Maybe there's something in the water of the Tennessee River. Wherever you go in Knoxville, Tennessee, you're bound to encounter people who are visibly, overwhelmingly happy. They're also fiercely proud of their city, and just about the nicest people you'll ever meet. Granted, Knoxvillians have a lot to be happy about: Their town boasts top-notch theater and concerts, a vibrant arts community, unique shops, and eclectic restaurants -- all in a friendly, laid-back atmosphere. The easy access to barbecue and home cooking probably doesn't hurt, either.
Scenically located in the rolling hills of the Appalachians and surrounded by three national parks, Knoxville's natural beauty is a vital part of its allure. The city, recently ranked fourth by Hotwire (www.hotwire.com) among the "Most Affordable Travel Destinations in the United States," also makes for a cheap getaway. On a recent visit to Knoxville coinciding with its annual Dogwood Arts Festival, I discovered a music and theater buffs' mecca, with festivals, food, and shopping well worth the trip to the heartland.
The Magnificent Theaters of Gay Street
"You have to look up," I was told on my first trip walking down Gay Street, Knoxville's main thoroughfare. Easy to overlook, many of the street's brick storefronts rise to reveal beautiful marble ornamentation (Knoxville was itself a major center for marble distribution in the early 1900s). Gay Street also stands out with its two impressive theaters, the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou Theatre. Both theaters are designated on the National Register of Historic Places. "Some cities may have one historic theater, but how many have two historic theaters, just two blocks away from each other?" said Tom Bugg, the General Manager of the Bijou. Each of the two venues has its own unique set of attributes, and a visit to Knoxville isn't complete without visiting both.
I was completely enchanted by the Tennessee Theater (604 S. Gay St., tel. 865/684-1200; www.tennesseetheatre.com), with its dazzling and opulent setting. The theater, first opened in 1929, is built in the style of historic Spanish Moorish, and while there I did feel as though I had perhaps entered a room in Madrid's Palacio Real. There are gold mosaics and coats of arms on the walls, marble arches, enormous crystal chandeliers (valued at $150,000 each), red brocade drapes and velvet flooring, all carefully preserved for historic integrity. And that's just the lobby. Visiting here, I felt as though I had stepped into another era, and it's easy to envision the sing-alongs to the Mighty Wurlitzer that took place in the 1920s and '30s. Nowadays, the theater hosts a range of national touring artists and local groups -- some upcoming shows include Grammy-winning soul artist John Legend, the Knoxville Opera's performance of Carmen, and the Smoky Mountain Harmony Show Chorus. There's also an ongoing movie series of classic films, ranging from the 1930s to 1970s.
While the Tennessee is majestic and awe-inspiring, the nearby Bijou Theatre (803 S. Gay St., tel. 865/522-0832; www.knoxbijou.com) offers a smaller and more intimate setting. It's had a checkered history, to say the least. The site was originally used as a hospital during the Civil War, and the theater was erected in 1909 as a vaudeville house. When the Tennessee Theater was opened two blocks away, the Bijou shut down and became a used car lot and produce stand. It reopened in 1936 and was reputed to also serve as a brothel. The theater has experienced setbacks in the last several decades, with various closings and restoration projects. It was feted with a grand reopening ceremony in 2006. Through its 97-year history, the Bijou has hosted everyone from the Marx brothers and Dizzy Gillespie to Sheryl Crow and the Dave Matthews Band. Legend has it that a ghost haunts the theater (admittedly, I'm a bit skeptical: There's never been a reported sighting, other than patrons feeling an "odd chill" or "eerie cold").
Knoxvillians take great pride in the Bijou and call it their city's "small jewel." The smaller space translates to a more intimate performance, and there's not a bad seat in the house. The stage is lined with gilded bars, and tiny gold cherubs look down from seats adjacent to the stage. The theater is also renowned for its acoustics. I attended a jazz concert by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and the venue lent a unique sharpness and clarity to the performance (the trumpets in particular) -- the room was absolutely pitch-perfect.
As is the case with many U.S. cities these days, Knoxville has a downtown in transition, easily seen here at Gay Street. Five years ago, it wasn't a pedestrian-friendly place, but it's now undergone a revival. Portions of the street have construction going up, with signs boasting "New Urban Lofts" and "Downtown Luxury Living." It will be interesting to see how the street evolves in coming years, with an influx of city-dwellers and new modern structures cropping up alongside the older building facades, parks, and street-side sculptures.
Festival Fever at Market Square
Just a stone's throw from Gay Street lies Market Square, a gathering point in town with quirky boutiques and trendy restaurants. The square is split between a small park area with sculptures, a small creek, and waterfall, and the main part of the Square with shops and eateries. It's easy to spend hours gift-buying here, and a terrific spot to start is Bliss (24 Market Sq., tel. 888/809-2424; www.shopinbliss.com). The front of the store has a large selection of unique jewelry, stationary, and purses, while the back is dedicated to home goods. Right next door is the eclectic Earth to Old City (22 Market Sq., tel. 865/522-8270; www.earthtooldcity.com). The store is crammed with every item imaginable, such as kids' toys, Buddha statues, world-music CDs, and bath products. Vagabondia (27 Market Sq., tel. 865/525-4842; www.vagabondiaonthesquare.com) has flowy clothes with an older vibe, with walls adorned with paintings of Louise Brooks.
In April, artists, locals, and out-of-towners alike flock to Market Square for Knoxville's annual Dogwood Arts Festival (www.dogwoodarts.com). The festival marks the beginning of spring, when East Tennessee's many dogwood trees and azaleas are in bloom. Booths sell handcrafted jewelry, paintings, and festival food like chocolate-covered strawberries and kettle corn. The event kicks off with the "Festival on Market Square," which features arts and crafts shows, nature tours, music, and a parade through downtown Knoxville. There's an array of activities to keep kids busy -- booths from the Oak Ridge Art Center let kids make their own bead necklaces and prints, or get henna tattoos.
Another highlight of Market Square's event lineup is Sundown in the City (www.sundowninthecity.com). This free live concert series takes over Market Square on Thursday nights from April through June, and is celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2007. Some of the upcoming acts include Brazilian Girls, Gin Blossoms, and Drive-by Truckers. On the night I attended, more than 10,000 people of all ages packed out the Square to hear the music of Edwin McCain. I found myself marveling at the fact that any given night, in the span of a few blocks, 10,000 people may be attending Sundown, 600 people a concert at the Bijou, and probably some 1,600 a show at the Tennessee Theatre -- proof of the predominant role culture plays in this town.
Knoxville hosts various other festivals throughout the year. Some highlights include the Rossini festival in May (www.knoxvilleopera.com/rossini), and Shakespeare on the Square in July and August.
Dance Alongside Masterpieces at the Museum of Art
My last night in town, I headed to the Knoxville Museum of Art (1050 World's Fair Park, www.knoxart.org). Their Alive After Five event provides the perfect combo -- fun, live music and an arty atmosphere. The museum, a modern white structure perched on a hill, houses a permanent collection that features Eastern Tennesseans interspersed with works by artists of international renown. The museum also hosts three roving exhibitions focusing on emerging artists. On Friday nights, the museum's Great Hall is set aside for Alive After Five. Dinner is catered and includes southern specialties and desserts, along with sandwiches and cookies.
After the time I spent in Knoxville theater, festival, and museum-hopping, what struck me most was Knoxville's dedication to promoting and encouraging music and arts. And then there's that cheeriness: At Alive After Five, I found myself chatting with friendly locals whenever I was away from my table or at the cash bar. Upbeat Americana music filled the museum space, and the dance floor was packed with people, equally at home whether in jeans or dressed to the nines. They danced the two-step, laughing and grinning as they spun to the fiddle playing. After a few days in Knoxville, this jaded New Yorker found herself thawed out and renewed -- it was impossible to feel like an outsider in this charming, dynamic city, and to not start smiling too.
Knoxville is easily accessed by McGhee Tyson Airport, which lies 12 miles south of downtown. The airport is served by 8 major airlines which fly to 19 non-stop destinations.
Best Time to Visit
The climate in Knoxville is pleasant throughout the year. The city's natural beauty is at its peak in the spring, when many flowers are in bloom, and fall, when the stunning landscape is ablaze with leaves changing.
Where to Eat
Market Square Kitchen (1 Market Sq., tel. 865/546-4212; www.marketsquarekitchen.com) is wildly popular with locals meeting up for a bite -- the line snaked all the way around the restaurant during my lunch there. Clearly no one seems to mind, and the homey atmosphere and good food more than compensate. The menu changes daily, with main courses like vegetarian lasagna and interesting soup and sandwich options (I had a summer salad with bleu cheese and strawberries).
Trendy La Costa (31 Market Sq., tel. 865/566-0275; www.lacostaonmarketsquare.com) is a minimalist space, with dim lighting and brick walls. The cuisine is described as nuevo latino, with innovative menu options. I had an incredible pumpkin seed-crusted salmon, but quickly found myself eying my neighbor's dish, a pan-roasted duck with sweet potato, lime beurre blanc, and balsamic drizzled green beans. The restaurant uses organic ingredients, and also offers an excellent (and very reasonably-priced) wine list.
Of course, a trip to Tennessee isn't complete without sampling some barbecue. For locals in the know, the choice is obvious: Calhoun's (www.calhouns.com). The are four locations in Knoxville -- one has a microbrewery (6516 Kingston Pike; tel. 865/673-3377), while Calhoun's on the River (400 Neyland Drive; tel. 865/673-3355) has a waterfront location close to downtown, and even provides its own dock for mooring your boat. Go and judge for yourself whether they've earned their claim of having the best ribs in America.
The Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation is located in downtown Knoxville in the Knoxville Visitor Center, at the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive. You can contact the Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation toll-free at tel. 800/727-8045, or visit their website at www.knoxville.org.
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