The Best Things To Do In Knoxville, Tennessee, According To A Local

These are the places that will always make this city feel like home.

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Knoxville TN
Photo: Henryk Sadura/Getty Images

Born and raised in East Tennessee, I fondly called Knoxville and its surrounding areas home until I headed to Athens, Georgia, for college. Though I fell head-over-heels for Athens and happily claim it as a second home, my roots will always be in East Tennessee. This neck of the woods is often overlooked for the hustle and bustle of Nashville’s music and food scene, the history and soul of Memphis, or the outdoor appeal of Chattanooga. While the tune of Rocky Top might be top of mind when you think of Knoxville, the town perched on the Tennessee River and just a short drive from the foothills of The Great Smoky Mountains offers much more.

Growing up there meant summer days spent on one of the area's many lakes, Saturdays meandering around Market Square downtown, hiking trips into the Smokies, and the occasional adventure to Dollywood. The saying, “you don’t know a good thing ‘till it’s gone," rings true for this city and me. It  wasn’t until I was living elsewhere that I was able to fully appreciate all the area has to offer. From downtown to the mountains, here's what I love to do in Knoxville when I venture back home.

My Favorite Places To Eat

Knoxville isn't hurting for good eats. From off-the-beaten path gems to upscale establishments, there is something for every palate. Anyone who calls the town home, including myself, will tell of fond memories at long-standing spots like burger joint Litton’s in the Fountain City neighborhood, which dates back to 1946, or celebratory steak dinners at Ye Olde Steak House, which has been a go-to since 1968. And the list wouldn’t be complete without everyone’s favorite, Long’s Drug Store, where customers are like family. The old-time soda fountain has been serving up the same patty melts and malt shakes to customers on the same red vinyl-covered stools since 1956. It's where my grandparents took my parents and whose parents took them. These may not be an outsider's first stop, but they'll always be local favorites.

Tomato Head Restaurant

Courtesy of Downtown Knoxville

Throughout my childhood, whether it was after soccer games or birthday celebrations, my family and I frequented The Tomato Head, where my dad became known as a regular. It remains one of my favorites to this day for their homemade pizza and abundant dessert selection, including their prized chocolate-peanut-butter pie. And while many friends will claim A Dopo as their favorite pie in town, I’m partial to a white pizza, namely the Iron Mike (add meatballs), from Hard Knox Pizzeria

For barbeque, head to Dead End BBQ, where you can’t go wrong with the loaded pigskins. And if you’re looking for sushi, the JG and Soy Joy rolls at Nama are my favorites. On Monday or Thursday, ask for the half-price specials menu. For a fresh, casual breakfast or lunch, The Plaid Apron in Sequoyah Hills neighborhood won’t disappoint. For an exploratory menu with twists on classic Jewish dishes like matzo ball soup, whitefish sandwiches, and unique-flavored babka, Potchke Deli is a must. While it’s new to Knoxville’s Old City, it's quickly become a personal and community favorite.

When I’m looking for something that skews more fine dining, J C Holdway is always a top pick. Joseph Lenn, former executive chef at Blackberry Farm, leans on wood-fire cooking techniques, nodding to old-world ways. The menu celebrates Appalachian food culture, while the wine list explores regions from California and across Europe. For a Southern-Italian meal, Emilia is the ticket. 

Five Thirty Lounge Rooftop Knoxville Tennessee

Courtesy of Five Thirty Lounge

… And To Drink

To start the day, just across the river from downtown, Honeybee Coffee serves up delicious treats and a top-notch cup of joe made from locally roasted beans. For later in the afternoon, grab a pint at Bearden Beer Market, where you’ll find one of the largest and most unique beer selections in town. If you want a bite with your beverage and a good place to hang out with friends, Balter Beerworks downtown or Abridged brewpub located in a 1950s garage are among my favorite spots. For views from downtown Knoxville to the Smoky mountains, Five Thirty Lounge is the place to be. The rooftop bar with an indoor-outdoor space and floor-to-ceiling windows is located above the Hyatt Place hotel on Gay Street and is the ideal spot for sunsets and craft cocktails.

Cruze Farm Ice cream Knoxville Tennessee

Courtesy of Cruze Farm

The Best Spots For A Sweet Treat

From the time when you could only get Cruze Farm ice cream at their farmers' market truck, it’s been my go-to. Now, you can find their brick and mortar creamery downtown on Gay Street. If you’ve ever driven across the state, chances are it was down Interstate 40, which is what my favorite pie, the I-40, from Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop is named for. And I can’t recall a gathering where a Ham’n Goodys famous lemon cookie wasn’t present. The unassuming deli and bakery on Northshore Drive, while great for a quick lunch, is primarily known for their cookies and tea cakes.

Cades Cove in the Smokies
Robbie Caponetto

My Favorite Places To Explore

For me, the best part about Knoxville lies in its surrounding nature—the parks, lakes, and the mountains that are its beautiful backdrop. I grew up running the Sequoyah Greenway paths, “The Boulevard”, along the Tennessee River, playing soccer in Lakeshore Park, and biking or walking a section of the 100+ miles of Greenways Trails throughout the city. And it’s not summer in Knoxville if you’re not on the water. Ijams Nature Center, free to access, lies on 318 acres of protected land in the middle of Knoxville and offers kayaking, paddle boarding, and swimming in the old marble quarries, plus the urban park has miles of trails for hiking and cycling. But my favorite spot for a swim is the lesser-known Fort Dickerson Park quarry lake, which was officially opened to the public in 2019 and renamed Augusta Quarry.

quarry knoxville Tennessee

Courtesy of Outdoor Project; Photographer: Kristi Parsons

If I wasn’t driving to the mountains for weekend camping or day trips in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park to hike Mt. Leconte, canoe Abrams Creek, or biking through Cades Cove, you’d find me meandering around the downtown area. The historical Market Square is the heart of downtown and is filled with restaurants, shops, and entertainment. It’s home to the Market Square Farmers’ Market, which brings together growers, artisans, and vendors from across East Tennessee on Saturday mornings.

Step just outside the square and you’ll be on Gay Street, whose history dates back to the founding of the state of Tennessee in 1796. As the city’s first paved road, a stroll down the lane reveals historical theaters such as The Bijou and Tennessee Theatre (where I last saw John Prine play), art galleries, restaurants, and more. As a kid, I’d ravaged the old-fashioned candy barrels for Zotz and Bit-O-Honey candies at Mast General Store, a retail landmark since 1898 where you can truly find anything and everything. Just down the road, Maple Hall bowling and cocktail lounge is a favorite for family and friend gatherings alike. 

World's Fair Park

Courtesy of City of Knoxville

On a sunny day, the greens at World’s Fair Park which lies between the University of Tennessee campus (where you can explore the blooming UT botanical gardens) and the booming downtown is my ideal spot to spend time. Initially constructed for the 1982 World’s Fair, today The Sunsphere (which provides a spectacular, 360-degree view of downtown and beyond) and the Tennessee Amphitheater are the only structures that remain. Overlooking the park is my favorite museum in town, the Knoxville Museum of Art, which celebrates East Tennessee's diverse culture through a mix of historical and contemporary art.

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