Visit Knoxville: Urban Wilderness

Get the best of both worlds—from a day on the trails to a night out downtown

Knoxville has the benefit of enjoying the best of both worlds: It’s not far from the base of the Great Smoky Mountains, the country’s most visited national park, and is rife with greenery and parks of all kinds within its own borders—while bearing the distinction of being a bustling, mid-sized city with plenty to offer beyond the Great Outdoors.

Trails just off the beaten path

A town of its own, The University of Tennessee (founded in 1794), is full of paved paths and trails, one of the most accessible being Volunteer Landing, which runs parallel to the Tennessee River along the southern border of the campus and promises incomparable views of the waterfront. The three-mile Neyland Greenway is, like the colossal football stadium, named for UT Coach General Robert Neyland, and serves as the university’s social epicenter. The greenway stretches across the bridge and down to the UT Athletic Club, creating a mecca for walkers and joggers alike; it also winds through the colorful UT Gardens, which have been designated as the state’s official botanical garden. The Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center at Volunteer Landing supplies a wealth of information on trails, maps, and outdoor equipment rentals in the area.

For a complete retreat from city life without veering far off the beaten path, look no further than the 300 acres of lush, protected land that Ijams Nature Center comprises just three miles from downtown Knoxville. More active adventurers can rent a canoe or stand-up paddleboard (available April through November) and explore by gliding atop Mead’s Quarry Lake. Visitors who prefer to stay rooted to solid ground might want to grab a bike and check out the 10 miles of trails the park provides or sign up for one of the many special programs like birding that Ijams has on tap. Those traveling with children will also enjoy the Knoxville Zoo, widely considered the Red Panda Capital of the World.

In the heart of Knoxville

If you’re seeking a stroll in the heart of Knoxville, you needn’t look further than the World’s Fair Park, the site of the 1982 World’s Fair that now plays host to a bevy of annual events. Towering at 266 feet tall above the park, the Sunsphere offers a spectacular 360-degree view of Knoxville from the 4th-floor observation deck, open free daily to the public. Guests can also grab a cocktail or bite to eat on the fifth floor at the Icon Ultra Lounge.

As dusk draws near, downtown starts to heat up, and Knoxville’s artists emerge from the woodwork, especially on Fridays for Alive After Five at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The series showcases musicians of all genres ranging from swing orchestras to Cuban jazz to blues bands. The Art Market Gallery, a collective of more than 60 local artists, is bustling any day of the week but puts its best foot forward for the monthly Downtown Knoxville’s First Friday Art Walk, a cultural smorgasbord of live music, artwork of varying mediums, and complimentary wine and snacks.

Touring Broadway shows, comedy acts, and big-name musicians pass through the Bijou Theatre and historic Tennessee Theatre on the regular. In warmer months, Market Square comes alive with regular offerings, such as Shakespeare on the Square (July through August), the Market Square Concert Series (May through June), and Jazz on the Square (May through August), each event free to the public. Market Square also boasts some of Knoxville’s best shopping, like Bliss Home, Rala and Coldstream Market, and ample dining options from downhome country delights at Tupelo Honey Café to the fancier fare at Café 4. Those burning the midnight oil can always find a late-night beer or local bands on stage at Preservation Pub or Downtown Grill & Brewery, or—for a fancier scene—pop into the speakeasy-style Peter Kern Library at the Oliver Hotel or Sapphire on Gay Street, a cocktail lounge housed in a former jewelry store.

While there’s no shortage of diverse ways to spend your days in Knoxville, that’s the beauty of the Marble City: From casual to posh, outdoors to in, it offers a little bit of everything for all walks of life—and you’ll no doubt discover a new favorite pastime while exploring the intricacies of its vast urban wilderness.

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