hospitable bunch -- they are very proud of their city, and they want you to love it, too. Here are just a few ways to experience the area's diverse offerings.
1. Explore the Old and New of Knoxville's Downtown
Knoxville is a relatively large city, but the downtown area is condensed enough to be explored in an afternoon. The market square area, the site of Knoxville's original central market, is spacious and inviting. Restaurants and shops lining the wide pedestrian plaza's edges range from the no-frills Gus's Restaurant (tel. 865/525-9338) to La Costa (www.lacostaonmarketsquare.com), a trendy Latin fusion bistro. Stroll past the inlaid grassy square with the substantial maple tree to Krutch Park, where a brick walkway winds past landscaped ponds, sculptures, and natives reading or pausing for ice cream breaks on plentiful benches.
If you crave a slightly funkier downtown experience, head to Knoxville's Old City. I found this small enclave (about three square blocks) to be the most intriguing section of town. Old City's dusty brick buildings, saloons, and warehouses reveal a grittier, hardworking Knoxville, though an upscale vintage clothing store and a coffee shop have become a part of the streetscape too. The majority of Old City's crowd seems to be young and local, which means there is an active nightlife, and plenty of live music, here.
2. Hike House Mountain
From the top of House Mountain, the view of the green farmland below is obstructed only by sparse scrub pines and heavy purple wisteria blooms. Sandstone boulders are covered with particularly striking sea-green lichens, and in the spring, butterflies abound. Just 15 minutes from downtown Knoxville, House Mountain, the highest peak in Knox County, is a designated natural area in the state of Tennessee. The mountain is home to a wide array of flora and fauna, particularly in the spring and summer -- including Tennessee natives such as huckleberry and mountain laurel. It's free to park and choose your route on the five available trails, which range in difficulty and distance. The trail to the summit is relatively steep, and is considered "strenuous" by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (www.state.tn.us/environment/na/natareas/housemtn). As long as you're willing to break a bit of a sweat, you shouldn't miss this foray into eastern Tennessee's natural world. Comfortable sneakers or hiking boots and plenty of water are a must.
3. Have the Blue Plate Special
On a Thursday afternoon, the Knoxville Visitor's Center (www.knoxville.org) on the corner of the wide and stately Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, was full of activity. A three piece band sound-checked on the small stage, and audience members filled in the cluster of metal folding chairs. WDVX (www.wdvx.com), Knoxville's local radio station, hosts this live performance and lunch event every weekday at noon, to the delight of locals and tourists alike. The space is breezy and well-maintained, the vibe comfortable, and the bands, which range from alternative folk to traditional Americana, are accomplished. Most hail from all over the country, but a few beloved local acts are fixtures too. I saw Yu'ns, a jubilant five-man ensemble that describes its sound as "jugband music with elements of folk, swing, country, and blues." The food, though decidedly not the focus of the event, is catered by Calhoun's on the River (www.calhouns.com), a Knoxville landmark that has perched on the edge of the Tennessee River since 1983. The performance, clapping and all, is broadcasted live to the greater Knoxville area, and you'll feel like you're sharing an experience with the entire community.
4. Explore Appalachian History
I walked the grounds of the Museum of Appalachia (www.museumofappalachia.org), 16 miles north of Knoxville in the town of Norris, on a dewy morning, before the place was flooded with families and school groups. Tiptoeing past peacocks and guinea fowl, I peered into the log cabin where Mark Twain's parents lived before he was born, and paused to listen to local Americana musicians. Considered a "living history" museum, the sprawling grounds mimic an 18th century homestead and evoke the hardy spirit of Appalachia. The approximately 35 log structures act as miniature museums, filled with artifacts that range from eyeglasses to basket-making materials.
A large farmhouse, known as the "Appalachian Hall of Fame," is packed to the gills with native lore. The narratives that accompany the artifacts are mostly hand-written from the point of view of John Rice Irving, a local man whose personal Appalachian history (his family has called Norris home for generations) and a penchant for collecting prompted him to found the museum in 1969. The result is a little unnerving, as though you've happened upon someone's very personal belongings, and the explanations seem more story-like than fact-driven. But this may be what sets the Museum of Appalachia apart -- its commitment to a colorful oral history that is rich with legend and hearsay. Whether or not you consider yourself an Appalachian history buff, watching the working farm come to life from your rocking chair vantage point is worth the short drive from the city.
5. Float on the Tennessee River
The Tennessee River begins where the Holston and French Broad Rivers combine, just east of Knoxville. Though this body of water is a proverbial powerhouse, contributing to one of the largest hydroelectric systems in the world, it seems remarkably calm as it flows past Knoxville. The most intimate way to experience the river is in a kayak, sitting just a few inches from its surface and nimbly maneuvering its (usually) gentle current. You can rent the boats for $30 per day (or $20 for two hours) from River Sports Outfitters (www.riversportsoutfitters.com), a Knoxville institution that doubles as a retail store for state-of-the-art gear.
If you prefer to ride rather than paddle, you can explore Knoxville's many river cruise options. I boarded the Volunteer Princess (tel. 865/541-4556; www.volunteerprincess.com), a sleek, modern-looking yacht, for an hour-long cruise. The Volunteer Princess is available for private charter, but it also offers cruises that are open to the public. Be sure to call first though, as the boat won't debark without a certain number of passengers. Once you're on the water, I suggest leaving the air-conditioned, enclosed dining area and sitting on the open deck. As the Princess chugged along, I watched industrial buildings give way to rolling farmland. It's impossible not to relax while sipping a drink onboard and watching the sun set.
6. Start the Day in the Studio
Not surprisingly, Knoxville's arts community is a close-knit and welcoming one, and there are plenty of galleries and exhibition spaces devoted to showing off local talent. If you're interested in a more immersive experience, head to Ironwood Studios (tel. 865/405-0777; www.mcgilvraywoodworks.com/IronWood_Studios.htm) on Jennings Avenue in downtown Knoxville. Here, woodworker John McGilvray and metalworker Preston Farabow share a cavernous, light-filled studio that would make any Williamsburg hipster weep. Employing an "open studio" policy, which means that the artists welcome visitors, McGilvray and Farabow are happy to give impromptu tours of the studio as long as they're not, in Farabow's terms, "slinging hot metal and catching [their] hair on fire." The men split the space down the middle, and use a smaller area at the front of the building as an exhibition space and showroom. On Farabow's side, hunks of bashed up NASCAR cars, which he fashions into coffee tables and abstract sculptures, hang from the ceiling, and the whir of machinery makes conversation difficult. McGilvray's area is stacked with pine boards rescued from a building restoration on Gay Street that he's using to make smooth, sturdy tables. McGilvray and Farabow are generous with their space, often hosting fund raisers, parties, and concerts in the midst of their creations. Check out the website for upcoming events, and call the studio first if you plan to visit.
Note: Frommer's Editorial Assistant Jessica Langan-Peck was a guest of the Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation and Geiger & Associates.