Knoxville, Tennessee is one of those great Southern cities that has the amenities of a big town while maintaining the charm of a much smaller one. Home of the University of Tennessee, and gateway to the Smoky Mountain National Park, it draws lots of attention. Bristol Motor Speedway, less than two hours away, brings in NASCAR fans in droves, and Dollywood, less than an hour away, continues to be a go-to destination for family fun. Even HGTV has gotten the Knoxville bug, locating their 2017 Urban Oasis Sweepstakes home in one of the city’s picturesque neighborhoods.
If you’re still getting to know Knoxville, here are some fun facts. Fifty percent of the nation is within a day’s drive of the city. The 1982 World’s Fair was held there, and the Sunsphere, a magnificent structure that looks a lot like a textural Tootsie Roll pop, remains a landmark. The city is intersected by the Tennessee River, and the area boasts seven lakes and more than 3,000 miles of shoreline, and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame has its home in the city.
I recently visited as a guest of the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development, and learned a great deal about this beautiful state that can help you on your next trip to Eastern Tennessee.
531 Henley Street
I spent several nights in The Tennessean, a new, locally owned, eighty-two room luxury hotel in the heart of downtown. The floors of the hotel are named after nearby waterways, and the suites feature topographical maps of places like the nearby Clinch River, which have been turned into artwork. Even the carpets mimic the pattern of the rivers. The accent tables are metal sculptures that resemble the trees that grow along the river bank. Add to that the large tiled showers, plush towels and bathrobes, boutique toiletries, and in-room espresso bar, and you’ll see how The Tennessean caters to your every need. Be sure to stop by The Drawing Room for creative cocktails, or a dish like the Fig and Prosciutto Flatbread.
From the hotel, you can see the Knoxville Museum of Art, which is free to the public, and celebrates the artists of East Tennessee. Catherine Wiley’s work is particularly stunning.
Market Square District
Not far from The Tennessean is Market Square, a kid friendly, pet friendly, bustling section of downtown with public art, unique shops, music and theater venues, and local eateries serving fresh, locally sourced food. Hop on one of the free trolleys and explore!
Knoxville Visitors Center/ WDVX Blue Plate Special
301 South Gay Street, Knoxville
Plan your day around a noon visit to the Knoxville Visitors Center. Here’s why. Inside the Visitors Center is the radio station WDVX, and Monday through Saturday they host the Blue Plate Special, a live music show that’s free to attend. Locals and tourists show up with a sack lunch and settle in for an hour of entertainment.
Maple Hall Bowling
414 Gay Street, Knoxville
Heads up, guys, while you were busy making a living, bowling got seriously cool. And there’s no cooler bowling alley than Maple Hall Bowling, which is housed in an historic J.C. Penney building, circa 1890s. There’s a full bar, eleven lanes, great food—try the East Tennessee Cuban sandwich—and even a two-lane VIP private lounge.
French Market Crêperie
412 Clinch Avenue, Knoxville
Bistro at the Bijou
807 South Gay St, Knoxville
Southern food at its best abounds in Knoxville. Have breakfast at the French Market Crêperie, where you’ll fall in love with the Parisian Ham and Cheese Crêpe with a fried egg on top.
For dinner, try the Bistro at the Bijou. Chef and owner Martha Boggs uses vegetables from her home garden to create some of the best dishes you’ll ever taste. Her Brussels Sprouts Panzanella Salad is exquisite.
Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness
Just three miles from downtown, you’ll find the only urban wilderness in the world. Enjoy the 1,000 acres with more than fifty miles of hiking and biking trails. Be sure to visit the Ijams Nature Center, a 275-acre wildlife sanctuary located on the banks of the Tennessee River, which includes two reclaimed marble quarries and ten miles of hiking and biking trails. The park is open 365 days a year.
While you’re in the area, check out the Navitat Canopy Tree-Top Adventures and the Ijams Crag, the city’s only outdoor rock climbing site, with a cliff line that has moderate grades, solid rock, and reliable access.
Museum of Appalachia
2819 Andersonville Highway, Clinton
Just sixteen miles north of Knoxville sits the living history Museum of Appalachia. This sixty-five-acre site includes thirty-six buildings, including the Mark Twain Family Cabin, from Possum Trot, Tennessee.
The museum’s more than 250,000 artifacts were gathered by retired school superintendent John Rice Irwin, whose desire to preserve this region started as a young boy. He knew even then that the quotidian items of our lives would become treasures as years passed.
One of the best parts of walking through the Appalachian Hall of Fame is seeing the photographs and tools of the people who settled this area. Jim Rice Irwin hand lettered many of the signs that describe the displays.
Before you stroll through the grounds where peacocks and chickens roam, and donkeys, horses, mules, and sheep abide, take time to eat lunch at the Museum Café, which has some of the best Southern food being made today. The chicken pot pie is divine.
Less than thirty minutes from Knoxville is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the Manhattan Project National Historic Park sprawls across acres and acres. When I arrived, I made my way to the American Museum of Science and Energy, which tells the story of this city’s role in World War II. If you are as unaware as I was, this area was chosen as the site of a uranium enrichment program, a critical part of the atomic bomb. (Want a more detailed initiation? Take a bus tour of the site in March through November, which runs from 11:30am-2:30pm.)
In 1942, the government took over seventeen miles in the Clinch River Valley, moving 1,000 families off the verdant farmland. After the relocation ended, construction began, the workers building an entire city, which included the world’s biggest building, which was a factory standing four stories tall and covering forty-four acres. Eventually, Oak Ridge grew to a population of 75,000. Only a select few knew what was actually going on at the heavily-guarded site. Thousands were brought in to work, doing everything from construction, janitorial work, and of course working in the plants that were critical in enriching the uranium. At its peak, Oak Ridge was consuming more electricity on a daily basis than New York City.
Many of those working were young women who turned out to be some of the best employees possible. Their attention to detail proved critical, as did their ability to take direction. It was a pivotal time for these young women. While they didn’t know exactly what they were doing, they did understand how important it was to their country.
While I was there, I met Laura Lee Birdwell, who was visiting the site with her husband. Laura Lee’s mother, Ruby Curtis, worked as a secretary at Oak Lawn. Rudy had grown up on a farm in Tennessee, and her family, like many at that time, were desperately poor. Rudy had aspirations for a bigger life, and she enrolled in Draughon’s Business College in Nashville. Her future looked as bright as a new penny. While she was studying there, however, she was recruited to work as a secretary at Oak Ridge, and because money was especially good, she took the job.
As Laura Lee is telling this story, tears fill her eyes. Taking the job meant that Ruby stopped school, and that long-held dream ended. Laura Lee says her mother didn’t share a lot of details about that time in her life. What Laura Lee does remember is her mother telling her stories about how muddy the site was, in part because the land was continually being turned over to construct new buildings. Laura Lee laughs, “She talked a lot about her shoes being dirty,” she says.
Today, you can learn about women like Ruby, and about the toll working in this “secret city” took on those who made it their home. The site is run by the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Finally, you can’t visit this part of Tennessee without visiting the Bush’s Beans Visitor Center, which is a delight, especially for kids. Also, check out the waterways, and consider a fishing trip. If you’re looking for the perfect time to go this spring, the International Biscuit Festival is May 19 in Knoxville.