Adventure Town - Knoxville, TN

I thought I knew Knoxville. After all, I spent my four college years there studying at the University of Tennessee. It was my first time moving away from my nearby born-and-raised Nashville home. In retrospect, I probably didn’t engage with the city enough to have an accurate account of its fullness. But basically, I pretty much felt like Knoxville was only there because of UT. Downtown gave me a drowsy impression with boarded-up store fronts and unpeopled districts. Following my 2011 graduation, Knoxville was relegated to nothing more than a convenient pitstop at ye old alma mater on the way to the Great Smoky Mountains or any East TN road-trip.

Over the last few years, traveling, photography and blogging have increasingly taken over both my recreational and professional life. A sweet and surprising culmination of this path thus far has been taking up the mantle of Nashville Explorer’s Club. There followed a certain sense of significance that Knoxville would turn out to be our first official venture in this new relaunch of the Club. It was the perfect time to rediscover the town I thought I knew so well.

Turns out, Knoxville has revealed itself to be a knockout in more ways than I could have imagined. It’s a hidden gem that I wish I would have treasured sooner. If it’s not just a college-football town, what is it?  Upon investigation, one feature or a single industry alone does not reveal itself. Instead, Knoxville has a truly Renaissance spirit at its core. Its history is surprisingly deep and intriguingly varied. It thrives side-by-side with fresh and imaginative entrepreneurs who are populating and constantly reinvigorating industries and the arts. Dynamic and unique, Knoxville actually gets better the closer you look. It remains interesting beyond the first date and gives you the sense that you will have a longer more significant relationship than you first expected.

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We spent just over two days experiencing all we could on our first Nashville Explorer’s Club trip.  Here are some of our favorite Knoxville highlights:

1. Urban Meets Wilderness

No need to choose between a wild outdoor getaway or a cultured city stay. You can drive from the red-bricked northern Old City with its craft cocktails, hot dinner spots and photo ops to over 1,000 acres of forested parks and lush greenways along downtown’s southern waterfront in a mere TEN MINUTES. Recreation and preservation meet in this vibrant area known as The Knoxville Urban Wilderness that features deep quarry lakes, rivers, bluffs and wild-flowering fields. Go mountain-biking or hiking over 50 miles of connecting trails. Go stand up paddle-boarding or kayaking at Mead’s Quarry, drive a little further to bird-watch at Seven Islands State Birding Park (maybe catch a misty sunrise!) or spend some quality time with your four-legged friends on the scenic river boardwalk. And then be back in the heart of the city for date night in a flash. The Ijams Nature Center also runs numerous seasonal programs and activities for children, families and groups.

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2. Discover History Up Close

For those interested in the city’s backstory, a rich and curious narrative awaits. It was once defined by its railroad and mining industries, even earning the nickname “Marble City” due to the export of its world-famous Pink Marble.  Knoxville was one of the last American cities to host a World’s Fair (1982) and it’s the largest city near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and The Great Smoky Mountains. An impressive collection of historical homes have been preserved in the area; we were able to visit beautiful Historic Westwood, built in 1890 as the home and studio of artist, wife and mother, Adelia Armstrong Lutz. (A sweet old family member was able to give us a free tour around the place and share unique features and stories with us.) Famous artists such as crooning duo The Everly Brothers and author Frances Hodgson Burnett each had the chance to call Knoxville home. The Knoxville Botanical Gardens even features a secret garden inspired by Burnett’s book. (The perfect place for a scenic escape or a pastoral picnic!) 

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3. Five stars for Convenience and Accessibility

Especially for those travelers coming from Nashville or similar localities, Knoxville is refreshingly easy on the budget and eager to please. Downtown is astonishingly walkable. The numerous parking garages are free after 6pm and on weekends. Rent a Pace Bike on a street corner or hop on and off the free trolley system and make it even easier to reach the places just a little too far to walk. Located in the heart of downtown, The Knoxville Visitor’s Center can be a great place to learn more about specific interests and make plans for your adventures. The KnoxvilleVisitor’s Center also regularly hosts the lauded Americana music live-radio show The Blue Plate Special, so keep your ears open when you stop by!

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4. Eat Your Way Through Your Stay

Even if it’s not why you came, the food might be the reason you stay. This definitely applied to us when we were supposed to leave first thing on our last day. We kept hearing about another amazing brunch place that we couldn’t leave without trying. For an early morning brew, we can highly recommend Honeybee Coffee and Remedy Coffee. Next door to Remedy is the town’s deliciously quaint Paysan Bakery where you can order your fresh-out-of-the-oven breakfast or pack some rustic picnic breads to go. Sweet P’s has got your BBQ, try Tako Taco and especially Chivo for some great Mexican fare, Boyd’s Jig and Reel for some pub grub (and live music) and visit Schulz Brau Brewing Company if you want to drink giant craft German beers in a castle’s traditional Beirgarten. For chilled summer sweets, don’t miss Cruze Dairy Farms ice cream and The Phoenix Pharmacy both downtown on Gay Street. Fresh donuts are next-door at Status Dough. Excellent craft cocktails will be waiting at the Central Depot and Public House bars. (There’s even a tiny speakeasy-style cocktail bar in the Oliver Hotel, if you can figure out how to find it!)  Before 2pm, the Plaid Apron shares its vibrant take on both breakfast and lunch and speaking from our experience, it’s an outstanding farm-to-table southern brunch at Oli Bea that you should make sure you don’t miss. Come hungry. 

In short, we’ll be back. It was sweet to revisit this neighbor city of ours and a meaningful way to get Nashville Explorer’s Club back out for it’s first new road-trip. Thank you to Visit Knoxville for having us out all their great resources and if you are planning a trip make sure to hit up their website for more info: https://www.visitknoxville.com Tag #KnoxRocks on your escapades and we’ll see you out there!

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