The Best Things to do in Knoxville, Tennessee

The Top 15 Things to Do in Knoxville, Tennessee

With its close proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Knoxville is a rare city with serious outdoor adventure potential! While the Great Smoky Mountains are a major draw, outdoor enthusiasts also flock to Knoxville to hike to the top of nearby House Mountain and mountain bike along the 50 miles of nature trails that surround the city.

Knoxville, the third-largest city in Tennessee, is perfect for people looking for an urban Southern travel experience in nature’s backyard. But if outdoor activities aren’t your thing, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy in Knoxville. The Southern city is a must-visit destination, appreciated for its famous barbecue, die-hard sports fans, and important role in America’s history. 

You can easily while away the days exploring Civil War-era sites, cheering on the Vols at a University of Tennessee football game, and going shopping in bustling Market Square. When you need to refuel, Knoxville is home to all sorts of trendy craft breweries and delicious barbecue joints.  

Centrally located in the US, the city is a drivable destination for many visitors from the South, the East Coast, and the Midwest. While Nashville and Memphis might get most of the attention, it’s well worth spending at least a few days exploring this dynamic Tennessee city! 

With so many different things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Knoxville for you. Stick to this fun and unique Knoxville bucket list, and there’s no doubt you’ll have the getaway of your dreams in this vibrant and historic Southern city. 

Don’t forget to check out our web story: The Top 15 Things to Do in Knoxville, Tennessee

1. Take in the View from the Sunsphere at World’s Fair Park

Cool Things to do in Knoxville: View from the Sunsphere at World’s Fair Park

An abandoned railroad yard got a major facelift in the 1980s when it was chosen as the location for the 1982 World’s Fair. Eleven million visitors from around the globe visited the city during the event!

About 40 years later, the two surviving structures built to wow the world continue to draw attention, making the World’s Fair Park a definite bucket-list destination in Knoxville. 

The park’s highlight is the Sunsphere, a 266-foot tower with panoramic views of Knoxville and the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Its golden appearance isn’t just for show – each pane of glass was made with 24-karat gold and cost the city about $1,000 apiece at the time of construction. 

City officials have recently restored the fourth-floor observation deck. It will reopen to visitors in February 2022. If that’s not enough to tempt you, the giant golden globe in the sky is absolutely free to visit! 

World’s Fair Park is also home to several performance spaces and amphitheaters, making it a go-to zone for large concerts and festivals in the city. The park hosts the Knoxville Festival on 4th, the Knox Asian Festival, and Brewer’s Jam, a craft beer extravaganza.

The park is host to several paved trails that connect to the Second Creek Greenway, which can take walkers, runners, and cyclists down to scenic views on the Tennessee River. 


2. Work Up a Sweat at Ijams Nature Center

Considered an urban natural playground, Ijams Nature Center is a 315-acre space that’s owned by a nonprofit environmental education center. The forested landscape creates fun physical adventure challenges perfect for active visitors. 

The center is about a 10-minute drive from downtown Knoxville. One of its most popular places is Ijams Crag, a sport-climbing zone with opportunities for beginners and experienced climbers. 

Ijams Crag features more than 30 bolted anchor routes, ranging from 30 to 60 feet high. Keep in mind, that this adventure isn’t for the faint of heart! 

Climbers must sign waiver forms at the on-site Crag kiosk before climbing. This is a climb-at-your-own-risk area, and you must have your own gear. 

Afraid of heights? There’s also a way to work up a sweat at Ijams from the ground. Another must-see stop is the Primal Playground, a natural space that’s home to a one-of-a-kind workout challenge complete with obstacle courses. 

A full list of routines is available online. Each one is created by fitness expert and playground designer Mark Rice. 


3. See a Show at the Historic Tennessee Theatre

Must do things in Knoxville: Tennessee Theatre

Take a trip through time and travel back into the lap of luxury at the Tennessee Theatre. The venue was built as a movie palace in 1928 and is set inside the building that was Knoxville’s first-ever skyscraper!

It was considered the most beautiful theater in the South when it first opened its doors. In recent years, the stewards of the building have worked to maintain that reputation. The theater even got a $25 million-dollar facelift in 2005.

If you come to the venue to see a show, you won’t be able to take your eyes off the luxurious decor inside the theater. It’s an unforgettable experience to spend an evening within the building’s shimmering golden walls that are accented with ornate crystal chandeliers and crimson tapestries. 

There’s almost always something happening in the vintage space. Plus, events span a range of different price points – so there really is something for everyone! 

The Tennessee Theatre screens classic movies, hosts live musical performances, and stages off-Broadway productions. There’s also a full bar with beer, wine, soda, and popcorn in the lobby.

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4. Step Back in Time at James White Fort

Cool Things to do in Knoxville: James White Fort
Image courtesy of James White Fort 

Named “Knoxville’s First Home,” the James White Fort was built before the city even existed. The impressively-aged structure was the 1780s home of a Revolutionary War veteran. The settler was a friend of local indigenous Cherokee tribes and helped negotiate several treaties between the Europeans and Indians. 

The fort was restored and reopened to the public back in 1970. Fast forward to the present day, and more than 10,000 people visit the attraction each year.

The historical landmark hosts daily tours and special events such as wine tastings, tailgates, and craft shows. Daily tours include a peek inside the old structures on the property.

You’ll get to tour the main house, kitchen, guest house, and blacksmith shop. If you visit at the right time, you can even catch a live metal twisting demonstration by a local blacksmith.

If you’re thirsty to learn more about Knoxville’s past, the fort is part of a local history partnership that offers a combo pass to visit seven other noteworthy participating locations. The James White Fort is located right in the middle of downtown Knoxville, making it easily accessible for a quick visit.


5. Explore Knoxville’s Bustling Market Square

Knoxville Things to do: Market Square

Knoxville’s Market Square is full of street musicians and bustling shops. There’s a reason spending a day in Market Square is considered one of the most fun things to do in Knoxville! 

The square has been one of the best places in the city to shop, eat, and drink since the 1860s. Plus, many of the most popular attractions are set in historic buildings. 

One of the most exciting things to do in Knoxville is visiting the secret speakeasy bar, The Peter Kern Library, which is attached to the back of The Oliver Hotel. You can find the entrance on the alley side of the building. It’s marked with a red light outside the door. 

Be warned – there is a dress code. Flip-flops and T-shirts are not allowed. If you make it inside, you’ll step into a whimsical world of books and cocktails named after literary characters! 

Visit the city from May through November or select weeks in December, and you can catch the Market Square Farmers’ Market, which is held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Everything is grown or made by vendors in the East Tennessee region. Products range from farm-fresh veggies, eggs, and honey to salsas, coffee, and artisan crafts. 


6. Watch a Movie in an Ancient Cave

Fun Things to do in Knoxville: Ancient Cave

Knoxville has no place more unique than the Cherokee Caverns, which is home to rock formations estimated to be about 300 million years old! Shells and skeletons of ancient marine life are now petrified in stone in this ancient wonderland. Marks made on the cavern’s walls by presumed torchlights indicate Native Americans often used these caves.

The caves opened for public tours in the 1920s and enjoyed a wild existence! Known as the tallest singing cowboy, Homer Harris even used one cavern – the Crystal Ballroom – as a performance venue back in the day.

A fire destroyed the buildings near the caverns in the 1980s, and the caves themselves became targets for vandalism. A local volunteer group cleaned up the space and now holds several events each year to fundraise for a complete restoration. If you’re a film buff, movies are shown in the cave regularly!

The most popular event in the ancient tunnels is “Christmas in the Cave,” a lighted and decorated holiday display. Visitors can tour the underground space and view the rock formations in a whole new way. The cave temperature is always about 58 degrees, providing a toasty setting, no matter what the weather is like outside. 

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7. Stumble along the Knoxville Ale Trail

Must do things in Knoxville: Ale Trail

Knoxville has a growing craft beer scene – there are a whopping 36 breweries and brewpubs in the vicinity! This makes the city an excellent destination for a beercation, as there is a seemingly endless number of breweries to visit. 

Each brewery has its own quirky twist. Pretentious Beer Co. in downtown Knoxville showcases their craft beer and soda in hand-blown glassware. There are 16 different craft beers on tap and live glass blowing demonstrations that show customers how their glasses were made. 

Fans of German beer will enjoy the unique atmosphere at Schulz Brau Brewing Company. The brewery is literally built in the image of a German castle with a large entrance tower. 

When you step into the brewery, you’ll be transported to a great hall staffed by employees wearing traditional German beerhall garb. An outdoor Biergarten is open all year round with fire pits to help you stay warm in the winter and a misting system to keep you fresh all summer long. 

Crafty Bastard Brewing is Knoxville’s go-to place for experimental brews. The small-batch brewery is always thinking up wild new concoctions and offers a wide array of sour and infused-beer options. 


8. Test Your Skills at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame

Best Things to do in Knoxville: Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
Image courtesy of Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame

Not just a museum to honor the best female basketball players of all time, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is a 35,000-square-foot facility where you can also play some hoops. 

There are three different courts in the museum, as well as dribbling and passing skills courses. Don’t miss the photo area where you can pose as some of the greatest players of all time! 

The museum isn’t afraid to make a statement. The most visible, eye-catching part of the building is the world’s largest basketball. This giant is easy to spot and measures 30 feet tall and weighs about 10 tons! 

The Hall of Fame currently honors about 200 of the greatest female basketball players of all time. It is the only facility of its kind dedicated to all levels of women’s basketball. 


9. ‘Sailgate’ with the Vol Navy at the University of Tennessee

Best Things to do in Knoxville: ‘Sailgate’ with the Vol Navy

The University of Tennessee Volunteer fan base takes football so seriously that they don’t tailgate like everybody else. They take the party to the waters of the Tennessee River! 

The dedicated group of fans is called the Vol Navy. Members prepare to watch their team compete with a unique tradition called “sailgating” or “boatgating.” 

If you prefer a big boat, the Volunteer Princess has got you covered. The tour business offers sailgate cruises before select Saturday games at Neyland Stadium. The two-hour cruise includes game day hors d’oeuvres and brunch favorites. 

If you’re not a football fan, you can still explore Knoxville on the water in another way. The cruise line regularly offers brunch and buffet cruises, including special cruises for holidays. 

Other options include a sightseeing adventure cruise and a two-hour Casino Night cruise. Passengers can try their hand at blackjack or roulette as they float down the Tennessee River. 

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10. Paddle through Meades Quarry

Fun Things to do in Knoxville: Meades Quarry

In Knoxville, you don’t have to travel far to get from the bustling city center to a wildlife sanctuary. Meades Quarry is a waterway that features gorgeous views of amber rocky hillsides and forested cliffs. 

The center exists at the site of a former marble quarry. Nature has reclaimed the space, transitioning it back to a beloved escape with nature trails, scenic overlooks, and even manmade wonders. 

The 25-acre lake was created when the mining operations slowed down at the quarry. It’s now a natural habitat for the freshwater jellyfish that can be seen near the surface of the water in warm summer months!

Meades Quarry is about 10 minutes away from downtown Knoxville and offers a quiet oasis from city life. Visitors can swim or rent canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards to explore the historic marble quarry. 

If you have experience navigating waterways with a paddle, you may be able to catch one of the nature center’s monthly kayaking programs. The special events are led by Ijams nature center naturalists from May to September. Swimming is at your own risk since there is no lifeguard on duty, and the quarry lake is deep with sudden drop-offs. 

If you’d rather stay on dry land, there are several nature trails to hike that will take you to gorgeous overlooks and through relics of the site’s past as a working quarry. 


11. Hike to the Top of House Mountain

Unique Things to do in Knoxville: House Mountain

Just outside of Knoxville lies House Mountain, the county’s highest peak at an elevation of 2,100 feet and home to a wide variety of wildflowers and forested paths. 

The trail to the top offers unparalleled views of the local mountain ranges. You can even see up to 30 miles away on a clear day! 

The mountain is one of the most popular hiking destinations throughout the year. It is also a birdwatcher’s paradise, as it’s home to more than 100 different species of bird. 

Be warned, the trail is very rocky and is not ideal when wet due to slippery conditions. Plus, be prepared to break a sweat in the more difficult sections of this hike. 

Proper shoes and a walking stick would be ideal for those needing balance support. The West View Trail is considered more strenuous than the slightly more moderate Crest Trail. 


12. Take a Break at the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum

What to do in Knoxville: Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum

If you need a break from the hustle and bustle of the city center, the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum is the perfect place to escape. Plus, downtown is just five minutes away – so you don’t have to go far!

This 47-acre garden offers a lot to explore, including scenic walking trails, historic buildings, and stone walls that look like they were ripped right out of The Secret Garden

The gardens are incredible, but the Butterfly Meadow is a local favorite. The outdoor space was designed with plants that make a good larval food source for hungry caterpillars. The garden space is now home to more than 50 different species! 

The venue offers various classes and workshops, offering lessons in everything from growing your own produce to making Zen gardens and beeswax candles. 

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13. Chow Down on Tennessee-Style Barbeque

Fun Things to do in Knoxville: Tennessee-Style Barbeque

Like many Southern cities, Knoxville is known for its food scene. With dozens of top-notch barbecue joints and addictive Southern sides to choose from, be sure to come hungry!

Dead End BBQ has received national acclaim for its perfectly smoked meats. According to the owners, the business started at the end of a dead-end street, where neighbors would gather in an attempt to create the perfect recipes. And it appears they were successful! 

The restaurant is famous for its “Burny Mac” dish. It’s a combination of macaroni and pimento cheese topped with brisket burnt ends and garnished with spicy barbecue wing sauce and green onions. 

Another local favorite, Sweet P’s Barbeque Downtown Dive is well respected for its excellent brisket, ribs, and homemade sausage. For Memphis-style barbecue, Archer’s BBQ is the place to go. Or, for something a bit different, head over to Full Service Barbeque for their famous BBQ Nachos!


14. Go Mountain Biking around Knoxville

Knoxville Things to do: Mountain Biking

Knoxville is a mountain biker’s paradise! Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness System boasts more than 50 miles of nature trails just outside of downtown Knoxville. Routes will take you through a variety of different terrains on a never-ending adventure that’s filled with natural beauty! 

Mountain bikers who crave a little bit of a challenge won’t get bored. There are three dedicated downhill trails, followed by a signed 12.5-mile loop that will take you to five popular destinations and then lead you back to the start of the trail. 

Trails at Concord Park, just outside of Knoxville, are home to routes with challenging natural features. The newly restored Marie Myers Park trails are popular with the locals because they connect to the Ijams Quarry trails, the Baker Creek Preserve, and William Hastie Natural Area. 


15. Hike Cades Cove Loop in Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Fun Things to do in Knoxville: Hike Cades Cove Loop in Great Smokey Mountains National Park

If you’re visiting Tennessee and haven’t been to Great Smokey Mountains National Park, block out some time to see this Knoxville bucket-list attraction.

Although the park border is physically just 34 miles from downtown Knoxville, expect to spend about two hours in your car when driving from the city to Cades Cove, a popular attraction in the park.

Cades Cove is an 11-mile driving loop that circles the cove. The route shuts down on certain days during the summer to become a car-free biking or hiking trail! 

The path will guide you past log cabin homesteads and a wildflower valley under the majestic backdrop of the Great Smokey Mountains. Along the way, you’ll likely spot local wildlife like white-tailed deer, coyotes, and groundhogs. Bear sightings are also common in this park.

However, this area is so popular that it can fill up with tourists quickly. The best time to travel the loop is earlier in the morning or later in the day. The trail will take at least two to four hours to complete.

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There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Knoxville. What’s your favorite thing to do in Knoxville? 


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Jeffrey
Jeffrey
4 months ago

By the title containing ‘In Knoxville’ don’t expect to find Cades Cove. In fact, depending on where you are in Knoxville, Cades Cove may be more than an hour away.

In proximity to Knoxville you have Seven Island State Birding Park that offers hiking and kayaking (on the French Broad).

On the other side of Knoxville is Fort Loudoun State Historic Park. Plenty to do here!

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