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While not as famous or visited as its sister city Nashville, the city of Knoxville is a beautiful gem located in East Tennessee close to the Smoky Mountains. History is a very prominent aspect of this city which can be seen in the buildings, museums, and monuments. If you’re planning a trip out to Tennessee, here are the best things to do in Knoxville.
Sunsphere / World’s fair Park
This park in downtown Knoxville sits on the former fairgrounds of the 1982 World’s Fair. It is home to the most prominent feature in the city’s skyline, the Sunsphere. Unlike most towers in other cities, it is completely free to ascend, which takes you up to 360-degree views of Knoxville, approximately 266 feet up in the air.
After taking in the city views, you are able to read up on Knoxville’s history, featured on the Observation Deck, and see the gallery of historic images. The Sunsphere is one of the two remaining structures from the 1982 World’s Fair along with the Amphitheater.
Visit Historic Homes
These historic homes are scattered about the city, full of stories to tell. Most visitors just choose one or two on their trip to Knoxville, but there are seven sites you can visit. If you choose to visit them all, a combo pass is available to purchase. Some of the most visited homes include the Blount Mansion, Crescent Bend, and Mabry-Hazen.
The name of the mansion, Blount Mansion, comes from William Blount who was a signer of the United States Constitution. He built the home which later served as the territorial capital. Blount Mansion has seen the early days of Knoxville and has housed Tennessee governors and prominent families and later became slum housing until it was saved by early preservationists.
In the early 1800’s the Armstrong family moved into their home “Crescent Bend”, that got its name from the bend in the river over which the house overlooked. The house was later used by Union and Confederate armies as a command center and hospital. Expansive and beautiful gardens and views, make this home a must see.
Atop the Mabry’s Hill sits the Mabry-Hazen house. This home has the largest original family collection with over 2,000 original items on display. You can see a century’s worth of history and way of life, including big historic events such as the Civil War, start of the iconic Market Square and more.
James White Fort
The James White Fort is considered the birthplace of Knoxville and therefore one of the most visited historical sites in the city, part of the historic homes. Telling the story of the American pioneer and soldier, the museum highlights the 1786 residence of James White. Originally from North Carolina, White made his way over to the Tennessee Valley where the city of Knoxville was eventually situated.
Today you can take a tour of the grounds that include the courtyard, main house, well, smokehouse and a blacksmith shop among other things.
Museum of East Tennessee History
The museum is where you’ll find hundreds of authentic exhibits and galleries portraying the long history of East Tennessee. There is a permanent museum collection as well as temporary exhibits bringing something new every time for the visitor. Since the area has a strong connection to the Civil War, the permanent collection includes Civil War items from both Confederate and Union armies. Among other things are furniture, paintings, textiles, and photographs from the earlier days.
Lined with restaurants and shops, Market Square is the main square in the downtown area. People eating in the restaurant’s terraces, walking around gazing at the shops, sitting on the park’s benches and the occasional performer, all make this square busy during any time of day. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the square becomes a farmer’s market where you can find fresh produce. During different times of year, festivals fill the square with stalls of street food, while during the winter, a small ice-skating rink makes the square feel more festive.
Take a walk in the Old City, the downtown area of Knoxville, and it will quickly become a favorite pastime. Some of the best restaurants and dessert cafes are located in the area beside galleries, shops, and live music venues many in historic architectural structures. You can find more information on the events happening during your visit at the information center on one end of the main street in downtown, Gay Street. On the other end, you can walk the bridge that runs over the Tennessee River, and see the area from another perspective, which especially lights up during sunset.
Museum of Art
Celebrating artists from all around the region, including historical artists who lived and worked in the area, the museum boasts modern and classic art alike. A permanent display, one of the world’s largest glass and steel assemblages, is the sculpture Cycle of Life which gives the museum a . Another unique display in the museum is the collection of miniature rooms complete with furniture and little daily items. The museum is close to the World’s Fair Park and the best part is that is has free admission.
With a tall Tennessee sign above it, and a classic exterior, the Theater is a recognizable landmark. The inside is even more extravagant with terrazzo tiles and an incredible dome in the auditorium. Throughout the year, there are various productions including Broadway shows and concerts from prominent performers as well as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Tours are available at certain times, to go behind the scenes including the stage, backstage and dressing areas.
While not as iconic as the Tennessee Theater, the Bijou Theatre is worth a stop by as well, hosting many of the city’s more modern concerts throughout the year.
Find Some Murals
There are quite a few murals to see in Knoxville, that there is even a self-guided downtown mural walking tour. Make sure to stop by the popular Greetings from Knoxville mural and the fun Weaving Rainbow Mountain, which are the colorful steps, covered in bright colors and patterns.
While most of the murals are within the downtown, there are a few that are scattered in some other parts of the city, so be sure to see those too if you have the time.
Keeping old traditions alive, the Phoenix Pharmacy is a great place to stop by for a refreshment. Not long ago, downtown pharmacies along with soda counters were the prime gathering places for locals and visitors alike. Phoenix is bringing back the sense of a community with a full-service pharmacy and hand-made, fresh ingredients soda fountain. Be sure to get a taste of the honorary Great Smoky Mountain sundae that overflows with vanilla ice cream, caramel, whipped cream, and the special smoked brittle on top of a large, fudge-soaked brownie and Italian sponge cake. Although any one of their other specialty items on the menu are sure to impress as well.
The building itself, originally ornamented with a stone phoenix, is part of the history too as it once was the tallest building in the city of Knoxville. Having endured two fires, it has been rebuilt several times and housed everything from department stores, to FBI agents and a Confederate prisoner of war. While not the tallest building anymore, after the last renovation, it still holds the name and legacy of The Phoenix.
World’s Biggest Rubik’s Cube
The cube was first gifted from the Hungarian government for the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. It was to commemorate the invention by a Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik. Since then, the Rubik’s cube has remained displayed in Knoxville in various locations, the last being inside the downtown Holiday Inn. Although perhaps it’s no longer the world biggest, it’s still one of the biggest in the world weighing in at 1200 pounds and standing 10 feet tall.
Ijams Nature Center
A nature filled getaway close to the city, the Ijams Nature Center is a favorite place of the locals. Whether you fancy a hike, kayaking on the river, swimming or paddling in the Mead’s Quarry Lake, or testing your endurance on the rope course or rock climbing, there are plenty of things to do.
Despite being so close to the city, there are over 300 acres included in this nature center. It all started when Harry Ijams, an illustrator and ornithologist, and his wife Alice Ijams, a gardener, purchased 20 acres of land along the Tennessee river to raise their family.
Since, then to continue their legacy and protect the Bird Sanctuary, the City of Knoxville purchased the land. The park became a nonprofit organization and has grown into a sizable wildlife sanctuary and environmental learning center.
About the Author: Angela Miller
Having the travel bug since a very young age, Angela has been on countless adventures around the world and she’s not planning on stopping any time soon.