The inspiration to visit Knoxville started way back in 2006 whilst sitting in a bar in San Diego.
We were chatting with two guys who had attended the University of Tennessee and they were doing an excellent job of entertaining us with stories of all the cool things to do in Knoxville.
To be honest, they didn’t have to convince us much and had us sold at tailgating and College Football – and being on the doorstep to The Smoky Mountains – if you know us well enough, that’s an easy sell.
Eleven years and two kids later we finally made it to Knoxville, and they were right, it’s a fun and outdoorsy place to visit.
And now that we are based here in Raleigh, it certainly won’t be another eleven years until we return!
We arrived in Knoxville towards the end of our Tennessee road trip. We’d just spent a few days in Memphis and were on route to the Smokies before heading home to Raleigh.
One interesting fact we learned is that Knoxville is within a day’s driving distance from two-thirds of the population of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River, and Interstates I-40, I-75, and I-275 run through the city!
So it’s hard to miss, really. And if you don’t want to drive, Knoxville’s airport offers nonstop flights to 20 locations around the US. Search for flights here.
We ended up loving what an outdoors town Knoxville proved to be, and the locals certainly know how to embrace that and take advantage of where they live.
Here’s what we’ll share with you about a visit to Knoxville, Tennessee:
Cool things to do in Knoxville TN
With or without kids, there is plenty of stuff to do in Knoxville. We spent three days exploring the city and surrounds, and below are our top picks!
Historic Market Square
A visit to Historic Market Square is one of the must do things in Knoxville. It’s essentially the heart, or the hub of downtown with a great vibe and is the place to be for cafes, restaurants and live music on select nights.
There’s the odd busker in the square too – little Savannah was lucky enough to get a lesson on the violin and what can we say about the locals, they’re friendly folks around here. She loves her music so she enjoyed this moment.
Market Square is a cool destination at any time of day but really comes alive in the evening.
We witnessed some live music one night which provided for a family friendly atmosphere and was fun. People were kicked back in their camp chairs enjoying the tunes, and the nearby outdoor diners could join in too!
Looking for somewhere to eat in Market Square?
There’s no shortage of dining options around the square from casual to a bit fancier and our top two picks would have to be The Tomato Head and The Stock & Barrel (read our full list of places to eat and drink down below in our section under where to eat in Knoxville).
Every morning we’d hit up the Juice Bar for a healthy smoothie or acai bowl. Yeah, it’s a chain with locations around the country but they have an excellent selection of smoothies and juices.
And if you can’t find something to satisfy your needs in Market Square, there’s plenty of other options around the corner and on nearby Gay St (main street Knoxville).
The Farmers Market
Almost everyone we talked to before visiting Knoxville suggested we had to visit the Farmer’s Market, which came with high expectations.
If you’ve been following our travels over the years you’d know that we’ve been to our fair share of Farmer’s Markets in Australia and around the world, and I have no hesitation in saying that the Knoxville Farmer’s Market is one of the best we’ve been to!
We love open-air markets with an emphasis on local produce and community, and at this market everything is grown or made by the vendor in the East Tennessee region. We always do our best to shop local and if we lived in Knoxville we’d be here every Saturday!
We always do our best to shop local when traveling and if we lived in Knoxville we’d definitely be here every Saturday!
There was such a great range of products on offer from delicious local food and coffee (grab a coffee from Wild Love), to artisan crafts and much more. With a vibrant community atmosphere, it’s a nice way to kick off your weekend!
May – November
Wednesdays 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM
Saturdays 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM
Maple Hall Bowling
Being from Australia we’re not used to bowling alleys being all fancy and fun and so popular.
Back home bowling is a thing you’d do maybe once a year at most on a rainy day when you’ve run out of other ideas. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I went bowling.
So when we heard about Maple Hall it sounded like fun and the kids were especially excited. On the few times we have been bowling they loved it and we were all intrigued with the location.
Maple Hall is located in the heart of Knoxville in the historic J.C. Penney building and is this super cool boutique bowling alley. It’s underground with a full-service bar, cozy lounge areas and even has a VIP room.
It’s more than just a bowling alley, it’s an experience and we had a great time as a family.
Kalyra was in fine bowling form, knocking down pins like she’s a regular, as was Mummy. And little Savannah had fun progressing from using the kiddy assist guidance thing (I don’t know what they’re called lol) to bowl all by herself.
Maple Hall is popular and lanes get filled on a first come first serve basis, so if you come here in peak hour expect a bit of a wait – you can always hang at the bar – or they’ll text or call you as soon as one opens up!
Families note that this is an all ages facility until 9:00 pm, then they become 21+ unless it is a child with a parent.
Knoxville Visitors Center
Whenever we visit a new destination we always make an effort to drop into the visitors center to chat with the locals in the know and to pick up any free maps.
The folks working here always offer great insider tips into their hometowns and are passionate about sharing their advice.
The Knoxville Visitor Center is no different and well worth a visit.
And we also got to experience something special, they have live music playing at midday from Monday to Saturday. It’s called the Blue Plate Special. They were doing a live radio cross featuring an acoustic duo from Asheville who were entertaining the crowd – so cool!
Oh, and on the exterior wall to the center is a cool mural about Knoxville and of course taking a pic is compulsory.
As you may have guessed, I’m a big College sports fan, and every local we spoke to in Knoxville raved about the University of Tennessee Football games that are played at famed Neyland Stadium.
They certainly LOVE their football around here, which is another reason this is my kind of town!
“You have to come back in the fall to a Vols game”, they said. “The whole town shuts down and the tailgating and atmosphere is off the charts”.
I have now penciled in a Vols game and would love to see a big rivalry game against either Florida or Georgia – off to check the schedule now!
For those who care, Peyton Manning played college here. As did Reggie White, two greats of the #NFL.
And in case you don’t know, Neyland Stadium is the 5th largest stadium in the US with a capacity of 102,000 and me being me I just had to find a way inside.
I’m not going to give away too much info on how we managed to make it inside, and we didn’t do anything illegal, but where there’s a will there’s a way and we were able to sneak in for a quick pic thanks to someone in the know!
If you want to do an organized tour of Neyland Stadium, visit here.
You can’t miss it. It’s the big orange sphere sticking out above the skyline and visiting is one of the free things to do in Knoxville TN.
The Sunsphere was constructed for the 1982 World’s Fair and served as the symbol to the Fair. And it was also home to a full-service restaurant and the Observation Deck, which used to cost $2.00 for the elevator ride up to visit.
After the Fair finished, the Sunsphere closed to the public and remained vacant for most of its life.
The Observation Deck on the 4th level re-opened in 2014 and offers a 360-degree view of World’s Fair Park, downtown, the Tennessee River, the University of Tennessee, and the Smoky Mountains.
Visiting the Observation Deck is FREE.
Outdoor things to do in Knoxville
Wondering what to do in Knoxville TN if you love the great outdoors like us? Here are our highlights.
Ijams Nature Center
Getting outdoors in nature is what we love most, and located a mere three miles from downtown Knoxville is the Ijams Nature Center!
Ijams features 10-miles of trails, rock formations, lakes and stunning overlooks and is a much-loved sanctuary away from the city by the locals and visitors.
We did a lovely short walk along the Tennessee River and next time we are back in town for a longer stay we’ll be up for exploring more hikes plus bike rides and paddles on the river.
Pop into the Ijams Visitor Center for a trail map and to learn about all the activities on offer, including Navitat and Meads Quarry (see below).
The Navitat Canopy Experience was Kalyra’s favorite activity in Knoxville and if it was up to her we would have stayed there all day AND night.
I must admit, it was hard to leave and I loved it too!
We’ve done a few of these high ropes challenges amongst the tree canopy around the world and this one was definitely fun, and challenging. We only had time to complete 4 out of the 6 courses so there’s a good reason to come back for more!
Navitat is part of the Ijams Nature Center and each course consists of 10 to 12 challenges, and each course is designed with varying degree of difficulty from beginner to advanced.
If you get freaked out about heights like me, don’t worry, I felt incredibly safe and secure in their harnessing system which is the most intuitive and easy to use one I’ve experienced.
And if you are like Kalyra and want to stay all day AND night, during spring and summer Navitat at Night is offered every Friday and Saturday night!
Definitely one of the most fun things to do in Knoxville!
Mead’s Quarry Lake
Now this place is also not to be missed.
Just down the road from Ijams Visitor Center is Mead’s Quarry where you can go canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.
Unfortunately, board hire was closed on our day of visiting but Caz and the kids still jumped in for a swim, and regardless the scenery was beautiful.
And apparently, in the summer you can catch a glimpse of freshwater jellyfish in the lake!
The best time to walk, or if you’re up for it a run along the riverfront is at sunrise. Check out these images of the bridges reflecting on the Tennessee River Caz took during her morning sunrise run.
Otherwise, do as we did as a family and take a peaceful afternoon walk along the riverfront and end up at Calhoun’s for a drink and early dinner.
Along the way you’ll get views of Neyland Stadium and any watercraft enjoying the river – apparently on a Vols football game day they even tailgate along here and on the water.
Things to do in Knoxville with kids
Many of you from our online community suggested we check out the Zoo whilst in town, and our kids will never say no to feeding the giraffes.
It was great timing as well, as the Zoo was proudly showing off their cute baby gorillas!!! They are so funny and human-like, we could sit and watch them interact for hours.
And this mumma was very protective of her little bubba.
We also got up close with a tiger and elephants, and there are also some fun play areas for the kids to enjoy too making it one of the most family-friendly attractions in Knoxville.
Children ages 4-12 $16.95
Seniors ages 65+ $16.95
Children under 4 FREE
Open every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!
Got younger kids? The Muse is located in the historic Chilhowee Park (close to the Zoo) and Savannah enjoyed herself at this center.
It’s a place to play, learn, and discover with activities for kids of varying ages.
One cool thing at Muse is the planetarium, which has a variety of shows playing throughout the day on their dome projection system.
Where to eat in Knoxville
There’s a lively culinary scene here with a diverse selection of restaurants in Knoxville, plus cafes, bars and brew pubs and you’d certainly need longer than the three days we had to eat your way around town.
Below are our recommended places to eat in Knoxville.
The Tomato Head
Located in Market Square, the Tomato Head has yummy and fresh pizzas with lots of toppings available (gluten free bases on offer), a nice range of sandwiches, salads, and sweets. There’s a designated kids menu and overall good value for money with a nice casual atmosphere.
The Stock & Barrel
Several of you suggested we go eat at The Stock & Barrel for great burgers. Thank you for that, we ate lunch here and it was a great suggestion!
I thoroughly enjoyed my turkey burger and the duck condit fries were delish! If you go for dinner, might be a good idea to book ahead as this place isn’t huge and is popular!
Calhoun’s has several locations in Tennesse but we only experienced the one on the Tennessee River.
As mentioned we stopped in here for a drink and bite to eat after a walk along the riverfront and this place is all about location, location.
I mean the food was fine and all, nothing that memorable but you’re right on the water and we chose to sit outside and enjoy the fresh air.
Kids menu and gluten free menu available.
Pete’s Coffee Shop & Restaurant
If you love a classic American style diner serving up eggs, pancakes and omelette’s consider Pete’s.
This place is a bit of an institution for breakfast in Knoxville and we love that it’s a family owned. We even got to chat with Pete who was super friendly and took a particular interest in us as Aussies – turns out he watches a bit of Aussie TV and documentaries.
Did you know there’s an Ale Trail in Knoxville? So if the craft beer scene is your thing, there are currently 10 breweries operating with more on the way.
Whilst our visit wasn’t focused on breweries, we do love a couple of beers and a bite to eat at a brew pub so again we have another reason to come back to Knoxville – hello Fall Football game!
We did get to one brewpub though, the Balter Beerworks which has a nice outdoor seating area and friendly staff – our waitress had just returned from living in Australia so we had lots to chat about.
The menu was quite extensive, we had the salmon and an open burger, and washed it all down nicely with a brew.
Cruze Farm Ice Cream
One for the kids, and big kids!
The recently opened Cruze Farm on South Gay Street is a cool story and visually appealing shop that leverages off a family dairy farm in Knoxville – you’ll find their milk all around East Tennessee.
They milk Jersey cows and bottle their own whole pasteurized Jersey milk, as well as real churned buttermilk, light milk, and chocolate milk.
You may have seen their farm girls around town delivering milk to a market or possibly even milking cows. They’re hard to miss in their striking red and white dresses, inspired by their grandmother who wore a dress while she milked cows.
K Brew Cafe
How cool is this cafe!
Fancy a coffee whilst lazing in a hammock?
Even if you’re not a big coffee drinker, K Brew is a hit with the kids. You might have to remind them that they’re not on the swings at a playground, and if you come without kids why not kick back with a good book and your latte and imagine you’re on vacation!
Well played K Brew!
Trio Cafe was a nice surprise.
We took a stroll down to Market Square for breakfast on our last morning, and whilst most other cafes were full or not open yet, Trio was relatively empty which is not always a good sign, but after eating here we wished we had eaten here earlier.
It has a nice cafe vibe outside on the patio, although we can’t vouch for their lunch or dinner menu, we enjoyed our brekky which was good value for money!
Places to stay in Knoxville
We stayed at the recently opened Tennessean Hotel, a personal luxury hotel with a prime central location downtown across the street from the Sunsphere and an easy 5-10 minute stroll to Market Square.
Just like with travel, it’s not always about the destination but the people you meet and the same goes for hotels, it’s not always about the facilities but the staff who work there.
From the valet guys who greeted us upon arrival, and every day of our stay, to the friendly and attentive front desk staff, our stay was made very pleasant, comfortable and personable.
And we were minutes drive from the best Knoxville has to offer.
For other hotels in Knoxville, our accommodation partner Booking.com has over 70 properties to choose from.
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Do you have any tips on things to do in Knoxville Tennessee? Please share in the comments.
And don’t forget, if you’re looking for things to do near Knoxville you can’t go wrong with the Smoky Mountains!