There are so many things to do and see in Knoxville that any short list is likely to seem pretty random. And it goes without saying that a walk around downtown that includes Gay Street, Market Square, and the Old City is an essential. That’s just what you do when you come to Knoxville.
But the following are a few other must-sees, selected for this new year.
Of course. Knoxville’s most distinctive object on the skyline, the Sunsphere is world famous, known even to Bart Simpson and his chums, who visited in one memorable animated episode. It’s one of only three World’s Fair tower structures in America. Recently refurbished, with interpretive displays on its lofty viewing deck, it’s an essential Knoxville experience. Yes, you can actually ride the elevator right up inside the big golden ball, and although it looks opaque from the ground, you can also see out of it, with a view that encompasses UT’s campus, the Tennessee River, the historic Fort Sanders neighborhood, and Downtown Knoxville.
Open 10-5 Tuesday through Friday, 9-5 on Saturday, and 12-4 on Sunday; board the elevator at the bottom (water) level; admission is $5.
Ijams Nature Center
2915 Island Home Avenue
Ijams (the J is silent; it rhymes with rhymes) is one Knoxville asset that’s truly unique, in ways you may not guess from its modest name. What began well over a century ago as a riverside family bird sanctuary—and that Edwardian-era story of a newspaper illustrator who wanted to create a paradise for his family and friends is interesting— it has evolved into a 300-acre adventure, embracing thick woods, a river cave, and several quarries, one that’s become a recreational lake, and one so old that it’s partly reclaimed by nature and might look like a small canyon in the Cumberland Mountains. All are linked by walking and bicycling trails, with a modern interpretive center in the middle. It’s remarkable how wild you can get, just three miles from downtown.
Open from 8 a.m. to dusk. Admission is free, but donations to Ijams, which is a nonprofit, are welcome.
The largest university in the Southern Appalachian region doesn’t tout itself as a tourist attraction, but makes for a good walk of an hour or two, and sometimes a challenging one, if you choose to climb its historic Hill, the nucleus of its campus since 1828. Most whole cities lack the attractions contained within UT’s river peninsula: from the university’s striking architectural icon, 102-year-old Elizabethan Revival Ayres Hall, with its gargoyles and checkerboard tower; to its 1500-year-old burial mound, built by a Native American tribe of which we know little. Neyland Stadium is one of the nation’s largest, and oldest football stadiums (you can see the original 1940s masonry stadium within its steel superstructure). It’s also one of the few that’s accessible by boat, hence the development of the Vol Navy, a fall armada of orange-hued boats full of fans who dock near the stadium. See the large statue of the legendary coach, Gen. Robert Neyland (1892-1962), on the west side.
Circle Park, a remnant of the Victorian era, when that was an affluent residential neighborhood, is the site of the 1968 torchbearing Volunteer statue and McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, which features an outdoor model of an Edmontosaurus skeleton and, inside, a surprising and ever-changing variety of historical, artistic, and archaeological exhibits, offering a good look at the giant creatures that once roamed this part of the earth. Also have a look at UT Gardens, along Neyland Drive very near the Indian Mound, at 2518 Jacob Drive. The old experimental farm wasn’t always accessible to (or comprehensible to) the public at large, but today it’s a bit of green bliss along the riverfront, even with some attractions for the kids.
The Campus is open to strollers at all hours, but we recommend daytime. Public parking on campus is available, mainly in parking garages, but can be expensive. You might consider either parking off campus or riding the free shuttle from downtown.
Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum
2743 Wimpole Avenue
A rather recent addition to Knoxville’s landscape, the 43-acre celebration of greenery has very deep roots. Howell Nursery once served Knoxville as a shopping center for ornamental plants, even developing new strains of colorful dogwoods, and that’s the kind of heritage you can’t buy, considering this arbor has a examples of tree species that are more than a century old. Adding accents are the surprising round stone structures that Howell built about 80 years ago to show what can be done in a home garden. While you’re there, look for the “Secret Garden,” a memorial tribute to a clothing merchant who loved the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett, the English-born author who began her career as a young writer in Knoxville. It sports a sense of whimsical magic, with references that anyone who’s read Burnett’s classic novel (or seen the movies based on it) will recognize. It all may be best experienced in the spring and summer, but the bamboo maze, adjacent to the Secret Garden, is a rare experience that may remind you of old jungle movies.
It's all free, and open during daylight hours every day (the main office building is closed on weekends).
3425 Kingston Pike
Each of Knoxville’s Historic Homes is unique in its own way, from Blount Mansion, the region’s first frame house that was home to a signer of the U.S. Constitution who also happened to be territorial governor of the land that became Tennessee; to the Mabry-Hazen House, with its stories of violent death and illicit love; to Ramsey House, the 1797 stone house believed to be the first structure built of later-famous Tennessee Marble, as well as the first East Tennessee home built by a trained architect. But Westwood, the “newest” of the Historic Homes, may deserve special attention this year, because it was recently designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of only 55 Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios in America. The brick Victorian was designed in 1890 by the stylish firm of Baumann Brothers, expressly to house the studio of Paris-trained artist Adelia Armstrong Lutz. That studio, the main floor’s largest room, was considered a marvel even in that era of architectural extravagance. Adelia’s studio is decorated with her oils, most of them painted in this room more than a century ago. Owned by her family for 120 years, Westwood has been the headquarters of Knox Heritage, East Tennessee’s most vigorous preservationist nonprofit, since 2013, and has changed little since horse and buggy days. Docents are handy to tell its unusual story.
Open 10-4, Tuesday through Thursday, beginning the tour season on Mar. 3. Tours start at the top of each hour, and cost $10 for adults. Children are free.