Spend a weekend in Knoxville, a hub for nature enthusiasts and local artisans — minus the big-city hassle.
by Cathy Martin
You don’t have to make the 400-mile trek to Nashville — or the cross-state trip to Memphis — to experience Tennessee hospitality. Knoxville, home to the University of Tennessee and the original state capital, has a creative undercurrent that draws chefs, brewmasters and artisans.
Everything is within reach in Knoxville, located at the headwaters of the Tennessee River and about two hours northwest of the Great Smokies — about a four-hour drive from Charlotte. Grab a bite to eat at a downtown cafe and 10 minutes later find yourself floating on a kayak or stepping out on the trail — there are more than 50 miles of greenways in the city.
Tennessee’s third-largest city may not have Nashville’s glitz and glam, or iconic attractions like Graceland and Beale Street in Memphis. But a vibrant and walkable downtown, plenty of historic charm and an outdoorsy mindset make it a weekend destination in its own right — without the big-city headaches.
Located in the shadow of the giant Sunsphere — the iconic gold hexagonal structure at World’s Fair Park (where a staggering 11 million people visited some 40 years ago) — The Tennessean Hotel is a short walk from Knoxville’s downtown dining, shopping and entertainment district.
The theme here is east Tennessee with a European flair. Nods to the Tennessee River are found throughout the 82-room hotel, from the carpet pattern to topographical maps in the guestrooms to custom Frette linen napkins adorned with the river’s meandering path. Each of the hotel’s five guest-room floors are named after branches of the river, where spacious rooms and suites boast floor-to-ceiling windows and large marble-tiled bathrooms with Molton Brown toiletries. The dog-friendly hotel offers a convenient shuttle to destinations within a 3-mile radius, including Neyland Stadium on game day. For shorter jaunts around town, a golf-cart shuttle is available.
The Drawing Room is an elegant and intimate spot for cocktails, breakfast or dinner. For a real treat, visit during one of the hotel’s specialty tea events, when dainty and delicious finger sandwiches, macarons, scones and petit fours are served on Wedgwood china. Teas are sourced from Chicago’s Rare Tea Cellar — the Sweet Peach Noir is a house specialty. If your stay doesn’t coincide with one of the scheduled events — which include a boozy Prohibition tea in October and a Galentine’s tea in February — a private “Suite Tea” service can be booked in advance.
Downstairs in the adjacent Maker Exchange, relax by the fire in the airy, light-filled atrium and browse The Curio — a gallery of works by local artisans curated by the Knoxville Dogwood Arts Alliance. The Tavern at Maker Exchange serves seasonal Southern fare — smoked catfish brandade, deviled eggs with bacon jam, fried green tomatoes — and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Grab a cocktail at the bar and unwind in the game room, where even the shuffleboard table was made by a local art collective.
Maker Exchange, photograph by Joe Thomas; Gay Street, photograph by Bruce McCamish; Ziplining in Knoxville
Getting outside is easy, with convenient access to forests and wildlife sanctuaries right within the city. Just 3.5 miles from downtown, Ijams Nature Center encompasses more than 300 acres of wilderness. In addition to hiking trails, Ijams offers rock climbing for beginners to experts and paddling at Mead’s Quarry, an old marble quarry where you can rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards and float the afternoon away. Knoxville Adventure Collective also rents canoes, kayaks and paddleboards at its riverfront dock near downtown, with guided and self-guided trips available.
To learn about the city’s history, tour the seven Historic House Museums of Knoxville, from James White’s Fort, a post-Revolutionary log house built in 1786 by the city’s founding father, to Westwood, an 1890 Victorian built for Adelia Armstrong Lutz, Knoxville’s first female professional artist. The brick Queen Anne-style home retains much of its original woodwork and stained glass, along with frescoes painted by the artist herself.
Gay Street is downtown’s main drag, where the iconic Tennessee and Bijou theater marquees still light up the night. Day and night, the street is hopping with folks shopping, grabbing drinks or a bite to eat, and taking in a show.
On most Saturdays, regional vendors sell their wares at downtown’s Market Square Farmers Market. You’ll find plenty of fresh-cut flowers and produce, along with honey, fresh-baked cookies and bread, jewelry and apparel.
A Dopo; Pretentious Beer Co.; Knox Brew Hub
For a scratch-made breakfast in a homey atmosphere, look for the sage green storefront of OliBea, where the menu features locally and regionally sourced ingredients. The mole-like sauces in the breakfast burrito (braised turkey manchamanteles, bacon, potatoes, egg, cheese and coloradito) are old family recipes. If you prefer sweet to savory, order the lemon pancakes made with fresh buttermilk from Cruze Farm, a family dairy farm.
The French Market Creperie, another local favorite, is a breakfast and lunch spot with dozens of sweet or savory crepes made with flour imported from France. Burgers and bourbon are on the menu at Stock & Barrel, which sources pasture-fed beef from a local family farm.
For a sweet afternoon treat, head to downtown’s Cruze Farm Dairy, where bright gingham-clad servers scoop fresh-churned ice cream with seasonal and rotating flavors like maple pumpkin, lavender honey, sweet cream, salty caramel and brown butter-cheesecake. For a dose of nostalgia, The Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain serves ice cream sundaes, shakes and floats in an 1899 building, a throwback to soda fountains of a bygone era.
For a casual dinner in a lively setting, try dinner at A Dopo for Neapolitan-style sourdough pizza. Start with the ovoline — house-pulled mozzarella with a basil and pistachio pistou (similar to a pesto) and warm sourdough bread. Follow with the house “insalata,” local greens with smoked sweet potatoes, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs. The pizza here is out of this world — my hands-down favorite was the Sofia — red sauce, oregano, s’nduja and fresh-torn mozzarella.
Tall stacks of split firewood in the dining room hint at what’s on the menu at J.C. Holdway, founded by Knoxville native and James Beard Award winner Joseph Lenn. The Johnson & Wales alum worked in Charleston and Nashville and alongside chefs Sean Brock and John Fleer before returning to his hometown in 2016. The menu highlights local farmers and food artisans with wood-grilled meats and fish, pastas and shareables.
Knoxville is home to about 25 local breweries. If you aren’t sure where to start, Knox Brew Hub will point you in the right direction. The downtown taproom has about two dozen local brews on tap. At Pretentious Beer Co., glass artist Matthew Cummings makes both the beer and the glassware that holds it. Cummings and his team make art as well — vases, drinkware and decorative items are for sale at Pretentious Glass Co., a gallery and glass-blowing studio next door. SP
Featured Image: The Tennessee River forms just east of Knoxville at the confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers. Photograph courtesy Visit Knoxville
During Knoxville’s Downtown Peppermint Trail, (Nov. 25-Jan. 8) local merchants go all in on the theme, offering peppermint coffee, cocktails, candles and more. Skate under the stars at Market Square in the city’s Holidays on Ice. The Tennessean Hotel hosts its Holiday Tea, with seasonal varieties like a gingerbread rooibos, weekends from Nov. 26-Dec. 18. Make reservations at thetennesseanhotel.com.